Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Dear Occupiers, Rage is Not a Substitute for Critical Thinking

Or, what I hope is my last statement on the topic.

One of my strategies for staving off the unfortunate effects of middle age is to take a walk prior to or just after lunch. Where I currently work, a walk to Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House and back is just about the right amount of time and distance. As a result, I have become an observer of the art of the protest. It seems to me that there are some clear dos and don'ts involved.

First, far too many protesters, especially those demanding action on foreign policy, write posters in their native tongue. This may be out of necessity, as English is a tricky language, but it does little to help the cause when nearly everyone looking at your sign has no idea what message it conveys. To me, "Allow democracy to flourish in South Sudan" looks the same as "Kill 'em all and let our Higher Power sort 'em out." Similarly, trying to put too much on a sign, resulting in tiny writing, is fatal to conveying your message to passers-by and, more importantly, to any cameras in range.

Second, protesters need to think about their aims. "America out of Iraq!" is simple, direct, and with the added benefit of having a coherent action item. Should anyone in power care about the protest, he or she could take action - removing U.S. troops from Iraq - thereby accomplishing the aim of the protest. Less effective but still potentially powerful is the more amorphous thought - "War is Not the Answer," for example. One has to think first about whether the protester is referring to a specific war, in which case the protest presumably aims to end that war, or whether the reference is to wars in general, in which case the action item is less clear (and, indeed, a blanket statement that all wars are bad may be a less compelling message). Worse still is the empty slogan - your basic "Death to America!" type of sign, which certainly conveys an emotion, but nothing about the root cause of the emotion nor what we should do to mollify the protester.

Third, the aim of a protest is, one presumes, to capture public attention, convey the message, and then go on to do something more productive. Public attention is fickle and short-lived, so the best protests are ones that make a splash - generally by massing as many like-minded individuals as possible - and go away. Houseguests and fish may start to smell after three days, but the stink rises from a protest in a matter of minutes, not hours.

Distilling these points into Jameson's Rules for a Successful Protest, we have these three elements:

  • A coherent, easily-digestible aim
  • Snappy and quickly-understood presentation
  • An exit strategy.

By those criteria, the Occupy movement is zero for three. Although everyone is aware that the protest involves unhappiness at "greed," or possibly "capitalism," and specifically calls attentions to the financial sector, it has become obvious that the protest has no unifying theme. Various commentators of all political stripes have tried crafting a coherent theme, but every one is an effort in futility, as the protest itself is an untamable set of heterogeneous beliefs and concerns. Similarly, tribal drums, "general assemblies," human microphones, signs referring to the "99 percent," and chants involving "our streets" and "f*** the police" don't really convey much of a message. Partly this is a problem of the lack of a simple, coherent aim, but even within the movement no one seems able to convey his or her own message in a workable manner. Sorry, kids, but "we are the 99 percent" is a statement of the obvious - well, except for the brief fly-ins by Michael Moore, Jay-Z, and decrepit but rich Sixties musicians - and a mathematical truism, not a message.

But their biggest problem is the lack of an exit strategy. The media was all too happy to craft a message, which is an advantage your average White House protester doesn't get. By drawing crowds, Occupy Whatever managed to capture attention and the press worked hard to suggest there was a point to it. However, one thing about protests that protesters tend to forget is that they irritate ordinary people (you know, the real 99%). The CEO of Bank of America is in Charlotte, North Carolina, not New York City, and doesn't really care about the drum circle. The owner of the deli across from the drum circle does care, and is not happy, nor is the working stiff who used to enjoy a pastrami sandwich and a Coke for lunch, but now has to listen to a dozen happy idiots banging away. If you want the sympathies of regular people - and, believe me, the whole protest is pretty much pointless without public support - you might want to keep in mind that pissing people off tends not to be a helpful strategy. Loud noises, closing streets and bridges, trash, public urination, and the air of a never-ending Grateful Dead concert may be fun for the participants but are not viewed in a positive light by the rest of society. Unfortunately, having no real aims means having no way of declaring victory, and having an open-ended protest means never finding an honorable way to go home. Oops.

This is not to say that there are no Occupests who have legitimate complaints. As I've noted before, young people have been sold a bill of goods on higher education, allowing themselves to go deeply in debt for an expensive, but not necessarily valuable, degree. Job prospects are bad, and there are reasons to think they won't improve any time soon, regardless of who is in Congress or the White House. Furthermore, something that doesn't seem to occupy much of the Occupiers' time but is nonetheless critical is that the country has and continues to mortgage their future in order to sustain our current spending priorities. (As an aside, they don't act all that upset at the "1 percent," as the truly rich never seem to bear the brunt of their anger: producers, movie stars, musicians, and athletes are generally the top earners in the country, but no one seems to be protesting Dr. Phil making $80 million in 2010, or Oprah pulling in a cool $315 million. Indeed, to make the top 1% in income in 2010 you would have needed $380,354 which, though a hell of a lot more than I make, doesn't seem worth complaining about.) A message that (1) focused on these issues with (2) people who conveyed the impression that they don't mind hard work if that allows them a shot at success would have melted hearts.

Instead, we have overgrown adolescents alternating between getting stoned and channeling their "rage" at inanimate objects. (Note to kids: bank buildings don't have feelings and are not responsible for you in any way.) They intimidate working class employees, such as bank tellers, scream at the police (again, blue collar stiffs just trying to earn a living), and make incessant demands while contributing nothing to society. At Harvard, the rage extends to wasting tuition money by boycotting a class they clearly should have been more attentive in. If this is the kind of critical thinking they learned in college, no wonder they want their money back!

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