Friday, September 30, 2011

Occupy Wall Street

So we're watching our own "spring" unfold, like the Arabs have, as our own young, angry, poor people are starting to protest nationwide.

But I don't think Occupy Wall Street is going to succeed at changing the world.  Here is their manifesto:

Why do I think they are going to fail?

Historically in the US, movements that gained a lot of traction and went really far (like Temperance) had a single goal, not a laundry list of grievances. I KNOW the Declaration of Independence is a laundry list. And they did succeed in rebelling and changing their entire world. But other movements, since then, have alienated possible members when they start making laundry lists, and they end up with too few people to really get behind them and change things.

Occupy Wall Street's manifesto starts out saying they are protesting the overwhelming corruption in large corporations that is controlling the government, the people, health care, and everything about our lives.  And there are a lot of angry people who can get behind that. This is a pretty strong stand.

But then they actually make a laundry list. A laundry list seems to make sense to angry people--they want to tell you exactly WHY they are angry. But a laundry list also serves to narrow down the people who will side with you because it introduces a lot of places where people can disagree and jump off the bandwagon. They also open the door to losing support as people dispute the facts, especially if the document is hastily written in anger.

Like this line from their manifesto: "They have profited off of the torture, confinement, and cruel treatment of countless nonhuman animals, and actively hide these practices."

Okay, first of all, "Nonhuman animals" is a stupid phrase. The average human being understands that when you say "animals," you don't mean "humans and all the members of Kingdom Animalia." Animals generally means, by its very definition, non-human animals. Only the most full-of-themselves people would have to say "Nonhuman animals." So instead of drawing support, the language they chose is alienating people.  

On top of that, they've moved from a general "We're angry and you can't do this to us" to a very definitive political stance. If you're not a Vegan, they're saying, we don't want you in our club. Do I think big corporations mistreat animals? You bet I do. But I don't think that statement, and the dozens of others that surround it, are going to help the movement build the kind of momentum that changes the world. The less the you say in cases like this, the more support you can get (because everyone can imagine they are all on the same page, even if they are only in the same general book, or even section of the library). 

The reason the Tea Party changed the direction the government was going (even against the protests of the news media and the ruling parties) was they got a massive amount of support from a lot of angry people. More than a bunch of angry college kids and 20-30 somethings who lost their jobs and houses and are mad-mad-mad. How did that do that? They kept their message simple, straightforward, and focused on the key point: we want the government to be HUGELY more fiscally conservative, and we're willing to fight for that.  

Simple. Straightforward. Easy to get behind if you believe that. Not a lot of places where people who generally agree can begin to parse the message and disagree and leave you hanging with less people at the rally than you need. 

Occupy has a basic stand that a lot of people agree with--a lot of people from all walks of life, from all political parties, and both conservative and liberal: The people in power (corporations, government, and all others) are corrupt and motivated purely by money and self-interest, and that's not in the best interest of our nation or its people. I'd probably even say that their claims that they represent 99% of the country could be closer to accurate than I'd normally think.  People are angry. People are getting cheated and hurt by big businesses, big banks, big government that are in the corporations' pockets, big government that are in the big political parties' pockets.  It's hard not to be upset that the banks are stealing houses by foreclosing on homes they don't even own. It's hard not to get upset that the drug companies are just stopping making some necessary, but less-profitable, drugs. It's hard not to be angry that our food supply is tainted and processed to the point of causing epidemic health problems.  (And yes, I wish they would treat animals more humanely).

But Occupy has their laundry list, and most of the items they included and the way they talk about those things has planted them firmly in the "extremely liberal" camp, but some, oddly, at the same time in the "tend-to-believe-conspiracy-theories" camp (which is usually associated with conservative Republicans, strangely enough)--they are anti-government and anti-business, all at once, and that alienates a big chunk--maybe even most--of the 99% that might be willing to support them.  

When you pair "They have profited off of the torture, confinement, and cruel treatment of countless nonhuman animals, and actively hide these practices" (traditionally a liberal complaint) with "They purposefully keep people misinformed and fearful through their control of the media" (traditionally a conservative argument) and "They continue to block alternate forms of energy to keep us dependent on oil" (liberal complaint) and "They have spent millions of dollars on legal teams that look for ways to get them out of contracts in regards to health insurance" (liberal),  "They have sold our privacy as a commodity" (both, depending on the spin), and "They have taken bailouts from taxpayers with impunity, and continue to give Executives exorbitant bonuses" (Tea Party's usual ire!). Suddenly you're all over the map in terms of liberal/conservative traditional "complaints"--and instead of including everyone, you leave them wondering what stand you're really taking, who you are really siding with, and you end up with fewer supporters.

Not only that, what are they fighting for? The Egyptians were successful in their protest and rebellion--but they had a single, central message: We want Mubarak gone.  The American Revolutionaries, despite their laundry list in the Declaration, had a single message: We want a government on our own soil (whether you give us representatives or we have to do it ourselves).  

The Occupy "General Assembly" (They call themselves the General Assembly) more closely parallels the French Revolution, with its vague "we hate corrupt rich people" and it's laundry lists of grievances, and they caused anarchy and a lot of trouble, but didn't get the same results the American Revolutionaries did, and the  French Revolutionaries don't have nearly the heroic reputation. They also are reaching into the realm of socialism, and that's a bit scary for many Americans still.

If they want to change their world, they need to simplify it all to a message the whole 99% can get behind--not a socialist message, and not a liberal message, but an anti-corruption message.  And it has to start with "We want...." followed by a concrete goal that everyone can get behind. While protesting the existence of problems is appealing--and can help unify people in finding the solution to those problems--suggesting and working toward a concrete solution is even more powerful.

The Temperance movement--one of the most unlikely successful movements ever--succeeded not by saying, "Alcohol causes all these problems ______" but by saying, "We want a constitutional amendment banning alcohol." When you asked them "why?", they had a lot of answers, and a lot of reasons. But the "why" was not the message. 

Our government is set up to respond to people with issues about how things are going. But writing manifestos and camping in public places doesn't get the job done. Not unless you pair it with a concrete goal, and you go out and start working to elect people who support your goal.

No matter how much you may dislike the Tea Party, they got the process right. And they are having an impact. Occupy is having and exciting angry social moment, like the same-age, same-idealism protesters did in the '60s. They'll hit the history books. But they might not change the world--because what are they intending we do about it? And who do they think is going to implement their ideas? Sitting around getting pepper-sprayed by police officers gets your picture in the papers. It doesn't get your agendas into the law books.

And I don't think anyone is brave enough to oust the government in a radical way over this (like the Arab Spring has). And the government is already set to be ousted in the traditional, constitutionally-sanctioned way starting with elections this year (locally) and next (nationally). And while all the Occupiers are out there complaining, the Tea Partiers are out there getting candidates trained and ready, and they're out there voting.

It's a revolution, all right, but if the Occupy people don't get smart, they're going to get the opposite of what they're bargaining for.

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