Those of you who know me know that I have my share of issues with this whole “Occupy (Insert name of Street or City Here)” movement. For the most part, my issues stem from a general lack of tolerance for hypocrisy. I don’t take Teabaggers seriously because they whine about taxes while at the same time complaining about potholes that aren’t getting filled. For much the same reasons I don’t have much use for people who wear designer jeans and drink Starbucks coffee while they Tweet on their iPhones about the evils of corporate America.
For the most part, though, my problems with OWS are not so much with the message as with the messengers. While the issues surrounding economic inequality in this country are real and important, I don’t feel the reluctance of the white middle class to repay their student loans ranks terribly high among them.
As time has gone by, though, I find myself less and less enamored of the message behind the protests. In fact, the entire movement has completely failed to impress me. This concerned me at first, mainly because I felt I should be impressed. Economic equality is just the sort of socialist idea I can really get behind, so on the surface it really appeared to be my kind of movement. But once I looked hard at the movement – looked below the surface – I realized it’s not actually my kind of movement at all.
Why? Because it’s got no soul. It’s got no heart. It is a movement that is incapable of seeing beyond itself. Or maybe it’s just unwilling to. It has been called an inherently selfish movement by many (myself included), although it may be more fair to call it ‘self centered’ or ‘self-absorbed’.
I’ve heard the arguments – that we should endeavor to look beyond the iPhones and the designer jeans to the message beneath. That the ‘message’ of OWS is in their words, not their behaviors (any 4-year-old can tell you differently). Here’s a news flash: the message is getting out to the world, and it is loud and clear. But it isn’t necessarily the message OWS thinks it’s broadcasting. If you bring a gun to an anti-war protest, your message is not one of peace, no matter what you say.
I have repeatedly seen attempts to compare OWS to the civil rights movement, as well as to the anti-war counterculture movements of the 1960s. All of these attempts have failed, and in their failure they underscore the fundamental shortcomings of OWS. Its lack of a soul. Its absence of heart.
First off, lets dismiss any comparisons to the civil rights movement. I’m sorry, but placing OWS into the same category with Freedom Rides is almost insulting. Let’s face facts here, people – those actively participating in the major events of the American civil rights movement were risking a great deal more than a dose of pepper spray. And while a faceful of pepper spray is not exactly a pleasant experience, in comparison to the civil rights movement participating in OWS is practically risk free. They also were fighting for rights on a far different level than those claimed by OWS. They weren’t looking for a bigger slice of the pie – they just wanted to be allowed into the restaurant. Those occupying Wall Street may argue differently, but in the eyes of the law, the 99% have the same rights as the 1% (in theory, at least). This was not the case for African Americans well into the twentieth century. Today, no African American can legally be stopped from drinking out of a public water fountain. The importance of this statement cannot be understood by anyone who would compare OWS to the civil rights movement.
When the proponents of OWS compare it to the anti-war counterculture movements of the 1960s, they are on slightly less shaky ground. But only slightly. The movements of the 1960s – like OWS – were primarily white middle-class movements. And this is pretty much where the comparisons end. When we start looking for more similarities is when the self-absorption of OWS stands out.
In both cases, we’re talking about the (primarily white) middle class. We’re talking about people who have every door open to them. Who have every opportunity available to them. Who have every right and privilege handed to them. From this starting point, vastly different messages arose.
OWS looks to the gap between itself and the 1% and says to the world: “This inequality is inexcusable. We should not have to settle for what we have when these few have so much. As a society, we should take steps to reduce what they have so that the rest of us can have more.”
In contrast, those protesting in the 1960s looked to the gap between themselves and those who had less and said to the world: “This inequality is inexcusable. We should not allow members of our society to have so little when we have so much. As a society, we should take steps to increase what they have, even if it means decreasing what we have.”
The movements of the 1960s were selfless (this is not to say that there were no egos involved). They were about ending war. They were about treating each other fairly. They were about striving toward equality by giving – not by taking.
Those on the ground in the 1960s also saw inherent flaws in American consumer culture. They too saw rampant consumption and pervasive greed, and they feared the results of them. Their response to it, though, was almost opposite to OWSers – they opted out. When they saw a culture of avarice that they felt had eroded their society and threatened their world, their response was to turn their backs on it – not to demand more of it. Thus the term ‘counterculture’.
If OWS had occurred in the 1960s, iPhones wouldn’t have been used to Tweet about it. They would have been used as firewood.
The counterculture movements of the 1960s possessed something that OWS sadly lacks. They had heart, soul and yes – even magic. Because of this, they gave birth to greatness. Heroes don’t give birth to movements – movements give birth to heroes. The 1960s produced the likes of Abbie Hoffman and the rest of the Chicago Seven. (The civil rights movement produced even bigger giants.)
This is the soul that OWS lacks. And without it I feel it is doomed to failure. Where is its Hoffman, its Dylan, its Joplin, its Baez?
Speaking of which, where in hell is the music? How is it that this movement has inspired so little? Oh – I know that the people on the ground have been attempting to write songs. I’ve listened to some of them. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.
And I was going to continue my decades-old practice of ignoring Third Eye Blind, but I will go so far as to give them 10 bonus points for offering their song as a free download. And then I’ll take 5 of those points away because one of the places they posted it is their Facebook page. However, you’re fooling yourself if you see their “anthem” as anything other than a thinly-veiled attempt to resuscitate their dead careers.
The 1960s, though, produced music of a different sort. The kind of music that never goes out of style. The kind of music that understands that peace is the answer to war, love is the answer to hatred, and generosity is the answer to greed. The kind of music that shines light into dark places and makes flowers grow there.
The kind of music that can somehow magically transform half a million sweaty, mud-caked, tripping hippies into Stardust.