The Occupiers’ real goal is to take down America as we know it.
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Born in Estonia in 1942, he later lived in a postwar German refugee camp, was resettled to Australia, and made his fortune in Japan in the 1960s doing market research on alcohol and tobacco. (He dedicated Culture Jam to his “mortal enemy, Philip Morris Inc., which I vow to take down.”) He finally settled in Vancouver in 1970 to make documentary films while becoming a professional activist and agent provocateur. He would make a study of what he called “culture jamming” or “subvertisement,” a strategy to undermine commercialism and therefore, to his way of thinking, America. He now claims to lead a group of “artists, activists, writers, pranksters, students, educators and entrepreneurs,” who aim to “topple existing power structures and forge a major shift in the way we will live.”
Lasn learned the power of the Internet at the Seattle protests of late 1999. “People were reporting their own confrontations. Back in the Sixties, there weren’t videographers. If you took a picture, maybe it was a snapshot to show to your friends,” Lasn noted. “The Net is a way for people to tell their stories to the whole world.” But it wasn’t enough that the Revolution live online. Micah White, senior editor at Adbusters and Lasn’s anti-commercial comrade, had long argued that “clickitivism” reduced activism to online petitions. People had to get out and move. White wanted protesters to “put their bodies on the line.”
It was that kind of activism that White celebrated and promoted through Adbusters. Fresh out of college in 2004, he looked up Lasn and asked to be put to work. Like Lasn, he was a veteran of the protest culture, founding an anti-Iraq War group called Why War? at Swarthmore and marching alongside pro-Palestinian groups in the 2002 national march against the war. Even at his Michigan high school he had been a professional troublemaker, starting an atheist club that caused a ruckus on campus and penning an op-ed for the New York Times against prayer in public schools. White also sued his high school, with the help of the ACLU, after being denied a spot on the wrestling team because he would not take a drug test.
Lasn and White had another thing in common: hostility toward Israel bordering on anti-Semitism. In 2009 White and his wife, Chiara Ricciardone, a fellow Swarthmore alum, started an anti-Israel divestment campaign at their alma mater. “American institutions especially should divest. For Muslims to see U.S. citizens taking a stance against apartheid, that will do more to undermine support for terrorism than a war ever could,” Ricciardone told the Swarthmore school paper. In other words, terrorist attacks on America were the Jews’ fault.
Last year, as he looked at the violent uprisings in the Mideast, Lasn wondered: “Why can’t this hap-pen everywhere?” Writing in the July 13 issue of his magazine, he prophesied “surprise attacks” against corporations. “I’m a revolutionary,” he said, and this revolution, for all its supposed nonviolence, was going to be bloodier than it already was. The agenda was equally aggressive. Lasn favored a “Robin Hood Tax,” taking one percent of all global financial transactions, but that wouldn’t be the end. “Once the one percent is accepted, and people realize concessions are being made, the door is wide open for more,” he predicted. “Just wait and see.”
Since then, they disrupted Iowa caucus events and the New Hampshire primary. They targeted law-makers in Capitol Hill and the New Jersey—soon to be the Brooklyn—Nets of the NBA and promised massive, union-backed, divestment campaigns against Wall Street. They even evicted a man from his home in New York and took over a homeless shelter in Atlanta.
Museums are already memorializing the movement for posterity. “Occupy is sexy,” says Ben Alexander, head of special collections and archives at Queens College in New York, which has been collecting Occupy artifacts. “It sounds hip. A lot of people want to be associated with it.”
That apparently includes President Barack Obama, who threw his support behind the Occupy Wall Street Movement, telling them that they were the reason he had entered politics. At a $1,000-a-plate New York fundraiser on November 30, he asked them to believe again in change, while acknowledging it was “tempting to believe that change may not be as possible as we thought.” That is, unless you grant him a second term. Their movement, he told them, represented “broad-based frustration about how our financial system works.” But the frustration wasn’t only with the financial system, it wasn’t broad-based, and it was as personal as it was political. Obama had failed those who had believed in him.
“The very people who supported Obama in ‘08 are the Occupy organizers,” David Goodner, the head of Occupy Des Moines, told the Los Angeles Times. “That same energy has shifted from the electoral arena to the streets.” Theirs was the revenge of “the professional left.” Professing their disgust with politics—or more likely, the fact that they hadn’t gotten everything they wanted—Obama’s supporters deserted him for the thrill of street theater. The rhythmic beat of the drum circle at New York’s Zuccotti Park had replaced the Obama chants. There, in a public square, they could act out or imagine the fantasy world that the left really longs to occupy: a world where the one percent is punished, at the 99 percent’s whim, merely for existing, and where every social agenda is indulged, without thought to its cost.
As they assembled on Liberty Plaza, it became clear that their only program was license—the license to protest without a permit on public property, to study whatever they wanted in college without paying the costs, to have sex without consequences (although doctors at free STD clinics near the encampment reported that free love didn’t come cheap). The stakes were low: unlike the civil rights movement with which the protesters disingenuously compared themselves, they were met, if not welcomed, by big city mayors, whose public sector union masters wouldn’t allow their eviction. The 38,000-strong New York Transit Workers Union voted to support OWS. The AFL-CIO’s executive council expressed unanimous support. The Services Employees International Union, the United Federation of Teachers, and the United Auto Workers marched alongside the Occupiers. Meanwhile, the ACLU argued that the protesters had a right to free electricity, left out of the Constitution though it was.
Safe in the crowd, the pseudo-communitarians and activists could lose their identities at the same time they withdrew from reality. The “mic check”—one person would speak and have the crowd parrot back the words—became the ultimate symbol. If you spoke for the group, you spoke for no one. If you were just mouthing someone else’s words, could they really be your own?
Tocqueville warned of a new despotism that would relieve citizens of the “trouble of thinking and the pain of living.” In subsuming themselves in the collective, they would bring about a new kind of despotism in the name of equality:
Democracy attaches all possible value to each man; socialism makes each man a mere agent, a mere number. Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word: equality. But mark the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.
The greatest obstacle to Occupy-style despotism lies not in the refusal of servitude by their stated targets, the wealthy, but in the fact that most Americans—even if they dislike ostentatious riches—want to be one of them. Mainstream Americans know that our nation’s exceptionalism requires that some of us be exceptional, financially and otherwise. That there be, in fact, a one percent, an “aristocracy of talents” as John Adams put it in a letter to Thomas Jefferson. The discontents can occupy the hearts of America’s cities. But in the heart of every American is a yearning for excellence that the Occupiers, in their self-pitying bitterness, just don’t get.
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