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Occupy the Media

By From the December 2011 - January 2012 issue

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Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times was dazzled when he visited Occupy Wall Street in early October. "The protest reminded me a bit of Tahrir Square in Cairo," Kristof exulted. "There is the same cohort of alienated young people, and the same savvy use of Twitter and other social media to recruit more participants."

The quinquagenarian Kristof is quite the fogy if he finds it amazing that 20-something Americans are able to figure out how to use Twitter. But that wasn't the least impressive element of Occupy Wall Street as Kristof described it. "Where the movement falters is in its demands," he wrote:

It doesn't really have any. The participants pursue causes that are sometimes quixotic--like the protester who calls for removing Andrew Jackson from the $20 bill because of his brutality to American Indians.

I had seen it before--in April 2000, when I reported from Washington on the Mobilization for Global Justice, a protest against the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. As I wrote in the Wall Street Journal:

It must be frustrating to be a young left-wing demonstrator in 2000, longing for the glory days of the Vietnam era. Back then, protesters had a clear and simple message: End the war. By contrast, nothing of consequence unites today's demonstrators. Do the Mumia Abu-Jamal guys lose sleep over Nicaraguan turtles? Do the hearts of the free-Tibet crowd bleed for the victims of Buddhist persecution in Burma? Has a member of the D.C. Statehood Green Party ever shed a tear for the plight of the Kurds?

In the weeks after Kristof wrote, however, Occupy Wall Street did become a major media event in a way the antiglobalization protests of the 1990s--or, for that matter, the antiwar demonstrations of the 2000s--never did. That says less about the state of the nation than the mood of the media. Many of Kristof's colleagues, it turned out, were as eager as he to embrace this supposedly new populist left-wing movement.

The Washington Post's Richard Cohen had identified the reason back in August. "I suffer from Tea Party envy," he wrote:

There is little about the actual party I like and there are some members I abhor, but I am jealous of its sense of purpose, its determination and its bracing conviction that it is absolutely right. In its own way, it waves a crimson battle flag while President Obama's is a sickly taupe--the limp banner of an ideological muddle.

Throughout the summer, as I've noted in this space (see "After Osama," TAS, October), liberal commentators were growing frustrated and enraged at Obama, who kept losing political battles to congressional Republicans. The disgruntled liberals wrongly attributed Obama's failures to preference for compromise over conflict. In reality, the president's approach all along had been imperious and bullying. It was ineffective this year because Republicans--having won an electoral mandate in the Tea Party-driven election of 2010--refused to be bullied. Tea Party envy arose from the absence of a corresponding popular mandate on the left.

Even the Post's E. J. Dionne, nicknamed "Baghdad Bob" for his usual fatuous liberal triumphalism, started pining for a left-wing Tea Party:

Obama's victory…partly demobilized the left. With Democrats in control of the White House and both houses of Congress, stepped-up organizing didn't seem quite so urgent.

The administration was complicit in this, viewing the left's primary role as supporting whatever the president believed needed to be done. Dissent was discouraged as counterproductive.

Oxymoronically, Dionne wrote that he wanted dissenters who would "rally support" for Obama, and who would simultaneously move him "in more progressive directions" and provide a contrast that makes it harder "for conservatives to label Obama as a left-winger."

As for Kristof, after noting the purposelessness of Occupy Wall Street, he hilariously enumerated a wonkish list of policy proposals it should adopt. He wasn't the only liberal media figure to see in Occupy Wall Street a body politic in search of a brain. A few days later, Ezra Klein of the Post quoted organizer Rich Yeselson as saying that the Occupiers lacked "an articulate exposition," which meant that "the brainy liberal left infrastructure's time has come.…[Former Enron adviser Paul] Krugman's Army may be on its way."

That must have stung Kristof, whose better-known colleague Krugman quickly grabbed the mantle of leadership:

When I said that it was the job of policy intellectuals to fill in the details for the Occupy Wall Street protesters, I didn't mean "don't worry your pretty little heads about it, we'll work it out." I meant job literally as in responsibility: people like Joe Stiglitz and me have an obligation to work on this, helping to translate what justifiably angry citizens are saying into more fleshed-out proposals.

When the Tea Party started, left-wing commentators had accused it of being racist, violent, and extreme. It turned out that Krugman's Army was vulnerable to these accusations too. At protests that centered on scapegoating "the rich," "bankers" and "the 1%," it wasn't hard to find overt expressions of anti-Semitism. A political scientist wrote approvingly on the Times website that the Occupiers were engaged in "political disobedience," meaning that they reject the very legitimacy of the U.S. government. London's Daily Mail even snapped a photo of a protester defecating on a New York City police car. Krugman, who once made up lies about "eliminationist rhetoric" on the right, found himself commanding an army whose soldiers were engaged in actual elimination.

IT WOULD BE unfair to make too much of these unattractive qualities. I spent a couple of hours at Occupy Wall Street one Saturday night in mid-October, and most of the people I encountered were endearingly earnest. Many were college students or recent graduates, and it occurred to me that four years earlier they probably would have been plumping for Barack Obama and his vaporous promises of "hope and change."

Nobody at the protest seemed excited about the prospect of a second Obama term, and it's easy to see why. As Salon's Glenn Greenwald, an actual left-wing dissenter, noted, Obama has raised more campaign contributions from people in the financial industry than any political candidate in history. "Would it not be a bit odd," Greenwald asked, "for a protest movement to 'Occupy Wall Street' while simultaneously devoting itself to keeping Wall Street's most lavishly funded politician in power?"

The Obama campaign reportedly expects just that. "Obama and his team have decided to turn public anger at Wall Street into a central tenet of their reelection strategy," the Washington Post reported. The paper noted that "Obama has tried this line of attack before, railing in 2009 against 'fat-cat bankers' who he accused of taking excessive bonuses in the wake of the financial meltdown." It might have added that he has spent much of his presidency demonizing "corporate jet owners," "millionaires and billionaires," and so forth, to little avail.

But you can see why the Obama campaign might think that the president's class-warfare message was finally catching on. Across the nation, there was arising a spontaneous populist movement, a left-wing version of the Tea Party. Or at least that's what it said in the papers. 

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About the Author

James Taranto, a member of the Wall Street Journal's editorial board, writes the Best of the Web Today column for OpinionJournal.com.