The Nation's Pulse

Rebels Without a Clue

The cluelessness reaches Tampa on a lovely fall Saturday.

By 10.17.11

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TAMPA -- Rich is better than poor, as most would agree. But it's not an unalloyed blessing, as recent events have demonstrated once again. 

One toxic side effect of our national affluence, and our pig-headed insistence on pushing toward college even those who don't have the intellectual tackle to deal with it, is that we're stuck with a permanent demonstrating class. Idlers with time on their hands, money to travel, inchoate views of the world, and an elephantine sense of entitlement and their own rightness. They may be in error, but they're not in doubt. 

Occupy Wall Street in New York, and in other large cities here and abroad, has coughed up some real hair balls. Zuccotti Park in Gotham, and public venues elsewhere, could stand a good clear out and disinfecting. The cops and the cock-ups have squared off in several cities. Hard-core Marxists took over the party in Rome this last weekend and things got nasty. So far things aren't so scratchy, or so foul-smelling, in Tampa.

Some with the show, in New York and elsewhere, are just left-over hippies who missed the last chopper out of the sixties and will show up at any demonstration about anything out of nostalgia and for something to do. To the tie-dyed, peace and love, or at least nattering on about peace and love, never go out of style, even for those now on blood pressure meds and with prostates the size of tangerines.

Others are just cutting classes at colleges their parents have written really large checks to, protesting being ever so much more fun than listening to dull lectures or writing term papers. (Actually learning something can be such a drag.) Observers of a certain age can't help but be reminded of cartoonist Al Capp's sixties burlesque of the then rampant youth movement with his group: Students Wildly Indignant About Nearly Everything, or S.W.I.N.E. Who knew then that the movement would be permanent?

Not all the demonstrators are lazy "students" or superannuated flower children. Some are union members with agendas. Others, less benign, are various kinds of Marxist burnouts looking for a little political theater. There are the usual enviro-nutters and even some self-styled anarchists. A few, though you really have to seek these out to find them, are reasonable adults who see things going poorly for themselves and the country and think holding up signs advertising their fears, frustrations, and resentments will make things better.

I located a few of these Saturday morning when I visited Lykes Gaslight Square in downtown Tampa. But most of the hundred and change idling in the one square-block park were clearly registered at some local college, where they're majoring in screwing off. T-shirts carried the names of local colleges or unions or environmental groups, as well as various left-wing sentiments and vague, harrumphing banalities: "greed kills," "We are the 99 percent" (of what, they don't say), "Wake up, stand up," etc.

What the shirts didn't treat, the amateurishly made signs picked up: "greed has taken over," "justice delayed is justice denied" (duh), "save Mother Earth from Father Greed," "the government should be afraid of the people" (though surely not this lot -- anyone afraid of this bunch should sleep with a night light), "mainstream media irrelevant" (at least they got something right), "love, not foreclose on, thy neighbor," "I want a declaration of interdependence," "stop corporate obesity," and on in this tiresome vein. 

The word that cropped up most often was greed, which this lot has just discovered. They seem to identify 2011 as the beginning of greed, in the manner a previous generation of hippies traced the beginning of sex to 1963.

There was a guy with a shaved head playing a shapeless tune on the largest recorder I've ever seen, accompanied by a guy banging away on a bongo and another sitting on the ground and whomping a snare drum with the snare removed. Other than this, it wasn't too noisy. So I was able to talk with people, most of whom were friendly and approachable. I asked two questions: Why are you here? What do you want? To the first I got sentiments such as, "I felt like I had to be," or "I just couldn't stay away." To the second question, answers ranged from vague to opaque. To some it seemed a revelation that this is a question that should be asked.

Thomas Sowell likes to tell the story of the labor leader who when asked on the occasion of a labor conflict what he wanted, answered, simply, "more." There was some of that Saturday. David, 30, who works six-hour shifts at a filling station, wants "healthcare for everyone," news of Obamacare not having reached him. The comely 20-something Daphne wants more spent on education (I didn't ask her if she knew how much Florida spends on education each year now -- north of $20 billion for K-12, by far the largest item in the state budget) and "equality in taxation." She also wants us to "stop spending trillions on wars that don't make us safer." Her husband John wants politicians to "stop fighting with each other" and to keep funding the space program. Elizabeth is cheesed off about bankers getting big bonuses and corporate CEOs making a packet.

But asking what do you specifically want to happen got me naught. Not a single specific. These are clearly rebels without a clue. Several, apologetically, put their inability to state what they wanted down to being "a poor communicator." I guess this is better than saying, "I have no earthly idea why I'm out here."

Years ago George Will said the main reasons to demonstrate are fun and profit. I don't know who was profiting from the Tampa séance other than the folks who sell sign-board and markers with which to scroll leftist juvenilia. But everyone in Tampa, on a mild fall Florida Saturday, appeared to be having a good time.

At least with the anti-war demonstrators, or the anti-nuke demonstrators, you knew what they wanted, or didn't want. For now, the Occupy Here or There movement is just a large, sprawling, occasionally noisy, but at least in Tampa not smelly, non-sequitur. 

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Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.