A Further Perspective

The Importance of Seeming Earnest

The Wall Street protests ramble on, but is there a unifying theme to any of it?

By 10.7.11

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My neighbor poisoned my cat. Therefore, I'm going to travel to New York City, sleep in the streets indefinitely, and surf the web on my MacBook. I am going to be just like hundreds of other people who are now "occupying" Wall Street.

Voluntary homelessness is on the rise in the Big Apple thanks to "Occupy Wall Street," a self-described "leaderless resistance movement" representing just about everyone. "We are the 99 percent," it humbly claims on its website. But even as its numbers have grown, Occupy Wall Street is as message-less as it is leaderless. More and more people are occupying Wall Street, and fewer and fewer people know why.

The stated grievances range from corporate greed and social inequality to housing, health care and pollution. The 99 percenters say they "are getting nothing while the other 1 percent is getting everything." Occupy Wall Street is an anti-greed crusade by self-interested individuals with a long list of nonspecific wishes. They are the non-silent majority taking aim at a minority.

The protesters have been camping out in Lower Manhattan since September 17, and they have no plans to stop. With no exit strategy in sight or mind, they have made "occupation" their occupation.

It seems odd to target Wall Street, a small strip of land with no leaders of its own. It is not an institution but represents a large and diverse collection of interests and individuals. But -- as a 19-year-old protester said -- "people on Wall Street have all the power."

According to the protesters' logic, the best way to wrest power from Wall Street is by moving Halloween up a few weeks. Hundreds recently descended on the New York Stock Exchange dressed as "corporate zombies," much as anti-nuclear activists did in the early 1980s. But unlike today's protesters, they at least knew why they were protesting.

"I'm angry because I don't have millions of dollars to give to my representative, so my voice is invalidated," said 21-year-old college student Amanda Clarke. Among her complaints are "that I'm graduating with tens of thousands of dollars in loans and there's no job market."

The fight, however, is not merely between college students and their future bills. It is so broad that it is indecipherable. "This is not about left versus right," said Christopher Walsh, a 25-year-old photographer. "It's about hierarchy versus autonomy."

What makes the Wall Street occupiers so frivolous is their utter lack of purpose. Their deep-sounding words mask their arrant superficiality. Furthermore, anyone who uncritically claims to speak for 99 percent of the populace is -- 99 percent of the time -- deluded and incorrect. Occupy Wall Street is less for the downtrodden than it is for the bored and self-important, which explains why so many kids and actress Susan Sarandon are getting involved.

In an interview this week, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) said the protests are "about freedom of speech [and] the right to assemble." In other words, the protests are about protesting.

What the late Irving Kristol observed about the student radicalism of the 1960s applies to the events in New York. There is "a passion behind the protests that refuses to be satisfied by the various topics which incite it." That's because the only thing Occupy Wall Street is about is itself.

Occupy Wall Street is for those who romanticize the act of protesting. These are people to whom protesting over an issue is more important than the issue itself. They see protests not as a means but as an end.

The protesters in New York talk incessantly about getting their "message" across, yet they have no intelligible message. They want their "voices" to be heard, but all their voices say is that their voices should be heard. Yet again, it is those who have the least to say who are saying the most.

Rarely does a protest succeed in persuading people outside its ranks. What protests do is give protesters what P.J. O'Rourke called "a nice sense of false accomplishment." When they go out and "do something," they feel as if they are (actually) doing something. For such people, nothing feels better than an inflated sense of one's importance.

Annie Duke, a 34-year-old protester, when asked what she did for a living, replied, "I'm a revolutionary." Her answer is simultaneously flippant and over-serious. When you fill out a form and list "revolutionary" as your vocation, you are giving no information as well as too much information.

And just what, by the way, does a revolutionary do?

Oscar Wilde defined revolution as "a successful effort to get rid of a bad government and set up a worse." This definition obviously does not apply to Occupy Wall Street, which has achieved no success because it has no intention of replacing our current government with another one. Its purpose is unconstructive criticism.

"It's about taking down systems," one woman explained. "It doesn't matter what you're protesting. Just protest." That's "revolution" in a nutshell: protesting for the sake of protesting and taking down systems because they are systematic.

Unfortunately for the protesters, they do not live in an oppressive society. There are no gulags in Iowa or concentration camps in Maine. America has issues but no totalitarian horrors. Its wrongs, if you listen to the Wall Street occupiers, are frequently abstractions. Along with the lessening of transgressions comes a trivialization of complaints. There is no Gestapo, but the NYPD can be a little rude from time to time.

When injustices are on the wane, it becomes harder to whine. This is a problem for professional protesters, who -- to quote Bruno Bettelheim -- "have nothing to push against because everything gives way."

"In democratic societies," wrote Alexis de Tocqueville, "each citizen is habitually busy with the contemplation of a very petty object, which is himself." To a large extent, self-centeredness is a necessity for survival, which explains why the protesters are so self-centered. When they say their voices are not being heard, they are saying their relevance is vanishing. They think they are 99 percent of the country when in reality they are closer to 0.99 percent.

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About the Author

Windsor Mann is a writer living in Washington, D.C., and the editor of The Quotable Hitchens: From Alcohol to Zionism.