We’ve always had a soft spot for Karl Marx’s famous mot about Hegel’s observation that history repeats itself. “He forgot to add,” said the Caliph of Communism, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” What happens, then, the third time around? The 1960s certainly had its tragic elements, and the passage of time, we suspect, mutes the bitterness of the many blighted lives and botched futures which that farcical repetition of earlier revolutionary idealism involved. Now, from our perch forty years on, it all seems faintly ridiculous: the incense and love beads; the imbecilic pseudo-radicalism; the bad taste in haberdashery, heroes, and haircuts; the mindless mantras of indemnified insurrectionists whose “idealism” was little more than an alibi for unfettered selfishness and insatiable hedonism. “We’re permanent adolescents,” boasted Jerry Rubin, a high priest of the movement. What sort of society produces “permanent adolescents” in any number? Only a very rich and a very indulgent one.
Back in the day, folks like Jerry Rubin at least had (briefly) the attraction of novelty. What about his heirs, the motley assemblage staffing the entertainment known as “Occupy Wall Street”? Isn’t it, as the philosopher Yogi Berra observed in another context, déjà vu all over again? First tragedy. Then farce. Now, incoherent childishness and pathetic exhibitionism.
The media, natch, has gobbled it up: “Extra! Extra! Read all about it: Anarchists Occupy Wall Street! People with funny hair, unpleasant tattoos, and bad spelling demand revolution!” In one sense, the sideshow that is Occupy Wall Street has been a gift to copy-hungry publications. It’s always fun to quote the permanent adolescents. As Art Linkletter knew, they say the darndest things. You might be worried about paying the mortgage and junior’s tuition; they get to denounce “corporations,” embrace the “environment,” and declare that “Christopher Columbus was the first Zionist.” Who knew? “This is what democracy looks like,” read the banners. Actually, as Anne Applebaum wrote in a column for Slate, it is not what democracy looks like. It’s what free speech looks like in one of its more histrionic varieties. “Democracy,” Applebaum notes, “looks a lot more boring. Democracy requires institutions, elections, political parties, rules, laws, a judiciary, and many unglamorous time-consuming activities,” none of which is as enjoyable as shouting slogans and mugging for the camera.
There are two main streams of reporting on the downtown cabaret. One stresses the element of sociological reportage. A splendid example of the genre is Matt Labash’s amusing cover story for the October 17 Weekly Standard, “Eyewitness to History!,” in which Mr. Labash spends some quality time with masked anarchists; young, pink-sweatered, beskirted Amy, who advocates the “very abolition of gender”; and Sid the Nazi, who advocates, um, well, we’re not too clear about that. “Satisfy our demands,” quoth Jerry Rubin back when the world was young, “and we’ve got twelve more. The more demands you satisfy, the more we got.” It was the process, not the product, he was after. It’s the same down in Zuccotti Park. “What exactly the OWSmovement wants has been the source of great puzzlement,” Mr. Labash reports:
With all their talk of being nonhierarchical and having no official spokespeople, it’s difficult to get straight answers. Aside from the disparate responses I get from nearly every single person I ask (they want a millionaire’s tax, an end to capital punishment, modernized infrastructure, and so on), a single placard I see at the activists’ encampment perfectly illustrates the grab-bagginess of it all: “Close the Corporate Tax Loopholes, Tax Religious Groups, End the Wars, Legalize Weed, and Bring Back Arrested Development.”
Good news for that crowd! Arrested development is alive! Well, maybe not the TV show, but the thing itself is positively thriving—witness the exotic fauna interviewed by Matt Labash.
If sociological reportage describes one main stream of commentary about Occupy Wall Street, yearning nostalgia describes the other. It turns out that 1960s radicals never die, they just turn rancid and say ridiculous things. They may long ago have lost track of their love beads and peace pins, but somewhere deep down there lives an unextirpatable feeling of solidarity with the Age of Aquarius. The New York Times has been one reliable source of the phenomenon. The columnist Nicholas Kristof, for example, took one look at the spoiled children and social misfits cluttering up Zuccotti Park and declared that it was “reminiscent of Cairo’s Tahrir Square.” Here’s a question: How many things had to go wrong in Mr. Kristof’s brain for him to make that comparison with a straight face? “Reminiscent of” implies “analogous to.” In what sense is an aggregation of permanent adolescents in a park in downtown Manhattan analogous to the regime-changing tumult that exploded in Egypt last winter? In no sense. Mr. Kristof’s heady tweet was nonsense.
A more florid example of that yearning nostalgia is on view in “In Protest, the Power of Place,” Michael Kimmelman’s column for the October 16 Sunday Review section of the Times. Mr. Kimmelman, the former chief art critic for the Times (we see from his byline that he is now architecture critic for the paper), is the fellow who once described Matthew Barney, the art world’s largest consumer of Vaseline, as the “greatest American artist of his generation.” His comments on Occupy Wall Street are even more embarrassing. Like Nicholas Kristof, he looks at the silliness in Zuccotti Park and sees Tahrir Square. “We tend to underestimate the political power of physical places,” Mr. Kimmelman writes. “Then Tahrir Square comes along. Now it’s Zuccotti Park.” But wait, he’s just getting started.
Kent State, Tiananmen Square, the Berlin Wall: we clearly use locales, edifices, architecture to house our memories and political energy. Politics troubles our consciences. But places haunt our imaginations.
So we check in on Facebook and Twitter, but make pilgrimages to Antietam, Auschwitz and to the Acropolis, to gaze at rubble from the days of Pericles and Aristotle.
I thought of Aristotle . . .
No, we are not making that up. Zuccotti Park and Antietam. Zuccotti Park and Auschwitz. Zuccotti Park and Aristotle, for heaven’s sake. What is he talking about? “Zuccotti Park,” writes Mr. K., “has in fact become a miniature polis, a little city in the making.” In fact, though, it hasn’t. It’s a city park currently overrun by mostly young, mostly unemployed layabouts and various opportunistic parasites. Michael Kimmelman, like Nicholas Kristof, has a bad case of 1960s envy. He is hoping against hope that the pathetic spectacle in downtown Manhattan will miraculously turn out to be something more than a nationally televised Romper Room for those permanent adolescents Jerry Rubin boasted of. He ends his sad little manifesto with the declaration that the “protestors” (but what, pray tell, are they protesting?) are “building an architecture of consciousness.” What do you suppose that means? Maybe Mr. Kimmelman’s contract as architecture critic requires him to include the word “architecture” at least once in every column. But we should have thought that his license as a journalist required at a bare minimum that his sentences be intelligible. Perhaps senior critics get to dispense with that qualification.
The one real curiosity about the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon is the breadth of its sponsorship. The labor unions have given it the nod. “Union leaders,” a piece in The Hill reported, “say they feel vindicated by the Occupy Wall Street protests and are doing all they can to keep the movement going.” Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernancke also inclined the coconut: “I can’t blame them,” he told the Joint Economic Committee. Various local politicians, Michael Bloomberg, (the nanny in charge of New York) has complained, have put pressure on the owners of Zuccotti Park not to intimidate or evict the squatters cluttering up the park. And America’s politician in chief, President Obama, has smiled on the temporary denizens of the park, appropriating their slogan “99 percent.”
Ninety-nine percent of what?” you ask. Good question! The idea, which the President obviously likes, is that the anarchists, Sid the Nazi, and all the other placard-waving folks down in Zuccotti Park represent 99 percent of the population while “Wall Street,” the “corporations”—a.k.a. “Jewish financiers” (talk about déjà vu all over again, Adolf!)—represent the rapacious 1 percent which controls the economy, the military industrial complex, the Amazonian rain forest, Bambi’s birth place, and God knows what else. What do you think of those percentages? While you’re thinking, here are a few more. The top 1 percent of tax filers pay nearly 40 percent of the income tax receipts. The top 5 percent about 60 percent. Meanwhile, something north of 45 percent pay no income tax at all. That’s point one.
Point two involves that old story about the perils of riding the tiger. Unlike Messrs. Kimmelman, et al., we do not regard the menagerie squatting at Zuccotti Park as a serious revolutionary movement. It’s an ad hoc agglomeration of malcontents whose chief interest is in theater and notoriety, not politics. That’s not to say, however, that they cannot be egged on or that there are not some distinctly unsavory elements mixed in with the pink-sweatered Amys and her peers. The whole “movement,” such as it is, may well fizzle and die in another week or two. But perhaps it will soldier on. And perhaps the lawlessness evident there will escalate from widespread theft to violent confrontations with the police or those “millionaires and billionaires,” that the President, like the protestors, likes to invoke. We hope not.
But whatever happens, a large slice of that “99 percent”—that would be us and you, Dear Reader—is not going to like what it sees. The Democrats did some hasty political calculation and decided to throw their lot in with the rabble fomenting Occupy Wall Street. The Democrats own, as a matter of political if not fiscal reality, Zuccotti Park. It will be interesting to see how that investment turns out for them. It’s getting to be lunchtime. The noise you hear is the tiger growling.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 3, on page 1
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