In the eye of the beholder | Bleader

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

In the eye of the beholder

Posted By on 10.18.11 at 03:00 PM

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  • World Can't Wait
Time was when large-scale street protests in the United States would be accompanied, just about invariably, by a predictable chorus of criticisms. At its least articulate this line involved instructions to the protesters to get a job, as if getting a job was a political strategy. And at their most admonishing critics would plead with protesters about working within, rather than outside of, “the democratic process.” Such pleas often used that phrase, like an incantation—“the democratic process.”

So it’s been refreshing, and not a little surprising, to see the media do better in its recent engagement with the Occupy movement—so much so that Anne Applebaum’s recent column in Slate, which falls back on all the old tropes, feels like a boring retread:

They are similar in their lack of focus, in their inchoate nature, and above all in their refusal to engage with existing democratic institutions. In New York, marchers chanted, "This is what democracy looks like," but, actually, this isn't what democracy looks like. This is what freedom of speech looks like. Democracy looks a lot more boring.

And etc. But Applebaum deserves credit for linking the Occupy movement to the antiglobalization movement that preceded it (in the above quote, that’s what the Occupy protests are “similar” to). That’s a good point: one thing that’s striking about a lot of the coverage of the current protests is that its observers, even many of its boosters, seem to think that this is something totally new—that protesters are mounting a critique that’s different than the one that they put forth in, say, Seattle in 1999, or Miami in 2003, or London in 2009 (to name but a few). They even herald the logistics as unique, but in fact the large group assemblies, the clever modes of crowd communication, and careful mass deliberation are something protesting leftists have been practicing for a long time. So is the hesitation—or in some cases the principled refusal—to establish firm demands.

All those previous protests were accused of being inchoate, too, but they've long been about resisting economic concentration and corporate power—what’s different here is the way the message is resonating. There are still critics like Applebaum, but more and more there are people who appear to be trying to translate the protests for a broader audience—and trying to reckon with them on their terms. U. of C.'s Bernard E. Harcourt wrote an incisive commentary for the New York Times last week on what he thinks is unique about this political moment; again, I don’t know that he’s totally correct about the timing, but he makes a compelling case about the movement's broader ethos:

Occupy Wall Street is best understood, I would suggest, as a new form of what could be called “political disobedience,” as opposed to civil disobedience, that fundamentally rejects the political and ideological landscape that we inherited from the Cold War.

Civil disobedience accepted the legitimacy of political institutions, but resisted the moral authority of resulting laws. Political disobedience, by contrast, resists the very way in which we are governed: it resists the structure of partisan politics, the demand for policy reforms, the call for party identification, and the very ideologies that dominated the post-War period.

Occupy Wall Street, which identifies itself as a “leaderless resistance movement with people of many … political persuasions,” is politically disobedient precisely in refusing to articulate policy demands or to embrace old ideologies. Those who incessantly want to impose demands on the movement may show good will and generosity, but fail to understand that the resistance movement is precisely about disobeying that kind of political maneuver.

This is one of a number of good analyses that the Times has printed—some in the paper, some, like Harcourt’s, online only. (See also Michael Kimmelman’s essay on “the power of place” in the protests.) There may be more and more people wanting to say what the protesters are saying—but it looks like there are also more people willing to listen.

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