The rules of the game | Bleader

Friday, October 28, 2011

The rules of the game

Posted By on 10.28.11 at 08:00 AM

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“This was not a traditional generational rebellion. At some point between 1945 and 1967 we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing. Maybe we had stopped believing in the rules ourselves, maybe we were having a failure of nerve about the game.”

This is in no way a political moment like the one that Joan Didion wrote about in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” her chronicle of San Francisco in 1967. On Haight Street Didion found wastelands both physical and intellectual: one of the essay’s most dramatic images is of a five-year-old—a member of something called “High Kindergarten”—on acid. The piece, a classic, is an epically depressing collection of short takes populated by members of a confused generation. “We were seeing the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum,” Didion writes in one of the few passages in the essay when she turns toward her readers and says, quite directly, what she’s thinking.

What she’s thinking, as usual, tends to be about the narrative—what the hippies say about themselves, and how they’re portrayed in the media, who

“at varying levels of competence continued to report ‘the hippie phenomenon’ as an extended panty raid; an artistic avant-garde led by such comfortable YMHA regulars as Allen Ginsberg; or a thoughtful protest, not unlike joining the Peace Corps, against the culture which had produced Saran-Wrap and the Vietnam War. This last, or they’re-trying-to-tell-us-something approach, reached its apogee in a Time cover story which revealed that hippies ‘scorn money—they call it “bread”’—and remains the most remarkable, if unwitting, extant evidence that the signals between the generations are irrevocably jammed.”

The questionable degree of its germaneness notwithstanding, I’ve been thinking about this essay with regard to the press coverage of the Occupy movement, which as I noted last week seems better than coverage of some protest movements in recent memory. There’s been less bitching about the “inchoate” nature of the protesters’ demands, for instance. But that doesn’t mean there’s been none; in a good essay in New York magazine, Frank Rich compiled an amusing little list of mainstream media invective—he quoted the New Republic, for example, calling the protesters "an unfocused rabble of ragtag discontents." The blog post I wrote last week occasioned a lively discussion in the comments section on this very question. What do the protesters want? Some commenters on the blog, like some in the press, found the movement incoherent and cacophonous. Some had suggestions about overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and ending corporate personhood. (Elsewhere, in Slate, Dahlia Lithwick had a few suggestions about honing these arguments.) The protesters themselves have ideas, compiled here on a proposed list that ranges from the general (“take steps to limit the influence of lobbyists”) to the specific (reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated commercial and investment banking). It tends, it should be said, toward the specific.

Joan Didion found that the hippies she followed through San Francisco were responding to a culture they were largely ignorant of—“able only to feed back certain of its more publicized self-doubts,” she wrote, “Vietnam, Saran-Wrap, diet pills, the Bomb.” The Occupy protesters can’t be accused of being ignorant of the financial culture they’re responding to, I don’t think. They could be accused of not understanding it. But they could be forgiven for that—has anything ever been less comprehensible than credit-default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, or any number of other mechanisms of the byzantine financial regime that brought about the crisis that the protesters are, finally, responding to?

The hard work of making the crisis coherent fell on journalists, some of whom found that only a few people on Wall Street, in the midst of the subprime bubble, had any idea what the hell was going on. Not only the news media but the American culture industry has, over the last few years, tried to narrativize the events of 2008: the new film Margin Call, notes Reader critic J.R. Jones, is an ambitious attempt to portray the complexity of the crisis. Its plot concerns a financial firm whose traders are shocked to find out how “catastrophically overleveraged” their company is. All this translation notwithstanding, what remains incredible to a lot of people, including the Occupy protesters, is the lack of justice inherent in the situation—so many assholes, so few prosecutions, to pick one complaint (if you follow the link you'll find that this is not precisely how the New York Times chose to phrase it). That's a clear demand protesters can make; in fact the demand itself is much clearer, much more comprehensible, than the mess that provoked it.

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