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liberalism and progressivism

#occupywallstreet — a discussion has broken out among leftie bloggers about whether Occupy Wall Street is really deserving of that much respect. And this does touch on one of my long-time pet peeves, about the difference between stupid protesting and smart protesting.

Compare/contrast Occupy Wall Street with last winter’s protest in Madison, Wisconsin. Now, y’all know I found the Madison protests thrilling. What I loved about it is that the people who participated really were there for the cause, not just to draw attention to themselves. And the cause was not just some amorphous sense that, y’know, stuff is bad and we’re angry about it. There was a specific focus, a particular message, that everyone came together to deliver. And they’ve been following it up with good old-fashioned shoes-on-the-pavement, door-to-door political activism that resulted in the recall of two state senators.

This is how it’s done.

Occupy Wall Street, on the other hand, reeks of the usual crowd of juvenile attention-seekers who protest for the sake of protesting. Their “demands” (which, they are careful to say, are not really demands, just ideas) are a grocery list of feel-good sentiments, not a call to action.

During some of the Iraq War demonstrations I got the impression many of these exhibitionists really don’t understand what they’re protesting; they just like to hog megaphones. They and groups like International A.N.S.W.E.R. who wanted to piggyback their own agendas onto the antiwar marches pretty much killed any chance of forming a genuine antiwar movement.

Occupy Wall Street doesn’t actually have an official agenda, other than how they want to formulate an agenda. I’m serious. They plan to hold “people’s assemblies” someday to decide what they want to demand.

I cannot tell you how weary I am of this kind of pretentious shit. I’ve seen it at too many liberal/progressive gatherings over the years. Somebody comes up with some too-precious gimmick that’s going to change the world, and they whip up a little enthusiasm for it for about ten minutes, and then everyone loses focus and goes home.

Truly, the only thing Occupy Wall Street has going for it is that they are getting beaten up by cops, and by all means let’s focus on the cops and the pepper spray and the orange netting, because that’s wrong. But the larger mystery to me is why the NYPD even bothered. Just ignoring them would have been more effective.

Someone at Firedoglake wrote a post titled “Why Establishment Media & the Power Elite Loathe Occupy Wall Street.”

They don’t loathe you, dear. You probably don’t even interest them much. You are no threat to them. If major media aren’t covering you, it’s because there’s nothing to cover but some rowdy people hanging out in a park pretending to have a purpose.

The Bigger Asshole rule always applies.

Update: Really excellent blog post about how to stage effective protests in the 21st century. Recommended reading.

Update: I think Glenn is right when he says this,

That’s just the nature of protests that take place outside approved channels, an inevitable by-product of disruptive dissent: those who are most vested in safeguarding and legitimizing establishment prerogatives (which, by definition, includes establishment media outlets) are going to be hostile to those challenges.

However, I think he’s totally wrong here–

A significant aspect of this progressive disdain is grounded in the belief that the only valid form of political activism is support for Democratic Party candidates, and a corresponding desire to undermine anything that distracts from that goal.

You see that attitude among the bobbleheads in television; not to much the blogosphere. I don’t personally give a hoo-haw whether the Democratic Party supports a particular protest. I care if the protest is smart and has a chance of having some effect.

Glenn goes on to describe how awful Wall Street has been. Yes, Glenn they are very awful. Lots of people think so. Even a lot of the teabaggers think so. But Wall Street is also very , very powerful, which is why carrying a cardboard sign around saying “bleep Wall Street” really isn’t helping anyone.

Political activism isn’t political activism unless there is a specific goal in mind, whether freeing India from the British empire or getting voting rights for African Americans or recalling Wisconsin state senators. Just expressing dislike of someone or something is not political activism. And what is happening in and around Zuccotti Park is not political activism, it’s political masturbation.

And a collection of self-indulgent dilettantes who want to feel good about themselves and play out some fantasy of being big bad revolutionaries is not a movement. A movement has direction. It has goals. It has a clear purpose.

If you don’t have a clear message attached to an actual call to action, then it’s just protest theater. The dilettantes will make some noise for a while and go home, and nothing will change.

Of course it’s true the establishment overlooks genuine grassroots populist activism, far preferring the astroturf variety that is being directed by someone with ties to the establishment, albeit standing behind a curtain. But that doesn’t mean I have to genuflect every time somebody writes “war is bad” on a piece of cardboard and marches down the street. I’ve seen with my own eyes too many times that stupid protesting is counterproductive.

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52 Comments

51 Comments

  1. peasant  •  Sep 28, 2011 @12:45 pm

    There is no progress or honor in telling people to shut up.

    But hey, if you grovel a bit more, the duke may let you keep eating scraps from the table.

  2. maha  •  Sep 28, 2011 @12:58 pm

    There is no progress or honor in telling people to shut up.

    They can yell all they like. I have long and tired experience telling me it won’t matter.

    But hey, if you grovel a bit more, the duke may let you keep eating scraps from the table.

    I’ve probably done more effective protest against the system in the past 24 hours than you’ve done in your whole life.

  3. c u n d glag  •  Sep 28, 2011 @1:11 pm

    I’m with you on the pointlessness of some of the left’s methods of protesting. When we were in Fayetteville, NC protesting the war near Fort Bragg, we had a giant puppets guy every year, at very event.
    Why?
    Because there’s always a giant puppet’s guy at a Liberal protest, that’s why! And the guy’s been a stalwart at protests since the late 60′s, and we don’t want to disappoint him.
    Christ, they were probably the same GDed puppets from anti-Vietnam, Pro Affirmative Action, Anti-Nuke, the First Gulf War, the Florida elections, and early anti-Iraq, rallies – just with new tape, strings, stilts, and paint.

    There is ONE thing though that I like about this protest at Wall Street. It seems to bother our Galtian Overlords. Remember, a lot of them work there, have apartments in Manhattan and the best sections of the boroughs, and homes in Upstate NY, NJ, CT, even eastern PA, including Philly. And the ones who don’t work there, usually end up visiting fairly often.
    And you’re right, maha, the cops would have been better off just ignoring them. So, why send a phallanx of cops on a quiet weekend day to crack some heads, pepper spray some people, and drag others away if the Galts weren’t bothered by seeing the great unwashed too close to them? And on a weekend, rather than a weekday when there would be more witnesses?
    This protest may be too little, and too late, and maybe a bit silly. But something’s bothering the great Galts. And causing a mini media blackout:
    http://crooksandliars.com/bluegal-aka-fran/open-thread-141

    and, apparently, there’s action in other states:
    http://crooksandliars.com/bluegal-aka-fran/open-thread-141

    Maybe this gentle, sometimes silly reminder will serve it’s place, if only to make the Galt’s realize that people are noticing and watching them. And who knows, maybe this will be the start of an “American Spring.”
    The Galt’s need to be reminded that people don’t mind if they make money, as long as they’re Bulls and Bears, and not PIGS!
    Maybe this may help the Galts to realize that they’d better get their heads around the income disparity in this country and the world, before they start to lose their heads.

  4. Tom Hilton  •  Sep 28, 2011 @1:14 pm

    Exactly right.

    The civil rights movement succeeded because they were focused, pragmatic, and thought (and argued) long and hard about what strategy and tactics would actually move them closer to their goals. Every action had concrete and specific goals, breaking it down into manageable targets (desegregating lunch counters, e.g.) that would also advance the larger end.

    They weren’t in it to feel good, or “make a statement”; they were in it to change policy. And they did.

    The OWS people have no idea whatsoever about what makes effective mass action.

  5. maha  •  Sep 28, 2011 @1:23 pm

    This protest may be too little, and too late, and maybe a bit silly. But something’s bothering the great Galts. And causing a mini media blackout:

    I think Lawrence O’Donnell called it when he said the cops seemed to be targeting people with videocameras. Cops have a thing about videocameras that doesn’t have anything to do with Wall Street.

  6. c u n d glag  •  Sep 28, 2011 @1:27 pm

    Got it.
    That makes sense then – don’t crack the heads of people videorecording the cracking of heads when there are more people to videorecord the cracking of those heads on a weekday!
    Did I just break out into Sarah-speak?

  7. Rick Massimo  •  Sep 28, 2011 @1:29 pm

    Olbermann had one of the Occupy Wall Street guys on a coupla nights ago, and as soon as the B-roll footage showed signs protesting the “death” of habeas corpus and something about “debt=slavery,” I couldn’t watch anymore.

    Yes, those are worthy and important issues. Yes, the Tabaggers got away with that kind of random, unfocused stuff and managed to be taken seriously. The rules are different for us. And there’s a time and place for complaining about that, but c’mon people.

  8. c u n d glag  •  Sep 28, 2011 @1:40 pm

    A semi-serious, semi-funny, take by a comedian on Occupy Wall Street:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8mIZszPyK78&feature=player_embedded

  9. semi-adult  •  Sep 28, 2011 @3:05 pm

    We’ve got a local offshoot now in the Twin Cities, aiming at yelling in the street in front of the local Fed building on Oct. 7. There’s a website, and they’ve had an ‘organizing meeting’ or something. No word on why, or what to say, and they’ve declared paranoia in advance (probably with reason). Nothing about October 8.

    If only the energy could be re-routed….

  10. Stephen Stralka  •  Sep 28, 2011 @3:18 pm

    WHAT DO WE WANT?!!

    SOMETHING!!!

    WHEN DO WE WANT IT?!!

    PRETTY SOON!!!

  11. Deleted  •  Sep 28, 2011 @5:27 pm

    [If you can't express yourself without being vulgar, please don't bother. And FYI, I am 60 years old and self-supporting, thanks. -- maha]

  12. Candide  •  Sep 28, 2011 @7:27 pm

    Quite frankly, Maha, this is probably the worst post you’ve done since I first started reading your blog. I’m not trying to offend you, but really, that’s the way it strikes me.

    Yes, I see your point that the Wall Street protests are not well-organized, not very focused, and unlikely to make any difference. That’s probably the case for most street protests.

    But those doing the protesting have everything to lose (ie being beaten, maced, arrested and prosecuted). You seem to think that they’re doing it just because they enjoy “getting attention” and for the “mental masturbation.” Doesn’t seem like much of a reward for the risks they are taking. True, they may be naive to think they are going to win against the almighty Wall Street banksters, but they are trying. It’s more than any of us are doing sitting here at home, comfortable and safe, at our computer keyboards, blogging while sipping a Diet Coke and munching on some chips.

    And just look at the target of this protest – the Wall Street banksters. These are the very architects of everything you’ve railed against: high healthcare costs, attacks on Social Security, tax breaks for the rich, bribes to Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats, destruction of the public educational system, anti-science campaigns, anti-environmentalism, etc etc. It’s easy to blame the Republicans in congress (or the White House, when we had Bush) for all the evil, but in fact they would not be doing this evil if they were not owned by Wall Street.

    Yes, the Wisconsin protests may have been better organized, more focused, even got a few (but not enough to make a difference) Republican legislators recalled. But then again, they were taking on a much smaller, local, less powerful target. Wisconsin was a small skirmish in a much bigger war. Taking on Wall Street – this is the very Heart of Darkness.

    As Cundglag said above, the protesters must be making the Galts uncomfortable. Why else did they call out the goons to crack heads when they could have safely ignored their critics. It’s always been the same in any dictatorship. Ghadaffy, Mugabe, Mubarak, Idi Amin, Hitler, Stalin, etc – they all deal with dissent the same way. By ruthlessly crushing it. And the obedient news media keeps quiet.

    Yes, I know that the USA is not Nazi Germany. Not yet.

  13. maha  •  Sep 28, 2011 @7:37 pm

    And just look at the target of this protest – the Wall Street banksters. These are the very architects of everything you’ve railed against: high healthcare costs, attacks on Social Security, tax breaks for the rich, bribes to Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats, destruction of the public educational system, anti-science campaigns, anti-environmentalism, etc etc. It’s easy to blame the Republicans in congress (or the White House, when we had Bush) for all the evil, but in fact they would not be doing this evil if they were not owned by Wall Street.

    Exactly. That’s why half-assed and unfocused play-pretend activism is possibly worse than doing nothing. I’ve seen garbage like this play into the hands of the establishment before, which is why this self-indulgent junk is worse than doing nothing. They’d be more useful sitting at home with the chips.

  14. Paula  •  Sep 28, 2011 @8:05 pm

    What’s the big deal about this specific protest? As the link from your update points out, the ANSWER protests weren’t terribly coherent either and got similar flack.

    I don’t think anyone on the left knows how to protest, though. From what I’ve read about the civil rights movement, many of those participating were backed by a combination of firebrand religious activists and secular media savvy types (or people who were often the same thing) who had students come in their best “model minority” garb and get intentionally kicked out of restaurants and barked at by dogs. These were kids who accepted the danger as part of the media strategy for the rest of the country to sympathize with the cause of Blacks in the south.

    Nowadays, as much as those on the left decry the paltry status of science among conservative ranks, the left has no real conception of the role of the church as a organizing arm and a motivating factor. We make fun of overblown patriotism and worse, provide no competing narratives. As much as “populism” is a nice buzzword, it means a lot of different things to different people, many of whom hunger for a “wholeness” of identity that mere “leftist” partisanship or ideology (like “occupy Wall Street”) doesn’t really satisfy. For many of them, populism is about regaining community not only in the financial sense but in satisfying a search for an identity in a confusing world. You can argue that too many people simply confuse concrete for spiritual concerns, but it yelling at people will not convince them.

  15. Dan  •  Sep 28, 2011 @8:26 pm

    “a collection of self-indulgent dilettantes” “half-assed and unfocused play-pretend activism” “self-indulgent junk” – my goodness that’s a lot of hostility! I’m a regular reader and usually see where you’re coming from even when I disagree, but this is really off the hook.

    They’re organized and nonviolent. They are occupying a public space near Wall Street – don’t you think that sends a pretty clear message? I’m surprised you haven’t been able to make that connection.

    I think what they are doing is great and admirable, and I wish them great success.

  16. lambert strether  •  Sep 28, 2011 @8:51 pm

    I’m not seeing any giant puppets around #OccupyWallStreet. Just saying.

    Here’s another perspective. I think it’s important, when following #OccupyWallStreet, to follow the local sources and eyewitness accounts as much as possible. Here’s one such:

    http://www.correntewire.com/dont_be_afraid_to_say_revolution

    Oh, and it’s not a protest. Protests are, by definition, ephemeral, and don’t take any ground. An occupation is quite different. Perhaps this category error is a source of confusion?

    And of course when Glenn writes ‘["]progressive["] disdain is grounded in the belief that the only valid form of political activism is support for Democratic Party candidates,’ he’s right. Checked out Kos, lately? Seen any “progressive” bloggers say they won’t give their votes to Obama?

  17. Paula  •  Sep 28, 2011 @9:12 pm

    “Protests are, by definition, ephemeral, and don’t take any ground.”

    Um, where is this special new definition of protest coming from?

  18. lambert strether  •  Sep 28, 2011 @9:16 pm

    More: What I found most encouraging about #occupywallstreet was the portable generator they set up to run their media center. If that’s a “stupid,” “attention seekers,” “juvenile,” “pretentious”, “too precious gimmick,” it’s a remarkably ingenious one.

    And what I find most discouraging about this post is this: “Truly, the only thing Occupy Wall Street has going for it is that they are getting beaten up by cops, and by all means let’s focus on the cops and the pepper spray and the orange netting, because that’s wrong.” Except it’s our famously free press that’s doing that “focus,” not the protesters themselves. If anything, they damped all that. Oh, and today they went over to support the Post Office union. Gee, I lost track. Is supporting the Post Office union the “juvenile” part, or the “too precious” part?

    Isn’t it possible that Madison, WI and #occupywallstreet form a continuum? Is that really so impossible?

  19. lambert strether  •  Sep 28, 2011 @10:26 pm

    Paula asks where this “special new definition of protest is coming from.” Er, the dictionary?

    [A]n expression or declaration of objection, disapproval, or dissent, often in opposition to something a person is powerless to prevent or avoid: a protest against increased taxation.

    Expressions and delcarations are ephemeral by definition. Like the Iraq protests, for example. That’s just how they turned out. That experiment didn’t work, did it? So, try something else.

  20. Badtux  •  Sep 29, 2011 @1:25 am

    Over on my own blog I have a photo from a Civil Rights march. It is dignified-looking middle aged men in suits and ties, carrying signs that say things like “Voting Rights Now”, “No Segregated Schools”, and “Jobs Now”. This was backed up by a) model legislation that picked members of Congress were introducing (the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1965, etc.), and b) by some of the best legal minds in the country who were playing the courts like a piano. They were serious, and they won. Then there’s the video of protesters being rounded up. Where’s the signs? Why are they dressed like slovenly children on a day trip to the city, rather than like dignified grownups? As a dignified grownup, how can I take them seriously?

    I think most of the reason today’s protests are so lame is that the anti-war protesters of the 1960′s think they ended the Vietnam War with their circus and continue to influence tactics. They didn’t. That was Walter Cronkite and large numbers of “serious people” who figured out that the only way to “win” the war was to invade North Vietnam, which had a big chance of inviting both Chinese and Soviet intervention that likely would have escalated to nuclear war (indeed we now know that threats were made by *both* sides). All the hippies did was give the right wing a convenient scapegoat so that they wouldn’t have to admit that the U.S. got beat like a drum by a buncha pajama-wearin’ slopes — i.e., it allowed them to maintain their racism against Southeast Asians. But y’know, I never seen a dead body come back from Vietnam that had been killed by Jane Fonda. They all got killed by NVA or VC guns or grenades or bombs or booby traps. Funny, that Hanoi Jane gets all the credit for winning the war for North Vietnam, despite the fact that, like, she didn’t kill a single soldier, while the people who did win the war don’t get credit at all from racist America, which *still* refuses to admit that a buncha pajama-wearin’ slopes beat’em like a drum. But they did. They did. But racist lefties and racist righties both refuse to admit that fact and insist that the lefties ended the Vietnam War, not the NVA and VC, because apparently brown people could *never* have, like, actually beat the good ole’ white folk of the U S of A. Funny, huh?

  21. lambert strether  •  Sep 29, 2011 @7:40 am

    Hmm…. The Iraq protests were quite dignified. And their effects vanished as if they had never been. So I’m not clear on why “dress for success” is the key metric here.

  22. maha  •  Sep 29, 2011 @8:01 am

    They’re organized and nonviolent. They are occupying a public space near Wall Street – don’t you think that sends a pretty clear message? I’m surprised you haven’t been able to make that connection.

    What message? That they are angry at Wall Street? Who isn’t? Even the teabaggers say they hate Wall Street. And do you think the tycoons don’t know that? And do you think they care?

    I’ve been to a lot of big rallies and protests over the years, and nearly always I come away from them feeling ambivalent, if not disheartened. This is not just because media doesn’t cover them. It’s because too many people are more interested in “expressing themselves” and showing off than in delivering a message. They show up in goofy costumes and hog megaphones, and the message they deliver is “we are goofballs who can’t be taken seriously.” And, of course, everyone pushes his pet issue, which muddles the message even more.

    Big demonstrations and protests are really all about public relations. The real people you are trying to win over are not the people you are protesting, but the rest of the public. When demonstrators come across as serious people with a serious grievance, and gain public sympathy, and poll numbers move, then the establishment starts to worry. This is why the big civil rights marches in the 1950s and 1960s were effective.

    But throwing a big public temper tantrum for no clear reason other than “we are mad” is pointless and can even be counterproductive. As I’ve said many times, the biggest accomplishment of the anti-Vietnam war protest movement was re-electing Richard Nixon. If MLK’s marchers had been as slovenly and erratic as the crew in lower Manhattan, it would have set back the issue of civil rights for 50 years.

    I’ve written in the past that the financial sector has been eating the rest of the economy like a cancer. However, the financial sector issue isn’t a simple one; it takes a bit of study to understand. Lots of smart people who are not beholden to any party or candidate have done that study and have offered up specific reforms that need to be done. The crew in lower Manhattan appear to be oblivious to all this. Instead, they are holding general assemblies

    New York City General Assemblies are an open, participatory and horizontally organized process through which we are building the capacity to constitute ourselves in public as autonomous collective forces within and against the constant crises of our times.

    – this is the same rhetoric Students for a Democratic Society used to spew back in the 1960s, and which countless other would-be SDS organizations that lasted, on average, about ten minutes have picked up and tried to run with over the years. I was sympathetic with most of SDS’s agenda back then, but the fact is they didn’t accomplish much and eventually split up into more or less radical factions, like the Weathermen. They and their spin-offs were were great for Richard Nixon, though.

  23. c u n d glag  •  Sep 29, 2011 @8:06 am

    Badtux,
    Yup, the protests were not the main reason we finally got out of Vietnam.
    Among other things, we got out-Generaled by this guy:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vo_Nguyen_Giap

    The protests that I think accomplished anything in the US, were womens sufferage and civil rights for African-Americans. And, again, as maha said, they had specific goals.

  24. maha  •  Sep 29, 2011 @8:06 am

    I think most of the reason today’s protests are so lame is that the anti-war protesters of the 1960′s think they ended the Vietnam War with their circus and continue to influence tactics. They didn’t. That was Walter Cronkite and large numbers of “serious people” who figured out that the only way to “win” the war was to invade North Vietnam, which had a big chance of inviting both Chinese and Soviet intervention that likely would have escalated to nuclear war (indeed we now know that threats were made by *both* sides).

    Yep. And Tricky Dick and his veep Spiro — sort of the spiritual great-grandfather to Karl Rove — managed to turn the 1972 election into a referendum on the “hippies” and a few other inflammatory issues, notably affirmative action and what we used to call “lawnorder.” The war had been unpopular for a long time, but Nixon didn’t take any real hits for it because the general public hated the anti-war movement more than they hated the war.

  25. maha  •  Sep 29, 2011 @8:13 am

    More: What I found most encouraging about #occupywallstreet was the portable generator they set up to run their media center.

    You must be easily impressed. Get out much?

    I’m glad they are supporting the post office union. If they dropped everything else and just focused on bringing the post office issues to public attention, they’d be doing some good. But you are missing my point. Their issues are fine; it’s the methodology I’m objecting to, because it has already failed time and time again. And stunts like this eat a lot of energy that could be put to use elsewhere.

    Isn’t it possible that Madison, WI and #occupywallstreet form a continuum? Is that really so impossible?

    That would be a HUGE mistake for the Wisconsin crew, and probably put an end to what they will be able to accomplish in the future.

  26. maha  •  Sep 29, 2011 @8:16 am

    Expressions and declarations are ephemeral by definition. Like the Iraq protests, for example. That’s just how they turned out. That experiment didn’t work, did it? So, try something else.

    Um, the Occupy crowd is indistinguishable from the anti-Iraq War protests. Same look, same feel, same methodology, same old.

    Yes, do try something else.

    Also, FYI, all phenomena are ephemeral. You, me, and Wall Street — all ephemeral.

  27. maha  •  Sep 29, 2011 @8:25 am

    The protests that I think accomplished anything in the US, were womens sufferage and civil rights for African-Americans. And, again, as maha said, they had specific goals.

    And they were conducted very differently from the way most leftish demonstrating is done now, but the vocational protesters won’t listen to anyone telling them the many ways they are shooting themselves in the foot.

  28. joanr16  •  Sep 29, 2011 @9:02 am

    the left has no real conception of the role of the church as a organizing arm and a motivating factor.

    Wow, that’s hugely ignorant of historical fact. Racial equality, nuclear disarmament, economic justice, the sanctuary movement all involved alliances between the left and churches. (“Role of the church.” Which one is that, anyway? Yikes.)

  29. Lee  •  Sep 29, 2011 @10:45 am

    Funny, the photo at Glenn’s site shows a woman carrying a sign that reads “Bring Back the Glass–Steagall Act.” Quite the opposite of what you characterize the signs as saying “War is Bad.” So… if the #occupywallstreet folks were organized around that goal–bringing back Glass–Steagall Act or other similar regulatory measures–would your dismissal of them change into support?

  30. lambert strether  •  Sep 29, 2011 @11:13 am

    Actually, Maha, dear, I get out a good deal. I’m especially anxious to get out of the stale stench of legacy party offices and the placeholders that infest them. I like the fresh air. YMMV and, apparently does.

    Two state Senators! Imagine! The Ds managed quite successfully to divert the wonderful energy of the WI Capitol occupations into the roach motel of D politics. Of course, I don’t blame them for it; that’s their job. The fact that the rhetoric is escalating from “Put down your placard and pick up a clipboard” to the really vile assaults that characterize this post shows that in fact, the occupiers were and are right; otherwise the sneering and insults would not be seen as necessary.

    Dear Lord. Finger-wagging lectures on “dress for success.” You sure know how to make those kidz listen up and snap to it. Always nice to see a pro in action.

  31. maha  •  Sep 29, 2011 @11:39 am

    if the #occupywallstreet folks were organized around that goal–bringing back Glass–Steagall Act or other similar regulatory measures–would your dismissal of them change into support?

    Yes, but only if certain conditions were met. One sign is an outlier; it means nothing. If the ENTIRE GROUP were to focus on NOTHING ELSE but bringing back Glass-Steagall, NO EXCEPTIONS, and if they came up with a plan for action that went beyond occupying a park — it’s been done, dear — and they all signed a pledge swearing off any kind of costume or shouting slogans on the street, I’d take them seriously. Maybe.

    The reason I’m not impressed is that I’ve seen all this before, over and over and over and over and over, since the bleeping early 1960s with SDS, already, and it’s a joke. OWS is pissing in the wind. Maybe they’re pissing in the wind for a righteous cause, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are pissing in the wind.

    If you want to see what effective mass movements are like, study Martin Luther King. King had broad goals in mind, but his protests were narrowly targeted — end segregated busing in Montgomery, for example. They were tied to a specific goal that could be achieved.

    Demonstrations, marches, protests, rallies, whatever you want to call them, are effective only as a tactic. When they are the end itself, it’s stupid.

    For that reason, you do not hit the streets and then hold “general assemblies” to figure out what you want to do. That’s basically the old SDS approach, and it doesn’t work. Your overall goal may take in more than one purpose, but you formulate that goal first, then you come up with a tactical plan, and then you begin to organize. Not the other way around.

    The civil rights movement under MLK was not “participatory democracy” but a top-down organization. The organizing committee dictated everything, down to what signs everyone could carry. People didn’t show up to express themselves. They came together to speak as one voice.

    A major purpose of any public demonstration is to garner public support for your cause. That’s your real audience, not the tycoons. Your goal should be to change public opinion. A group that hasn’t made up its own mind what it’s about can’t do that.

    You also want people to take you seriously and be interested in what you have to say. You do that by presenting yourself as serious, adult people. If even one individual in a group is being a goofball, it can spoil the chances of the group from doing any good.

  32. maha  •  Sep 29, 2011 @11:47 am

    Two state Senators! Imagine!

    That’s a lot harder to achieve than a generator, and more useful in the long run. Seriously, a generator? do you want to know how pathetic that sounds?

    See my response to Lee. Take the part about “pissing in the wind” to heart.

    Y’all are just replicating, with some updates, the old SDS (1962-1969) agenda and methodology. They organized up a storm, yes. Their only real legacy was helping Richard Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey and breaking up what was left of the old New Deal coalition. Yeah, that was useful.

  33. lambert strether  •  Sep 29, 2011 @11:50 am

    The New York City Transit Workers Union just voted to support Occupy Wall Street. So maybe now we can stop with the U R DOIN IT WRONG foo-fra. Thank The God(ess)(e)(s) Of Your Choice, If Any, there weren’t any giant puppets, or else we’d all have to look twice at them.

    Of course, the Ds in general and Obama in particular — Imagine! Not one but two state senators! — have betrayed the union movement just like they’ve betrayed everyone else, so it’s completely natural that the rank and file would wish to try something new.

    Say, I guess the occupiers were pretty smart to support the Post Office Unions. Retraction of all the insults, please.

  34. maha  •  Sep 29, 2011 @11:52 am

    Retraction of all the insults, please.

    I think the Transit Workers are making a mistake, unless they are able to co-opt OWS into their organization.

  35. Lee  •  Sep 29, 2011 @11:54 am

    I have to say… your frequent use of “dear” comes across as extraordinarily condescending. Just thought you might like to know. I suggest if you “want people to take you seriously and be interested in what you have to say,” you cut it out.

    It is also unclear why, based on the criteria you outline here, you had any positive feelings about the Madison protests. Not only were they much broader than you would allow — but they were also objectively failures.

    I was in Madison recently, talked to some friends involved in the protests, and I think that having a culture of protest and opposition can be an inspiring thing, even if it is only the precondition to further action (what you describe sounds smart and sensible to me for addressing single issues).

    Many people who were involved in the protests have turned activism a way of life, or have made connections that have spawned new rounds of activism for them, and are now focused intensely on single issues — affordable housing, health care, etc., which doesn’t get the media coverage but arguably improves the lives of real people in concrete ways.

    It seems to me that distinguishing between top-down and participatory models of protest is a false choice. There is a place for both. And both deserve our support — and supportive criticism.

  36. lambert strether  •  Sep 29, 2011 @12:01 pm

    You’re missing the point on the generator. I’ll spell it out for you. One common factor in many of the square occupations around the Mediterranean this year was the joy, the freedom that people felt there as they became agents and began to self-organize. (See Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell for the joy of agency after “natural” “disasters”). Setting up a power generator — almost too powerful a metaphor, eh? At least for those with open minds — is one such self-organzing action. I did quick review of your coverage, and it focuses on the cops vs. kidz narrative. Talk about being stuck in the 60s! That’s not the story. The story is self-organization.

    Anyhow, I’ll be waiting for a retraction of all the insults, now that the NY City Transit Wokers voted to support #OccupyWallStreet.

    Altenatively, here’s a shovel. Why don’t you call the Transit Workers “stupid,” “attention seekers,” “juvenile,” and “pretentious”? Dear Lord. Dear Lord.

  37. maha  •  Sep 29, 2011 @12:05 pm

    I have to say… your frequent use of “dear” comes across as extraordinarily condescending.

    It’s intended to be condescending. I guess it’s working. Thanks.

    It is also unclear why, based on the criteria you outline here, you had any positive feelings about the Madison protests. Not only were they much broader than you would allow — but they were also objectively failures.

    No, they started something that is still going on. Note that many of Martin Luther King’s specific protests failed to meet their immediate objective, also. The immediate goal was not achieved, but it set more organizing in motion that brought down two state senators and is about to start a recall effort against the governor.

    Many people who were involved in the protests have turned activism a way of life, or have made connections that have spawned new rounds of activism for them, and are now focused intensely on single issues — affordable housing, health care, etc., which doesn’t get the media coverage but arguably improves the lives of real people in concrete ways.

    To an extent, that’s fine, but single-issue advocacy can be a problem, also. In the 1970s progressivism broke up into single-issue advocacy camps, and that was a huge mistake. All these progressive groups were competing with each other for funding and attention, while the Right took over the country.

    So, as with MLK, you need a combination of broad goals but targeted action.

    It seems to me that distinguishing between top-down and participatory models of protest is a false choice. There is a place for both. And both deserve our support — and supportive criticism.

    My supportive criticism is to stay off the streets until you have a plan. And I’d like to agree with you that there is a place for both, but my experience tells me that the “participatory” crowd will trample over any attempt to organize anything useful.

  38. maha  •  Sep 29, 2011 @12:06 pm

    lambert, please stop being pathetic. You really do sound like a little child, all excited about a new toy. Go away.

  39. Paula  •  Sep 29, 2011 @1:12 pm

    lambert strether, admittedly I have no idea where you’re getting “expressions and declarations are ephemeral by definition” unless you’re paraphrasing from the French Situationists, in which case I’d tread carefully about transposing their more abstract political goals over a group of people who feel like they want specific things to get done.

  40. twtfltrd  •  Sep 29, 2011 @1:24 pm

    Maha,

    I’m with you on this. What do the protesters think will happen? Do they think that the very people who control all the money in this country will suddenly decide to quit stealing, quit buying politicians, quit manipulating world currency’s? Really? I agree with their cause but as you point out it is way to general to ever gain traction, and may well end up being counter productive.

  41. Taryn Hart  •  Sep 29, 2011 @1:53 pm

    I wanted to invite you to read this. I don’t know how anyone on the left can be this dismissive (and kind of mean) to this kind of sincerity.

    http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/08/19/1008473/-Occupy-Wall-Street:-I-gave-notice-today?via=user

    Also, the original call to action did not have a goal because this is a democratic movements. If they truly want it to be democratic, the “demand” can;t be chosen ahead of time. As they’ve said they’re formulating their demands through “general assemblies.” I’m not sure how else they could do it and be democratic.

    I also wanted to direct you to this article by Mike Konczal where he gives the Occupiers some really helpful ideas for specific demands.

    http://www.stumbleupon.com/su/1gyLgQ/www.good.is/post/three-concrete-demands-to-hold-wall-street-accountable/

    So often bloggers see their jobs as just taking a side – pro or con, fight amongst yourselves. (There’s a disagreement on the Left, I’m on “X” side and here’s why backed by plenty of snark). But I think Mike recognized that there’s really an opportunity – a rare opportunity – for the progressive blogosphere to be useful here and give suggestions for concrete demands. This is what the intelligensia is for – to articulate and focus vague, but since dissent into something concrete and constructive.

    Maybe you’re right; maybe it will go away. But if it doesn’t, I hope you are persuaded to perhaps reconsider and maybe will even offer helpful, constructive advice about specific demands that you think could be effective. (Also could use more bloggers that are willing to change their minds when persuaded by argument or evidence. :))

    Peace.

  42. Lee  •  Sep 29, 2011 @2:03 pm

    “It’s intended to be condescending. I guess it’s working. Thanks.”

    Mission accomplished! It’s a great mystery why activists who happen upon your blog might not interpret your post as “supportive criticism.”

    Martin Luther King, SNCC, and the civil rights movement provide one example of success — in a very narrow domain — which should be studied at length and mined for ideas to incorporate into contemporary protest movements. But they provide only one example. And their successes didn’t occur in a vacuum but in the context of a broader shift in US culture, which they did a part to help change.

    I think the Popular Front and the long history of labor provide many more fruitful and varied models for the left to emulate. Even then, formulating new tactics and strategies is always worthwhile.

    Having a plan is good. Coming up with a plan is hard. The notion that protesters who are angry at Wall Street might work together to formulate a plan — or multiple plans, through a process of deliberation and debate — seems like a sensible first step to me, though not guaranteed to succeed, and not, despite what you think, guaranteed to fail.

  43. Paula  •  Sep 29, 2011 @2:25 pm

    Well, I’m about done talking about any of this, but the takeaway appears to be a matter of opinion and perspective. If Maha is looking at it from the POV of someone who has been in the game for a while, the people at the protest are just starting out. Both sides may experience frustration at the other. It’s not a crime to have strong feelings when you’ve invested some skin in the game.

  44. maha  •  Sep 29, 2011 @2:41 pm

    It’s a great mystery why activists who happen upon your blog might not interpret your post as “supportive criticism.”

    I’ve seen groups like OWS and its ilk up close and personal for many, many years. The single biggest reason the Left is ineffective is that nobody wants to be subordinate to a plan. It’s all chiefs, no Indians. Even suggest to them that the way they dress and otherwise present themselves is important, and they have fits. They’re all about “self-expression,” you know. I watched this attitude pry the left apart in the 1970s. And I knew almost from the start there would be no effective anti-war movement to push back against Iraq, because of a general disdain for following directions and no consistent leadership.

    So while there may be no logical reason why there can’t be both “participatory democracy” groups and “top down” groups working for causes, it appears that as long as much of the energy and enthusiasm is on the “participatory” side, any other kind of organizing is impossible.

    So, no, I am not supportive. I’m supportive of their issues, yes, but I’m sick and tired of the preciousness and pretentiousness of what amounts to most demonstrations on the Left.

    It would be absolutely wonderful if we could get everybody who is pissed off about Wall Street to hit the streets and march for some kind of reform of the financial sector. And there is no need to have “general assemblies” of semi-informed people trying to reach a consensus of what is to be done. Ideas about what kind of reforms are needed have been brought generated by smart people. No need to re-invent the wheel.

    The question is, how will these reforms be enacted? Especially since the powers that be don’t want them? And the answer is, you need overwhelming public support. You need either that or more money than God, and they’ve got us on the money. So we need the public support.

    And unfortunately, except in very specific circumstances street demonstrations aren’t very good at building public support and can even be counterproductive. As I said earlier, the antiwar movement back in the Vietnam era accomplished nothing but help Richard Nixon, because most people hated the “hippies” more than they hated the war. And note that I was one of those “hippies.” (We called ourselves “freaks,” not “hippies.’)

    I think the Popular Front and the long history of labor provide many more fruitful and varied models for the left to emulate. Even then, formulating new tactics and strategies is always worthwhile.

    OWS isn’t doing anything new, I tell you. It’s all right out of the SDS playbook from the 1960s. Been there, done that. The labor movement was hardly participatory democracy, either. The Popular Front definitely was a top-down organization pretending to not be a top-down organization.

    Having a plan is good. Coming up with a plan is hard. The notion that protesters who are angry at Wall Street might work together to formulate a plan — or multiple plans, through a process of deliberation and debate — seems like a sensible first step to me, though not guaranteed to succeed, and not, despite what you think, guaranteed to fail.

    Oh, we got plans up the wazoo already. The sensible first step is to educate oneself as to what’s already out there.

    You want to organize some kind of congress so people can come together and find a consensus, OK, but I’ve never seen a national mass movement work from consensus, or at least one that didn’t quickly crumble into a mess. The only time mass movements seem to work on a national scale is when they are being directed by a charismatic leader (MLK; Ralph Nader) or steering committee (the suffragettes).

    But basically, you’re asking me to endorse the very behavior that I’ve seen get in the way and keeping us from any kind of effective action for lo these many years. No, I will not.

  45. maha  •  Sep 29, 2011 @2:44 pm

    Taryn –

    Also, the original call to action did not have a goal because this is a democratic movements. If they truly want it to be democratic, the “demand” can;t be chosen ahead of time. As they’ve said they’re formulating their demands through “general assemblies.” I’m not sure how else they could do it and be democratic.

    This has been tried before, by Students for a Democratic Society (1962-1969) and countless spin-off and wannabee groups after that. It doesn’t work. Been there, done that, get over it. The only mass movements that work on a national level are not “democratic.” They are lead by people with vision, and the followers follow.

  46. Lee  •  Sep 29, 2011 @3:07 pm

    Our disagreements are sadly too extensive to address adequately in a comment, but in essence my view is this: lots of things don’t work until they do. Political democracy doesn’t always catch on until it does. Top-down hierarchical organization doesn’t work until it does. Participatory tactics don’t work until they do.

    If failure at an initial stage of the civil rights movement were taken as proof positive that “civil rights movements” don’t work, nothing more would have happened, though I have no doubt that at the time you would have encouraged the movement to stop being so incredibly counterproductive — to be more serious, as you condescendingly imagine yourself to be. Times change. History moves on. Things that were once failures can become successes.

    The Popular Front definitely was a top-down organization pretending to not be a top-down organization.

    Definitely? This statement is flatly wrong. The whole point of the Popular Front was to build alliances between liberals, progressives, communists, and other left groups. The consensus held and was arguably productive, along a range of issues, as long as there was agreement on core issues — say, opposing fascism — but fell apart when consensus failed. You can read Judy Kutulas’s “The Long War” if you want the ugly details. What evidence are you relying on to support your view?

  47. maha  •  Sep 29, 2011 @3:21 pm

    lots of things don’t work until they do

    And after things have already been tried 999 times and failed, does it occur to you that maybe it’s not going to work? Or do you go for 1,000? And what was that definition of insanity again?

    I’ve personally been watching this crap fail for more than forty bleeping years. So excuse my lack of enthusiasm.

    The whole point of the Popular Front was to build alliances between liberals, progressives, communists, and other left groups.

    The Popular Front I know of was conceived in 1935 by the World Congress of the Commitern and implemented through communist party organizations. This was about as grass-roots as Fox News. They did do some good things, such as standing against fascism and re-vitalizing the labor movement. But you are dreaming if you think this was not essentially a top-down effort.

  48. Taryn Hart  •  Sep 29, 2011 @3:30 pm

    So your position is that democratic movements can’t work? I think that’s actually a different position than most of the Left takes. Most of the Left is upset that there are no specific demands, but don’t seem to suggest that democratic movements are necessarily doomed to failure.

    If that is your position, my counter-argument is this: Of course, just because one democratic movement failed, doesn’t mean all democratic movements will fail. Many, many movements with leaders have failed, after all. And we don’t argue based on those failed movements with leaders that therefore, all movements with leaders are doomed to failure. So, you have to do better than to say – democratic movement “X” failed therefore, all democratic movements will fail. There needs to be an argument about why all democratic movements, in your opinion, are doomed to failure.

    Also, I realize you have been there, done that and gotten over it – but these are young people. When young people are trying something – with all the earnestness at their command – the Left should celebrate that and, to the extent they can, assist. I disagree that this is the same old stuff – these people are too young for that. And the truth is – for a bunch of dumb kids – they’re doing pretty good.

    http://www.crainsnewyork.com/article/20110929/FINANCE/110929865

    Rather than deride them, our best thinkers on the Left should be trying to focus them, help them where possible and encourage them. Of course, you don’t have to agree with everything – no one will – but it’s possible to be constructive, even if you think they’re young and foolish.

    What could they do to improve? What would you like to see? Do you have any ideas for demands?

    If it turns out to be more significant than you thought I think you can weigh in on these things even if you don’t agree with everything the Occupiers are doing.

    Taryn

  49. Lee  •  Sep 29, 2011 @3:32 pm

    Forty bleeping years! Forty bleeping years in which more has been accomplished in the domain of, say, women’s rights than the rest of the history of civilization. I suggest you adopt longer views on the history of political, social, and cultural change.

    But you are dreaming if you think this was not essentially a top-down effort.

    To be clear, I cited a book that would very much trouble your narrative of the Popular Front if you read it. The Front was in fact a real alliance that depended on the consensus of its constituent parts. It was in a sense a top down effort but also much more than a top-down effort. It did not survive the breakdown of that consensus.

    Please excuse me if the “Popular Front [you] know” seems to me to be derived from your perusal of Wikipedia.

    Anyway, I’ve had my say here. I don’t really know that I have more to add or that further discussion will be productive.

  50. maha  •  Sep 29, 2011 @3:38 pm

    Taryn Hart — I’m not going to debate this with you. I am getting on in years and I have seen people try “participatory democracy” more times than I can count, since I started getting interested in causes more than 40 years ago, and inevitably unfocused “democratic” movements like this eat a lot of time and energy and then fall apart. SDS actually took it as far as anybody ever has and were a genuinely huge organization for a while, but I can’t think of a single thing they accomplished. Well, except elect Richard Nixon, but that wasn’t something they intended to do.

    If you want to waste your time go ahead, but it saddens me to see people make the same mistakes over and over and not learn anything.

  51. maha  •  Sep 29, 2011 @3:48 pm

    Forty bleeping years! Forty bleeping years in which more has been accomplished in the domain of, say, women’s rights than the rest of the history of civilization. I suggest you adopt longer views on the history of political, social, and cultural change.

    Second wave feminism didn’t start out as a “democratic” movement, but one led by a handful of leaders — Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, etc. And, frankly, most of its accomplishments came early, through civil rights legislation in the 1960s (some of which was piggy-backed onto legislation for racial minorities) and affirmative action in the early 1970s. Oh, and Roe v. Wade, 1973. And that was pretty much the end of it. The feminist movement had splintered to pieces by 1975 or so, and was pretty much was dead in the water after the Equal Rights Amendment failed to pass.

    And, dude, I know this because I was there.

    And most of what caused the feminist movement to crack apart was this “participatory democracy” crap. I saw this with my own tired eyes. So thanks for providing another example to prove I’m right.

    Re the Popular Front — I am a long-time history nerd. I don’t need your book or Wikipedia. I’m right. You have no idea what you are talking about. Now, go away.

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