Before I go into this rant let me reiterate that I am with these protests in mind and spirit. Things are bad in America and our world on all fronts, and drastic, coordinated action is necessary. But let’s delve into process…
I’ve been had before.
It was the Summer of 2008 and Obama fever was running high. The young intellectual, measured in his thinking and radical in his hopes for what we as a country could achieve, was storming across the country, and I sped five hours to Las Vegas with a few friends to canvas for him. I felt my life changed when I got to stand twenty feet from him at a surprise rally. This was a man who was going to Fix Things™.
I don’t blame Obama for what happened next; I blame my high expectations. Initial cynicism at his campaign was countered at each turn by friends’ assurances that he was really going to make change. Not only was he going to fix our economic woes, he was also going to help America transcend itself above politics and into a new realm of caring about each other. My view changed when I allowed myself to believe that we could change everything, not just one at a time and half a step back – that we no longer had to slog through the endless layers of red tape designed to protect the status quo; that a charasmatic leader who was not afraid to stand up and simply be right, who could stand on his own and live by the peoples’ agreement with his ideas, could conquer what we had previously feared.
I turned out to be wrong, of course. Heroes live in our minds, but if they are real people they must slog through the world with at least some of the limits that the rest of us face: change is hard, there is always resistance, sometimes you must choose between goals or even choose the lesser of two awfuls, and even when some things seem universally clear, in execution they shatter into a million points of disagreement.
So here I stand again, contemplating another (much less enthusiastic) vote for Obama, who has shown himself to be, as most choices one picks, the lesser of two doubtfuls. And then this movement.
I see the arguments for being goalless and leaderless
There are facts that we can agree on: income inequality and unemployment scrape the top of the charts while corporate profits do the same; education is failing us and so is our social safety net. That the problems are so vast and varied, scattered all over the map, seems to justify a broad and unfocused movement: how could one group possibly make a list of demands when there are so many ills? Where would anybody start? Fracking, global warming, police brutality, net neutrality. It’s no wonder people want to get rid of the system and start anew. And if the movement becomes simply a list of demands, stealthy corporations could too easily co-opt, infiltrate, and advertise. The only way to really make a movement resistant to experts in advertising and corporate branding may be to make it completely anticorporate and anarchistic.
And I recognize some arguments for a leaderless movement. It belongs to the people, not to any one specific person or agenda. Having leadership is dangerous – it means special interests, self-motivation. Our YouTube generation does not believe in privileged information or a privileged point of view. We believe that people can be shut down, discredited, hacked—that only ideas can live in purity. We believe in the hegemony of the everyone.
Today, in the throngs outside Times Square, realizing that a sea of protesters had taken the sacred bastion of all things corporate, I allowed myself for a moment to dare to believe that generalized frustration over everything was going to promote generalized action on every level. That caring enough was really all that we needed to do.
But tonight I remembered…
We went to Zucotti Park, looking forward to getting involved in some interesting conversations. The park felt immediately like home: thousands of people in a small square, camping in sleeping bags and giving out free food, smiling and talking and drumming. We spoke to a policewoman and policeman who seemed cheery and asked where we got our chicken wings. We took photos of some signs.
I walked to a large group of people, blocked by a makeshift wall with a table covered in laptops. They were blogging away, editing with Final Cut Pro, and browsing Twitter. A sign had the words scrawled on it: “Media section. Do not enter. Occupiers only, not corporate media.” I was a bit confused – was the sign trying to keep me out, make a point, or what? I walked in anyways, getting into a conversation with a filmmaker who was documenting the event and wanted my help. I was then approached by a man who asked me if I was media. “What do you mean, media?” I asked…a reasonable question in a movement that declares it is for and by everyone, that everyone has equal say and no claim to leadership over anyone else. I was told that having a blog did not qualify me as media; that if I wanted to count as media, I would have to attend a media leadership training the next day, and until then I would have to leave.
Not wanting to start a fight, I walked out of the media section. I regret not standing my ground, because the bitter taste of the interaction brought me to leave the park. Did this mean that I could start my own corner of the park for “Class B organizers,” entry contingent on attending one of my trainings? I went online and found this on the internet:
“As I tried walking into the media area, which is portioned off with a three foot wall of suitcases, tarps, and containers, a man with “security” printed across his shirt stopped me. After I gave my details, I stepped through the narrow opening. Most of the members of Occupy Wall Street’s media team were in a meeting, I was told, one that I would not be allowed to sit in on.”
It wasn’t the personal offense of being kicked out; it was the sting that once again, I had been had by a movement.
Only a month into a movement that considers itself leaderless, egalitarian, and anarchistic, having a section of the “people’s park” cordoned off and restricted is not a good thing. It points to deep flaws in the idealism that made such a concept seem feasible. I am sure there are practical reasons for this security team (laptops are liable to get stolen,) but what disturbs me is that this and every other haphazard concession to practicality will chip away at the above-mentioned ideals. This egalitarianism will be lost long before its intellectual bankruptcy (forgive the pun) is laid bare and acknowledged.
A movement cannot be transparent, just like a person cannot be self-aware, if it does not acknowledge blatant truths. Anarchy doesn’t work. Income disparity will always exist to some extent. Destroying a system rather than working with it (at least to some extent) is extremely dangerous, and very few people in history has shown themselves to be good at that. Change is difficult, and it requires a vision of an alternate future. If the vision is yet to be formed, we need a roadmap to the vision. And the greatest truth: not everybody can be represented in every element of this movement. Like a clever politician, the movement has allowed each member to see him or herself in it; but like any politician, its true test will come when it is asked to actually make a decision.
This leaderlessness and goallessness seem to be ultimately destructive, which saddens me because I really, really want to see something done about everything ailing our country. Anarchy is not a viable means of government, because people need rules to survive. The challenges to organizing and collating and involving millions of voices are tremendous, but they can’t be sidestepped if all our power is to truly be harnessed.
I predict that the colder the weather gets, the more sharply the movement will gain focus. Leaders will emerge, and “nobody’s in charge” will turn into “nobody’s in charge, but this guy knows a lot about what’s going on” and then to “talk to this guy,” if indeed the movement continues. A blanket distrust of all institution will give way to more specific demands. I just hope that this process is not haphazard – that it is directed cognizantly, that great minds are utilized to concoct a master plan, that is also crowdsourced for a further brilliance that revolutions have never had before.
And for right now.. well, maybe it’s time to attend a media training so I can learn how to blog.