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Wailing Wall Street: What the Wits Say

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Cornel West at Occupy L.A. (Photo: Tony Zinnanti)

As Occupy Wall Street approaches its one-month anniversary, protest zones have been spontaneously set up from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. Familiar bylines in America’s newspapers and on its blogs have, accordingly, been trying to explain the events.

1. The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg tries, in this week’s Talk of the Town opener (“A Walk in the Park”), not to sound too much taken in by the spirit of the protest, while at the same time acknowledging the charm of its spontaneity: “They’re making it up on the fly. They don’t really know where it will take them, and they like it that way. Occupy Wall Street is a political project, but it is equally a cri de coeur, an exercise in constructive group dynamics, a release from isolation, resignation, and futility. The process, not the platform, is the point. Anyway, [it] is not the Brookings Institution.”

Whew! Then, straightening his tie and putting his Responsible Adult coat back on, Hertzberg winds down his piece on a rather Kipling-esque note: “If Occupy Wall Street can continue to behave with nonviolent restraint, if it can avoid hijack by a flaky fringe, if it can shake the center-left out of its funk, if it can embolden Democratic politicians . . . then preoccupied Main Street will truly owe [it].”

2. Writing on the L.A. Times’ op-ed page (“Occupy Wall Street: The New Populists?”), political author Christopher Ketcham recently disagreed with the notion that the Occupy movement’s goals and actions are vague and unfocused.

“They’re sleeping in tents,” Ketcham writes, “sharing food, communicating by social media and participating in what their website calls a nonviolent, “leaderless resistance movement” to denounce ‘the greed and corruption of the 1%.’ They hold signs that say, ‘People not profit’ and ‘Populism not corporate fascism.’ It doesn’t get a lot more specific than that.”

After discussing the particulars of New York’s faltering economy and the expansion of its homeless population, Ketcham searches for a historical parallel for the Occupy movement – and finds it in late-19th-century American populism and the People’s Party that sprang from it. Less concerned than Hertzberg about the modern populists being diverted by a flaky fringe, Ketcham nevertheless leaves open questions of the movement’s staying power: “[W]ill their numbers increase, or will their resolve fizzle in the histrionics of street theater? Will they organize or merely proselytize? Most important, can they move enough of today’s silent majority — 99 Percenters all — off the sidelines and into the fray?”

3. Economist and U.C., Berkeley prof Robert Reich wonders, rhetorically, if the Occupiers could pose a Left response to the Tea Party movement. “Maybe,” Reich writes on his blog. “But there are reasons for doubting it.”

Reich’s doubts are not ground in pessimism about the protesters,, however, as he then outlines how the Tea Partiers have become more of a headache for the Republican Party than a boon. After nicely sketching how the Democratic Party has gone from embracing both populism and Keynesianism to holding them both at arm’s length, Reich concludes that deep down Democrats would rather not have anything to do with the Occupiers. Even though the protesters’ “inchoate demand that the rich pay their fair share is tailor-made for the Democrats’ new plan for a 5.6 percent tax on millionaires,” Reich says, “. . . the modern Democratic Party is not likely to embrace left-wing populism the way the GOP has embraced – or, more accurately, been forced to embrace – right-wing populism.”

4. Only last week the New York Times was covering Occupy Wall Street by devoting entire articles to the inconvenience the protesters were causing neighborhood sandwich-shop owners. While the nation’s paper of record has since begun to take the now-national demonstrations against corporate greed more seriously, the Times continues to prove that Old Media is still providing space on its opinion pages for commentators to rain sarcasm on the new movement’s parade. In “The Milquetoast Radicals,” the Times house conservative, David Brooks, wastes three paragraphs before getting to the subject of his piece, Occupy Wall Street. “If there is a core theme to the Occupy Wall Street movement,” he writes, “it is that the virtuous 99 percent of society is being cheated by the richest and greediest 1 percent. This is a theme that allows the people in the 99 percent to think very highly of themselves. All their problems are caused by the nefarious elite.”

After delivering these mots justes, Brooks turns serious. If Hendrik Hertzberg reached for his Responsible Adult jacket, then Brooks dresses up in an entire – well, Brooks Brothers suit of respectability.  “The thing about the current moment,” he continues, “is that the moderates in suits are much more radical than the pierced anarchists camping out on Wall Street or the Tea Party-types.” Ouch! After a few more paragraphs of this kind of stuff, it’s no surprise to find Brooks claiming, “The most radical people today are the ones that look the most boring.” Serious people, y’know. Like David Brooks.

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