Sunday, October 23, 2011


Let me start with a prejudice that caught me right from the start with OWS. It's this 99% thing. It may be only a PR mistake on their part, but I suspect it is actually an attitude problem that is revealing itself in this catch-phrase. I get the point that they are trying to make, that it is a very small group of people who are ripping off the decent Americans, who may have their differences but should be able to get together and just fix this. They don't want to be opposed to everyone, they just want to alert us to the real enemy, and lead us to a solution.

In political matters, I have three immediate associations with that. First, 99% is how much of the vote dictators get in sham elections. Even if they were elected semi-reasonably the first time around, as they remain in power, the number climbs to insane percentages. It is a clear sign that the opposition is being suppressed and the nation is crazy. Secondly, this world-view that says that everything would go along smoothly if it weren't for a few evil people (plus their dupes, who may be more numerous) is a mark of paranoid thinking. The tendency to think like this precedes the identification of who those conspirators are. Thirdly, in the bad old days of communism, leftist groups would claim to be speaking for, and to represent, ever-expanding circles of the rest of the population. They represented The People. And they believed it. Those people who disagreed were people who just didn't understand and needed things explained to them; then they were dupes and agents of the oppressors; finally, they were the oppressors, and needed to be dead. This happened repeatedly. I don't think that the typical OWS protestor is anything like this. But I do worry two things: there are people among them who do indeed think like this, who will say so right out loud; secondly, the gentle, innocent people really do believe that they represent the 99% in some ways. They are not halfway to violence, but they are more than halfway to accepting one of the key arguments of the violent people. Worrisome.

You may say that they really don't believe this, but well, that's what they say. We, the 99%... What are we supposed to think? If challenged, I'm sure they have enough reasonable people on board at present to allow that no, of course not, we don't really's just that the 1%...(list of unfair and bad things follows). Well, then - don't say 99% just because it sounds cool to you. Because my contention is that it sounds cool to you for some very bad reasons you haven't recognised yet.

I will politely at least allow that it is just a PR mistake, and the number of people for whom this reveals some unattractive motives is actually quite small.

The Commentary Proper

If you pick up a newspaper or a magazine, or catch the interviews on NPR, you will come away with the impression that the OWS protestors around the country are mostly nice, frustrated young people who can't find good enough jobs, have a lot of student loan debt, and feel that something has gone fundamentally wrong with America. They believe, in the main, that corporate America, corporatism, and/or corporations, are cheating the rest of us, getting rich despite the difficulties others have. They are sure - as many Americans of divergent political beliefs have said for years - that there are lots of millionaires who pay no taxes. They contrast this with the people who they know, who don't have enough.

If you read conservative news sites, you will see an emphasis on OWS protestors saying stupid things, engaging in criminal acts, attracting nutcases and undesirables, or other negatives. Both are true, and many other slants could also be true, in that they highlight real people who are actually on site. A lot of this is still inchoate at present.

In the mainstream op-eds, there is a lot of energy being put into two narratives: One, that some people are gaming the system, darn it, and a lot of 'em are corporate and Wall St types. Even though these young people may not have all the details right and are unrealistic and overidealistic, they are essentially right about that, and we should listen to them. Their hearts are in the right place, and they are willing to make sacrifices and state their opinions, and we should be glad; the second narrative is that OWS is a lot like the Tea Party, really. The evidence for this is usually that they are both popular movements with a lot of regular people in them, that they both think America has gone wrong, and they are, they're both protests. Happening now.

Narrative One: Yes, I suppose if you think Down With Unfairness is the political POV that your people have a corner on, and the OWS protestors are against unfairness, then I can see why you would think that they've basically almost got it, and just need a little steering, and they'll be fine. This is essentially what Obama has said as well. In my view, that's essentially what American liberalism is anyway, so the MSM approval is hardly surprising. Conservatives get all bent out of shape claiming that Obama, or Democrats, or liberals are really socialists/communists, but I think that's overdrawn. We can't even make a good tough-minded socialist these days, but have all these milk-and-water versions running around. Where it turns nasty is the rather juvenile conclusion that if you disagree with them, you must therefore be in favor of unfairness.

Narrative Two: Yes, and a horse is like a fish, because they are both animals. And they have two eyes and a mouth. And you can eat some fish, and sometimes people have eaten horses. And sometimes horses go into the water. And hoof and fin both have an "f" in them. So they are pretty much the same thing, sure.

There is actually one very good connection, that both groups would come down strongly against what we would call Crony Capitalism. They might not define it quite the same way, and they might order the queue for who goes first to the public stocks somewhat, but that piece they would agree on. Other than that, I'm not seeing much similarity, and I have to wonder if the people claiming it are that unobservant, or if their is some deeper manipulation happening here.

An OWS supporter of my acquaintance sent me the link to this group, the 99% Declaration, which includes a lot of references to 99% Declaration Working Groups. I have no idea if these people are major players or just one more group in the mix, vying to have their voice heard above the noise. But I grant that this group is attempting to act reasonably, and come up with a program, invite others to discuss, work in the standard American tradition of debate and rhetoric. What they put forward is pretty much just the liberal wish list of the last forty years, but it's merely misguided, not insane. An example:
5. A Fair Tax Code. A complete reformation of the United States Tax Code to require ALL citizens to pay a fair share of a progressive, graduated income tax by eliminating loopholes, unfair tax breaks, exemptions and deductions, subsidies (e.g. oil, gas and farm) and ending all other methods of evading taxes. The current system of taxation favors the wealthiest Americans, many of whom pay fewer taxes to the United States Treasury than citizens who earn much less and pay a much higher percentage of income in taxes to the United States Treasury. We, like Warren Buffet, find this income tax disparity to be fundamentally unjust.
Do they mean this Warren Buffet? This Warren Buffet? Also, we have this generic "fairness" going again. They are sure it's all unfair somehow, and factoids will satisfy.

There are darker elements at work, worth noting. There's no indication the average earnest couple in a tent on Dewey Square approves of this, or offers any encouragement to it. What is known is that this gangster/threatening/criminal stuff happens and no one denounces it from inside. I say no one - that's unfair, there may be some I don't know about. No one gets up and says "That's enough, I'm leaving, that's not what I'm here for." Contrast this to Tea Party Rallies, where nutcases were actively discouraged or shunned. There were constant claims there were racists and dangerous folk underneath the respectable disguise, but evidence for this was elusive. Here at Occupy Boston we have evidence and no one cares. No trial, no defense, just a self-appointed Committee Of Revolutionary Justice punishing the offenders.


karrde said...

That Revolutionary Committee thing is scary.

And the talk about fairness feels like it has a trap-door in it. If the wealth of the 1% is re-appropriated fairly, and the problems of the economic world continue...will people then begin talking about the top 5%?

I'm personally fairly safe, even though I'm in the top 50% (and likely also in the top 30%). But still...a guy's got to wonder.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Well, that's what I called them. They didn't name themselves that. I think the hacker group calls itself Anonymous.

Der Hahn said...

The 'trapdoor' is pretty much revealed in that statement on taxation. Notice that the claim is all (even capitizalized so you won't miss it) citizens should pay income tax but they miss that in our current system somewhere around 50% of all income taxes are collected from that "1%" they keep complaining about while around half of all potential taxpayers don't pay anything.

Texan99 said...

I tend to view the "fairness" of a tax code in terms of how close we are to the ideal of each citizen paying roughly the same amount of tax. The way OWS enthusiasts use the term, it refers to how close we are to the ideal of each citizen being allowed to retain roughly the same amount of after-tax income.

One approach sees some useful government services and tries to apportion the cost of them equally across the population. The other sees the purpose of taxes as the redistribution of wealth and income.

Ben Wyman said...

I've been most annoyed by Narrative 2: that the OWS movement is like the Tea Party movement. The underlying idea, boiled down to its simplest, is that "Conservatives like the Tea Party but hate OWS, but since they're essentially the same thing, Conservatives should show OWS the same respect that they give the Tea Party."

What's remarkable about this is how quickly the Tea Party narrative was rewritten to fit the need. How short are our memories? When was the Tea Party given all this mythical respect?

Support of the Tea Party on the Right ranged from passionate backing through vague indifference and all the way to extreme distrust. The Tea Party movement has been mostly viewed with general disdain by the Left. There were a great deal of snide comments and joking from most Leftist bloggers and pundits.

But now that the OWS movement exists, refusal from the Right to support it shows narrow-mindedness?

Wouldn't the reverse be true, then? If someone was in favor of OWS, they'd also be fans of the Tea Party? How many people is that true for.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Well, you have to understand that the Tea Party was just a rough draft by extremely ignorant people of what is wrong with America. what they were really trying to say is...