The Magazine

Occupational Therapy

A movement custom-designed to hurt liberals.

Dec 19, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 14 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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"God, I love ’em,” wrote Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post not long after the glorious dawning of Occupy Wall Street, saying that the protests “arise at just the right moment and are aimed at just the right target” to grow into something quite big. Apparently, the stench from McPherson Square (the Washington, D.C., equivalent of Zuccotti Park in Manhattan) had not yet wafted the two blocks north to the Post building, for he was back a week later to praise it again, along with his stablemate E.J. Dionne and many other liberals who read into the Occupy movement numerous virtues that never existed, while wholly ignoring the vices that are only too real. And why would these clean, polite, well-mannered people, for whom an overdue library book would most likely seem like a major infraction, embrace a collection of ne’er-do-wells who are causing a public-health crisis in the midst of their city? Because they and the rest of the left are desperate for any kind of jolt to jump-start their party, which has been in a coma since the air seeped out of Obamamania sometime in 2009.

Photo of Occupy Wall Street protestor being hauled off by police

Order meets disorder: Wall Street, November 17.

NEWSCOM

So what if the occupiers have no idea what they want, and no plans for getting it? “Liberals need a tea party, damn it,” writes Jonah Goldberg, and thus “have embraced the movement in principle with the understanding that they’ll worry about the details later, if at all.” For similar reasons, labor and assorted left-wing organizations are also circling, hoping to connect to the “99 percent” the occupiers say they are speaking for. They hope to repeat the success of the civil rights and the Tea Party movements. But there are reasons this may not work out.

The problem with Occupy is that it involves occupation, which gets it off to a very bad start. The Tea Party asked people to show up for a few hours on weekends, march, listen to speeches, perhaps call upon members of Congress, pick up their trash, and go home. Occupy by contrast asks people to leave their homes (should they have them) and live in a tent in a park for an indefinite period, for goals that are hard to explain. 

What kind of people move into a tent for an indefinite period? Those without strong connections to professions or to other people, without obligations, routines, and responsibilities; without children or clients or jobs. This self-selects against the 90 percent of the population that is productive and grounded, that supports itself and works hard, not to mention the part of the population that votes. Even before the camps were heavily infiltrated by homeless and/or criminal elements, the composition was tilted to those on the fringes, frequently by choice as well as necessity, which made it more like a cultural event such as Woodstock than like the Depression-age Hoovervilles, which were peopled largely by those who once had middle-class standing and were then down on their luck. 

In the Nation magazine and the Washington Post, Richard Kim and Philip Kennicott waxed ecstatic at the supposed beauty of the camps and their free-flowing style as breaking new ground in urban aesthetics, an Architectural Digest of out-of-doors life. Kim hailed it as an exercise in utopian living. Kennicott called it an aesthetic and social experiment whose “anti-consumerist ethos .  .  . make[s] it a direct heir of the Situationists, a radical European avant-garde collective begun in the late 1950s with ideas that remain influential today.” In New York, Kim found the movement largely consisting of artists, actors, and hipsters who were less concerned with political action than with “creating the dizzying life-world that has distinguished the movement as a cultural as well as political force.”

The political part appears open to question, as the protesters seemed to have no grasp at all of market forces, and seemed to demand the right to do what one wants and be recompensed for it, whether a demand for one’s product exists or not. Katie Davison quit her job filming fashion shoots to make a documentary about inequality and is annoyed by the need to take more jobs to fund it. Joe Therrien left his job as a public school teacher with tenure and benefits to spend three years and $35,000 to get a master of fine arts in puppetry only to discover there were no jobs in puppetry and his old school would only hire him as an untenured substitute, working the same hours for half his old pay. 

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