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Occupy the Washington Post

From The Scrapbook

Nov 21, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 10 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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For those who wonder why American newspapers find themselves in such perilous condition, The Scrapbook recommends a look at the November 10, 2011, Style section of the Washington Post

Picture of the Washington Post report on Occupy DC

The front page is almost entirely consumed with a bird’s-eye view of McPherson Square in Washington, site of one of the “Occupy D.C.” encampments, complete with careful identification of renamed sidewalks​—​Che Guevara Avenue, Angela Davis Avenue, etc.​—​and minute annotations of its various components: “The chess tent [where] after dark the ‘de-escalation team’ deploys from here to settle conflicts,” “Camp Malcolm [X], formerly Camp Awesome,” the Drum Circle, People’s Kitchen, Chair Massage, Safe Space, and solar panels.

Two inside pages are given over to detailed descriptions of the camp’s various features: A library tent with “a collection as broad as its movement” features titles like The Progressive’s Guide to Raising Hell. The “camp medic keeps his eye on public health”​—​although Pietro, devoid of surname as well as medical training, tells the Post, “I personally am opposed to vaccines.” There is even an encampment newspaper, titled (to the Post’s delight) the Occupied Washington Times, after one of the Post’s competitors. 

The Scrapbook should explain, at this point, that the Occupy D.C. encampment on McPherson Square, a few blocks north of the White House, is pretty much as readers might imagine it to be: a motley assortment of homeless, aging hippies, college anarchists, suburban radicals, schizophrenics, and guys who line up for free food. Campers have descended on political gatherings around town, assaulting little old ladies and blocking traffic at will, and even driving McPherson Square’s resident family of mallard ducks to distraction. Not to put too fine a point on it, the smell is discernible a block away, and small children are living in tents as the weather descends to the freezing point. And yet, as with Occupy Wall Street in Manhattan, the civic fathers in the nation’s capital seem inclined to permit this unlawful encampment on public property​—​an appropriation of a much-appreciated urban refuge in downtown Washington​—​to continue indefinitely.

If readers of The Scrapbook guessed that the Post had chronicled Occupy D.C. in order to lampoon it, or to draw attention to its more disturbing aspects, guess again. The Style package featured a long essay by Philip Kennicott, cultural critic for the paper, who has nothing but admiration to report: The commune is a hopeful symptom of the new urbanism, he explains, and has accomplished “what so many planners, designers and architects strive for but fail to achieve: They have ‘activated’ the urban core.”

Its anti-consumerist ethos, its impatience with the media and its love of theatrical intervention in city life make it a direct heir of the Situationists, a radical European avant-garde collective begun in the late 1950s with ideas that remain influential today.

And so on. 

The Scrapbook begs to differ. The urban core around McPherson Square has been exceedingly “activated” for decades, situated as it is in the middle of the city (not far from the Post headquarters, as it happens), and full of office workers, merchants, churches, restaurants, and structures of various sizes, styles, and dimensions. It may be unfortunate to some that the neighborhood has not been activated in accordance with the principles of the Situationists; but the blunt fact is that its longtime residents and denizens are not especially keen on the “theatrical intervention” of these hostile strangers in their midst. 

Indeed, The Scrapbook is half-tempted to assemble a few fellow ex-subscribers to the paper and stage a “theatrical intervention” in the Post newsroom, or perhaps at Philip Kennicott’s residence, in accordance with Occupy D.C. practice.

Which leads to a final inquiry: Who, in the editorial/managerial hierarchy of the Washington Post, could possibly have imagined that this celebration of the odious, malodorous, and deliberately obnoxious Occupy movement would appeal to the taxpaying citizens of Metropolitan Washington, who must contend with its unwelcome presence, and might actually be tempted to purchase their newspaper? The Post and its parent company recently suffered an unprecedented decline in circulation and income. Is there any mystery why?

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