Why "Occupy Wall Street" Critics Are More Clueless Than the Protesters

Last Updated Sep 29, 2011 10:24 AM EDT

Henry Blodget purports to have no idea what the "Occupy Wall Street" protestors in Manhattan's Liberty Plaza really want. The NYT and other major media outlets are equally baffled, characterizing the movement as rudderless or downright loony. Even Mother Jones, the lefty pub named after a famous 19th century labor organizer, sniffs at what it describes as the demonstrators' feckless "posturing."
Do tell. Such critiques say far more about the media's discomfort with popular dissent than about the dissent itself, let alone the public fury animating it. In fact, there is nothing particularly mysterious about what the protesters are asking for even if their demands aren't spelled out in ways that newspaper editors tend to like (note to rabble-rousers -- try bullet points next time).

Occupy Wall Street declares its mission straight out: to "restore democracy in America." The group also wants to end "the influence money has over our representatives in Washington." Presumably, the young women who were pepper-sprayed by a New York City policeman this week want the ability to exercise their constitutional rights without getting temporarily blinded. Other protestors simply want a chance:
"I used to a have great construction job, and (now) I can't find a job for more than $10 a hour," said Brandon Szalay, 28, from Boulder, Colo. "I can pay my rent, but I can't buy my groceries and I can't pay my electric bill. It's not good. I've got all sorts of skills, but they tell me I'm either overqualified or underqualified."
Here's what someone else at the rally wants:
My home has been seized, I'm unemployed, there's no job prospects on the horizon. I have two children and I don't see a future for them.
And they smell!
Gee, seems straightforward enough -- decent work and a future for their kids. And maybe, just maybe such aspirations are under threat these days from the mounting corporate clout in Washington, as Republican leaders abandon all pretense of representing average Americans and as President Obama surrounds himself with emissaries from Wall Street.

Does our media, its fingers pressed as ever to the country's pulse, really need such testimonies to draw a link between the harm inflicted on the U.S. economy by large financial firms, by the torrent of corporate dollars into our politics, and the economic fate of millions of Americans? Dumb question. Of course they don't. Journalists (and even the odd financial pundit) understand such connections all too well. News Corp. (NWS), the company that made the Tea Party, has assigned an entire TV network to exploiting such public outrage.

But comprehending these political and socioeconomic forces isn't the same thing as confronting them. That leaves Blodget's rag, Business Insider, free to focus not on the Occupy Wall Street protesters' message, but on their apparent lack of hygiene. Julia La Roche writes:
[A] bunch of the protesters confessed to me that they have not showered since the start of the movement. In my opinion, the smell is extremely pungent. And the camp site is littered with trash, cardboard and garbage bags piled up.
Populism in this formulation is framed not only as figuratively dirty -- it must literally stink. All those gross hippies packed into a little park! Journalistic "objectivity," by contrast, is a freshly pressed skirt. And what about the vectors of privilege and power fusing together Wall Street and Capitol Hill -- how does that smell?

Underwear sniffers
It isn't only the business press that blur their eyes in scrutinizing Occupy Wall Street's complaints, that turn away revolted at the merest whiff of revolution. For instance, the NYT's banner story about the demonstration last weekend wasn't by one of its metro-desk reporters, but by cultural critic Ginia Bellafante.

Unsurprisingly, she focuses on the atmospherics at Zuccotti Park, seizing on the sight of a protester's "cotton underwear" (sure it wasn't rayon?) as evidence of the group's "intellectual vacuum." Bellafante also professes confusion about their aims, claiming that Occupy Wall Street's cause is "virtually impossible to decipher." She, too, can't resist getting in a dig:
The group's lack of cohesion and its apparent wish to pantomime progressivism rather than practice it knowledegeably is unsettling in the face of the challenges so many of its generation face -- finding work, repaying student loans, figuring out ways to finish college when money has run out.
Bellafante is entitled to her personal distaste for Occupy Wall Street. But for the Times to use its megaphone to disparage the movement's tactics as somehow inauthentic isn't just to engage in inappropriate editorializing -- it also shows a deep ignorance of the history of American progressivism, where wild-and-woolly protest has been the norm for well over a century.

As Abbie Hoffman, himself a famous director of absurdist theater in his day, once said, "Never impose your language on people you wish to reach." And would Bellafante have so glibly ridiculed the "Bonus Marchers," I wonder, the World War I vets who descended on Washington in 1932 to demand payment Congress had previously granted them (and some of whom were killed for their troubles)?

Send in the clowns
"News" often amounts to its own kind of dissimulation, of course. Yet the bias on display in such articles isn't simply a case of sloppy language. It reflects how many in the commentariat really think. As a result, caricaturing the Occupy Wall Streeters as smelly, incoherent buffoons isn't merely to diminish their message -- it is to stage a counter-revolution.

The aim? To reinforce the existing arrangements of power that, among other things, have tended to erode the media's impulse (never very strong, it's worth noting) to undress the powerful. These "jerry-built modes of thought," as historian Lawrence Goodwyn, a leading scholar of the progressive movement, called them in "The Populist Moment,"
... have served to help protect traditional elites by strewing complicated psychological and emotional roadblocks in the path of those with unsanctioned but relatively thoughtful innovations. So pervasive have been these habits of thought that established hierarchies have tended to be defended as venerable repositories of good sense when they are, in fact, merely powerful and orderly.

A complementary presumption is that insurgent movements are nonsensical.
That presumption is starkly evident in much of the coverage of Occupy Wall Street. Yet it also highlights the group's -- and any mass movement's -- power: to unite people in a common experience and a common tongue. In this case, that experience often means being out of work for years. It means losing your home. For most of us, it may mean watching our kids lose their grip on the economic ladder. Surely financial insecurity is something we can all understand.

So what does Occupy Wall Street want? You're a smart guy, Henry. Figure it out.

Thumbnail by David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons, CC 2.0; photo of signs by Charles Wilbanks

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