It was so refreshing to see Matt Taibbi adjust his analysis of Occupy Wall Street. In this article, from November 10, he confesses that he misunderstood OWS. He probably needed to make his confession, because he came out with an earlier article, on October 12, pleading with OWS to quickly get a “concrete message.” At first Taibbi was worried that OWS would fail to get to get the attention of Lloyd Blankfein, but his thinking evolved and he has learned to stop worrying:
That’s what I was thinking during the first few weeks of the protests. But I’m beginning to see another angle. Occupy Wall Street was always about something much bigger than a movement against big banks and modern finance. It’s about providing a forum for people to show how tired they are not just of Wall Street, but everything. This is a visceral, impassioned, deep-seated rejection of the entire direction of our society, a refusal to take even one more step forward into the shallow commercial abyss of phoniness, short-term calculation, withered idealism and intellectual bankruptcy that American mass society has become. If there is such a thing as going on strike from one’s own culture, this is it. And by being so broad in scope and so elemental in its motivation, it’s flown over the heads of many on both the right and the left.
It seems that part of Taibbi’s initial concern arose from premonitions that the corporate media would quickly begin the work of twisting, warping and mischaracterizing everything about OWS. Taibbi hilariously describes some of those efforts:
The protesters, chirped Supreme Reichskank Ann Coulter, needed three things: “showers, jobs and a point.” Her colleague Charles Krauthammer went so far as to label the protesters hypocrites for having iPhones. OWS, he said, is “Starbucks-sipping, Levi’s-clad, iPhone-clutching protesters [denouncing] corporate America even as they weep for Steve Jobs, corporate titan, billionaire eight times over.” Apparently, because Goldman and Citibank are corporations, no protester can ever consume a corporate product – not jeans, not cellphones and definitely not coffee – if he also wants to complain about tax money going to pay off some billionaire banker’s bets against his own crappy mortgages.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the political spectrum, there were scads of progressive pundits like me who wrung our hands with worry that OWS was playing right into the hands of assholes like Krauthammer. Don’t give them any ammunition! we counseled. Stay on message! Be specific! We were all playing the Rorschach-test game with OWS, trying to squint at it and see what we wanted to see in the movement. Viewed through the prism of our desire to make near-term, within-the-system changes, it was hard to see how skirmishing with cops in New York would help foreclosed-upon middle-class families in Jacksonville and San Diego.
What both sides missed is that OWS is tired of all of this. They don’t care what we think they’re about, or should be about. They just want something different.
And then Taibbi gets to the heart of his thinking:
If you think of it this way, Occupy Wall Street takes on another meaning. There’s no better symbol of the gloom and psychological repression of modern America than the banking system, a huge heartless machine that attaches itself to you at an early age, and from which there is no escape. You fail to receive a few past-due notices about a $19 payment you missed on that TV you bought at Circuit City, and next thing you know a collector has filed a judgment against you for $3,000 in fees and interest. Or maybe you wake up one morning and your car is gone, legally repossessed by Vulture Inc., the debt-buying firm that bought your loan on the Internet from Chase for two cents on the dollar. This is why people hate Wall Street. They hate it because the banks have made life for ordinary people a vicious tightrope act; you slip anywhere along the way, it’s 10,000 feet down into a vat of razor blades that you can never climb out of.
That, to me, is what Occupy Wall Street is addressing. People don’t know exactly what they want, but as one friend of mine put it, they know one thing: FUCK THIS SHIT! We want something different: a different life, with different values, or at least a chance at different values.
There was a lot of snickering in media circles, even by me, when I heard the protesters talking about how Liberty Square was offering a model for a new society, with free food and health care and so on. Obviously, a bunch of kids taking donations and giving away free food is not a long-term model for a new economic system.
But now, I get it. People want to go someplace for at least five minutes where no one is trying to bleed you or sell you something. It may not be a real model for anything, but it’s at least a place where people are free to dream of some other way for human beings to get along, beyond auctioned “democracy,” tyrannical commerce and the bottom line.
Thank goodness! Taibbi is one of the great writers of our time (and yes I do admire his hyperbole), and it is gratifying to see that he pulled back from his earlier analysis that OWS must get “concrete solutions” on the table, and fast. When Taibbi wrote this earlier article it was trumpeted on certain lefty blogs (that I happen to read). The bloggers figured Taibbi must be right. I was troubled by the message. I guess I thought the Coulters and Krauthammers of the world were going to complain no matter what and having an amorphous hard to pin down movement was the kind of thing that inoculated OWS from the snide observations about the fact that they bought pants and are hooked on caffeine. Under Krauthammer’s analysis a protester is only legitimate if the protester is wearing a burlap sack and drinking water from a rain spout.
Every day that passes with OWS occupying is a day that more people meet, learn and make a statement. Concrete messages are all well and good, but our society had lost its ability to even tolerate legitimate protests. OWS will be a success if it does nothing more than establish that protest is legitimate, and must be tolerated. U.S. society has been bullied for so long by the Krauthammers and Coulters that just carving out a space in a public park and sustaining the occupation of that space, is a huge victory to celebrate.