Me & Occupy Wall Street: three questions

Some stuff came up after my original statement yesterday that I think needs to be clarified. Some I’ve already addressed in comments on Facebook, like the fact that no, I don’t think OWS is about healthcare, except that it certainly can be, since the corporate greed & influence OWS is protesting is responsible for the power insurance companies wield over our legislators.

Here are three questions and answers, though, to really clarify my position:

1. Successful movements have leaders and clearly specific demands. How can you support something as chaotic as Occupy?

My mom and I often talk about how people’s greatest strengths are also their greatest weaknesses, and this applies to groups of people as well. Though the Occupy movement’s resistance to clear leadership makes it difficult for people (like the mainstream press) to find something easy to latch on to, and may create a sense of uneasiness or even danger for those of us conditioned to look to authorities for answers, it’s also what makes them so powerful and (more importantly) less vulnerable. If there is anything history has taught us, it’s that our leaders are corruptible. Even victorious revolutions ultimately fail to effect change when their leaders succumb to the same thirst for power that drove the regimes they sought to overthrow in the first place.

The strength of the Occupy movement is that it isn’t driven by a single ego, but rather by its participants as a whole. Does it make the movement more difficult to define? Absolutely. You can’t ask just one person in the Occupy movement what the group stands for, and expect to get the definitive answer. You have to take the time to listen to a group that is constantly, actively defining itself, and extrapolate from the din. It creates extra challenges within the movement as well, as Occupiers struggle to remain inclusive, even when faced with allies who might make them uncomfortable. But it also means that Occupy can’t be bought. And when a movement exists to oppose the political power of the richest people in the world, that’s really, really important.

2. Aren’t you just blaming other people for your problems?

No. I’m not blaming other people for my problems. I am angry because I see people in power deliberately putting up roadblocks to prevent me from solving them myself.

I love to work. Possibly to the extreme. In fact, as I’ve gotten into my forties, one of the most important things I’ve realized about myself is that “work” is the only thing I really find fun. Now, I’m not necessarily talking about thankless drudgery here (though I do my fair share—most jobs come with it, to some extent or another), but it’s been a relief to finally admit to myself that what I most value in life is the opportunity to do meaningful work, so much so that I often have difficulty enjoying leisurely pursuits. Even when I have a hobby, I’ll usually find a way to turn it into work, so that I can fully enjoy what I’m doing.

I don’t want handouts, and I don’t need someone to clear my path. I’m a tough cookie. I like work, and I thrive on opportunities for problem-solving. But when the cards are stacked to the extreme the way they are right now—when the game of life has become unwinnable unless you have the cheat codes—a thirst for problem-solving ceases to be rewarding or even tolerable. And that makes me angry.

3. If this is so important, why aren’t you out there?

This is very simple. I am not out there, because I’m not brave enough. Though I feel strongly that our society must change, I’m not yet willing to risk what I have for the greater good. I’m not willing to risk my job, my loved ones, or my physical well-being. I’m not willing to brave the cold for days with a bunch of strangers. I’m not willing to to be vulnerable to chance. I’m not willing to risk the comfort I have for the sake of others, or even for myself. Despite my anger and disillusionment, I still feel, on some level, that I have too much to lose.

What will it take for me and others like me to decide we are brave after all? What will we have to lose before we finally take to the streets with the rest of them? I don’t know. But I expect that will be an interesting day.

Meanwhile, I must express my gratitude to those who are brave enough to stand up for all the rest of us, putting their bodies and lives on the line to stand up to the handful of powerful people who really run this country.


  1. So beautifully thought out and expressed. Thank you. It is odd being in the city this weekend. I know less about what is happening than being home and following it on tv.

  2. Betty Hansen says

    I like this very much and am forwarding to an in-law Tea Party activist and Bill O’Reilly addict.

  3. James Jacobs says

    I’m leaving a comment here, despite the fact that my knowledge of manga is limited to the one book of it Melinda gave me last year, because I am even less brave than she is. A lot less brave, actually. You see, I’m afraid of losing my job. You might have heard about Lisa Simeone, who was fired by NPR (despite not even being an NPR employee, but that’s another story) for being involved with the Occupy movement. I know Lisa – she’s a colleague of mine, we’ve worked together, we share the same airwaves. So I’m going to use this space to sound off about my feelings about the movement, because it grates against every fabric of my being to finally see the revolution start to take place while I’m on the sidelines.

    At least I hope it’s a revolution. I love what Melinda said about being frustrated with the political system. I get mad when I read that the Occupy movement needs to rally around a political platform or endorse a candidate or something. We tried that already – we elected Obama. It didn’t work. While I could criticize him for some of his actions or lack thereof, I can’t believe that anyone else would have been more attuned to the problems of economic inequality. In fact, I am very grateful to Obama, because if he hadn’t extended unemployment benefits I wouldn’t have been able to take the time I needed to be able to pursue the job I now have. I think it was a wise investment for society to support me for a year until I got this job instead of insisting I take a job at Starbucks (which I may not have even gotten at my age.) The point being, Obama was the best possible person we could have elected to be president, and he’s not solving this problem, because the problem is bigger than he is. Perhaps it’s bigger than Bush was too; while I blame him for making everything a lot worse than it needed to be it now seems like the crisis we’re facing was inevitable.

    As a child I was taught that government is real and that money is an abstract concept that means what the government wants it to mean. For a long time I thought that the problem with Republicans is that they had this backward. It’s now evident that the whole world has it backward. I want to be able to criticize capitalism without being labeled a communist. I’m not a communist; it has been shown that in practice it leads to tyranny. But it is also evident that capitalism also leads to tyranny. We are living its nightmare now, and it’s going to get worse. Capitalism and communism aren’t laws of physics, or of mathematics, or based on any real science whatsoever. They’re just systems somebody made up. Therefore they are imperfect, though they could be made to work as long as the government regulates them and constantly tweaks them in response to the ebb and flow of reality. But somewhere along the way economic systems became religions. They became patriotism. They became something sacrosanct that couldn’t be tweaked, because the people who benefit from the inequalities in each system will do anything to hold on to their power. This is the force we’re fighting. We will probably lose. But the system has been gamed beyond redemption.

    I will still vote for Obama next year if we haven’t turned into a police state by then, but I’m not assuming it will do much good beyond not making things even worse. I wish I were kidding about the police state. It feels like the US is turning into China – life is cheap, workers are interchangeable, order is more important than fairness or true justice, loyalty is valued above empirical truth. In one way we are both better and worse than China: we have a much freer press, but people will still believe what they want to believe. Orwell was wrong – who needs a Ministry of Truth when people have access to the actual truth and choose to ignore it?

    I’m rambling and I’m sorry, but this has all been bottled up inside for a while. I’m not sure what I expect of the Occupy movement at this point. I like the fact that they’re marching to Washington – maybe it should just become a nonstop march, not staying in one place more than one night, hundreds of thousands people marching together throughout the country. The one thing that concerns me is their use of consensus process. That’s what Obama has been trying to get in his administration, and it clearly doesn’t work – it turns into tyranny by the intransigent minority. Isn’t that what we’re trying to fight against, the 99% being overruled by the 1%? I would rather see the Occupy movement become a model for how real democracy should work. I would rather see them figure out a way to operate with majority rule while still taking care of everyone’s needs and accommodating conflicting strategies and viewpoints. But I suppose I’m not really entitled to an opinion, because I’m not out there putting my body on the line like the protesters are.

    I’m also concerned about the conflicts with police. I grew up in Berkeley, so I can say this with authority: if you want to prove that the police are barbaric, they’ll be happy to oblige. The problem is that then the movement becomes about police brutality and protesters’ legal troubles, and the original message gets lost. That’s why I’m thinking that Occupy should become a moving target, a perpetual march of protesters and economic refugees that will keep marching for years, and those of us who are still working within the system should try to donate as much to the movement as we pay in taxes to the federal government. I don’t know; just one idea.

    I hope it’s okay that I’ve gone on like this. It can all safely be ignored. It’s just that I have no one to talk to about this here in Boston in the community I’m now a part of. The larger point is this: Wall Street DID do something exceptionally evil, but really the problem is even more basic, that the entire world is the victim of unregulated capitalism. If today’s protest reminds people of the Vietnam-era protests, it’s because the crimes are just as heinous, killing just as many people as any war, and disenfranchising an entire generation. I love the idea of America – and I feel very American, since I don’t think there’s another country where someone with my background could have made the choices I made and survived, let alone come as far as I have – and I feel profoundly disappointed to have seen the failure of this idea due to the rapacious greed of a few.

    • Thank you so much for commenting here, James (and don’t worry—my manga stuff all belongs at the other blog anyway). I probably have more to say, but for the moment, I at least wanted to let you know how much I appreciate you speaking up here.


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