One of the ways you can tell a movement is making progress is when those who don’t like it start telling it how to function. It’s a little like Pat Robertson lecturing a bunch of Unitarians, but the people who do it are so used to calling the shots in life that they see nothing absurd about even instructing their opposition.
I remember reporters on Meet the Press and elsewhere gratuitously advising the anti-war movement of the 1960s how to proceed, never once acknowledging that they really didn’t want it to, so therefore their advice was somewhat suspect.
Today’s lectures are directed at the Occupy movement with a particularly egregious example offered by the New York Times business writer Andrew Ross Sorkin. Some choice bits:
Now, 12 months later, it can and should be said that Occupy Wall Street was — perhaps this is going to sound indelicate — a fad.In fact, neither the presumptious Sorkin nor anyone else knows what the impact of the Occupy movement will be, because it’s too soon and because movements don’t work like that. Movements of highly visible impact can fade and those that seem to fail can have hardly visible but critical impacts on future matters.
. . . The problem with the movement, as many other columnists have pointed out before, was that its mission was always intentionally vague. It was deliberately leaderless. It never sought to become a political party or even a label like the Tea Party.
… Given the way the organization — if it can be called that — was purposely open to taking all comers, the assembly lost its sense of purpose as various intramural squabbles emerged about the group’s end game.
In any case, the last people to go to for a useful analysis are those whom the movement is challenging.
I took part in my first movement when I was twelve years old, stuffing envelopes in a campaign that would end over 60 years of Republican rule in Philadelphia. It was an experience that launched my interest in political journalism yet in the over 60 years that followed I have seen nothing like it. Too often the reality proves to be far less than the dream behind it.
Even helping to start the DC Statehood Party and the national Green Party would eventually be full of disappointments for me as would be the national civil rights, environmental, and economic equity efforts to so many of us. The truth is, as things now stand, even the founding of America hasn’t turn out right. But should each person who tried to make things better – from Benjamin Franklin to the Occupiers – regret the course they took, or only regret that the opposition was able to block us?
One reason not to regret these efforts is because at any particular moment one can not adequately judge the best thing to do or how to do it. Maintaining the status quo, the job of the embedded media, is easy. Trying to replace it is a dive into uncertainty that encompasses not only strategy, participants, and allies but the unpredictable effect one’s actions and words may have on others. The Occupiers might fail in every attempt yet still inspire others who will get it right.
This is not to say that those within movements should not study, consider and debate what they have done and plan to do. For example, I was far more excited about the Chicago teachers strike than about the Occupy movement because it was closer to activist models that have worked in the past. But I also know, contrary to Sorkin’s snotty premise, that the Occupy movement has already changed America and the way we think about it. It filled a vacant space in our national soul and started people thinking about other ways of doing things. Where this will lead remains to be seen.
One reason I empathize with the Occupiers is because I came out of the 1950s, a period that shared some of the same values. Some years ago I wrote:
It is instructive during a time in which even alienated progressives outfit themselves with mission and vision statements and speak the bureaucratic argot of their oppressors to revisit that under-missioned, under-visioned culture of what Norman Mailer called the "psychic outlaw" and "the rebel cell in our social body." What Ned Plotsky termed, "the draft dodgers of commercial civilization."
Unlike today's activists they lacked a plan; unlike those of the 60s they lacked anything to plan for; what substituted for utopia and organization was the freedom to think, to speak, to move at will in a culture that thought it had adequately taken care of all such matters. Although the beats are frequently parodied for their dress, sartorial nonconformity was actually more a matter of indifference rather than, as in the case of some of the more recently alienated, conscious style. They even wore ties from time to time. . .
To a far great degree than rebellions that followed, the beat culture created its message by being rather than doing, rejection rather than confrontation, sensibility rather than strategy, journeys instead of movements, words and music instead of acts, and informal communities rather than formal institutions.
For the both the contemporaneous civil rights movement and the 1960s rebellion that followed, such a revolt by attitude seemed far from enough. Yet these full-fledged uprisings could not have occurred without years of anger and hope being expressed in more individualistic and less disciplined ways, ways that may seem ineffective in retrospect yet served as absolutely necessary scaffolding with which to build a powerful movement. . . .
Change often comes without a formal introduction. Like the time in early 1960 when four black college students sat down at a white-only Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, NC. Within two weeks, there were sit-ins in 15 cities in five southern states and within two months they had spread to 54 cities in nine states. By April the leaders of these protests had come together, heard a moving sermon by Martin Luther King Jr. and formed the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Four students did something and America changed. Even they, however, couldn't know what the result would be.
"You do not become a 'dissident' just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career," Vaclav Havel would say while still a rebel. "You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society."