October102011

On the Positive Turn

@davidgraeber “first they ignore you, then they mock you, then they say - “what? we totally support this sort of thing!” 

This weekend the big bastions of traditionally leftish-leaning media have gone from ignoring and deriding Occupy Wall Street to choruses of wistful hossanas.

 The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg, after soliloquizing about Chou Enlai, organic dinner parties and puns on OWS declared that it was “not to late to hope” that OWS would save the Democratic Party the Obama presidency. 

The New York Times made the most prominent reversal. The same media outlet which had described 1st described the protest as a gaggle of confused jugglers and unicyclists, now described the movement (Now With New Union Support!) as “the first line of defense against a return to the Wall Street ways that plunged the nation into an economic crisis from which it has yet to emerge.”

The turn could be attributed to a change of heart, or a “getting-to-know-you,getting-to-know-all-about-you, getting-to-like-you, getting-to-hope-you-like-me” development that simply took the better part of month to play out.

More likely, however, is projection: A leaderless movement, with broad grievances and demands, it’s being discovered, can easily serve as a Narcissus well for the old left’s old dreams. They’re beginning to see what they love in Occupy Wall Street. They’re beginning to see themselves. 

October72011

Note to Reporters: OWS is NOT the ’60s Come Again

Occupy Seattle

A new theme has attached itself to the Occupy Wall Street movement in past 24 hours: It’s the 1960s all over again. 

For instance, from Reuters:

"Most protests since the 1960s - against U.S. actions in Central America in the 1980s or against free trade in the 1990s or the impending Iraq War in 2003 - were in solidarity with an ideal. This, like Civil Rights and Vietnam, is personal."

This notion - however comforting - is dead wrong. The historical circumstances, in fact, are completely opposite. At the end of the 1960s, the United States was still basking in the last warmth of the postwar economic boom. Jobs were easy to find, the union movement was strong. The protests, if anything, were a result of prosperity: With everything else going so well why can’t we live up to our ideals?  

The Occupy Wall Street movement comes out of a completely different social moment, not of prosperity but of collapse. The movements of the 1960s broadened the American Dream to those excluded from it. Rather than seeking to expand the “American Dream,” Occupy Wall Street seeks to reassess it and ultimately displace it. 

This is not to say that Occupy Wall Street is not a quintessentially American movement. It’s just that it harks back to an eras: the Populist Movements of the 1960s, the mass protests and tent occupations of the 1930s, and the Whiskey Rebels of the 1790s. These antecedents have one thing in common: They were seeking fundamental changes to society, not a reformation but a recreation. This is not the 1960s; we will not be bought off. Not least because society seems incapable of even trying.



October62011

On Media’s Inability to Cover Leaderless Movements

 The media has been dysfunctional in its coverage of the #OccupyWallStreet movement. Certainly editorial bias and general condescension have something to with this, but the primary reason is institutional. Most media organizations have no way of dealing with a leaderless movement.

 Media organizations, particularly elite media organizations are institutions, which are used to interacting with other institutions: hierarchically organized groups of people with a leader on top. Structurally, this makes a lot of sense. In a new story, which is meant to representative and concise, leaders offer a short cut. A reporter will not have to speak with or of the hundreds, thousands or millions of people represented by the leader or even a representative sample. Instead they can talk with one individual who represents the people underneath him or her in the hierarchical structure. Other members of the group, who are not representative, can then be safely ignored. The leader has spoken.

Movements like #OccupyWallStreet, with no clearly defined leaders, thus present a problem. Reporters want to talk to leaders so that they can get the “real” story of the movement, but in the absence of leaders are forced to actually go down and see what is going on. This is difficult, inconvenient and raises the distinct possibility that the reporter (always a representative of the media organization itself) will be unable to be “objective” in the face of facts on the ground.

This is why, by the way, that the first substantial coverage of #OccupyWallStreet from the New York Times was a “column" rather than a "story." The column designation gives the organization institutional cover for the reporter’s biases.

Absent a recognizable institutional leadership or agenda, reporters can be baffled by events - even extremely obvious ones.

"That cause, though, in specific terms, was virtually impossible to decipher," columnist Ginia Bellafante wrote, in a line that has become widely derided. Do not blame Bellafonte though, without a leader to definitively describe a movement, reporters can be baffled. They are left with only their own impressions - impressions they have been taught not to trust - to go on. Without leaders, movements appear to be an "intellectual vaccum."

This also explains why so much coverage in the past few days has stemmed from the union movement’s efforts to join #OccupyWallStreet. Suddenly reporters have someone to talk to. Suddenly they have designated leaders and media representatives they can call on for a quote. Suddenly the movement has become more "legitimate" and "credible" -code words for easier to talk to.

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