“A church of dissent”: trying to make sense of Occupy Wall Street

What to make of Occupy Wall Street? Judging by the media coverage so far, that question is still wide open. Journalists troop down to Zuccotti Park to hang out with the protesters and return with uncertain colour pieces ranging from the curious to the condescending. In the latter category is Ginia Bellafante of the New York Times, who concludes her report with this masterpiece of glibness:

One day, a trader on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Adam Sarzen, a decade or so older than many of the protesters, came to Zuccotti Park seemingly just to shake his head. “Look at these kids, sitting here with their Apple computers,” he said. “Apple, one of the biggest monopolies in the world. It trades at $400 a share. Do they even know that?”

I’m not surprised that he would make such a fatuous comment, as if anyone in Zuccotti Park doesn’t realise that Apple is a publicly traded corporate giant. (What does he expect the protesters to do? Grow their own organic laptops?) But I’m amazed Bellafante considered it enough of a logical death blow to end her article with it.

Salon’s Glenn Greenwald singles out Bellafante’s piece in his survey of negative coverage of OWS, but he acts as if any scepticism should be out of bounds. For one thing, WikiLeaks is a terrible example of an unfairly maligned group now that we know the extent of Julian Assange’s reckless narcissism. For another, it’s not just the establishment that has doubts about OWS’s efficacy — some radical leftists such as Slavoj Zizek also worry that this style of protest, sans spokespeople or agendas, is doomed to failure.

Zizek’s argument resonated with me a few weeks ago but I was, I think, too pessimistic. OWS is America’s introduction to the new protest already witnessed in Spain and Greece: a miasma of disaffection with no obvious focus. The landscape of protest has been utterly transformed in 2011 and understanding it is a challenge for protesters and observers alike. In Zuccotti Park union activists and antiwar veterans mingle with Ron Paul supporters, 9/11 Truthers and the inevitable guys in V for Vendetta masks. Placards engage with student debt, Troy Davis, Wisconsin, Cairo. Slate’s David Wiegel is refreshingly candid: “What’s the story? I hung out with Occupy Wall Street on Friday and Saturday, which wasn’t enough time to figure out what the movement is about, because no one knows what it’s about.”

The model of protest that we know and understand is one with leaders and manifestos. There’s human drama in Martin Luther King stepping out of obscurity to lead the Montgomery bus boycott or Mario Savio leaping on top of a police car at Berkeley, and charismatic individuals are great mobilisers: the anti-apartheid movement outside South Africa was revitalised by the ANC’s decision to focus on the little-known plight of Nelson Mandela. But it’s also about clarity. Outsiders knew that King wanted desegregation, that Savio wanted free speech on campus. A face, a voice, a simple idea: this is protest that makes immediate sense. But what exactly do the OWS crowds want? Or los indignados? Or Anonymous? How do they expect to get it? And who’s in charge? The protesters’ allergy to hierarchy can be almost comical. According to one observer at OWS:

The protesters make decisions in twice a day consensus-based “general assemblies”, where anyone is allowed to speak. No amplification is allowed, so the crowd has figured out a model to make sure everyone is heard. The speaker says half a sentence, and the crowd repeats it so it can be heard. This continues until the speaker is done. There are hand signals that allow others to express agreement and disagreement. I didn’t spend enough time to really get into the nuts and bolts of the organization, but it doesn’t seem very formal. There’s a deep fear of official spokespeople beginning to monopolize and misinterpret the non-hierarchical model of community protest.

This leaderless model isn’t entirely new, of course. OWS was conceived by veteran Canadian activists Adbusters — the style of protest harks back to the Stop the City demos of the early 80s and flowered in the 90s with Reclaim the Streets and the anti-globalisation movement. Like OWS, the people who protested at G8 summits and WTO conferences didn’t have figureheads (I can only think of Naomi Klein, and she certainly didn’t appoint herself one) and were an amorphous coalition of moderates, socialists, anarchists, single-issue activists and random kooks. They were mocked by the predecessors of Bellafante’s trader for raging against capitalism while wearing trainers and using cellphones. And even supporters worried about the diffuseness of the movement. As one writer retrospectively noted:

The movement’s lack of solutions started to count against it. In its earlier days, the global resistance movement’s relativist philosophy worked strongly in its favour. Anyone with a grudge against liberal economics, patriarchy, the scientific establishment or liberal democracy could join in; all that was needed was some kind of critique of Enlightenment universalism. But as time went on, the movement started to suffer from its lack of big ideas for solutions. When there was discussion at all of what should be started (as opposed to stopped – like dams, IMF conditionality, nuclear power, GMOs or whatever), the solutions were either fuzzy (global justice now!) or parochial.

Sound familiar? But these protests took place in an era, as Time magazine put it, of “triumphant capitalism, of planetary cash flows and a priapic Dow.” And they were cut short in their prime by 9/11: increased security made protests more difficult while war and terrorism sucked up most of the political oxygen. So questions about what this form of protest meant and where it might lead were put on hold for a decade. Now they’re back and made way more complicated by the engulfing economic crisis. Those who accuse OWS of lacking solutions need to accept that solutions are in pretty short supply everywhere. I subscribe to the standard progressive wishlist: Keynesian stimulus spending, cuts in defense budgets, tax rises for the wealthy, bank regulation and a Tobin tax. But none of those measures are magic bullets. The deep anxiety that manifests itself in OWS or the indignados cannot be cured by specific policies. One OWS protester’s placard announced with admirable frankness: “I’m Here ‘Cuz This Shit is Fucked Up.”

So it makes sense that people who have negligible faith in the capacity of political leaders to turn around the economy would choose not to have leaders of their own. Disappointment in Obama, the most compelling politician of his generation, feels like the last straw for some people when it comes to putting trust in charismatic individuals. Matt Stoller has an interesting take on the slippery nature of OWS:

You can tell this is a somewhat different animal than other politicized gatherings. No one knows what to expect. There are no explicit demands. It’s not very large. And yet, celebrities are heading to Zuccotti Park. Wall Street traders are sneering and angry. The people there are getting press, but aren’t dominated by it. People are there just to be there, because it feels meaningful. The camp is clean and well-organized, and it feels relevant and topical rather than a therapy space for frustrated radicals.… What these people are doing is building, for lack of a better word, a church of dissent. It’s not a march, though marches are spinning off of the campground. It’s not even a protest, really. It is a group of people, gathered together, to create a public space seeking meaning in their culture. They are asserting, together, to each other and to themselves, “we matter”.

This is an overdue development. After watching the right-wing successfully harness the enduring power of economic populism via the Tea Party it’s a relief to see a left-wing version taking shape. David Wiegel calls it “post-Obama left-wing populism”. When New York magazine asked 100 OWS protesters what they thought of Obama, 23 were sympathetic, 27 said they never believed in him and 40 agreed with the statement, “I believed in him and he let me down.” It looks as if the youthful energy that helped sweep him to power in 2008 has migrated to the streets.

This is bad news for the Democrats and for leftists who think the battles for Congress and the White House are the only ones that really matter. While Nicholas Kristoff at the New York Times suggests some moderate, achievable goals that OWS could adopt, what’s happening in Zuccotti Park is more about radical, sweeping dissent than pragmatic policy checklists. Wiegel again:

On Saturday, before the arrests happened, the volunteer organizers of the protest handed out a four-page newspaper called The Occupied Wall Street Journal. They had raised more than $10,000 to quickly print 50,000 copies. There is a worldwide movement of resistance and rebellion building,” write Eric Ribellarse and Jim Weill in the paper’s lead story. A timeline starts the movement on Dec. 17, 2010, when Mohammed Bouazizi poured gasoline on his head, then sat in public in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, then lit a match. The Tea Party has always been ostentatious in its American exceptionalism, starting rallies with recitations of the Pledge of the Allegiance. The loudest mic-checkers in Occupy Wall Street want the opposite—a mind-meld with the developing world.

I find it hard not to have reservations and unanswered questions about OWS even as I admire it. Is it the birth of a new kind of 21st century protest or a false start? How will it funnel all this energy into concrete change? Is it just too diffuse and hyper-democratic to move forward? But the important thing right now is to give it time and not to expect it to run before it can walk. Many strong, successful movements have evolved out of colourful chaos and if this one seems more colourful and chaotic than most, well, that’s a sign of the times.

Update: McKenzie Wark on the Verso Books blog argues very eloquently that the leaderless quasi-utopianism of the occupation is the whole point — it represents a radically different kind of politics. The will-it-work? question remains but I think this is one of the best arguments yet for the new school of protest.

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I am governor Jerry Brown

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Obama supporters have to take whatever crumbs of comfort they can find this morning. The defeat of Tea Party favourites Sharron Angle and Christine “I am you” O’Donnell, in Nevada and Delaware respectively, kept Democrats from ceding control of the Senate and showed that even disillusioned voters think twice before pulling the lever for the conservative fringe. In California, Barbara Boxer saw off Carly Fiorina in the Senate race and – here comes the protest-song link – Jerry Brown returned to the governor’s mansion he vacated in 1983.

I first heard of Jerry Brown through the Dead Kennedys’ 1979 single California Uber Alles and, understandably, I thought he was an asshole. Jello Biafra portrayed him as a “zen fascist” on his way to the White House and a kind of new age dictatorship. Only years later did I learn that Brown was a textbook progressive who opposed the Vietnam war and the death penalty, appointed liberal judges and locked horns with the oil industry over environmental regulations. He even dated Linda Ronstadt and was named Groupie of the Year by Rolling Stone. OK, you can see why his boomer smugness didn’t endear him to the punks, but he was hardly the scariest politician on the scene on the verge of the 80s. While writing my chapter on the Dead Kennedys I asked Biafra about this disconnect between the man and the song and this is what he said:

Keep in mind that I had just escaped from Boulder, Colorado where every other person was searching for a guru to tell them what to do. Any wacky cult or new age movement can find very fertile ground in Boulder and I was really scared by this and thought it was dishonest and evil and so I thought, ‘Oh my god after all this rebellion I expected more out of the 70s than people wandering in the mental darkness looking for someone with all the answers to tell them what to do.’ And one powerful politician alone seemed to be able to tap into that and thus Jerry Brown is the focus of California Uber Alles. But when Reagan stormed in and I realised what was at stake with the religious right claiming they owned the country and people more extreme even than the supporters of Richard Nixon, I realised that was a much bigger threat, thus California Uber Alles evolving into We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now. It also set it up as kind of a folk song because now anybody can update it.

The year after the song came out, author and punk singer Jim Carroll saw Brown in the street and dashed over to give him a copy of the single. “Brown is probably the kind of guy who’ll take it home and give it a listen,” remarked Biafra.

Bonus beats: by popular demand, the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy’s 1992 cover version about Republican governor Pete Wilson (1991-99), a much more deserving candidate.

A scary John Birchers soundtrack playing in the background

A month ago, my gut feeling was that the Republican hierarchy and conservative punditocracy would pander to Tea Party sentiment until the midterms and then steer a more moderate path. This excellent piece by Ron Rosenbaum suggests otherwise. We know there’s going to be a Republican takeover today but exactly what kind of Republicans will be taking over? And where are the level-headed conservatives who will point out that rage is an emotion, not a political strategy?

Here’s Rachel Maddow on how William F Buckley and the Republican leadership sensibly rejected the John Birch Society in 1965 versus current conservatives’ willingness to embrace the lunatic fringe.

And here’s the Dylan song it’s named after, complete with strange picture of penguins:

I believe Anita Hill

If there’s one name Clarence Thomas, the surliest conservative on the Supreme Court, never wants to hear again it’s Anita Hill. Back in 1991 his already-bitter confirmation hearing was almost derailed by allegations of verbal sexual harassment made by Hill, an attorney who had worked for Thomas at the Department of Education. Thomas denied the charges and was confirmed by 52-48 votes in the Senate, the narrowest margin for over a hundred years, but the mud never entirely went away.

Now his loose-cannon wife Ginny, who this year founded a Tea Party-linked lobbying group called Liberty Central, has given the story new life by leaving a bizarre voicemail message for Hill (now a professor at Brandeis University) suggesting that she apologise to the justice. If, as Ginny Thomas claims, it’s an “olive branch” it’s one she’s using to poke Hill in the eye. The story then provoked Justice Thomas’s ex-girlfriend Lillian McEwen to go public about his love of porn and dirty talk in the office. If she had done so 19 years earlier (when she didn’t have a memoir to sell) it would have done Hill’s credibility a world of good and possibly sunk Thomas’s confirmation.

The confirmation hearings coincided with the birth of Riot Grrrl (Thomas opposes abortion rights) and Hill became an icon-cum-martyr to a new generation of feminists. As soon as I heard about the new controversy, I thought of these lines from Sonic Youth: “I believe Anita Hill/Judge will rot in hell.” It’s a great example of the power of a quick topical lyric to preserve a news story and lead listeners two decades later to follow up on the reference.

Moe and the Tea Party redux

Well this is interesting. St Louis’s Riverfront Times has tracked down Moe Tucker to ask her about her appearance in the Tea Party video that ruffled so many feathers. Unsurprisingly, she takes the don’t-tell-me-what-to-do line in relation to various government interventions, although the list gets pretty incoherent as it progresses from car industry bailouts to the dangers of low-energy lightbulbs and rattles off the kind of random talking points you find on conservative blogs. Woah there with the exclamation marks!

But anyway, she sticks to her guns and she makes a fair point about the initial reaction online: “I’m stunned that so many people who call themselves liberal yet are completely intolerant.… You disagree and you’re immediately called a fool, a Nazi, a racist.” I think it took a few days for liberal VU fans (myself included) to work through why they were so disappointed and whether it really matters (see my earlier post) and in the post-now-think-later blog cycle some overreacted. I wonder, too, about her claim that there’s a silent minority of conserative rock musicians who just haven’t spoken out yet. Laura Snapes’ Quietus interview with Micah P. Hinson shows that sometimes you only have to ask the right questions. I would be frankly stunned if Brandon Flowers voted for Obama.

Going back to Friday’s post, it’s interesting that Moe explains her long-term position as “all politicians are liars, bums and cheats” and lists only what she doesn’t like, because this is the strand of Tea Party thinking which makes me wonder what they actually want. Throw the bums out? OK, but then what? Let the country govern itself and hope for the best? She describes her politics in suitably punk-rock terms (interesting 1983 Johnny Ramone quote I found after my last post: “If anything, punks should have no politics or be right-wing. Otherwise they’re just hippies dressed as punks. Punks should stand on the corner and do nothing, like Marlon Brando in the Wild One”) but there’s a reason why you don’t elect punk-rock stars to public office. People who overstate the racism of the Obama-haters are missing the real danger – that mad-as-hell “independents” like Tucker seem quicker to tear government down then to offer a constructive alternative. It’s turning the Republicans into the party of fuck-you.

What music can tell us about the Tea Party

You’ve probably already seen the widely circulated clip of former Velvet Underground drummer Moe Tucker throwing in her lot with the Tea Party and complaining about the USA “being led towards socialism”.


Filmed in April, it only became a big story when Pitchfork picked up the clip six months later and was predictably disheartening for many Velvets fans. Early responses made solid points — you don’t dismiss art just because you don’t like the artist’s politics, and the VU were always hippie-hating misanthropes anyway — but I’d like to examine what makes the Tea Party distinct and how the Tucker tape questions assumptions about rock music, politics and the vocabulary of protest.

Much though a certain class of professional cynic delights in the fiction that all celebrities are conservatives under the surface, the truth is still that an overwhelming majority of musicians (and painters, novelists, film-makers, etc) lean to the left. (Famous exceptions: Ted Nugent, Kid Rock, Johnny Ramone.) That’s why  John J Miller’s much-discussed 2006 list of the 50 greatest conservative rock songs had to make some pretty desperate stretches to fill the list. (Only a Stasi loyalist would concur with Miller’s inclusion of Bowie’s “Heroes” solely on the grounds that it takes a dim view of the Berlin Wall.)

But it’s easy to make the false assumption that because most rock musicians are left-wing that rock is intrinsically a left-wing form. If it can be generalized as anything then it’s libertarian — don’t tell me what to do. The government is usually the problem, whether (as in Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues) it’s just an extension of parental authority or (as in Public Enemy’s sleeve-art mantra, “The government is responsible”) an actively sinister conspiracy.

Because the government is usually identified as conservative, we’ve become used to identifying such instinctive resistance as left-wing, but Moe’s outburst shows how swiftly the Tea Party has moved the goalposts by seizing the energy and the language of protest from the left. Never mind that Tea Party candidates have the support of a major news channel, several billionaires, and, it seems, a Republican hierarchy too craven to put the moderate case. Set aside the fact that the Obama they’re so enraged with is a Kenyan-born muslim socialist who bears no resemblance to the real thing. (Tell the president’s left-wing critics he’s a socialist and they’ll laugh in your face.) In the minds of its supporters it is an insurrection by the average man against the elite — “throw the bums out” — and that’s always a potent idea.

To a political pundit or historian a lot of the Tea Party’s rhetoric is through-the-looking-glass stuff but protest songs teach us that dramatic and unreasonable opinions can be fantastically entertaining. Glenn Beck’s insistence on conspiracies and the hidden history that they don’t want you to know about has a similar flavour to the more fantastical theories of Public Enemy or the Wu-Tang Clan. Muse were taken aback to find that the same sci-fi paranoia that was interpreted as anti-Bush on 2006’s Black Holes and Revelations was suddenly embraced by the foes of “Obamunism”, but the lyrics commit to nothing except a vague fear of government so no wonder Glenn Beck is a fan of 2009’s The Resistance and there’s a Tea Party video set to their song Uprising. “Red tape to keep the truth confined?” “Rise up and take the power back”? Perfect Tea Party fodder.

I’m only surprised that more custom-made Tea Party songs haven’t made their presence felt, although Wonkette thoughtfully compiled some of the very worst back in April. The US has a long history of songs about the country and what it means, a history which has at times become an ideological tug-of-war. When Woody Guthrie found God Bless America too jingoistic he wrote This Land Is Your Land. Fifty years later, Tim Robbins, as folksinging conservative politician Bob Roberts, recorded his own satirical Republican riposte to Guthrie called My Land. Similarly, Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded Sweet Home Alabama in retalitation for Neil Young’s Southern Man and Alabama. Three decades on, Green Day wrote American Idiot after hearing Lynyrd Skynyrd’s shitkicking post-9/11 songs That’s How I Like It and Red White & Blue (Love It or Leave It). Back and forth it goes.

This kind of songwriting reminds us that America’s message is fluid and it means at any given moment what the people with the strongest storyline want it to mean. The worrying thing for US liberals right now is that the Tea Party may not have logic or history on its side, but it has by far the catchiest narrative.

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