Paul Greenberg

The only serious question raised by Occupy Wall Street/Little Rock/(fill in the name of your own city here) is whether it can be taken seriously.

That is, does it have serious grievances, goals, leaders, plans and all the rest ... or is it just street theater? Even if it's the kind that plays on serious themes. Much like Second City or Mort Sahl when they were in their youth and in the papers back in the Sixties. Or the hippies and yippies when their adventures could be followed in both the news and entertainment sections of the paper.

What ever happened to those people anyway? Did they all grow up and get tenure, or what? How long before the stars of the Occupy movement/fad will be occupying endowed chairs and writing their memoirs and other stirring works of fiction? For now, the whole phenomenon is a kind of amorphous blob. At this point, to quote one observer, it might as well be called People Against Things.

What things? Well, as Marlon Brando put it in "The Wild Ones," whatcha got? For the Occupiers are still in the earliest, unfocused phase of every protest movement's arc from anger to irrelevance, though some have been known to achieve both simultaneously.

Some protest movements develop into serious political parties -- the way a harem-scarem bunch of free soilers, disaffected Whigs, abolitionist zealots, upwardly mobile politicos, genuine idealists and businessmen with an eye for the main chance all coalesced into the Republican Party circa 1856.

Other outliers -- single taxers, prohibitionists, vegetarians, the Populist and Greenback Parties and such -- have their day and are left to the history books.

Then there are those movements that fulfill the traditional function of a third party in the American political system and become a major influence on one of the other two. See the tea party. The most successful -- like the American civil rights movement -- achieve specific goals before fading into legend or becoming just another pressure group.

At this early juncture, the Occupiers may be too preoccupied, mainly with themselves, to do the practical work -- registering voters, lobbying politicians, agreeing on a platform -- to be taken seriously. Debating them would be like talking to an inchoate mass.

For the moment, the Occupiers are pretty much where Howard Beale was in the movie "Network," throwing open a window and yelling, "We're mad as hell, and we're not going to take this anymore!" The movie is usually described as satirical in the capsule reviews, but the script is a fair enough description of any protest movement that's just getting under way, destination unknown.

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Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.