Occupied or vacant?

Paul Greenberg

11/30/2011 2:34:00 PM - 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.

- - -

Listening to a representative crew from Occupy Little Rock entertain a packed house the other evening brought back my own wasted youth.

I was completely absorbed at the time in my synagogue's youth organization, Young Judaea, which naturally we called a movement. High school just got in the way of its conventions, camps, teenage courting rituals, and late-night, oh-so-serious discussions. The Movement was one big kumsitz, and at the end we usually had solved all the world's problems to our own considerable satisfaction, including the Jewish Problem, though naturally enough we thought of it as more of a Gentile problem. Those were the days, my friend/ We thought they'd never end.... All in all, quite an education in ideology. Every kid ought to have one, if only to get past it. - - -

As a young editorial writer in little Pine Bluff, Ark., I used to sit up half the night listening to Bill Hansen, the town's official outside agitator and guiding spirit of the Pine Bluff Movement, defend the Marxist version of history and everything else.

Those were the days, all right, the bad old days when the Jim Crow laws were crumbling all around and needed just one more good push to disappear, which is what he was in town to provide. His orthodox Marxism didn't much appeal, but at least its ideology was coherent, not to say rigidly constraining. Like a straitjacket. What does Occupy Name Your City have for an ideology? Besides an aggrieved air that it hopes to fill by plucking an issue here and there from the nation's well of general dissatisfaction these days. The result is an eclectic mix of impulses rather than a political program. - - - Every ideology needs a banner for people to flock to. The tea party has laid claim to the Gadsden Flag ("Don't Tread on Me"), but what is the Occupiers' emblem? They have chants, but where are its songs, and how have a protest movement without songs?

When the Lord God split the sea for the Children of Israel, Miriam led the women in song. What would Occupy Canaan do -- recite a chorus of complaints about the poor quality of that day's manna? Occupy isn't so much a movement as a restless mood.

Listening to the Occupiers explain the trouble with the world, or at least with America, anybody who's ever raised a teenager should be able to understand what's going on. The answer to the most Frequently Asked Question about Occupy This or That -- what is it these people want? -- becomes clear soon enough: a little attention for goshsakes. Who doesn't from time to time?

And that may be all that's behind the slogans and marches, the daily menu of issues (Ask for Today's Special!) and general cri de coeur against The One Percent, Corporate Greed, People Who Just Don't Understand, and unfeeling adults in general. In the end, all the demands boil down to just one: Look at me!

The Occupiers can be appealing. It's hard not to love these kids of all ages, including the superannuated ones who sound as if they're still Finding Themselves. They're a tribute to the enduring power of human innocence. But they begin to achieve the tediousness that is the mark of a protest movement at its end, not its beginning.