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Sorting Out the 'Extremists'

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Brian Phillips is the head of communications for the NYC General Assembly, the group primarily responsible for occupying Wall Street. I learned about him while listening to National Public Radio's "Morning Edition." According to NPR, Phillips is "an ex-Marine with a bachelor's in computer science. Today he is wearing a sock on his head."


"My political goal," Phillips says, "is to overthrow the government."

Note: That's not some random nut job pulled from his Lyndon LaRouche desk or tricked-out refrigerator box/time machine. That's the communications director for the whole shebang, and his goal is to overthrow the government.

Now, he's not advocating violence or dictatorship. No, he just wants the government to work on the same non-hierarchical, consensus-based, extremely deliberative form of direct democracy that they're using down in Liberty Plaza. How that would work for some 300 million Americans remains a bit of a mystery.

An even bigger mystery is what these people want. There are many demands floating around, but the only official list isn't of demands at all but of wide-ranging grievances. Grievances about the "system," if not about carbon-based life itself, are the one unifying sentiment to this movement.

Some of those grievances are entirely valid, even bipartisan. Conservatives have been complaining about bailouts for "too big to fail" institutions for several years now. It's how to remedy those grievances where the debate lies.

For instance, among the more popular demands is debt forgiveness -- for everything from student loans to, well, everything.


A widely circulated "proposed list of demands" calls for "Immediate across the board debt forgiveness for all. Debt forgiveness of sovereign debt, commercial loans, home mortgages, home equity loans, credit card debt, student loans and personal loans now! All debt must be stricken from the 'Books.'"

Even if you break the crazy pill in half and simply talk about forgiving all mortgages and consumer credit, we're still probably talking about the utter destruction of the global financial system. U.S. mortgage debt alone is roughly equal to our entire GDP.

The reason I bring this up is that I think this is extreme.

"Extreme" is a funny word these days. It's often used by mainstream news outlets to describe the tea parties and the tea-party-friendly caucus in the GOP.

For instance, when those hotheads in tricorn hats were trying to get the government to borrow slightly less than 40 cents for every dollar Washington spends, the conventional wisdom among enlightened liberals, the Obama administration and the other usual suspects was that they were "extremists."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid blasted said extremists as "heartless" for daring to suggest that the exploding federal debt might require cutting subsidies for "cowboy poets."


Meanwhile, the sock-headed spokesman for the protesters wants to "overthrow the government."

And yet, if you peruse NexisLexis, you'll be hard pressed to find anyone calling him or his more radical confreres "extremists."

You also won't hear them being called racists, even though the Occupy Wall Street movement is mostly white. Personally, I don't think racial composition of the "99 percenters" is relevant, but the fact that the tea partiers are mostly white has been cited time and again as evidence of nascent racism. After all, what other explanation could there be for a mass movement opposed to the first black president's policies? (Never mind that the most popular tea party politician these days is Herman Cain, who, in case you hadn't noticed, is black.)

The Wall Street protesters are opposed to bailouts for banks -- but it seems to be news to them that they, too, are opposing policies pushed by the first black president.

Another criticism of the tea parties has been that they are an "astroturf" organization funded by the nefarious Koch Brothers and other right-wing groups. And there's some truth to that. Conservative groups -- opposed to Wall Street bailouts, mind you -- did join the tea party cause after it was up and running.


We are now seeing the same thing with Big Labor and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. They're backing the protesters in ever larger numbers. But don't expect cries of astroturfing any time soon.

Why the double standard? The short answer is that what counts as the political center in this country still leans considerably to the left. These young, scruffy, utopian, urban protesters are what rebels are supposed to look and sound like.

The tea partiers, meanwhile, are scarier because they're effective and because they challenge the preconceived notions of what American protest is supposed to look like. I mean, what's with those tricorn hats for Pete's sake?

If only Thomas Paine wore a sock on his head.

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