Thursday, October 6, 2011

Occupy Wall Street's fantasy theater

By Donald Sensing

The Tennessean explained how the "Occupy Wall Street" protests (so called) are being exported to my city of birth, Nashville, to take place today.
Nashville joins the protest Thursday, as the group Occupy Nashville makes plans for a rally at Legislative Plaza at noon and a separate demonstration along West End Avenue during the afternoon rush hour.
Well, yee-hah.

I got a laugh out of the article's profile of a Vanderbilt student's participation in the occupation of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York:
This weekend, while his classmates at Vanderbilt were studying or partying, Hirak Pati set out to Occupy Wall Street.

He listened to speeches, marched peaceably and wrapped himself in a tarp to sleep in the park with other demonstrators. For this junior political science major, who’d only read about the 1960s protest era, it was a chance to see a civil uprising in person.

He ended up seeing the inside of a holding cell after, he said, he was one of the 700 protesters rounded up while trying to cross the Brooklyn Bridge on Saturday. Back home now, he’s facing two misdemeanor counts of disorderly conduct and one traffic citation. It was worth it, he says.

“It was a chance for us to get involved in our government,” said Pati, who will have to return to New York later this fall to answer his summons. “For me, it was probably one of those life-changing experiences.”
My question for Mr. Pati is just how did he "get involved in our government"? He went to New York, held a sign, chanted some protest mantras, got arrested and was briefly detained. Now he's back home just so darn swelled with pride at being part of a movement, dadgummint, that "it was probably one of those life-changing experiences."

Probublee.... but maybe not. And nothing has changed on Wall Street and nothing will as a result of Mr. Pati's or others' march. But it was like the 1960s protest era!

Lee Harris described "fantasy ideology," and his assessment, though contexted in our fight against al Qaeda, remains pointedly pertinent:
MY FIRST ENCOUNTER with this particular kind of fantasy occurred when I was in college in the late sixties. A friend of mine and I got into a heated argument. Although we were both opposed to the Vietnam War, we discovered that we differed considerably on what counted as permissible forms of anti-war protest. To me the point of such protest was simple — to turn people against the war. Hence anything that was counterproductive to this purpose was politically irresponsible and should be severely censured. My friend thought otherwise; in fact, he was planning to join what by all accounts was to be a massively disruptive demonstration in Washington, and which in fact became one.

My friend did not disagree with me as to the likely counterproductive effects of such a demonstration. Instead, he argued that this simply did not matter. His answer was that even if it was counterproductive, even if it turned people against war protesters, indeed even if it made them more likely to support the continuation of the war, he would still participate in the demonstration and he would do so for one simple reason — because it was, in his words, good for his soul.

What I saw as a political act was not, for my friend, any such thing. It was not aimed at altering the minds of other people or persuading them to act differently. Its whole point was what it did for him.

And what it did for him was to provide him with a fantasy — a fantasy, namely, of taking part in the revolutionary struggle of the oppressed against their oppressors. By participating in a violent anti-war demonstration, he was in no sense aiming at coercing conformity with his view — for that would still have been a political objective. Instead, he took his part in order to confirm his ideological fantasy of marching on the right side of history, of feeling himself among the elect few who stood with the angels of historical inevitability. Thus, when he lay down in front of hapless commuters on the bridges over the Potomac, he had no interest in changing the minds of these commuters, no concern over whether they became angry at the protesters or not. They were there merely as props, as so many supernumeraries in his private psychodrama. The protest for him was not politics, but theater; and the significance of his role lay not in the political ends his actions might achieve, but rather in their symbolic value as ritual. In short, he was acting out a fantasy.
And that is mainly what will be going on in Nashville this afternoon. This is the real distinction between the various Occupy movements and the Tea Party. The former wants the self-centered feel-goodism of the protest itself, the warm fuzziness of pretending to stick it to The Man, of marching on the right side of history. And that is sufficient. Like the charmingly naive and harmless Hirak Pati, the marchers go home filled with self-justified satisfaction of just having been there. They are True Believers, and belief is the point.

But the Tea Party is filled to a high level not with True Believers only, but with True Believers who are also dynamic actors. Their mass demonstrations were not intended to make themselves feel good about The Cause and their place in it, but to organize to action. And so they were able to get about three dozen people elected to Congress in 2010 who work the Tea Party agenda there.

This will never happen with the Occupy movements. For them, the march is the point and now job done. For the Tea Party, the march was a means, and most work is yet to be done.

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