Thursday, November 24, 2011

My view on the Occupy Movement as of right now

A family member recently asked me about my view on the Occupy Movement. I thought about it for a few days and realized that I could write 20K words about it in an attempt to explain my views, but that this would take much more time than I have in the midst of a new job, the book project, the Holidays, etc. So, I will let far more knowledgeable and eloquent people speak on my behalf, and call upon one extremely flawed counter-example for contrast.

Here is my view on the Occupy Movement as of right now:

From David Weigel at Slate:
    We're hearing about the arrests, and passing around meme/photos of cops shooting pepper spray at kids. Matt Taibbi does yeoman work tying these stories together.
      Not to belabor the point, but the person who commits fraud to obtain food stamps goes to jail, while the banker who commits fraud for a million-dollar bonus does not. Or if you accept aid in the form of Section-8 housing, the state may insist on its right to conduct warrantless "compliance check" searches of your home at any time – but if you take billions in bailout aid, you do not even have to open your books to the taxpayer who is the de facto owner of your company.
      The state wants to retain the power to make these subjective decisions, because being allowed to selectively enforce the law effectively means they have despotic power. And who wants to lose that?
From Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times:
    . . . in a larger sense, the furor over the eviction of protesters in New York, Oakland, Portland and other cities is a sideshow. Occupy Wall Street isn’t about real estate, and its signal achievement was not assembling shivering sleepers in a park.
    The high ground that the protesters seized is not an archipelago of parks in America, but the national agenda. The movement has planted economic inequality on the nation’s consciousness, and it will be difficult for any mayor or police force to dislodge it.
    A reporter for Politico found that use of the words “income inequality” quintupled in a news database after the Occupy protests began. That’s a significant achievement, for this is an issue that goes to our country’s values and our opportunities for growth — and yet we in the news business have rarely given it the attention it deserves.
    The statistic that takes my breath away is this: The top 1 percent of Americans possess a greater net worth than the entire bottom 90 percent, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute.
    A new study by Michael I. Norton of Harvard Business School and Dan Ariely of Duke University polled Americans about what wealth distribution would be optimal. People across the board thought that the richest 20 percent of Americans should control about one-third of the nation’s wealth, and the poorest 20 percent about one-tenth.
    In fact, the richest 20 percent of Americans own more than 80 percent of the country’s wealth. And the poorest 20 percent own one-tenth of 1 percent.
    It would be easier to accept this gulf between the haves and the have-nots if it could be spanned by intelligence and hard work. Sometimes it can. But over all, such upward mobility in the United States seems more constrained than in the supposed class societies of Europe.
    Research by the Economic Mobility Project, which explores accessibility to the American dream, suggests that the United States provides less intergenerational mobility than most other industrialized nations do. That’s not only because of tax policy, which is what liberals focus on. Perhaps even more important are educational investments, like early childhood education, to try to even the playing field. We can’t solve inequality unless we give poor and working-class kids better educational opportunities.
    The Occupy movement is also right that one of the drivers of inequality (among many) is the money game in politics. Michael Spence, a Nobel Prize-winning economist who shares a concern about rising inequality, told me that we’ve seen “an evolution from one propertied man, one vote; to one man, one vote; to one person, one vote; trending to one dollar, one vote.”
    James M. Stone, former chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, said in a recent speech that many members of Congress knew that banks needed to be more tightly regulated, perhaps broken into smaller pieces.
    “So why was this not done?” he asked. “One obvious piece of the answer is that both political parties rely heavily on campaign contributions from the financial sector.”
    The solution to these inequities and injustices is not so much setting up tents at bits of real estate here or there, but a relentless focus on the costs of inequality. So as we move into an election year, I’m hoping that the movement will continue to morph into: Occupy the Agenda. [Nicholas Kristof, "Occupy the Agenda," New York Times, Nov. 19, 2011.
David Lister, on the other hand, provides a clear example of someone who is either too ignorant or too committed to his ideological views to consider the very real substance of the Occupy Movement—or is purposely & nefariously trying to muddy the waters (I suspect the second). Lister first provides some facile comparisons between the Occupy Movement and the 1932 Bonus March which enables him to conclude that the Occupy Movement doesn't measure up to his expectations. These comparisons are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of a core part of what Occupy is all about.

For example, Lister claims that "The bonus marchers purposefully kept out anarchists and troublemakers. The Occupiers embraced them." This comparison is ridiculous for at least four reasons:

1) The Occupy Movement's core principles include an unyielding commitment to diversity and inclusion, so purposefully keeping out an entire group of people simply because they call themselves "anarchists" (or "capitalists," for that matter) would violate one of their fundamental values. Lister here commits a straw man fallacy.

2) Certainly, some anarchists are troublemakers, but "anarchist" does not equal "troublemaker," as Lister insinuates. Here Lister attempts to denigrate the Occupy Movement using guilt by association and by implying a connection between "anarchist" and "troublemaker" that doesn't necessarily follow. The fallacy in Lister's thinking here becomes apparent when one reconstructs Lister's sentence as ". . . purposefully kept out police and troublemakers." "Police" does not equal "troublemaker," in spite of what sometimes seems like an abundance of evidence to the contrary.

3) Lister's argument comes up short because it's also based on an appeal to fear: if one follows the false proposition that the Occupy Movement has no core values worthy of consideration, and the false claim that movement embraces "anarchists" who are all "troublemakers," then it would certainly follow that one need not attempt to understand the Movement or engage with the Movement's critiques because they're all just barbarians who want to tear our society down. Based on his false reading and his superficial comparison to the Bonus March of 1932, Lister implies that police are perfectly justified in using their clubs, pepper spray, and tear gas, before the unwashed heathen masses burn our crops and take our daughters away.

4) Even if one aggregated all of the "troublemakers" ("anarchist" or otherwise) within the individual Occupy Portland, Occupy Wall Street, etc., movements, one would find that this group represents an extremely small fraction of those involved. News outlets gravitate to "troublemakers" like moths to a flame, and ideologues salivate whenever they can point to the actions of "troublemakers," but the simple truth of the matter is that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of perfectly peaceful, nonviolent, protesters for every one "troublemaker." Just as the core arguments of the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle have been obscured by the actions of relatively few "troublemakers," so does mainstream media and certain groups with power and privilege seek to denigrate the entire Occupy Movement by associating it with a fringe and very, very small fraction of participants. They do so because it's much easier to come to a knee-jerk, reactionary opinion about something than it is to try to understand the issues; for people and institutions fully invested in the current system of inequality and injustice, it's also beneficial to misrepresent critics so as to remain in power and privilege. Lister takes this approach in his op-ed.

Lister then concludes his piece with another example of the straw man fallacy so that he can provide we readers with what he feels to be An Important Life Lesson. Lister's concluding paragraphs illustrate how obtuse he is. His words prove how little he knows about the Occupy Movement's goals. They also prove how little he respects historical research generally. His comparison of Occupy with the Bonus March is supposed to impress readers, who might be led to conclude, "oh, Lister has called upon historical evidence, he must know what he's talking about," when, in fact, Lister merely cherry-picked a history-like meme that came across his transom because it seemed to support his preconceived ideas.

The irony of Lister's concluding paragraphs is that he identified precisely what the Occupy Movement is all about, without trying to do so or understanding what he'd done (in my bold sections below):
    If you could synthesize their multiple messages into a theme, it seems they are saying, "We were promised the American dream, and we haven't received it."
    I am unsympathetic. . . . The American dream is not a promise; it is an opportunity. The American dream cannot be given; it can only be achieved. And in America, unlike most of the rest of the world, it is achievable. The only thing standing between any person and the attainment of the American dream is that person himself. [David Lister, "Protest without purpose: Unlike Bonus March, Occupy goals are nebulous ," Oregonian, Nov. 24, 2011.]
The Occupy Movement has arisen precisely because the promise of the American dream—however that may be defined—has been broken by the inadequacy of federal regulatory and enforcement structures and the sociopathic greed of key groups and institutions. The "only thing standing between any person and the attainment of the American dream" is not "that person [her or] himself," no matter how much David Lister, Charles Krauthammer, Michelle Malkin, Rush Limbaugh, and all the other blowhards of like mind claim otherwise.

I could spend much more time finding examples, but that, in a nutshell, is what I think of the Occupy Movement.



  1. I have to say I'm not a conservative or a tea party supporter, but this cartoon pretty much sums up my feelings about the Occupy movement.

  2. pretty much sums up my feelings about the Occupy movement --> That may be a summary of your feelings, but what is the base of evidence upon which your feelings are founded? I'm truly keen to know.

    Kristof's op-ed, in particular, points to some clear examples of quantifiable evidence upon which the Occupy Movement is based, and from which my own support of the movement is based. I then cite Lister's op-ed as an example of a view of the movement that is based on inaccuracies and logical fallacies, which then lead to an indefensible conclusion.

    Have you seen direct evidence that the Occupy Movement is anti-capitalist? I'm open to seeing this evidence, but fear that painting the movement as anti-capitalist is another way to avoid what the movement is actually trying to say (see, for example,

  3. I don't have any evidence, other than it seems to me that the protesters would do better to move wealth away from the 1% by not supporting walmart, mcdonalds, starbucks, apple, and other huge corporations that they are pissed off at. It's like people who disagree with logging living in wooden houses, writing on paper and using all the other products wood supplies. Just marching on various cities and causing problems may make their message heard, but it doesn't do anything to change the underlying problem.

  4. It is a fascinating dynamic of the movement that so many people are put-off by their tactics of disrupting the usual flow of traffic & etc. Some in the movement say that that's precisely why they do what they do, others are more sympathetic to finding other ways to make their voices heard. The sad thing, from my perspective, is that their message gets lost in the midst of the actions that they're taking precisely to get their message across. I would caution people _not_ to take at face-value whatever messages the mainstream media promulgates, because their coverage is very often superficial and focused only on the very small minority of "troublemakers" and the disruptions to the usual flow of things. I would invite people to look a bit deeper and ask themselves what might be some of the primary reasons why so many people are taking such steps.

    Also, you yourself admit that you "don't have any evidence," so it could just as easily be the case that what you think is largely wrong.

  5. A reply: "Why do so many people join the movement? Because it's the "cool" thing to do! I bet you could survey the protesters and find that many of them are completely ignorant about the movement's purpose. Americans are sheep. And just because I don't have "evidence" doesn't mean I'm wrong. I fail to see how your argument is evidence. It's an opinion just like mine...but with a lot more words :)"

  6. Another reply: "If you want real evidence that I'm wrong, I suggest you go down to Occupy Portland and take that survey I mentioned."

  7. Actually, by citing evidence both direct ( and indirect (by way of Kristof,, and pointing out both the evidentiary and logical shortcomings of one Occupy critic (, I have done much more than state an opinion: I have presented a fact-based argument to justify my support of the general work that Occupy is doing. This is a critical distinction that should not be overlooked. Opinions and other such non-fact-based assumptions keep us all awash in seemingly co-equal abstractions, and we'll not advance democracy or justice with our heads in the clouds or the sand.

  8. A comment: "I feel pretty conflicted about the Occupy movement. On the one hand, I really appreciate that they raised awareness of wealth inequality and successfully added reality to the national dialogue. I also really liked the fact that people realized that they can stand up to banks by moving their money to local banks and credit unions. On the other hand, however, I was deeply disturbed by what was happening at the Portland camp. I can't speak for other cities, but in Portland we (as in the Downtown Neighborhood Association and my Public Safety subcommittee) found that the majority of the people at Chapman and Lownsdale Squares were homeless or recently housed and they went to the Squares for the sense of community, which is good, but then there was the secondary problem of mental illness coupled with the lack of the safety net and boundaries that exist when the same population goes to the many social service agencies in downtown. My Public Safety chair runs a homeless street youth outreach ministry and he spent a lot of hours working with the police at the camp. He was very concerned by what was happening in the tents that weren't accessible to public view - drug overdoses and assaults were more common than the media let on, but people didn't want to hear that; indeed, many supporters complained that reporting those incidents was a smear technique. The businesses in the area immediately surrounding the camp also reported a large spike in shoplifting and stolen tip jars. The essential message of Occupy was good, but I think the camps undermined and distracted people from the message."

  9. I hear what you're saying. There's a lot of nuance with the movement that can't be summarized as "anti-capitalist" or "anarchist troublemakers," etc. (though I don't pretend to claim that some people involved with the movement may subscribe to one or both of these points of view). From my perspective, some of the key reasons why I do support the movement generally is "they raised awareness of wealth inequality and successfully added reality to the national dialogue. . . . [and] people realized that they can stand up to banks by moving their money to local banks and credit unions."

  10. Here's an interesting article, apropos of the above: Andrew Hartman, "Occupy Wall Street: a New Culture War?," Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 12, 2011.