Bloggers Wrestle with Occupiers

Anonymous, averse to ideological categories, the movement gives the blogosphere fits.

By Crawford Kilian 16 Nov 2011 |

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

One of the striking aspects of the Occupy movement is that it came as an almost complete surprise to the pundits, columnists, and tweeters of the North American chattering classes. It has also been a surprise to the major political parties, which have so far kept a wary distance from occupied locations both here and in the U.S.

As a minor member of the online blogosphere, I was forcefully reminded of this on a visit to Occupy Vancouver, where I saw none of the old familiar faces from marches and protests of yesteryear. (Jim Sinclair of the BC Federation of Labour was there, but he too was just a tourist.)

The sheer anonymity of the occupiers is perplexing to an online culture where even the malcontents are famous for being malcontents. Even stranger, the occupiers have distracted the celebrity pundits from their usual attacks on one another. Now they're struggling to understand what Occupy is all about, or even partly about.

One notable pundit is Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone, who was attacking the banksters years ago. In a recent article, he explains How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the OWS Protests.

"You could put 50,000 angry protesters on Wall Street, 100,000 even, and Lloyd Blankfein is probably not going to break a sweat... Yell and scream all you want, but he and his fellow financial Frankensteins are only ones who know how to turn the machine off...

"But I'm beginning to see another angle. Occupy Wall Street was always about something much bigger than a movement against big banks and modern finance. It's about providing a forum for people to show how tired they are not just of Wall Street, but everything... If there is such a thing as going on strike from one's own culture, this is it. And by being so broad in scope and so elemental in its motivation, it's flown over the heads of many on both the right and the left."

This is a key insight, since most of the online bloviators are there to push a particular ideological line. They judge everything and everyone by that line, and always look for the axe in need of grinding. Faced with a crowd without an axe in sight, they're not sure what they're dealing with.

A right-wing blogger at Reason Hit & Run, talking about the Nov. 15 eviction of occupiers from Zuccotti Park, wrote about another right-wing blogger: "Dan Foster's 140-character take on the eviction is that Bloomberg just effectively martyred Occupy's puppeteers, unemployed college grads, and other long-hair types."

Following the Zuccottibots on Loservision

That comfort with stereotyping permeates the American right, and Canadian right-wingers share it. Hence Small Dead Animals has been running its posts under the title "Hashtag of the Entitlement Generation," where the occupiers are referred to as "Zuccottibots" whose eviction is covered on "Loservision." A Toronto Conservative blogger recently complained that "I attend the Cathedral Church of St. James in Toronto. It is now surrounded by a tent city of Occupy Toronto deadbeats."

To define the occupiers as "long-hair types," "Zuccottibots" and "deadbeats" is to save oneself the trouble of actually trying to learn what they're concerned about. But to ignore the occupiers' motives is to see their actions as unmotivated, which is the definition of melodrama. A political analysis based on melodrama is unlikely to teach us much.

Left-wing bloggers, meanwhile, have also seen the Zuccotti Park eviction as a stroke of luck for the occupiers. Ezra Klein in the Washington Post, like Dan Foster of the National Review, thought Bloomberg had done them a favour.

"The occupation of Zuccotti Park was always going to have a tough time enduring for much longer. As the initial excitement wore off and the cold crept in, only the diehards -- and those with no place else to go -- were likely to remain. The numbers in Zuccotti Park would thin, and so too would the media coverage. And in the event someone died of hypothermia, or there was some other disaster, that coverage could turn. What once looked like a powerful protest could come to be seen as a dangerous frivolity." As indeed Occupy Vancouver risked becoming after the death of Ashlie Gough.

Unlike his right-wing colleagues, Klein also praised the occupiers: "[T]hey have changed the national conversation. Income inequality is now a top-tier issue. Before Occupy Wall Street, it wasn't."

Blogging economist Paul Krugman also gave the eviction a backhanded compliment: "By acting so badly, Bloomberg has made it easy to see who won't be truthful and can't handle open discourse. He's also saved OWS from what was probably its great problem, the prospect that it would just fade away as time went on and the days grew colder."

'Louts, thieves, and rapists'

But the debate wasn't confined just to the political bloggers. A lively quarrel exploded when graphic novelist Frank Miller, the author of 300, posted on his blog.

"The 'Occupy' movement, whether displaying itself on Wall Street or in the streets of Oakland (which has, with unspeakable cowardice, embraced it) is anything but an exercise of our blessed First Amendment. 'Occupy' is nothing but a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness. These clowns can do nothing but harm America."

This received a counterblast from SF author David Brin, attacking 300 as "ninety minutes of homoerotic dancing" that also ignored the actual history of the Athenians' defeat of Persia. While it was an entertaining personal attack on Miller, it said nothing really about the occupiers or their motives.

Even those liveblogging the occupiers, like Greg Mitchell at The Nation, are more caught up in the events of the moment than in the ideas that have brought the occupiers into confrontations with their local governments and police. This makes for exciting narrative, but no more clarity than we had two months ago.

The occupiers themselves are evidently still struggling for such clarity. In the New York Review of Books, Michael Greenberg described a young doctor who had joined the movement.

"She still felt the movement lacked 'a coherent narrative'... Katie said she was ready to propose a media blackout: no more talking to the press. 'It's time for us to look inward, and figure out where we are and where we want to be'... [T]he political issue around which a movement could coalesce remained elusive... By refusing to make a specific demand, they didn't risk being denied or, worse, becoming mired in an endless process of legislative negotiation. But without one, they were in danger of becoming a dwindling protest movement with a limited concentration of militant supporters."

The professional bloggers and tweeters haven't articulated a specific demand that the occupiers could agree with either. Talking about income inequality is fine, but not exactly a program for revolution. Still, as we all grope around in this uncertain new political world, we may all learn more from our mistakes than from our successes -- including the cops and politicians.

[Tags: Politics.]  [Tyee]

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