One of the biggest problems with information in the digital age is how much of it there is. Far from the days when there was one phone company and maybe one or two different news stations or newspapers per borough, and farther still from the days of the town crier, we have discovered a new problem: surfeited with data, not only are we quick to lose perspective, but we cannot even know who to trust.
Intentionally massaging coverage of incidents to highlight one side or another can be done — and no doubt regularly is done — by anyone with half a brain, though the effectiveness of the spin varies from place to place. Thanks to the ever-greater diffusion of information through the Internet, it is much easier to get a balanced picture, or so we think.
The truth is that we like to hear people who agree with us and tend to have much less patience for anyone offering a different opinion. Though Catholics are notorious for not reading the Bible as much as many Protestant denominations, think how many fewer of the Mass-going crowd have read — let alone really thought about and grappled with — Richard Dawkins, to take a single, if prominent, instance. And of course there are examples of this among all demographics because it is simply human.
Interestingly, one of the recent controversies that seems to be at least somewhat aware of this difficulty is the Occupy movement (which, for my convenience and yours, I will abbreviate OWS for Occupy Wall Street). OWS claims and aims to be something more than Democrats or even liberals; it wants to get beyond the sectarianism and deal with what they see as real problems, chief among them being severe economic disparity.
OWS uses social media to spread its message, but shows it’s serious by taking over sections of public places (all as lawful as they can make it). This is not just an online petition or a college club that meets on Wednesdays. Of course, there are exceptions; the point of the movement is to take the power out of the hands of the selfish people at the top who abuse it. Whether or not that is an accurate description of the present situation is a matter of some debate.
The questions about OWS fall into two categories: are they right, and are they doing the right thing about it? For all its rhetoric and longing, I am afraid OWS is not all that bipartisan, though I’m sure some of its supporters would be just as happy without “brain-dead Republicans.” The simplest proof of this is that they criticize the Wall Street bailouts, but not their architect (you know, the fellow in the Oval Office).
To be fair, their rhetoric certainly suggests that they don’t want it to be that way. OWS is self-described as “a post-political movement representing something far greater than failed party politics.” According to their own survey, “close to 70.3 percent” of OWS supporters consider themselves Independents. On the other hand, only 2.4 percent said they were Republicans, which is smaller than the number of people sampled who did not support the protests (6.5 percent). The survey concluded that “Our data suggest that the 99-percent movement comes from and looks like the 99 percent.” But 92.1 percent of the sample had spent at least some time at college. Perhaps this is as close as anyone can get to the 99 percent.
And maybe a movement like this has to be diplomatic. As little as either side might like to admit it, the Tea Party and OWS have a lot in common. Both are grassroots organizations that formed in a disgusted response to the way things were being run by the powerful elites. The Tea Party didn’t like the bailouts either; they smelled of crony capitalism, which no conservative supports. The Tea Party was also tired of the NeoCons running things. And the Tea Party’s critics also seized on all the opportunities they could to make them look bad. What was the result? The Tea Party forced change, but it did so within the current system. OWS may not want that, but they may have to settle. “The biggest difference between the Tea Party and OWS is that the Tea Party has the support of the Koch Bros as well as Fox News itself,” said OWS organizer Harrison Schultz.
I mean, I’ll flat out say it: I’m not sure OWS has the best grip on the way things are or how they should be. But I’m not going to tell you stories about how icky they are or how they’re probably unemployed bums and college kids with nothing better to blah blah blah. That’s not a point worth making, even if it were all true of all of them. But for the same reason I’m not going to tell stories about police brutality or jackasses destroying the protestor’s property and think that settles matters.
Of course some people are going to the protests just hoping for some free love or free something else; no doubt there’s some people trying to make money off of it (though I understand that at least the Wall Street group is doing a very good and equitable job in taking care of their community needs). So what? What the leaders have to say is what’s important. If it’s meaningless, then it doesn’t matter how nice the protests are; they’re wasting their own time if nothing else. If it’s the right thing, then I figure it’s probably worth a few more stoned twenty-somethings writing bad poetry. And if it’s somewhere in between, well, maybe then we can start adding up all the little things.
Maybe I’ve been unfair. OWS does desperately want to be post-political, though I imagine they don’t want to abolish politics in general, perhaps just the system we have now (if that). Of course, although they want to abolish it, the most glaring economic problems (the real-estate crash and the Wall Street bailouts) in their minds come from a suppression of the free-market, but that is neither here nor there. The problem is not just the usual jeer that OWS doesn’t have a message; the problem is in all the implications of all the messages that come out. It’d be easy to call them all a bunch of liberals and then think about them as one does about liberals, but I think they do realize (or are starting to realize) that Obama is not their answer, and maybe no Democrat can be. Both OWS and liberals blame the rich, but OWS also blames the system that liberals love: big government. Schultz even said: “Corporations owned by rich people are much more functional and efficient compared to governments.”
OWS is about self-empowerment and social change. They want this to be achieved on their terms, without being co-opted. But what can they achieve? OWS can’t take the government over by force, and not only are their potential candidates unelectable, but they wouldn’t run in the first place.
Antagonizing the powerful is all well and good – and maybe they do deserve it. Maybe we do need the social change that OWS wants for us. But how are we going to get it?
Well, there is another non-political group that has overseen and encouraged social progress. It’s had its own problems with corruption and confusion, but it’s always had a message of love and brotherhood at its core. It may be too much of an institution — too respectable — for OWS to trust, but the Catholic Church has been fighting its fight for a lot longer. The most obviously absent statistic from the surveys on OWS is the religiousness of the respondents. I suspect a large number of them are atheists, agnostics or non-practicing.
Though they may indeed be post-political, OWS seems socially almost monolithic. Dr. Costas Panagopoulos performed his own survey of OWS and found that 80 percent identify themselves as liberals, but about 75 percent disapprove of Obama’s performance as President. Though recent notes suggest the Vatican has a slight leftwards lean in economic matters, and is certainly big on peace, love and morality in all sectors of life, I fear neither it nor OWS desires much association with the other.
What does that leave OWS with? Well, itself. Who will trust self-described anarchists with the keys to an institution? And where else will they find the power to change anything, unless in the barrel of a gun? If OWS turns outward and works for change, it will be the first thing that changes. If it turns inwards and simply becomes a commune, then that will simply be it. And if it stays the same and grows? It will eventually cross a line that it will have no strength to hold. Of course, OWS is already changing; committees have been set up to handle various affairs. Union officials have been helping out (if OWS really fears being co-opted, that’s where it’s going to come from). And just two weeks ago, Occupy Boston kicked out two members of its financial committee for allegedly mismanaging funds. When the post-political group not only has politics but political trouble, it’s time to take a second look.
by Joseph Dobbs