Optimism in the public sphere is always refreshing
The Occupy Wall Street movement is leaderless, somewhat vague and lacking vision. Still, people are joining in growing numbers around the world in spite of the fact that the movement is flawed in so many very fundamental ways.
And I love it. I’m a sucker for rebels, malcontents, subversives and nonconformists. Always have been and always will be. Makes for challenging parenting. It’s a delicate proposition to encourage one’s children to break the rules and challenge authority while also encouraging them to follow most of the rules and respect teachers, coaches and other adults.
I found my first literary hero in middle school. It was Henry David Thoreau and his essay “Civil Disobedience,” which argues that one’s conscience is the moral compass one should follow, not the rules imposed by a state or national government (or, for me during those teen years, silly school rules that wouldn’t let me forego classes on a beautiful late summer day to hang out at the lake with the other malcontents).
It’s a collective moral compass that’s driving this growing movement, telling people that something is fundamentally wrong. In one sense it is a very simple reaction to the country’s problems, such as the fact that the disparity between CEO compensation and average worker pay has doubled in the last decade. Or that political leaders and parties vote against issues they once supported and that might help the country simply because that vote might benefit the opponent or the opposition party.
This all sounds simple, but as one writer has said of the protestors, sometimes simplicity can be very complicated.
Reacting against Wall Street greed, in general, is very easy. Then it gets complicated when we are forced to admit that Wall Street only does what government allows it to do (most of the time). The crash followed years of de-regulation and laissez-faire enforcement from both the Clinton and Bush administrations.
Then there are the Occupy Wall Street attacks on capitalism. Capitalism can be very, well, dog-eat-dog, rewarding the most successful with untold riches. But it has helped us create a very large, very important social safety net. It also encourages entrepreneurship and individualism and invention, which have become synonymous with the American identity and has been the catalyst for making us the leader of the free world.
What these protests lack in intensity and message they make up for in inclusion. All are welcome, whether it’s aging hippies or college students, union supporters and anti-war pacifists, the unemployed and the stay-at-home dad. The shared values are frustration, anger, helplessness and — optimism. The belief that knitting together people from varied backgrounds and beliefs can make a difference in government and in the economy is refreshing. This a big-net, wild-eyed kind of optimism.
And while it shares the belief in the power of democracy that is touted by the Tea Party, it is radically different. Tea Partiers talk about taking America back, but it’s not quite clear who we would be taking it back from; they talk about stopping “them” from spending our money or taking our jobs, but again, it’s not quite clear who “them” is.
A colleague of mine said the Tea Partiers and the Occupy Wall Street supporters — both with their passion and their belief that people can wield influence in a democracy — may end up eventually backing into each other and finding common ground.
Perhaps. That would be called compromise, and I think these new protestors and their open-armed inclusion are symbolic of the kind of compromise we need to solve some very big problems. This movement may very well fizzle, but its fundamental philosophy is admirable.