Economic development · New York City · Occupy Wall Street · Personal Essays

A Politics Outside Washington Unites A Generation

Occupy protesters in front of the White House last week

Today, the religion writer and editor of Petrolmag.com Jonathan D. Fitzgerald wrote an essay that compared my Killing the Buddha piece on Occupy Wall Street, “Mic Checked,” with a Washington Post essay by Iraq War veteran and current graduate student Thomas Day reflecting on the Penn State sexual harassment scandal. In both cases, Fitzgerald says that we are both similarly describing the overall pessimistic view of our generation, and disillusionment with the older generations that are supposed to be guiding this country. He says that my piece, which seems to end on a positive note by describing the power of Occupy to transform an individual and foster activist communities, is actually still pessimistic – because, to Fitzgerald, to occupy isn’t “everything,” as I wrote. For him, it’s not enough. It’s not enough to occupy space; we need more concrete, “creative solutions.”

But I think Fitzgerald underestimates what Occupy Wall Street has done for the nation. It has not created legislation, that’s true. Nor has it brought, say, Goldman Sachs to their knees, begging for mercy. There were too many cops around for that to come to pass. But Occupy has awakened Americans who were either drifting through life in consumerist slumbers or who were too isolated and depressed to speak out about their hardships. It was also a collective, generational proclamation to predecessors (our parents, perhaps), who fought for environmental justice and civil rights. It was our way of saying that we are continuing those unfinished fights, to the best of our ability: even though we are overwhelmingly underemployed and in debt.

Fitzgerald’s piece reminds me a bit of George Packer’s recent blog post, where he compares two equally distant extremes in American society: Peter Thiel, a wealthy, libertarian Silicon Valley entrepreneur, and Ray Katchel, a former tech worker from Seattle who decided to take a bus to New York to join Occupy when he found himself unemployed, broke, and losing his apartment. Packer says that these two represent a “politics of dissolution” that unites Americans in a sense that they are both looking for something, anything, other than the existing order of things. “Something about the turbulence of this age, the deep sense of dissatisfaction with things as they are, prompts people to discard the stale verities and invent new ones,” Packer writes. 

And Occupy Wall Street is one of the new ways forward that we are trying out – rather than the more formal bureaucratic mechanisms of change some of us, raised in politically-active homes, grew up with: voting, door-to-door canvassing for causes, letter-writing, etc (not to mention those Greenpeace folks who stand on sidewalks asking for money). Occupy confuses most people precisely because it is so new and unfamiliar. It is a politics outside the kind of politics that Washington espouses; it asks more of us than to step into a voting booth once a year, more even than to form a PAC.

The difference between Thomas Day and me is, like that between Thiel and Katchel, significant: Day fought in the Iraq War, which I protested against as a college student. Day was a recipient of charity – Jerry Sandusky’s charity, Second Mile – while I was often engaged in charitable work as a volunteer or organizer. He’s Catholic; I’m Jewish.

But nevertheless, Day and I are saying some very similar things. He writes, “We looked to Washington to lead us after September 11th. I remember telling my college roommates, in a spate of emotion, that I was thinking of enlisting in the military in the days after the attacks. I expected legions of us — at the orders of our leader — to do the same. But nobody asked us. Instead we were told to go shopping.

And in “Mic Checked,” I refer again and again to the various everyday distractions, commodified experiences, and automated acts that keep us from examining what’s ailing us and society. Both Day and I are saying: this will go on no longer. This generation is tired of listening to promises from government (“Those of us who did enlist were ordered into Iraq on the promise of being ‘greeted as liberators,’ in the words of our then-vice president. Several thousand of us are dead from that false promise,” Day writes), both past administrations and this one (where’s that health care, Obama? Closed Guantanamo, yet?). We are tired of keeping up our end of the social contract – getting educated, looking for jobs, trying to be engaged and informed citizens – and finding it not maintained, even blatantly disrespected, by the other side.

When people complain to me that Occupy Wall Street never got anything done, or that the General Assembly was a messy cacophony of voices, I want to ask in return, and what about Congress? Why are we paying them to blunder any opportunity for dealing with imminent crises like the national debt or to pass legislation we desperately need like the Jobs Act? If there’s something to be pessimistic about, it’s not Occupy Wall Street. It’s Congress. We’re already seeing change come from Occupy and it’s going to continue coming. What we are not seeing, however, is any sign of transformation in Washington. Looks like we’re on our own in that regard.

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