On Monday night, I joined a few hundred people in a Midtown Manhattan auditorium for a discussion hosted by The New Yorker, called “Main Street vs Wall Street.” Editor David Remnick was the moderator and the panelists were John Cassidy, who writes on economics for the magazine, Jill Lepore, a professor of American History who writes on that subject for the magazine, former NY governor Eliot Spitzer (my mother wrote on my Facebook page that “Eliot Spitzer should be boycotted” when she saw I was attending), Priscilla Grim, who works on The Occupied Wall Street Journal, and Arun Gupta, editor of The Indypendent.
On the way in, I heard someone say, “I’m kind of torn, because I should be at the General Assembly right now. I’ve gone almost every night.”
As things started off, my companion muttered to me, “Alright, let’s listen to liberals talking about liberals.” And to liberals, I thought to myself. Then again, I reflected later, that’s not a bad thing. Discussion within a group of like-minded people has often led society in new directions. (Which, by the way, is the overwhelming message I hear coming out of Occupy Wall Street, as I spend more and more time there.)
Remnick started out asking Grim, the youngest person on stage and therefore, by extension, somehow speaking for my generation, why it was important that Occupy Wall Street has no leader. And she nailed it: “Because,” she said,” if there’s a leader you can take him out but this way, it lives inside all of us.”
The discussion turned to populism, its roots. The word itself, according to Lepore, was coined in 1890 by a journalist writing about the People’s Party. Lepore pointed out that populism has traveled between the Left and the Right throughout the twentieth century. The Ku Klux Klan, she said, considered themselves populist. Nearly everything Lepore said was brilliant, but the thing most people will remember from that evening is the moment when she sneezed shockingly loud into the microphone. “Sorry…” she said. Read more