Saturday, November 19, 2011

American Exceptionalism part OWS

A while back I read this article, and it's really stuck with me as a cool episode of American history, and of how the American system can work. Basically, it's about a guy (Jose Julio Sarria) who, back when this was actually a point that even needed to be made (1961), wanted to make the point that there were a lot of gay voters in San Francisco. And he made it by putting himself out there, running for city council as an openly gay man and giving people a chance to support him secretly through the ballot. He didn't come anywhere close to winning, but he helped put at least a rough, and surprisingly high, number on the strength of the gay vote in the city...which I'm sure changed the decision making process of other politicians from then on. And that's just pretty darn cool.

The article's been out for a while, but I was thinking about it again in light of the Occupy Wall Street protests, and specifically what is and isn't effective in producing change in this country. The costs that a large scale protest like this impose on people who are just trying to get to their jobs, or just trying to run a business, or just want some peace and quiet can be confusing to justify when the results are so ambiguous. But then again, there is a certain value to protesters who will put themselves out there like that. Without Occupy Wall Street, there would be no polls trying to measure support for Occupy Wall Street, and you can take it as a matter of faith that a lot of political strategists are looking at those polls right now and trying to decide what they mean for their candidates. Which will lead to something, or's hard to tell. It's kind of a cop out, or else just entirely predictable, for me to end this on a note of "I don't know" but the truth is I really don't know what I think about the efficacy of public protest. The Occupy Wall Street movement has me thinking about it more seriously than I ever really have in the past though, which I guess is to it's credit.


  1. To me, a largely uninformed viewer, I look occupy wall street as a left wing version of the tea party. Both seem to me to be grass roots movements coming from a common place, but shaped and directed in very different ways by their party affiliations and culture.

    That's a big claim, one which wouldn't be welcome by either side. I know I'm not informed enough to to really make that case, so I'm not going to try.

    I'd like to see an in depth analysis of that idea, by someone who understands things at more than the superficial level, but I haven't seen it yet. Then again I haven't really looked. Tell me if you come across something

  2. I think Occupy Wall Street is context dependent in a way that the Tea Party isn't. Overall I'd say the Tea Party has a lot in common with Move On...people outraged at elected leaders who they perceive as being radically out of step with "real" American values, but fundamentally within the normal political process and with deep historical the Tea Party's case to the Perot & Buchanan voters of the 1990s, and the John Birch Society before that. The Occupy Wall Street people, on the other hand, define themselves almost completely based on their very personal and very current conditions; unemployed for x months, y thousand dollars in debt. There's less of an overarching worldview that has the potential to sustain itself for decades, and more of an immediacy that, combined with their youth and their perception that they don't have all that much to lose right now, makes them seem more threatening than grandma on the street corner waiving her "Obama is a socialist" sign.

  3. Hmm...

    1) MoveOn seems to me to have a certain non-immediacy to it, that Occupy LA and the Tea party lack. More of a grumble, but not do anything drastic, because I'm over here being a professional. Is my opinion based on anything?

    I base this quite a bit on what I've stumbled on in terms of results. MoveOn didn't have senators holding budget negotiations hostage, and doesn't seem like it would want them to (because, MoveOn people are sensible). The Tea party did. The Occupy Wall Street people are also squeeky wheels.

    2) I actually think that both the tea party and Occupy wall street people feel they don't have much to lose. The young with no jobs, vs the old with fixed incomes, rising costs and a changing world.

    I do think you are right in that the former is more acute rather than chronic.

    3)I find both sides about equal in menace actually.

    I perceive the right as having a long history of covert violence opposition. RE:unions. Is that a fair characterization?

    I've never been to a tea party rally, but I have heard that their rhetoric is quite liberal in the use of hate/violence in their speech. I just want to register that from where I sit, I find them quite menacing.

    I wandered through the Occupy LA movement. An undercurrent of drug/unwashed culture was there, which was indeed threatening to me, especially given how square I am on that kinda thing. The age of them didn't really matter.

    However, the left has a long history of non violent protests/opposition. RE: civil rights.
    There was definite signs of that tradition there.

    What does Occupy wall streets rhetoric sound like? I know it uses the word Occupy, which is kinda charged. But does it use other charged language? Or is it more a hey, look at my personal suffering, this is wrong type feeling?

    In other words are they threatening or shaming?

  4. 1) I think I was conflating with Cindy Sheehan & the liberals who were doing more of the full scale picketing during the Bush years, so you're at least partially right. On the other hand, I think the difference might be less a matter of immediacy and more a matter of who has money to take out full page articles in the New York Times instead of trying attract attention with a sign on a stick in front of the White House. The biggest similarity I see is between what did to Joe Lieberman & the Tea Party's record of primarying established candidates. The Tea Party has been a lot more widely successful, but it's a difference of degree, and the characteristics of the parties they're operating in, rather than approach.

    2)It's difficult to get into how Tea Partiers may individually feel, but I think this poll ( undermines the idea that they're a group with strikingly little to lose. For the most part, they look to me like people who aren't going to want to get arrested because they have jobs & families, and who are going to have to pay up if they get fined for disorderly conduct. For the Occupy Wall Street protesters however...what exactly, short of physical violence, do you use to threaten somebody who's already willing to sleep on the street (jail would be so nice and warm in comparison, and even more protesty!), whose financial assets are in the negative numbers, and who is that pessimistic about their future prospects?

    3)Your distinction between threatening & shaming is an interesting one. I would say, by and large, the OWS rhetoric tends more towards shaming, and definitely is focused on personal suffering and the feeling that things are wrong. One of the more memorable signs says "Shit is fucked up and bullshit." But all of that shame comes with an implicit threat - fix it, or we will continue not to care about your private property laws, we will continue not to care if we are stopping traffic, and without our caring and playing along the system will break down. The Tea Party threats are more explicit..."It is time to water the tree of liberty," but also more metaphorical. Some nut might actually go out and attempt an assassination, but the guy would be a nut, and assassination does not actually accomplish much politically, at least in the US. I find the Tea Party menacing too, but based on what they are able to accomplish perfectly legally through the political process and the mobilization of sentiments have always been there in this country.