Principles Aren’t Good TV: The Limits Of Occupy Wall Street’s Good Intentions

Nov 26 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

So my video this week takes on three key points; the first being a coherent, concise definition of the Occupy movement in response to repeated questions from intelligent, well-informed friends who have trouble condensing it into an easily-digested philosophy.

The second two points address what I see as major – potentially fatal- flaws in the Occupy movement’s general philosophy.  This article will look more closely at the underlying source of those flaws.

In short:  the Occupy movement is currently at great risk of choking to death on its own good intentions.

The first of these is an approach of broad inclusion.  I have seen, many times, such sweeping generalities as “we must not exclude anyone,” or “all are welcome.”  There seems to be a failure here to recognize that this means we “must not exclude” neo-Nazis, child molesters, violent anarchists, and those who would deliberately subvert the movement for their own ends, among others whose participation and inclusion is, at best, questionable.

Why is this problematic?

Well, take a look at the photo I’ve included with this article.  A few weeks ago, this photo was published on Facebook by a woman who is a member of the NYSE, with the claim that it was a picture of the OWS crowd.

The photo actually shows some violent anarchists, broadly considered by those present to be unwelcome infiltrators and probably agents provocateur, at an anti-war rally…in Portland, Oregon, in 2007.

It has literally nothing to do with the Occupy movement…yet this one woman managed to get nearly 1,200 shares of this image complete with the unquestionably deceitful blame directed at the Occupy movement, before a few sharp-eyed individuals stepped up and put a stop to it.

The worst part:  even when people sharing this photo were told the photo was not legitimate as presented, they still believed it was representative of the Occupy movement.  I personally contacted nearly a thousand people who shared this photo, and while there were a few who responded reasonably, the vast majority of responses were along the lines of “what difference does it make, this is what they stand for.”  Which is, of course, patently ridiculous.

And that brings us to the second cause for great concern:  Occupy is not in control of its own message.

I don’t mean to be all “negative Nancy” about it or anything, but those who are living inside the Occupy bubble don’t seem to realize that even while much of America, and the world, supports them in principle, that support is as vague and diaphanous as the movement itself is perceived to be.  For the vast majority of people, “Occupy” is a flash in the pan, a fringe group of malcontents that can be safely dismissed.

Most major media is reporting very little about the aggression that is taking place; our government is routinely attacking unarmed, peaceful, law-abiding citizens with military-grade weaponry…and nobody’s noticing.  Nobody’s noticing because there’s not enough structure within the Occupy movement.  If police in my town of Kalamazoo, Michigan decide to use a sound cannon on protesters tomorrow, who will the media call for comment? 

Nobody knows, because by and large the Occupy movement has failed to manage itself in terms that the majority of the world can related to.  We can all agree that much is badly flawed about the news media, regardless of your politics and preferences…but they are the only news media we have, and they are absolutely trying to maintain contact with Occupy.  Yet time and time again, the movement falls back to its “safe” position – “we have no leaders, we have no spokespeople, nobody is the designated voice of the collective.”  That’s a great principle…but it’s a useless reality when dealing with the news media.  They don’t care about your ideals and principles – they care about getting someone on-screen for 90 seconds with short, concise sound bites.  That’s the machine that’s out there, and while it’s all well and good to say “the machine is broken,” the reality is that it’s the only machine you have and to fail to use it is hobbling the movement.

The media in 2001, by and large, does not report…it repeats.  It can’t repeat if you don’t tell it what to say, and it abhors silence…so it will fill that silence.  If the NYPD has a statement prepared and Occupy doesn’t, guess what John and Susie Middle-America are hearing?  That’s right – the narrative that is dictated to them by the very powers you struggle against.

I understand – very well – the aversion to mainstream media.  They have often failed us in the last ten years (and haven’t been particularly great allies since the 70’s).  I get that.  But I also get that they really are willing to make the effort to engage and give a platform, if the movement is prepared to use that platform.  Right now, it isn’t.  I watched noted author and activist Naomi Wolf literally beg people on her Facebook wall for contact names and information to pass on to her media contacts, and the very request was met with hostility and apathy and “we’ve got to convene a few meetings and assemblies, we’ll get back to you in six weeks.”

You don’t have six weeks.  You don’t have six hours.  You have six minutes, and if you miss the bus you don’t ride.

Right now, you’re not riding.  You’re not even on the right street, for the most part.

Occupy has reacted and stumbled into several very high-profile moments that it has not capitalized on, and this is a direct result of the overt hostility toward hierarchy.  Organizing is not an evil thing.  Hierarchy is not inherently bad.  It’s how large groups of people avoid becoming mired and boondoggled in useless dithering and hemming and hawing.

In no context is it more true:  he who hesitates is lost.  Right now, the entire narrative of OWS is being driven by the Rush Limbaughs and Ann Coulters and Eric Cantors of this country, and thus far they have successfully managed to keep most of the country confused and apathetic toward Occupy, regardless of what you may be seeing on your Facebook wall or Twitter stream.

If Occupy is to truly succeed, it needs to be present in the media, and it needs to have a clear, concise message in that presence.  That doesn’t mean everything has to be decided in advance.  It does mean that you have to stop being afraid to empower individuals within the movement to speak.  If they blow it, they can be replaced.  Don’t be afraid of making a mistake – it’s a sure bet that someone will say something that causes the movement to say “you are not representing us, it’s time for you to go and someone else to step in.”  Take that chance.

Because right now, there’s a huge vacuum in terms of a pro-Occupy perspective in the media, and that vacuum is being filled with the voices of your opposition.

Related blog entry:  “What Is The Occupy Movement…and why is it struggling?”

John Henry is a social, media, and political analyst at LowGenius.Net

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