Sunday, October 16, 2011

More thoughts on Occupy Wall Street

Timothy Noah:
I have never been entirely clear about what you're supposed to do at a protest march. The only one I ever participated in was an anti-apartheid march during the 1970s. A few years after that, I co-authored a story for the Wall Street Journal about how the new African National Congress regime in South Africa was tearing its hair out because small towns all over the U.S. were continuing to boycott their country, blissfully unaware that Nelson Mandela was now in charge. Protest movements are kind of sloppy that way.

But the anti-apartheid protesters won. It's easy to forget that chaotic and often harebrained-seeming public demonstrations can lead to important changes in the world.
Noah reminds me of one of the more memorable things I've read about popular protest. It's a passage from Patriots, Christian Appy's oral history of Vietnam:
I still believe the antiwar movement was naive and ill-informed. I just didn't think these kids knew anything about Soviet, Chinese, and Vietnamese Communism. I used to argue that what's wrong with them is that we've instilled in them the most corrosive of all emotions, namely guilt...

I'm still not certain the antiwar protesters knew what they were talking about in terms of the war and I'm certain they were ill-informed about Communism. But they grasped something essential about the nature of America's imperial role in the world that I had failed to perceive. For all their naivete and unruliness, the protesters were right and American policy was wrong.
It's easy to criticize popular movements. No large political rally has ever consisted exclusively of people who are right about everything. So it's good to keep in mind that, time and time again, history has given us movements full of the misinformed and misguided that, on a more cosmic scale, nonetheless proved correct, important, and impactful.

Relatedly: although I've previously voiced skepticism about Occupy Wall Street's tactics, coherence, and viability (and probably will again), I'm completely in favor of its strong stand against income inequality. I'm absolutely of the conviction that a growing gap between rich and poor in the United States degrades civil society and has perilous implications for the continued development of a freer (and more efficient!) nation. In a sense, this conviction goes hand-in-hand with my support for generally free markets and economically-oriented policymaking: when money talks, income equality is how you give everyone a voice. However long-lasting or temporary the protests end up being, I wish them the best of luck at raising awareness of the enormous economic divides that have silently riven America.

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