14 October 2011

Occupy Wall Street? No Thanks.

I'm not planning on occupying Wall Street anytime soon but since it's the current cause of celebration among the activist crowd and seems to have captured the meager attention of Democratic leaders in Congress attempting to revive their own efforts at principled leadership (the Republicans have their Tea Party, after all) I figured it worth the effort to share a few thoughts.

1.  Wall Street is not what's wrong with America; consumerism, run-away self-aggrandizement, an eviscerated core ethic of national service, and a radically digitized, virtual world where we can be who we want, when we want, how we want, has as much to do with the collapse of American Exceptionalism as anything the guys and gals on Wall Street have done in partnership with a political system that partnered with them and a willing population--don't forget the willing population!  as long as iPhones and Androids were cheap and a sale at Abercrombie and Fitch was always just around the corner.

2.  Call me boring but I believe that the prosaic efforts of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to strengthen the prosecution of illegal and unethical business and banking practices is more productive than occupying a public/private park.  Call me out-of-fashion but as an early proponent of the Living Wage here in New York City, I mourn the eclipse of that important issue by the vague and vainglorious nonsense of the Occupy Wall Street Clergy statement that calls for a "revolution" in America.  We had a revolution in America 235 years ago and we're still trying to get the principles of equality and justice heading down the right path.  I'm outing myself as a hedgehog:  changing history takes a long time.

3.  Where were these high-minded activists the past three years?  Waiting for Obama to do something?  Blogging about the horrifying Republican political tactics?  Making fun of Sarah Palin?  Admiring their own reflections in the latest app?  Meanwhile, statehouses across the country are re-drawing political maps; Congress sits in the mud; ennui sets in for some; anger builds in others.  But dancing the Hora in Zucotti Park?  No thank you.  Our own Arab Spring?  Are you kidding me?  The Egyptians just killed 27 Christian Copts; we seemed to have stopped paying attention to the slaughter in Syria; and that U.N. vote for Palestinian statehood has, like all other things, ground to a halt of the usual dysfunction.

If anything, as some have pointed out, the Occupy Wall Street protests mirror the street protests in Tel Aviv this summer, but God forbid the organizers identify with the Zionist Occupier.  Wait a minute...*Occupy* Wall Street!

How ingenious!

In Tel Aviv, the rallies were mostly the bourgeois, the educated middle class as organizers, building coalitions with the working poor, questioning certain values assumptions about the direction of Israeli society.  A worthy series of sit-ins and rallies has given way to the demanding, difficult and tireless work ahead for a the long slog of changing government policy, one law at a time.  In Israel it has a better chance of succeeding, actually, because the polity still demands of its citizens allegiance and service to the state.

Here in America we're not so lucky.  While one generation ended the draft in order to prevent induction to the U.S. Armed Forces in the event of an "unjust" war, nothing replaced the privileges and obligations of citizenship accept an unrestricted devotion to one's "self-fulfillment."  Not bad for a diary entry; and maybe even a good book deal on the occasional memoir.  But 350 million people doing their own thing?

That's why we're in this mess.

Instead of occupying Wall Street, these people might consider occupying themselves with the task of transcending their selves, rolling up their sleeves, walking the halls of government, running for office, and making the changes they want.  


Kerry said...

Yes, because poor people, immigrants, women and non-white people famously have such an easy time getting elected and involved with government. Remind me how many non-white senators there are? How many women in Congress? How many people for whom English is a second language? How many ex-prisoners?

US government is not particularly porous, especially not to people who aren't white men.

Doug said...

Andy, while I don't necessarily agree with all of the tactics of the OWS protesters, I think your arguments against them are overly reductive and simplistic:

You wrote:

"Instead of occupying Wall Street, these people might consider occupying themselves with the task of transcending their selves, rolling up their sleeves, walking the halls of government, running for office, and making the changes they want."

You mean like these guys?


Andy Bachman said...

Gee, Doug. I don't know. I mean I have total respect for Veterans but they guy you quote is advocating the Gold and Silver Standard be reinstated. Not very realistic.

Deanna said...

I think this is an interesting article but I think to solve problems sometimes you need a two tiered solution: one the one hand the "policy wonks" or people that go and lobby electeds, perhaps run for office, etc. Then there are the organizers - those that come out en mass and motivate people for a cause. At the very least the OWS movement has brought specific issues to the full attention of the news media and the Democratic party (and even some on the R side are getting the message) which provides a real avenue for those that do policy to engage with our elected officials. The movement has sparked some real, genuine interest so that conversations like these (and solutions to these question re jobs, the economy, healthcare, etc) are now being discussed across every table in America.

Doug said...

Come on, Andy, you know I'm not making the point that someone advocating for a return to the gold standard is worth listening to. I'm simply saying that your post reduces OWS protesters to stereotypes when the people involved down there are far more complex. The pictures tell the story here.

I'm sure that WWII and Vietnam vets have more than transcended their selves, rolled up their sleeves, and made the changes they want.

jeanette friedman said...

I am down there as for Yom Kippur and Sukkot. I am too old to camp out, but , as a 64 year old grandmother whose husband is a decorated Vietnam vet, I agree with what our son is doing there. We are looking for regulation to be reinstated, for living wages to be paid, for taxes to be paid. The middle class, like me, is collapsing under the weight of medical care (scrip went from $30 for 90 pills to $1080--come on. We know why we are upset. And Obama turned out to be a wussy who caved to his corporate sponsors. Our only hope betrayed us. Shame on him, too. I wish that on Thanksgiving Day, thusands of middle class people who are hurting would go down to DC with their families to show they care about their lives and their children's futures. The way things are headed right now, without changes in the system, it does not bode well.

jeff said...

The statement calls for a "revolution in values" not a "revolution." Is that not what you yourself advocate?

Andy Bachman said...

Jeff--Please don't take this the wrong way but I don't believe in a revolution of values. We have the values in this country. They need to be renewed. Revolutions rarely end well.

daddy-o said...


i'm incredibly surprised. we share several friends (even a middle school), and i'm consistently impressed with your kindness, generosity, and leadership. you have a long history of supporting important, progressive issues . . .so you have my complete personal respect.

i simply think you're wrong, here.

the idea that protest and politics are separate ignores our history.

the idea that american exceptionalism should guide our values is colonialist. . . and deeply unfortunate.

and the idea that we can trust the very same system (as is) that failed to protect values of access, equality, and justice is misguided.

the power of democracy comes from the people, and many, many people are upset, frustrated, and hurt that they have been screwed by a system littered with money and power.

it's that simple. the system has screwed hard-working, everyday people through no fault of their own. from your perch, you may be innundated with self-centered, materialistic youth (and adults). but that simply isn't this crowd.

the consistent demands on signs include student debt, health care, unemployment, and under-employment. i dare right-minded people to argue that college debt is not over-burdensome to young students. that good health care is accessible to all. that millions of hard-working people are not without jobs. that every day women, people of color, and youth are not paid less than their worth, and less than they need to reasonably support their family.

i respect you. i respect your work on social justice issues in our community and in our city. and it stuns me that you're missing the mark here. and so hurtfully.

the system, as is, cannot be trusted to reform itself. ows is on your side. they may not look, always, like us. but they are us. how has the system so corrupted our sense of fairness and equality that we cannot see when we have become the system? when our argument legitimize and reproduce the startling inequality that caused the original protests?

i think we're likely on the same side. i just think you've forgotten that for a moment.


Andy Bachman said...

andrew--thanks for your impassioned response. i'm sure there are many things that we're on the same side about. of that i have no doubt. what i'm really arguing here is a caution against the utopianism of this movement and the notion that "wall street" is to blame. there's a lot of blame and responsibility to go around and i don't think one sector of our society is to blame. so after the smoke clears from the rally, there will be work to do and i plan on being there in the trenches, doing what i've always done as a leader. but i simply can't buy into the argument that we need a "whole new system." as deeply flawed as our democracy is, it needs reform, not a revolution. i'll repeat an important principle that arose over on facebook--revolutions are bloody and violent. and ultimately create flawed systems that need reforming. so i'm just not buying the notion that the ows movement is going to create a whole new system.

as to the idea that american exceptionalism is colonialist, as you argue--i don't agree. our freedoms and constitution remain a beacon of hope for much of the world. it's our messed up policies that get us into trouble. imperfect as we may be as a nation, i still think we're special. sorry if that's disappointing to you but i remain hopelessly patriotic about some things.

daddy-o said...


i don't think people are arguing for a revolution that topples our entire government. we argue for a revolution that topples the way our democracy is practiced.

i don't think people are demonstrating to hang someone, blood and guts; we demonstrate because everyone should be rewarded for their blood, sweat, and tears.

if you are arguing that the situation is more complex, i agree with you. of course! i don't know too many things that aren't more complex than soundbites, handwritten signs, or political slogans.

the amazing thing here, though: it's also exactly that simple. the 99% do not get a fair shake. it's not that people don't work hard. the field simply isn't level; the game is rigged.

people say, well, life isn't fair. and it may be naive, but i'm just not sure why it shouldn't be fair for everyone. why children and families shouldn't have equal access and equal opportunities?

yes, we need to work hard. i tell my students this every single day. but why should some people, some families, and some communities have it so much harder?

it's not right. it's got nothing to do with iphones or woodstock or abercrombie. that's not this crowd. it's got everything to do with fairness. it's got to do with good health care, affordable education, and a living wage.

the protests help capture a moment that everyone concerned with social justice should support. that should remind everyone in social service why we do what we do. we build children. we build families. we build communities.

we build justice. (and justice - justice: chase with wild and insane abandon!)

Rivka said...

our freedoms and constitution remain a beacon of hope for much of the world.

I live in Europe. No they don't. I'm sorry, but this just isn't true. Most people I know are horrified at US American culture such as the pervasive religious anti-homosexuality and the death penalty, to give just two examples. We appreciate American creative culture and even its earnestness, but the US is IN NO WAY a "beacon of hope" for anyone any more. It is a lovely myth but the rest of the world doesn't admire you, America, not any more.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Andy.

First, I think your insinuation that the OWS protesters are anti-Zionist is an unnecessary straw man that works against your larger argument. In my time in Zucotti Park, I found little evidence of such feelings on display.

Next, I think it's telling the way you use the midrash about Akiva from Avot d'Rabi Natan. In your interpretation, the drops of water represent the slow march of time, of which much is needed in order for those in power to enact real change.

But I think the OWS movement views the drops of water as people - each additional person who brings attention through their protests to the rifts in our economic and democratic systems is another drop in the bucket. The people in power may not be moved to act until the water overflows.

Then again, sometimes what is needed is not the gradual wearing away of the stone, but the smashing of it in an instant - ala Moses at the feet of the golden calf. Keep in mind that Moses' gesture was purely symbolic. Its purpose was not to abrogate the covenant, but to awaken the people through an act of shocking protest to their flawed approach to freedom's demands.

Chag sameach,
Cantor Eric Schulmiller
The Reconstructionist Synagogue of the North Shore
Plandome, NY

Andy Bachman said...

cantor--i question whether your analogy about Moses breaking the tablets really applies here. for it to work, it seems to me, the Constitution of the United States would need to be torn to pieces, the people would have to eat it (at least those guilty of dancing around the Golden Calf) and then the exact same content would be delivered again.

therefore, it seems to me, that the broader issue of leadership, demands, and engaging directly with the Constitutionally validated political system (boring as it may seem) is how change will be made.

hag sameach-


Eric said...


I'm not suggesting that we need a symbolic gesture which mirrors, step by step, the one of Moses. I'm asserting that when a critical mass of people occupy a public place imbued with symbolic significance, they are using the same *method* that Moses did to achieve the necessary first (but not only) step towards change: The awakening of the population (whether they be former slaves or current politicians) to the flaws in the system that they are enabling through their misplaced assignment of power.
The smashing of the tablets is not the change we seek. It's a gesture which allows for the rules to be restated to a population that has been made newly receptive to the values inherent in the original document.
I agree that a political solution is what is ultimately needed. But sometimes we need to pray with our legs before we can build with our hands.

Andy Bachman said...

I don't necessarily disagree but I don't believe that consciousness raising is what is needed now--political action is. Additionally, I fear that Rabbi Heschel's "praying with our feet" notion is getting a bit tired. We need to negotiate with our brains and vote with our hands. In friendship, Andy

Dan O. said...

Rabbi -

It seems to me that many people are completely missing what the people in OWS are saying over and over - and that is that it is a movement based upon finding a voice, not setting a goal. It's obvious that this message isn't suited for the 24 hour news cycle, as consensus and negotiation doesn't operate on a set schedule.

The one theme that's been constant throughout the protest is the idea of a return to good old fashioned free political speech. Left wing movements of the last 20 years have all been approximation of money-fueled movements on the right (i.e. Move On as an answer the various "moral majorities"), which were themselves approximation of money-fueled movements on the left (i.e. the big labor unions). This is not a bad thing. The big unions are, for the most part, shells and the Move-Ons are hollow. If speech moves democracy, would you prefer impotence?

So, you're disappointed by the Democratic establishment, and the Democratic counterculture. Apart from, say, the resurrection of FDR, JFK or the AFL, what could you get behind?

Last, OWS is pretty obviously not about Israel. Skip the made for cable TV-news narratives.