Idealism Returns –Let’s Invite it to Stay

The Scene   |   Alexandra Gross  |   November 22, 2011, 4:00 pm

On a beautiful Saturday last month, I went down to San Francisco’s Ocean beach to join a thousand other people in spelling out “TAX THE 1%” with our bodies in the sand, while a helicopter flew overhead and took pictures. Several local news stations ran stories on the demonstration, and everyone who was involved was later mailed a postcard of the aerial photo. In the picture above, I’m somewhere right in the middle of the second “T.”

Now I’m asking myself – why the fear of sincerity?

Occupying the beach when it’s 70 degrees and sunny – now that’s my kind of activism. I wrote that in the email I sent to my friends inviting them to come along, partly to be clear that this was going to be fun, not an act of martyrdom. But also, I’ll admit I was a bit self-conscious about seeming too earnestly engaged in what might have been seen as a very idealistic, ideological project, and making a joke was a way to maintain a little distance from the whole thing. Now I’m asking myself – why the fear of sincerity? Am I such a child of the Age of Irony that I’m compelled to be at least a little bit cynical about everything, all the time?

When I first heard about Occupy Wall Street, I wanted to believe in it, but I was skeptical. The media reported that the occupiers lacked a clear message, and I wasn’t surprised. When the occupiers responded by saying that they were purposely keeping it broad, that it was their process and their persistence that was most important, I wondered what good that would do.

Watching the movement spread, I became more and more impressed by it, maybe even a little ashamed of my initial doubts. It has been a smart, well-organized campaign that has basically managed to stay true to its peaceful and democratic ideals. The message that now resonates – “We are the 99%. Tax the 1%” — is clear and pointed and also inherently welcoming to, well, 99% of the population.

So why did it take me so long to warm up to the movement? Where does the cynicism come from? Here’s a theory: my cynicism is rooted in the culture I’ve grown up in, a culture of corporate greed gone wild and staggering economic injustice – which is exactly what the Occupiers stand against. If part of me suspects that greed really does conquer all, or that everything – even the Occupiers – may be for sale, it’s because this is the message that, directly or indirectly, I’ve been absorbing for my entire life.

People my age have grown up in one of the most 1%-friendly periods in all of American history.

People my age have grown up in one of the most 1%-friendly periods in all of American history. When I was born, Ronald Reagan had just been elected president – old trickle-down Ronald, who set into motion a series of tax cuts for the rich and bank deregulations which were further expanded by his successors, and which eventually caused our massive economic collapse. Until the Crash of 2009, we ‘80s babies never knew anything but this high-flying, hyper-capitalist America, and though we may not know the history or even read the news, psychologically, we’ve felt the effects of our times. To some degree, most of us have been influenced by the self-serving rhetoric of the corporate elite: this is just the way it is, and really, it’s the best way for all of us.

Now, the American economy in which we were born and raised seems to be on its way out. America brought itself down and dragged many of the world’s largest economies with it, while countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa are getting richer and richer. It’s not a question of whether there will be changes, but a question of what kind of changes, and how dramatic.

For the time being, the Occupiers are cleared from downtown Oakland and from Zuccotti Park, but their message is here to stay. In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Jeffrey Sachs makes the case that the Occupiers represent the beginning of a lasting alternative, the dawn of a new Progressive Era. We will need to figure out how to exist in this new era and passive, detached cynics will be left out of the active process of coming up with something better.

It’s great to begin to shrug off the skepticism…. But when I hear of windows being smashed or spray-painted, or protestors provoking the police without reason, some doubt returns.

It’s great to begin to shrug off the skepticism and start feeling a little fired-up. But let me also say that when I hear of windows being smashed or spray-painted, or protestors provoking the police without reason, some doubt returns. I know these incidents have been few and far between, and that the police have also gone overboard and could do much better. But it’s important to keep perspective – in some places, the police do much, much worse. This week, dozens of protestors were killed by the military in Egypt’s Tahir Square and thousands injured – just the latest crackdown by a Middle Eastern dictatorship on its people in the streets.

In order to make long-term change, the Occupy movement will need to do many things, but above all, they will need to make it abundantly clear that they respect peace, democracy and the justice system that allows us to protest without risking our lives. For most of the 99%, nothing is more important than safety and security for themselves and their families, and they will never join a movement that seems at odds with that security. The Occupiers must make sure they keep their eyes on the broader picture and its many diverse human beings. To do otherwise would not only be foolish, it would be greedy and selfish — and I think that’s what we’re fighting against.

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