Monday, October 10, 2011

Prisms of the Occupation

The way you look at the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, which started in New York City but have since spread to practically every major city across North America, is highly dependent on the political lens you bring to the show. Someone on the left side of the spectrum might look at it as a long-overdue action against the people who decimated the global economy and got away without punishment, as well as the governments that made that decimation possible, whereas someone on the right might see a bunch of communists or bongo-drumming protestors who need to wake up and realize it isn't the 1960s anymore. Those are, of course, lightly-sketched and pretty much stereotypical viewpoints - perspective varies from person to person, after all.

Nevertheless, I can't help but notice that sort of right-leaning view coming up again and again in media references or, more commonly, comment threads. A recent article in Gothamist quoted a post from a forum frequented by New York Police Department officers, which referred to the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators as "trust-fund punks" and " trust fund bytches... [who] want to see us lose our jobs, our means for support to our families, they want to see our lives ruined..." It goes without saying that this "us vs. them" siege mentality is incredibly toxic - but that's not what I'm focused on. No, it's more the taken-for-granted assumption that OWS is shot through with rich mommy's boys and daddy's girls who Just Don't Know The Way Things Are, that they're disconnected from the Real People and are just doing this for fun.

I can admit that, for many people, it must be easy to scoff at them, to dismiss them as a lunatic fringe, to go on how they'd be better off putting all that energy into looking for a job. That might have been easier had not Wall Street wrecked the economy, created the steepest recession in eighty years, and put tens of millions of people out of work.

I was originally going to go with Toronto G20 graffiti that said "FUCK NEO-CONS," but I like the sentiment behind this sidewalk chalk on St. Clair West more.

Here's what I think - when some people dismiss the demonstrators with recourse to ideas such as that, they're doing it out of subconscious fear. After all, this isn't the way things were supposed to go. The whole basis of society was that you put your nose to the grindstone, work hard, be honest, and you will be rewarded; maybe you won't be rich, but you'll at least be comfortable. That assumption fueled American and Canadian societies through the prosperous times of the twentieth century.

But now it's under attack. Now it's groaning and buckling. Now it's seeming like people can work hard and be honest and try their best and the only reward they get is a pink slip and an underwater mortgage, while the traders and the hedge fund managers and the CEOs who risked the house on subprime mortgages and collateralized debt obligations are still in their shining towers raking in the megabucks... but if you don't look for it, it's easy to just see the skyscrapers instead.

I think that's part of it - a subconscious fear of what it would mean to agree with the demonstrators. To agree with them, to see the validity in what they're standing for, is to admit that the system is out of joint. That there are real problems, and that we need to confront them, and act to change the situation. That sort of change, that sort of uncertainty, is terrifying for many people. Far better to dismiss them as hippies and bored rich kids, put your nose back to the grindstone, and not think of anything aside from what's in front of you.

Not saying that everyone thinks that way, of course. But I wouldn't be surprised if such a thing was a significant part of it.

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