Tuesday, December 20, 2011

OWS: Anatomy of a self-centered illusion

The "Occupy Wall Street" (OWS) crowd is a sorry, pathetic lot for whom common decency and proper hygiene are strangers. The persistence with which the media continue to inflict coverage of this fringe movement upon the wider reading and viewing public says much more about the sympathies of ostensibly professional journalists than it does about the social and political significance of the "occupiers." A recent study by Frontier Lab, summarized in a column by Charles C.W. Cook, revealed the self-centered motivations behind both the "rank and file" and the "leadership" of the movement.
Occupy Wall Street’s surface message, cleverly backed up with the canny but fatuous “99%” slogan, is an illusion, a red herring employed in a cynical attempt to press more mainstream public unease into the service of a worldview that remains very much on the fringe. Were all of OWS’s gripes to be resolved firmly in their favor, the displeased would not suddenly consider America pure. On the contrary, by and large, the types who have occupied Zuccotti and other parks across the nation consider the United States to be an intractably racist, imperialist, unequal nation, which boasts an invidious history whose alleged crimes can be seen populating the pages of Howard Zinn’s books. As a new report concludes, “while their rhetoric might decry crony capitalism or bank bailouts, their values reveal self-centered and fear-based motivations,” and a deep hostility to capitalism and American values of individualism and limited government is thrown in for good measure.

The report, Shortselling America, reveals that, below the surface, there is a lot more going on than meets the eye, and most of it has very little to do with “social justice.” Its author, Frontier Lab takes an interesting approach, applying techniques of market research to political science. The group’s aim is to move away from the short-term model employed by political pollsters — which, although valuable, essentially provides just a fleeting snapshot — and instead to conduct a more thorough assessment of participants’ values. From these data, they then seek to predict future behavior. An example: Surface-level polling will see consumers tell us that the reason they buy a particular dish soap is because it is green, or cheap, or conveniently sized. But research shows the deeper truth is that, overwhelmingly, people buy the same brand as their mother did. (Nobody will write that on a survey.)

What did Frontier Lab discover? First, that many of the rank-and-file occupiers feel isolated in their lives, and appear to lack basic community ties such as are provided by participation in clubs, churches, and strong families. Indeed, much of the report could have come from the early chapters of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. They thus attach to their political causes with something like a religious fervor. For many, a commitment to “social justice” is “not the end, but rather a means to an inflated sense of self and purpose in their own lives.” Crucially, involvement with others who agree with them provides an “overwhelming feeling of being part of a family.” I noticed this on my first trip down to Zuccotti Park, when I saw a telling sign adorning the entrance to the tent city: “For the first time in my life, I feel at home.” On subsequent visits I was struck by the importance of the commune to the project. As much as anything else, vast swathes of occupiers were simply looking for a new club. This group, Frontier Lab dubs the “Communitarians.”

The second group, which to all intents and purposes forms the leadership, is less existentially lost, and derives its fulfillment from the “prestige,” “validation,” and “control” afforded by the movement’s coverage in the media. Frontier Lab calls this group the “Professionals.” Its members fill the ranks of the professional Left and boast long histories of attending and organizing protests. For them, indignation is quotidian, “community action” is a career, and they feel “validated by the fame and attention” and “rewarded for their life choices.” Unlike the Communitarians, the Professionals actually want tangible change, or a “win,” but politics is still playing second fiddle to self. There is nothing spontaneous or organic about the movements they lead. They are waiting for the revolution and hope to be in its vanguard. Their careers depend upon it.
Cynicism about the movement can easily creep in when information like this is taken into consideration. Such an attitude, however, would be taking the easy way out. While the "Professionals" may be far gone, there is still hope for the "Communitarians."
So, what can be done? While the report unhappily concludes that “the Occupy path directly opposes fundamental American values of freedom, equality of opportunity, and individual responsibility,” Anne Sorock of Frontier Lab does not consider the occupiers a lost cause, at least not the Communitarian strand. “It is important not to write them off,” she told me. It is true that “they do not resonate to words such as ‘freedom’ or to abstract notions of individualism,” nor are they likely to be convinced by argument about the issues. But, “given what we consider to be the root of the problem, they can be addressed,” firstly, by tackling the lack of social involvement, and secondly by demonstrating how freedom can work for them.

My experience with Occupy was anecdotal, and my observations came from speaking with those involved and watching their behavior. It didn’t take much to see that the disdain felt toward the United States was deep-seated, easily transcending the two or three problems that OWS picked to explain its presence. The disconnect between the alleged gripes and the reality means that there is very little that government can do to change the minds of the occupiers, save for dissolving itself and allowing them to recast the dye. But, if Frontier Lab is correct, perhaps we can: By continuing to demonstrate the virtues of the American model for all people, and providing an alternative community for those who feel disconnected, we can turn the attentions and efforts of those who would undo our way of life to something altogether more positive.
This sounds like a task best carried out by the church. What better place to teach a wandering band of deluded "occupiers" what it means to be formed in community and find direction by looking upward to something, or Someone, larger than themselves?