The message of the “Occupy” movement
The “Occupy” movement is continually criticized for two failings: not having leaders, and not having clear goals. Apologists for the movement seem convinced that these are indeed failings, stating that leaders will come forward and goals will crystallize into an agenda, a list of demands or perhaps a manifesto.
The first criticism is the product of inexperience with any form of leadership not embodied in a single powerful man (rarely, a woman) who makes the decisions that others must follow. Americans and most of the world are woefully ignorant of the power of consensus decision-making, wherein an action is taken only after all participants agree to it. When social constraints limit the rise of power-hungry individuals, then many more people who are perfectly capable of leadership have the opportunity to exercise their talents.
The second criticism also has to do with leadership, and comes from failure of critics to comprehend the fundamental goal underlying and unifying the Occupy movement (and indeed, other populist movements). It is this: We already have far too many so-called “leaders” in politics and industry, but they do not lead well or wisely. Manipulating public opinion is not the same as leadership, nor is speaking only to a following who agree with everything you say. The Occupy movement reflects the people’s need for leaders who are unblinded by dogma or ideology, and who unselfishly serve the common good. These are characteristics of true leadership, whether of a bank or a country. If you claim to be a leader, but lack these traits, then the Occupy movement asks you to step aside and yield leadership to those who possess them.
The message of the Occupy movement is obscured by the fact that it happens in public streets, parks, and plazas. As a movement of real people who have no access to wealth, where else could it happen? Poor people can’t rent convention centers. It should be no surprise that the homeless, the mentally ill and the nihilistically angry mix with crowds of Occupiers. They have been on the streets all along, though society prefers to ignore them. But this unwelcome presence should only reinforce the message that there is major maldistribution of wealth in this country.
Occupying public space admittedly places a burden on local government, and complaints about the costs of maintaining order and sanitation also threaten to obscure the message of the Occupy movement. In fact, local government and the Occupy movement are natural allies, since the draining of resources from city, county, and state government is one symptom of inequitable distribution of wealth.
Another factor making it hard to hear the message of the Occupy movement is that its message is one of idealism. In an age when the common expectation is that everyone, like billionaires and politicians, acts only out of self-interest, we too seldom have heard the voice of idealism, and not in a generation the new, raw, unformed idealism proclaimed by the Occupy movement. Asking the rich to admit the imbalance of wealth and to resolve to mend it is as idealistic as you can get. But America has always been a land of idealists who try to make their ideals real – some, like the framers of the Constitution whose First Amendment supports the Occupy movement, have succeeded grandly. We can only hope that this new generation succeeds in reintroducing idealism into the cynical political atmosphere that currently poisons our country.
Eric Sabelman is a member of Palo Alto Friends Meeting (Quakers) and on the steering committee of Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice. Professionally, he is a biomedical engineer. He and his wife reside in Menlo Park, California.
Author photo (c) 2011 InMenlo.com. Used with permission.