Skip to content

Preoccupied America

September 24, 2012

Can you believe it’s been one year since the first days of Occupy Wall Street?

Do you remember how you felt about the resurrected notion of real political change–not as in the party in power, but the nature of the way power is wielded? Did you see parallels to the Muslim Spring? Did you think that maybe this was a sea change for the cause of freedom, and that established interests might finally have met a match? Were you genuinely optimistic as Occupy went viral, spreading to cities and campuses across the country?

Were you equally enraged upon hearing that the forces of control could not accommodate civil threats to power and unleashed waves of mass arrests of protesters that continue to this day? Would you be more enraged knowing that those who abused their power are not experiencing any legal retribution?

Do you remember the point when that passion gave way to the soft acceptance of the justifications put forward by the state without so much as a mention of the right of the people to peaceably assemble to petition their government for a redress of grievances? I don’t.

What was singular about Occupy was that it evoked and traded on passion. Not only did Occupy give voice to positions that had been excluded from the political mainstream by the dynamics of representative government addicted to campaign finance, but it also actively encouraged and legitimated those people who had been actively disenfranchised simply by being ignored for so long. That acknowledgment means a lot to people.

Occupy’s power certainly wasn’t a coherent vision for a different America, as so many commentators liked to point out (for lack of any real political analytical tools at their disposal). However, Occupy sparked something we really haven’t seen in liberal America since the 1970s: passion translated into politics. Occupy promoted beliefs that actively pitted the people against moneyed and powerful interests, and did so in a fully-throated, unrestrained, unleashed way that Democrats have failed to do on the national level for decades.

I was reminded that the public sphere was once inhabited by individuals with actual, intellectual, liberal backbones at one point in this country by this admittedly tragically executed sketch from 1980.

It reminded me that there was a time when there was an actual feeling that the revolution was ongoing. History was still what individuals would make of it. Then America’s chief rival imploded under the weight of its own contradictions, and blind optimism combined with a superiority complex supplanted the feeling that progress was something worth caring about.

It’s easy to chalk Democrats’ inability to capitalize on genuine dissatisfaction and desire for distributive justice to “spinelessness” or a lack of political savvy, but it’s far worse than that: it’s that Democrats suckle on teats not so far removed from Republicans: corporate cash. The corporate bias is pervasive because it’s baked into the system. And though one might reasonably argue that the choice of particular teats is significant, being stuck on the teat makes it difficult for Democrats to capitalize on the emotional resonance that comes with a desire for more fundamental, systemic change. Democrats are simply too afraid of upsetting their various constituencies with the notion that there is something rotten in the state of America. Their Republican counterparts have no problem saying that America is simultaneously the greatest country on earth and also in need of a more repressive state to curtail all these “excess” freedoms that make people anxious.

The last year has provided plenty of painfully obvious examples of how the Democrats have been more or less held back from political advantage by the interests that hold (or at least contribute to) the reins.

Perhaps the most obvious example of Democrats standing aside while passion plays itself out in non-partisan spheres is Obama’s campaign. The slogan has evolved from “Hope” to “Forward,” a sadly pointed distillation of Obama’s pragmatism rather than his commitment to idealism and political choices motivated by passion.

The Pussy Riot trial, which fanned the flames of basically every community that cares at all about civil liberties, would have been a great teaching point for Democrats to educate the American electorate that repression of speech and expression is never acceptable, even when the expression is punkish, disrespectful of the state, and dangerous-seeming. (Occupy Pussy, anyone?) If the Democrats had taken the opportunity to point out the legal mechanism of repression utilized by Putin, and analogized the principles that are instinctively odious to an American conception of liberties, Democrats could have capitalized on an emotionally resonant and clear message that freedom of speech should be fiercely protected, even if it happens to conflict with one’s religious sensitivities (which was the ostensible rationale for trumping up those charges).

On the other side of the same coin, the Great Chik-fil-A Debate of 2012 was a total fumble by the Democrats who foolishly (and unconstitutionally) threatened state action to suppress the expression of speech (however bigoted), and instead created a huge backlash because Americans’ passion for fried chicken is more significant and direct than their passion for actively boycotting something that nobody needs more than once a month in the first place.

And the economic front hasn’t been any better: Democrats have let the LIBOR scandal lay dormant without any strong reaction on behalf of the people as a whole (seeing as everyone suffers from rigged interest rates). Democrats haven’t come forward with a strong refutation of Romney’s bullshit 47 percent claims (bullshit in part because the states most dependent on government handouts are mostly red states), nor have they defended those paying the payroll taxes as sufficiently contributing to society. Nor have Democrats even attempted to point to the fact that there is a strong response bias against people who have attempted to take personal responsibility but failed for factors beyond their control (you know, the whole risk/reward thing that capitalism is somewhat premised on?).

And what did the Democratic Party do about Legitimate Rape? Not a whole lot. Instead, they let pundits do their job for them, instead of making a clear appeal to the American people that they are the only party that cares whether or not politics conform to either science or reality. They could point out how many Republicans were opposed to abortion, even in the case of rape or incest, or how much of their platform (a.k.a. “The Republican War on Women“) was based on unscientific, unsupported assertions that could only have been thought up by a party with no greater grasp of reality than Todd Aiken.

All of this squandered political capital by the Democrats is compounded by the fact that the entire premise of Obama’s election was that he would at least attempt to use a bully pulpit to directly educate and lobby the American electorate. The disintermediation of the people and political choices was the intuitive appeal of a slightly more intellectual/populist/counter-establishmentarian presidency. And when Occupy fell into Obama’s lap, instead of giving the hippie drum circle a group hug, he “pragmatically” sat on the sidelines while others glibly wrote them off by telling them to take a shower. And given that Occupy has been speaking real, evocative truth to power, Obama’s silence speaks magnitudes.

Personally, one of the few things I am passionate about is the truth. Especially the plain vanilla scientific fact kind of truth. And when one political party tramples over the truth like a malevolent jerk kicking his way through a finely crafted sandcastle, I feel the closest thing to political passion that the current political climate is likely to yield (see, e.g., every position related to science that the Republican party stands for). It would just be nice if Barry had built his presidency on that kind of idealism and education rather than the middling pragmatism that has defined his first term (especially given that the Republicans haven’t ceded much in the way of pragmatism). I guess I’ll have to keep looking outside the mainstream for some Hope.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 28, 2012 1:32 am

    Hear! hear!

    I would love to hear a little more directly referencing this preoccupation of America and why it seems to have stalled real forward action. You seem to hint at it with the comments on your own passion in accord with the GOPs desire to preach the evils of science, but I eagerly await further contemplation.

  2. December 4, 2013 11:13 am

    Deep thought! Thanks for contributing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: