When I first saw the mob of pasty-faced bourgeois Bohemian children camped out on Wall Street I thought: not again. Ever since the late 1980s, when all that hippy nonsense turned two decades old, a segment of Western youth has suffered from 60s envy. Thus we periodically witness attempts to rekindle the romantic flame of protest which - we are constantly reminded - burned so brightly in those halcyon days.
Me, I’ve never suffered from 60s envy. Woodstock is to blame: I was 16 when I watched the concert film and was shocked to learn how much of the music was not Jimi Hendrix but rather, puerile and twee garbage like Country Joe and the Fish or John Sebastian.
It was these 60s clowns who were responsible for the wasteland my peers and I inhabited in the 1980s, I realized. The Woodstock generation had jettisoned all that peace and love tosh to pursue money, power and status.The former flower children were now running the cultural show, and it took profound hypocrisy and an epic lack of self knowledge to ram their nostalgic fantasies of who they thought they had been down my generation’s throat. And now in 2011, here is another bunch of young suckers falling for that dismal mythology all over again…
That was my initial reaction, but then I reconsidered: Certainly these radical poseurs are naïve, incoherent and annoying, but are they not also reacting to a profound malaise in American society, expressing a genuine sense of despair and powerlessness, raging at injustice, even?
Yes: the young people occupying Wall Street were essentially the “left” version of the Tea Party, equipped with an equally simple diagnosis of America’s problems, and an equally simple set of solutions. Instead of blaming Big Government, they blame Big Business. Instead of demanding tax cuts, they demand tax hikes - on people with more money than them, at least.
Sometimes I admire American rage. The first time I saw an angry American yelling at his Congressman on my TV I almost fell out of my seat in astonishment. Here was a healthy contempt for authority, expressed directly at the guilty party. How very un-European: we tend to grumble for a bit then form a violent mob; after which revolution, executions and the occasional genocide follow.
Alright, I thought, let these young people have their bit of fun. It’s healthy to get angry. Besides, some of these bankers deserve to squirm; some of them should be in jail.
But then things turned horribly strange, and I don’t mean when multi-millionaires like Susan Sarandon or Michael Moore showed up to express solidarity, or when Paul Krugman, the highly paid spittle-flecked ranter of The New York Times started to get excited. No, it was when assorted plutocratic members of the power-wielding Democratic Party jumped on the bandwagon.
Wait a minute, I thought. Everybody knows that Obama received way more Wall Street money than John McCain at the last election… and I believe he has numerous ex-Goldman Sachs employees in the administration. And if you think the bankers should have been prosecuted, well- who’s been running the Justice Department for the last three years?
Even stranger were the comparisons to the so-called Arab Spring. I believe it was the billionaire Al Gore who first called for an “American Autumn,” establishing a trend. I even read an “analysis” in the AP comparing the frolicking young folks on Wall Street to the rebels in the Middle East. You will recall that the unrest in the Arab world started when a man in Tunisia immolated himself to protest the leadership of Ben Ali, then president for life. In Libya, 50,000 people have died so far in the war to unseat Gaddafi.
Those protestors were revolting against real dictators, mass murderers even. They were risking their lives. The comfortable young Bohos in New York know nothing of oppression. Aside from the possibility of catching a cold or STD, they are risking nothing.
Still, it’s fascinating to observe the manner in which privileged people define other privileged people as evil, and call for an uprising against privilege so long as it’s not their own or that of fashionable people they admire. Thus when the Wall Street protestors march on a rich man’s home, it’s Rupert Murdoch who wakes up with a mob on his lawn, and not the billionaires who run cool companies like Apple. So many, I had not known cognitive dissonance had undone so many.
Some time ago I read a book in which the author described the 20th century as the era of “terrible simplifications”. He was primarily referring to the twin millenarian voodoos of Nazism and Communism, the high priests of which respectively held Jews and Capitalism responsible for the world’s ills, leading to millions of deaths. Fortunately, in our era the simplifications are merely fatuous, for now anyway.