Transactions: Oct. 17, 2011

by Robert Teitelman  |  Published October 17, 2011 at 9:35 AM
We all love a parade. On Broadway, near Wall Street, the sidewalks are embossed with the names of once-famous worthies who motorcaded up the avenue. It's enlightening: Most of them are forgotten, proof how quickly parade fame fades. These days Wall Street has its protest parades, which lack ticker tape but make it up in noise. The early Occupy Wall Street marches could be heard from blocks away. There was chanting, of course, but mostly it was that endless bass drum that reverberated like history's back beat; this must drive office workers and residents around Zuccotti Park mad. One thing can be said about the Occupy Wall Street folks: They've got rhythm. They shake, they shimmy, they sing -- "This is what democracy looks like" -- as if they were the conga line at the old Copacabana. No one can say they stir memories of Partisan Review or even the cold-eyed polemicists of the New Left. Their slogans slip off the brain like a puck on ice. But they have a boho charm that combines sincerity with satire; they are mediacentric, mugging like Jon Stewart for cameras; they know their social media. The first intimation of the future arrived in mid-September when a 20-something harangued from the George Washington statue at Federal Hall while a jester did somersaults behind him. It was vaguely Shakespearean, if inexplicable to blinking Chinese tourists.

Tramping around Wall Street must be a bore. Finance is virtual and diffused; and sometimes the chanting crowd seems to be in search of some recognizable evil, only to find itself before the new Duane Reade in the Trump Building. An empty metaphor only goes so far, which explains why most of the big marches now crawl north toward City Hall, or police headquarters, or -- mysteriously -- the Brooklyn Bridge. Let's occupy Brooklyn, a far hipper neighborhood (restaurants!) than boring old Wall Street, which is gentrifying in fits and starts. Occupy Wall Street negotiates a world of symbols and metaphors: Wall Street is Mordor; Zuccotti Park is Tahrir Square; its signs are scrawled with capital-letter words. Freedom. Accountability. Liberation. Inequality. They cry out for this or that. But when you try to bridge this phantasmagoria of causes, interests and issues, you end up with the media-ready tagline, "We are the 99 percent," which covers an encyclopedia of economic sins, from the manifold evils of debt to globalization to gender and racial discrimination to steep college tuitions.

The '60s, like those parades, are now ancient memories. But Occupy Wall Street, with its leaders who aren't leaders and spokespersons without authority, has replicated the essence of the counterculture, which was less about issues -- Vietnam, civil rights, fascism in our time -- and more an impulse toward personal liberation and participatory democracy. Student protests devolved into endless debates about what to do next, what it all meant; a democracy demanding consensus. But anarchic liberation and mass action is an unstable mix. Pure democracy is messy, time sucking, quixotic, prone to fragmentation and radicalization; recall Seattle, as the police surely do. It's a quest for purity. Some of the Occupy Wall Street veterans undoubtedly remember a "better" time -- the days before Zuccotti was organized, before the rain, the media, the faint odor. They will inevitably split between true believers and fellow travelers; hard core and wannabes; pure and impure. Occupy Wall Street has energy, idealism and panache, declare pundits who boast of taking subways to visit the "encampment." But these visitors remain baffled by the incoherence -- what are their talking points? And now with celebrities, pundits and professional progressives dropping in, the tensions of democratic governance will only mount. Whose protest is this anyway?

And what are they after? Love. Peace. Fairness. Justice. An end to bad times. Jobs for all. Freedom from debt. Who can argue? But what about that euro zone? Nearly every pundit who writes about Occupy Wall Street offers an interpretation on this evolving phenomenon, like adults suggesting to children what they're really thinking. Pundits and pols may be more articulate than the cardboard signs displayed like war mementos in the park, but more narrow, sectarian, less innocent. And now a major Democratic interest group, labor, has arrived with its T-shirts and printed signs. The marches grow larger and older; they shuffle not shimmy. It is one thing to traffic in slogans and symbols; it's another to wrestle with the complexities and ambiguities of power, policy and a modern economy in a screwed-up globalized world. It's far simpler, far closer to home, to debate the spirit of the movement. Who belongs, who does not? When do we move past the nudists and the nuts and discipline the message? How can we translate feelings into power? At what point do we lose the jester?