The New Yorker examines the animating ideas behind OWS. I suppose this is what happens when childishness, boredom, social media, anxiety, and apocalypticism mix. Or, history repeating itself as farce. “Forming loose connections quickly” hardly seems like a recipe for good social order.

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Jeffrey Polet
Jeffrey Polet grew up in an immigrant household in the immigrant town of Holland MI. After twenty years of academic wandering he returned to Holland and now teaches political science at Hope College, where he also grudgingly serves as chair of the department, having unsuccessfully evaded all requests. In the interim, he continues to nurture quirky beliefs: Division III basketball is both athletically and morally superior to Division I; the Hope/Calvin rivalry is the greatest in sports; the lecture is still the best form of classroom instruction; never buy a car with less than 100,000 miles on it; putts will still lip out in heaven; bears are the incarnation of evil; Athens actually has something to do with Jerusalem; and Tombstone is a cinematic classic. His academic work has mirrored his peripatetic career. Originally trained at the Catholic University of America in German philosophy and hermeneutical theory, he has since gravitated to American Political Thought. He still occasionally writes about European thinkers such as Michel Foucault or the great Max Weber, but mostly is interested in the relationship between theological reflection and political formation in the American context. In the process of working on a book on John Marshall for The Johns Hopkins University Press, he became more sensitive to the ways in which centralized decision-making undid local communities and autonomy. He has also written on figures such as William James and the unjustly neglected Swedish novelist Paer Lagerkvist. A knee injury and arthritis eliminated daily basketball playing, and he now spends his excess energy annoying his saintly wife and their three children, two of whom are off to college. Expressions of sympathy for the one who remains can be posted in the comments section. He doesn’t care too much for movies, but thinks opera is indeed the Gesamtkuntswerk, that the music of Gustav Mahler is as close as human beings get to expressing the ineffable, that God listens to Mozart in his spare time, and that Bach is history’s greatest genius.

20 COMMENTS

  1. Hmmm. “Childishness, boredom, social media, anxiety, and apocalypticism”? And nothing about being animated, even in part, by actual economic inequalities and genuine abuses of power? I wonder if I’m going to have to attempt a FPR defense of OWS after all…

  2. Mr. Fox can save his energy. Adbusters, which “depicts the developed world as a nightmare of environmental collapse and spiritual hollowness, driven to the brink of destruction by its consumer appetites,” is already defending FPR, I’d say . . .

  3. I, too, struggle with knowing how to regard OWS, or, in my case, Occupy K Street, as I live and work in the D.C. metro-area. I dislike the same things that they dislike; however, I also really dislike them. There are a million different ways to disagree with something, and some of those ways are just as disagreeable as the original grievance. I think of the prolegomena to Marx’s Communist Manifesto — moving stuff, to be sure! Marx is rightly lamenting the catastrophic influence of industrialism on the cultural fabric of Europe, specifically its disintegrating effect on the family and (interestingly enough) piety. But just as you’re about to say, “Yeah, no kidding, ain’t that the truth,” here he comes with the solution — so let’s destroy everything!

    So, too, with OWS. I dislike some of the same things they dislike. However, I dislike their anarchism and entitlement-mentality just as much as I dislike the, well, anarchistic and entitlement-minded practices of corporate CEOs. The two groups are not so different, after all.

  4. Is the message of OWS really “let’s destroy everything?” I don’t live near any protests, and I don’t watch much television. But so far the only such suggestions that I’ve been able to find come from the mouths of conservatives terrified of paying taxes, not from anyone actually involved with OWS, and almost all of the destruction I’ve seen has been the result of (unjustified) police violence, not of protestor violence. I don’t have a very high opinion of OWS’s intellectual content, but it’s a protest movement; it’s amazing that it even has intellectual content. By contrast, the Tea Party movement has no intellectual content (unless “hands off my stuff!” counts, but that’s an imperative, not a declarative, statement) and weds itself to a rhetoric of violence (“hands off my stuff or I’ll shoot!”).

    Finally, if someone could explain to me what about OWS gives it an “entitlement mentality,” I’d appreciate it. I keep hearing this claim, but unless the idea that people should be held accountable for their reckless sabotage of our economy and for a refusal to contribute proportionally to the tenuous common good of the society that makes their success possible amounts to an “entitlement mentality,” I don’t know why OWS should be seen that way. No doubt there are a fair number of kids protesting who really do just want “the government” to pay for them to live lives of lazy luxury, but no doubt there are also a fair number of Tea Party participants who really do want to return to the good old days of racial purity.

    I can, of course, understand why conservatives who believe that all of our problems are either merely individual personal problems or directly caused by government intervention would believe that OWS has an objectionable “entitlement mentality.” What I can’t figure out is why any sane person would believe it.

  5. @djr

    Clearly, you don’t live near any of the Occupy movements:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wrPGoPFRUdc&feature=share

    Let me assure you, such idiocy is typical. Here is the unofficial list of the Occupy movement’s demands from the official OWS website. Note that “the revolution continues worldwide.” Nice.

    Yes, I grant that the Tea Party has its own faults. For my part, I have no interest in even talking about them. I’m not affiliated with them, nor do I have any appreciation for them.

  6. ‘Is the message of OWS really “let’s destroy everything?” ‘
    He said Marx said that. He didn’t say OWS did.
    ‘Finally, if someone could explain to me what about OWS gives it an “entitlement mentality,” I’d appreciate it.’

    Amongst the proposed list of demands are:

    living wage legislation (an entitlement)
    free medical care (an entitlement)
    free college education (an entitlement)
    guaranteed income whether working or not (an entitlement)

    Now, you may think these are all *good* entitlements, but what I can’t figure out is why any person without their head up where the sun don’t shine would not realize OWS has an entitlement mentality.

  7. Polet is right to criticize the only self-regarding, incoherent, anarchism underlying the OWS’ers, wherever they are occupying. They are a confluence of leftist thinking which, while recognizing the potential of amoral capitalism to uproot our humanity, does not also recognize those roots as anything more meaningful than a sign of the “right now.”

    Just as you might expect with any leftist protest, their complaint is not so much about the potential and actual destructive effects of capitalism on our ability to govern ourselves as it is a protest against the real limits of our ability to make ourselves in any image we choose. To put it another way, their disagreement with the market is not its amoralism, but its connection of economic activity with the limiting realities of human life. Thus, their very postmodern (and certainly not rightly-understood postmodern) refusal to define the goals of their protest or to say anything concrete about who the protest is actually for. This has far more to do with the radical leftist political theory of, say, Judith Butler, than it does with the limited and dignified thought of, perhaps, Wilson Carey McWilliams.

    It would be a mistake for FPR’ers to identify with OWS simply because of the family resemblance in their critique of the amoral capitalism we see in our financial sector.

  8. The “list of demands” was just one poster’s opinion, and the editor made it clear, in boldface no less, that “This is not an official list of demands.” I agree with the person who said the Tea Party was at least an ethos: an ethos of entitlement. Evident from the “No socialized medicine; hands off medicare” type posters. They wanted lower taxes, but more wars. Mostly, they wanted somebody else’s entitlements to go away, but not theirs. I take that kind of talk more seriously if someone says, “Lower my social security payments” or “put a toll on my freeway” or “close our schools and let me pay for them myself.”

    Is the OWS leftist? Mostly, to be sure, but then who on the right, outside of the outliers at the FPR, is saying anything at all about these issues? I went to Zuchotti park and found people you could talk to. After all, any group with the gumption to distribute “Un-Locke America” buttons might have something interesting to say. There is an opening here. We can take it or not.

  9. “This has far more to do with the radical leftist political theory of …”

    Somehow I doubt it’s very grounded in any kind of theory . . .

  10. It seems like OWS is a bit of a cultural Rorschach test for too many of the commentators. Trent, for instance, notes that even though he may dislike much of what they do, he is unlikely to engage or sympathize with them given the character of the protest movement. Corey makes the laughable move of tyeing them to Judith Butler and contrasting her with McWilliams, as if they all took a course at Berkeley and based their ideas on that.

    But implicit to all of these objections and criticisms is the idea that FPR types must either support or oppose OWS. But what is wrong, as John Medaille suggests, with simply engaging them? Now, as many suggest, it is clear that they have internalized their own set of pathologies. So what? Modern society is deeply pathological on all levels. One needs to begin somewhere, and if the opportunity presents itself, it is better to take it then not. Christ did so by eating with social outcasts. He didn’t expect them to be perfect, but he did begin with them where they were–and we must do the same. (And believe me, I recognize how eccentric many of them are.)

    Again, this doesn’t mean actively supporting OWS, but it is a charge to recognize what they get right; and it doesn’t mean adopting their leftism, but it does means talking to them–even if you have an initial social and cultural revulsion to their posture. In other words, take the opening or sit around forever in obscurity waiting for the perfect movement of perfect social reformers who will never come.

  11. Above, I wrote, “Trent, for instance, notes that even though he may dislike much of what they do,” which should have been, “Trent, for instance, notes that even though he may dislike much of what they dislike.”

  12. As an aside, and just so the Pittsford Perennialist’s pop-culture reference doesn’t get completely overlooked and taken too seriously, I feel obliged to offer this eight-second clarification of his quip, which he lifted from Joel and Ethan Coen’s hilarious 1998 oddball comedy, The big Lebowski, and applied to the Tea Partiers.

    No further comment, except to say that I grinned when I read that…

  13. As another DC worker who has to pass the Occupy pigsty, I agree with Trent. If there were well-spoken, well-thought intentions, many have evaporated over the past week or so. What used to be an interesting place to take a lunch break and discuss prurient issues (economics/politics/art/etc.) with indebted college students and old hippies is now a kind of scary, anarchic, revolutionary, and Marxist ghetto. Like “post-evangelicals” who hate evangelical excesses but won’t swim the Thames, Tiber, or Rhine into a deeper sacramental theology; the Occupiers know they oppose big business, but keep a strong entitlement, big-government mentality.

    The lack of duty and sacrifice will do the movement in.

  14. With a Congressional Approval Rating heading for the single digits, a bi-partisan bail-out of elite donors and unemployment growing while we court endless war, I’ll take any protest I can get, Tea Party or OWS.

    The simple fact remains, our government has stumbled badly and it is a wonder more people are not protesting the pilot driving this rusty bus into a ditch.

  15. I’m with Sabin and Medaille. I paid a little visit to Occupy Philly and chatted with a young man who clearly found his time spent there (he was on first aid duty on a chilly morning) more meaningful than life within “the system.” Many of these people are homeless and have found in the encampment community something more humanizing than their previous resignation to despair. Many are students who are discovering that actively caring for the poor and wretched is more satisfying than whatever phantasm of nonsense their education was ostensibly preparing them to succeed at. And yes there was a lot of weirdness and extravagant fantasy, and the sad specter of futility visible to the sober observer. I agree that the question of siding with the “movement” is hardly intelligible; one may sympathize with the frustrations and ought to reflect on the phenomenon as a revealing symptom of our apparent social and political entropy.

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