If #occupywallstreet is to have any currency out here in the hinterland, where many of us live, it should consider adding a different verb to the repertoire.
Let’s agree that the word is perfectly descriptive of what’s going on in Manhattan, and that it gets quite a bit of rhetorical power from the inherent irony: Wall Street, the literal and figurative center of our corruption, has been for so long occupied by debauched robber barons that the idea of it being “occupied” by anyone else has left me and many like me awestruck. The scales have fallen from our eyes; we’re ready to see things new. But occupy, lifted out of irony, is a name for the cruelty of colonial powers, crusaders, and conquerors. When a foreign power denies people the right to gather, govern, live, worship, and move freely, we’re likely to call their land an occupied territory. Even if it accurately describes what we’re doing, trying to seize the levers of moneyed power on behalf of the people, it’s also a loaded word that comes freighted with implications of violence and force and tyranny.
Moreover occupy doesn’t seem to describe the movement once it leaves lower Manhattan and spreads to other cities, as it began to do during the last week. Over the weekend I observed a couple of Occupy events here in North Carolina, and what struck me was how much they seemed like a liberation. There were speeches and shouting, yes, but the real business of these events seemed to be the organization of a movement that could grow and last among political veterans and newcomers alike.
One of the accomplishments of #occupywallstreet has been to explode the myth that effective social, economic, and political movements must first be ideologically and politically consistent, well-vetted by committee work, overseen by world-weary graybeards and executed with precision and good hygiene. The history of our own American revolution, led both by Enlightenment scholars and religious mystics, pacifists, and violent paranoiacs, puts the lie to that nonsense. The pearl-clutchers and hand-wringers now opining about the incoherence of #occupywallstreet are, as they ever were, reactionaries who’ll change their tune when they’ve been overcome by history.
No one is going to stand up at the Baptist church, or the VFW, or the Kiwanis Club, and urge the faithful to join occupiers, even if the occupiers are their best hope for reform.
This incoherence is a strength, an opportunity, at least in the early stages. The American left has long tripped over its internecine boundaries of enforced ideological purities, rendering it unable to muster up a mass movement. A mass movement of the kind implied by #occupywallstreet will rely not on neat, contained statements of ideology and shared motivation, but on the attraction of a vast and widely varied group who might share only the most basic notion: that social, economic, and political powers have been unjustly concentrated in the hands of a few men and women, and that there must be a just way of distributing that power in our society.
And this brings me back to the word occupy itself. Dozens of “Occupy _____” events have taken place, and will likely continue to take place throughout the country in the coming weeks and months. I understand why Wall Street needs occupying and a kick in the ass, but why Durham? Why Hartford and Eugene and Santa Fe? I didn’t realize they were the problem. The community movements, which seem to be forming up as centers of organization and unity, seem decidedly not occupations. The word accurately and powerfully describes the action in lower Manhattan, but when appended to Raleigh and Lexington, it sounds like a slogan straight out of every right-winger’s favorite fantasy of leftist treachery.
Let’s not pretend words don’t matter. The patchwork of affiliated movements that have so far joined #occupywallstreet is delicate. What it has lacked in organization, though, it has gained by accretion and momentum. It’s strengthening because people are joining. If it’s going to maintain that momentum, the movement needs to attract a broad following among people who would otherwise be uncomfortable with activism, but have been so finally bereft of power that they’re willing to throw in with the longhairs and the reds.
This is good; this is what the movement should want. But it’s easy to talk yourself out of getting involved with occupiers, who stand just this side of pillagers and sackers and pitchforkers in the broad conservative lexicon of the hinterland. No one is going to stand up at the Baptist church, or the VFW, or the Kiwanis Club, and urge the faithful to join occupiers, even if the occupiers are their best hope for reform. Occupation is what people do when they’re invading Poland.
So, yes, let’s occupy trading floors and capitols and oil fields, boardrooms and think tanks, but let’s liberate Raleigh and Oshkosh, Santa Fe and Birmingham. Let’s liberate right-to-exploit states, polluted coal and petrochemical communities, underpaid teachers, discriminatory marriage laws, victims of voter intimidation. Let’s liberate our language from the rhetoric of science denial, muscular religion, and casual violence.
It may be that the latest incarnation of occupy and its broad adoption in the movement has made my carping beside the point. Still, just listen: Liberate. Liberator. Liberty Liberte! It’s a sweeter sound.