WashPost column about the limitations of OWS

I found this column by Anne Applebaum in the WashPost this morning interesting:

What the Occupy protests tell us about the limits of democracy

On paper, it isn’t easy to reproduce the oddity of the Occupy the London Stock Exchangerally that took place on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral last weekend. It’s all very British — people are cooking pots of porridge on the sidewalk — yet reverent homage is being paid to the original Occupy Wall Street protests, too. The London demonstrators have even adopted the “human mic” used in New York’s Zuccotti Park — the crowd in front repeats whatever the speaker says, so that the crowd in back can hear — despite the fact that megaphones and microphones have not been banned in London. The effect, as can be heard on aGuardian online video, was something like this:

“We need to have a process.” (We need to have a process!)

“This meeting was called for a reason!” (This meeting was called for a reason!)

“We know that you are there!” (We know that you are there!)

“And we have solidarity with you.” (We have solidarity with you!)

Unintentionally, it sounds a lot like a scene from the Monty Python movie “Life of Brian,” the one in which Brian, who has been mistaken for the Messiah, shouts out at the crowd, “You are all individuals!” The crowd shouts back: “We are all individuals!”

Then there was this good bit:

In New York, marchers chanted, “This is what democracy looks like,” but actually, this isn’t what democracy looks like. This is what freedom of speech looks like. Democracy looks a lot more boring. Democracy requires institutions, elections, political parties, rules, laws, a judiciary and many unglamorous, time-consuming activities, none of which are nearly as much fun as camping out in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral or chanting slogans on the Rue Saint-Martin in Paris.

Then there was this excellent ending:

Democracy is based on the rule of law. Democracy works only within distinct borders and among people who feel themselves to be part of the same nation. A “global community” cannot be a national democracy. And a national democracy cannot command the allegiance of a billion-dollar global hedge fund, with its headquarters in a tax haven and its employees scattered around the world.

Unlike the Egyptians in Tahrir Square, to whom the London and New York protesters openly (and ridiculously) compare themselves, we have democratic institutions in the Western world. They are designed to reflect, at least crudely, the desire for political change within a given nation. But they cannot cope with the desire for global political change, nor can they control things that happen outside their borders. Although I still believe in globalization’s economic and spiritual benefits — along with open borders, freedom of movement and free trade — globalization has clearly begun to undermine the legitimacy of Western democracies.

“Global” activists, if they are not careful, will accelerate that decline. Protesters in London shout,“We need to have a process!” Well, they already have a process: It’s called the British political system. And if they don’t figure out how to use it, they’ll simply weaken it further.

Amen. Bottom line, as good as the piece was, the headline is misleading. This is more about the limitations of the OWS approach.

OK, I quoted an awful lot of it, but if the Post believes I quoted TOO much, I’m sorry and will take it down. But in the meantime — I urge you to go read the whole thing, at The Washington Post.

11 thoughts on “WashPost column about the limitations of OWS

  1. Brad

    OK, the headline WAS reflected in one of the bits that I didn’t quote (because it wasn’t one of my faves). But as I said: Go read the whole thing.

  2. bud

    Democracy is limited. OWS is limited. DUH! Who said these things were panaceas. Heck we don’t even really have democracy so we can start by acknowledging our presidential election process is really is a sort of crude form of psuedo-democracy at best with the potential to really produce a very minority president. So let’s not get all high and mighty about the “process” we dutifully refer to as democracy.

    Suggesting OWS is working outside the process isn’t really right either. These patriots are exercising their constitutional right of freedom of assembly just as the Rotary Club exercises a similar freedom of assembly. Just because one is a bit crude and noisy and doesn’t involve the exclusive movers and shakers from the community in a cushy, upscale restaruant doesn’t make there voices any less relevant.

  3. Lynn T

    Bud, you are right. Some may not like this form of expression as much as a Rotary meeting, but it is as legitimate. I went by the State House, and I didn’t notice any more crudeness or noise than is common in Rotary-type settings. I don’t recall Rotary being designated as an arm of our government either, just a bunch of self-selected folks doing their thing, and assigning it importance in their lives. Good for them, may they live long and prosper. I do a good bit of what Brad regards as legitimate working through the system. I write letters to representatives and get thank-you-for-sharing letters back, or worse, outright snideness in response to civil letters. I’m glad these folks are out there on the State House grounds, tilting the apple cart a little to side, if not upsetting it.

  4. Brad

    Something got confused somewhere… when did anyone suggest Rotary as “an arm of our government” or anything remotely like that. Who held it up in any way? I mean, I write about speakers I hear there, people ask me questions about Rotary, and I answer them. I don’t remember holding it up as some exclusive repository of legitimacy…

    Then… I also don’t recall declaring the illegitimacy of the Occupy Columbia people, either. I have never suggested that they should not be allowed to do what they’re doing. I HAVE suggested that it’s a waste of time, and not helping anything.

    I believe that when people have something to say, they should think it through, refine it to some extent, discuss it with others, refine it some more, then clearly state what they mean — something that can’t be done with a sign in a demonstration. I also have a general abhorrence of mob demonstration, because of the way it subsumes the individual’s ability to think and express himself as a rational being.

    To speak as a large crowd, each person has to surrender much that he or she would have to contribute as an individual, and settle for a lowest common denominator. Otherwise, it’s impossible for the crowd to speak with ANY coherence (which is where we are with the “Occupy” protests). Worse, a crowd often communicates no thought at all, but a vague, shared sentiment. (Again, we’re talking “Occupy.”)

    I don’t like crowds of football fans, or worshipful rock ‘n’ roll fans, either. Much less when people try to express themselves politically through mass demonstration in the street — generally speaking (as I’ve said, I believe there are instances in which a rational, moral objective is clear enough to be effectively communicated in this way).

    This may sound odd coming from a (more or less) communitarian, but only if you think my community orientation is that of a crowd of people singing “Kum-ba-ya” together. No, I believe people should come together in groups small enough to achieve a synthesis of rational deliberation — or, if the group is too large, through representation to make the size of the group manageable — to arrive at solutions to common challenges that are neither the will of a despotic individual nor the lowest-common-denominator, vague urges of a mob.

    Call it the Goldilocks principle, if you like: neither too big nor too small, but just right.

  5. Karen McLeod

    But Brad, when we go to the polls and vote, what are we doing but speaking as a large crowd?

  6. Brad

    If we vote as we should, we vote as individuals. AND we should vote for candidates as individuals. Parties want us to vote as crowds and FOR crowds, but parties are the very sort of thing I’m railing against here. I’d like to see the party levers (or virtual buttons, or whatever) banned. Failing that, I’d like a law that anyone who ever chooses that option should be barred from voting forever. Or at least until they jump through some hoops, equivalent to what you have to go through to become a citizen, to get the franchise back.

    THAT would clean up our politics.

    Now — and this is an important distinction — I believe the act of coming together to vote is the one, great communal thing we do together as citizens. That’s why I oppose early voting and such. You need to join your neighbors at the polls, and get your sticker saying you voted, and wear it proudly.

    But what you do in the booth is intensely individual. Or should be. And all your neighbors there to do the same thing you’re doing should respect that fully.

  7. martin

    It really may have slipped my mind, but were you this aggravated, whatever, with the Tea Party demonstrations? Is there any difference in their beginnings to you? I seem to recall some early and ongoing discussions about agenda within the Tea Party (think Amazon in SC or keep your hands off my Medicare) that doesn’t strike me as very different from what is going on with OWS.

    I think “Wall Street got bailed out and we got sold out”(by our government) is a great starting point. In fact, I think some in the Tea Party may find a happier home in OWS; those few who are not the same old social conservative Republicans with a new name.

  8. Brad

    Martin, about the Tea Party…

    The answer is YES. Although I think my reaction was more depression, rather than mere distaste, to those demonstrations. This post is emblematic of my attitude… It doesn’t actually mention the Tea Party by name, but speaks of Palin and Haley supporters. But that’s the same thing. For posts in which I specifically mention that movement, go here and here and here and here and well, there are a lot of them. I picked those sort of at random, but a search gives me 141 hits.

    It completely appalls me. It is without redeeming value. And as I’ve said two or three times, I see OWS and the Tea Party as, to a certain extent, the same thing…

  9. Doug Ross


    That was a good link. It provides some facts to work from on the voter id bill. Here’s the starting point:

    “70 percent of the state’s 2.7 million registered voters are white and 30 percent are non-white; 66 percent of the 216,596 active, registered voters without state-issued photo IDs are white and 34 percent nonwhite.”

    So we start with 216,596 registered voters without an id card, about 8%.

    Now we need to work from that number. How many of those 216,000 are UNABLE to obtain a free id card? This would mean they are homebound, do not have any bank accounts, do not drive, should not be receiving any government assistance (how could you do that without proving who you are?).

    Now out of that group, how many have actually voted in the past 10 years? If you haven’t voted, you aren’t being disenfranchised.

    I bet that 216,000 number shrinks way down. And once we can identify those people, there is plenty of time to address their situations before the next election.

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