Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The First Thing

Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post thinks the Occupy movement tests the limits of democracy:

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.

Meanwhile, David Brooks contends that no one is paying any attention to the DFH’s:

According to data from the Pew Research Center, [Americans] are paying less attention to the Occupy Wall Street movement than any other major story — less than Afghanistan, Amanda Knox, the 2012 election, the death of Steve Jobs and far, far less than news about the economy.

While the cameras surround the flamboyant fringes, the rest of the country is on a different mission. Quietly and untelegenically, Americans are trying to repair their economic values.

So, which is it? Demonstrations are a threat to the global order and if they’re not careful, they will disrupt the delicate balance of the plutocrats, or no one is paying any attention to them while people go about their quiet business and get their world in order all by themselves?

Mr. Brooks likes to point out that in the presidential election right after Woodstock — 1972 — Richard Nixon won re-election with great support from the “youth” vote. He then smugly asserts that Republicans won a lot of elections thereafter, too, therefore putting the lie to the idea of the Youthful Revolution. But what he and Ms. Applebaum ignore is that the most important revolutions — the ones with the most permanent effect — don’t happen overnight or with guns and tanks in the streets taking over the Presidential Palace. They happen, as Mr. Brooks notes, quietly or through the venues of power already there. Right after Mr. Nixon, surrounded by smiling felons, was inaugurated to his second term, the Supreme Court ruled abortion legal. The draft ended. The gay rights movement was forming as more and more people began to take those first tentative steps out of the closet. It took a while, but the ground was shifting, sometimes imperceptibly, but definitely moving. There was resistance, just as there is now, but the move was inexorable, and what was status quo then will never be status quo again.

In a way, the comparison of the Occupy movement to the Arab Spring and Tahrir Square is ridiculous. That’s because the people in Tunisia and Egypt were fighting the governments in power to give them the rights they had been denied. Occupy Wall Street (and Miami and Toledo and Boston and anywhere else) isn’t trying to overthrow the government; they are using the tools they have as citizens to encourage their government to make things right because of the crimes and abuses of other citizens.

That’s what frightens people like Anne Applebaum and David Brooks. It’s easy to condemn lawlessness and anarchy. But OWS isn’t lawless or anarchic; it’s been remarkably peaceful, even festive. It’s hundreds of thousands of people doing this basic American exercise: “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” What can be more powerful than that?