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'Occupy' is Passionate, but Not Pragmatic

Occupy identifies plenty of problems, but it doesn’t help protesters clarify their mission, and that's what's really needed.


Publisher: Zuccotti Park
Length: 127 pages
Author: Noam Chomsky
Price: $9.95
Format: Pamphlet
Publication date: 2012-05

There's something pretty refreshing about the Occupy pamphlet series and its publisher, Zuccotti Park Press. Its creators obviously aren't in it for the money or recognition. The project is funded by Adelante Alliance -- a Brooklyn-based nonprofit immigrant advocacy group -- and the work is mostly contributed by unpaid, impassioned scribes like Greg Ruggiero, the pamphleteer who got the ball rolling at the urging of poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

The series was written in response to the Occupy movement -- the protest that began in New York last September and has since spread across the world. The series' first nationally distributed pamphlet, Occupy, is mainly a compilation of speeches, essays, and Q&A sessions with noted MIT linguistics professor Noam Chomsky (another contributor with less to gain than to give by participating). It also includes practical information from the National Lawyers Guild about how protesters can avoid arrest, what to do if they are arrested, and who to contact for legal advice; phone numbers for local NLG hotlines are listed at the back of the pamphlet.

What Chomsky says of Occupy protesters could easily be said of the pamphleteers, too: "The people involved are not in it for themselves. They're in it for one another, for the broader society and for future generations." Everyone involved seems to have donated their time, research, intellect, and passion to make the world a more egalitarian place, and it's hard not to appreciate that.

On a practical level, though, I wonder how much these pamphlets will actually help the movement.

Clearly, protesters are Zuccotti Park Press' intended audience. Occupy preaches the choir with history, praise, and encouragement pointed directly at the civil disobedient. The writing contains a kind of cheerleading that must give quite a kick to the already roused. But Occupy doesn't address much of the criticism that's been lobbed at the protesters, and that, I think, is a failing of the pamphlet.

The book does respond to some snarky jabs at Occupy (like the easy jokes calling protesters "dirty hippies" who should "occupy a shower") with duly confrontational photos from the protest (like the image of a protest sign reading, "How dare they call us dirty! What have they done to our water, air, food?").

What Occupiers really need, though, is to articulate a clear purpose, and Chomsky's insights -- while elegant and wise -- don't boil the issues down to a few essential goals.

The professor identifies plenty of problems: housing evictions, climate change, the threat of nuclear weaponry, lack of worker-owned industries, and the unprecedented sense of hopelessness among the American jobless. He discusses the very real, self-perpetuating problem of the financial sector's influence over American politics, and he rightly speaks against corporate personhood. These are all relevant, important issues, but they add up to a pretty nebulous mission.

The protesters, for their part, know they need clear objectives. During an InterOccupy conference call with Chomsky, Kikal Kamil and Ian Escuela told the professor that in Occupy's second phase, there will be three main goals: "1) occupy the mainstream and transition from the tents and into the hearts and minds of the masses; 2) block the repression of the movement by protecting the right of the 99 percent's freedom of assembly and right to speak without being violently attacked; and 3) end corporate personhood." They asked how Occupy could gain wider support, but Chomsky was reluctant to give specific advice, saying at various points, "A whole range of other things can be done," "There are a bunch of more short-term things that are possible," and "There are lots of ways of going about the same ends...."

Since Chomsky doesn't to want to lead the Occupiers, he's hesitant to give concrete instructions; therefore, Occupy doesn't tell anyone explicitly what to do. That allows protesters' greater freedom to design their own goals and solutions, but to a degree, it almost makes the issues muddier, hence making it harder to recruit more mainstream Americans. "Keep it simple, stupid" may have been a helpful motto for the series.

To enter "the hearts and minds of the masses," Occupiers would need to keep their goals clear and (even tougher) appeal to Republicans as well as Democrats. That's a tricky business in a polarized nation like the United States. It's hard to come across liberal writing -- Occupy included -- that doesn't insinuate that conservatives are just too dumb or crazy to talk with.

For example, according to Occupy's record of a University of Maryland speaking event in January of 2012, Chomsky received this question: "I know I have friends, colleagues, and family members who are staunch supporters of the Republican worldview, and it's hard to have meaningful dialogues with them. Facts no longer seem to matter. That being the case, how do we begin to talk about truth in a meaningful way?"

To his credit, Chomsky doesn't take a hopeless stance. He says, "There are things practically everyone can do, and if you're from a privileged sector of the population, then there are even more opportunities. You can speak, you can write, you can organize, you can reach out to other people. If you keep doing it, you can have an impact." While vague, it's at least positive, and it inspires the kind of persistence required for change.

But are Occupiers speaking, writing, organizing, and reaching out to Republicans? And, more importantly, are they listening in return? I wonder. The Occupy pamphlet was published in May, and its first edition says nothing of the 53% movement (the counter-protest to Occupy) and its emphasis on self-reliance and personal responsibility, or the fact that the political Right views Occupy protesters as lazy, entitled youth. If Occupiers were to talk to conservatives, what would they say that would help and not hurt relations?

On the other hand, it's pretty clear that the kids on the We Are The 53% Tumblr have little interest in hearing what Occupy has to say. They aren't dumb, but they're naive; they don't understand that, as long as politicians buy positions of power with corporate money, the richest 1% is likely to get richer while the rest of Americans work overtime to get by. They don't realize they're being oppressed, and that, Chomsky says, is what protesters need to communicate.

He uses his grandmother's view before the women's movement as an example of this delusion. "If you had asked my grandmother if she was oppressed, she wouldn't have known what you were talking about. Of course, she was hopelessly oppressed, but identifying it is not always easy, especially if no one talks about it."

So, the Occupy movement should talk about oppression -- but when it does, it should speak clearly and simply, and just as importantly, it should listen. It should process the criticism and meet opponents in the middle. As of now, the Occupy pamphlet could use more clarity.


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