Does OWS have an image problem?

The movement makes valuable points, but sometimes poorly articulated

Certainly there is no shortage of people with “The Definitive Opinion” about Occupy Wall Street and its hundreds of offshoots, but I figured I would go the marginally less tired route of addressing the unacquainted, the undecided, and the just plain uneasy.

I considered myself in that camp until rather recently. I agreed with many of the basic premises of the movement: that this world has problems; that the wealthy have unearned or illegal advantages over others; that maybe the whole “global financial meltdown” was largely the fault of a few financial institutions and their executives. But a lot of what I had seen of the movement was off-putting.

For one thing, there was the incredibly sexist “Hot Chicks of Occupy Wall Street” video posted in October. The video broadcast a slew of problematic messages, among them: 1) That women who wish to participate in a political movement must do so with the understanding that they will be sexually commodified, 2) that physically attractive women who have valid or intelligent opinions are a novelty, 3) that the opinions of women matter subject to the condition that they are also physically attractive (and more that I do not have the energy to list). The video makers, who said that their original ideas included “pics of hot chicks being all protesty,” and their many fans have demonstrated remarkable unwillingness to consider that the video might be misogynistic. To be fair, though, it has been widely condemned by at least as many others in the movement.

But I do not want to spend too much time on one video, so how about that awful slogan? Because it has to be said: it’s pretty stupid. “We are the 99 percent” is one of the more bizarre calls to solidarity, not to mention the fact that it sounded clichéd even before it came into widespread use. We are the 99 percent in contradistinction to whom? To the one percent, naturally. But why make the cutoff there? Perhaps it is because of the oft-quoted statistic that the richest 1 percent of Americans own approximately 40 percent of the nation’s wealth. But there are other ways of describing wealth, income, and tax disparity in shocking terms. For example, the poorest 60 percent of Americans control less than five percent of our collective wealth; the bottom two quintiles, a mere 0.3 percent. (To put this in perspective, that means that 122.8 million Americans own less than $200 billion while the other 185 million Americans own nearly $58 trillion.) And as noted by David Cay Johnston, the top 400 earners pay an effective income tax rate of 18.1 percent, about the same as a single worker making $90,000 per year. As verified by http://www.politifact.com/, this same group — the top 0.00013 percent — ­holds more wealth than the entire poorer half of Americans.

So should the distinction really be between the haves and the have-nots? The richest 1 percent have it nice, but while I am still my parents’ dependent I can attest that the next one, four, or nine percent all have it pretty nice, too. Or should it be between those who have respectable 40-hour-a-week jobs and those who earn their livelihood manipulating markets? Or between those whose 401(k)’s vanished and the magicians responsible? Or is it just about those who hold power illegitimately and those who are powerless?

From what I have seen of the movement, the distinction is all of those things. In stark contrast to the perceptions portrayed on TV, I have been struck by how absolutely reasonable the vast majority of the declarations and demands produced by the movement are. The main grievances involve the excessive presence of money (and therefore corporations) in politics and the lack of accountability in the wake of the crisis; there is a sense that if there is no popular movement, nothing will change.

The movement has a lot of image problems related to its portrayal as being too nebulous or even socialist. Admittedly, some of the New York City General Assembly declarations seem a little “out there.” But I’d suggest that they only seem that way because we have been conditioned to settle for what we have. Because corporations do have decidedly un-democratic sway in our government; financial institutions have been largely responsible for the economic ruin of countless individuals; and our politicians were totally complicit in all of this mess. But while they — that amorphous, menacing “they” — generally believe that people, in their apathy or ignorance, will do nothing about endemic injustice, the Occupy movement is proving their assumptions wrong.

1 Comment
Anonymous over 11 years ago

The corruption of government through odd taxation and grants with corporations is a very real problem, as if we've fallen back on the robber baron days. The more things change, the more they stay the same.