Opinion

The Great Debate

The radical right-wing roots of Occupy Wall Street

If there’s one thing that united Occupy Wall Street with the Tea Party movement from the very beginning, it’s a virulent aversion to being compared to each other.

The Tea Partiers started sharpening their knives before the Occupation even began. Two weeks before last year’s launch Tea Partisan blogger Bob Ellis wrote a post entitled “Socialists Plan to Rage Against Freedom on Constitution Day” – all but daring the lamestream punditry to compare the “infantile” plans of “spoiled children” to “throw tantrums” and “thumb their nose at the American way of life” to the beloved movement that “sprang up from nothing a little more than two years ago in the face of a Marxist president and Marxist congress.”

In reality, of course, no political movement springs “from nothing.” Indeed, both of them have roots in the same man. Fifty-five years earlier that fall, the Tea Party movement’s direct ancestors met in Indianapolis to launch their first bid to rally citizens against the “dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy” occupying the White House, Dwight Eisenhower. But when their beloved anti-communist Barry Goldwater was buried in the 1964 presidential election, the Republican Party moved swiftly to officially renounce the “radical organizations” that had sullied its public image. Then the most radical of the right-wing radicals, Goldwater’s beloved speechwriter Karl Hess, moved into a houseboat, renounced politics altogether and dedicated the rest of his life to peacefully protesting the concentration of political and economic power in the hands of the new aristocracy he dubbed “the one percent.”

You read that right: The first guy to call the 99 percent to arms was the author of a speech that claimed: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Goldwater had fondly referred to Hess as “my Shakespeare.”

Hess had also worked as a professional union buster, an informant to Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover; a regular contributor to the Wall Street-based red-baiting newspaper Counterattack, and an amateur arms trafficker who sent contraband napalm to the plotters of a Bacardi-backed coup attempt against Cuba’s then-dictator Fulgencio Batista. He’d also been a founding editor of the National Review and a full-time ghostwriter for the famous Texas oil oligarch and John Birch Society financier H.L. Hunt.

How Occupy Wall Street (mostly) won me over

This essay is adapted from a chapter of From Cairo to Wall Street: Voices from the Global Spring, recently published by The New Press.

There had been small flutters about an upcoming demonstration on Wall Street through the occasional mention on mailing lists that I mostly ignore. I assumed it would be like so many other actions I’ve been to in my life, where a small group of the usual suspects in the activist community showed up, tried to make a small ruckus, and went home, or the protest got broken up by the police. That said, I was still intrigued by the idea of mounting an occupation, even if temporary, in the heart of the financial district, which even many professional economists hold accountable for much of the inefficiency and inequality of recent years.

So when it began on September 17, I called an old anarchist friend of mine and asked: “Are you going to this thing?” He said no, and, since he was much more connected to activist circles than I was, I assumed it wasn’t going to be all that momentous. I stayed in my office doing research while watching the occupation unfold on live stream, and it seemed benign enough. I was glad that “the kids” were still fighting the good fight despite how futile it looked. I also remember deliberating about how it would be perceived by my more senior economist colleagues at Columbia if I publicly supported such a fringe event, and I chose to not endorse the movement on Facebook. As political scientist Corey Robin writes, fear induced by the workplace is as potent a silencer as anything else.

Monetizing the marginalized

Five years ago, Ron Paul’s popularity was still surprising. Sometime in 2007, the former physician, longtime crank in Congress, and thoroughly fringe Republican had somehow turned his shtick into success — at least monetarily. Paul raised more than $31 million in the 2008 Republican primary even though he never actually won a contest where actual delegates were at stake. For a longshot like Paul, it wasn’t the chance of his success that drove people to donate; on the contrary, all but the deluded knew he would fail.

Now, in 2012, the idea of his success among the fringe is mainstream. And Paul’s alchemy — turning derision into dollars — isn’t exclusive to his corner of the fringe. The powers that be — politics, media, Corporate America — have refused to embrace causes from Occupy Wall Street to Elizabeth Warren. And yet these underdogs still find a way to succeed because marginalization has become incredibly lucrative. How else to explain the $150 million that the DIY funding site Kickstarter is expected to help raise this year, even though many of the projects it funds will do no better than Ron Paul?

As always, credit the Internet. Since the earliest days of altnet message boards, we’ve known the Web can build just as well as it can destroy. Its vastness allows for connections both obscure and passionate, while its anonymity creates hate both entropic and cowardly. This new economy of the marginalized is the child of the first dynamic — the one that can rally thousands to a cause with the smallest of sparks.

My tweets refuse to be subpoenaed

When I saw an email from Twitter Legal in my inbox, I figured it was spam. Data phishers use those kind of emails to steal user passwords, but this was a genuine warning from the social media giant. The New York District Attorney’s office had filed a subpoena requesting my account information and all of my tweets from last September to the end of the year. Twitter had attached the subpoena, and there was my handle, called by the County of New York to testify against me, the person it represents.

My tweets were being called to testify against their creator because on Oct. 1 of last year I was one of more than 700 people arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge as part of an Occupy Wall Street action. We had planned to march over the pedestrian walkway, but the crowd was too large. The police retreated and allowed us to cross half the bridge before kettling and arresting the entire crowd. I had my phone with me and was using Twitter to spread information to people following at home, as well as people behind me in the march. After a short stint in a cell, I was charged with disorderly conduct and released. I pleaded not guilty, not because I didn’t block traffic, but because I believe the march across the bridge was a constitutionally protected form of political speech.

To try to prepare a convincing case that I intended to block traffic, the district attorney has requested over three months of my tweets, as well as any information attached to my account, including my password and email address. The scope of the request extends back to Sept. 15, two days before the occupation of Zuccotti Park began. Since the subpoena is related only to the disorderly conduct charge, the prosecutors want to look through my tweets — preferably without me knowing — for content from weeks before and months after Oct. 1. That wastes taxpayer dollars and some poor trial prep assistant’s time for what amounts to little more than a politically motivated traffic ticket. My attorney soon informed Twitter of his intention to file a motion to quash the subpoena on four different grounds, and they have agreed not to disclose anything for the time being, at least until a judge rules on the motion later this month.

Occupy Student Debt’s failure to launch

By Chadwick Matlin
The views expressed are his own.
Over the past three months, as Occupy Wall Street has pitched a tent in the American consciousness, doubters have had the same refrain: “But what do they want?” Mothers, uncles, family friends, family of friends, they’ve all asked me—their token 20-something—some version of this. They argued that a movement was not a movement just because it wanted to move somewhere. It also needed to know exactly how it was going to get there. Apparently, all revolutions must now come with a built-in GPS.

A month ago, Occupy Wall Street made a demand. Or, as is the way in the nested hierarchy of OWS, a subcommittee of a committee of the movement made a demand.  They want all student debt in the country forgiven. All $1 trillion of it. And if the government would be so kind, they’d appreciate if it would pay for higher education from here on out, as well.

So this is what they—or at least some of they—want. But what has happened with this proposal, this great demand that we’ve all been waiting for?

Hardly anybody has cared.

In one month, only 2,694 people with debt have signed the Occupy Student Debt pledge, which states the following:

Occupy the tax code

By David Callahan

The views expressed are his own.

Chalk one up for Occupy Wall Street. Last Thursday, the New York State legislature voted to raise taxes on high-earners after Governor Andrew Cuomo reversed his longstanding opposition to such a move. Cuomo cited a large budget gap in explaining his about-face, but that gap is hardly new. What is: taxing the top 1 percent is far easier now than it was a few months ago.

The victory in Albany comes just as the Occupy movement finds itself in need of a second act. With the tents gone from Zuccotti Park – and encampments vanishing from other major cities, too – it’s time for the movement to get serious about influencing public policy. Pushing for higher taxes on the rich is a perfect focal point for new activism.

Next year will see the biggest tax fights in a decade. The Bush tax cuts are set to expire at the end of 2012 and President Obama is determined that the wealthy should pay higher rates. In addition, both parties want to reform the tax code – an overhaul that would trigger a struggle over the generous loopholes that now favor corporations and rich individuals.

Obama’s Ted talk

The president’s new populism comes from Teddy Roosevelt’s new nationalism.

By Michael A. Cohen

The views expressed are his own.


Has there ever been an American President more regularly compared to his predecessors than Barack Obama? Since arriving on the national stage Obama has been weighed against Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Reagan, Kennedy, Truman, Carter and even George W. Bush. But after his remarkably full-throated populist speech yesterday in Osawatomie, Kansas we have to add another one to the list – Theodore Roosevelt.

The choice of Osawatomie for a speech that basically establishes the outlines of Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign was hardly accidental. It was the sight of Teddy Roosevelt’s famous “New Nationalism” speech, a set of remarks that laid the foundation for his 1912 run to recapture the White House and signaled his own ideological break with the conservative wing of his own Republican Party.

In evoking Roosevelt’s century-old rhetoric, his attacks on concentrated wealth, and his call for a more active and engaged federal government, Obama yesterday embraced a grand tradition in American politics — that of the anti-business populist standing with the ordinary American. In doing so, Obama has framed the 2012 election in terms that have been the focus of presidential campaigns since Roosevelt ran for a third term in 1912: what is the proper role of government in the lives of the American people?

Occupy Wall Street has already beaten the Tea Party

By David Callahan

The views expressed are his own.

Occupy Wall Street protestors are pondering their next steps after police raids this week dismantled more Occupy encampments in Los Angeles and Philadelphia. In some ways, though, the movement has already scored its most important victory: It has changed the “narrative” that frames public debate. Polls show that the Tea Party story – about an America being destroyed by big government – has been pushed aside by the Occupy Wall Street story, which stresses rising inequality and corporate greed.

This is good news for President Obama. While there is little that Obama can do between now and next November to jumpstart the economy, he may have a strong chance at reelection anyway if Americans keep gravitating to a progressive worldview.

In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken earlier this month, 76 percent agreed that the “current economic structure of the country is out of balance and favors a very small proportion of the rich over the rest of the country.” In another recent poll, by The Washington Post/ABC News, respondents were asked: “Do you think the federal government should or should not pursue policies that try to reduce the gap between wealthy and less well-off Americans?” A majority – 60 percent – said the government should pursue such policies.

from Edward Hadas:

The two sides of inequality

Around 100 BC, a Roman nobleman calculated that it took about 100,000 sesterces a year to live comfortably. That was roughly 200 times the amount of money a poor city dweller needed to eke out a living. If an American needed the same multiple of the subsistence income to join the upper middle class today, the threshold would be $3.5 million. The United States economy has become less equal lately, but it remains much more egalitarian than the ancient Roman Republic.

The modern news on economic inequality is much more good than bad. The good news is very good. The greatest moral problem caused by inequality – the unequal access to the most basic economic goods, those which support life – has become less severe. The portion of the total population that suffers from this bottom-inequality is probably the lowest ever in history.

True, we do not know how many ancient Romans were on the wrong side of the bottom-inequality, but statistics for the most recent decades are encouraging. In 1970, 26 percent of the world’s population suffered from hunger, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. The proportion is now 13 percent – still scandalously high, but the gain in food-equality is clear. Nor is food an isolated example. Electricity is a relative new development, but the Soviet dream of universal electrification has already nearly become a reality; more than 80 percent of the world’s population can plug in, according to the International Energy Agency. Health care and sanitary living conditions are now considered basic goods – and access to them has become more equal. The average life expectancy at birth is 65 or above in countries accounting for roughly 80 percent of the world’s population.

Why Bloomberg evicted Occupy Wall Street

By Joyce Purnick

The views expressed are her own.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has been a headache for mayors around the country. For Michael Bloomberg of New York, the encampment-like protest in a privately-owned park in lower Manhattan was more like a chronic migraine.

It would not go away, and despite some false starts, Bloomberg could not, or would not, stop it for weeks on end. In the interim, his reputation suffered. Even the New York Post, otherwise devoted to Bloomberg, admonished him for his attack of indecision.

What was it about the increasingly annoying and messy protest that got to the normally impatient mayor, stopping him from clearing out Zuccotti Park until this week—two months after the demonstrators took it over? He didn’t want a street riot on his hands, for one. Nor did Bloomberg, who prides himself on protecting free-speech rights, want it to look as though he was cracking down on protesters in the communications capital of the country (especially since he did not agree with them). But the strongest factor behind the delay may well have been what wasn’t happening: Bloomberg was trying to negotiate an agreement, but the OWS protesters were having none of it. Bloomberg can be flexible—as brusque as he is—but you have to play by his rules. The occupants of Zuccotti Park weren’t even playing the same game.

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