Occupy Wall Street & my bicameral mind.

Many years ago, a friend of my brother’s sat in a tiny Washington DC living room and said “I’m perfectly capable of contradicting myself. I have a bicameral mind” — the reference, of course, being to our bicameral (two chambers) national legislature. The name of the friend is now lost in the sands of time, but the exquisite level of geeky self-mockery has stuck with me through the years. Because my mind is at least bicameral. It might be pentacameral, or octacameral.

It certainly is (decacameral?) with regards to the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon, which is why I haven’t written about it up to now. I am of far too many minds about the whole thing to come up with anything really coherent.

On the one hand, I certainly agree with the fury that has brought people out onto the streets across the nation — I, too, am furious (click here for just a few reasons why). I am a firm and involved supporter of grassroots activism, and of nonviolent civil disobedience. I believe that the issues involved go to the very heart of the American Idea and, indeed, simple human ethics. I am a person who is greatly moved by courage and passion, and the willingness to stand still in the face of injustice and simply say “Enough.”

At the same time, after years of grassroots activism, I am weary and beyond weary of the watering down of crucial messages by sideshow antics — and yes, I am being judgmental. Perceptions really do matter and if you look like or behave like a bunch of unwashed hippies with nothing better to do, you will not move the masses in the numbers that you need to. Plain and simple. Men need to put on a tie or at least a shirt with a collar, women need to dress in a way that wouldn’t make their grandmas blush, and everyone needs to pull their hair back. If you want people to respect you, you have to look respectable, even though that totally sucks and isn’t fair. (And for the love of God, get more people of color at the front of the crowd!)

I’m further — and more deeply — weary of fucking nonsense. Such as (but one example): There has been some resistance to using the Occupy protests as a gathering point to register new voters, because a lot of people across the Occupy spectrum are ideological non-voters.

Okee-dokee then. A) Thanks for eight years of Bush-Cheney and the current bicameral clusterfuck, and B) It is your constitutional right to make that choice, and I will fight to the death for your right to do so. But there are forces working very hard to deprive you of that right. There is absolutely zero risk that you will be forced to vote or even to register — please, for the love of God, get out of the way of the people who want to try to make our democracy work.

Moreover, some of the nonsense is plainly self-defeating: Occupy Atlanta not giving the mic to civil rights giant John Lewis — a man who survived the Freedom Rides even as friends and fellow travelers were murdered — because his schedule clashed with that of the consensus process, for one.

For two: Acting like if you camp out in a public park, contrary to city ordinances, you will not eventually be told to leave — and, more to the point, not training your people to be prepared for just that eventuality and the inevitable arrests.

Do you think that Rosa Parks was literally, as the Neville Brothers sang, “tired one day/ after a hard day on her job/ When all she wanted was a well deserved rest/ Not a scene from an angry mob”? Dude — Rosa Parks trained for a scene from an angry mob! Like everyone deeply involved in the civil rights movement, Parks had in fact trained to be arrested, and she was chosen to perform that heroic task — in no small part because perceptions matter, and she was deemed a highly sympathetic figure.

And then there’s a personal issue.

Bluntly put: If a group of New York-living Israelis were to show up to join the spirit of Israel’s J14 social protests to that of Occupy Wall Street, they would be met with vociferous, and likely ugly, rejection. Them’s just facts. There have been several remarkable and worthy Jewish-specific contributions to the protests, but should someone decide to self-identify as a Zionist? God help that someone. And that makes me sad and angry, and will likely keep me away, bottom line. I am a pro-Palestinian Zionist with a desire to cross the miles and cultural differences between my two countries’ social movements — but just like I know that my Palestinian flag would get me hounded out of an AIPAC meeting, my Israeli flag would get me hounded out of Occupy Wall Street.

And so: I will watch from the side, and support specific efforts, possibly with direct action. I’m thinking of getting involved with voter registration anyway, whether at a protest or not, as that strikes me as going to the very heart of the Occupy matter: Elections have consequences. I would like to see the next few elections swing a more socially just direction.

But having said all that, there is still much that inspires and moves me coming out of the Occupy movement, such as the shouts of “We Are! The 99%!”, and not least this new Tumblr: “We are the 1%. We Stand with the 99%.”

The above image comes from that Tumblr account, and I highly recommend that you click here to check out the other entries — it’s an exercise in remembering that humanity’s better angels reside at all socio-economic levels, despite what the folks in the following video might lead you to believe.



  1. Right now it’s inchoate. It will coalesce eventually.

    But you raise good points. Avoiding the flash points of bad behavior and bad dress will go a long way to helping people focus on the message.

    It won’t work perfectly – people always look for discrediting behavior.

  2. Yeah, I know what you mean about what parts of ourselves are welcome and what parts aren’t at these events and how painful that can be. I’m in Toronto, where Occupy Bay Street will be starting tomorrow, and I’m planning to be there with a couple of friends, but all of us are US citizens and we know we’ll face the usual Canadian-left anti-Americanism – which I understand! and even kind of share sometimes! but it’s my damn country and it’s different if I say the US sucks than if a bunch of Canadians do! & etc – and it’s making me sad already even before I get there.

    • corkingiron

       /  October 15, 2011

      I hope you get the chance to tell em’ No. Americans do not “suck”. I tell them that – every chance I get.

      • Well, as a nation, America has done many cruddy things, it’s true. And I do know many Americans who cling fiercely to beliefs about the world and their place in it which are factually incorrect, likely to lead to harm to others, and sometimes not even self-serving. And yet … thank you! I’d hate to think that all of us suck.

        • corkingiron

           /  October 16, 2011

          ” who cling fiercely to beliefs about the world and their place in it which are factually incorrect, likely to lead to harm to others, and sometimes not even self-serving.”

          At the risk of wearing out a meme, ….I see you’ve met my family.

    • When I lived in Israel, I was forever being told some version of “Well, that’s ok that you’re American. You’re not like them.”

      It invariably made me think less of the person who’d said it.

      • Oh boy. I have heard that exact remark in Canada, Mexico, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Brazil, Cuba, Peru, Spain, Turkey, France, and probably a few other places I can’t remember off-hand. I don’t take offense if the US has invaded that country at any point in the past 120 years, so Mexicans, Cubans, and people from Central America get a pass. Otherwise it’s harder to forgive.

        • Mexicans, Cubans, and people from Central America get a pass Well that’s just plain good manners. I imagine we have to add Vietnamese, Iraqis, Afghans, and Pakistanis to the list now.

          • Oh yeah. To say nothing of Panamanians and whatever you call people who live in Grenada. And Chileans are totally allowed to headbutt anyone they see carrying a US passport.

  3. Susan

     /  October 14, 2011

    They are very young, the protesters. It is probably in vain to expect old heads on young shoulders. Nevertheless, we need to listen to them: they are the future, and they are the ones who stand to pay for the bad decisions made in the present.

  4. Lise

     /  October 15, 2011

    Thank you for articulating my ambivalence so well. I particularly enjoyed this line: “if you look like or behave like a bunch of unwashed hippies with nothing better to do, you will not move the masses in the numbers that you need to.” But then, you knew that I would. xo L.

  5. Lise

     /  October 16, 2011

    la la la la la, I can’t heeeear you….

  6. You know what I love about you Emily? Besides EVERYTHING?

    It’s your ability to express a nuanced position that makes sense.

  7. Neocortex

     /  October 27, 2011

    Hi Emily! I just discovered this post.

    I agree with you that perceptions matter, but I’m wondering, is it reasonable to expect people to dress up when they are in such a messy activity? When I go in to Occupy Boston, I don’t wear my nice clothes. I don’t dress in a way that would make any of my grandmothers blush (not my style anyway), but I wear clothes that are meant to hold objects (as a medic, sometimes I need to carry objects), defeat camp mud and wet, and October-in-Boston weather, and be visible in the dark if relevant – waterproof shoes, layers of sweatshirts, cargo pants with many pockets, yellow raincoat and waterproof pants if there’s a chance of rain.

    In addition, some of our protesters are homeless people. They tend to look pretty scruffy. They can get clothes from the clothing tent, as everybody can, but the clothing tent (which relies on donations) has little in the way of dressy clothing.

    I could address some of your other points from my own (i.e. a heavily Boston-centric) perspective, but since it has been two weeks since you posted this, and Occupy itself has grown and changed since then, I’d want to know how your thoughts on any of these points have shifted, before I start talking at you. 🙂

  8. Following several links back from the OTAN, while I’m also ambivalent about some of the occupy tactics and positions (and horrified that even a pro-Palestinian Zionist wouldn’t be welcome at Occupy!), I’d like to bring a younger perspective to your collar comment.

    While certainly dressing reasonably modestly and attempting to look clean and put together is probably key to not turning off large portions of the public, I think that you might be overestimating the extent to which some of the people in these protests actually already own any clothing that matches what you’re asking for.

    As an example, my boyfriend is currently in his senior year of undergrad, in a chemical engineering program, and is pretty straight-laced guy with short hair. He worked in a very professional environment when he spent two semesters co-oping, and he still only owns two ties, only one of which has a matching shirt that he can wear with it. He had some collared shirts from the co-op experience, but he’s outgrown most of them now. If he were to go to an Occupy protest (he probably wouldn’t) dressed to the tie standard, he would either have to buy new clothes to do it or risk the destruction of his interview clothing. He could wear a collared shirt that wasn’t part of his interview outfit two times before needing to go shopping/do laundry, and he’s not a hippie or hipster by any stretch of the imagination.

    For some of the protesters, the effort of upgrading their wardrobes to have shirts with collars would be a significant financial investment. Some of them can totally afford to do that, and some of them probably cannot, especially given that they’re not buying the wardrobes for their first professional jobs, they’re buying nice clothes that might be destroyed while they camp. It’s probably worth it for the leaders of the movement to make that investment, and for the protesters in general to attempt to neat and modest, but I think it’s unrealistic for most of a group that skews young to show up with ties and collars. Even if they own the right clothes already, we’re talking about wearing your work clothes that you’ve just added to wardrobe recently to go camping, not drawing on a wardrobe that’s included formal work clothes for years, and which therefore includes some old items that are formal but which you can afford to trash.

    • Neocortex

       /  October 28, 2011

      Adding a bit to this, even if they are a little older, they may not have a wardrobe that has included formal work clothes for years. Most of my friends who have been out of college 1-10 years haven’t participated in Occupy, but if they did, and they wore their work clothing, that would be t-shirts/sweatshirts and jeans (a plurality of my friends work at software start-ups, which have a deserved reputation as some of the least formal working environments in existence). Their formal clothes are still “interview clothes”. Quite a few of the participants at my Occupy are blue-collar workers whose work clothes are the sort suitable for manual labor. I expect that they do have formal clothes, but that there’s the same problem where their formal wardrobe is small and they can’t afford to trash anything in it.

      I have seen a few people at the camp/Occupy events wearing collared shirts with ties. With one exception (an elderly gentleman who saw one of our marches go by and happily joined in, wearing a good suit), they have been people going to or coming back from job interviews. There’s a reason we call it interview clothing!

      Re: Pro-Palestinian Zionists: I understand Emily’s point – while ambivalent about the term, I could possibly also be described as a pro-Palestinian Zionist, and I know that at left-wing protests you do often get an element that is strongly anti-Israel – but at least at our Occupy, I am not convinced that a J14-type group would get hounded out. Maybe – I’m not willing to completely exclude that possibility – but I don’t think it’s a given. There would probably be some hostile people, but AFAICT we’ve been pretty good about recognizing that in a coalition you will get diverse opinions. And there has been a notable Jewish presence, though I don’t know how many, if any, consider themselves Zionists.

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