The View From Away: The idiot's guide to Occupy Wall Street

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I am not up on current affairs. “Aggressively uninformed” is more like it. It’s self-preservation mostly. Thinking about the world’s actual problems makes me want to hyperventilate, and what the media choose to report aggravates me. Everything seems to lie somewhere on the spectrum between sensationalistic and vapid.

Take the coverage of Gaddafi’s death, an event so big even I learned about it. Who cares if he had female bodyguards? At least he was willing to let women work. My favorite “duh” was The New York Times headline that Gaddafi had “tired of” being a fugitive. Shocker. Most people love being chased through sewers by armed men. I think the Times should change its motto to “All The News That’s Fit To Print – And A Whole Lot More!”

Occupy Wall Street is another story so big I couldn’t miss it, although I am puzzled by some of the reactions. Not all of the reactions. Of course people who are doing well don’t like people questioning what they’re doing well at. In my former life, it never bothered me that comedy writers like me made a multiple of what cops, teachers and firemen earned. I was too busy wondering why those hacks on “Frasier” and “Friends” got more for being on shows that practically wrote themselves than I got for heroically making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear every week on (insert show name here).

Maybe it’s nature; any game is great if you’re winning it. If dung beetles were in charge, and you told the richest one he was living in a giant pile of feces, he’d say, “Thank you,” convinced it was a compliment and convinced he deserved it because he worked harder and smarter than everybody else, even if he was born on a bigger dung pile than he could use in a thousand lifetimes.

Any debate about an excretion-based economy would be like the faux debates we have on politics now. Some Fox News pundit would be outraged at the bums who would rather live in a tent and complain than roll up their sleeves and build their own dung piles. An MSNBC commentator would tell him nobody should have a lot of dung until everybody has a little. Neither would listen to the other, and they’d both ignore the growing crowd saying, “Excuse me? It’s us, almost everybody. Could we maybe look at some alternatives? Because this constant fighting over dung isn’t working for us.” Neither commentator could afford to look too closely at that crowd because at the end of the day, they would both work for the beetles.

It’s harder to understand the people who have more in common with the occupiers than the hedge fund managers, but still don’t like OWS. I was surprised, for example, by a friend’s recent post on a social media site I won’t plug here – rhymes with “Mace Hook” – one of many similar comments I’ve seen. He said he was sympathetic to OWS, but he knocked them for not having specific demands. Without asking for something specific and concrete, OWS risked becoming no more compelling than a traffic accident, something you look at but don’t get involved in.

He’s right from one perspective. Without typical protest demands, the movement makes it easy for critics within the status quo. How can we help, they will argue, if you won’t tell us what you want? It’s a fair point, if the point of the movement is saying the status quo needs tweaking. I’m not sure that is the point, though.

I wonder if people objecting to the supposed lack of focus in Occupy Wall Street are really attacking apples for not being oranges. To me the spirit of OWS seems more primal than a simple protest against bailouts, bonuses or tax rates for the wealthy. I see the demonstrators as seeking something more cathartic. Sure, they are unhappy about the economy, but they are also fighting the hopelessness of being profoundly disenfranchised by a government that doesn’t seem to acknowledge their existence, much less serve them.

An important element seems to be a reality check. Millions of individuals are suddenly experiencing together what they had been experiencing separately. They’re getting a visceral sense that they are not the only ones feeling impotent and invisible. Along with learning there are others, OWS participants go through the related tribal process of sharing their stories. Occupy Wall Street seems at least as much about community building as protesting.

They are protesting, not this policy or that, but nonpersonhood. They are telling Congress and Wall Street that making shareholder profit not just the most important thing, but the only thing, is not sustainable. Nor can we sustain a government that has largely abandoned governance for politics or that recognizes the existence of only one constituency: the wealthy. If they’re right, specific demands are Band-Aids on arterial bleeding. First, they have to convince our authority figures that the system is broken. The problem is that day to day, it works great for the people they need to convince.

You know, like how, day to day, France worked great for Marie Antoinette.

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Portland resident Mike Langworthy, an attorney, former stand-up comic and longtime television writer, is fascinated by all things Maine. You can reach him at mikelangworthy@me.com.

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