Some hundreds of people, most of them young, have been occupying a park near Wall Street for several weeks now, skirmishing occasionally with the police. Similar groups of similar sizes have sprung up in cities around the country. The group has issued manifestos about the evils of our current society, certainly with more than a grain of truth; but they have not made any specific demands, and they are not asserting anything more than the right to be where they are. Both they, and many of those who find them appealing, are proud of being non-partisan and even non-political, and some already worry that they will be "co-opted" by the Democratic Party in the way that, some say, an authentic Tea Party was co-opted by the Republicans. Because these protesters are in their heart on the same side of the political fence that I am, I wish I could find something truly encouraging in what they are doing--but I can't. What has happened to our country is not their fault, but sadly, I'm afraid the nature of their protest is another sign of how far we have fallen.
The most prominent list of demands, I believe, from the OWS protesters can be read here. It is an impressive and largely accurate litany of corporate malfeasance. I quickly counted 20 specific complaints, agreed with 14, and found 6 of them over the top. Nor, I think, is it really accurate to blame the state of America on corporations: many of our politicians are equally to blame, and not simply because of the debts they owe to corporations. The list was evidently drawn up to resemble the Declaration of Independence--but there is one difference.
The difference is that there is no punch line--no demand for specific remedies or political action of any kind. As such, it inevitably reminds me of some of the worst of late 1960s thinking--a conviction that society is intrinsically evil (which it was not) and that we can make it better simply by wishing it so. The manifesto includes no recognition that human nature might be to blame for many of our ills, much less any sense of how to control it. It simply calls for more assemblies and protests.
Strauss and Howe in 1993 identified the Millennial generation (born 1982-2002?) as the new Hero generation, parallel to the GI or "greatest" generation. But the GIs only became the heroes we knew thanks to Franklin Roosevelt and his cabinet, as well as the Lost Generation military leaders like Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley and the rest who led them into battle. The Boom and Xer generations have provided nothing like that for the Millennials, and it seems increasingly unlikely that they are going to do so. The GIs did some great things (and some not so great things as well) when they assumed power on middle age, but they were building upon the achievements of the preceding generations. The Millennials, sadly, are not being given that chance, and with government still being cut back, it's hard to see how they will be.
Nor am I anything but depressed by the new movement's aversion to traditional politics or either political party. That too is reminiscent of 1968, when so many concluded that there was no difference between Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon. Yes, the Democrats are nearly as in thrall to corporate power as the Republicans, but they do not share the Republican zeal for doing away with all levels of government in the United States. They are in touch with reality, which the Republicans are not. (We can hope, of course, that Mitt Romney, if elected, would revert to the sensible views he showed as Governor of Massachusetts, but that surely is grasping at straws.)
In a press conference last week the President tentatively embraced the protesters' concerns. I hope that this will be the beginning of something--that if the protests grow--and they really are very small now--they can move him to the left, and in turn supply him with a new cadre of shock troops for next year's election. But that is the best we can hope for. The United States is no longer capable--though it might at some distant point be--of embarking upon a great crusade to make a better world here at home, much less abroad. Our task now is to prevent things from getting much worse. To help, the protesters, I think, need a more realistic attitude.