A Thousand People in the Street: An Occupation Meditation

The Summer of Love Meets The Winter of Our Discontent

They are angry.

On that much, everyone agrees.

As the mainstream media wakes up to the Occupation of Wall Street and as that protest, and its growing collection of siblings around the globe, enter their second month, the inchoate nature of the whole enterprise is emerging as its distinguishing feature.

There are no recognized leaders. There have been no demands. There is no future agenda. There are only a growing collection of tents in cities around the world, filled with people, not all of them young, who seem convinced the present state of affairs can no longer be tolerated with silent acquiescence.

The lack of a formal agenda makes what by now deserves to be called (at the very least) a nascent movement unlike even its more open textured predecessors.

It is not a good-natured convocation of liberals gathered to call for a more civil discourse, like the Rally to Restore Sanity. Its not a coalition of disparate groups making common cause against a common adversary, like the succession of demonstrations and general strikes that rocked Paris in May 1968.

It is spontaneous and at least in part a creature of new communications technologies, like texting and tweeting, as were the vast rallies this winter in Tahir Square, but unlike those rallies, it lacks the focus of a single, clearly articulable demand.  It is not nearly as vast as the Tiananmen Square protest of 1989, but like that event, it seems to be settling in for a long haul, and to be evolving  an agenda as it goes along.

Michael Kimmelman noted as much in the Sunday New York Times, when he wrote that the demonstrators in Zuccotti Park have created their own polis, built on consensus and cooperation, a functioning, self policing community in miniature, within which protesters with different concerns and different messages are forging ties based on proximity and discussion.

How long that remains the case, and whether the ethos of shared endeavor can survive the growth of tent towns into tent cities, remains to be seen. Consensus born of collegiality works best in microcosm. New York cannot be run like a New Hampshire town meeting. But that those discussions are taking place at all provides an object lesson in what large scale democracy, managed from the top down, can seldom achieve, and what makes the Occupations unlike other recent acts of public demonstrations.

The Occupation, like a protest march, has taken hold of a public space to articulate its message face-to-face to the financiers against whom it is aimed, and the passers by who form its primary audience. Kimmelman, in his thoughtful essay, rightly noted that in doing so, the Occupation both joins a long line of American protests that have drawn symbolic meaning from the forum in which they were conducted.

What makes the Occupation different is the way in which it relates to the forum. Unlike, say, the Million Man March or even the various demonstrations against the World Trade Organization, the Occupation – despite its name – does not really occupy, to the temporary exclusion of other uses, its chosen forum. It is less an act of temporary occupation than it is the beginning of an ongoing vigil.

The idea of an encampment as an exercise in public discourse is not new. And the ways in which it differs from a march or a parade are worth considering.

Unlike the latter, which occupy a public forum completely, and exclusively, for a brief time, the Occupations inhabit the public spaces of which they have become a part less dramatically, but for an indefinite duration. The message they convey draws its force not merely from the force of numbers, but from the persistence of the messengers. Unlike a march, a vigil evolves: it is interactive, a teachable moment, an ongoing encounter. It is perfectly suited to the loosely joined complaints of its various participants, knitted together by a general sense that the nation has lost its way. It does not deliver an emphatic message so much as pose a persistent question. It is punctuated, if at all, not by an exclamation point so much as by a long trail of ellipses.

This is a sit-in, and like every sit-in, it carries with it a moral ultimatum. From the Bonus Army to the Freedom Riders, to the mock shanty-towns that urged colleges across the east to divest themselves of their South African assets in solidarity with the victims of Apartheid, every sit-in defies the powers to which it speaks truth to move it along.

When demonstrators in Times Square on Sunday reminded police that the “whole world was watching” they not only echoed the Grant Park of 1968, they also enunciated the central rhetorical reality of what was going on downtown.

The inchoate gathering encamped in Liberty Plaza Park may not have a focused message, but they do have the spotlight. Like the lunch counter demonstrators of fifty years ago, they are using it to insist that we answer uncomfortable questions to which answers are long past due. They are defying us to answer them, to engage them, or to move them along. They are doing it face to face. How we as a nation respond will define us at this moment in our history, whether we like it or not.

Next time, I will give some thought to the notion of a demonstration that evolves an agenda as it progresses, and what it says about First Amendment freedoms and the scale of civil discourse.

For those intrigued by such questions, it promises to be an interesting autumn, sandwiched somewhere between the summer of love and the winter of our discontent.

Cleveland, 19 October 2011

Incendiary, Indefensible & Wrong

Aside

Mr. Vadum’s Silly Screed Against the Poor

On Friday, a man named Michael Vadum published an article in the American Thinker, the title of which  provides a tidy lesson in how our national discussion has lost its way.

Registering the Poor to Vote is Un-American is a pretty good title, if your point is to get attention, carry water for your media mentors and make a name for yourself as a provocateur. It is, after all, bold, counter-intuitive and deeply provocative. 

It is also, facile, unsupported by anything like serious argument, and morally indefensible.

Draw your own conclusions from what Vadum has written, but this is a fair summary.

Liberals favor voter registration drives, he contends, because the poor, once registered, tend to vote themselves entitlements. Organizing the poor as a means of subverting democracy has been the fundamental strategy of the left since Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven argued, in an article published in the Nation forty-five years ago, that getting the poor to vote was the key to subverting capitalism.

That article, Vadum warns us, was no less than the domestication of a Trotskyite plan to end America as we know it. And, in a theory embraced by his media patron Glenn Beck, the unholy trinity of Frances Piven, Saul Alinsky and Barack Hussein Obama are putting the final nails in the coffin of capitalism using the hammer (somewhere in here there has got to be a sickle) crafted by Piven, a University of Chicago trained Ph.D. who teaches at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

There are three problems with this.

First, Vadum assumes that the motivation to register the poor to vote is, consciously or not, a strategy employed in support of the Cloward-Pliven strategy, to force a crisis in the public welfare system that, through the recruitment of more participants than the system can bear, will bring concerted political pressure to adopt a program by which the poor are ensured a guaranteed income from the federal government. 

Whether that was a plausible political strategy at the outset of the Great Society is debatable. Whether  it is a plausible strategy now is even more so. 

What is beyond debate, however, is that there exist valid, independent reasons to register poor voters without preconceptions as to the social policies – existing or posited – which they will ostensibly embrace.

It strikes an odd note, in a country where voting rates in the 2008 presidential election peaked at about fifty-eight percent of eligible voters to suggest that expanding participation in the franchise to the forty-percent of the population who are eligible to vote, but chose not to do so, is not a good in and of itself. 

Low voter turnout  bespeaks a population disengaged from self governance, either by apathy, ignorance, or a lack of understanding as to its own capacity to affect change. If the point of America is to be a functioning, self-governing society, then encouraging those to whom the franchise has been extended to use their vote is a self-evident good.

(Indeed, back-peddling in the face of his critics on Saturday, Vadum assured us that it is neither his intention nor his wish to see anyone disenfranchised.  He seems content to allow the poor to vote in the abstract, provided they don’t actually go ahead and do it.)

Second, Vadum assumes a model of democracy that is wedded to preserving the distributional status quo: the present system, in which one percent of households control over one third of all wealth. 

That system, of course, is neither a social accident nor the result of a free market playing out over time. Rather, it is the result of myriad public policy choices, made over decades, regarding the manner in which income is defined, assets are permitted to accumulate, wealth is taxed, and public welfare priorities are set. Choices that, in America, are theoretically the business of the people.

Vadum rails against the inclusion of the unproductive classes in these decisions presumably because those who do not “contribute” to the wealth of the nation ought have no say in how it is dispersed. Until Friday, I naively believed that the question of limiting the franchise – in law or fact – to freeholders had been settled, but apparently there exist among us people so avaricious as to be willing to reopen that debate, or at least people so servile as to curry favor by reopening it for them. 

After decades of declining wages, aggressive attacks on organized labor, and the systematic export of our industrial base to Red China in the relentless search for a sweeter bottom line, the incapacity of the growing underclass to contribute wealth to the society in which they have been relegated to bystanders can hardy be laid at their poorly shod feet.

Third: Un-American. If patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, Americanism is the rhetorical destination of choice for demagogues, a shiny bow wrapped gaudily round a box devoid of argument. Vadum can be forgiven for a view of distributive justice that would make Marie Antoinette blush, but I’ll be damned if he can be forgiven for wrapping it up in the flag.

The point of democracy is not to rig the game in favor of oligarchy. The point is to effectuate the will of the people. And when vast numbers of those people have been left by the wayside in an economy that rewards those who move money over those who create value, when their neighborhoods have been decimated by mortgage fraudsters and their cities bankrupted by financial schemers, when their jobs have been given to third world workers who toil like slaves for subsistence wages, when they have been reduced, year by year and cut by cut, from citizens to consumers to factors to be milked and discarded, not in the interest of America, but in the interest of those who have perfected the business of extracting wealth from Americans and concentrating it in ever fewer hands, it is altogether understandable that Matthew Vadum might be a little frightened as to what those inconvenient masses, if shown to the polls, might actually have to say.

Justice Louis Brandeis surfaces on the web these days – a good thing in its own right – to remind us that “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” Until Friday, I would have guessed we could all at least agree on which of those two options counted as Un-American. 

Michael Vadum seems to think otherwise. 

Give him credit. In the battle for democracy, at least we know where he stands.

Cleveland Heights, 4 September 2011



Enfants Terribles

Messrs. Hoffa & Galliano Face Their Critics

Labor Day in Detroit must have a righteous anger all its own. That may explain why Teamster President Jimmy Hoffa – brought in to warm up the crowd for President Obama – ignited a firestorm in the Commentariat on Monday.

For those of you emerging from comas, this was the spark that kindled the first rhetorical highlight of the week:

President Obama, this is your army. We are ready to march. And President Obama we want one thing: Jobs. Jobs. Jobs. Jobs. Jobs. Jobs. Jobs. Jobs. That’s what we’re going to tell him. He’s going to be – and when he sees what we’re doing here he will be inspired. But he needs help and you know what? Everybody here’s got to vote. If we go back and keep the eye on the prize, let’s take these [expletive] out and give America back to America where we belong!

The Sons of Bitches (elided above by the heirs of Katherine Graham) were not amused.

The folks at Fair and Balanced edited Hoffa down to his most incendiary morsel, sounding the tocsin of class warfare – again. National Tea Party leaders called on President Obama to repudiate the remark, while in Rockford, Illinois, the local Tea Party called for Hoffa to resign.

Brad Blakeman, a former staffer for Bush-the-Younger, went on Fox to denounce the “thuggish” remarks as the sort you might expect from Tony Soprano, apparently forgetting for a moment that Jimmy Hoffa is not, actually, Jimmy Hoffa.

Michelle Bachman and Sarah Palin added their own scorn, the former branding Hoffa a thug, and the latter (to her credit, more on the merits) warning her working class followers that the unions are not their friends.

Neither mentioned the numerous Tea Party events (like this one, and this one, and this one too) at which demonstrators were encouraged to march with firearms.

But irony is not a Tea Party thing.

By midweek the news cycle had made all things new.

President Obama repudiated nothing, and Jimmy Hoffa stood his ground.

Later, some Republicans debated at a library, and the President addressed a joint session of Congress summoned by truant officers.

But on Thursday in Paris, the other rhetorical shoe dropped.

There, a three judge panel convicted British fashion designer and former Dior creative director John Galliano of “making public insults” based on race, ethnicity or religion, imposed a suspended fine of €6000, and assessed court costs of €16,500, which will go to fund the work of several groups working to combat racism, which were designated by his accusers.

His accusers are the patrons unfortunate enough to have endured his anti-Semitic rants, both outside a Paris bar, and in a restaurant, in October 2010 and February 2011, respectively.

The incidents included a harangue against a woman named Geraldine Bloch, whom Galliano accused of having “an ugly Jewish face,” of being attended by a “dirty Asian” companion and of having unfashionable boots.

(Ms. Bloch is not Jewish, her companion was not Asian, and the question of whether or not her boots were fashionable is well beyond the scope of my expertise.)

Not charged – but admitted into evidence – were remarks documented in a videotape circulated online by the Sun in February, in which Galliano accosted two diners in yet another restaurant, professing his love of Hitler, his hatred of Jews, and his wish that the ancestors of his victims had been gassed.

Galliano took the novel step of blaming his racist outbursts on substance abuse, and the Court, noting his remorse and his work on behalf of the gay community, declined to jail him.

But it might have, for up to six months.

What Mr. Galliano did is illegal in France, and in one form or another has been for well over a century. Article 29 of the Press Law of 1881 (here for the purists) makes both slander and “incitement to discrimination, hatred and violence” criminal offenses.

Under the Act of 13 July 1990 (the Gaysott Act), those defamed on the basis of race or ethnicity have a legal right of reply, and publications tending to call into doubt the reality of Nazi crimes against humanity can be punished by fines of up to €45,000.

Hoffa and Galliano make an unlikely pair, but their rhetorical adventures this week combine to form an instructive reminder of what constitutes incitement in America, and how unlike the rest of the world we are in that regard.

Despite some unpersuasive and ill-informed suggestions to the contrary, what Jimmy Hoffa said in Detroit on Monday does not constitute criminal incitement, and could not be punished as such consistent with the First Amendment.

The Constitution affords substantial “breathing space” to political rhetoric, and even if a prosecutor could establish that Hoffa was calling for political violence – a dubious argument given the content and the context of his remarks – advocating political violence, in the abstract, is perfectly legal.

More than four decades ago, the Supreme Court reshaped the law of what First Amendment lawyers call “seditious libel.” In Brandenburg v. Ohio, the Court held that only when violent advocacy is both intended to produce, and creates an imminent risk of lawless conduct, may it be punished by the law.

The “clear and present danger” test recognizes that hyperbolic rhetoric is a political commonplace, and not necessarily the first step on the road to revolution.

In similar cases, the Court has forbidden the prosecution of abstract threats upon the life of the president, Watts v. United States, and warnings that those who failed to honor a boycott of local merchants could expect to have their necks broken, N.A.A.C.P. v. Claiborne Hardware.

By these standards, the Hoffa speech is well within the boundaries of protected political expression, and no intellectually honest argument to the contrary can be made.

But had Mr. Galliano delivered his rants in Poughkeepsie, and not Paris, the answer would not be so obvious.

Discussions of race are a central part of American politics, and the right of racial extremists to espouse their views, however distasteful, falls well within the ambit of the First Amendment.

Indeed, not only must the government permit Anti-Semites to disseminate their message in the streets, Colin v. Chicago Park District, it must expend even considerable resources to ensure that their provocations do not incite offended bystanders to lawlessness, Forsythe County Georgia v. The Nationalist Movement.

The First Amendment protects speech that is deeply offensive, like the homophobic and anti-patriotic rants of Fred Phelps near the funerals of fallen soldiers, Snyder v. Phelps, and of dubious social value, like video games that feature graphic, first person violence, Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association.

The core commitment to the notion that ideas are to be tested in the marketplace, and not proscribed a priori, is what distinguishes our approach to restricting hate speech to that taken by the nations of the European Union.

There are few topics that are simply off limits under the First Amendment. Obscenity, child pornography, false advertising and the solicitation of unlawful conduct are essentially disowned by the Constitution, deemed to be “non-speech” in the talk of the trade, in the belief that they are imbued with essentially no redeeming social value that merits protection.

Another class of non-speech – fighting words – also exists. Since Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, the Supreme Court has recognized that a small subset of words are so inflammatory and likely to result in a violent response that their utterance may be punished.

Their fate hinges not on any idea that they convey, but on the fact that their use, in a sense, short circuits reason, and is “likely to provoke the average person to retaliation.”

Which brings us round to John Galliano in Poughkeepsie.

A good argument can be made that the face-to-face insults hurled by Galliano at his fellow diners were so likely to provoke a response as to amount to incitement. Indeed, the non-Asian companion of Ms. Bloch is reported to have wielded a chair against Galliano in response to his diatribe.

Such incitement can be prohibited under the fighting words doctrine, not because the ideas are ugly, discredited or useless, but because the words do not trade in ideas at all, so much as invite a physical response.

What links seditious libel and the fighting words doctrine is the belief that we protect expression because, and to the extent that, it is an appeal to reason. In this sense, both doctrines are about context, immediacy, and the intermediation of reason.

Mill realized as much fifty years before the Supreme Court began to flesh out the meaning of the First Amendment, when in On Liberty, he wrote:

An opinion that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn-dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard

The distinction is between content and context.

In France, Galliano can be punished because society has declared his idea useless and not worth considering.

Here, neither he nor Hoffa can be punished, unless their words bypass reason altogether, and present an imminent threat of disorder by stoking the passions of their listeners to violence.

Thomas Emerson, in his landmark work The System of Freedom of Expression, recognized that the distinction between punishing words likely to incite because they excite the listener, and words likely to incite violence because they convince the listener of some proposition or other, is the difference between taking seriously the moral autonomy of the listener, and treating him as an automaton.

Reacting to the Galliano conviction, Professor Eric Bleich of Middlebury College has suggested that, as a society, “[w]e may lose more than we gain from protecting racist speech.”

His essay is thoughtful, and his support of that conclusion lukewarm, but in the end I cannot agree.

France and the member states of the European Union undertook a systematic codification of human rights in the shadow of the Holocaust, and their conclusions regarding hate speech can only be understood in that context. But they assume the discredited garbage spewed by Galliano still has the power to persuade. Confidence in reason, and the power of rhetoric to reach reason, suggests a better result.

There is nothing good to be said about the ugly rantings of John Galliano. Anti-semitism, as Clive James observed, is “a world view through a pin-hole: as scientists say about a bad theory, it is not even wrong.” The French have decided as much as a matter of law.

But in America, every one has the right to be wrong.

Or not even. I prefer it that way.

Cleveland Heights, 10 September 2011