The media has covered these often-eccentric reactions to America’s economic and political crises very differently.
A late October edition of the New Yorker carried a ‘postcard’ piece on Occupy Wall Street (OWS). On the third re-read it began to dawn on me that, perhaps, the writer was not being sarcastic, despite her grandiose opening line: ‘Visiting the site of Occupy Wall Street last week…was a bit like visiting civilisation at its peak: Paris in the Twenties, Rome in the second century, or, at the very least, Timbuktu in the fifteen hundreds.’
Really? I mean, really? I had recently visited the OWS Zuccotti Park encampment, too, and I’ve been there several more times. Over time, the camp has become better organised. There are now tents, clean-up teams, a set of portable toilets, a library and information points. But ‘the height of civilisation’? Come on.
On a typical day last week, a young protester, with a cardboard sign reading ‘take a picture – it will last longer’, covered his face with a bandana and flicked his middle fingers at snappers. Behind him, percussionists were pounding out deafening out-of-sync beats on drums and various hard surfaces. Among those trying to overpower the echoing racket were the diverse worshippers of the spirituality group, the earnest academics of the camp’s ‘think tank’, opportunist hawkers of pins, t-shirts and drawings, grannies knitting scarfs for protesters, a young woman distributing self-help literature along with Chinese communist pamphlets, and a man announcing, newspaper boy-style, ‘class warfare everyone’ while handing out leaflets about expanding the occupation to Central Park. Tourists on an open-roof New York City tour bus scrambled for space to snap pictures as they passed by the colourful camp. Just below them, on street-level, a fashion model looked desperate to wrap up a photo shoot.
If this is the height of twenty-first-century political life, then the good news is that things can surely only get better.
Yet in the media, the eccentric Zuccotti Park campers have been taken very seriously indeed. They have been credited with ‘changing the national conversation’ and with heralding a brave new democratic dawn. For instance, just over a month into the protest, the Economist’s Democracy in America blog said OWS ‘exemplifies a principled alternative to the prevailing American order [emphasis provided]’. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist interviewed in Zuccotti Park called OWS ‘the hope of America’, and over 1,000 authors – including Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood and Noam Chomsky – have signed an online petition supporting OWS. Even the highest echelons of US politics have expressed support for the cacophonous occupation in Manhattan’s financial district – with everyone from President Obama to Mitt Romney, a front-runner in the Republican presidential candidacy race, expressing sympathy with the unhappy campers’ cause. And this despite the fact nobody in Zuccotti Park is willing to define exactly what their cause is.
None of this fawning has stopped occupiers and their supporters from decrying the mainstream media’s coverage – there’s not enough of it, apparently, and most of it is anyway shallow or negatively skewed. In truth, the OWS coverage has been dense and overwhelmingly positive.
The few critics of OWS have been slammed as contemptuous ignoramuses, as corrupt apologists for ‘the one per cent’. Or it is said that they simply ‘just don’t get it’ because they haven’t engaged with the new form of direct, participatory democracy practiced in Zuccotti Park. But, then, even those journalists who have reported directly from the Occupy headquarters and have taken note of the eccentricity and confusion that undoubtedly exist there have been said to be blinkered by prejudice or interested only in shallow, headline-grabbing snapshots. Any commentary that is less than praising is slammed as mocking or as right-wing mud-slinging.
Compare all this praise and protectiveness over the Zuccotti campers with the blend of ridicule and fearmongering that filled newspaper columns when the Tea Party launched. The contrast is striking.
The two movements have both attracted great amounts of media attention, and there have been plenty of op-eds and analyses in the past couple of months comparing and contrasting them. They are both political fringe movements that are distrustful of the government and hierarchical structures; they were both launched in response to the corrosive effects of the financial crisis; they both think they are diametrically different from each other. A factor that really marks the two phenomena apart, however, is how differently they have been treated by the media.
I have no survey statistics to back this up, but I think it’s fair to say that there is little overlap between the OWS participants and the Tea Party activists. Yet those occupiers slamming criticisms of their movement as scornful, ignorant propaganda were probably not outraged when liberal commentators rejected the Tea Party activists as racist buffoons. When commentators pointed out the eccentric leanings of some Tea Party-ers, there were no complaints from liberals about the media sensationalism. When commentators dismissed them as crackpots there were no demands from liberals that only those who had actually gotten involved with the Tea Party could truly know what they were talking about. When Daily Showhost Jon Stewart led a ‘Rally to Restore Sanity’ on the National Mall in Washington, there were no cries among liberals about ‘hysteria’ among TV personalities.
The OWS movement’s claim to be speaking on behalf of 99 per cent of Americans has been accepted as a legitimate slogan, even among very wealthy Americans and Republican leaders. But in the Tea Party’s case, not even the election of some of its activists to political offices stopped its critics from dismissing them – and by extension, their supporters – as deranged.
The OWS and the Tea Party have one more thing in common: they are both the outcomes of American political debate hitting a low point. The fact that the great and good of America’s liberal elites have heaped scorn over the Tea Party and praise over the occupiers has less to do with what those activists say or do than with the commentators’ need to find some kind of vessels for their various hopes and disillusionments. So the Tea Party came to stand for the end of civilisation while OWS is described as a new civilisation. That’s insane.