Occupy Wall Street: American as Apple Pie

crosby and nashThose loud right-wing voices in our political discourse that are trying to make Occupy Wall Street look like something “foreign” to American culture are barking up the wrong tree. When David Crosby and Graham Nash recently showed up at Zuccotti Park for an impromptu sing-along with the protesters they linked OWS with the long American tradition of resistance to oligarchic rule. Crosby’s song, “What Are Their Names?,” has given the movement an anthem.

Please forgive us if we don’t respond positively to the notion of “bipartisan” solutions to the nation’s current problems. The absolute worst policies of our time have been enacted with “bipartisan” support: NAFTA and the WTO; deregulating Wall Street; the Bush tax cuts; the Iraq invasion and occupation; the bailout of the banks with no strings attached — all were “bipartisan.” And now we have the “bipartisan” deficit “Super Committee” taking aim at further shredding the social safety net in a time of record-long unemployment and real human suffering. We don’t need to hang around until the closing credits to see how this shitty movie is going to end.

Going back to antiquity the only time rational human progress was made was when the oligarchs and monarchs, large landowners, and the Church were brushed aside for a moment in time. In 1776, had the American revolutionaries tried the Barack Obama approach of “reaching out” in a spirit of “cooperation” with the Tories and the British Crown there never would have been a United States of America in the first place. It’s the same with the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the Great Society — none of these periods of reform would have been possible through “bipartisanship.”

Alexis de Tocqueville identified this anti-oligarchic strain way back in the early national period, and we can see it by simply popping in a Frank Capra movie from the 1930s (or John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath). Occupy Wall Street has far more in common with this deep American cultural tradition of individual resistance to inherited wealth than any of the confused faux populists of “Americans for Prosperity” or the “Tea Party Patriots.” I really believe Americans will not put up with living under an authoritarian oligarchy like the one the Koch Brothers, Grover Norquist, and Karl Rove envision for us.

Throughout the decade of the 1930s, even while President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democratic Congress were doing a great deal to help alleviate the suffering of the 99 percent, there were violent confrontations across the country with workers being tear gassed and beaten, even shot or killed. Back in 1934, militant strike actions broke out across the country including the General Strike in San Francisco, the Auto-Lite Strike in Toledo, Ohio, and the Teamsters-led Minneapolis Strike. Shortly thereafter came the sit-down strikes in Flint, Michigan and the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) struggle against Little Steel. On May 26, 1937, in Chicago, there was the “Memorial Day Massacre” where 10 steel workers were shot in the back as they fled the police outside of Tom Girdler’s Republic Steel plant.

For OWS it’s just the beginning of the beginning.

We must sideline the Norquists and the Kochs and the rest of the oligarchs and begin to plan rationally for an ecologically sustainable future. OWS is the first baby step in that direction. Grover breathes the same air we do. And not even the Almighty Kochs can protect their heirs from the looming environmental catastrophe they and their political underlings have contributed mightily to bringing about.

(And what do we make of a Republican presidential frontrunner, Herman Cain, who declares: “I’m the Koch Brothers’ brother from another mother!” What does it tell us about the seriousness and understanding coming from the standard-bearers of the GOP? The party that President Obama is so determined to work with.)

Let’s think about this world Grover Norquist, the American Petroleum Institute, and the Koch Brothers are passing on to future generations.  If they have their way our grandchildren are not going to know a planet without unbelievably volatile weather patterns and the costly destruction that go with it.

And the truly depressing thing about these multinational corporations that we’re being told to bow down to is the fact that they are sociopathic institutions that routinely replace any individual in the organization who might have second thoughts about forging ahead in pumping the atmosphere full of greenhouse gases.

Take for example Chief Justice John Roberts, who for all intents and purposes is nothing more than a walking, talking corporation.  His entire legal career consisted of defending the interests of corporations against citizens.  In 2000 he volunteered for the Bush-Cheney campaign and went to Florida to assist in the election rigging and was rewarded by becoming a judge for the first time because George W. Bush made him one.  During Roberts’ confirmation hearings “the Left” was saying that Democrats should “bork” this guy because of his extreme oligarchic views of the law.

joseph palermoRoberts was a stealth candidate, they said.  They said he was probably lying to the U.S. Senate when he said he would abide by stare decisis. His own analogy that he would be an “umpire” simply calling “balls and strikes” was an attempt to hide the fact that he didn’t have the depth of understanding, the disposition or fairness to be on the Supreme Court.  Yet the Democrats reached across the aisle trying to show bipartisan comfort and love.  Well, Roberts was a driving force behind the Citizens United 5-4 ruling that opened the floodgates of anonymous corporate cash that has done more to undermine American democracy than any court ruling in a generation.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is embryonic.  The Obama Administration has proven itself over and over again to be a dismal failure in representing the real interests of the 99 percent.  President Obama’s negotiating “style” with the opposition goes something like this: He starts off by asking for a “half of loaf,” then drops it to a “quarter loaf,” and then when he’s told he won’t get crumbs he capitulates totally.  He ignominiously caves in to every Republican gambit, be it holding unemployment benefits hostage (as they did in December 2010) or blocking a debt ceiling vote (as they did last summer).  In each case Obama became a co-conspirator in screwing over the 99 percent.  Now there’s some weird undemocratic “Supreme Soviet” that is going to determine the futures of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.  Please someone tell me: Who died and left Erskine Bowles and Pete Peterson in charge of our nation’s destiny?

Journalist Scott Johnson of the San Jose Mercury News, commenting on Occupy Oakland, recently observed:

“[T]he Occupy movement is . . .  ironically self-aware of just how connected it is to the very mechanisms of corporate power it also wants to dismantle.  In the past three weeks, FedEx has delivered at least three packages to the Oakland camp from Amazon.com.  All were simply addressed to Occupy Oakland.  Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, digitized corporate America, are the ubiquitous tools of the movement.  The tents at the tent city are from REI and Coleman.”

Mr. Johnson is highlighting in a good-hearted way the argument that’s been buzzing around right-wing web sites stating that if a person participating in OWS uses a smart phone, social media, or any corporate service or product she or he is being “hypocritical.”

These ideas are similar to the charges recently leveled at Elizabeth Warren who is running for the Senate in Massachusetts.  According to her right-wing critics she is “hypocritical” because she has attained in her life as a Harvard professor a certain level of economic security and comfort.  They put out this story line even though Warren consistently stands up for working people and the poor.  They apparently believe that the views of Professor Warren and other progressives are suspect unless they’re living in a cardboard box under a bridge somewhere, (and if they were living under a bridge they’d denounce them as “dirty hippies”).  This reasoning holds that one must separate from society and live off the grid like Ted Kacynski in a Montana cabin before one can exercise the rights of citizenship.  It’s an anarchist argument and a pretty weird one to hear it emitted from the mouths of right-wingers; they’re criticizing “the Left” for not being “left” enough.

Joe PalermoSo go ahead and take your snarky jabs at OWS protesters for using cell phones or Fed Ex, but at least they’re pointing to the correct culprits and seriously discussing potential solutions.

How many decades can the ruling class in this country fail the people before the extent of its failures exacts a political cost? The time to act is passing by quickly. We must sideline the right-wing zealots and the corporate elites and their water carriers to carve out the democratic space to accomplish something real in behalf of the planet and its people.

Joseph Palermo
Joseph Palermo’s Blog 

Published by the LA Progressive on November 13, 2011
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About Joseph Palermo

Joseph Palermo is Professor of History, California State University, Sacramento. Professor Palermo's most recent book is The Eighties (Pearson 2012). He has also written two other books: In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (Columbia, 2001); and Robert F. Kennedy and the Death of American Idealism (Pearson, 2008). Before earning a Master's degree and Doctorate in History from Cornell University, Professor Palermo completed Bachelor's degrees in Sociology and Anthropology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Master's degree in History from San Jose State University. His expertise includes the 1980s; political history; presidential politics and war powers; social movements of the 20th century; the 1960s; and the history of American foreign policy. Professor Palermo has also written articles for anthologies on the life of Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J. in The Human Tradition in America Since 1945 (Scholarly Resources Press, 2003); and on the Watergate scandal in Watergate and the Resignation of Richard Nixon (CQ Press, 2004).