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Posted at 12:12 PM ET, 10/13/2011

The irony of Occupy Wall Street


This one’s in Seattle. (Mark Harrison/AP)
Q: Is Occupy Wall Street a hipster movement?

A: Obviously not. You’ve heard of it.

The image is making its way through the interwebs — Occupy Wall Street protesters protesting corporate greed, all while wearing clothes and carrying signboards and sporting iPhones from Big Corporations.

But is this fair? And is it irony?

Irony is, after all, Millennials’ stock in trade. It determines what we think, what we listen to and how we dress. It’s the only thing we have on prior generations. Sure, the ’60s and ’70s had free love and mind-altering substances, but everyone was so earnest and seemed not to realize the full horror of their floral-inspired ensembles.

Last year’s big Disgruntled Generation-Defining October event, the Rally to Restore Sanity, was rich in irony. It was a protest with air quotes. It might have been complaining about something real — “Too much yelling on TV!” — but it wasn’t really a march. It was more of a concert.

This is a real protest.

Sure, the message is a little vague. Why do you think a plurality of Americans approve of the movement? But if everything were required to clear the non-vagueness bar, we couldn’t have the Republican debates or the entire last election season.

Sure, there are more accordions at the movement than a totally non-ironic, non-hipster movement would have, which is to say, there is at least one accordion.

But there’s the curious hipster brand of irony — striking a transparent pose for the sake of the pose (“I’m occupying Wall Street as a commentary”) — the Alanis Morrisette brand of irony (not really irony) and the type of irony that comes out at the end of the play and announces that you’ve been sleeping with your mother the whole time.

“But isn’t it ironic that you’re using the iPhone to fight the man? Protesting corporations with the fruits of corporations? Why are you honoring Steve Jobs? He was The Man.”

“No,” the crowd bellows. “Steve Jobs was a god.”

Yet to suggest that you can protest only if you divest yourself of all corporate trappings would be ridiculous. Clothes make the man. Naked people have little to no influence on society, as Twain wrote. Without the accoutrements, those protesting would get more attention but less respect, as is generally true when you remove your clothes in public.

Besides, these trappings indicate the base the protesters are working from. We can’t conceive of a life where Ugly Sweaters are unaffordable. We’d sooner go without food than without WiFi. Put down the iPhone? Why don’t you just cut off my hand?

To a certain extent, every protest is composed of the people with enough security in their lives to spend their days traipsing around parks. If you have to spend the day struggling to put food on your family’s table, you can’t spend it standing around with a sign that complains you can’t put food on your family’s table, or people will start snide countermovements pointing out this fact.

From my experience, most people in the parks do have jobs.

They aren’t the Have Nots. They’re the Have Not Enoughs.

“It seems unfair that” is how their sentences begin. Yes, there are a few whiners in the crowd whose messages can be boiled down to “It seems unfair that after I graduated from college the heavens did not part and offer me a job as a celebrity.” But for every one of those there are a dozen real stories of struggle, of people who did everything right and still find themselves hurting and would like someone to, uh, do something about it, somehow, and soon.

These people are on the Tumblr, but they may not be at the protest.

Bertrand Russell said, “What is the influence of hunger upon slogans? How does their effectiveness fluctuate with the number of calories in your diet? If one man offers you democracy and another offers you a bag of grain, at what stage of starvation will you prefer the grain to the vote?” This isn’t quite what’s at stake here, but it does a nice job of explaining who turns up in parks.

The idea that because you can afford an accordion you ought to be prohibited from complaining is ludicrous. Protest has always been something of a luxury. And you know what they say about luxuries — they’re only luxuries until you have one yourself.

By  |  12:12 PM ET, 10/13/2011

Tags:  Occupy Wall Street, kids these days

 
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