Saturday, October 15, 2011

What Occupying Actually Accomplishes?

Today is October 15th, 2011. It is a day where the organizers and activists of "Occupy Wall Street" moves from New York City to the rest of the world. Called a 'Global Day of Action,' it is a call for all concerned individuals to physically occupy strategic financial districts in every major city to fight the top 1% of greedy and corrupt business people who are siphoning away most of the money. According to their website, the organization describes themselves as follows:

"Occupy Wall Street is leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions. The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%. We are using the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic to achieve our ends and encourage the use of nonviolence to maximize the safety of all participants."
Noble intention. Impressive media attention. Inadequate comprehension. Problematic implementation.

These four sentiments sum up my thoughts about the Occupy Wall Street movement. As many cities watch nervously, with heavy police and media presence, individuals from the '99%' of the population are urged to gather at the heart of the financial districts. Vancouver is no exception. As one of the forerunners of free speech and democratic expression, Canadians in Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg, Victoria, Halifax, Vancouver, etc, will be gathering to make known their frustrations with the world financial system. They claim that the reason why the world is in such a financial mess is due to the 'greed and corruption' of Wall Street, and those whose wealth are a result of the financial system of Wall Street. The solution is to 'occupy wall street' or its equivalent so as to make a statement that enough is enough. The 'top 1%' must stop their greed and corruption, for the sake of the 99% of the world population.

Bruce Wydick, in his article, "Prophets Against Profits? What Occupy Wall Street Misses - The problem doesn't lie with the 1%. It's with us."essentially argues that the movement misses the true mark. He takes the position that the problem is far more complex than the Occupy-Wall-Street movement suggests. More crucially, the main problem is the human condition. Wydick goes on to say that the movement is better 'at identifying something that is wrong than identifying a way forward that is right.' Good observation. He blames the 'lax' financial structures, and 'both' sides of the political powers. He blames the general culture of 'entitlement' that has led to the nation's current debt condition. He then makes a summary judgment that 'we are all to blame,' and we all need to 'repent.' He even says that Christians are not allowed to participate in events like these. Unfortunately, for his brilliant analysys, Bryce too commits the same fault at diagnosing something right, but prescribing a solution that lacks specifics. He writes:

"We must turn away from this spirit of entitlement toward an ethic of frugality, honesty, and transparency in our individual lives and in the design of our institutions. This is our country's best hope for creating a foundation for optimism about our collective economic future."
A) Noble Intention

The world is in great economic uncertainty. America is currently grappling with its domestic problems, thanks to the subprime lending crisis and financial bailouts of large corporations with public money. It is indeed correct for the general man in the street to be angry, and to ask what happened to all the money. It has not translated into more jobs. Neither has it led to an improvement in market conditions. Instead, layoffs are rising. Businesses are not hiring as much. With mounting bills, people are struggling to make ends meet, while the rich and the powerful continue to live lavishly. The system is broken. The top 1% is perceived to be nonchalant about the rest of the 99%. By exercising their right to democratic expression, the organizers are indeed credited with starting a movement to make their voices heard. After all, is there any other avenue for them to do so? Will CEOs grant interviews to non-profits or those who claim to speak for the poor? Will the rich take notice of the lower echelons of society?

B) Impressive Media Attention

One of the main objectives of the Occupy Wall Street movement is to gain maximum publicity for their 'plight.' News media all over the world are giving lots of attention to the public protests. Of course, sensational events like pockets of violence and other 'news-worthy' incidents are given relatively greater prominence. In some countries like Singapore, the presence of media and plainclothes policeman, is enough to quell any gathering of people. Together with police warnings about illegal public gatherings and the general sense of fear in a country known for its draconian laws, the movement dies even before it starts. That said, the occupy financial districts have been mostly peaceful in many other cities in the developed world. Lots of noise, that even key political leaders have taken notice. Of course, for political correctness, most of the politicians and public figures have voiced some level of 'support' for the 99%.

C) Inadequate Comprehension

I agree with Bryce that the financial system in the world is far more complex than perceived. One thing leads to another. Credit is both a boon and a bane. For something that has grown unwieldy over the decades, it is impossible to find a silver bullet that can resolve all the issues. If it is so easy, Obama and all the top economists of the world will have already resolved it. For that, I feel that the OWS movement tends to harp on a simple idea that is not actually the solution to the problem. Worse, it presents a kind of picture that uses a wrong tool to solve the wrong problem. Inadequate comprehension may even lead to erroneous expectations among the general public. If one is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. This is unfortunately true of OWS.

D) Problematic Implementation

Mass movements exhibit two key characteristics: loud voices and sensational speeches. In speaking to large crowds, loudness is a virtue. Loudhailers and booming speakers fill the airwaves. In order to win public sympathy, quiet reasoning succumbs to loud shouting. The voice of rationale is subdued by the rhetoric of emotional outbursts. Not only that, anger and physical violence hang delicately on a short fuse. This is why police frequently have to assure shop owners in the downtown districts of protection. Whenever there is a mass gathering, the mob mentality is never far away. It is like pouring gasoline peacefully on the streets, and warning the police not to ignite any spark. When loudness of speech becomes the main primary staple of the movement, the voice of reason takes a secondary position.

In summary, I am sympathetic to the concerns of the OWS movement. I am also angry at the helplessness of the public against the current financial system. That said, the system is the best that we have at the moment. There is no quick fix. There is not enough time for anyone to re-invent something within a short span of time. It needs concerted effort from all to be honest in their dealings, to live sacrificially, to be concerned for one another, their neighbours etc. There is no magic bullet. In order to communicate the need to be more urgent about the problems in the economy, we need to unturn every stone, starting with our own. Acknowledge that by ourselves, we are helpless. We need one another to work toward common goals. We need to be faithful in our work, and at the same time, be actively involved in our respective communities. There are pockets of poor and vulnerable in every corner of society. We do not need to look far. Just open our eyes to see our neighbourhood. Volunteer yourselves in the community. Give. For Christians, pray hard and also work sacrificially. Do not wait for OWS or any of its variants become the be-all and catch-all in our civic awareness. There is something more than the 1% accused of greed and corruption. Ask ourselves honestly. What if we are the so-called 1%?

Christ did not come to die only for 1% or the 99%. He died for 100% of the world. It takes 100% of us, 100% of our efforts to reach 100% of the world. The task is monumental. Nearly impossible. Yet, unless we start somewhere, we will be farther and farther away from that ideal state of completion. Occupying Wall Street etc, if it is only a temporary drumming up of emotional and street appeal will not go far, if hearts are not moved.  Rhetoric and boisterous speeches can only achieve a little. Eventually, we will all need to work with the respective powers and authorities to try to make things work. One more thing. The power of the people need not be spent just on rallies and movements like OWS. There is the ballot box for choosing the next political leader. There is the power of not buying the service or product of the corporations accused of greed and corporations. If any of us are so convicted about the financial systems and its players, we can choose not to support them. When we vote with our wallets, or the ballot box, that is perhaps the surest way to send a strong message.


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