I Didn’t Go to Occupy Wall
--for my friends Tom and Brian--
first thing I want to say is that this is not a rabidly
pro-Occupy essay or a rabidly anti-police one, and that although I
myself a Liberal, Conservatives may find a lot in here that they like
identify with. I
realize that opening
this way breaks a good-writing rule about too nakedly courting an
front, but I did that because I want the right people to read this, and
fact is that most people, both liberal and conservative, tend to judge
quickly whether they will probably like something and choose either to
stop reading accordingly. And
writing this was pointless if Conservatives don’t read it, I’m going to
by telling Conservatives that I know how you feel.
For the past two months,
you’ve been pointing out that most
of the protesters at Occupy events don’t know what they’re talking
about. You’ve been
observing that most of them are privileged
white kids with iPhones. You’ve
saying that the police are only doing their vital, thankless jobs. You’ve been making jokes
about pot and bongo
drums. And I get
all that. I don’t
make the same jokes out loud myself,
because all of my friends are Liberals, but I get where you’re coming
from. To a large
extent, I feel the same
way you do. The
difference between me
and you, I think, is that I don’t particularly like feeling this way,
regard the fact that I feel this way as largely irrelevant. Feeling a certain way,
after all, is not a
position on an issue, and it doesn’t answer any questions.
Let me begin by providing
a little demographic background,
because demographics are what make this interesting.
I’m a college English professor, I live in
New York City, and I believe the following things: that more government
oversight of the financial sector is necessary both pragmatically and
that Republican policies constitute a war on the middle class waged to
the very wealthy, and that the current economic collapse was caused by
and predatory greed on the parts of a small number of shockingly
people, many of whom should probably be in prison (or at least deserve
even though in many cases they did not, technically speaking, break the
because the laws were changed beforehand to accommodate them). Given all this, I would be
the first person
that anybody would expect to have found holding up a sign in Zuccotti
Park. But I never
did. I didn’t go.
Not even for one day, and I never even planned
to and barely thought
This is because, my
beliefs notwithstanding, I look at coverage
of the Occupy events and react emotionally in the same way that I
Conservatives do: I don’t like the people.
They look like people I would not get along
with. They look
like people who would annoy
me. They look, in
many cases, like
people who would actively condescend to or mock me in a way that would
enrage me. When I
hear the voices of the
protesters chanting “shame on you” at the police who are
I have flashbacks, because they sound exactly like the voices of the
oblivious “Trustafarians” who rolled their eyes at my band and my
college even though my band and my poetry were better than their bands
their poetry because I actually practiced and they just partied all the
time. I can’t help
seeing the Occupy
protesters as the same people. And
in many cases, they are. But
the point, or at least it shouldn’t be.
Well-considered arguments about what is best
for the people of this
country are the point, not who I would or would not get along with at a
cocktail party. And
events are not a cocktail party.
Because of my experiences
growing up, I have, and will
probably always have, a level of anxiety about social events that
causes me to
evaluate them differently from how others do.
And a political protest, like any other
gathering of people hanging out
in the same place for X amount of time, is necessarily a social event. This is not a cynical dig
at protests—it is
merely a fact about human psychology.
I see pictures of an Occupy event, my initial reaction is not to see
uniting around a cause I believe in, but instead to see a party I am
not cool enough to get into. Remember,
though, that my reaction at that initial deep level is not a political
position, but merely a phobia or question of taste, like a fear of
spiders or a
preference for pickles or no pickles on a hamburger.
It is an emotion rather than a belief, and so
cannot be proven or disproven, defended or attacked.
Of course, we let
emotional phobias blossom into beliefs all
the time. The
sentence “I am afraid of
spiders” is merely a statement of fact about the self, but the sentence
spiders are poisonous” is scientifically false and can be proven so. But presenting the
evidence that contradicts
the second sentence to someone who fears spiders will not undo the
who is afraid of spiders will simply find something else to say about
than the assertion that they are all poisonous.
They will do this because, emotionally
speaking, they need to. Even
if the person who fears spiders thinks
that the fear came about as a result
of the belief that they are poisonous, it probably didn’t. Most likely, the fear came
first, and the
ostensible reason was thought up second.
For a lot of reasons,
it’s more fun to have emotional
necessarily care more
about our emotions than we do about assertions concerning the external
for one, and so we’re more invested in them.
Arguing emotion is also fun because it’s
harder to lose—if you’re going
to say “police brutality is common and typically goes unpunished,” you
do research to defend it, but if all you say is “fuck the police,” then
you don’t. Similarly,
it is easier for a Conservative to
make jokes about how the protesters all smoke pot and smell bad than it
them to mount a cogent defense of the policies to which the protesters
second thing means you have to look stuff up, and the first doesn’t.
I don’t think it should
be too hard for both intelligent Liberals
and intelligent Conservatives to agree that, on pretty much every issue
the sun, there are far too many people on both sides who aren’t looking
stuff up. And more
importantly, that the
weight of this fact tends to cause the level of national discourse
much everything to become far stupider than it should be. And that’s why we can’t
allow the debate about
the Occupy movement to turn into a referendum on “Cops vs. Hippies.” I realize that there are a
lot of people on
one side who badly want to make jokes about cops, and a lot of people
other side who badly want to make jokes about hippies, but that’s
bad. Because even
if you definitively
prove that all cops eat donuts or all protesters play bongo drums, this
has nothing to do with the issues we were supposed to be debating in
place. You were
looking stuff up about
the wrong thing.
It’s appropriate that I’m
writing this now, because the
Occupy debate and my reactions to it cut straight to the heart of why I
launched 1585, exactly five years ago this month: I noticed that my
beliefs and my social emotions were often on opposite sides of the
nothing that has
happened in those five years demonstrates this disconnect better than
Occupy. My parents
both worked in law
enforcement, and they raised me. The
cool kids in my high school and college were fashionable hippies, and
mean to me. When I
see video of an
Occupy crackdown where police are beating peaceful protesters, my
knows it is wrong, but some part of my psyche is seeing my dad beating
trust-fund baby who wouldn’t let me into a party because I wasn’t
and that dark corner of my immature mind is happy.
And I think a lot of the Conservatives who
are cheering the violence in conservative chat rooms—maybe even most of
coming from the same place, emotionally speaking.
The difference between them and me is that I
don’t let my emotions dictate my beliefs or distract me from the real
issue. Or at least,
I try not to, though
I am sure I fail a lot of the time, because I’m human.
In past essays, I have
jokingly compared myself to Blade,
the movie vampire who hates other vampires and fights to protect humans. His conscious mind knows
that vampirism is
wrong, but biologically speaking he is still a vampire, and has to put
through a ceaseless, painful process involving
keep this from taking him over. That
what politics is like for me: I have the personality of a Conservative,
morally and logically I know that the Liberals are right most of the
time. To the
whooping it up about the
beatdowns, believe me when I say that I know what it is like to deeply,
want to see hippies get punched in the face.
I am not saying that hippies are not annoying
or that there’s something
wrong with you because you don’t want to hang out with them, because
I. They remind me
of the cool kids from
school, and I wasn’t cool, and some part of me will always want to see
kids get punched. This
is an unavoidable
way to feel. But it
is a stupid way to
know that this is how Johnny Ramone ended
up a Republican: the popular girls in his junior high school liked JFK
he was cute, so Johnny started liking Nixon just to spite them. I am the last person who
will ever claim that
it is not entirely defensible to want to spite the cool kids. But the fact is, the
things JFK wanted to do
were better for this country than the things Nixon wanted to do. The kids who supported JFK
because of his looks
and charm were doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, but at the
the day, the right thing for the wrong reasons is still the right thing. Were many of the Occupy
just to try and get laid? Almost
certainly. But this
tells us exactly
nothing about what the laws should or should not be.
Remember that if someone adopts a belief for
purely social and immature reasons, and you correctly note this and
the opposite belief, then you are also indirectly adopting your beliefs
social and immature reasons.
So that’s why I never
went to Occupy Wall Street. To
the people who would like an apology for
that—a group that includes virtually all of my close friends—I’m sorry.
I am the
first to admit, or try to be, that
because I am emotionally still stuck in high school, there are certain
that I just can’t do, or can’t do very easily.
But maybe that is for the best. I
think a lot of people are emotionally still stuck in high school, but
realize it. And
like a carrier of a
disease who exhibits no symptoms, someone who goes out into the world
that he or she is making decisions this way is probably more dangerous. I realize what’s wrong
with me, and so I’ve
quarantined myself. Just
like in high
school, instead of going to the party, I sat in my room brooding, and
wrote something. Only
this time, instead
of a poem about loneliness, it was this.
Maybe it will do something.
I can't run no more with
that lawless crowd
killers in high places say their prayers out loud,
summoned, they've summoned up a thundercloud
gonna hear from me.
bells that still can ring;
There is a a
crack, a crack in everything.
the light gets in.
--Leonard Cohen, "Anthem"