“May Day” carries two meanings. One signifies an annual workers’ protest, the other a nautical distress call. The latter’s name is derived from the French “m’aider,” which, translated, means “help me!” and, given the constant entreaties for other people’s money and property that I have heard today across Manhattan, it occurs to me that this word more appropriately obtains. If you hadn’t heard, Occupy Wall Street is back in town. For May 1: One Day Only!, in Bryant Park, Madison Square Park, and Union Square, and they want you to know all about it.
There are still hangers-on — little groups of political tourists who amble around Midtown wearing the de rigueur uniforms of rebellion, and carrying maps and poorly printed literature — but once you cut through the layers of inscrutable New Age speak and misplaced but sincere indignation, the cry here is still “give me your stuff,” and the rows of waving hands are more on-message when their palms are opened in expectant hope of conferred $20 bills than when pushed skywards and clenched into fists, Black Panther–style.
Apparently, the mild winter has done nothing to thaw the group’s pique. The Occupiers are still quite sure that they are being wronged, and still quite light on how; they are still the same perennial protesters, and still convinced of their sponteneity; they are still desperate to move beyond “neoliberalism” and toward something else, and still unsure what that might look like. “Strike!” is the emphatic cry today — but then what? It has been a perennial problem for Occupy Wall Street that an absence of real answers has forced either sophistry or naked self-interest to play center-stage in their “discourse,” and the May Day language is a heady mix of the two.
On assorted websites, the first answer to the excellent question, “Why Strike?” is “because you could use a holiday,” but on the ground the focus is on the “Collective,” a word that is triumphantly and repeatedly deployed as if it were a good in and of itself and surrounded by a profusion of others with an abandon that would make Noam Chomsky blush. If “1 percent” means “anyone we don’t like,” then “Collective” means “things that we want.”
#more#More than ever before, the adherents of Occupy’s worldview consider happy thoughts to be the sparkling engines of achievement. If Peter Pan could fly by simply thinking of Wendy, then who are we to stop them from doing likewise? “This system only exists,” the signs read, “because we participate in it.” Thus, in the minds of the protesters, reality is a construct of the 1 percent, and withdrawal the sharpest tool of the rebellious majority. If they just want things enough, then they will be. If they pull out of reality, it will disappear.
America’s plutocrats — the omnipotent and occasionally Semitic cartoon villains who somehow manage to have a finger in every pie and yet remain shapeless when the illustrators are pushed for detail — remain the target. These “1 percenters” do not just callously insist that there is no such thing as fairies, I am told, but then have the temerity to impose the invisible chains of cynicism as well, binding the hands of those would clap away the lethal effects of unbelief. Thus, unemployed graduates are forced “to chain themselves to a career in something they despise rather than pursue their passions and enrich their communities.” I ask where the wealth would come from in such “communities” — another buzzword — and the question is met with blank stares. “There’s plenty to go around,” says an older man who should really know better.
Truth is a precious commodity among progressives, for everything is relative. Even the nature of science is up for grabs at Madison Square Park’s “Free University,” at which more people who should know better — Francis Fox Piven, Chris Hedges, David Graeber, and other “educators” — “urge scientists and mathematicians to rethink their disciplines and approaches to teaching.” Here, straight-faced people religitate the Science Wars of the 1990s, implying without embarrassment that the rules of science are a social construct and objectivity a myth. Here, very literally, people explain to me that it is not hard science wedded to external reality, but hope, that allows men to fly. It is no surprise, perhaps, that some of the marchers are dressed as fairies. One just hopes they do not aspire to become airline pilots.
Alongside previously well-represented groups — unions, students, artists, the insane — there is a newly fetishized clique in the mix: immigrants. For this reason, I fit in well — with my British accent, few question my commitment to the vanguard. In fact, few question much. There are predictable mutterings about Arizona’s infamous S.B. 1070, but most of the worrying seems wholly abstract. A bunch of placards declare that the “system . . . decides humans are a commodity we can call ‘illegal.’” That is one way of putting it, I suppose. But from what I can gather, the new immigrant angle is a byproduct of Occupy’s marketing. The “strike” is billed as “A Day without the 99 Percent,” which is a thematic outgrowth of a previous rally entitled, “A Day without Immigrants.” (This in turn comes from a pro-illegal-immigrant movie entitled, A Day without a Mexican.)
All this has a more sinister side, too: The hard-liners are adamant that the United States is a giant slave plantation, on which the “work of the 99 percent” is used to feed the “astronomical profits of the 1 percent.” These people are almost amusing, with their Monty Python–esque claims of anarcho-syndicalist communes; self-aware, camera-hunting treatises on “the violence inherent in the system”; and cries of “Help, help, I’m being repressed!” But this is America we are talking about, and if there are people who genuinely look around and see only misery in this country then there is something wrong with the psychology of the voluble in this modern era.
As ever, there is much that is downright crazy. A popular sign complains that the “System Is Racist: Troy Davis Was Lynched,” which, if true, must be in the running for the most inefficient lynching in the history of lynchings. And the focus on Art is bizarre. Having been taught Classical English, I am often at a loss to understand the words used by participants in the Occupy franchise, but the constant insistence that the creation of “public spaces,” sharing of “creative media,” and “development of an artistic imagination” is going to change external reality and finally perfect mankind is a step too far even for my considerable patience.
“Isn’t it possible,” I ask one graduate who has never sold a piece of his work, “that nobody wants to buy your art, so you’re just thrilled that these people will take it?” Perhaps, I suggest, “your interest in the ‘paradigm shift’ is the ersatz byproduct of the free market . . . pushing you in another employment direction?” He looks at me blankly and promises to multiply his collective creativity, so I move on briskly to blend in with the immigrants once more.
The Occupiers, meanwhile, fly around in circles, almost surprised that the global structure hasn’t collapsed since they turned up at 10 a.m. This is in part wishful thinking, and it is in part immaturity. Peter Pan, remember, never grew up, and nor did the lost boys who followed him.