There is a real and potentially fatal problem with the “Us vs. Them” narrative that Occupy Wall Street has made the focal point of its campaign — most famously with the “99 percent against the 1 percent” rhetoric — and that is that it does not transmute smoothly into the more intimate “Me vs. You.” It is one thing haphazardly to generalize about “the 1 percent,” or “the rich,” or “Nazi bankers” and “fascist policemen,” and quite another to get down to cases. When I interviewed a lady who labeled the bankers and the police “Nazis,” she was notably reluctant to describe any one of those to whom I pointed in such extreme terms — “Well, maybe not him personally . . .” Put a face on an epithet, and the vitriol soon dwindles; indeed, the targets who retain their “miscreant” sticker even when named tend to be a long, long way away — far enough removed to be usefully employed as abstractions. This was something I noticed particularly keenly on Friday, at Occupy Wall Street’s march on the banks.
While the marchers were fashioning their infantile paper airplanes, a couple of Citigroup employees stood by on the street having a cigarette break. One of them got into a conversation with a nearby protester: “Am I the problem?” he asked. “Well . . . not you,” came the nervous response. You see, when push comes to shove, a couple of popular scapegoats aside, it is always someone else who is the problem. Not him, not you, but that guy in the other department. He is the monster. Some of this is, naturally, attributable to politeness; it is far easier to rail in generalities than to look someone in the face and tell him that he is what ails the republic. But I think that this reluctance is more readily attributable to America itself — the United States simply doesn’t produce that many top-notch cartoon villains.
The reluctance to blame is increasingly obvious in Zuccotti Park, which has started to play host to a sprinkling of counter-protesters. On the Day of the Broken iPhone, I met two men who were wandering around arguing with the encamped. They stood out like a sore thumb, being in favor of free markets and of the idea that OWS is misdirecting its ire. One of them owned a string of bars in Brooklyn, and the other was in construction. One was a first-generation American. Both were self-made men. The pair were, self-admittedly, in the “1 percent,” and both had seen the benefits of the capitalist system. Both were Republicans. But they were dressed normally, in jeans and sweaters. The construction guy was wearing work boots and was indistinguishable from any of the union types milling around. He was also dark-skinned. Put simply, the protesters didn’t quite know what to make of him. “The rich” aren’t supposed to look like that.
How could they know what to make of him, though? “Occupy” is running a national chain of makeshift boarding houses for the terminally disaffected, the prerequisite to opening a franchise being only proof of sufficient indignation indefinitely to maintain a lease. This is not to suggest that there is no reason for the dissidents’ disquiet, or to deprive many of the boarders of their legitimate reasons to be upset with their lives (even if, more often than not, their plight has a radically different root cause than the one they have identified). But, justifiable angst aside, establishing exactly who is their problem remains elusive to most. Kevin D. Williamson put this most brilliantly in the last-but-one issue of National Review, in which he described the protesters as essentially being on a “witch hunt,” searching for any explanation of why their crops had failed.
A number of participants may well fancy themselves actors in a glorious revolution, but they nonetheless have their work cut out in identifying their targets, especially given the understandable temptation to issue a waiver to anyone who so much as shows his face. Until OWS not only decides upon a plan of action but agrees on who exactly fills the “1 percent,” the band of shady figures who are allegedly corrupting the sacred principles of our democracy will remain steadfastly in silhouette. Referring to the recent Citizens United case, representatives of OWS frequently tell me that “corporations aren’t people.” As a matter of constitutional law that is debatable. But as the protesters mean it, the statement reveals a fundamental problem for those who are storming Bastilles across the country. You cannot put Citigroup’s head on a stick.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.