By Kirsten Forkert, postdoctoral fellow in the School of Political, Social & International Studies. See Kirsten’s profile and publications here
Until recently, the occupation of Wall Street has been largely ignored by the mainstream media, although widely circulated on social media (#occupywallstreet), blogs and some smaller, progressive news websites. Now that the occupation has entered its third week and has gained the support of major unions, and certain politicians and Hollywood celebrities, it can no longer be ignored.
As a sign of the movement’s growing size and visibility, I received an email a few days ago from Avaaz, the online campaigning organisation. I was asked to sign a petition in support of the Wall Street occupation. I was also asked to state whether or not I paid tax, or was a parent or a grandparent. The fact that Avaaz asked for this information reflects just how relentless the media stereotyping and dismissal of the occupation has been. In the words of NYC councillor Dan Halloran,“From what I saw on TV I would have thought that everyone here would be a communist, under 30, [and] never held a job”.
This is all very predictable; as Naomi Klein put it on Democracy Now, “every time there is a new generation of politicised engaged young people who come forward, there is this ritual mocking of them”.
According to the rules of this ritual, unless you are married and have children (heterosexuality is assumed, although being a single mum is suspect), have a job, or even better, have spent time doing military service, you have no right to speak. Being able to speak without being mocked is difficult if not impossible. If you don’t fit narrowly defined categories, then you must be one of those ‘activists’; if you are articulate then you must have a ‘political agenda’ and everything you have to say is therefore inauthentic. However, if you don’t have some polished, pre-rehearsed and quotable sound-bite ready, you are incoherent and confused.
Hallorann’s description brings to mind the backlash against the 1960s counterculture, such as the perception of protesters as mindless hippie layabouts (although, evoking McCarthyism, they are also ‘communists’). In her 1985 book Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class , Barbara Ehrenreich described a confrontation between which took place between a group of builders and student protesters against the Vietnam War (ironically also on Wall Street) on 8 May, 1970. Although most US unions officially opposed the war at the time, the incident was taken as representative of the frustrations of ordinary people, seen to be a reactionary ‘silent majority’ (Ehrenreich, 1985, 106-107), a term popularised by Nixon in 1969. This sort of imagery has been with us a long time, and it is ritualistically evoked again and again to silence and dismiss.
Of course, the idea that one could be both a protester AND an ordinary person is inconceivable—or maybe it’s actually threatening, which is why there is so much at stake in ritual mocking. It challenges the prevailing belief that politics should be left to the upper echelons of the White House, lobby groups and think tanks, and that the rest of us should not worry our pretty little heads, and laugh at the foolishness of those who actually think they can change anything.