Imaginary Mobs

Arthur Dreifuss’ Riot on Sunset Strip (1967) is a pretty awful movie – “A police captain (Aldo Ray) is caught between businesses operating on the Los Angeles Sunset Strip who don’t like the punks hanging out, and his belief in allowing the kids their rights. But when his daughter (Mimsy Farmer) gets involved with an unruly bunch, his attitude starts to change.”

No, that’s not promising, but it was a rush job, filmed and released within six weeks of the actual rioting on Sunset Strip, right here on this corner, on November 12, 1966. A few scenes were filmed at Pandora’s Box, the old club, long gone – the site, at the southwest corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights, is now a bus stop, a little island of concrete. But the movie is awful. Mimsy Farmer? On the other hand, Buffalo Springfield got a good song out of the Sunset Strip Riots – For What It’s Worth – Neil Young lived just up the hill in Laurel Canyon at the time.

And the words were pure sixties:

There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind
I think it’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down…
What a field-day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side…

Ain’t the truth? But that’s the way with all demonstrations, by the young or the old, from the old white folks of the Tea Party and its Glenn Beck rallies to the current Occupy Wall Street protests by mainly the young. The protesters say hooray for our side and the media mocks them, as shown in this item:

CNN’s newest primetime anchor Erin Burnett isn’t making any friends among the Occupy Wall Street protesters. In a visit to the front lines of the movement earlier this week Burnett grilled protesters on the specifics of their outrage, many say, from a point-of-view that’s not befitting of a network that’s often boasted of its objective journalism. However, Burnett’s combative tone in her “Seriously” segment on Tuesday night – on top of a deleted tweet by business reporter Alison Kosik in which she makes fun of the protesters – is dismaying press critics and CNN viewers alike. On top of that, journalism watchdog group FAIR says that, Burnett misreported the facts in an attempt to make the protesters look uninformed. Burnett, whose fiancée is a Citigroup executive, is now being framed as the next generation of CNN personalities that stray from the network’s commitment to being the “only credible, nonpartisan voice left.”

Yeah, sure – read the whole thing. Some very serious voices in the world of journalism tear Erin Burnett to shreds – but everyone does admit she’s cute as a button. Still, the Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik is simply brutal:

Two of the fundamental attributes of good journalism are curiosity and a respect for the people on whom you report. Burnett got an “F” on both those counts with her Occupy Wall Street piece. Not only didn’t she listen hard enough to learn anything from the people in the group, she and her producers positioned the speakers to be seen as objects of derision. That is deplorable.

CNN is circling the wagons now. But David Atkins takes the longer view:

Over the broad arc of history, the Right has stood for established power and the status quo, while the Left has stood for the rights of the downtrodden and dispossessed. Since the abolishment of monarchy and the adoption of representative democracy in most of the Western industrialized world, the great battle between Left and Right has been over the middle class. The Right has usually attempted to align the middle class emotionally and ideologically with established power, while the Left has attempted to open the eyes of the middle classes to the fact that they have much more in common with the less fortunate than they do with the most fortunate. The tools of the Right’s trade, then, have been things that could divide broad swaths of the middle class and poor against one another: race, culture, religion, and the like. Basic economics has traditionally been the province of the Left in making its own argument – which is why the Democrats’ abandonment of populist economics over the last thirty years has been so wildly damaging.

Protest has been a tool of the Left for centuries. It is a way for desperate and angry people without power in other respects to make their voices heard. If the protests are large and angry enough, protests can shake the foundations of power and hopefully change them through consciousness-raising; through removal of politicians who stand in the way of change; and, if all else fails and all other options are exhausted as in the Arab Spring, through actual revolution.

The Right has traditionally minimized and marginalized protests as the province of lazy malcontents and angry mobs. The purpose of doing so is not only to reduce the likelihood of change, but to rhetorically persuade the middle class that the protesters are not “normal.” They are not like them. The middle class, in the words of Richard Nixon, are the Silent Majority for whom those smelly, long-haired dispossessed protesters do not speak. (This is why it is important, insofar as possible, for those engaged in protest to seem as outwardly “normal” as they can.)

Yes, these are sweeping generalizations, but close enough to the truth:

Protests in America since the 1960s have not been viewed as a legitimate voice of the people, but rather as the outbursts of a malcontent few. And the media as an arm of the status quo has been happy to portray them that way. Protesters like me and millions of others marched against the invasion of Iraq, for instance, to little fanfare and less effect because of this dynamic.

Yes, we know. But Atkins argues something odd has happened and things have changed:

In the United States after the election of America’s first black president, the Right changed the rules of the game. Sensing demographic shifts that threatened to make them a permanent minority and feeling boxed in by Democratic control of the White House and Congress, the conservatives decided to go all in with a faux-populist hand. They were emboldened to take this approach after watching the Left largely abandon populism for a safer, more “mainstream” message.

Now was the time, thought the Right, to take up the populist mantle once and for all. Now was the time to portray the white suburban American male as the dispossessed and downtrodden, and the oppressive force as the big, bad urban overspending government – headed up by a black guy. Using all the power and money of the corporate sector and the conservative media establishment at their disposal, they created an Astroturf faux-populist movement that adopted all the outward qualities of protest movements, but with little of the organic outrage of a real movement.

And the media lapped it up. They did so partly because Tea Party protests constituted a “man-bites-dog” story. It’s nothing new when mostly younger, dispossessed lefties get out into the streets with papier-mâché figurines. But when older, more “normal”-looking people are in the streets advocating against the poor, that becomes a real story. The ultimate goal of the protests for conservatives was, of course, removing the “threat” of Democratic rule. It turns out that Democratic rule wasn’t really that big a threat to corporate interests after all, but the powers that be feared Democratic rule enough to give us divided government nonetheless. And in 2010, the faux populist right got what it wanted: a hyper-conservative House that stymied even the minor threat of changes to even the fringes of the status quo.

But Atkins thesis is that this had unintended consequences. It backfired:

In playing the popular protest card on its own, the Right legitimized the politics of protest that they had spent decades if not centuries minimizing. After the Tea Party, it’s difficult for any members of the right-wing establishment to use their traditional dismissive rhetoric about protest movements.

So now we have Eric Cantor saying things like this:

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor took to the stage at the 2011 Voter Values Summit in Washington to do a little fear-mongering about the growing Occupy Wall Street protests. “If you read the newspapers today, I for one am increasingly concerned about the growing mobs occupying Wall Street and the other cities across the country,” he said.

Cantor appeared to try and connect the protests to the cries of “class warfare” Republicans are lobbing at President Obama’s jobs bill and his Buffett Rule. “Believe it or not, some in this town have actually condoned the pitting of Americans against Americans,” Cantor said.

But that led to this:

Uh, excuse me? White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in the briefing today. “I sense a little hypocrisy unbound here – what we’re seeing on the streets of New York is an expression of democracy,” Carney said. “I think I remember how Mr. Cantor described protests of the tea party – I can’t understand how one man’s mob is another man’s democracy.”

As Atkins says:

In creating the Tea Party fraud, conservatives have helped make the politics of protest part of “real America” again. Now they get to suffer the consequences of that short-sighted cynical ploy. Real authentic populism is here now, and there’s politically nothing they can do about it.

The best they can hope for is CNN’s new star, Erin Burnett, giggling and mocking and sneering. And for her it will make her new fiancée, that Citigroup executive, all hot and excited.

But are these Occupy Wall Street protests just a joke? Well, the New York Times columnist, Paul Krugman, with his Nobel Prize in economics and all, probably never spent time out here at the corner of Laurel and Sunset Boulevard, but still he does remember the Buffalo Springfield song:

There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear, but we may, at long last, be seeing the rise of a popular movement that, unlike the Tea Party, is angry at the right people.

Okay – that is the opening line of the song. There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.

But it’s clear enough. This thing is gathering real momentum, and unlike the Sunset Strip riots – where everyone seemed to be a rebel without any particular cause (another movie shot in this neighborhood) – this protest, sort of an uprising and occupation all in one, at least is aimed in the right direction, even if vague in its actual demands.

At least the target is spot-on:

What can we say about the protests? First things first: The protesters’ indictment of Wall Street as a destructive force, economically and politically, is completely right.

So enough with weary cynicism, and what Krugman says is a belief that justice will never get served. That’s pointless. It’s time to step back and look at what really happened over the last several years, which he sees as a play in three acts:

In the first act, bankers took advantage of deregulation to run wild (and pay themselves princely sums), inflating huge bubbles through reckless lending. In the second act, the bubbles burst – but bankers were bailed out by taxpayers, with remarkably few strings attached, even as ordinary workers continued to suffer the consequences of the bankers’ sins. And, in the third act, bankers showed their gratitude by turning on the people who had saved them, throwing their support – and the wealth they still possessed thanks to the bailouts – behind politicians who promised to keep their taxes low and dismantle the mild regulations erected in the aftermath of the crisis.

Given this history, how can you not applaud the protesters for finally taking a stand?

And here is what he thinks of Erin Burnett and all the rest:

Now, it’s true that some of the protesters are oddly dressed or have silly-sounding slogans, which is inevitable given the open character of the events. But so what? I, at least, am a lot more offended by the sight of exquisitely tailored plutocrats, who owe their continued wealth to government guarantees, whining that President Obama has said mean things about them than I am by the sight of ragtag young people denouncing consumerism.

Bear in mind, too, that experience has made it painfully clear that men in suits not only don’t have any monopoly on wisdom – they have very little wisdom to offer. When talking heads on, say, CNBC mock the protesters as unserious, remember how many serious people assured us that there was no housing bubble, that Alan Greenspan was an oracle and that budget deficits would send interest rates soaring.

And he is not all that bothered by the absence of specific policy demands:

It would probably be helpful if protesters could agree on at least a few main policy changes they would like to see enacted. But we shouldn’t make too much of the lack of specifics. It’s clear what kinds of things the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators want, and it’s really the job of policy intellectuals and politicians to fill in the details.

He points out that Rich Yeselson, a veteran organizer and historian of social movements, thinks that debt relief for working Americans should be a central plank of the protests. He likes that idea and suggests that these protesters might also demand infrastructure investment – and certainly not more tax cuts – to help create jobs. But he knows both are impossible in the current political climate. Heck, most anything at all is impossible. But if the point of the protests is to change that political climate then that’s a good start.

And he warns the Democrats that they are being given what amounts to a second chance:

The Obama administration squandered a lot of potential good will early on by adopting banker-friendly policies that failed to deliver economic recovery even as bankers repaid the favor by turning on the president. Now, however, Mr. Obama’s party has a chance for a do-over. All it has to do is take these protests as seriously as they deserve to be taken.

We’ll see if he does that. But that would make the bankers mad – even angrier with him than they are now. But there’s the other side of this at Wonkette:

Mincing little twit Eric Cantor was all for a bunch of heavily-armed old white sociopaths showing up at Obama speeches and Town Hall meetings about, uh, denying health care to children and working people. But if a crowd of polite unemployed people camps out in a park to politely blog about income inequality then watch out, it’s MOBS! The thing is, the mobs will come for Eric Cantor, sooner or later, but we’re still a long way from that point – and every shred of available evidence suggests that Eric Cantor’s own constituency will be the ones who pry him out of his Lexus or townhouse and coat his pasty nerd flesh with Tar and Feathers, like the real Tea Party did to that naked guy in the HBO adaptation of the John Adams biography. Anyway, Eric is all a-scared!

Revolution is just fine when it’s just a bunch of fat old racists who don’t want to pay their taxes, right? But it’s scary like a Halloween Pumpkin full of butter knives when some educated folks take their MacBooks down to Wall Street and walk around with the nice transit workers.

And that ends with this:

Anyway, Eric Cantor is scared of a bunch of kids sharing library books and pizzas in a park. And the White House press secretary actually came out of his hole to note that Eric Cantor is a hypocrite. Eric Cantor is also a pussy.

Any more of that and it’s over for the powers that be.

And Kevin Drum offers some advice to those who agree that something is wrong these days but are queasy about saying what has been going on around Wall Street is embarrassing:

If you go to any Tea Party event, you’ll hear some crackpot stuff and see some people dressed up in crackpot costumes (tri-corner hats etc.). By “crackpot,” I mean stuff so outré that even movement conservatives know it’s crazy and want nothing to do with it. Of course, it gets reported in the media occasionally, and when it does, snarky liberals have a field day with it.

But does this scare off anyone on the right? It does not. They ignore it, or dismiss it, or try to explain it away, and then continue praising the overall movement. The fact that liberals have found some hook to deliver a blast of well-timed mockery just doesn’t faze them. They know whose side they’re on.

So liberals need to take the same attitude:

Are there some crackpots at the Occupy Wall Street protests who will be gleefully quoted by Fox News? Sure. Are some of the organizers anarchists or socialists or whatnot? Sure. Is it sometimes hard to discern a real set of grievances from the protesters? Sure.

But so what? Ignore it. Dismiss it. Explain it away. Do whatever strikes your fancy. But don’t let any of this scare you off. … Just keep reminding yourself: a mere three years after the financial industry nearly destroyed the planet, Wall Street is bigger and more profitable than ever while a tenth of the rest of us remain mired in unemployment. Even after nearly destroying the planet, virtually nothing has changed. That’s the outrage, not a few folks with funny costumes or wacky slogans. Always keep in mind whose side you’re on.

And there’s Frances Fox Piven, the elderly professor of political science and sociology at the graduate center at City College of New York, with this short note:

At a glance, all popular risings look alike with their crowds, banners and noise. But look a little closer and they can be as different as the peoples and cultures that comprise a society. The Tea Party, under one name or another, has actually been part of American politics for a long time. It is a movement that yearns for the restoration of an imaginary past, when the world was simple, men were men, women were women, leaders were white males, when the church steeple reigned over little towns and, aside from vaudeville, minorities had no public presence. Consistently, the Tea Party sympathizers in American politics today are almost all white, and they are better-off and older than the general population. That is why they chant “Take it back! Take it back! Take it back!” at their rallies. And their politics of hazy nostalgia is also why they are eagerly supported by rightwing business leaders.

By contrast, the Occupy Wall Street people are mainly young, racially diverse, happily countercultural and, above all, eagerly inclusive. And contrary to early media reports, they are thoughtful and well-informed. Where Tea Partiers chanted confused slogans like “Get government’s hands off my Medicare!” – the Occupy Wall Street protesters issue well thought-out proclamations about a future defined by cooperation and a democracy freed from the clutches of economic oligarchy. And they invite Joseph Stiglitz to address their general assembly.

I, for one, have been waiting for a protest movement that includes the young, working people, minorities and the poor, and I think it’s begun.

Of course you remember her – Glenn Beck said she is responsible for a plan to “intentionally collapse our economic system” – and Obama is in on it. He called her a traitor and an enemy of America, a prime enemy of America. The death threats followed. The police and FBI were alarmed. There were appeals to Beck’s employer at the time, Fox News, but Roger Ailes wouldn’t back down. Beck was doing the nation a service, or something. She was seventy-three and a tad frail at the time, by the way. And Beck was upset about a research paper she had written in 1966. Yeah, the whole thing simmered down after a bit. Beck found other enemies. But where is Glenn Beck now? There’s something happening here.

Oh, and as for Mimsy Farmer, the young star of Riot on Sunset Strip, she’s now living in France with her husband, the sculptor Francis Poirier – and maybe CNN’s Erin Burnett should move there too.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to Imaginary Mobs

  1. Tarig Anter says:

    In all countries, including the USA, Greece, and Spain, there are considerable portion of the population of each generation that might be labeled as the “Half-wayers”. These are the unsuccessful but still they are grateful and defendant of the socio-economic system in place. They are mostly of older ages, but still you can find them in less ambitious youth.

    The Half-wayers are middle-classers who feel indebted to the unjust and corrupt system because deep in their hearts and minds they believe that they have achieved and acquired more than what they fairly and normally deserve. This kind of people might not be corrupt; but they assume that without such system they would have been ruined and abject losers. This is the only reason why they defend the system meekly and brutally; or at least fear and reject any movement that might bring possible change.

    http://tariganter.wordpress.com/2011/10/08/wall-street-half-wayers-of-generations/

  2. Randy says:

    Since Neil Young’s family had roots in Western Canada it’s likely he would have had some knowledge of a couple of earlier civil unrest events, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winnipeg_General_Strike
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On-to-Ottawa_Trek
    It is interesting how history never repeats but it does rhyme.
    It is also interesting how the law of unintended consequences comes into play with the formation of the Tea Party. I would guess Rick Santelli never imagined his on air rant would help encourage a chain of events that includes Occupy Wall Street.

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