Obscenely early morning response to Charles M. Blow

by J.A. Myerson

I just woke up unconscionably early to appear on The Takeaway, a WNYC radio show produced in part by the New York Times and in part by the BBC, with Times columnist Charles M. Blow, who has recently written about the Occupy Wall Street protests. We had only a few minutes to talk and then were cut off — I should just have slept, I think. As we ended, Blow asserted that the civil rights movement (to which I had compared Occupy Wall Street insofar as it arose in an ostensibly democratic society and turned political — in its alliance with President Johnson, for instance — only when politicians showed a willingness to respond to the massive outrage at a system of racial inequity) was necessarily political from the outset, since it targeted laws. Moreover, he charged, the Occupy Wall Street folks would do well to advocate for specific legislation or the repeal thereof.

I would point out that the civil rights movement (such as we conceive of it) took years and years to develop its political aims, where the occupation of Wall Street has so far lasted just over two weeks. Additionally, the civil rights movement was a sometimes loosely-affiliated consortium of widely dispersed and widely differing personalities and organizations, most notably personified by Dr. King — a full integrationist — and Malcolm X — for the better part of his career a black nationalist — and it therefore does a disservice to the movement to refer to it as having unified and explicitly political aims from the outset. Hell, Bayard Rustin was all but kicked out of the movement for having different political aims from the non-gay, non-Marxist organizational leadership. No, I maintain that what advanced the aims of the civil rights movement was not that it published early a list of legislative demands and aims, but that it captured the imaginations of Americans and exhibited the desperation of a put-upon underclass in a poignant and deeply moral way.

The issue with laws and legislation is that they come from a system. This system considers corporations people who are therefore entitled to all the free speech rights that other people (people like me and Mr. Blow, the kind with lungs and skin) enjoy. Furthermore, this system considers political donations of a monetary sort to be tantamount to free speech. I maintain that, these factors established, laws that transfer the power wealth enjoys to the democratic populace are extremely difficult to imagine. During our conversation, I cited the example of Barney Frank, the great progressive hope (member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, frequent guest on The Rachel Maddow Show — all the qualifications) who wrote the “financial regulation reform” bill in the House, where he was chairman of the Financial Services Committee. Shortly after that bill passed, Frank’s top staffer, Mike Paese, decided this “public service” nonsense just wasn’t his cup of tea after all. He is now the head of Governmental Affairs at Goldman Sachs. How progressive of him (progressing upwards, that is).

Don’t get me wrong. There are excellent legislative initiatives to be taken. Blow’s colleague at the Times, Nick Kristoff, detailed several of these in his Op-Ed about Occupy Wall Street, and a movement a few years ago in Britain advocated for a very desirable “Robin Hood tax.” But the simple fact is that until the system is radically altered so that a commitment to justice is incentivized over fealty to potential major donors, that type of legislation is inconceivable. President Obama’s chief of staff, Bill Daley, was an executive at JP Morgan Chase & Co., for goodness’ sake. Is he the one we’re counting on to marshal the might of the presidency behind legislation that limits Wall Street’s influence over matters political? Let’s get real, here.

It will not be legislative advocacy that achieves the aims of Occupy Wall Street. The lawmakers don’t care what we have to say, and even if they did, the corporations who control their political fates would intimidate them into acting as though they didn’t. All that will achieve its aims is the expansion of the protests into a massive social movement, a broad-based actualization of outrage at this horrible, corrupt system made manifest by bodies in the streets of America.

You activate public sentiment effectively enough to make lawmakers apprehensive, so that they start negotiating concessions. That is the only thing that has ever created just policies in the United States, and the only thing that ever will.