Thursday, October 13, 2011

Tomgram: Steve Fraser, The Street of Torments @ Tom Dispatch

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Ariel Dorfman’s Sunday night post channeling a warning from the long-dead Chilean President Salvador Allende to President Obama was a surprise holiday hit at TomDispatch last weekend and startling numbers of you contributed $100 or more to this site in return for a signed, personalized copy of Dorfman’s remarkable new book, Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile (for which, believe me, you have our deepest thanks). Keep in mind that the book offer remains alive until next Tuesday. To get your book or find out more, click here. Tom]

Last weekend, in Washington Square Park in downtown Manhattan at a giant mill-in, teach-in, whatever-in-extension of Occupy Wall Street’s camp-out in Zuccotti Park, there was a moment to remember. Under what can only be called a summer sun, a contingent from the Egyptian Association for Change, USA, came marching in, their “Support Occupy Wall Street” banners held high (in Arabic and English), chanting about Cairo’s Tahrir Square (where some of them had previously camped out). The energy level of the crowd rose to buzz-level and cheers broke out.

And little wonder. After all, it was a moment for the history books. An American protest movement had taken its most essential strategic act directly from an Egyptian movement for democracy: camp out and don’t go home. It had then added (as one of the Egyptians pointed out to me) a key tactic of that movement, the widespread and brilliant use of social media to jumpstart events. And keep in mind that some of the Egyptian organizers at Tahrir Square had been trained in social networking by organizations like the International Republican Institute and the Democratic National Institute (created and indirectly funded by the U.S. Congress). Now, the American version of the same is being re-exported to the world. Try to unravel that one if you will -- and while you’re at it, toss out the great myth of American non-protest of these last years: that going online, Facebooking, and tweeting were pacifiers that suppressed in the young the possibility of actually heading into the streets and doing something.

By the way, the Egyptians weren’t the only ones there. As reporter Andy Kroll points out, from the beginning there were Greeks, Spaniards, Japanese, and others involved in Occupy Wall Street, all representing a new era of global activism. And better yet, the growing American movement isn’t denying these foreign influences; it’s hailing them, it’s cheered by them!

If that isn’t myth-busting, what is? Think of it as blowback as neither the CIA, nor even Chalmers Johnson, ever imagined it. Or maybe it’s some kind of modern export-import-export business. In any case, standing in Washington Square Park watching what could only be called the festivities (if you ignored a police lock-down in the vicinity more appropriate for Kabul, Afghanistan), it wasn’t hard to believe that the very idea of American exceptionalism was expiring right in front of our eyes. It had, of course, already worn desperately thin, or all those Republican presidential candidates and our president wouldn’t be insisting on its reality every five seconds. All I can say is that when the neoliberal globalizers of the 1990s first proclaimed the world to be one, this was surely not what they had in mind!

And yet, consider something else as well (and for those of you who don’t feel comfortable holding two seemingly contradictory thoughts in your head at one time, stop here): Foreign influences or no, Occupy Wall Street couldn’t be a more homegrown or traditionally American movement. As our preeminent historian of Wall Street, TomDispatch regular Steve Fraser, author of Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace, points out, the young occupiers of Zuccotti Park caught the zeitgeist of the moment by mainlining directly into the central vein of American oppositional movements for more than a century before the Great Depression ended. No wonder their movement is spreading fast. They may not have known their history, but they sensed it and so went right for that essential strand of American protest DNA: the “street of torments” at the bottom of Manhattan Island. Tom

The All-American Occupation
A Century of Our Streets Vs. Wall Street

By Steve Fraser

Occupy Wall Street, the ongoing demonstration-cum-sleep-in that began a month ago not far from the New York Stock Exchange and has since spread like wildfire to cities around the country, may be a game-changer. If so, it couldn’t be more appropriate or more in the American grain that, when the game changed, Wall Street was directly in the sights of the protesters.

The fact is that the end of the world as we’ve known it has been taking place all around us for some time. Until recently, however, thickets of political verbiage about cutting this and taxing that, about the glories of “job creators” and the need to preserve “the American dream,” have obscured what was hiding in plain sight -- that street of streets, known to generations of our ancestors as “the street of torments.”

Click here to read more of this dispatch.

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