With apologies to the Buffalo Springfield, what it is really Ainï¿½t exactly clear. What we know is that thousands of disaffected, mostly young people have descended on lower Manhattan, in a now weeks-long demonstration known as Occupy Wall Street (OWS). And that it appears to be spreading to other cities, fueled in part by social media. Its driving grievances are an unfocussed amalgam of issues from ï¿½greedï¿½ (in several of its baser forms) to global warming. A common thread appears to be concern for the direction of the society, and the protestersï¿½ perception that working for change within The System wonï¿½t work.
The inclusive nature of the demonstration is reminiscent of recent protests organized around meetings of international bodies like the World Trade Organization. Gatherings of the WTO in Genoa, Seattle and Ottawa were met with opposition from various causes including workersï¿½ rights, environmental degradation, ethical lapses and that hardy perennial, ï¿½greed.ï¿½ Those sometimes-violent protests, however, were events that did not coalesce into any kind of an ongoing movement.
Whatï¿½s different in these ï¿½occupationsï¿½ is their apparent spontaneity ï¿½ there does not seem to be a specific precipitating happening that set them off. The fact that a unifying energy sustains them may also lead to greater focus and coherence, over time.
The Occupiers are certainly not alone in their manifold frustrations. Their parents have been organizing groups like ï¿½America Electsï¿½ as an alternative to working within the established two-Party political structure. AE was born out of a perception that neither political Party was responsive to real world concerns of the Great American Moderate Middle ï¿½ that Special Interests have steamrolled the General Interest. You can also make a case that the Tea Parties are expressions of the belief that the world has gotten away from most of us, and that neither Party has good answers for what ails the Republic. Indeed, there is a strong sense abroad in the land that the pols are ï¿½dancinï¿½ with them what brung ï¿½em,ï¿½ and that ï¿½themï¿½ ainï¿½t ï¿½us.ï¿½
Even well-established movements with a common theme are composed of disparate elements with widely varying motivations. I once read a study indicating that Environmentalism is composed of do-gooders, true believers, deep ecologists, opportunists, conservationists, social reformers, and anarchists, to name a few. Each constituency has its separate emphases, but they manage to hang together under that capital ï¿½E.ï¿½
So perhaps itï¿½s too much to expect Occupy Wall Street to immediately express a common, coherent theme. Maybe such a direction will emerge out of the ongoing conversation. Or maybe the revolution will be canceled, like the one temporarily fueled by the cathartic ï¿½Mad as hellï¿½ window screamers in the movie ï¿½Network.ï¿½ But it would be a mistake to easily dismiss OWS as an ephemeral expression of youthful idealism or ennui. For what itï¿½s worth, I donï¿½t think these are just the tantrums of slackers with an overgrown sense of entitlement.
With the monumental and utterly unanticipated influence of the Arab Spring so recently etched in our collective memory, itï¿½ll be worth figuring out what ï¿½that soundï¿½ represents, and looking seriously at whatï¿½s goinï¿½ down.