You’ll be forgiven if you’re still wondering what the Occupy Wall Street movement is occupying things for, since they’re none too sure. The movement – which has generalized into a kind of global Occupy Whatever’s Handy protest – takes a certain pleasure in being amorphous, an umbrella group with a “Down With This Sort of Thing” mandate. Are they after income equality? An end to corporate citizenhood? Free tuition? The rich, served on a platter with a nice wine pairing? All of the above?
There is no real answer, except in one place: A blog, wearethe99percent.tumblr.com/, which Occupy Wall Street’s website describes as “the one thing we have in common.” It’s a simple affair, a long scroll of photos, each bearing a handwritten note, explaining why the sender feels an affinity to the 99 per cent of the population that the movement says it represents. On and on it goes, a collective, compound statement of purpose. Occupy Wall Street is the first revolution whose manifesto is a photoblog.
If you want to start deciphering what’s going on across America – and now, in cities around the world – this is the place to start. We Are the 99% draws on the rich tradition of the online testimonial, in which people photograph themselves holding up handwritten notes.
Many of the notes tell of expensive education, overwork, underemployment, single parenthood, crushing medical bills and post-degree indebtedness. People who worked hard to get ahead, only to find themselves deep in debt. Students who came out of school with crushing debt loads. Veterans left behind upon their return from service. Workers who were knocked out of the labour force by unexpected illnesses and then pinned down by health-care costs.
The effect is immediate and compelling. As much as the notes are defiant notes of solidarity, there’s an element of the confessional here, too. Debt loads and medical conditions aren’t the kind of thing one typically advertises to the world. What’s more, the format packs three of a person’s most distinguishable signatures into one frame: face, handwriting, and life story. It’s the very definition of drama, compressed into one frame: A character, peering dolefully at you, with a narrative penned next to his or her face. And there’s always the intrigue of second-guessing the truth. Some stories have fearful resonance. Others make you wonder what was omitted as this person penned his or her story.
This is part of the sentiment behind a conservative counterpoint, called We Are The 53% – after the 53 per cent of Americans who pay most income taxes – and it offers a window into the sentiment that powers the Tea Party. This is not a comparison that thrills the Occupy Whatnot folks. The Tea Party bears all manner of unpleasant connotations (ignorance, xenophobia, misspelled placards), especially in far-off Canada. It’s a movement that’s been represented by its loudest, dumbest advocates and the loudest, dumbest politicians that pander to them. But there’s a quiet groundswell of opinion beneath the noise that’s reshaping America.
Conservative causes have a history of trying to clone successful liberal initiatives with goofy consequences. See: “Conservapedia” (www.conservativipedia.com), the conservative Wikipedia with an improved section on evolution. It’s a battle of anecdotes – my testimony versus yours. In that sense, it might be the truest form of politics there is.