The Reactions

Those who took the “carnival” on Wall Street seriously seem to have been right.  The protestors camping out in lower Manhattan and other financial sites around the world have struck a deep chord that continues to resonate.

They may not have a coherent program or set of proposals, and they may not link to conventional politics as many think they should, but they have a theme that no one else is raising: the runaway influence of the finance industry in our society and the failure of our political system to make it accountable.

When I first wrote about Occupy Wall Street two weeks ago, I drew the analogy with the canaries in coal mines that signal the presence of deadly fumes.  Now it’s more than that – and far more than can be summed up in one image or metaphor.  And it has generated enough support to get New York’s government to cancel its plans to “clean up” the park it has taken over.

The Democrats, seeing a counter-weight to the Tea Party, seek to make connections with a movement that has an astonishing 56 percent approval rating, according to Time.  Last week, Bill Clinton commented in Chicago:  “The Occupy Wall Street crowd basically is saying, ‘I’m unemployed and the people that caused this have their jobs again and their bonuses again and their incomes are high again. There’s something wrong with this country. This is not working for me.'”  For their part, the Republicans have been speaking of “mobs,” “Nazis” and “commies.”

There are interesting individual anomalies. The Wall Street Journal noted yesterday that the CEO of Citigroup, Vikram Pandit, expressed sympathy with the occupiers, and today’s New York Times quotes him as saying “that trust has been broken between financial institutions and the citizens of the U.S.”  He added, “The protesters should hold Citi and others ‘accountable for practicing responsible finance.’” And some Tea Party members have noted parallels between the two grass-roots movements, their opposition to the bank bailouts.

But generally, according to The New York Times, “bankers dismiss the protesters as gullible and unsophisticated. Not many are willing to say this out loud, for fear of drawing public ire — or the masses to their doorsteps.” (See, “In Private, Wall St. Bankers Dismiss Protesters as Unsophisticated.”)

The media, predictably, are focused on various human-interest angles:  who started the protest, how they make decisions, their eating habits, and their hygiene.  (See, “From Canada to Meetup.com, the Journey of a Protest Meme.”)  But they don’t seem to know what to make of the movement itself.  It is too multifaceted and elusive, too much a collection of incongruities.  It’s just not like the other forms of political action they have come to know over the years.

Perhaps, though, it should be viewed as not political at all.  Perhaps, as the protestors themselves say, it’s about justice and morality.  They are less interested in a political agenda than in bearing witness to a profound ethical violation of our social contract.  Some might want to get arrested, but many just want to be seen.  A better analogy might be those who conduct a vigil at an execution, or the mothers of the “disappeared” who showed up regularly in mourning to reproach the Argentine generals for their crimes.

Clearly they are saying something important, but not the kind of thing that politicians usually find themselves thinking.