Occupy St. Paul's? The Occupy Movement Descends into Farce

UPDATE: I’ll warn you that this post is cranky. I’ve left it as I wrote it so that the comments that follow will make sense, particularly those that rebuke me for my tone. (See the exchange with my friend, former student, and Christian sister Beth, at #11.) I also need to leave it as I wrote it to make sense of the blog post that followed on November 5.

The “Occupy” movement continues to baffle me. I’m not old enough to have participated in the civil rights movement, the political demonstrations, and the antiwar campaign of the ’60s and ’70s. But as a historian of modern times I’ve tried to understand these events and they had one important thing going for them: focus.

Not always, of course. May 1968 saw the boiling over of a lot of inchoate rage in Europe, and a lot of what happened Stateside was also just a lot of adolescent self-differentiation from Mom and Dad expressed with particular vehemence and extravagance partly because the generation gap was so wide and partly because the Older Generation was almost monolithically resistant to anything the youngsters were saying.

But there was actual decolonization to support, ugly racism and sexism to attack, blatant hypocrisy to expose, and a war (and draft–don’t ever forget that element) to protest.

The “Occupiers” today instead seem upset with one or another item on the long, long list of What’s Wrong with the World. And to that I say, So What?

I don’t say, “I don’t care” or “You shouldn’t be upset” or “Everything’s fine.” I literally ask them, So What? You camp out in public for a few weeks and give loud speeches to each other and argue between meals about, well, whatever. But to what purpose? To what end? What would constitute a successful outcome of your movement, besides the sudden arrival of Happy Valley everywhere for everyone?

The occupation of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London seems to me especially preposterous and in several respects.

First, Oo, how brave of you, Occupiers, occupying a churchyard. That certainly took courage, staring down befuddled clergy and getting in the way of tourists. For it is clergy and tourists who are mainly What’s Wrong with the World, right? And by annoying, confusing, berating, and inconveniencing them, you’ve struck a mighty blow for, uh–what?

Second, what century do you think you live in? The era in which the Church of England played an important role in British politics and society such that a protest at St. Paul’s would make any truly influential person bethink himself or herself is long gone. It’s like finding Mom and Dad much too powerful to deal with, so as soon as they tell you to shut up and shove off, as the London Stock Exchange did, you find old Uncle Charlie, quietly resting in his rocking chair under his favourite quilt, and you park yourself at his feet and start yelling at him. (And, yes, it’s bitterly amusing to read cleric after cleric in Britain sounding off about what’s happening at St. Paul’s as if it matters to the powers that be in the slightest. Guys, your church isn’t important anymore. Not in this respect, at least. And it hasn’t been for several generations.)

Third, and along these same lines, what did you Occupiers expect to happen once you camped out at St. Paul’s? That the Dean of the Cathedral would convene an emergency meeting of the movers and shakers in the City for a prayer service, that they would be cut to the quick by your sharply worded placards and prophetic tenting, and that they then would emerge onto the portico of St. Paul’s with cheques and jobs for everyone and promises of never, ever being bad and self-seeking ever, ever again?

Fourth, this movement seems to me almost entirely an exercise in self-indulgence. You get to do something you perceive as brave, when all you’re doing is simply trying the patience of powerful people and more or less hampering the lives of decent people trying to get on with their lives. And once the powerful have had enough, they’ll send in the cops and off you’ll scatter.

You get to state something you perceive as startling, when all you’re doing is stating the obvious. Friends, it’s not news that a minority have most of the money and power in the world. That’s been true since, um, ever.

And you get to enjoy the company of likeminded people for a while, stoking each other’s sense of moral outrage and importance, when all you’re doing is wasting your time and everyone else’s. I mean, come on. If you want the powerful to change, you must either persuade them or coerce them. How is plunking yourself down and making a nuisance of yourself for a few weeks going to effect either outcome? And how, in particular, is it going to either win over, or push around, the powerful by lolling about in the way of tourists and worshippers at St. Paul’s–or, here at home in Vancouver, in the way of patrons of the local art gallery?

I can’t imagine real radicals, serious advocates for social change, thinking all this is anything other than, at best, a possible recruiting opportunity for other, later efforts that will have some focus, some objective, some actual chance of accomplishing something. But the Occupy movement itself makes social protest look just ridiculous, like so much dressing-up and trying to act like Mom and Dad did in their putative hippie days.

The world is a serious place with serious problems. Greece’s prime minister looks this week like he’s inclined to wreck his country, perhaps the European Union, and possibly the global economy. Repression is a matter of state policy in dozens of countries affecting millions upon millions of innocent people. Tax regimes make it far too easy for rich people to concentrate even more of the world’s wealth in fewer hands. Meanwhile, prostitution, slavery, drug trafficking, arms dealing, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, environmental despoliation and exploitation, torture, corruption, and just plain stupidity proceed apace around the globe. So, then: What?

I’m a big fan of the movie “Network.” And I agree with the premise that for social change to occur, the first step is to get up out of your chair, go to the window, and yell, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” But once you’ve roused yourself and had a good yell, beware the splendid consolation of catharsis. Don’t settle for getting that off your chest, by God, and returning to your La-Z-Boy with a small glow of self-congratulation to brighten the rest of the evening.

With no direction and therefore no productive channelling, the result of all this Occupying eventually will be either hollow capitulation to The Way Things Are or bitter and possibly violent resentment of The Way Things Are. That’s what happened to far too many of the children of the ’60s and ’70s, and they had much more focus than the protesters do today.

No, better to pick some particular thing and work at it. Don’t like sex trafficking? Join the International Justice Mission. Don’t like starvation? Link up with World Vision. Don’t see a group doing what ought to be done about this or that? Start one.

But don’t settle for the excitement of a vigorous cursing of the darkness. The darkness doesn’t care a penny about your curses. It will still be there long after you’ve shouted yourself hoarse. Find something it does care about, and do something with it.

Or just go home and let people enjoy St. Paul’s again, please.

(A shorter version of this piece appeared today in The National Post.)