All Points

Occupy the Myth

By William Deresiewicz | February 12, 2012


What about Occupy Wall Street, people said a few months ago when I published an essay in The New York Times about the entrepreneurial ethos that seems to characterize today’s youth. [See my my posts of January 30 and February 6, as well.] In other words, isn’t your analysis already out of date? And also—you have to cast your mind back to the middle of November, when Occupy was all that anyone could talk about—how could you ignore the big story?

The second question is easy: not every article needs to be about the topic du jour. The first question is more important. At the time my article appeared, the Occupy movement was all of two months old. It was a little too early—it still is—to declare it a generational watershed, though everybody seemed to want to. (Across the page from me in the Times, Jeffrey Sachs was announcing the birth of a new progressive era.) Phenomena of a decade-and-a-half’s duration, like the one I described, or of twice as long, like Reaganism, do not disappear so easily, because we say they do or want them to. The world rarely changes overnight, and certainly not in ways we can predict.

It isn’t that I do not wish success to Occupy and what it stands for. It’s just that we’ve been here before—twice in the last 10 years alone. “Everything is different now,” we said after 9/11. Well, everything was different, but not in the ways we thought. There was going to be a new birth of national seriousness, national unity, national purpose. How did that work out? “Everything is different now,” we said after the 2008 election. That was the last time the new progressive era was scheduled to start—so much so that no one seemed to lift a finger after that to make it happen. How did that work out?

Occupy is a movement, but it also almost instantly became a myth. You could see it in some of what you heard on television or read in the progressive press. I went down to Zuccotti Park, the journalist or activist would say, a little awestruck, as if the trip had been a sort of pilgrimage, a baptism at the font of authenticity. If the movement sometimes betrayed, in its early days, the perennial belief of youth in the possibility of revolution by desire—the feeling that the force of souls alone would tumble down the walls of Jericho—it also revealed the tendency of the old to idealize the idealism of the young. The notion is Romantic, Rousseauistic: the wisdom and purity of youth, its greater closeness to the light.

That was November. The giddy early days are over, and the cameras have moved on. “Don’t speak too soon, for the wheel’s still in spin,” said the prophet of an earlier revolution—wisdom that cuts both ways.

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