A week ago, I was slightly concerned about the Occupy Wall Street movement. I thought some of its points about inequality were well taken, if not particularly eloquently made. Now, a week later, I’m worried. Another recent piece published on this opinion page, written by Bassel Habbab (“Arab Spring on Wall Street,” Oct. 11), lauded that “these men and women are not fighting for the change of an existing system, they are fighting for its destruction and replacement.” That destruction would be the greatest tragedy to ever befall Western civilization.
It is neither good nor bad that the protests have gone global, most recently spreading across Europe. I question the wisdom of some of those protests. It’s rather rich to see the Greeks objecting to austerity measures after having lived beyond their means for many years, but, either way, they are an example of democracy at work. People are expressing their views. Fine.
My problem with the protests is that they have begun to take on a violent tenor, reminiscent of the summer London riots and the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt before them. Protestors smashed shops and burned cars in Rome this weekend, and at the epicenter, Wall Street, some protestors have begun to clash with police. We must soundly reject this development for two reasons.
First, let us be unequivocally clear. The United States (and other western liberal democracies fall into this category as well) is not analogous to regimes like Mubarak’s by any measure. Therefore, any use of violence to express political ideas is and ought be anathema here, even if it could be justified in the Arab context (which I would also question, but that’s a point for another day).
Even the manner in which these protests have been received should make this principle self-evident. Unlike in the Middle East, here, no one has been shot in the head, no paramilitary thugs have attacked the crowds and no one has been dragged off by members of a shadowy security apparatus for questioning or torture in prisons. To suggest that Obama, government officials or bankers have perpetrated the kinds of harm that dictatorial regimes have is simultaneously insane and insulting to millions who have lived under truly repressive leadership.
Drawing any sort of parallel between Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring is irresponsible and misleading at best, and protestors in Western liberal democracies should cooperate with police in removing members of the movement who embrace violence.
Second, we should recognize that rioting and violent overthrow do not necessarily craft a better system or a democratic one. In Egypt, two members of the military council that has lead the country since Mubarak’s downfall have said they plan to retain full control of Egyptian government, even after parliamentary elections in November. Violence has erupted, resulting in the slayings of Coptic Christian minorities, and the Vatican recently estimated that as many as 100,000 Coptic Christians fled the country after the Mubarak government collapsed.
The Middle East has been severely destabilized; Israel feels more threatened as the Muslim Brotherhood rises and vows to reverse Egyptian policies regarding its northern neighbor, and Iran has apparently plotted to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States. Unfettered democracy is like the djinn of Arabic folklore — he grants your wishes, but the results are not always what you imagined. Those who immolated themselves yesterday to start the revolutions of today will never see the morrow.
Keeping these lessons in mind, we must strive to live by this rule: institutions are our remedy and reasoned dialogue our sword. Many in Occupy Wall Street and the chattering class may assert that dialogue is merely a code word for continued political stalemate, but the American founders constructed a system that was meant to resist radical change precisely because that change can be so dangerous when it is poorly thought out.
Ultimately, no matter how much Occupy Wall Street feels it has been corrupted, capitalism has done a tremendous amount to make this a successful country. Banks allocate capital to drastically more efficient uses and rarely engage in truly Mephistophelian pacts. A lot of the things they are being blamed for, like outsourcing, are the result of complex macroeconomic factors; they are not borne out of spite for common Americans. Reform is doubtless needed in campaign finance, voting systems and elsewhere. But that reform needs to be reasonable, and it can’t come alongside a Molotov cocktail. Anyone who is part of, supports or spurs on the movement would do well to remember that.
Michael Magdzik is a junior in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.