In a year of popular upheaval, the press has employed a protean approach to its coverage of these profound events. The coverage falls into two predictable paradigms depending on whether the protests are occurring at home or abroad.
News coverage of protests abroad is exuberant and prone to roseate, sweeping historical judgments. The movements are named with such exuberance: after several Color Revolutions — Saffron, Orange, Rose — we have this year an Arab Spring. There is a sense of abundance in these names, a vision of Cockaigne, the legendary medieval land of liberty and of plenty.
At home, however, as we have seen in the last month, acts of courage, personal discipline, and camaraderie within mass protests are troubling to our public commentators. Occupy Wall Street has enjoyed none of the patriarchal approval afforded to international protests like the Arab Spring. Rather, it has been assaulted by another kind of paternalistic discourse.
According to commentators, the protesters are not driven by a spontaneous sense of injustice and indignation, but rather by a petulant restlessness, a misguided idealism. We do not praise them with the avuncular language reserved for foreign protest; we dismiss them, rebuking them for their infantilism. Today’s protester in Zuccotti Park is seen by the press as an infant in the precise sense of that term: to them, he does not speak. This characteristic of speechlessness, or rather the white noise of too much speech, has made the protest unintelligible to our country’s pundits. They ultimately point to this feature as precisely that which disqualifies the Occupation. This perceived speechlessness exasperates them.
Why is the Occupation viewed with such suspicion and so easily dismissed by the American press? If we look to David Brooks’ op-ed from Oct. 10, 2011, we shall glimpse an answer. In his piece, “The Milquetoast Radicals,” the fundamental inadequacy of the Occupation is that it is not buttressed by a scientific discourse. Brooks is preoccupied with the movement’s unwillingness to articulate quantifiable demands that might be evaluated by economic theorists; therefore, the Occupation is illegible.
Why, the commentators seem to say, will the Occupation not express itself to us? The frustration of the media has been the Occupation’s refusal to answer their one demand: Tell us what you mean! They are frustrated because this movement will not appoint a spokesman to engage the press within a confined political discourse. For Brooks, a protest without circumscribed political demands is absurd. For him and his colleagues, this quite simply does not qualify as political speech.
Brooks and his colleagues are unwilling even to grant that the Occupation is in any way political. In his editorial, Brooks grasps at potentially unifying demands of the Occupation beyond its claim to represent the “99 percent.” Brooks takes this slogan quite literally, and computes potential tax policies aimed at the top one percent. If the Occupation continues to divide the population into these categories, Brooks argues, our country’s pressing fiscal issues, like Social Security and the national debt, will never be resolved. They have no business protesting economic policies when they are utterly unqualified to offer advice to the President’s economic advisers!
Public assembly, however, is itself a grand political gesture. When individuals form an active assembly, risking themselves to speak openly, their actions constitute a meaningful type of political speech. The Occupiers have resolved to actively resist a form of government that they have decided is intolerable. This is greater than any single legislative demand. They have refused to confine their voice to a single vote, to express themselves only in their purchases or in prefabricated answers to polls.
To protest is not to govern. To resist the government is not to offer an alternative to government. Brooks is frustrated by his own narrow expectations of what qualifies as political speech. The Occupation is not a PAC or a lobbying firm. It is a spontaneous public assembly, confident in the justice of free speech at the same time that it refuses to speak in the ways demanded of it. To protest is not to editorialize, but fundamentally and primarily to object. The occupier risks body and reputation not in order to choose this or that alternative to the government’s fiscal policies. But to the press, the Occupation merely consists of so many petulant urchins refusing to leave Zuccotti Park — a zuccotto is a type of Italian cake — clinging incorrigibly to their collective hallucination of Cockaigne.