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Cargo Cults and Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street in Portland

Probably the best known example of a cargo cult arose in New Guinea during World War II when the indigenous inhabitants, a pre-industrial society,  saw US military personal build landing fields and use radios to call in aircraft loaded with supplies. After the US left New Guinea, the locals built crude landing strips and make-believe radios and imitated the actions they had seen performed by the military, all in the vain hope that planes would arrive, bringing them what they wanted.

Cargo cults appear to be springing up everywhere these days. The locals get together in an open field, a park or other public space, and imitate in empty ritual the authentic acts that others have used to produce real results. But because they don’t actually understand the inner workings of what they believe they’re imitating, they don’t get anything at all.

No, we’re not being churlish or mean spirited.  But, yes, we’re referring to the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Sure, like Occupy Wall Street, we’d like to see the very rich pay their fair share of taxes. And, yes, we think the income distribution in this country is a disgrace. And, of course, we’d like to see our economic system change for the betterment of all of us. But nothing will be accomplished simply by an imitation of the non-violent protests by the “leaderless” young in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The United States isn’t the same as Egypt under Hosni Mubarak, nor is youth an explosive demographic in the US as it is in Egypt and the Middle East in general.

Occupy Wall Street has posted a “DETAILED LIST OF DEMANDS & OVERVIEW OF TACTICS FOR DC PROTEST.” Currently, the demands are being edited, so we’ll wait on that. But the tactics for the DC protest do not, on the face of it, have a chance of succeeding. It’s very hard to believe that peacefully blocking all entrances to the Capital building – that’s the tactic – will cause Congress to pass the legislation the movement demands.

OK, maybe we are getting churlish. We’ve been driven to it.

Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street poster

Occupy Wall Street poster

The Occupy Wall Street protest is now a month old and has collected $300,000. And at this point, with coordinated gatherings taking place not only in other cities across the United States, but also across the globe, we can leave off calling it a protest and begin to call it a movement.

Our conservative House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, famously said that he, for one, was “increasingly concerned about the growing mobs occupying Wall Street and the other cities across the country.” On the other hand, a recent Time magazine poll found that 54 percent of Americans held a favorable view of those mobs, while only 27 percent — that would be exactly half as many, right? —  held a favorable view of the Tea Party movement.

Occupy Wall Street is inclusive, so it’s no surprise that it includes some flakey people, such as those youngsters who want to experience the countercultural sentiments of the late 1960s and not much more. And, yes, Fox News found those hippy kids right away and was shocked and disgusted. Fox news’s Bill Schulz believes he discovered that people were having sexual intercourse in public, or, well, under a blanket in public, and, according to Schulz, many of the protestors hadn’t bathed in weeks and the smell of the place was, in his words, “equal parts patchouli, body odor, and urine.” Schulz had a little hissy fit on TV,  he was so, so, so  upset. Fox’s Sean Hannity interviewed a young woman who had taken off her shirt and was naked from the waist up. Wow! Apparently Hannity thought she was a good representative sample of the movement. If she was, then Wall Street, the upper 1 percent and Representative Cantor have nothing to be concerned about.

At this point, no one can say whether the Occupy Wall Street movement is going to change anything. (Yes, they’ve changed the name of Zuccotti Park to Freedom Park, but we suspect that won’t stick.) Probably the most thoughtful criticism of the movement is that it’s diffuse, that on the one hand it can’t actually represent the “99 percent” that it aspires to, because no movement can do that, but on the other hand it’s so broadly inclusive that it embraces contradictory aims. It often appears to be a movement with vague goals, no policies and, most damning,  no smarts.

But appearances can be deceiving. Despite the impression you my have received, the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York city is highly organized. And we don’t mean that they’ve merely learned to pick up their trash and bathe. The movement may not have official leaders, but it sure does have “groups” and “committees,” and those committees publish their minutes online and are clearly working toward their goals. This is a big organization and it’s growing. In addition to receiving donations of food and other supplies, it has an deepening stream of financial donations and, yes,  a way of keeping track of money. Exploring the movement’s informative web site  should do away with any notion that Occupy Wall Street is hapless, amateurish and incapable of developing into a political force. Quite the contrary. Occupy Wall Street

More Notes


Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.