The first thing I want to say is that this is not a rabidly pro-Occupy essay or a rabidly anti-police one, and that although I consider myself a Liberal, Conservatives may find a lot in here that they like or identify with. I realize that opening this way breaks a good-writing rule about too nakedly courting an audience up front, but I did that because I want the right people to read this, and the fact is that most people, both liberal and conservative, tend to judge rather quickly whether they will probably like something and choose either to keep or stop reading accordingly. And because writing this was pointless if Conservatives don’t read it, I’m going to begin by telling Conservatives that I know how you feel.
For the past few months, it has been pointed out that most of the protesters at Occupy events don’t know what they’re talking about. It has been observed that most of them are privileged white kids with iPhones. It’s been said that the police are only doing their vital, thankless jobs. People have made jokes about pot and bongo drums. And I get all that. I don’t make the same jokes out loud myself, because all of my friends are Liberals, but I get where you’re coming from. To a large extent, I feel the same way you do. The difference between me and you, I think, is that I don’t particularly like feeling this way, and I regard the fact that I feel this way as largely irrelevant. Feeling a certain way, after all, is not a position on an issue, and it doesn’t answer any questions.
Let me begin by providing a little demographic background, because demographics are what make this interesting. I’m a college English professor, I live in New York City, and I believe the following things: that more government oversight of the financial sector is necessary both pragmatically and morally, that Republican policies constitute a war on the middle class waged to benefit the very wealthy, and that the current economic collapse was caused by reckless and predatory greed on the parts of a small number of shockingly selfish people, many of whom should probably be in prison (or at least deserve to be, even though in many cases they did not, technically speaking, break the law, because the laws were changed beforehand to accommodate them). Given all this, I would be the first person that anybody would expect to have found holding up a sign in Zuccotti Park. But I never did. I didn’t go. Not even for one day, and I never even planned to and barely thought about it.
This is because, my beliefs notwithstanding, I look at coverage of the Occupy events and react emotionally in the same way that I suspect most Conservatives do: I don’t like the people. They look like people I would not get along with. They look like people who would annoy me. They look, in many cases, like people who would actively condescend to or mock me in a way that would absolutely enrage me. When I hear the voices of the protesters chanting “shame on you” at the police who are pepper-spraying them, I have flashbacks, because they sound exactly like the voices of the entitled, oblivious “Trustafarians” who rolled their eyes at my band and my poetry in college even though my band and my poetry were better than their bands and their poetry because I actually practiced and they just partied all the time. I can’t help seeing the Occupy protesters as the same people. And maybe, in many cases, they are. But that’s not the point, or at least it shouldn’t be. Well-considered arguments about what is best for the people of this country are the point, not who I would or would not get along with at a cocktail party. And besides, Occupy events are not a cocktail party.
Because of my experiences growing up, I have, and will probably always have, a level of anxiety about social events that causes me to evaluate them differently from how others do. And a political protest, like any other gathering of people hanging out in the same place for X amount of time, is necessarily a social event. This is not a cynical dig at protests—it is merely a fact about human psychology. When I see pictures of an Occupy event, my initial reaction is not to see people uniting around a cause I believe in, but instead to see a party I am probably not cool enough to get into. Remember, though, that my reaction at that initial deep level is not a political position, but merely a phobia or question of taste, like a fear of spiders or a preference for pickles or no pickles on a hamburger. It is an emotion rather than a belief, and so cannot be proven or disproven, defended or attacked.
Of course, we let emotional phobias blossom into beliefs all the time. The sentence “I am afraid of spiders” is merely a statement of fact about the self, but the sentence “All spiders are poisonous” is scientifically false and can be proven so. But presenting the evidence that contradicts the second sentence to someone who fears spiders will not undo the first—someone who is afraid of spiders will simply find something else to say about them other than the assertion that they are all poisonous. They will do this because, emotionally speaking, they need to. Even if the person who fears spiders thinks that the fear came about as a result of the belief that they are poisonous, it probably didn’t. Most likely, the fear came first, and the ostensible reason was thought up second.
For a lot of reasons, it’s more fun to have emotional arguments. We necessarily care more about our emotions than we do about assertions concerning the external world, for one, and so we’re more invested in them. Arguing emotion is also fun because it’s harder to lose—if you’re going to say “police brutality is common and typically goes unpunished,” you have to do research to defend it, but if all you say is “fuck the police,” then you don’t. Similarly, it is easier for a Conservative to make jokes about how the protesters all smoke pot and smell bad than it is for them to mount a cogent defense of the policies to which the protesters object—the second thing means you have to look stuff up, and the first doesn’t.
I don’t think it should be too hard for both intelligent Liberals and intelligent Conservatives to agree that, on pretty much every issue under the sun, there are far too many people on both sides who aren’t looking enough stuff up. And more importantly, that the weight of this fact tends to cause the level of national discourse about pretty much everything to become far stupider than it should be. And that’s why we can’t allow the debate about the Occupy movement to turn into a referendum on “Cops vs. Hippies.” I realize that there are a lot of people on one side who badly want to make jokes about cops, and a lot of people on the other side who badly want to make jokes about hippies, but that’s simply too bad. Because even if you definitively prove that all cops eat donuts or all protesters play bongo drums, this still has nothing to do with the issues we were supposed to be debating in the first place. You were looking stuff up about the wrong thing.
It’s appropriate that I’m writing this now, because the Occupy debate and my reactions to it cut straight to the heart of why I first launched 1585, exactly five years ago this month: I noticed that my philosophical beliefs and my social emotions were often on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Maybe nothing that has happened in those five years demonstrates this disconnect better than Occupy. My parents both worked in law enforcement, and they raised me. The cool kids in my high school and college were fashionable hippies, and they were mean to me. When I see video of an Occupy crackdown where police are beating peaceful protesters, my conscious mind knows it is wrong, but some part of my psyche is seeing my dad beating up a trust-fund baby who wouldn’t let me into a party because I wasn’t dressed right, and that dark corner of my immature mind is happy. And I think a lot of the Conservatives who are cheering the violence in conservative chat rooms—maybe even most of them—are coming from the same place, emotionally speaking. The difference between them and me is that I don’t let my emotions dictate my beliefs or distract me from the real issue. Or at least, I try not to, though I am sure I fail a lot of the time, because I’m human.
In past essays, I have jokingly compared myself to Blade, the movie vampire who hates other vampires and fights to protect humans. His conscious mind knows that vampirism is wrong, but biologically speaking he is still a vampire, and has to put himself through a ceaseless, painful process involving injections to keep this from taking him over. That is what politics is like for me: I have the personality of a Conservative, but morally and logically I know that the Liberals are right most of the time. To the Conservatives whooping it up about the beatdowns, believe me when I say that I know what it is like to deeply, deeply want to see hippies get punched in the face. I am not saying that hippies are not annoying or that there’s something wrong with you because you don’t want to hang out with them, because neither do I. They remind me of the cool kids from school, and I wasn’t cool, and some part of me will always want to see the cool kids get punched. This is an unavoidable way to feel. But it is a stupid way to make decisions.
Punk-rock aficionados know that this is how Johnny Ramone ended up a Republican: the popular girls in his junior high school liked JFK because he was cute, so Johnny started liking Nixon just to spite them. I am the last person who will ever claim that it is not entirely defensible to want to spite the cool kids. But the fact is, the things JFK wanted to do were better for this country than the things Nixon wanted to do. The kids who supported JFK because of his looks and charm were doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, but at the end of the day, the right thing for the wrong reasons is still the right thing. Were many of the Occupy protesters attending just to try and get laid? Almost certainly. But this tells us exactly nothing about what the laws should or should not be. Remember that if someone adopts a belief for purely social and immature reasons, and you correctly note this and then adopt the opposite belief, then you are also indirectly adopting your beliefs for social and immature reasons.
So that’s why I never went to Occupy Wall Street. To the people who would like an apology for that—a group that includes virtually all of my close friends—I’m sorry. I am the first to admit, or try to be, that because I am emotionally still stuck in high school, there are certain things that I just can’t do, or can’t do very easily. But maybe that is for the best. I think a lot of people are emotionally still stuck in high school, but don’t realize it. And like a carrier of a disease who exhibits no symptoms, someone who goes out into the world unaware that he or she is making decisions this way is probably more dangerous. I realize what’s wrong with me, and so I’ve quarantined myself. Just like in high school, instead of going to the party, I sat in my room brooding, and eventually wrote something. Only this time, instead of a poem about loneliness, it was this. Maybe it will do something.
I can’t run no more with that lawless crowd
while the killers in high places say their prayers out loud,
but they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up a thundercloud
and they’re gonna hear from me.
Ring the bells that still can ring;
forget your perfect offering.
There is a a crack, a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.
–Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”