The Atlantic‘s Derek Thompson dished up this handy graph (drawn by The Atlantic‘s Matt O’Brien) to demonstrate how capital gains “absolutely dictate the wealth of the richest Americans.”

Capital gains are just profits realized from the sale of certain investments, and the S&P is a Big Three credit rating agency that measures the performance of the stock market. Notice how closely they align. In 2007, when the financial crisis hit, the average salary of the 400 richest Americans was $30 million. Their capital gains take was a smidgen more: $228 million. In 2009, those averages had fallen (life is hard at the top) to $22 million and $92 million, respectively. Between 1992 and 2007, Thompson notes, the average capital gains income for the top 400 increased by 1200%.

Now compare this data to last month’s Fed report on family finances. As reported in the Washington Post,

The median net worth of families plunged by 39 percent in just three years, from $126,400 in 2007 to $77,300 in 2010. That puts Americans roughly on par with where they were in 1992 […] Over a span of three years, Americans watched progress that took almost a generation to accumulate evaporate. The promise of retirement built on the inevitable rise of the stock market proved illusory for most. Home ownership, once heralded as a pathway to wealth, became an albatross […]

The very rich have the power to manipulate the market. The rest of us are just along for the crash.

Here are two more graphs.

The first one shows, again, how “capital gains and dividends… supplanted wage inequality as the primary driver of the growing income gap.” (The bottom 20% refers to anyone making less than about $20,000/year. The middle 20% fall into the $40,000 to $60,000 range, and the top 20% kicks in at around $100,000.) The second graph shows, in the starkest terms, the exponential explosion of wealth at the very top.

What do our out-on-the-stump presidential candidates have to say about all of this? Obama continues to blame Bush for the mess and wants us to know that the economy “grows best when everybody gets a fair shot, and everybody does their fair share, and everybody plays by the same set of rules.” It would be a pretty song if I hadn’t heard it so many times before, if he didn’t play it for $40,000 a plate.

Romney blames Obama for the mess and wants us to know that he would continue not to raise taxes on himself and his friends (they’re creating tons of jobs!), continue to shrink government (but only after adding himself as head of said government), and continue to spare the rabble the headache of having enough money to save or invest. Romney, you’ll remember, made a combined $43 million in 2010 and 2011, almost all of it from capital gains, and exactly none of it from working. Because long-term capital gains (assets held for a year or more) are taxed at 15%, his tax rate was the equivalent of someone who makes between $8,000 and $34,000 a year.

At least Romney devotes his energy and somewhat shadily-gotten fortune to what he thinks (albeit delusively) is the public good. There comes a point at which the amassing of wealth for its own sake becomes not just pathological but villainous, and the identification of this pursuit with the American Dream is, at best, a consummate and tragic failure of imagination.

After months of wrestling with myself over how I felt about this case and what I ultimately wanted to say about it, I’ve decided to advance—as dispassionately as possible—one argument only. The argument is this: if you believe George Zimmerman rightfully shot and killed Trayvon Martin, then you believe Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old with no history of violent behavior, was congenitally a monster. Put another way, given the facts we have now, a commitment to Zimmerman’s moral innocence (or Martin’s moral guilt) is necessarily racist.

I’m not talking about legal guilt or innocence. I’m not concerned here with the Sanford Police Department’s investigation or Florida’s stand-your-ground and self-defense laws. If the case goes to court, it will be tried by a jury according to the reasonable doubt standard, and what happens during and after that process has no bearing on my argument. I’m also not interested in eyewitness accounts, as no one (as of this writing) claims to have seen the initial encounter that led to the physical altercation that led, Zimmerman claims, to the shooting.

A detailed timeline of events surrounding the shooting can be found here, and you can find an interactive map of the scene and its surroundings here. The basic story is that, on the night of February 26, George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old Hispanic-white resident and neighborhood watch captain of the Retreat at Twin Lakes, is driving to Target in his SUV when he sees Trayvon Martin, a black teenager staying with his father and his father’s fiancee at the Retreat, near the gated community’s Clubhouse.

He calls the police non-emergency line and tells the dispatcher: “There’s a real suspicious guy… This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around looking about… Now he’s just staring at me… He’s got his hand in his waistband… He’s coming to check me out…” Martin had gone to a 7-11 and is making his way home. He’s talking to his girlfriend on his cell phone when Zimmerman spots him.

Almost two minutes into the call, Zimmerman says that Martin is heading down towards the rear entrance of the complex. He gets out of his car. The dispatcher asks him if he’s following Martin and he says yes. (In the recently released video of Zimmerman reenacting the night’s events for the police, he says that he got out of the car because the dispatcher asked him for an address indicating his location in the complex.) “Okay, we don’t need you to do that,” The dispatcher tells him. “Okay,” Zimmerman responds. (We can hear that he is still moving, but we don’t know where he’s going.)

Just after the two minute mark, Zimmerman, still moving, says Martin is running. The dispatcher asks Zimmerman if he wants to meet the police at the centrally located mailboxes at the Clubhouse of the gated community. Zimmerman says, “Yeah, that’s fine,” and then changes his mind: “Actually, could you have them call me and I’ll tell them where I’m at.” Zimmerman’s account of what followed, as reported by the Orlando Sentinel, is that

he lost sight of Trayvon and was walking back to his SUV when Trayvon approached him from the left rear, and they exchanged words.

Trayvon asked Zimmerman if he had a problem. Zimmerman said no and reached for his cell phone, he told police. Trayvon then said, “Well, you do now” or something similar and punched Zimmerman in the nose, according to the account he gave police.

Zimmerman fell to the ground and Trayvon got on top of him and began slamming his head into the sidewalk, he told police.

Phone logs show that Martin was talking to his girlfriend right before the physical altercation. She told the Martin family’s attorney “that she heard the two exchange questions, like `Why are you following me?’ and `What are you doing here?'” Zimmerman says Martin said, “Do you have a fucking problem?”, to which Zimmerman replied, “No,” and then reached for his phone to call the police again.

If you look at page six of the interactive map, you’ll see the approximate location of Zimmerman’s car. Martin has run into the shared backyard area (see photos here and here) where cars can’t follow. For Zimmerman’s killing of Martin to be morally justifiable, we’re required to accept all of the following:

  1. After following Martin in his car, after getting out of his car to pursue Martin, after lamenting that “these assholes… always get away,” and after not agreeing to return to the Clubhouse to meet the police, Zimmerman gives up the pursuit and starts back to his car.
  2. After running away from Zimmerman, Martin sees Zimmerman walking away—back to his car—and decides to confront and assault him. Zimmerman initially ran past the shared backyard pathway towards Retreat View Circle, and he has to pass the pathway one more time to get back to his car. Either he doesn’t look very hard for Martin in the pathway, or Martin is hiding from him. (“I didn’t see exactly where he came from,” Zimmerman says in the video reenactment. When interviewed just after the shooting, he told police that Martin “jumped out of the bushes.” Either way, he had his back turned away from the path he saw Martin take.)
  3. As Zimmerman heads back to his car, Martin approaches him from behind and says, “You have a problem?” Zimmerman says, “No,” and reaches for his phone. Martin says, “Well, you do now.”
  4. Martin hits Zimmerman in the face. Zimmerman falls to the ground. Martin repeatedly slams Zimmerman’s head into the sidewalk running through the shared backyard area. Zimmerman calls repeatedly for help. Martin puts his hand over his mouth and tells him to “shut the fuck up.”
  5. As Zimmerman tries to pull his head off the concrete, Martin sees the gun and tells Zimmerman, “You’re going to die tonight.” Martin reaches for the gun, but Zimmerman gets it first, shooting Martin once in the chest. Martin says, “You got me,” or “You got it.”

The size of the combatants is disputed. I’ll just say that Martin is taller by between three and five inches, but Zimmerman is heavier by between thirty to fifty pounds. (The police report lists Martin as 6’0”, 160 Pounds, while Zimmerman is listed as 5’9″, no weight noted.) Zimmerman’s post-incident medical report lists a “closed fracture” of the nose, two black eyes, two lacerations on the back of his head, but no concussion.

I don’t deny that Zimmerman might be telling the truth. But is his account, rationally speaking, the most plausible explanation of what happened that night? Isn’t it at least as plausible, in light of what we know, that Zimmerman, after Martin initiates a verbal exchange, reaches for his gun instead of his cell phone? (Why would he call the police again if they’re already on the way?) If so, Martin is now fighting for his life.

Or maybe, as Zimmerman is reaching for his phone, Martin sees the gun and thinks that’s what Zimmerman is reaching for. Or maybe Martin doesn’t see the gun, but thinks Zimmerman has one and is reaching for it. (Firearm homicide has been the leading cause of death for African-American males aged 15 to 19 since 1969.) Or maybe Zimmerman is the one who confronts Martin, with or without his gun.

The scenarios are not infinite, but they are vast, and believing the shooter’s account to be the most plausible among them is a purely emotional response, and a hysterical one based on race. (Whether or not the racism is conscious is a separate question.) Not taking Zimmerman at his word is, I think, a reasonable stance in light of the inconsistency and melodrama (“You do now”; “You’re going to die tonight”; “You got me”) of his story and the fact that he eliminated the only other witness, who was not armed.

Zimmerman says the screams for help caught by a 911 call are his. If that’s true, it doesn’t prove that Martin went for Zimmerman’s gun, or that Zimmerman’s life was in danger, or even that he was being beaten at the time he was screaming for help. In fact, the screams might show the beating to be less intense than Zimmerman claims, as it would be extremely difficult for him (or anyone) to scream or call out while his head is being slammed repeatedly into the sidewalk—“… each time I thought my head was going to explode and I thought I was going to lose consciousness,” he told police.


There is a lot of talk about Martin “doubling back,” if he did really double back, as the ultimate determination of culpability in the case. It may be true that Martin would still be alive today had he run all the way home, but if Zimmerman has the right to get out of his car to pursue Martin, then Martin has the right to confront Zimmerman about it. The only possible reasons to deny him this right are the presumption that he was actually casing the neighborhood in which his father lived and in which he was staying, or the presumption that he “lured” Zimmerman into the dark pathway to assault him.

There is no evidence to support either claim. Martin’s supposed predisposition to theft and belligerence is based on the following facts:

  1. At the time of the shooting, Martin was suspended from school for possession of an empty bag containing traces of marijuana.
  2. The previous October, a school police investigator reported spotting Martin marking up a door with “W.T.F.”; the next day, the officer went through Martin’s bag to find the marker, and found women’s jewelry and “a large flathead screwdriver” instead. He referred to the screwdriver as a “burglary tool.” Martin told the investigator that the jewelry belonged to someone else. He was suspended for graffiti and the jewelry was impounded by school authorities. Photos of the items were sent to the Miami-Dade police, and, according to the Miami Herald, “No evidence ever surfaced that the jewelry was stolen.”
  3. Martin had been suspended one additional time for truancy.
  4. Martin’s Twitter handle was NO_LIMIT_NIGGA, a reference to a hip-hop song by Kane & Abel; he was seen in a photo wearing a grill; he was allegedly seen refereeing a schoolyard fight; he allegedly had tattoos.
It seems to me that truancy and smoking marijuana are fairly common practices among American teenagers. Defacement of school property also seems to be something like a rite of passage among boys. In my day it was anarchy signs, peace signs, penises whose tips resembled the faces of uniquely despised teachers, phone numbers that promised highly unlikely rewards from classmates of both sexes, etc. Ditching and fighting also were not uncommon. And this was Catholic school. (By the time I was 17, I had been suspended from school twice. On a separate occasion, I was wrongfully accused of stealing textbooks.)

The jewelry is odd, but so are the circumstances in which it was found. Why did the police investigator wait a day before confronting Martin about the graffiti incident? Why did he search Martin’s backpack for the marker if he saw Martin deface the door on a surveillance camera? Why didn’t the school inform his parents about the jewelry? (The textbooks I had been accused of stealing were put in my locker by friends—they knew my combination, I knew theirs. We shared the same books and defaced them extensively, sometimes bad-mouthing the school officials who would later accuse us of stealing textbooks.) In any event, Martin was suspended for writing on a door, nothing came of the jewelry, and he carried nothing resembling a burglary tool on the night he was killed.

The Twitter handle, grill photo, alleged tattoos, his (and his friends’) social media communications, the way he dressed, and the assumption that he had been in fights before are really the issue, because these things alone inextricably connect Martin to what so many Americans identify, with a kind of visceral fear and loathing, as a “ghetto culture” that is invariably depraved and violent and thus invariably leads to depravity and the perpetration of violence. Again, this is despite the fact that Martin, who turned 17 less than a month before he was killed, had never been accused of aggressiveness and appeared to be a reasonably normal (i.e. somewhat mischievous) male teenager from what appears to be a reasonably normal middle class family.

Zimmerman, on the other hand, who was arrested in 2005 for resisting arrest and battery, who was charged with domestic violence later the same year, who had called the police 46 times since 2004, who very much wanted to be a cop, who routinely patrolled the neighborhood wearing a gun, who was carrying a gun on what was supposed to be a routine trip to Target, who pursued and killed a kid who was living in the community he sought to protect, is accepted as a legitimate authority figure and a responsible dispenser of justice.

I don’t know if George Zimmerman racially profiled Trayvon Martin that night. What I know, what everyone in possession of a critical faculty knows, is that no one would believe a white kid of the same age and size, wearing Vans and a Metallica t-shirt, put in exactly the same situation, having the same paltry life history, could be as preternaturally ferocious as Martin has to be for the Zimmerman narrative to be true.

One of the defining characteristics of the Occupy movement, as I mentioned in my last article, is that the demonstrators and organizers do not as a group suffer from the obscene economic inequality they rage against, nor do they seem terribly bothered to appeal to the people who do suffer chronically from this inequality. Ultimately, Occupy believes that its self-contained activist communities and the various ritualistic processes thereof are the revolution, and that the masses need only embrace “mic checks” and “twinkling” to claim their redemption from ignorance and distress.

That a socio-economic revolution can be won, or even attempted, without the support of the millions of Americans who can’t afford Apple products, who are wary of or hostile to the trappings of the activist lifestyle, is a fantasy born of privilege. Case in point, Leah Hunt-Hendrix, a young heiress and Occupier who, we are told, wants “to radicalize the world of the wealthy.”

… For Rosa [Luxemburg], the revolution couldn’t happen without the re-formation of the whole society… And the way to get re-formed is by participating in a collective movement, collective resistance. Through that process, the whole public is transformed, little by little. Their consciousness is reshaped, and they become agents of change. I think that’s also what is happening with Occupy Wall Street. Everyone who participates is becoming re-formed a little and their character is being reshaped. And their consciousness is definitely being reshaped. That’s how change will have to happen in America.

These are terms of religious conversion, purely and simply. (We find out that Miss H-H went to evangelical summer camp  and “loved it,” though she “didn’t agree with it politically.” Her involvement in Occupy Faith “has been partly figuring out how to reclaim that upbringing, but in line now with my politics.”) The assumption is, first, that the public wants a “re-formation of the whole society.” It does not. (In late 18th century France and early 20th century Russia, it did.) So what happens if the “whole public” continues to decline (thanks, but no thanks) having its consciousness reshaped to fit Occupy’s radical gospel? Or is it just a matter of time before we are unable to resist the enlightenment?

That Miss H-H agreed to be interviewed at all is telling. (Might she have suggested someone who had struggled somehow, accomplished something? A teacher, perhaps, or a nurse, or an electrician, or a cab driver?) That she was sought out for an interview is not at all surprising, however, as the author is clearly, achingly smitten with the young woman, who is quite pretty in her photo: head on hand, ruminative (she “can quote Hegel and Voltaire,” “can recite pieces of Arabic poetry”!) yet totally approachable. Next to her, a cup of espresso sits neatly on a saucer (the revolution need not be unsophisticated). Our interviewer says, “There is something tremendously appealing about the heiress who decides to ignore the conventions of the life opulent and commit to the ideas and struggles of the underclass.” Indeed.

I don’t doubt that Miss H-H’s heart is in the right place, and that she has an integrity worthy of respect. She could, after all, be dedicating her time and money to Rick Santorum, or, less objectionably, Satan. But is our heiress really committed to the ideas and struggles of the poor and unemployed, the working poor, the working middle class, all of whom would rather have just a shot at the present and future financial security Miss H-H inherited instead of a tumultuous “re-formation of society” whose ultimate appearance and workings have yet to be explained. (What, for instance, would happen to my middling 403(b) account in a non-capitalistic society? Would I still have to pay for gas? Can I keep my books? What about my laptop? Do I have to let Occupiers camp in my apartment because my apartment is now a public space? If so, is there any way at all I can get around this?)

“There are parts of our identity that we might have to be willing to give up,” says Miss H-H, “to live in the kind of world that we want to live in…” Yes, but what parts of her identity has she given up? And has she really ignored or cast off the conventions of wealth? Does she have a job, for instance? Does she pay for rent and health insurance? Is she putting herself through graduate school (her Ph.D. is on “the genealogy of solidarity”)? Who paid for her to spend six months in Egypt to intern at the Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement, to improve her Arabic in Syria, to “[examine]… the impact of international aid” in the West Bank, to attend the “life changing” 2011 World Social Forum in Senegal? The interviewer answers none of these questions. What he does tell us, in the midst of a lengthy article about his and America’s obsession with privilege, is that Americans “are not very good at talking about privilege.”

The interviewer and Miss H-H both believe she has been cured of “the ultimate privilege,” which is the “ignorance of her level of privilege.” But this is only another fantasy born of privilege. She says of her parents: “they were not at all materialistic, and had no intention of giving me money to buy new things at Barney’s every week,” but “that didn’t mean that we didn’t have a yacht on the Hudson and things like that [italics mine].”

Well-meaning privilege comes with its own problems, unfortunately; namely, the belief that “shedding light on the root causes of oppression, not only in America, but also globally,” will somehow, without political action or the spontaneous uprising of the victimized, relieve that oppression. Well-meaning privilege wants to do the work for the oppressed, wants to transform the consciousness of the oppressed to look more like the consciousness of well-meaning privilege. It seems not to matter whether the oppressed want to be transformed, or whether calling them “the oppressed” all the time might insult the dignity of discrete human beings who struggle but who are not helpless, and who might not think their lives are so terrible as to need saving from (see Kony 2012, for example).

Occupy expects the people to come to Occupy, when Occupy should be going to the people. That is the arrogance, though I don’t think it’s willful in the case of Hunt-Hendrix, of well-meaning privilege. I suspect the more astute minds involved in the movement—not the true believers, in other words—have known this for quite some time.

Protesters in Zuccotti Park display their student loan debt in a mock graduation ceremony. Photo by Mark Abramson/The Chronicle.

Despite a hardening contempt among Americans for game show politics and the kind of unrestrained, predatory Wall Street speculation that throttled what was left of our middle class and eviscerated the global economy, it turns out that six months of street theater, Guy Fawkes masks, flash mobs, and finger-waggling hand codes haven’t done much to set things right. Then again, the increasingly evicted Occupy movement has always been more concerned with frustrated privilege and subculturism than radical change.

Granted, there is much to rail against. The statistics have become trite through sloganeering, but they don’t lie. The highest earning 1% of Americans now own 40% of the wealth, while the lowest earning 50% own less than 1%. More than 46 million live in poverty. These people of the abyss, as Jack London called them, slip ever deeper into a state of permanent neglect, a staggering number of them within sight of Capitol Hill, where members of Congress, with a median net worth of just under a million dollars, have done more to speed up the catastrophe than vanquish it.

To deny that the numbers add up to a great inequity is to court iniquity. But what evil has Occupy alleviated, and who are the Occupiers? (“We are the 99%” resonates, but means nothing.) Are they the struggling drudgers, the accidentally, desperately unemployed? Are they swelling with the ranks of those who suffer disproportionately from chronic inequality?

They are not. The surveys and polls agree with the naked eye: the protesters are mostly young, highly educated, at least partly employed, male, and strikingly white. Comparisons to the Civil Rights Movement (protesters sang “We Shall Overcome” while being peaceably evicted from Zuccotti Park) and the Arab Spring are common, and insufferable. It’s true: the Occupiers have been at times inexcusably pepper-sprayed and unduly bullied in the mostly non-violent pursuit of a “world revolution” they can’t define. Demonstrators during the Montgomery Marches and the Tahrir Square uprising had only one demand—the basic human right of enfranchisement—and they made it in the teeth of unrelenting dehumanization, persecution, and murder.

Michael Greenberg, sympathetic chronicler of Occupy Wall Street for the New York Review of Books, notes that the movement, because it embraces “`all people who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world,’” is “a blank screen on which the grievances of a huge swath of the population can be projected.” (A Time poll from October 2011 showed that 54% of Americans had a favorable opinion of the protests, which were at the time less than a month old. A Pew poll released on December 15 saw that number drop to 44%, with 49% disapproving of the way the protests were being conducted.) But if the airing of genuine grievances is not followed by the formulation, the articulation of actionable solutions, then the sound and the fury—mostly sound, in this case—signifies nothing. This has been the ineradicable criticism of the movement from day one. Protesters told Greenberg last Fall that

… they wished people would stop demanding a demand because the idea of one was of little interest to them… What they cared about was the “process,” a way of thinking and interacting exemplified by their daily General Assembly meetings and the crowded, surprisingly well-mannered village they had created…

And again just after the New Year:

Any… demand would turn them into supplicants; its very utterance implied a surrender to the state that went against Occupy Wall Street’s principles… They saw themselves as a counterculture; and to continue to survive as such they had to remain uncontaminated by the culture they opposed.

This masturbatory mooning over the “process” and the definitive refusal to coalesce (Greenberg’s word), makes Occupy precisely irrelevant, if not profoundly silly, to the slobs outside the bubble who get up every morning to go to work or look for work so the bills get paid and the lights stay on. Activists, as Brendan O’Neill writes, “want to opt out of a society which in their minority middle-class view is too competitive and vulgar and stuff-obsessed,” which is precisely the society the underprivileged have never had the luxury of tasting, much less refusing.

Nevertheless, you will often hear Occupiers proclaim that they are fighting for and represent everyone “without a voice,” a remarkably hideous condescension that smacks of fanaticism. A voice, the power to say “enough,” is all anyone really owns. Those with most to lose tend to guard that power carefully: they know perfectly well when it counts and when it doesn’t. And on those rare occasions when the long-term unemployed, psychologically devastated by being so utterly cut off from the “vile mainstream world” so abhorred by Occupy, do scrape up the time and the money to get to an Occupy General Assembly meeting to plead for some kind of tangible, earthly support, what happens? Why, they are summarily tossed under the wheels of the almighty process, naturally.


Even if the movement did focus on a pragmatic core of demands and brace for what Wendy Kaminer called “the hard slog of advancing political and social change,” it would require not just organization, leadership, and diligence, but exclusivity, the expulsion or education of the children who cry for the abolition of the capitalist order and the institution of anarcho-syndicalism. In short, it would mean the end of the Occupy movement.

Photo by Chuck Estin/Inside Bainbridge.

I thought I might be missing something, and I really wanted to get it, so I went to the #OWS website to educate myself. (Revolutions these days have Twitter accounts, and donate buttons, and are designed by “various radicals” on MacBook Pros.) “While cynics demanded we elect leaders and make demands on politicians,” someone writes, though certainly not a leader of any kind, “we were busy creating alternatives to those very institutions. A revolution has been set in motion, and we cannot be stopped.

Never mind that these alternatives amount to squatting in various public and private-public parks in perpetuity, and that the makeshift campgrounds have since been liberated of protesters, to the great relief of 99% of city dwellers and 100% of squirrels. The direct democracy worked for a while, too, blighted only by occasional bouts of sexual assault, robbery, violence, scarcity, and classism, the legacy of every sizable human community.

Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, one of many wealthy liberal celebrities belonging to the detested 1% who visited Zuccotti Park last year in support of the movement, said that the protests should be understood as an “expression of frustration with the electoral process,” a wake-up call. It’s all about raising awareness, a phrase that comes up a lot. Elsewhere it’s been called, approvingly, a “carnival,” a “festival,” a “dance,” a “way of being.” Meanwhile, the Tea Party sits down at the table and makes real advances in the consecration of ignorance.

Anyway, it’s unclear to me exactly which Americans are unaware of their foreclosed upon homes, their eliminated pensions, their lingering medical bills and credit card debt, and on and on. A great many are willfully confused as to the causes of their various misfortunes, and blame government largesse or crony capitalism without taking into account moderate to gratuitous personal irresponsibility; but there comes a point at which the unconscious must be disregarded, at least for the time being, for the sake of the living.

Or is it our elected representatives who are unaware that they took an oath to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity”? The U.S. is ranked in the bottom five among 32 advanced and emerging nations when it comes to poverty prevention, overall poverty rate, child poverty, and income inequality. This doesn’t sound very just or tranquil or well-faring, and it didn’t happen overnight.

Any viable “resistance movement” must become aware that a protest is simply a public objection, and that objecting against a thousand evils is objecting against none, and that if the objector, after objecting all day, returns to a tent when he could go home to a heated apartment instead, the act of objecting is primarily cathartic, and the fulfillment of a human need to belong to a tribe. For others, it is even more than that. “I never had many friends growing up,” said one candid young man in a video interview, “and in five days, I have met more best friends here than I have met in 25 years.” Greenberg describes many Occupiers as being “psychologically unable to go about their lives as before.” Gatherings at post-eviction Zuccotti Park have “the aura of a revivalist meeting.”


Apart from the rather impressive intelligence, resourcefulness, and hard work that went into organizing, feeding, sheltering, aiding, and otherwise sustaining so many people, most of them genuinely, deeply anxious about the future of this country, I’m sure, what substantive changes has the Occupy movement wrought, and how exactly is it “the most successful American activist movement in decades“? 2011 was “a year in revolt,” the website tells me, and cites “accomplishments” such as:

“We exposed… economic inequality”—i.e. they objected to economic inequality; “We exposed the corruption of money in politics”—i.e. they objected to said corruption; “We contributed to a global movement for economic justice”—i.e. they objected to economic injustice; “We fought for accessible education”—i.e. they objected to inaccessible education while at the same time demanding the immediate cancellation of the student loan debt incurred while receiving the benefits of an education whose inaccessibility they’re objecting to.

They shut down the port of Oakland twice; claimed victory twice. Hundreds or thousands of workers lost wages, including union employees. (Solidarity between organized labor and Occupy has been lukewarm at best and mutually exploitative). Oakland’s mayor, Jean Quan, after entreating the protesters not to disrupt “one of the best sources of good-paying, blue-collar jobs left” in the staunchly blue-collar city, wanted to know “How… shutting down the port and causing thousands of workers to lose a day’s pay [created] positive change?” To date, the city, already on the verge of bankruptcy, has spent at least five million dollars cleaning up after the raising of so much awareness.

Occupy D.C. protesters play Red Rover. Photo by Bill O'Leary/Washington Post.

They’re scoring body blows on the East Coast as well. Occupy D.C. defended its right to monopolize the public square in the name of righteous indignation by staging sleep strikes and erecting a “tent of dreams” over the statue of McPherson Park’s namesake. (Upon hearing of Union General James B. McPherson’s death in the Battle of Atlanta, Ulysses S. Grant is said to have remarked, “The country has lost one of its best soldiers, and I have lost my best friend.”). The collective was eventually expelled by “helmeted and armed mobs” of the infamously brutal National Park Police, although the rat infestation they left behind is thriving. An Occupy Harlem protest (described by the progressive In These Times as “majority-white”) of President Obama at a January 20 Apollo Theater fundraiser was not entirely well received by Harlem residents. One youngster summed up the general sentiment of the neighborhood: “Get the fuck out of my home!”

“We altered mainstream political discourse” is a little more interesting, but just as problematic. On the one hand, “the political establishment tried to co-opt our movement and use our slogans for political gain.” That’s true, but I think they’re saying it’s a bad thing. On the other hand, “Time Magazine named “the protester” its Person of the Year.” I think this is supposed to be the good news. Unfortunately, Time magazine is owned by Time Warner Inc., the largest media conglomerate in the world. CEO Jeff Bewkes, who received a 34% salary increase in 2010, makes a decent $26.3 million a year.


In his State of the Union Address, President Obama framed “the defining issue of our time” around the restoration of the “American Promise”:

“We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by, or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”

He said much the same thing in a speech on the economy last December in Kansas, adding that “These aren’t 1% values or 99% values. They’re American values.” So at the very least, the Democrats, with few exceptions a collection of squeaky chew toys badly in need of the votes, will continue to couch their election and reelection bids in a less agitated, more precise, more frivolous version of the language borrowed, or rather co-opted, from Occupy Wall Street; the Republicans will continue to make faces and irritable gestures: they have no light, only Paleolithic terrors of dark, amorous animals circling in the night; and the media will continue to suckle at the necrotic two-party monolith 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This is all it means when commentators and demonstrators remark that Occupy has “changed the conversation.”

What to do, then, as colorful slogans inciting awareness or promising change proliferate on the bumper of a nation that’s stuck in the mud. Over 5000 Occupy protesters have been arrested since the movement’s birthday on September 17, 2011, but not a single person at a major bank has been convicted since the onset of a financial cataclysm ignited, plainly and brazenly, by the incontinent greed of speculators.

The Dodd-Frank Act, which treats some of the symptoms of “too big to fail” but not the disease, has already been targeted for demolition by Wall Street Republicans (the difference between the two bodies no longer demands the separating conjunction). And even if Congress had the audacity to sacrifice itself for the public good by passing real campaign finance reform, the Supreme Court—median net worth: between $2 million and $20 million—has ruled that a ban or limit on corporate campaign spending is a violation of free speech. (Corporations are people too, remember.)

Activism that becomes infatuated with the culture its performance creates is just exhibitionism. It may soothe the frustrations and longings of the performers, but it is not and never will be the solution to a government that no longer stands for the people who do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this country. If we don’t build a true, viable American Left: rational, non-academic, tough-minded, devoid of the tired counterculture rhetoric of the 1960s, and as hell-bent on legislating basic economic fairness as most of Wall Street is on assaulting it—then the hundreds of millions of people who own nothing but a voice are going to decide they’ve had enough, and the rest of us, including the pretend rebels of Occupy, are going to find out the hard way what a real revolution looks like.

I’m weary of these high-minded defenses of physical books as the spiritual manna that keeps our sacred literary heritage from sinking into the quicksand of popular entertainment and manic, internet-induced disenlightenment. Jonathan Franzen and Andrew Miller don’t mind so much if we’re reading trashy pop-novels on our Kindles, but when it comes to literary fiction—you know, the heavy stuff they write—well, that should be reserved for more reverential treatment. It will never occur to them, obviously, that the decline in “deep” reading has just as much to do with their god-awful novels and the spurious literary awards they vie for as it does with e-books or The Real Housewives.

A book, as I’ve defined it before, is really just a series of words strung together to tell a story of some kind. Some strings of words are far more beautiful (or concise, or resonant, etc.) than others, but the words themselves, written in a particular order by an author (or authors), are what matter. Tim Parks, in “E-books Can’t Burn,” reaches the same conclusion, but states it with more elegance:

The literary experience does not lie in any one moment of perception, or any physical contact with a material object (even less in the “possession” of handsome masterpieces lined up on our bookshelves), but in the movement of the mind through a sequence of words from beginning to end.

Unfortunately, his eloquence serves flat-out foolishness when he argues that e-books “bring us closer than the paper book to the essence of the literary experience.”

It is as if one had been freed from everything extraneous and distracting surrounding the text to focus on the pleasure of the words themselves. In this sense the passage from paper to e-book is not unlike the moment when we passed from illustrated children’s books to the adult version of the page that is only text. This is a medium for grown-ups.

It’s a very curious argument. Can it be that he has never used an actual e-reader? Granting the inveterate “problem of having to use two hands to keep a fat paperback open,” e-readers have far more built-in distractions than paper, including links that can be clicked in the text of the e-book itself. (What is it with these people who find holding a book open so goddamn unsettling? Are they similarly nettled when drinking a glass of iced tea, carrying groceries, typing out an email?)

And now we have the Kindle Fire, a complete tablet experience, and the Kindle Touch, which offers something called X-Ray: “With a single tap, readers can see all the passages across a book that mention ideas, fictional characters, historical figures, places or topics that interest them, as well as more detailed descriptions from Wikipedia and Shelfari, Amazon’s community-powered encyclopedia for book lovers.” But Parks apparently finds the paper book cover, that “repository of misleading images and tediously fulsome endorsements,” a greater assault on literary intelligence.

Compiling e-books gives “no fetishistic gratification as we cover our walls with famous names,” as if that is why readers have libraries, as if the same or greater fetishistic gratification isn’t on display when we trot out our latest electronic toys and tell onlooking (or not) strangers how fabulous they are, how we can’t imagine getting on without them.

Even more curious are the assertions that e-books are harder to ban or suppress by totalitarian forces (unless those forces shut off the electricity, restrict internet usage, or track whatever you happen to be reading), that e-books are “indestructible” (perhaps he doesn’t understand the nature of digital decay), and that e-books will remain forever in print (perhaps he hasn’t heard of Penguin’s impromptu decision to remove their e-books from libraries).

Most of the time, the beauty of a series of words depends on its ability to tell not just any story, but a true story.

Wikipedia is an awesome resource that I use at least once a day, but all these personal appeals for donations are starting to freak me out. An encyclopedia anyone can edit is cool. It’s not a cause. We already have non-profit institutions charged with making sure information remains readily available and dependable. They’re called libraries, and they come with experts called librarians.

Co-founder Jimmy Wales doesn’t want to dirty up his site with ads because he imagines that Wikipedia is “like a library or a public park… like a temple for the mind.” It is no such thing. That it is persistently mistaken as such speaks to the general devaluation and erosion of meaningful education in Western culture. The difference between an encyclopedia and a library is the difference between passing curiosity and cultivation.

And by the way, Jimmy, solicitations are ads.

Here’s Margaret Soltan of University Diaries on for-profit, “click-thru” education:

As long as customers don’t care about learning anything, the model will work well. Profits will soar, and students will appreciate not having to go to school. As word gets around that you can get a high school diploma while doing jackshit in the comfort of your own home, the thing will grow like wildfire.

The model’s risk lies only in the possibility that more than a few online customers will at some point after they graduate sense a connection between their failure in life and their lack of an education. It’s not just that they can’t think. They don’t know how to be in a work setting, having spent the last ten years in their pajamas.

The Harold Hill Award for Most Transparent Con Job of the Year goes to Mark Prensky, who suggests in the formerly estimable Chronicle of Higher Education that paper books be banned from university campuses (“In the 21st Century, Let’s Ban (Paper) Books“). I honestly thought I was reading satire when I got to this part:

Any physical books in students’ possession at the beginning of the year would be exchanged for electronic versions, and if a student was later found with a physical book, it would be confiscated (in return for an electronic version).

That’s right—confiscated! Like a joint, or a switchblade, or firecrackers, or George Orwell’s 1984 (well, unless it’s on your Kindle, and wasn’t subsequently erased from your Kindle). Fascism is so fashionably futuristic!

What is, according to Prensky, the greatest advantage of this all-digital campus, as opposed to the seemingly more reasonable pursuit of utilizing the best of both worlds—digital books along with hard copy?

Ideas would be freed from the printed page, where they have been held captive for too many centuries.

Say again?

The physical book is, in many ways, a jail for ideas—once a book is read, closed, and shelved, for most people it tends to stay that way. Many of us have walls lined with books that will never be reopened, most of what is in them long forgotten.

But what if all those books were in our pockets and could be referred to whenever we thought of them?

Let me try to wrap my head around this one. Once I’ve read a book, not only do I forget it, I am for some reason unable to take it off the shelf and read it again. But if I had an e-reader on my person, I am instantly empowered to do just that, as if the technology can do the work of reading for me. The argument is ridiculous to the point of being gibberish.

Most of Prensky’s witless rhetoric about “moving education into the future” I’ve written about before (see my posts here and here), and I’m not going to pick the whole pile apart again. So let’s skip to the punchline.

Many entrepreneurs are already inventing software that allows the quick and fertile connection of one’s ideas and those of others, but an all-digital campus would provide a powerful incentive to develop those programs even faster and take them further.

If you don’t know what Mark Prensky does for a living, here’s a hint: He’s an educational software designer and author of books promoting “21st-century student learning through technology.” His new educational paradigm can be summed up quite easily: Less reading of books, more playing of games.

In my last post I talked a lot about libraries, but not at all about librarians. That was a mistake. While I vehemently object to Godin’s flippant assertion that we need libraries “not at all,” I agree with him that librarians are more important than ever (though his suggestion that they teach students “how to use a soldering iron or take apart something with no user serviceable parts inside” is almost surreal). We need them to, in his words, “figure out creative ways to find and use data,” especially now that there is so much of it,  and so much of it is suspect.

Bobbi Newman, at Librarian by Day, also addressed Godin’s post:

We ARE fighting for the future of the librarian as a producer, concierge, connector, teach[er] and impresario, but we know to do that we need books. We need the information contained in those books…

And she makes a great point about all this “free” information that apparently renders books obsolete. In fact, libraries pay for this information, and “The price of those databases is going up, not down.” I like Wikipedia a lot, but it is not and never will be a library.

The lesson here is that, if you want to know something about the future role of librarians, it’s best to ask librarians. Just be sure to wait until they’re done soldering.

Seth Godin writes motivational books for managers who think throwing day-long seminars featuring highly paid speakers (like Seth Godin) is a better motivator than taking everyone to a no-strings-attached lunch or, better yet, giving everyone a day off work. He says his latest book, Poke the Box, is about “the spark that brings things to life.” He firmly believes that “We need to be nudged away from conformity and toward ingenuity, toward answering unknown questions for ourselves.” First of all, I can neither ask nor answer a question of myself if that question is unknown. Second, if I’m supposed to answer questions for myself, then why do I need to buy his silly book?

On Godin’s blog (free of charge!) you will find sparky, nonconformist ruminations such as, “Just imagine how much you’d get done… if you stopped actively sabotaging your own work.” In another post (“Self directed effort is the best kind”) he writes, “Effort’s… incredibly difficult to deliver on a regular basis. So we hire a trainer or a coach or a boss… There’s an entire system organized around the idea that we’re too weak to deliver effort without external rewards and punishment.” Isn’t that cute? My dear Seth, you are that system.

I’m generally indifferent to Seth Godin and the self-help racket that keeps him and many others so comfortable and so slickly chipper, but he has gone and made one of those pronouncements about the future of libraries so popular these days among cost-cutting officials and charismatic geeks who stand to make oodles of money on the internet and digital technologies.

In short, Godin believes that libraries as warehouses of “dead books” are obsolete, or soon will be, thanks to Netflix, Kindle, and Wikipedia. (Wikipedia and online sources have, in fact, “basically eliminated the library as the best resource” for grade schoolers and undergraduates. It sounds wacky, I know, but if we assume students are researching headier topics such as Magic: The Gathering and Star Wars action figures, then he’s absolutely correct.) His library of the future “is filled with so many web terminals there’s always at least one empty,” and it has “The vibe of the best Brooklyn coffee shop combined with a passionate raconteur of information…” I found the following especially creative:

And the people who run this library don’t view the combination of access to data and connections to peers as a sidelight–it’s the entire point.

No, Seth. The point of a library is that it offers free public access to information, most of which is available to be taken home, freely, for extended periods of time.

Providing web access to those who can’t afford it has rightly become a core service of public libraries; so, by all means, bring in more terminals. But until every book currently available to libraries in physical copy is available online or via e-reader, and until computers and/or e-readers are readily available to be freely taken home by the public, then libraries must fulfill their mission—conformist though it may be—of offering “dead books” to those who seek them.

People with money tend to devalue the difference between something that is relatively inexpensive and something that is free. What they experience as an inconvenient gap is seen by those without money as an unbridgeable gulf, often painful to look upon. It is just conceivable that in a few years “[e]readers will be as expensive as Gillette razors, and ebooks will cost less than the blades,” but even if it’s true, the plain fact is that many will have to choose between razors and e-readers.

You can poke whatever box you like, Godin, so long as that box isn’t the one institution in the civilized world that offers the means for its citizens, regardless of economic or social standing, to freely educate themselves.