Occupy Nation by Todd Gitlin

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What hath the OWS movement wrought? Depends on who you ask. Naysayers, including most Republicans and Rupert Murdoch’s various media organs, will tell you that OWS created nothing but trouble, violence, a disruption of the peace, and distraction from key issues. The average person—if shaken out of their apathy—will provide hazy answers, falling back on popularized slogans about Occupying this, and 99% vs. 1% that. Others, mostly from naivete, will look down upon those who sympathize or feel apart of the movement, seeing them as immature, lazy, ridiculous, or just crazy. Yet, when it comes down to it, even those who support the movement, however tangentially, don’t fully understand where it came from, what its goals are, or where it wants to go. Enter Todd Gitlin.

A revered professor of Sociology and Media Studies at Columbia, famous for his canonical history on the Sixties, Gitlin recently published Occupy Nation: The Roots, The Spirit and The Promise of Occupy Wall Street. Ever the ambitious writer, Gitlin takes upon himself a daunting task: to write a part-history/part-manifesto of a dynamic movement with no obvious end in sight, a movement that attempts to defy easy categorization, all from the perspective of a outside historian and inside proponent of the movement. Not shockingly, given Gitlin’s talent, he succeeds, almost too easily, in all the tasks he sets out for himself.

As a consummate historian with an eye to objectivity, tempered by full knowledge of its impossibility, Gitlin lays out the young history of this movement; from the first e-mails, tweets, and Facebook posts to the most recent nationwide protests, all with an equal view to the successes and failures. In a compelling style, balancing lyrical wit and eloquent analysis, Gitlin captures the compelling story of OWS. In doing so with a calm but persuasive manner he quiets those who perpetuate the corrosive and distracting stereotypes about the movement, i.e. it consists mostly of either crazy homeless people or lazy students who don’t want to get jobs; it states no goals or demands and shirks leaders because it cares more about creating a spectacle then engendering real change.

Gitlin accomplishes this important task not only by revealing these rumors as lies, but providing the proper historical context to illuminate these key issues of leadership, demands, coherence, and power. First off, as he points out, we forget the shocking speed and overwhelming power of the OWS movement in contrast to previous movements of this century. Gitlin explains that, “The sort of sea changes in public conversation that took three years to develop during the long-gone sixties— about brutal war, unsatisfying affluence, debased politics, and the suppressed democratic promise—took three weeks in 2011.” Furthermore, he notes that, “A fog of wishful retrospect has rewritten the recent history of American movements to make them look more popular than, in their time, they were.”

Beyond our lack of historical perspective, Gitlin highlights how we fail to understand OWS because of its uniqueness as both a social invention and experiment in direct democracy and communal interaction. Regardless of concrete demands, the creation of the movement itself signifies and represents an attempt at creating and exampling a better way of living on the way to clarifying more concrete demands. While ambivalent about the lack of demands per se, Gitlin notes how demands do arise, but more importantly how concrete demands often undermines a young movement. Additionally, as part of the conceptual foundation of a horizontal direct democracy, creating demands for politicians to fulfill bestows undeserved authority to a political system that many in the OWS do not endorse.

Besides these clarifications, we fail to realize the cultural paradigm shift engendered by this movement. Gitlin explains how OWS helped transform a generation in which, “Political rebellion became uncool…On the left, at least, sarcasm had replaced moral seriousness,” into a people in which he found, “sweetness and affection and gaiety along with exhaustion, but the premium style was earnest.” And perhaps most importantly, culturally, “This spectacular uprising, within a bare few months, accomplished one of the prime objectives of any social movement: It upturned millions of people’s sense of the possible.”

Historical context also provides a stronger foundation to the movement that many thought lacking. By reaching back from the revolutions in the 1800s to the 1960s, Gitlin offers a map of expectations and possibilities. Self-awareness often arises from a comparison and contrast to other people, and the same holds true for movements. OWS will know itself better through an acute understanding of history, not through pretenses to singularity.

The sheer effort of the Todd Gitlin, the writer of the seminal history of the sixties, grants a new type of legitimacy to a movement that since its inception has felt a great ambivalence about the term legitimacy. As Gitlin himself notes, the movement not only prides itself but identifies itself through a lack of a need of legitimacy from authorities—whether academic or political. It might accept endorsements from academics, writers and politicians, but as a movement that espouses a direct democracy, it never values one opinion over the other, even Todd Gitlin’s.

Ironically then, though they might not have solicited Gitlin, no one can see this as anything but a historic victory for the movement. We now know certain truisms about writing history. It lacks any pretense to objectivity, victors tend to write it, and historians do not act as passive documentarians of event, but play a role in shaping those events. Gitlin’s recent book proves this point. He provides the movement with an eternal stamp of approval. In fact, even if Glenn Beck or Ann Coulter decided to write a book of screed on the evilness of the movement it would provide a historical stamp, albeit a qualitatively different one. With Gitlin’s book, we get to watch the power of a historian in action.

After clearing away much of the debris surrounding OWS, Gitlin proceeds to analyze many of its main challenges, one of which includes its unprecedented popularity. Gitlin notes, that as OWS transforms into a cultural phenomenon it inevitably turns more sterile, more innocuous.  As he succinctly puts it, “Success meant quandaries. Mainstream culture was always lurching off in search of bandwagons to jump aboard, so how could you hold on to an outsider identity when Occupy was the latest, hottest ticket?”

Inevitably, given Gitlin’s sympathies to the cause, the book turns into a manifesto of sorts.  This might stigmatize the book for some who look to historians for complete mythic objectivity, but Gitlin does a service and provides a gift of clear-headed, balanced thinking about the future of OWS. Though he makes no pretense to represent the movement in any way, I can’t help but read his chapters on what’s next as anything but guidance from a concerned, wise, visionary member of the movement as to the path OWS ought to walk on. Or in a more conservative manner, Gitlin as wary of prophecy as the smartest of historians, instead provides a map of possibilities and targets the key contentious issues that will define the movement in the coming months.

Despite his ability to see the pervasive ambiguity in both the goals and methods of the movement, Gitlin ends with a note of hope and thanks as well as a suggested path for the future explaining that “Elders need dynamic youth. It’s my profound wish to have given something back.”

On a personal note, I feel indebted to this Gitlin’s courageous effort. From the inception of the movement, I, along with many, felt an intellectual and emotional connection to what we perceived as the first real revolutionary movement we felt comfortable endorsing. As Gitlin himself notes, “Though enough books shed light on some of the problems OWS seeks to solve (Campaign finance reform, Student loans, Bank Bailouts, Governmental regulations of Wall Street), or the political institutions it hopes to overturn, I felt like I could only pull together a patchwork of desultory ideas and so I shied away from argument in conversations.” Now though, both with his book, including an extensive bibliography I feel more empowered, and I imagine you will too.

Joe Winkler is a freelance writer living in the Upper West Side. When not ingesting all things cultural, he attends classes for a Masters in English Literature at City College. To support this extravagant lifestyle, Joe teaches, tutors and babysits, unabashedly. He started writing with a personal blog - noconversationleftbehind.blogspot.com, which allows him to indulge the ramblings of his mind. He began his writing career after he quit a Ph.D. program in Clinical Psychology because he realized that he likes people more in the abstract than in reality. More from this author →