Protests on Wall Street might not be the answer, but people should stop pretending that we’re not in a crisis
I’m yet to try it, but I would imagine that trying to start a mass movement like Occupy Wall Street is a pretty frustrating affair. The key problem here is the word “mass” – although the group wants as many people as possible to support its cause, I can quite easily see why doing so can be as much of a curse as it is a blessing.
It seems to me that there are at least three obstacles that the protesters in Wall Street and elsewhere must currently be facing. The first is the problem of too many cooks spoiling the broth – in their attempts to be a leaderless, inclusive movement the occupiers have come across as disorganized and incoherent. Today I went on the movement’s website and read through their “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City”, adopted by the group’s “General Assembly” on September 29th. The document includes a list of statements that incorporates just about every left-wing interest group imaginable: in less than 400 words it complains about home foreclosures, executive bonuses at banks, monopolization of industries, various examples of environmental pollution, animal rights abuses, the weakening of trade unions, student debt, the outsourcing of labour, employee healthcare benefits, the erosion of privacy rights, lack of press freedom, political lobbying, oil dependence, corporate personhood, the arms trade, capital punishment, torture, media ownership, ageism, racism, sexism, homophobia, and global economic imperialism. At the end of the list, hilariously enough, there is a footnote informing the reader that “these grievances are not all-inclusive”.
I shudder to imagine the meeting where the wording of this declaration was agreed, with a new voice shouting “And another thing…” whenever the rest of the group thinks they finally have the thing pinned down. Many or even all of these grievances might be legitimate, but anyone who thinks it possible to tackle all of these things at once must simply be living on another planet. I suspect the more pragmatic among the protesters understand this, but what can they do? If they start rejecting particular groups then the whole movement’s momentum could come screeching to a halt.
A second problem is one which dawned on me six years ago, during the one protest in my own undistinguished history as a would-be revolutionary. I was at the “Make Poverty History” march in Edinburgh in July 2005, amidst 225,000 people demanding that G8 leaders to take positive action on aid, debt relief and fair trade when they met in Scotland later that week. During this brief experience waving a placard I remember being horrified to discover that a few of the characters surrounding me were not people with whose views I would like to be associated. Among the thousands of people who were “mainstream” and “on message” I saw a small group who looked like their only goal for the day was to smash a few windows; a few minutes later I found myself marching alongside a banner advocating the total overthrow of global capitalism and realised that if I happened to be picked up by the TV cameras at that moment then a worldwide television audience would think I was some kind of radical anarchist, even though I had a perfectly sensible haircut.
My point is this: the vast majority of a crowd may be peace-loving and reasonably moderate in their political views, but sometimes the noisiest protesters will be from a radical fringe that risks scaring away any public support your cause might otherwise pick up. Sure, a lot of people might applaud you as you march past them if your message is that hard-working ordinary people should not suffer the most because of corporate greed. But the moment they see a single sign claiming that the only solution is to overthrow capitalism and become a communist state, most will surely turn their backs. Similarly, it seems as though there will inevitably a few people in any large group who, despite not having bothered to learn anything much about the thing they are protesting, know that they are angry and are prepared to direct that aggression at anyone with even a tangential link to their opponents. I have several friends who work in junior positions in the financial districts of New York and London, and I’ve heard more than one report of them being heckled about corporate greed as they try to go to work in the morning. Not only is it silly to hurl abuse at young workers who are only just earning enough to live comfortably in a city as expensive as the Big Apple, but it’s counter-productive too – some of these young people are the future leaders of the corporations that the protesters seek to change, and it would be much more productive to win them over than to paint them as the enemy from the moment they set foot into the working world.
A third, closely related problem is that the more successful a movement becomes, the more frightened its enemies become and the harder they will try to turn public opinion against it. During these past couple of weeks it has been fascinating to see some of the reactions to the protests from the more right-wing elements in the press and on social network sites. The same “Joe McCarthy Brigade” who regularly call for impeachment whenever President Obama so much as sneezes have recently spent as much time as possible telling the world that the protesters are all unwashed bums who defecate in the streets, want to start a violent revolution against American liberty, and have never tried to work a day in their lives. I don’t believe for a moment that this is true of most of the people involved in the movement, but unfortunately it is inevitably true of a few, and there are powerful forces just waiting to exploit any individual story or photo opportunity that helps perpetuate that image. I remember in March this year when there were huge protests in London against government spending cuts and increased university tuition, much of the media attention focused on just a few hundred people (probably less than 1% of the people in attendance) who seemed intent on causing damage to property and attacking the police. In reality, there was a world of difference between these events and the riots in August which really did seem to be motivated by little more than a desire for wanton destruction, but unless you paid careful attention you would barely have known it. I don’t know for sure that the same thing is happening to protesters in New York because I haven’t been there and seen it with my own eyes, but I certainly have my suspicions.
Given these three difficulties alone, it would be easy to see why many of “the 99%” whom the Occupy movement claims to represent are turning their backs on it. But in actual fact, I think the backlash against the protesters is being caused by more than the inadequacies of the movement and the bias with which the protests are being reported. People in the United States generally subscribe to the highly individualistic notion (a largely admirable one, I might add) that each of us is responsible for ourselves, and we shouldn’t believe that the world owes us a living. I heartily agree with the sentiment: to be clear, I’m someone who believes in principle that competition drives progress, and having worked in central government in England I have seen first-hand how bureaucratic and unproductive an organization can be when it is publicly run.
Unfortunately though (and this might disappoint a few “plain-spoken” folk who would like to imagine the world as divided neatly between those who work hard and those who are lazy), the world just isn’t that simple. If we are going to demand that individuals take responsibility for their own lives then we need to reward those who do by ensuring they have a decent chance to earn a quality of life worthy of the 21st Century. If we are going to put our faith in competition as the driving force behind the economy then we need to ensure that the market is able to thrive, rather than be suffocated by a monopolizing giant who can crush any rival. If we are going to claim that government is badly equipped to run many of our public services, we can surely concede that it is better equipped than anyone else to regulate the companies with whom we entrust those services.
With this in mind I actually found it quite depressing to read some of the responses to the protesters, particularly from my own generation. On one website called “We Are The 53%” (a reference to the 53% of Americans who pay federal income taxes), contributors have mimicked Occupy supporters’ online tactics by posting photos of themselves holding up signs explaining their opposition to the protests. They generally follow a pretty common theme but to give just one example, a former Marine is pictured holding up a sign explaining that he now works two jobs, has no health insurance, worked 60 to 70 hours per week to put himself through college, and that he hasn’t had four consecutive days off in over four years. Now don’t get me wrong, I think this guy is incredible – I have no idea how he possibly manages to live like that and I have huge respect for his work ethic. But at the same time, I can’t help but find his case and the millions like it to be kind of sad. When someone has served his country and is willing to work incredibly hard for a living, how can it be right that he lives such a modest lifestyle and barely has any leisure time? How can it be right that he doesn’t have access to healthcare? And how can it possibly be right that he is unable to see anything unjust about his predicament?
Most of us are not experts on the financial crisis, myself included, but I find it baffling that relatively so few people seem outraged by what is going on in American (and indeed European) society at the moment. Basic common sense should tell us that something is going badly wrong. Consider this fact: not a single indictment was issued to anyone on Wall Street for the 2008 financial crisis. Not one. I would bet that few people even realise that, and even fewer have spoken up about it until now.
Or how about this? The US Congress is prepared to debate whether to reduce the deficit by making cuts in how we look after the sick, how we educate our kids, or even how much we help when a natural disaster strikes. But at the same time many politicians think it unconscionable to raise taxes even slightly on people who are already earning more money than they’re ever likely to spend, even if a lot of people in that elite income bracket are far more responsible for the current crisis than someone like, oh I don’t know, an ex-marine who is working two jobs and has no health insurance.
Increasingly, Americans from my generation who graduate from university can expect to do so with huge debts but little prospects of a good job to help repay them; if they want to start a family they can expect to be unable to buy a home in which to raise their children; and if they want to do something about it by running for political office then they can expect to be faced with a system where corporations are now allowed to donate millions in support of candidates who support the status quo.
It is a caricature to say that either the government or corporations are “evil”. Despite their deep flaws, both have historically helped bring about huge economic growth that has improved the living standards of billions of people worldwide. Nonetheless, it is increasingly obvious that the establishment has so far been unable or unwilling to work for the benefit of ordinary hard-working people at a time of worldwide economic crisis. Given the problems I’ve set out here, I don’t know if camping out by Wall Street can be the answer, but can we please stop pretending that anyone who voices the discontent of Generation Y is just a spoiled brat with an inflated sense of entitlement? The groundswell of anger is real, it is legitimate, and unless things change it could last for a long while yet.
My new hero is Hugh Grant. On a memorable day of debate in Parliament and across the TV news channels yesterday (Wed 6th July), the Hollywood actor became the improbable man of the hour thanks to his demolition of former News of the World journalist Paul McMullan on BBC News. A while back, Grant had worn a wire in a conversation with McMullan while prompting him to talk openly about phone hacking, payments to police and various other offences, and then published details of the conversation in the New Statesman. Months later the two men’s live TV showdown was the first I had heard of the whole affair but for others, I would imagine, it must have been a hotly anticipated rematch.
McMullan’s attitude throughout the exchange yesterday was revealing – he smugly referred to the practice of phone hacking as a “game” and tried to dismiss the targeting of murder victims and their families as a “mistake” rather than a widespread practice – a point on which Grant decisively shot him down. But leaving that aside, I want to focus on the substance of McMullan’s argument, namely that people who work on building sites and take home £220 per week don’t have much sympathy when they hear a multi-millionaire film star “bleating on” about his phone being hacked. In fact, he contended, stories that intrude on stars’ private lives help to generate publicity for their movies and thus indirectly boosts their income.
Grant’s response (unfortunately not fully included in the clip posted on the BBC website) was right on the money. Why, he asked, does someone forfeit the basic human right to privacy just because they become successful? While it’s perfectly understandable that Joe Public would not spend much of his day worrying about the privacy rights of celebrities when he has more immediate concerns of his own, that doesn’t mean the issue is unimportant. Some subjects are still in the public interest even if they don’t always interest the public.
Yesterday wasn’t the first time I’ve heard tabloid hacks try to ethically justify their parasitic way of earning a living. The line of reasoning is a familiar one: celebrities generally court the attention when it suits them so are fair game to be harassed, or at the very least they know what they are letting themselves in for when they sign up to their chosen profession. Before I explain why I find that argument to be nonsense, I want to issue a couple of caveats. First, I will concede that there is a certain breed of celebrity (Katie Price and several Big Brother contestants spring to mind) whose fame is based on no discernible talent other than the ability to self-publicise. Many of these people really do invite tabloid intrusion into their private lives, because without it their star would simply fade away. There is a debate to be had with regard to whether these people get what they deserve when it comes to the “invasion” of their privacy. Similarly, one could make a case that the personal integrity of politicians is a good indicator of their character – I’m not sure whether I would fully agree with that notion, but it’s at least a legitimate discussion for another day.
For now, though, I want to attack the claim that it is reasonable for the tabloids to relentlessly intrude on the private lives of any celebrity, even if the person in question has made no effort to exploit their private life for personal gain. Over the past few years I have had the privilege of watching one of my good friends become famous as a radio DJ – he got to where he is thanks to a combination of extraordinary talent and hard work. More recently he has also become well-known for his relationship with another celebrity whom he met through his job. They make a wonderful couple and I can say with absolute confidence that they are together for only the most sincere of reasons, rather than for boosting the amount of coverage they receive from the press. While my friend does not dodge questions about their relationship, I have never once heard of him actively trying to use it to boost his profile. Both are famous in their own right, and I defy anyone to credibly claim that they are not entitled to the same standards of privacy as anyone else when they are “off duty”. I’m sure the same is true of many other people in the public eye too – the idea that all celebrities crave the attention of the press is preposterous.
Equally ridiculous is the logic underpinning the claim that the intrusion is justified because a would-be celebrity knows what they’re getting themselves into when they decide to pursue that line of work. For starters, I’m not sure it’s true that every budding singer or sportsperson realises the extent to which their lives will seem to become public property as they become more well-known. But even if they did, it still wouldn’t be right. You wouldn’t tell a female banker in the City that she should just put up with sexual harassment because she knew she was entering a male-dominated workplace before she started. Nor would you tell a teacher that they have to put up with verbal or physical abuse in the classroom simply because they knew the school in which they had accepted a job was in a rough neighbourhood. So why on Earth would you tell a world class sportsman that his choice of profession justifies a photographer in climbing a tree to take photos of him through his bedroom window? It’s an absurd thing to claim.
All of this begs the question of what is to be done in the wake of the phone hacking revelations. I’ve long believed that large parts of our national press cannot be relied upon to put basic decency above the lust for profit when it comes to making decisions about the appropriate limits of investigative journalism. Given recent events, it is now apparent that trusting the industry to regulate itself is every bit as laughable as News International’s decision to have their chief executive Rebekah Brooks lead an investigation into her own conduct. The chairwoman of the Press Complaints Commission (the body through which the newspapers currently “govern” themselves) gave the game away a couple of days ago when she protested that her organisation can’t be held responsible if its members lie when giving evidence to it. But surely this is the point – any regulator’s job is to determine WHETHER it is being told the truth. If it cannot do so then it is utterly toothless and urgently needs to be replaced.
I am nonetheless extremely hesitant to call for government-run regulation of the press, not least because details are coming out all the time about just how cosy the relationship has become between our political leaders, our police force and the people in charge at News International. In the wake of the Strauss-Kahn scandal I’m also reminded of the debate that has been going on in France, where it seems that the reluctance of a neutered press to report on politicians’ personal lives has allowed the latter to indulge in disgusting behaviour without being held to account. At times the British press has been a tremendous asset to our country, such as during the recent parliamentary expenses scandal. Sometimes, ironically, stories like that one could not have come to light without information being acquired illegally. There are occasions when the reporter’s responsibility to tell the truth exceeds their responsibility to obey the law, which is why journalism at its best is one of our society’s most noble and courageous professions. We need to think very carefully before we do anything to damage that.
Frustratingly then, I don’t know what the answer is to this quandary – I’m hoping that someone far smarter than me might be able to offer up some solutions. But regardless of the practical measures we need to take, I am at least clear about the ethical standards that any reformed British press should be expected to meet. A healthy democracy can only be preserved if it has a strong independent press which is uninhibited in its ability to act as a check on those in power. But we also need to fiercely protect basic fundamental rights like that of personal privacy, even when the potential victims do not arouse widespread sympathy among the public. If we stopped bothering to promote values like that then our society would quickly cease to be anything worth preserving.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to re-acquaint myself with Love Actually and Notting Hill…
I know it’s been a week now since the news broke about Osama Bin Laden’s death, so this might feel a little as though I’m commenting on old news, but I’ve been meaning to give my two cents on the issue because there are a few things that have been bothering me about some of the reaction to the news here in the UK.
I remember distinctly how I felt when I heard. I like to think I’m a fairly intelligent person, aware of the sensitivities surrounding how such news would be received in the Arab world. I consider myself fairly humane, and not someone prone to rejoicing when violence is used to solve a problem. I would even hope I could plausibly deny any claims of being too blinkered to acknowledge the far-from-perfect ethical records of my own government and that of the United States. Nonetheless, my reaction to the news of Bin Laden’s death can be summed up in the three words that I texted to one of my closest American friends moments after I heard the news: “Got the bastard.”
I know there will be some people reading this to whom that response seems to reflect exactly the kind of gun-slinging cowboy mentality that they abhorred in George W. Bush and his pals, but I don’t feel remotely ashamed for having felt that way and I don’t think my American friends should either. I was studying in Texas on 9/11 and for several months afterwards, allowing me a first-hand view of just how deeply that day affected the American psyche. In more recent years, some of the best new friendships I have forged have been with young Americans. Many of them are from New York and had, like me, been inside the World Trade Center at one time or another in the years before it collapsed. Almost all of them were studying in London for a semester, much like the 35 students who were travelling home to the US after a similar programme in 1988 when they were blown out of the sky by a terrorist bomb over Lockerbie. They (and indeed many of my British friends too) have travelled regularly on the same London tube trains that were targeted in 2005, and have partied in the West End nightclub that came so close to becoming the scene of a new tragedy in 2007.
Granted, at least one of the examples I’ve listed above did not involve Bin Laden, but the point I am trying to make is this: when I hear stories of terrorist victims in the UK or the US I relate to them because they are generally from a similar background to my own – in fact, it’s hard not to think about just how easily the list of casualties could have included me or my friends. That is why 9/11 draws more of an emotional response from me than many other atrocities that take place around the world, and of course the same point is even more true for the Americans I know.
In saying all of this, I am not trying to imply in any way that the loss of 3000 innocent American lives is objectively more of a tragedy than the loss of 3000 innocent lives in the Middle East or anywhere else. All human life is precious, and moreover we have a duty as relatively empowered citizens of a democratic country to stand up in defence of the powerless – especially in cases where our own governments may have been directly or indirectly responsible for human suffering. But having said that, no-one should be made to feel guilty if they instinctively feel a greater sense of connection to a tragedy that happens on their doorstep. You can be aware of the flaws in your nation’s character and the dark moments in its past, but still be proud of where you come from. Doing so is much like acknowledging the weaknesses in a family member, but still having a greater sense of love and loyalty towards them than you would towards a stranger. Rightly or wrongly, it’s human nature.
This leads me to the main point of this post, which is to address the hyper-critical response I have seen in some circles to almost every aspect of US conduct in the past week. I want to cite three examples, the first of which is the ongoing debate about whether Bin Laden should have been captured alive rather than killed. In theory, I agree with the central argument made by the critics here, which is that capturing him alive and following a proper legal process would have been preferable because it would have demonstrated that we are not as savage as our enemies. I have seen a couple of friends on Facebook referencing my favourite Martin Luther King quote this week: “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
I have a lot of sympathy with all of this as a principle, but I still have a real issue with the way in which people have rushed to judgement about the conduct of last weekend’s raid. At least one respected journalist in Britain has already referred to Bin Laden’s death as a “summary execution”, which seems a ridiculously loaded description. Perhaps my view will change if more precise information becomes available about the situation inside the compound during the assault, but at present I have no reason to disbelieve that the soldiers were on a “capture or kill” mission, whereby they would have had orders to capture the target alive if they felt that doing so did not put themselves at risk. Given what we know about the mentality of Bin Laden and his followers, it seems reasonable to assume they might have had the capacity and the will to blow themselves up rather than be captured – if you are a US soldier in hostile territory at night with gunfire all around you, it seems entirely likely that you would pull the trigger if you had any doubt at all. That seems a reasonable judgement to make in the fog of war, especially when the guilt of the suspect is not exactly in doubt. It’s very easy to second-guess these judgements from the comfort of an armchair after the event, but until there is more evidence to support any claims of an unwarranted execution, my message is simple: back off.
The second bone I’d like to pick is with the scolding of those who decided to celebrate the news outside the White House and at Ground Zero last Sunday night. Once again, I understand the argument: reacting to news of anyone being shot in the head with jubilation does not seem entirely appropriate, especially if the footage of you celebrating will be used elsewhere in the world to inflame hatred towards America and increase the chances of further attacks. It’s a perfectly reasonable point in theory, but it once again fails to take account of just how deep the feeling runs in America about 9/11. I’ll be honest: if I had been passing by the White House when the news broke, I think I probably would have stopped for a beer too. Would it have been better for world peace if such celebrations hadn’t taken place? Perhaps. But people are people, not emotionless robots. Cut them some slack, for goodness’ sake.
While writing that last paragraph, I was reminded of one of my enduring memories from that terrible day in 2001. Aside from the footage of chaos in New York and Washington, the most shocking thing I saw that day was images of some people in the Middle East (I forget where, exactly) celebrating wildly at news of the attacks. I was repulsed by those pictures then, and I remain so today. So, to address another question that has probably been bandied about by some commentators this week, how can one defend the celebrations in the US while condemning those similar scenes from a decade ago? I’ll tell you how: one was an attack on thousands of innocent people, while the other was a targeted strike on a mass murderer. Whatever you think of US foreign policy, any attempt to equate the two scenes strikes me as moral relativism taken to an absurd extreme.
This leads me to my third and final issue, which is about the comparisons being made between western actions and those of al-Qaeda. Bearing in mind all of the points I have acknowledged above about the sensitivities relating to Bin Laden’s death, I chose to mark the occasion with what I thought was a fairly uncontroversial status update on Monday night. It read simply: “To the 2977 families still grieving ten years on, I hope today brings some small comfort and a sense that justice has finally been done.” I then went out for dinner, and by the time I returned my words had prompted 14 comments. Some were supportive, while some made criticisms along the lines of the two issues I have already addressed above. But one remark in particular bugged me – a remark that Bush and Blair “killed more than 3000 people for no reason”, a line which seems to imply that this makes them worse or at least as bad as Bin Laden in some sense. This stood out to me because it seems symptomatic of a broader trend in my country and elsewhere to criticise our own side as much or more than we do al-Qaeda.
Let me preface my response to that by saying that I think the war in Iraq was a calamitous mistake, and that there is a pretty urgent discussion to be had about the scope of our continued mission in Afghanistan. In my view, both Bush and Blair face some very serious questions about their apparent lack of regard for the welfare of civilians in both conflicts, and around the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. But even with all of that being said, I utterly despair at the lack of moral perspective inherent in some of the comparisons being made between the two sides. However negligent our leaders might have been in their conduct, and even if they permitted torture as a method of interrogation in some cases, that is surely not the same as actively planning and advocating indiscriminate acts of mass murder against civilians.
In response to the comments on my Facebook status, the same American friend whom I texted last week felt goaded into responding to defend his country. He had every right to feel attacked: it must have felt as though he could not read a simple tribute to his dead compatriots without also having to read an endless list of mostly unfair appendices saying how terrible his own nation is. Given the tone of public debate, I’m sure he wasn’t the only American who faced such a barrage either. Yes, those of us with the good fortune to live in liberal democracies should always hold our own governments to a high standard and criticise them where appropriate. But the next time the United States elects an inward-looking president who believes the world is hostile towards America, I hope the same critics who have been so vocal this week pause to reflect on whether they might deserve to carry some small portion of the blame.
5/5/11. A day I won’t soon forget.
On this day the world’s last remaining World War One veteran passed away, taking with him the final living memory of one of the most shameful episodes in human history.
On this day thousands of families devastated by the 9/11 terrorist attacks felt a sense of closure as President Barack Obama laid a wreath at Ground Zero in memory of their fallen relatives, just days after US forces finally found and killed the architect of that awful day.
And on this day Zara Elizabeth Bradshaw entered the world, marking the beginning of a new generation for my family. The first letter of my niece’s unusual name struck me as oddly appropriate, given that she is part of a generation popularly labelled with the same letter. Hence her birth inspired me with a name for this long-planned blog – a reference to the generation that precedes hers, of which I am a part. I know, I know, it’s all very clever.
Anyway, the point I want to make is this, and I hope it is at least slightly more profound than my choice of title: events like WWI and the 9/11 attacks should serve as stark reminders of how important it is for each of us to share whatever wisdom we manage to accumulate during our time on Earth, so that those who come after us might be just a little less likely to repeat the mistakes of their ancestors.
With that in mind, this blog is lovingly dedicated to Zara. It is intended as a record of her uncle’s perspective on events as they unfold in a world that he understands only slightly better than she does, written in the hope that those of us in Generation Y will have reason to be proud of the condition in which we leave that world when it is inherited by Generation Z.