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Bill Maher’s mistaken heterodoxy

There are many, many thousands of thoughtful, intelligent people striving to make the US a more decent country by peaceably assembling and petitioning the authorities for the redress of grievances.

It’s hard to be piercingly heterodox when heterodoxy is the culture’s orthodoxy—heterodoxy of a certain sort, anyway.  Heterodoxy is not inherently instructive, accurate, or interesting.  It’s pure reaction. If you tell a small child to be quiet and he yammers more loudly, his rebellion is a form of bondage. It’s hopelessly tethered to what it rejects. It’s wholly predictable and adds no value. It’s provocation whose point is to provoke, but not for any particular reason other than provocation itself. It’s reverse-the-sign heterodoxy—change the plus sign to minus, or vice versa. If conventional opinion condemns al-Qaeda and you defend them because the imperialists attack them, you’re a useless idiot. Much of the worst thinking of the last century has been of this form.

Bill Maher has on occasion made trenchant objections to orthodoxies of the moment, and last fall did herald the rightly-heralded Occupy movement, but a couple of weeks ago he let pure negativity get away with him. On February 4 he said this about Occupy Wall Street:

Similar to Afghanistan in a way, whenever you occupy something for too long, people do get pissed off. And as I watch them on the news now, I find myself almost agreeing with Newt Gingrich, like, ‘You know what?  Get a job.”

He broke up laughing and went on:

Only because, you know, the people who originally started, I think they went home, and now it’s just these anarchist stragglers. And this is the problem when your movement involves sleeping over in the park. You wind up attracting the people who were sleeping in the park anyway. [Heavy applause from the audience.] And I think it’s where we are with the Occupy movement. They did a great job bringing the issue of income inequality to the fore, but now it’s just a bunch of douchebags who think that throwing a chair through the Starbucks window is gonna bring on the revolution. [More applause.]

I suppose it’s the prerogative of comedians to get cheap laughs when they can’t rouse themselves to get the more expensive kind, but it’s a pity that Mr. Maher resorted to this concatenation of inaccurate, misleading, and nasty cliches. He didn’t do his homework.

First of all, he assumed that news images are whole truths. As he would recognize in other contexts, they’re not. When the Occupy encampments, most of them, were evicted, most of their automatic coverage vanished. The occupations had been “the story,” in media eyes, so “the story” had now vanished. This left the way open for the few people who felt like smashing windows to seize the spotlight by doing so. This is how people in an officially leaderless movement occupy the center of attention.

I don’t know if anyone actually threw a chair through a Starbucks window anywhere but if so that was an outlying incident. There certainly was a yahoo who burned an American flag in front of Oakland’s City Hall a few weeks back while a handful of others cheered them on (while one woman screamed “Stop!” and tried to smother the flames). In an earlier property-damage breakout in Oakland, on November 2, perhaps 100 masked window-smashers did break windows of one establishment or another—100 out of many thousands who demonstrated peacefully that day. But even as the movement frays over whether to keep to nonviolent discipline in the future, those who actually resort to property damage (as distinguished from those, badly mistaken in my view, who wish to honor those who choose to do so) remain a tiny minority.

Secondly, in a time of rampant unemployment, I can think of funnier things than telling people who don’t have jobs to get them.

Third, I can also think of funnier subjects than people who sleep in parks. Some of them are addicts, some are disturbed, and a lot of them lost their jobs and their homes and fell into downward spirals. Some are, as people used to say, down on their luck. That many millions of foreclosures have taken place in recent years, many of them predicated on fraudulent mortgages, is surely not irrelevant to the number of people who sleep in parks, or wish to.

As for “anarchist stragglers,” anarchists were certainly instrumental in launching Occupy. [Self-promotional note: my book, Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street, will be published by HarperCollins on May 1. Lots of details therein.] More power to them. They ignited a long-overdue flame while a lot of more conventional people were busy grousing.  Some were in some sense “stragglers.” In any event, a lot of homeless people eventually did straggle into the occupied parks. They posed lots of problems for the encampments. Arguments raged about how to treat them and how to treat the way some of them treated others. Not believing in the legitimacy of police, much of the movement was unable to figure out how to police itself. That incapacity made for serious trouble. But none of this means that “now it’s just a bunch of douchebags.”

Much of Occupy is hibernating and planning. It’s dispersed. Most of its activities are not so photogenic, and the numbers are certainly much smaller since the fall came to an end and the mayors shut down the major encampments. But in recent weeks, there have been lots of demonstrations against predator banks.  (One of the more entertaining can be seen here.)  Just this month, Occupy activists in Detroit and Nashville saved homes from unjust foreclosures. There will be lots more actions of this sort in the coming months. There will also, mostly likely, be upsurges of self-regarding militancy on the part of some who think that a “general strike” can be created by people who don’t work at the establishments being struck.

There surely are people in the movement who harbor fantastical ideas about “bringing on the revolution” (though hardly by smashing windows with one implement or another), but there are many, many thousands of times more who are thoughtful, intelligent people striving to make this a more decent country by peaceably assembling and petitioning the authorities for the redress of grievances. Orthodox or heterodox, this is true. In a time clouded by easy dismissals, the true heterodoxy is to look beneath surfaces.

 

 

About the author

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and author of the new e-book Occupy Nation:  The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street, also published in an expanded edition, in paperback, in August, 2012 (HarperCollins).


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