Monday, October 31, 2011

Occupy Wall Street and the perils of the big tent

Patricia McAllister is a recently fired Los Angeles public school teacher who has gained attention by carrying signs at the L.A. Occupy Wall Street demonstrations blaming "Zionist Jews" for the world financial crisis. In two widely seen interviews she gave at those rallies, McAllister elaborated on her view that Jews are to blame for America's woes by going on to say that Jews should be expelled from the country. As a result of those statements, McAllister, who was not tenured, was fired by the L.A. school district and has since started a new career campaigning full-time for the deportation of American Jews.

Now McAllister, who is African American, has given another interview -- this one for a podcast hosted by someone with whom McAllister would seem unlikely to make common cause: David Duke, the longtime white supremacist leader and former head of the KKK and American Nazi Party respectively.  (Part one of McAllister's interview with Duke can be heard in the video embedded below.)

In the interview, McAllister reiterates her call for Jews to be expelled from the U.S.  She also touts her website, which is called, and is, of course, devoted to her bizarre, hateful beliefs. For example, on one of the website's pages headlined "The Jewish Problem", she outlines her oft-repeated allegation that crimes committed by "Zionist Jews" have led to their being expelled from 109 counties, starting with their being expelled from Carthage in 250, and ending with their being expelled from "Arab countries" in 1948. (McAllister apparently counts "Arab countries" as a single entity for her 109 figure. In light of the bigger issues she has, I'm not going to quibble with her math.)  That list is accompanied by a screed demanding that Jews be forbidden from serving in Congress, praising Ullyses S. Grant for expelling Jews from western Tennessee during the Civil War, and concluding with the following:

Are these Jews really God’s chosen people? Would God choose a people who was thrown out of 109 nations for forming cartels; price fixing; bid rigging; product bundling/tying; refusal to deal; group boycott; the practice of charging excessive, high, and illegal interest rates on loans; deceitful dealings in business; frequent bankruptcies, etc.?

This is why Jews are called "wandering Jews". America must rethink about its relationship with the Jewish people. America may have to become the 110th nation to have expelled the Jewish people. No, God would not choose these Jews. Jews have stolen the identity of God's truly chosen people.

The Jewish people have been wandering for so many years without a homeland, because of their deceitful, evil ways. [sic]

McAllister illustrates the page with the image below.

What does this have to do with Occupy Wall Street ?

My first reaction is "not much".  McAllister is a just an individual bigot who latched her hateful cause to the just ones of the Occupy Wall Street protesters without any encouragement on their part.  McAllister's views are not those of OWS.  Moreover, McAllister herself says (at about 2:30 of the below-embedded video) that she does not consider herself a member or even a supporter of OWS; that she merely used OWS as a forum to express her views. That the OWS protests target wrongdoing by banks gives those who, like McAllister and David Duke, identify the banks as representative of Jewish evil an opening to attach their bigoted views to legitimate ones, but that attachment is not reciprocated by the OWS movement as such.  For that reason, attempts by Fox News, Andrew Breitbart and others on the right to define OWS as essentially anti-Semitic based on the ravings of a few nuts should not be taken too seriously.  Such criticisms echo the red-baiting reactions of the right to the civil rights and anti-Vietnam-War movements which were labeled by some opponents as essentially violent or pro-communist.  Such charges, when repeated often enough, tended to effect the views even of conservatives who did not believe them literally. The charges created an impression. They made essentially good political movements seem, in the mind of many, threatening to peace and stability.  Similarly, the right now attempts to tar a broad-based populist movement with a brush provided by an indefensible fringe, first to sway the conservative true-believers who will swallow such stories whole, but secondly and more importantly, to create an image in the public mind of the OWS movement as a potential threat.

My second reaction is a bit more nuanced and more important for the future of OWS. The OWS movement, like any movement or party, will have to define itself as much by what is against as what it is for, as much by the people it excludes as those it welcomes. A leader of the L.A. occupiers stood by as Patricia McAllister told a local TV news reporter in a live TV interview that Zionist Jews should be expelled from the U.S. When the OWS leader (identified only as "PJ") was asked whether the movement welcomed such statements, she stated that, while OWS opposed "divisive" speech, it also opposed putting any limit on OWS participants expressing such "divisive" speech or even "hate speech".  She erroneously said that McAllister and others like her have a right to carry her hateful signs at Occupy Los Angeles under the First Amendment, confusing, of course, government censorship of speech with a political group's right to determine what messages it will promote.  (See below-embedded video at about 3:20.) By that same logic, OWS would have to welcome anti-OWS signs into its encampment.  When she was specifically asked for OWS's stand on McAllister's statements, the OWS leader was silent.  That silence was not good enough.

The Occupy Wall Street movement defines itself as radically democratic and egalitarian.  They claim to reject hierarchy and welcome everyone who would participate as an equal. While these conceits reflect intentions that are undoubtedly good, they fall short as strategy in that they will inevitably lead to situations where participants promote ideas which are contrary to the core values of the majority.  In a different way, that's what happened to the Tea Party when their populist message of opposition to both government and big business, was co-opted by opportunistic big business interests. Those interests employed astroturf specialists who have made an art of such political body-snatching.  So we have very recently seen a populist mass-movement taken over by elements of one of the very so-called "elites" it initially intended to oppose.  The Tea Party differed with OWS in that it started with certain right wing biases which helped doom it, primarily a misguided focus on opposition to government, organized labor and progressive organizations, the only forces which have the potential to counter the banking and business "elites" which were among the initial Tea Party targets.  OWS is not hobbled by that ideological bias, but is hobbled by a naive reliance on a sort of Wikipedia approach to creating doctrine.  Whereas Wikipedia has built up internal mechanisms to work against those who would hijack it to lie, slander or proselytize, OWS has sometimes failed to similarly police its own message. As someone who uses Wikipedia only with a steady stream of grains of salt, I find singularly implausible the idea that a populist political movement could coherently operate in such a manner and not end up with Patricia McAllister, David Duke and their ilk attached to it.  When that happens, OWS must choose whether they will firmly reject bigots, or allow them into their tents.  That choice needs to be made both collectively by the group and individually by its members.  If OWS or its members allow the likes of David Duke and Patricia McAllister to latch onto it, they can count me and the vast majority of its supporters out.

In the meantime, let me state in unequivocal terms that I support Occupy Wall Street's expression of popular discontent with the corrupting influence of the finance industry on our economic and political systems.  It seems an unavoidable if inconvenient truth that the current crop of capitalists endanger not only the public welfare but the future of capitalism itself. In fact, much of what is currently considered capitalism no longer seems to be strictly that, having moved into a form characterized more by speculation than investment and without the capacity to absorb the risks it creates without government assistance.  I hope that the public outcry which is the OWS movement helps spur our political leaders to use a strong hand to restore financial regulations which corrupt politicians have stripped away.  I hope it gives our leaders the courage to resist proposals that put more of the tax burden on workers even as government services they depend on are slashed.  Patricia McAllister, David Duke, Fox News, Andrew Breitbart, etc.: I am a Zionist Jew and I am very worried about where this country is heading.  I strongly praise those who risk arrest and beating, who stay in tent encampments at great personal discomfort and who work hard to keep the flame of hope alive in the many for whom it is danger of being extinguished.  Stop interfering in their good work.


Rayne Van-Dunem said...

Glad you're coming back to the blog.

Also, the video was just something that I, as an African-American, couldn't watch, and probably won't. From what has already been said in many other blogs (Hurry Up Harry, HuffPo, etc.), massive lulz is being had by sociocons and religiocons alike at the expense of #Occupy, when the ideals of #Occupy are much, much more than the disgruntled and nascent would-be executors and footsoldiers of wanton violence against civilians.

And then reading on another blog that she's received a ringing endorsement from the American Nazi Party simply because of mutual insane hangups. But I can't even begin to pretend to know what brought her to such a massive, wild-eyed persecution complex, particularly the sort of complex that makes her useful to white supremacists.

radicalarchives said...

lot's of creeps are showing up at the Occupies; here's one of the better round-ups:

Joanne said...

That's the problem with any movement that's such a big tent. Protests can become like county fairs in which every cause--no matter how marginal or crazy--can have a booth.

In the video, the lady representing Occupy said that the issue of Ms. McAllister was a matter of freedom of speech. But this is a bit of a dodge. While freedom of speech should exist in the society as a whole, it doesn't mean that any specific movement should be indiscriminatory. The Occupy protests comprise--or are trying to comprise--a coherent movement with coherent goals. Making it clear that Ms. McAllister has no place in their movement would not abridge her freedom of speech, as Ms. McAllister could speak anywhere; it would just abridge her ability to use the movement as a cover.

Also, the Occupy rep has to understand that this well-known movement grants a certain de facto imprimatur to those causes it shelters under its big tent.

I noticed that the Occupy rep said that she disapproved of "hate speech," but wouldn’t make a stand against the substance of Ms. McAllister’s statements, no matter how much the interviewer tried to goad her. That’s a little disturbing. It’s as if publicly disagreeing with the view that “the Jews own the Fed” would be considered too partisan and therefore unacceptable.

By the way, I visited the demonstration in Zuccotti Park recently, and saw only one antisemitic sign, something against fighting against Iran for the sake of Israel. The rest of the signs were harmless enough and even spot on. There were, however, some inconsistencies. Next to signs saying we should have more services for the people were a few signs saying there should be no IRS and no Fed. Frankly, it's this sort of thing that can trivialize a movement in the eyes of many. I’ve read that the New York occupiers are holding discussions with the goal of coming up with a shared program. They have their work cut out for them.

Two more points, about the video:
1. I wondered what David Duke was thinking when Ms. McAllister said "this is my country, too." I noticed he didn't respond to that statement.

2. Ms. McAllister is anti-Zionist. So, if she wants to deport so many Jews (if not all of them), where does she want to deport them to? Er, Israel?

Teri Pettit said...

This is a great article. Agree with every word of Adam's, as well as Joanne's comments.

Clearly Occupy has no ability to physically kick out anyone who holds up a sign or gives an interview.

The big problem is that they also have hobbled themselves even in their ability to make group statements about what fringe positions the movement officially rejects.

The bane of the Occupy movement is its devotion to the 90% consensus rule. Only individual city General Assemblies can issue statements; there is no nationwide assembly. And most cities have a 90% consensus rule, where any statement issued as the voice of that assembly must get "twinkles up" votes from 90% of the people gathered there.

We have enough trouble getting any policy through Congress with the 60% majority needed to break filibuster! Can you imagine what it would be like if no bill or resolution could be passed without a 90% majority? Yet that's the rule Occupy has chained themselves to.

I don't see much chance of getting this to change, as much as many now regret it, due to a Catch-22 problem. Once that kind of rule is adopted in the first place, it's very hard to escape from because the sum of all the fringe elements is always going to exceed 10%. So a vote to ratchet down the consensus threshold will always fail.

So we mainstream supporters may have to be resigned to continually countering the fringe on a case-by-case basis.


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