In difficult times, fashion is always outrageous.
The kid “wearing a bolo tie, a regular tie, Native American beads, a suit coat worn under a flannel shirt, and socks but no shoes,” as Mother Jones described one protestor’s outfit, wasn’t the worst of Occupy Wall Street’s stylistic offenses against civilization—for Thomas Frank, founder of the small magazine The Baffler, the stylistic issues of the protests went much deeper than sartorial choice. To Frank, the real crime of the movement was that it used “high-powered academic disputation as a model for social protest”: Occupy, he argues, chose “elevated jargonese” over actual achievements. To some, such criticisms might sound ridiculous—how can anyone dispute matters of style when serious issues are at stake? But in fact matters of style are the only thing at stake: the stylistic choices of Occupy, and movements like it, ultimately only fuel precisely the kinds of exploitation Occupy is supposedly meant to protest. There are real goals—chief of which being a reorganization of the American government on more democratic lines—an American left could conceivably achieve in the United States today. If only, that is, were these movements to sacrifice their style.
To say such things is, of course, super-uncool. In order to contrast itself against such unhipness, the style of Occupy takes two forms: the first being the kind of academese Frank castigates. Here is one sentence Frank cites, from an Occupier objecting to someone else complaining about how none of the Occupiers would claim to speak for the whole movement: “I would agree, an individualism that our society has definitely had inscribed upon it and continues to inscribe upon itself, ‘I can only speak for myself,’ the “only” is operative there, and of course these spaces are being opened up …” And so on. It should be recognized that this is actually a comparatively understandable sentence against some produced by the Occupiers.
The other rhetorical style practiced by the Occupiers is a virtually sub-verbal kind of soup. Here for instance is the first sentence of an article entitled “How Occupy Wall Street Began,” on the website occupytheory.org: “One of the protests that have been practiced in different countries is the Occupy Wall Street Movement.” This is not, as any competent speaker would recognize, even English, much less effective writing designed to persuade a national audience. The counterargument, of course, is that it gives the writer—who is not named—something to do, and appeals to other sub-literates. But while those goals are perhaps worthy enough, they are both incredibly myopic and hyperopic at once.
They are nearsighted in the sense that while creating jobs is nearly always laudable, one might imagine that telling the story of the movement’s origins is a task important enough to delegate to someone capable of telling it. They are farsighted—in this case, not a compliment—in the sense that while being “inclusive” is to be sure important, people who are at best para-literate are not likely to be people in positions of authority, and hence capable of making decisions in the here-and-now. Perhaps someday, many years from now, such things might matter. But as the economist John Maynard Keynes remarked, in the long-run we are all dead—which is to say that none of this would matter had Occupy achieved any results.
“There are no tangible results from the Occupy movement,” the “social entrepreneur” Tom Watson ruefully concluded in Forbes magazine a year after the end of the Zuccotti Park occupation—no legislation, no new leaders, no new national organization. By contrast, Frank notes that in the same timespan the Tea Party—often thought of as a populist movement like Occupy, only with opposite goals—managed to elect a majority in Congress, and even got Paul Ryan, the archconservative congressman who seems to misunderstand basic mathematics, on the 2012 presidential ticket. The Tea Party, in other words, chose to make real inroads to power—a point that, presumably, Occupiers might counter by observing that the Tea Party is an organization, at least in part, funded by wealthy interests. It never seems to occur to Occupiers that such interests are funding those efforts precisely because the Tea Party does serve their interests—that is, that the Tea Party takes a clear position that funding A will have political result B.
For the Occupiers and their sympathies, however, “the ‘changes’ that Occupy failed to secure” are “not really part of the story,” says Frank. “What matters” to the Occupiers, he writes, “is the carnival—all the democratic and nonhierarchical things that went on in Zuccotti Park.” Should anyone object that—shockingly—sitting in a park for two months does not appear to have done anything tangible for anybody, you’ve just exposed yourself as a part of the problem, man—not to mention been unveiled as incredibly uncool.
As Frank points out, however, “here we come to the basic contradiction of the campaign”: to “protest Wall Street in 2011” was to protest “deregulation and tax-cutting—by a philosophy of liberation as anarchic in its rhetoric as Occupy was in reality.” Want anarchy and anti-hierarchy? That’s just what corporate America wants, too. Nothing, I’m sure, delighted the boardrooms of Goldman Sachs or Chase more than to see, or read about, the characters of Zuccotti Park refusing to allow what Frank calls the “humorless, doctrinaire adults … back in charge” by refusing to produce demands.
Frank’s charge thereby echoes an argument that’s been ongoing in American academia for some time: “Something more insidious than provincialism has come to prominence in the American academy,” the prominent philosopher Martha Nussbaum charged some time ago—“the virtually complete turning from the material side of life, toward a type of verbal and symbolic politics.” Nussbaum was complaining about trends she saw in feminist scholarship; James Miller, a political scientist, more broadly described years ago how many “radical professors distrust the demand for ‘linguistic transparency,’ charging that it cripples one’s ability ‘to think the world more radically.’” The other side claims, alternately, “that plain talk is politically perfidious—reinforcing, rather than radically challenging, the cultural status quo.” Hence, the need for complex, difficult sentences—a stylistic thesis wholly believed in, it seems, by the Occupiers.
Yet, what are the consequences of such stylistic choices? I’d suggest that one of them is that certain academic arguments that might have a chance of breaking through to the mainstream, and then making a real difference to actual American lives, are being overlooked in the name of what Frank calls “a gluey swamp of academic talk and pointless antihierarchical posturing.” One of these arguments is the one that is being carefully constructed by historians Manisha Sinha and Leonard Richards at the University of Massachusetts in books like Richards’ The Slave Power: The Free North and Southern Domination 1780-1860 and Sinha’s The Counter-revolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina. Such books enable a naturalistic, commonsense explanation for much of the political structure of American life—and thus enable something to be done about it.
Richards’ book makes clear how “the slaveholders of the South” ran the United States before the Civil War by virtue of anti-majoritarian features built into the Constitution; Manisha Sinha’s account demonstrates how those features could have been imported into the Constitution by way of features already part of the structure of the government of South Carolina. Prior to the Civil War, for instance, Sinha notes how one South Carolinian described how the “government of South Carolina was an ‘oligarchy’ modeled after the ‘rotten borough system’ of England”—and placed next to accounts of the writing of the Constitution, Sinha’s detailed description of South Carolina’s government calls into question the prominence South Carolinian leaders during the debates in Philadelphia during the Constitution Summer of 1787.
South Carolinians like the younger and elder Charles Pinckneys and Major Pierce Butler had an overwhelming influence over the writing of the Constitution: as David O. Stewart remarks in his history of the writing of the Constitution, The Summer of 1787, “the [South] Carolinians came to Philadelphia with an appetite for work, and they would exercise an outsized influence.” It’s impossible of course in a paragraph or even an essay to summarize the details of such books, or the story they tell—the point is I shouldn’t have to: they are being ignored despite the fact that they could overwhelmingly do far more good to more Americans than a dozen occupations of Zuccotti Park.
Books like these can do so because, as Abraham Lincoln knew how to do, they tell a comprehensible story—and thus provide a means by which to restructure the American government more democratically. That was Lincoln’s technique in his speech of June 16, 1858: “If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending,” he said, “we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.” The speech is a model of rhetorical efficiency: it tells the audience—the people—what Lincoln is going to do in his speech; it shows that he will begin at the beginning and proceed to the end; and above all, that he will do so transparently, directly in front of the audience. The speech may be known to you: it is usually called “House Divided.”
Lincoln, undoubtedly, wore a plain Brooks Brothers suit.