Scrambled Brains

Some pearls of wisdom from Ross Douthat on the Occupy movement and “the decadent left“:

Of these movements, Occupy Wall Street earned by far the most attention, while achieving the least in terms of actual policy. The union protests against Wisconsin’s curbs on collective bargaining helped set the stage for the recent repudiation, via referendum, of similar legislation in Ohio. The environmental protesters haven’t stopped the Keystone pipeline outright, but they induced President Obama to delay its consideration until 2013.

The O.W.S. protesters, on the other hand, haven’t even settled on concrete political objectives. …

This has led some liberals to argue that the Occupy protesters should find a way to imitate the more pragmatic efforts of unions and environmentalists. …

But there’s a sense in which the pipeline protesters and Midwestern unions are exactly the people that the O.W.S. crowd should not learn from, if they aspire to appeal to a wider audience than left-wing activists usually reach.

Yes, Occupy Wall Street was dreamed up in part by flakes and populated in part by fantasists. But to the extent that the movement briefly captured the public’s imagination, it was because it seemed to be doing what a decent left would exist to do: criticizing entrenched power, championing the common good and speaking for the many rather than the few.

The union rallies and the Keystone demonstrations, by contrast, represented what you might call the decadent left, which fights for narrow interest groups rather than for the public as a whole.

The Wisconsin protests didn’t defend American workers’ right to bargain for their fair share of company profits, as traditional union protests have. They defended government employees’ right to negotiate with elected officials over the division of taxpayer dollars — a recipe for profligacy that even liberal icons like Franklin Roosevelt and the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s George Meany once opposed.

Likewise, the Keystone protesters haven’t been defending “the interests of wage-earning Americans,” to borrow the historian Michael Kazin’s description of the historic purpose of the American left. They’ve been harnessing the power of the Democratic Party’s wealthy environmentalist donors to actively kill off American jobs.

Stopping the pipeline won’t drive down demand for fossil fuels, or prevent Canada’s oil from being extracted and shipped around the world. But for a small group of activists and donors, keeping the pipeline out of their national backyard is all that counts, even if American workers pay the price.

Whatever your politics, there’s arguably more to admire in the ragtag theatricality of Occupy Wall Street than in that sort of self-righteous defense of the status quo. Even if it has failed to embrace plausible solutions, O.W.S. at least picked a deserving target — what National Review’s Reihan Salam describes as the “moral rupture” created by Wall Street’s and Washington’s betrayal of the public trust.

Better a protest movement that casts itself (however quixotically) as the defender of “the 99 percent” than a protest movement that just represents Democratic interest groups.  …

In other words, better a toothless, impotent progressive movement than one that gets things done.

Setting aside the faulty premise (that Occupy hasn’t gotten things done), Douthat can’t be as clueless as he sounds:

Better a protest movement that casts itself (however quixotically) as the defender of “the 99 percent” than a protest movement that just represents Democratic interest groups. And better a left that flirts with utopianism than a left that adheres to the dictum attributed to Leonid Brezhnev during the Prague Spring: “Don’t talk to me about ‘socialism.’ What we have, we hold.”

In Douthat’s world, the environment isn’t the air we breath and the water we drink and the food we eat. For him, the environment is a liberal interest group. And labor unions aren’t fighting for working people in both the public and private sectors. For him, unions are just a liberal interest group. It’s not clear why he doesn’t think the #Occupy protesters are a liberal interest group, too. But he’s being completely disingenuous, so it’s probably stupid to ask.

Tbogg has the “shorter Ross Douthat.”

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