Faced with the protests of Occupy Wall Street (and its offshoots), we’re all a bit like the illiterate folks in the Middle Ages who had to “read” the great narratives of human existence in the stained glass windows of the local cathedral. Not that I’d compare New York’s Zuccotti Park to Chartres, but the small dramas enacted there tell their own stories and mitigate the need for communiques and “manifestos.” I’ve stopped wondering about the protestors’ demands. Instead, I find myself shaken out of chronic cynicism, thinking and talking about the unscrupulous system that is harming millions, and I hear this same conversation echoing all around the world — not a complaint but a call of vitality and hope. Literacy has the power to awaken us. This form of linked demonstration is a new way to read the world.
Think about this: last Friday, the Occupy Wall Street movement took scrub-brushes and buckets of suds, and set about cleaning up their scruffy little park in lower Manhattan. Faced with possible eviction, protestors out to take capitalism to the cleaners decided to tidy up after themselves when faced with the threat of a power-scrub from the property managers who own the park. A storyteller loves these details, these plot twists that befuddle political theory, that reconstruct the work of social change. Brooms, not guns: nonviolent active resistance, a line of protestors prepared to greet the police not with firepower, but with garbage bags, squeegee mops and buckets of suds. Meanwhile, we modern illiterates, schooled in party platforms and rhetoric, wonder how to read all of this. A tiny polis in the park with its own cleanup crews, food distribution, and decision-making body — it’s too idealistic; it can’t last. Sure, but duration isn’t the point.
The point’s found in a print analogy: the protests with their encampments are giant magnifying glasses that enlarge the most important words in a paragraph: the ones that call us to wake up, to face the endemic hopelessness that robs social life of its creativity and value. Whatever the outcome of this movement, it’s given us at least that much.