The “Occupy Wall Street” protesters are a strange bunch. On the one hand, they’re far too few, and far too unsure of why exactly they’re there, to be taken seriously. (Locals will remember the comparably schizophrenic agenda of the “Take Back NYU” protests in 2009: those guys were hilarious.) On the other, they’re getting into a disproportionate amount of trouble, always a sign of a successful protest; pretty good at putting a useful spin on it; and when they can be troubled to state a unitary agenda, it comes off as inoffensive, educated, and classically liberal. The pervasiveness of corporate influence in America really is worth protesting, and despite the fact that there aren’t really enough of them to fill the two-block-by-two-block square between Ground Zero and Broadway (not on, but just north of Wall Street), these guys seem to be getting their share of attention, from both sides. Should we care about them?
Probably. If we’ve learned two things from the tea partiers — and I suggest that that is precisely how many things we’ve learned from them — it’s that the crazier you are, the more attention you’ll get; and numbers don’t matter if you can put on a good show. Despite the right’s nonstop attempts to fudge the numbers, Glenn Beck’s 9/12 project drew substantially fewer than the Stewart/Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, but left a stronger mark on the national consciousness because the attendees took themselves seriously, for all of their obvious silliness. American politics is fundamentally about the drama of it all, and the contrast of consciously grungy hipsters (and zombies) with the tall, stately buildings of the Financial District tells a good story. I would blanche at giving the protesters the kind of official recognition Republicans have afforded the tea parties, but it might be time for elites to pick up, contextualize, and refine their message into something that could actually effect policy change. Beneath the superficial absurdity of “Occupy Wall Street,” there’s a valid undercurrent of old-style economic populism, something that’s been missing and needed since the ’80s. It’s past time for someone to tap into it, and tell the true story of corporate greed.