Mass blockade of ports: Occupy’s vapidity reaches a new low

On Monday, the Occupy movement plans its grandest, most vapid action yet: attempting to shut down 11 West Coast ports from San Diego to Anchorage. Those who will be hurt by this are overwhelmingly workers, many without college educations, who have managed to find middle-class work outside the office cubicle. The timing is terrible, too, during the busy holiday season and just after some ports have been on a hiring spree. But Occupyers don’t care. They’ve concluded this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part, and they’re just the fools to do it.

Hey, Chris, why the scorn? Isn’t Occupy’s heart in the right place?

Well, no, it’s not. I can buy the argument that it’s amazing that more people in Washington and Wall Street who were responsible for the economic meltdown didn’t pay a higher price. But from that original, defensible thesis, Occupy has mutated into something that’s more obnoxious than inspiring. Three observations:

No. 1): As this San Francisco Chronicle article makes clear, many unions and even some people within Occupy have figured out that it is reprehensible to make innocent people pay such a heavy price just so Occupy can make a showy protest. And since this hassling of port workers will be a key part of coverage, that makes the protest even less effective as a tool of winning public support.

Why isn’t this obvious to all Occupy leaders? Because at a basic level, for many of them, what’s going on is a bait and switch. This isn’t an attack on crony capitalism. It’s an attack on the free-market economy, either prompted by a genuine aversion to the U.S. version of social democracy or by something much more personal: individual Occupyers’ failure to land jobs and pay commensurate with their high opinions of themselves.

Some Occupyers actually understand how self-contradictory the Oakland port blockade is, the Chronicle reports:

{S]ome activists in the roughly 30 other Occupy organizations in the Bay Area have also concluded that a port blockade is too extreme. They say confronting police and blockading commerce is as outdated as they now regard the tent cities recently cleared by authorities.

In fact, outside of major cities, some activists so strongly disagree with confrontational tactics that they now call themselves “99 Percenters” rather than “Occupiers.”

Good for them.

Observation No. 2): The incoherence of Occupy — the vagueness of its goals — was supposed to become less of an issue as Occupy developed alliances with more formal groups and organizations. But when it comes to one of their highest-profile allies — teacher unions — their involvement only makes Occupy even more incoherent.

That’s because if you are looking for institutions to blame for income inequality, teachers unions are certainly in the top five. Consider that the primary education policy in most school districts in the Golden StateĀ  — courtesy of the power of the California Teachers Associations and the California Federation of Teachers — is to preserve veteran teachers’ pay, their lifetime tenure and their ability to transfer from troubled, heavily minority schools to more affluent, whiter schools with fewer students who need lots of help.

If you understand this is the status quo, you get radicalized. When leaders like former state Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, call problems with public schools the civil rights issue of our time, she’s not decrying a lack of funding. She’s saying “low-income black and Latino students too often receive a poor education in California due to poor teaching.” Why doesn’t that change? The biggest reason is teacher unions.

So why can’t Occupyers figure out that the CTA and CFT are enemies, not allies? Partly because they’re not exactly thinking through what they’re doing. But part of it is because of a personal similarity. For many teachers, a central grievance of their lives is that they aren’t paid as much as they think they should be, given their assessment of the high value of the educational services they provide — the same achievement resentment gap driving some Occupyers.

Of course, if they are so sure about how much they help students, shouldn’t they allow sophisticated number-crunching on teacher performance to substantiate that view?

Well, no. Teachers are great, every last one, and if students struggle, it’s their parents’ fault and society’s, too, especially anyone who doesn’t want to pay higher taxes.

Which leads neatly to …

Observation No. 3): If we are ever going to be brutally honest about the housing bubble’s meltdown, we’d see the pervasiveness of the same sort of flat denial of any personal responsibility.

You can bet that the nearly half of Americans sympathetic to Occupy includes millions of people whose homes are “underwater,” who face foreclosure or have been foreclosed, all because they believed there was such a thing as a free lunch. Sure, banks and other lenders offered the deals that sounded too good to be true, and, sure, the housing bubble lasted for years and years.

But there are lots of people who didn’t believe there was a free lunch to be had. No matter how good the terms, they just didn’t believe it made sense to buy a $500,000 house with just $50,000 annual income or to cash in $40,000 of paper-only home equity to buy a new car or to renovate the kitchen.

I remember thinking about this in early 2005, walking around the solidly middle-class Anaheim Hills neighborhood where I then lived, a quiet, multiracial mix of folks in single-family homes and duplexes. Some families would out of the blue upgrade from Corollas to BMW sedans, or from Ford trucks to Hummers. But not everyone. Lots of folks just sat tight and chose not to take the free lunch. They are rightly praised for having good judgment. But on the flip side, those who didn’t show good judgment don’t want to hear about it.

So certainly Occupy has a genuine appeal to some because of the sense that powerful muckety-mucks got away with murder. And certainly Occupy has a genuine appeal to those who like its anti-capitalist bent. But for millions of Americans, Occupy amounts to a movement that provides them cover for their complicity in their own personal financial debacles.

Of course, this only illustrates even more how ridiculous it is to see Occupy as a uniquely noble force in American politics. At a core level, what’s driving much of its appeal is pure pandering of a form long practiced by Democrats and Republicans alike.

Hey, voters, got a problem?

It’s all fill-in-the-blank’s fault. It’s not your fault. It’s never your fault.

So while I believe Occupy won’t leave much of a legacy, it won’t go away quickly. The faculty lounge types in the media will keep pretending Occupy has figured out the world. Reactionary teacher unions will draft on the attention given to Occupy to claim that Occupy’s goals would be served by adding more money to broken schools. And homeowners and ex-homeowners devastated by their own irresponsibility will use Occupy rhetoric to absolve themselves.

But after today, when tens of thousands of blue-collar middle-class port workers are hassled by Occupy backers up and down the West Coast for no sensible reason, maybe a Silent Majority will begin to figure out what’s going on — and a well-deserved backlash will begin.

But don’t despair, Occupy admirers. You can look forward to the 10th anniversary events in 2021, the 20th anniversary shebang in 2031, the quarter-century extravaganza in 2036. For the rest of your lives, you can use Occupy fandom as a way to make you feel good about yourselves and boost your self-esteem. So you’ve got that going for you, which is nice. Congrats.

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