So the Occupy lesson went really well. The class was a little skeptical at first, but they seemed to warm up to the whole idea as the lesson progressed. Many of the students only knew of the Occupy movement from the Daily Show and Colbert Report, which didn’t surprise me. Now, I remember seeing and being frustrated by the Daily Show’s coverage of the protesters in Zuccotti Park and their whole take on the restroom situation. “Anarchists dirtying restrooms” struck me not only as comedic low-hanging fruit, but also as another example of how the Occupy movement has been dismissed for not measuring up to middle-class standards of hygiene and respectability. So I wish I had more time to respond to a student who during the presentation mentioned that the occupiers “sleep in to noon each day” and that “it is hard to take them seriously because of it.”
Whether or not this is actually true is beside the point, one way to dismiss the claims of protestors is to stigmatize them as lazy, slothful, or indolent. In other words, their problems are purely of their own making and their claims of “record high inequality” and a “rigged political system” are just so many excuses for bad personal behavior. While the Daily Show and Colbert Report have done an excellent job in recent weeks of detailing the corrupting influence of Super PACs on our democratic process, their treatment of occupiers as unreasonable and filthy fits into the aforementioned vein. The fact is that individuals who are homeless know all too well what it is like to try and maintain basic bodily functions in a society that lacks decommodified space. Cities like New York could make public spaces more conducive to public gatherings like political protests (as they do frequently for other events such as the Thanksgiving parade and New Year’s Eve celebration), but they deliberately choose not to. One aspect of neoliberalism, as David Harvey notes, is that daily life and the organizing of social space are increasingly oriented around the purpose of consumption. It is no surprise then that a movement that questions some deeply held assumptions about our political and economic system would be met with such harsh resistance.
In the past, the Daily Show has presented the problem of American politics largely as a matter of discourse. If only our politicians were more civil and reasonable, we wouldn’t be in such a mess. Such was the motivation behind Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” and Colbert’s “Rally to Keep Fear Alive.” While it is important to situate these protests in context of the Tea Party rallies being held at the time, I can’t help but feel that Stewart’s and Colbert’s joint “protests” bespeak a larger confusion on part of the American left.
I have this image of historians, years and years from now, looking back in bewilderment on a time in which the world system is teetering on the verge of collapse and the one group where you would expect progressive political change to come from instead acts out this bizarre fiction of a post-ideological reality. It is the stuff of science fiction. Why should we pretend that anything less than anger and frustration will suffice? If history has taught us anything, the left’s failure to provide a coherent account of a nation’s troubles provides an opportunity for reactionary movements to offer counter explanations.