Quick Note on Occupy

Like many, I find the Occupy encampments incredibly interesting—if perplexing at times—and I think there’s a lot of merit in the larger “We are the 99 Percent” concept, which will surely last longer than the occupations. I think both efforts have done much to highlight questions of economic inequality, political corruption and collusion, and state power. There’s a good argument that the Occupy message is lately drifting to one of state power at the expense of the economic argument. But I think these messages are all of a piece. After all, it highlights the government’s enforcement priorities (it’s easier to arrest a bunch of tangible protesters standing in a street than a bunch of financial wizards practicing monetary alchemy) as well as a more metaphorical theme of how powerful interests will scramble to retain a status quo that maintains and consolidates their own power.

By resisting or subverting conventional tactics and rules the movement displayed a kind of strategic brilliance. A few examples:

  • It highlights immediate economic problems like the housing crisis and homelessness (they’re living in tents!), spiraling prices (particularly the University of California protests), and, especially, joblessness. After all, who else would have the time for this kind of effort?
  • It is grounded in the concept of the peaceful sit-in, which harkens back to the American civil rights movement and, even before that, Gandhi. So it has that sheen of righteousness, particularly when that sheen is a coating of pepper spray.
  • It promotes overt creativity in the face of opposition, whether symbolic (Cal’s balloon-borne tents; the 99% bat signal) or practical (the people’s mic, which started as a way to get around a prohibition on megaphones in Zucotti Park; the choice of Zucotti itself, whose confusing public-private legal status they exploited to great effect for almost two months)
  • It makes a mockery of the current political system by highlighting how that system has made a mockery of democracy. I’d argue this is the overarching message that encompasses the Wall Street gripes, the fairness issues, the democracy rhetoric, the tension between order and the rights of speech and assembly, etc.  And it’s not even a new idea, really.

As the major occupations seem to be winding down and the movement (possibly) reaches a turning point, it’s that last bullet point that I think of when I hear exasperated observers say this movement is not legitimate until it starts organizing phone banks to call congressman, starts letter writing-campaigns and the like. Those are fine things to do, and if done smartly (targeting the rare undecided, open-minded politician), still have potential. But set aside the occasional Occupier’s rhetoric about starting a true revolution and a new kind of government; by staying outside of conventional political tactics, they sidestep the lobbyists and special interests and the politicians themselves. A lot of commentators says Occupy needs to grow up and get overtly political. It’s the classic “reform from the inside” argument used to justify political expedience. But if the political system is rigged to disenfranchise citizens, as the occupiers convincingly argue, then they’d just be setting themselves up for failure.

irony, politics

The Oswald Cobblepot School of Debate

A forward link landed in my e-mail yesterday. It led me to a 13-second lark trying to portray John McCain as Oswald C. Cobblepot, better known as the Penguin, from Batman. You can see it here:

The Penguin is surely one of the more entertaining Batman villains–my favorite, if we’re working from the 1960s television series, where he showcased the talent of Burgess Meredith. Burgess Meredith, sneering behind that cigarette holder, was right on with his swaggering greed, the casual entitlement papering over the insecurities of a truly desperate character. (All the showcase villains from that show were surprisingly good: Frank Gorshin/Riddler, Eartha Kitt/Catwoman, Cesar Romero/Joker.)

The modern iteration of the Penguin in today’s politics has been identified by John Stewart, for the last few years, as Dick Cheney, whose mimicked utterances Stewart punctuates with the occasional side-of-mouth squawk. But the McCain parallel drawn above put me in the right frame of mind to appreciate another bit of Penguin scenery chewing. This video, posted on Marc Ambinder’s worthy politics blog, hits the right notes for the current campaign’s meta-narrative.

Anyway. Watch and learn:

history, ideas, international, journalism

Unfamiliar does not equal Improbable

Kaplan has a worthy review of Donald Rumsfeld’s strategic legacy in the Atlantic. I’ll comment more on it later. But for now, a provocative point that Kaplan introduces in the piece’s lede:

In 1962, a Harvard economics professor named Thomas C. Schelling wrote an introduction to Roberta Wohlstetter’s Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision. In a few hundred words, Schelling, a future Nobel Prize winner, delivered a tour de force about the failure to anticipate events. “We were so busy thinking through some ‘obvious’ Japanese moves,” he writes,

that we neglected to hedge against the choice that they actually made … There is a tendency in our planning to confuse the unfamiliar with the improbable … Furthermore, we made the terrible mistake … of forgetting that a fine deterrent can make a superb target.

Schelling’s introduction so impressed Donald H. Rumsfeld that he memorized parts of it and, as others have reported, regularly handed it out before the Pearl Harbor–level attack of 9/11. In his subsequent planning for the invasion of Iraq, Rumsfeld took Schelling’s precepts to heart, thought pessimistically about all sorts of dire scenarios, and got the best possible result.

But only up to the point when organized Iraqi military resistance collapsed. In a tragic, latter-day extension of Schelling’s analysis, Rumsfeld was so busy thinking about the Iraqis’ “obvious” military moves—launching chemical weapons, making a last stand in Baghdad—that he neglected to hedge against what they actually did: melt away and return weeks later as small bands of insurgents. Because of the meager resistance to our interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, and the swiftness of our apparent victory in Afghanistan in 2001, which Rumsfeld had played a great part in orchestrating, by early 2003 the specter of a debilitating Vietnam-scale insurgency against the United States military had been sufficiently exorcised to seem “unfamiliar,” and therefore to be confused with “the improbable.” By the time Saddam Hussein’s statue was toppled in Baghdad, we had become too impressed with our own military to see it as a “superb target.”