Occupy Wall Street as a fable people can relate to
Guest columnist Gareth Price compares the efforts by people to make sense of the Occupy Wall Street to the story of the three little pigs. The Occupy Wall Street movement, which is without official leaders, draws empathy from many people and groups that are frustrated.
Special to The Times
Once upon a time, narratives were neat and cohesive, and made a specific point. From fairy stories to movies to newspaper articles, we look for a beginning, a middle and an end.
We also desire these qualities in political parties and movements. And this is why so many people find the message coming out of the Occupy Wall Street movement — and its sister actions in towns and cities across the country — difficult to understand.
There are several reasons for this, including the decentralized nature of the movement itself. Eschewing hierarchical, vertical organization, the movement is a series of horizontally connected, local grass-roots efforts. With the flattening out of time and space on the Internet and in social media, the political narrative is not linear or fixed, nor penned by a single author.
Because it doesn't fit with our expectations, it is derided as "not having a point." While the general theme seems to be something anti-capitalist in nature, there is no list of demands. We don't understand the plot. The message appears to be mostly white noise.
The movement is organized in the most literal anarchist tradition — from the ancient Greek anarchia, or "without leaders" — and so there are no identifiable dramatis personae. All the actors in this one-act play appear to be cast as "angry mob."
But that's the point. The narrative is driven by a palpable sense of anger that is not confined to one social group, nor one which has found an outlet in a specific time and space. The marches might have a carnival atmosphere, but the movement is not a political celebration.
Part of the reason for the noise is that the anti-capitalist theme is not the whole story. Various single-issue groups — from environmentalists to socialists to students to unions to vegetarians — are using the crowd scene of the "99 percent" to forward their own agendas. The noise is the medium, and the noise is the message.
The theme of economic justice is a touchstone for a set of wider grievances, and therefore central to the movement's narrative by organizing its subplots. The "1 percent" consists of a plutarchy who are the villains of the piece: the bankers, the superrich and corporations.
The narrative structure is like that of the classic children's fable of the three little pigs. The three little pigs — and, in our tale, there are many little pigs — are taking on the big, bad wolf (who is actually a rather larger capitalist pig, though like wolves in all good fairy tales is presumably in disguise).
The wolf knocks on the door of the first house, made of straw. Denied entry by the little pig inside — presumably asserting the constitutional rights of little pigs — the wolf takes to huffing and puffing and blowing the house down.
In an example of community solidarity and neighborliness, the first little pig takes shelter with the little pig next door, whose house is made of rather sturdier sticks, and the wolf huffs and puffs some more.
The wolf reaches the final house made of sturdy brick, where all the little pigs are huddling. Unable to blow the house down, the wolf climbs down the chimney and — with the inevitable gore of all good fairy tales — into a boiling pot.
Fairy stories — and other myths — are not entirely fictional. They tell us something about the world. The little pigs' story resonates with all of the single-interest groups mentioned and many others. Those concerned with concrete economic issues — underpaid teachers, students with huge loans and the unemployed — can take comfort in the fact that banding together, despite their different interests, eventually leads to emancipation.
Those whose houses have been foreclosed can empathize with the experience of the first two little pigs: of being huffed at and puffed at, and their homes being blown down.
We tell ourselves fairy stories with neat structures and endings because the real world is precisely the opposite: chaotic, disordered and messy. Narrative closure helps us make sense of reality.
We want everyone to live happily ever after. Except, of course, the wolf.Gareth Price is a visiting assistant professor in the linguistics program at Duke University.
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