The Differences between Occupy Wall Street & the Tea Parties Made Easy


James Rainey in today’s Los Angeles Times offers a mostly on-target piece on how the MSM tends to simplify in stupid mystification new social phenomena the news media have neither the patience nor insight to examine incisively. Way to go, Rainey.

Rainey’s focus is on similar treatment of the Tea Parties and Occupy Wall Street, the easy comparison everyone is making and already a first, dangerous if necessary step in the direction of what Rainey himself criticizes: superficial reporting. Thus we get the following dead center of Rainey’s essay:

Fox News shamelessly promoted the 2009 tea party rallies on tax day, both before and afterward, while MSNBCpersonalities mocked the same events as a gross misappropriation (a.k.a., “AstroTurf”) of real grass-roots action. Today the roles have been reversed. Ed Schultz and company at MSNBC have embraced Occupy Wall Street, while Fox had a new-found disdain for public displays of disaffection. What could we possibly learn from protesters who don’t mind their manners?

The kind of demonization and trivialization that can greet anyone daring enough to take his or her political beliefs outside the living room can be encapsulated in two made-for-cable-TV moments:

On the biggest day of tea party rallies in 2009, Rachel Maddow became nearly giddy mocking the anti-tax, anti-government movement. She obsessed on the nuttiest conspiracies spelled out on protest placards: President Obama is the new Hitler. He’s a Kenyan. She repeated, again and again, the sexually-suggestive term derived by turning the protesters’ proclivity for wearing tea bags into a verb. The whole movement was held captive, by Maddow’s reckoning, by “high-powered, corporate-funded, D.C. lobbyist-driven organizing.”

One day last week, the hosts of daytime’s “Fox & Friends” had a chance to turn the tables. They announced that the “No. 1 reason” protesters gathered in New York’s Zuccotti Park was “free food,” including smoked salmon. At $16 a pound! Anchors Steve Doocy and Gretchen Carlson concluded that other protesters were a) hiding out from the law b) demonstrating how to slip police handcuffs and c) taking lots and lots of drugs. An on-screen headline during the “Fox & Friends” segment declared: “Creepy Criminals Infiltrate Wall St. Protest.” This was not intended as satire.

Now, to clarify the superficiality of this, precisely in the nature of what Rainey himself critiques, let us acknowledge that both Fox and MSNBC are partisan, as are Doocy Carlson (they are one person, aren’t they?) and Rachel Maddow, and, indeed, the GOP and Democratic parties. That last comparison, though, points the way to where I’m headed. Is the partisanship the defining characteristic of these oppositions, superficially identifying them together, or do they actually represent ideas and practices that clearly distinguish them?

What Rainey does here is engage in what may be the most rampant reasoning affliction of our times – false analogy. Its most common rhetorical formulation these days is of the “one person’s (blank) is another person’s (blank)” variety. (“Freedom fighter” and “terrorist” have been popular fill-in-the-blank offerings over the past decade.) Despite their similarity in being partisan political parties, the GOP and Democratic Parties represent very different sets of ideas. When many people argued in 1968, on the contrary, that there was no difference between Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon (“Not a dime’s worth of difference,” George Wallace said) the nation got Nixon. No difference? In 2000, Ralph Nader argued there was no difference between the parties of Al Gore and George W. Bush. We got Bush. No difference?

So while, yes, Fox News favored the Tea Party phenomenon and MSNBC is sympathetic to Occupy Wall Street, and while opponents of each have mocked the genuine grassroots character of each, those are very superficial commonalities. Those are the media commonalities. Because if you will examine again the parallelism that Rainey creates in the first paragraph I quote, you’ll see how it falls apart. “Fox News shamelessly promoted” the Tea Parties,” observes Rainey. Similarly, “Ed Schultz and company at MSNBC have embraced Occupy Wall Street.” Ah, but that is not the same. To “embrace” (a vague term, anyway) is a far cry from to “shamelessly promote,” and you will note the central term in the paragraph that has no parallel: “astroturf.” The Tea Parties did, it is true, represent real people and their concerns, just as does Occupy Wall Street. It is also true that Fox News, the Koch Brothers, and a whole network of instant, phony grassroots organizations that were subsidiary to the obscured conservative PACS that funded them helped originate and maintain the Tea Party movement. The nearest parallel within OWS is a bunch of anonymous anarchist computer geeks – though now, of course, mainstream liberal acvtivist groups are jumping quite openly on board.

Also not to be overlooked is that while Rachel Maddow is, of course, ideological, and she may, as may any of us, go astray in her thinking and be wrong on an issue – she may even espouse ideas with which others disagree – she is a highly intelligent person nearly always, despite some entertaining mockery, engaged in high level reasoning. Doocy Carlson, in contrast, is a moron, or plays one on television and plays it well. (See above.) Superficial similarity obscuring genuine difference is what false analogy is all about. In explanation of which, I will not be violating Godwin’s Rule with the following analogy because it is intended, in part, to support the rule.

Adolf Hitler delivered intensely passionate and rousing speeches. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered intensely passionate and rousing speeches. One person’s genocidal mad man is another’s champion of human rights.

I don’t get it. Why do they make like thinking is so hard?

Clearly we need to look beneath the surface, even the forms of an argument, to analyze its ideas – the content. I’ll tell you whether he’s a freedom fighter or a terrorist, in part, when I know what he’s fighting for. Oh, yes, that. Did I kill a man because I wanted his watch or because I was defending myself or someone else? It makes a difference.

So, not to delay the promise of my title any longer, and with all the usual provisos about exceptions when talking about mass movements and large groups of people:

the Tea Parties are an antifederalist movement that has, in practice, advanced a culturally conservative agenda. Its concern with budget deficits and the national debt is animated by inherent distrust of large and federal government. Its opposition to the Wall Street bailout and stimulus originated in an opposition to government expenditure and a totally free market belief that enormous businesses and financial institutions should be permitted to fail even if, when they tumbled, they fell on your house. It has shown little if any interest in exploring culpability and potential criminality within the financial sector or in correctively regulating these businesses’ practices or addressing the issue of massively and structurally expanding income and wealth inequality in the country.

Occupy Wall Street, reacting in part to the same financial crisis circumstances, and critical of the nexus of power and influence between government and big business, is not inherently opposed to large government. It promotes collective programs of action to address the communally experienced circumstances of life, and it believes that government – including federal government – sufficiently regulated and disentangled from large financial interests, can effectively serve as one form of collective national effort. It thus does not believe in a totally free, unregulated market. It is largely concerned with what the Tea Parties are not – exploring culpability and potential criminality within the financial sector for the 2008 and continuing economic crisis and doing so within the framework of that in which the Tea Parties also have shown no interest: correctively regulating business and institutional financial practices and addressing the issue of massively and structurally expanding income and wealth inequality in the country.

If this is not simple or easy enough, you may contact Alan Grayson. I believe he resides in Florida. They say he got a standing ovation.


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4 thoughts on “The Differences between Occupy Wall Street & the Tea Parties Made Easy

  1. As I watched the Republican Primary Debate last night, I was pleased that Karen Tumulty, national political correspondent for the Washington Post, questioned the candidates about the relative health of Main Street and Wall Street in the midst of recession. I have to admit, I was a little surprised by the unanimity of denial regarding the culpability of Wall Street. Continue reading →

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