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One could be forgiven for developing the mistaken impression that intellectuals obsess over OWS. What is really at work is the narcissism of academics. Intellectuals are monomaniacs on the subject of intellectuals. A sputtering economy, protests overseas, the specter of student loan repayment, and the frustrations of leftist activists forced to rechannel grievances normally attributed the reigning president all help explain the phenomenon. What a three-decades-dead German academic once wrote, or what a professor saw among the natives, doesn’t.
Insomuch as a unifying theme underlies the protests it revolves around a feeling rather than a thought. Rhetoric pitting the ninety-nine percent versus the one percent stems from envy, or in some cases, from the guilt that accompanies one’s inherited status among the one percent. So central to the human condition is envy that Hammurabi’s Code obsesses over men acting on it and several of the Ten Commandments proscribe against the mere feeling of it. The pervasiveness of this sin helps explain how Karl Marx could seem to influence people who had never read his books. Does envy really require an idea man?
It’s not as though the protesters haven’t provided clues pointing to their primitive origins. The incessant bongos, full-throated chanting, placard persuasion, and the “us v. them” sound byte slogans aren’t exactly the stuff of the Oxford Union. One overthinks these underthinkers by imagining the able-bodied unemployed milling about the tent cities with neither running water nor a heat source—caught on camera defecating on the ground at several camps—as prone to inspiration by the written word.
The conceit of thinkers that their thought is the father to another’s deed is an old one. In spite of Students for a Democratic Society activists burning years of scholarly research at Columbia and Wisconsin, and a successful 1969 SDS election speech by Bill Ayers boasting that neither he nor Mark Rudd nor Jeff Jones had read a book in the previous year, academics still strain to root the wealthy vandals into one intellectual tradition or another. And so it goes with Occupy Wall Street.
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