Who Owns OWS?

The narcissistic academics claiming credit for inspiring the occupiers.

Who is the father of Occupy Wall Street? The question strangely doesn’t send the accused rushing to paternity tests for exculpation. But as protesters head for park exits, academics crowd in to claim credit. Feeding on the corpse of Occupy Wall Street will fuel some intellectual’s career.

The urban campers drew the attention of such visitors as rapper-professor Cornel West, welfare-rights advocate Frances Fox Piven, and Herbert Marcuse-mentee Angela Davis. But it’s not the celebrity academics, but the academics seeking celebrity, who are most active in playing connect-the-dots between their words and the occupiers’ deeds.

“I created much of the intellectual foundation for what they do,” Harvard law professor and Massachusetts U.S. senatorial candidate Elizabeth Warren claimed this fall. “I support what they do.” But since “what they do” at the Occupy Boston encampment included narcotics trafficking, knife-wielding standoffs, rampant thefts, and transforming the Rose Kennedy Greenway into a muddy brownway, Warren’s boasts continue to haunt her in her contest against Scott Brown.

A recent University of Pennsylvania conference on Herbert Marcuse imagined Occupy Wall Street as evidence of the Frankfurt School activist-intellectual’s posthumous comeback. The Chronicle of Higher Education piece “Occupy This: Is It Comeback Time for Herbert Marcuse?” noted that a few Occupy Philadelphia campers attended the conference and quoted Marcuse’s stepson. “Over the last 20 or 30 years, Marcuse was totally missing,” Peter Marcuse noted. “Now Marcuse comes from the outside. That was not the case in the 1960s. He’s almost an unknown name.”

Perhaps the most outlandish claim comes from the Chronicle of Higher Education. “Occupy Wall Street’s most defining characteristics—its decentralized nature and its intensive process of participatory, consensus-based decision-making—are rooted…in the scholarship of anarchism and, specifically, in an ethnography of central Madagascar,” senior reporter Dan Berrett writes. “It was on this island nation off the coast of Africa that David Graeber, one of the movement's early organizers, who has been called one of its main intellectual sources, spent 20 months between 1989 and 1991. He studied the people of Betafo, a community of descendants of nobles and of slaves, for his 2007 book, Lost People.

The drum circles may have a Madagascan origin. But the democracy? Perhaps a source closer to home bears responsibility. One wonders how many Occupy protesters have read the books, let alone have ever heard, of their supposed antecedents. The stream of interest certainly runs from these authors toward the activists. There is no evidence that it runs from the activists toward these authors.

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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