Occupy Wall Street: Finding Common Ground Might Be Possible
Eric Teetsel /
This is the last of our four-part series on Occupy Wall Street, transcribed from a recent Heritage Foundation event on the movement.
In part four, Eric Teetsel, executive director of the Manhattan Declaration, explains why he’s hopeful about the Occupy movement. Teetsel believes some Occupiers, particularly young members of the movement, are headed in the right direction but need a helping hand on issues such as free enterprise, individual liberty, the rule of law and moral realism.
Part 4: Capitalist Evangelism
I was talking to my friend about this event and said, “I’m going to go to Heritage and talk about the Occupy Movement.” He said, “Oh, is the event called ‘How to Blow a Movement?’” So to the question that Lachlan posed, Is it dead? Is this a post-mortem? I think the answer is “yes and no.”
We’ve outlined already what is happening this spring, this “spring training,” and things we can expect to see in the next couple of weeks and months. Certainly a lot of the populist rhetoric of the Occupy movement has been incorporated in the presidential campaign and that will continue through the fall and beyond, I’m sure. But the character of Occupy has changed. When I went to Zuccotti Park, I left feeling very hopeful about it. I was totally surprised at what a positive experience I had in New York and that has all been diminished as these professionals that Anne described have consumed the movement and crowded out the “communitarians,” the group that Ben described. The communitarians were the group me and my colleagues interacted with the most in New York and found common ground actually and some inspiration. But, the communitarians have something to learn, too. I think if the movement had been led by communitarians it would still be doomed to failure.
Who are these people? described them as folks who seek community, security and purpose. I think that’s all true. I think they are quintessential “millenials.” Many of you in the room are millenials, I’m pretty close myself. Lots has been done on who millenials are. Some of the characteristics I see: religious, activistic, well-meaning, frustrated, disillusioned, disappointed, ignorant, certainly, and young. Also, most importantly, non-political. I think those are the characteristics I see in the communitarians. So why hope?
Because they’re seeking the right things, in many ways.
Not policy position, a lot of those — even if we can’t say “this is what Occupy wants” — a lot has been churned up that they are looking for, whether that’s free education or whatever. But, aside from that, in a more philosophical sense, what Cornell West calls, “the promise of America,” I think actually gets at the core of what it is they’re looking for. It’s an opportunity society, a purpose in life and in their vocation, and third, and very important, an end to suffering. These are things that conservatives want, too.
There are lots of positive traits involved in Occupy. They have openness to ideas and to dialogue, there was no one I found that wasn’t willing to talk to me. And I found some common ground with some folks that I never would have expected to find common ground with. One highlight was a conversation with a young man about Paul Ryan’s plan to “block grant” Medicaid. He was talking about how great it would be if the 50 states were each laboratories of innovation for public policy. I looked at him and said, “That sounds a lot like what Paul Ryan’s plan is proposing. Did you know that?” And he said, “No, but I’m all for it!” And then he got arrested for jumping on a baggage carousel at JFK, so they’re not—they don’t have everything figured out. But there’s hope there.
Compassion. I mentioned a desire to see an end to suffering. Compassion is a hallmark of this generation and that’s a good thing.
Innovation—one of the coolest things at Zuccotti Park is this contraption that they built to wash their dishes using dirt and rocks to filter the water so it’s cleaned after they use things. It’s pretty cool.
They have a sense of responsibility for their neighbor. What Anne described as this community, this family, actually drives them to concern.
And then, finally, I actually think there’s an optimism there, this idea of the promise of a new America. They have a sense that things could be better than they are and I think that’s a good thing.
But, of course, there’s some negatives, too. Recently, David Brooks wrote a column, “Sam Spade at Starbucks.” And, interestingly, this came out after he spoke at the Q Conference. Q is the evangelical version of TED and it’s a left-leaning group of evangelical millenials primarily talking about cultural engagement. And David Brooks went and then he wrote this article. And he doesn’t reference Q, for anyone who was there, I think he’s talking about Q, and describing the people who are involved as having two fundamentally negative characteristics to their detriment.
The first is an evasion to politics and the second is an inability to see the problems of disorder. They believe that the world can be healed, and I’m quoting here, “If only the world could insert more care, more compassion, and more resources.” They don’t get that fundamentally the problem within societies is one of disorder. And politics is necessary to solve that problem. So, Jefferson Bethke, the guy who did the “Jesus < Religion” video that was all over YouTube, has much in common with the communitarians of Occupy Wall Street on these points. He wants to do away with the institution, the political organizations, so to speak, by which Christians sort out who they are, what they want to believe, and instead just focus on the idea of concern and compassion and love. It’s insufficient. Those are good things, but insufficient things.
And so I have hope because I am an educator and when you see opportunities like these moldable young people who exhibit so many positive traits, my desire is to go to them and say, “You’re close, but you’ve got a lot to learn yet.” It’s like the story of two baseball players who are running to first base. One of them has got perfect form and the other one’s got not perfect form and they tie. And you go to the general manager and you say, “So which guy do you want to draft?” And a smart GM will take the guy with the bad form, right? Because you fix his form and he beats the other guy to first base. Young people today have terrible form. But they’re running in the right direction. And our job as conservatives needs to be not condescending and not rejecting these ideas but, instead, as Ben said, using moral language to show that free enterprise, individual liberty, the rule of law, and what David Brooks calls moral realism are the keys to human thriving and to peace.