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A conservative who was right about Occupy

In the heady early days of Occupy Wall Street, there was a lot of talk about whether this thing was really a movement or something else, something presumably less worthy of attention. In an early Room for Debate discussion at The New York Times, for instance, the eminent social movement scholar Stephen Zunes stressed that “protests are not a movement”; I insisted, in the same discussion, on calling Occupy an “occupation-turned-movement.” To me, the evidence was this: Occupy was confounding the normal political spectrum. It wasn’t just people aligned with what are normally called the left or right, but an assemblage of people who reflected the inadequacy of the right-and-left spectrum for reflecting people’s longings — libertarians and anarchists, socialists and liberals, veterans and peaceniks, conservatives and utopians.

Over time, a more familiar leftist activist culture came to dominate the movement; at right about that time (with the help of coordinated repression) it started losing steam. But I’m reminded of that early movement moment by the release of Joseph Bottum’s new book, An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America. I once met Bottum around his dinner table when he was editor of First Things, an organ of religious neoconservatism; he’s also a writer for The Weekly Standard and an avid science fiction reader. He explains in an interview on the book’s Amazon page (which Paul Elie points to at Everything That Rises):

In some ways, An Anxious Age really began when I was sent out to report on the protestors at Occupy Wall Street — and couldn’t finish the assignment. I could feel a spiritual anxiety about modern civilization radiating from nearly all of them, but I could find no easy way to explain it.

Now, two years later, this book is my answer: Not just those protestors, but nearly everyone today is driven by supernatural concerns, however much or little they realize it. Radicals and traditionalists, liberals and conservatives — together with politicians, artists, environmentalists, followers of food fads, and the chattering classes of television commentators: America is filled with people frantically seeking confirmation of their own essential goodness. We are a nation of individuals desperate to stand on the side of morality—anxious to know that we are righteous and dwell in the light.

There’s a bit more elaboration in the preface of the book itself, with a passage that also appeared in a book review on anarchism for Christianity Today:

[I]n the purity of their spiritual angst, the protestors seemed to me a revelation. Conservative journals and websites at the time made much of the underreported crime, the rapes and robberies, at Occupy sites, even while liberal publications pronounced the movement utterly peaceful. But my own experience was that the protestors were, on the whole, astonishingly good people, if the word good is used in a somewhat special sense. There around Zuccotti Park, down near Wall Street, a few hundred of them had gathered for deeply felt moral purposes they could not name with any precision — for moral goals they often refused, as a moral principle, to specify. … An era more comfortable than ours with religious history would have understood immediately what Occupy Wall Street was: a protest against the continuing reign of Satan and a plea for the coming of the Kingdom of God, with a new heaven and a new earth.

Bottum repeats the all-too-common error that Occupiers were unspecific about their ambitions; somehow, no one was willing to recognize that several notable declarations of principles were passed by Occupy Wall Street’s General Assembly within a few days. But those documents in fact affirm precisely what Bottum’s instincts told him — that the movement was as much the sign of a spiritual longing as of a political one. Policy “demands” weren’t forthcoming, thus, for good reason: mere policy wasn’t what this movement was about. Yes, most Occupiers agreed that smarter financial regulation policies would be nice, but rather more of interest was the question of who makes policy and how, and even what policy means in the first place. They were concerned with a deeper and truer kind of democracy, one rooted in a renewed belief in human dignity and social responsibility.

In a blog post in the fall of 2011, Bottum expressed curiosity about “the Christian elements that may have wandered, isolated and alone, into the movement.” Without expecting to, I kept coming across such elements over the course of my reporting on Occupy for publications including Harper’s, The Nation, and this one, now collected in my book, Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. In the movement’s assemblies, I recognized a kind of Christian ekklesia, with all things held in common; in its proclamations, it appealed to a higher authority than law and a new social contract; even its decline took the form of an apocalypse. After it clamored for “sanctuary” from a church, I argued it was time for the movement to take religion more seriously — while doing my part to help in Occupy Catholics — and in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, it did. Theologians and biblical scholars and “sacred activists” have taken inspiration from Occupy, and the discussion about its implications is only beginning.

That a critic like Bottum, most at home in conservative quarters, credits Occupy for inspiring his book is to me a reminder of why the movement caught hold of me and so many others so fiercely at the outset: it had the potential to recenter our politics and our discourse and our spectrum. Its failures were less failures of aspiration than of accomplishment — that it wasn’t diverse enough, or empowering enough, or transformative enough to live up to its own transcendental ambitions.