Curtain Raiser

When Ideas Do Without Leaders, Colltalers

In just a few weeks, the Occupy Wall Street movement reaches its second anniversary, still seeking to bring to justice the financial industry’s big wigs who caused the estimated $22 trillion meltdown of the global banking system of 2008. It’s been a bumpy ride, to say the least though.
It’s premature to draw a balance of the movement just yet, but one sticky point, apart from the fact that no CEO, or CFO, or any other Wall Street chief of this or that, has been tried so far for possible malfeasance, is the issue of how much a movement depends on its leaders.
An issue that may be moot for the civil rights movement as it marks Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s rousing speech, 50 years ago Wednesday. Rallies and another March to Washington over the weekend have driven the point that we’re still tragically short of racial equality even after all this time.
Less discussed, but perhaps equally painful, is the fact that the movement hasn’t produced a leader of his magnitude, or Malcom X’s, for that matter, two polarizing but complementary figures whose assassinations may have derailed for several decades the ideals they embodied.
We bring this up because one of the most piercing, albeit not fair, critical assessments of the Occupy movement, is the staunch resistance by its ‘conductors,’ for lack of a better word, to embrace and invest a leader or leaders with a mandate to speak in the name of the movement.
Not coincidentally, such approach has its biggest defenders in some of the movement’s most charismatic figures, which we’re not crazy to mention by name here. The idea of someone having ‘authority’ to organize even a list of demands for the majority was always a non starter.
Many see in the refusal to follow traditional hierarchical venues for organizing the source of a splintering process that may have threatened to defeat the group’s ability to act. Others see it a source of strength in such strategy and cite the Strike Debt and Occupy Sandy as examples of the movement pursuing independent, and equally progressive, agendas, which arguably wouldn’t be possible if it’d remained a solid block.
Nevertheless, the fundamental worth of the Occupy Wall Street’s rise has been already achieved: bring to national debate the unaccountability of a whole industry with so much leeway into government policy as to literally use it as a get out of jail card, even as it pickpockets taxpayers.
Still, when we see the ‘godfication’ of Dr. King and the distance of his message from the reality on the ground of inner city America and the monstrously unequal race relations in this country, as every statistics have shown, from jail populations to unemployment and poverty, one can’t help it but think what did they really kill on that April 45 years ago? How come the myth survived but not much of the man’s ideas?
There seems to be an almost wise resistance against placing the hopes and possible agenda of a whole group or ethnicity or race or lifestyle choice or whatever we need to push forward, in the hands of a single, necessarily flawed human being. Who can blame such weariness?
The world’s full of these cynical figureheads and their catastrophic betrayals and manipulation of their people, driving them to unspeakable mass carnage, and we’re not just talking Middle East here, but yes, you can name Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Tunisia, Yemen, you know them all.
The assassinations of Yitzhak Rabin, Rafic Hariri, and Benazir Bhutto, to name but three, have in effect derailed perhaps the greatest chance that Israelis, Palestinians, the Lebanese and the Pakistanis had in recent years for advancing their century-old desire for peace and stability, even though no one could completely vouch for their integrity as politicians or ability as leaders to fulfill their peoples’ aspirations.
To prove that the issue is at the center of modern mass uprisings, even of the non violent variety, one of the first assertions coming from the surprising rallies that took over the streets of Brazil this June, was that the protesters refused to name a leader or a political cause for their movement. Apparently, as a first matter of principle, it was crucial for participants to detach themselves from traditional power structures.
No wonder, charges of behind-the-scenes manipulation by an elite of former political operatives, with an invested interest in destabilizing the current party in power, were immediately leveraged, in what may have been yet another form of political counter-maneuvering as well.
The thousands of Brazilians who still occupy neighborhoods, albeit with less frequency now, deny any affiliation, just as the Occupy here and in Europe, refuses to form permanent alliances with unions and other grassroots movements, mindful such associations could empty their own M.O. In the end, it’s not easy to pinpoint where they may gain strength or weaken from such a strategic choice.
Dr. King, of course, as any of the leaders we’ve mentioned, is a far more complex character than history and the myths surrounding his march, however they overall wound up helping the civil rights movement, give him credit for. Thus, before we forget, he would definitely be more effective having survived all attempts against his life, than as a martyr, as he’s treated now by the media and the establishment.
Which has been all along, the whole problem of glorifying the rhetoric over what no set of words can etch into reality: actions. That’s why the recent assault into the Voting Act, for instance, can cause more damage to the future of democracy in this country, than even one of the greatest speeches such as “I Had a Dream” can do to keep the ideals of the civil rights movement, and of race relations, alive.
There are many sides of this ‘chicken and the egg’ quagmire. But make no mistake: when forces of darkness target a leader for execution, their political calculation, that beheading a movement is the fastest way to do the more damage, is usually proven right.
No ideal can persevere without people supporting it, and no leader comes out of thin air to take on the helm. They depend on each other. But for all the apparently spontaneous nature of some mass uprising, such as the so-called Arab Spring for example, the convergence of so many different visions for what’s best for everyone often requires someone, or at least a well-defined set of principles, to move forward.
That so few are willing to viscerally commit to lead, and many of those who do either are corrupt, or get killed, or both, may speak volumes about how the gap between the masses and the power capable of changing their fate has grown so wide in these 50 years.
As for those bemoaning President Obama’s leadership flaws and diminishing inspiration to black Americans, despite well intended efforts and orator gifts, let’s let history run its course. And hope that in his long life, he fulfills at least some of the hopes he once arouse in all of us. Have a safe week. WC


One thought on “Curtain Raiser

  1. WordsFallFromMyEyes says:

    I didn’t know that about Occupy, that they didn’t want a leader in their ranks. Interesting indeed. I sort of wonder how anything gets organised, and then done, without someone to lead. There’s nothing ugly about a leader, to my view – depending on the soul of the leader.

    Interesting again, Wesley. Truly interesting read. I didn’t know as much about Obama, either.


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