Debate Forum Left, 10/11/11

Time for outrage

By Benjamin Tompkins

Benjamin Tomkins

To say the Occupy Wall Street movement is disjointed and without a cohesive agenda is like criticizing Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” because it looks like a reoriented urinal. Once you understand the message, you understand why it looks the way it does.

1917, the year “Fountain” was rejected by the Society of Independent Artists on the grounds that it was not art, is coincidentally the birth year of another Frenchman, Stephane Hessel, whose booklet “Time for Outrage” is one of the primary motivating forces behind Occupy Wall Street and the larger international movement of which it is a part.

Hessel, now 94 years old, has lived a life of resistance and idealism in the face of oppression of the highest order. He participated in the French Resistance against the Nazis in WWII, was instrumental in reshaping the socioeconomic and political landscape of post-war France, and helped to draft the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In his short work of 32 pages, Hessel draws from his experience as a rebel and a diplomat to encourage the generation of the 21st century to draw on the vitality of the citizens of the 20th century, abandon apathetic acceptance of injustice and failed systems, and engage the outrages of our world in the spirit of revolution. He lists the two primary wellsprings from which all other injustices flow as:

1.  The intertwining of money and politics and the pursuit of riches

2. The lack of respect for basic human rights

By searching for those things in our society by which we should be outraged, we can begin to unravel the complex chains which bind our failing political, social, and economic landscape. “We therefore maintain,” he says, “our call for ‘a rebellion -peaceful and resolute- against the instruments of mass media that offer our young people a worldview defined by the temptations of mass consumption, a disdain for the weak, and a contempt for culture, historical amnesia, and the relentless competition of all against all.’ To the men and women who will make the 21st century, we say with affection:

‘To create is to resist.
To resist is to create.’”

I definitely recommend rereading that quotation, because the basic thrust of Occupy Wall Street, and indeed the parallel international movements, is right there in that paragraph. The reason the protests in both Dayton and abroad have such a varied message, is because they aren’t protesting a specific issue which needs to be addressed. They are pointing to systemic and pervasive problems with our government and society, and the individual sound bites you are seeing are symptoms of the larger illness they want to fix.

This is why most people are confused when they hear one protestor calling for free college education and another screaming about bank bailouts. All they can see is a porcelain urinal and a bunch of crazed protestors insisting it’s a fountain. What’s important to realize is that you won’t make them go away by conceding it’s a fountain. As the urinal was nothing more than a vehicle for Duchamp to engage the interpretive faculties of his audience, so too are the specificities of the protests a means of pointing out that our political and economic systems are not working and a larger revolution is needed.

And like Duchamp, the protesters have realized that to say something new they’re going to have to pursue some new techniques for doing it. With the advent of social media and the internet, the individual is capable of participating in democracy in a way that previously necessitated representation. If an issue comes before the country, we have an unprecedented capacity to tally the vote of every citizen quickly and accurately. Hence, the revolution is basing itself on leaderless democracy and general assemblies in which anyone may address the crowd.

Furthermore, the need to elect representatives results in a situation where corporations can use their extensive financial resources to legally and corruptly control those representatives to work on their behalf rather than on behalf of the people who actually elected them in the first place. Today, these corporations are so big that groups of individuals have little hope of exercising control over their state of affairs. I think we can all agree that this is outrageous, but to try to use the system in place to reduce corporate influence on politics would be as it were, drinking from the urinal or pissing in a fountain.

Above all, the movement calls for an educated and engaged citizenry which is willing to take ownership of their problems and work to fix them. It’s comprised of individuals who are willing to work together because they believe in what they are doing. I highly encourage you, if you have outrage, if you feel the need to engage, to get involved with Occupy Dayton and help develop a new idealism. Our world has a urinal and it needs a fountain.

Benjamin Tompkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist, and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colo. He hates stupidity, and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of the issue. Reach Ben Tompkins at

Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. Reach Ben Tomkins at

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