There’s a lot to contemplate in the Occupy Wall Street protests: why are they only now gaining any sort of mainstream press coverage? why do we as a culture seem to condone the brutality evidenced by some of the cops? why have arrests led to even more protests? who are these people, anyway? what do they really want? how “spontaneous” is this stuff? do we need to send emergency supplies of granola and patchouli to New York?
All of these are legitimate questions, and all—no doubt—have complex but ultimately comprehensible answers. I’ll even try to provide some of those insights in the days ahead. But the protests and their aftermath have also generated a question in my mind for which the response can only be a disbelieving head shake: what the hell is the Right thinking?
I get the whole “class warfare meme” being mouthed by the likes of Mitt Romney, but the more strident tones adopted by Presidential candidate flavor-of-the-month Herman Cain and veteran Fox News windbag Bill O’Reilly are harder to fathom. Cain says “if you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself!” This is pretty much an echo of O’Reilly’s “they’re jobless because they don’t want to work…. All they have to do is take a shower and they can get a job if they went to college.”
Apart from the obvious factual errors and interpretative horror-shows (the protests are more about corruption than about jobs, the complaint is the compensation for jobs rather than the jobs themselves, etc.), and even leaving aside the fulfillment of every Democratic strategist’s wet dream by alienating the under-employed and the simply angry, there’s something very odd indeed here. The Right is so terrified of some sort of conspiracy of the Left to distract our attention from bad economic numbers (that’s Cain’s argument) that they don’t recognize that the actual protesters (rightly) regard the Democrats, whose whimpers of protest die away when the campaign contributions roll in, as only slightly less complicit in the sorry state of economic affairs than the Republicans, who are more eagerly evil.
Herman Cain is a bigot and a bloviating jackass, but presumably he has at least a modicum of sense or he couldn’t have risen to the top of his profession. Bill O’Reilly is also a bright guy: not as bright as he thinks he is, but, of course, you could combine the best qualities of Aristotle, Einstein, Mozart, Lincoln, and da Vinci and not be as smart as O’Reilly thinks he is. But here, Cain and O’Reilly just got flat suckered. Whether the bait was dangled in front of them intentionally is not clear; that they bit, absolutely intentionally, is.
In Oedipus the King, the title character brings about his own demise by hubristically attempting to circumvent his fate: he abandoned Corinth in the mistaken belief that he could thereby protect his father and mother there, little realizing that his biological parents were in fact in Thebes. And so he kills his father on the road and is awarded the hand (and other body parts) of his mother as a reward for solving the riddle of the Sphinx. But it all starts with the belief that he can cheat the gods.
What happens to our two 21st century blowhards is similar: undeterred by reality, they forged ahead with their talking points, oblivious to the consequences. What consequences, you ask? Well, how about this: in their zeal to paint the protesters as whiners and chronic malcontents, these two paragons of the Right are arguing in no uncertain terms that the economic malaise felt by many people in the country is illusory. If all you have to do is take a shower to get a job, then all those unemployment figures don’t mean anything.
Commentators on both sides of the political divide agree on one thing: that the albatross around the neck of President Obama’s re-election bid is that 9.1% unemployment rate, up from less than 8% when Obama took office. And for all the CBO figures that suggest the President’s stimulus package saved us from a much greater disaster, the fact remains that jobs—the lack of them—will prove to be the biggest drag on the Obama 2012 campaign. Nor does it seem the President has much to offer. True, there’s that jobs bill, but neither John Boehner, who would cheerfully destroy the economy if it results in putting a Republican in the White House, nor Harry Reid (of “with friends like this…” fame) seem much interested in passing it, even in modified (read: “eviscerated”) form. The unemployment rate is therefore a virtual certainty to be higher on Election Day 2012 than on Inauguration Day 2009: and we can pretty much count on the Republicans to chant in unison that “he made it worse,” caring not a whit, of course, whether actually he did or not.
Indeed, it was beginning to look like Mr. Obama had no rejoinder to those charges. But wait, who’s that riding in on a white charger to whisk our beleaguered hero away from the clutches of electoral disaster? Why, it’s Bill O’Reilly and his faithful retainer Herman Cain! (Or is that Herman Cain and his faithful retainer Bill O’Reilly? I can never remember.) The unemployment problem isn’t systemic! It isn’t a failure of leadership! It’s completely unrelated to politics altogether! People are unemployed for two reasons only: they’re lazy, and they stink. The current economy is not, therefore, Mr. Obama’s fault, and no, the Republican House isn’t going to sign off on a stimulus package consisting of buying and distributing a few million crates of deodorant body wash. So our slothful and aromatic work force remains un- or under-employed, but at least we know whom to blame: not the guy we’re trying to defeat, but rather the voters themselves.
These guys are just too inscrutable for me.