Naomi Wolf on #OWS

Jake Pollock, over at Facebook, asked me for my opinion on this Naomi Wolf piece on Occupy Wall Street (which, because I am addicted to Twitter, I think of as #OWS). My comments were as follows (with quoted text from the article as context for those of you who can’t be bothered opening another tag):

I’m less than impressed. 2 things to note:

1. Wolf claims the oppression of #OWS can only be an organised activity emanating from the top, but given the causal and sometimes unorganised way in which it is going, it seems equally likely that its people in authority acting in similar fashion with similar goals without necessarily colluding towards those goals.

In New York, a state supreme court justice and a New York City council member were beaten up; in Berkeley, California, one of our greatest national poets, Robert Hass, was beaten with batons. The picture darkened still further when Wonkette and Washingtonsblog.com reported that the Mayor of Oakland acknowledged that the Department of Homeland Security had participated in an 18-city mayor conference call advising mayors on “how to suppress” Occupy protests.

To Europeans, the enormity of this breach may not be obvious at first. Our system of government prohibits the creation of a federalised police force, and forbids federal or militarised involvement in municipal peacekeeping.

I noticed that rightwing pundits and politicians on the TV shows on which I was appearing were all on-message against OWS. Journalist Chris Hayes reported on a leaked memo that revealed lobbyists vying for an $850,000 contract to smear Occupy. Message coordination of this kind is impossible without a full-court press at the top. This was clearly not simply a case of a freaked-out mayors’, city-by-city municipal overreaction against mess in the parks and cranky campers. As the puzzle pieces fit together, they began to show coordination against OWS at the highest national levels.

2. Wolf’s list of what the #OWS people want is a bit weird: she’s presenting her findings as somehow being a definitive and exhaustive list of what the protestors want, but other journalists and academics have come up with different lists (or come to the conclusion that there is no one set of take home messages).

That is, until I found out what it was that OWS actually wanted.

The mainstream media was declaring continually “OWS has no message”. Frustrated, I simply asked them. I began soliciting online “What is it you want?” answers from Occupy. In the first 15 minutes, I received 100 answers. These were truly eye-opening.

The No 1 agenda item: get the money out of politics. Most often cited was legislation to blunt the effect of the Citizens United ruling, which lets boundless sums enter the campaign process. No 2: reform the banking system to prevent fraud and manipulation, with the most frequent item being to restore the Glass-Steagall Act – the Depression-era law, done away with by President Clinton, that separates investment banks from commercial banks. This law would correct the conditions for the recent crisis, as investment banks could not take risks for profit that create kale derivatives out of thin air, and wipe out the commercial and savings banks.

No 3 was the most clarifying: draft laws against the little-known loophole that currently allows members of Congress to pass legislation affecting Delaware-based corporations in which they themselves are investors.

When I saw this list – and especially the last agenda item – the scales fell from my eyes. Of course, these unarmed people would be having the shit kicked out of them.

I’ve actually become increasingly wary of Wolf post her support for the claim that Assange’s sexual assault allegations are a honeytrap. This seems like more of that kind of analysis.

Our discussion then went on to the topic of Denver Airport (which apparently lays out, in the artwork on its walls, the New World Order’s plan for human domination), but it set me to thinking. Wolf is engaging in the same kind of joining the dots that people like David Icke engage in. Indeed, she even makes this explicit when she writes:

So, when you connect the dots, properly understood, what happened this week is the first battle in a civil war; a civil war in which, for now, only one side is choosing violence.

Note how she says “properly understood:” like Icke, she is claiming that if you don’t connect the dots the same way she has, then you don’t have a handle on what is really going on. This is, as some writers on conspiracy theories will remark, the thesis of hidden history. Things are not what they seem, they will say: only when you wear the right kind of conceptual glasses can you see what events really mean in the grand scheme of things.

Now, some theses of hidden history will be correct (for example, my beloved Moscow Show Trials example is a classic case of there being a hidden history behind the official explanation of what happened in 1930s Soviet Russia), but you need more of an argument for such a claim than the one Wolf is offering. Her argument seems to be the standard “America is an awful place, one under the thrall of the monied classes: therefore, the oppression of #OWS must be a conspiracy to shut up the 1%,” which may be true but also might not be. You could run an institutional analysis here which explains the same set of data but doesn’t mention conspiratorial behaviour. To warrant the inference to the existence of a conspiracy you need to show that conspiratorial activity is the most likely explanation of the event.

Wolf does not do that. Indeed, she seems to not only present a simple answer to the question “What is going on with the crackdown on #OWS?” as the explanation but also claims that it is the only candidate explanation worth considering. That is, frankly, not good enough. Yeah, sure, I agree that America is a terrible place and the monied classes have far too much power. I agree that it’s possible that, at some level, there is collusion going on to stop the #OWS protests. That doesn’t mean I think the crackdown is necessarily conspiratorial: there are a host of rival explanatory hypotheses which are consistent with those beliefs in which the people in power are acting in their own interests without necessarily having to organise a co-ordinated response, in secret.

And, most importantly, I’m willing to debate some of my assumptions about America and its internal power dynamics.

Claims of conspiracy are not just hard to prove but they should not be made lightly. Especially when you have a recognised pulpit and an adoring crowd.

Message ends.

5 thoughts on “Naomi Wolf on #OWS

  1. [I suspect this is spam, but it’s fascinating spam, so it’s getting past the filters, but with the URLs made inactive.]

    The Return to Equality

    In and around 10,000 bce (in the mideast), in order to exploit the recently invented technology of agriculture, the human species went from an infrastructure that was equal-on-the-average to one that was follow-the-leader.

    The equal-on-the-average infrastructure has a shaman who deals with chronic problems as required and a hunting-chief who leads the hunting-band as required. The shaman and the hunting-chief satisfy certain requirements that make them equal-on-the-average.

    The follow-the-leader infrastructure has a permanent chief who, with assistants, forms an aristocracy. Because the leader is not required to be equal-on-the-average, the follow-the-leader infrastructure is not as stable as the equal-on-the-average infrastructure. When it fails it is generally replaced by another of the same kind.

    Around 1500ce, (in Europe) the technology of the ocean-going ship was developed sufficiently that shipmasters and traders could travel and exchange trinkets for tchotchkes, which were exotic goods that were rare enough to be used as status symbols. These could be brought back to Europe and sold to local leaders. The shipmasters and traders (and bankers, who were traders in money) became rich, but did not have the status of the leader class, called the aristocracy.

    Calvin invented a new class, the elect, who had the characteristic that they were blessed by God. The way you could identify the elect was that they prospered, i.e., they were rich. In other words, capitalism is a device that was invented by Calvin in order to give the mercantile interests that supported Calvinism the same kind of social status that the earlier military (and, later, landed) aristocracy had.

    Calvin’s elect constituted a quasi-aristocracy that were considered better than ordinary people, because they were rich, but not as much better as traditional aristocrats. They constituted a “middle class”.

    The religious aspect of the Calvinist elect was soon lost as investment became just another technology. Capitalism became the notion that a person who acquires money that is surplus to survival needs has status equivalent to a person who has social rank (e.g., an aristocrat or senior bureaucrat).

    A surplus of money usually conveys more status if it is held for longer or inherited than if is recently stolen but that is less important than it was in the past. The method of the initial acquisition of the surplus money is unimportant. By a series of transformations capitalism currently provides status for senior members of the government bureaucracy (democrats) and senior members of the corporate bureaucracy (republicans).

    The net effect of capitalism is that from 1500 to 1950 it provided the social function of reversing the earlier change from equality-on-the-average (which functioned from 100,000bce to 8,000bce) to follow-the-leader (which functioned from 8,000bce to 1500 ce). This gradual increase in status of the middle class is called upward mobility.

    From 1500 ce to 1950 ce upward mobility was certified by the display of status symbols or tchotchkes. However, it was recognized by economists in the 1950s that continuation of this practice would create shortages of resources for tchotchkes; so the policy of the elite from 1950 was to reverse evolution and make the middle and lower classes downwardly mobile.

    Since capitalism no longer provides the useful evolutionary function of gradually making everybody equal, capitalism will no longer have any useful social or evolutionary function and it can cease to exist. Since we have already decided that a particular skin color, childhood language, birth location, political or religious opinion, or gender do not determine status, we can easily decide that neither does the accumulation of tchotchkes.

    Then we can eliminate money as a medium of exchange and replace it with computer accounts.

    That will leave only position in the bureaucracy as a potential measure of status and most bureaucrats requiring contact with humans can be replaced by Turing-pass voices like the “Siri” in the iPhone 4S.

    Human workers may still be necessary but they should only serve in positions that:
    (1) require more creativity than robots are capable of
    (2) can have input and output through Turing-pass voices like “Siri”.
    (3) do not require contact with other human beings

    That will eliminate bureaucratic position as a basis for status.
    After a while, when people get used to not having a hierarchy based on skin color, gender, bureaucratic position, childhood
    language, and the like; these can be relaxed to guidelines rather than hard and fast rules.

    The function of the government shall be to:

    (1) Provide whatever food, clothing, shelter and other health services are necessary for everyone’s survival and to distribute these goods and services equitably; and

    (2) Make those provisions on the most efficient possible basis with the minimum damage to the environment. Note that most of the direct interaction with humans can be done by robots (most being in non-human form) because that will generally be the most consistent. Note that by maximizing efficiency rather than minimizing cost the criterion provides for maximum utility.

    (3) Provide equal access to available surplus resources that are not needed for survival of the global population to allow for individuals to express creativity not otherwise provided for in (1) and (2), and

    (4) to provide a social mechanism for coping with unanticipated conditions or needs.

    The current activity of “Occupy Wall Street” serves to call attention to the lack of a useful function for capitalism, and thus facilitate its extinction.

    A discussion of evolutionary progress from 100,000 bce to 2011ce is provided in: http://rEvolution.karleklund.net.

    A projection of evolutionary progress in the future is provided in http://utopia.karleklund.net.

  2. “but other journalists and academics have come up with different lists (or come to the conclusion that there is no one set of take home messages).”

    Can you name any academics that have studied what OWS wants?

  3. “Wolf is engaging in the same kind of joining the dots that people like David Icke engage in.”

    Conspiracies of politicians and finance execs have actually happened before. Reptoid alien invasions have not. That’s an enormous difference between Icke and Naomi. Further – I don’t see where Naomi proposes that her theorized conspiracy has all-embracing world-ruling power that can cover up any sort of evidence.

    Further, this:

    “Wonkette and Washingtonsblog.com reported that the Mayor of Oakland acknowledged that the Department of Homeland Security had participated in an 18-city mayor conference call advising mayors on “how to suppress” Occupy protests.”

    is evidence of some level of collusion at at least the inter-city and DHS level. Whether the impetus for that came from the mayors or from the DHS, or something of both is unclear, but it certainly happened, and it’s certainly collusion, though it doesn’t extend as far as Naomi’s theorized conspiracy.

    There are other bits, such as this collusion of lobbyists:
    http://thinkprogress.org/special/2011/11/21/373143/washington-lobbyists-occupy-wall-street/
    which also show some level of upper level collusion.

    Naomi is also correct to point out that the DHS is not legally entitled to advise mayors as it apparently did, without authorization from congress. Unlike Naomi, I suspect they acted on a pre-existing generic authorization which they felt covered the situation, rather than on a specific authorization. That means the DHS-congress connection is insufficient to show NY Representative Peter King, or congress as a whole, or the President, is in on the collusion. (Although, congress is equally culpable in either case.) But this is on the whole a lot more evidence than the likes of David Icke ever has to offer up.

  4. I’ve been asleep for the past several hours, but some of my friends have dug up a few arguments that the story about the DHS colluding with the mayors of several cities is unreliable:

    http://pleasecutthecrap.typepad.com/main/2011/11/cutting-the-crap-michael-moore-on-dhs-conspiracy.html

    This is important, because Naomi Wolf’s essay, which I shared earlier, relies heavily on that story. Without it, the idea that there is upper level collusion falls apart.

    • Sorry it’s taken me a while to get round to replying: I spent the day mired in business that left me in no mind to engage in critical analysis.

      So, yes, that critique of the “Minneapolis Examiner” source seems fairly spot on, and you’re right, we have grounds to doubt the evidence for the so-called collusion. I say “so-called” because even if that source had been in some way reliable, it’s still interpreted evidence: it’s quite possible that there are other explanations other than conspiracy-cum-collusion to explain such activity. This is my worry about Wolf’s analysis in that article: she’s taking one interpretation (the conspiratorial) and saying it is the most likely. The evidence (such as it turn out it wasn’t) was evidence for her claim only if you agreed that the most likely interpretation of it was conspiracy.

      Which leads to my other point. You said:

      But this is on the whole a lot more evidence than the likes of David Icke ever has to offer up.

      Actually, Icke offers up a lot of evidence, most of it factual but, a bit like what I’m saying is going on with Wolf here, interpreted in such a way that whilst it is evidence for some claim, it’s not the evidence he thinks it is (i.e. his interpretation of the evidence is wacky). For example, Icke talks about the real history of the Illuminati and yet infers from it all sorts of weird claims, and he often points out how their are similarities between world religions and the like, and then infers weird explanatory hypotheses which link the similarities in unlikely ways. So, it’s unfair to Icke (a weird sentence to write, I must admit) to suggest that he doesn’t provide much evidence: he provides lots. It’s just that a lot of it is up to interpretation.

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