In an essay called “Christmas and the Aesthetes” in the volume “Heretics,” the irrepressible G.K. Chesterton paints a charming picture of an organization that might be thought of as the Occupy Wall Street movement of his day, namely: the Salvation Army!
The Salvation Army, no doubt early in the Twentieth Century in Britain a more cacophonous and robust bandwagon than the remnants we see collecting and selling old clothes and furniture today, was viewed by educated people (according to Chesterton) thusly:
“I have no doubt they do a great deal of good, but they do it in a vulgar and profane style; their aims are excellent, but their methods are wrong.”
But Chesterton begs to differ:
To me, unfortunately, the precise reverse of this appears to be the truth. Their methods are the methods of all intense and hearty religions; they are popular like all religion, military like all religion, public and sensational like all religion.
Referring to a housing plan for the poor conceived by the Salvation Army’s second “General,” Bramwell Booth, Chesterton continues:
And there is this difference between the matter of aims and the matter of methods, that to judge of the aims of a thing like the Salvation Army is very difficult, to judge of their ritual and atmosphere is very easy. No one, perhaps, but a sociologist can see whether General Booth’s housing scheme is right. But any healthy person can see that banging brass cymbals together must be right. A page of statistics, a plan of model dwellings, anything which is rational, is always difficult for the lay mind. But the thing which is irrational any one can understand.
And so it is with Occupy Wall Street. Is it not always said how grand the objectives of OWS are? How pure the sentiments and the motivations? And are not the methods – the unsanitary tent cities, the bellicose interruption of unpopular politicians, the disorderly baiting of police in cities like Oakland, the moving in to abandoned houses only to trash them and leave - are not those methods frequently derided as vulgar and profane?
It is plain to see. The goals of Occupy are virtue incarnate. Only their methods are questionable.
But in fact, as with Chesterton and the Salvation Army, I conclude that the case is just the reverse. The goals of the Occupy Wall Street movement would take far more than a sociologist to unravel, since the heart and soul of OWS itself (to say nothing of the members) can hardly say themselves what they are all about. And worse, they do differ from the Salvation Army insofar as their organizational principle is anything but military. Perhaps, as Chesterton says, a trained sociologist might decipher the singular idea in the head of the Salvation Army leader, General Booth. But what oracle can claim to grasp the multiplicity of ideas scattered across the heads of all of the OWS members? Who really has a clue what they are all squawking about except that it seems to have some warm and mushy altruism as its foundation.
And while we are at it, a brief aside: it is a little tenuous to refer to a group of people like Occupy Wall Street as an “organization.” At least it is not an organization in the human sense of the word, which would seem to imply that it be the product of thought and, well, organizing. Perhaps it is organized in the zoological sense in the way that, say, a coral reef is an organized (and occasionally beautiful) collection of living things. But insofar as OWS has adopted the utopian culture of consensus it is unlikely that they are bound to get any more organized than, say, the Perfectionists of Oneida.
But that then leads us back to culture; i.e. what the OWS-ers may want to achieve is hard to fathom, but what they are actually doing is, like the banging of cymbals, unmistakably clear. They are brash, they are intrusive and demand our attention, they impose their virtue on our senses and they do so with a style that harkens back to the communal standards of left wing protests throughout the past century (with appropriate embellishments like their group microphone). As Chesterton says: “the thing which is irrational anyone can understand.”
And really, we have to thank them for their vulgarity and for their profanity. Because we might otherwise be tempted to take some of the hodge-podge which they offer as motivation seriously. They intone many solemn pieties, some of them actually make sense. But as a movement, what they are about is what they do. And sensing that we are able to satisfy our consciences by dropping in a few spare coins as we pass by on our way to more important errands.