Occupy Column-Inches!


By chance, I was on scene for the initial stage of the Occupy Calgary event last weekend. The Occupants, exhibiting the same implacable literalism as the terrorists who thought the World Trade Centre was somehow crucial to world trade, had descended upon the courtyard of the city’s Bankers Hall complex. But they posed no particular threat to any banking activity, legitimate or otherwise. Mostly they just impeded pedestrian access to a shopping mall for a little while, creating an ephemeral nuisance to a few small businesses. They did have one Starbucks quite effectively hemmed in, but if my back-of-envelope calculations are right, they indulged in just enough corporate caramel macchiatos to make up for it. Soon the mob shambled off to Olympic Plaza, where I gather they are still struggling to bring about Year Zero.

As an observer, I had the incalculable advantage of not being able to make out any of the speeches that were being delivered to the crowd of roughly 200 protesters. I was able to enjoy the protest as a purely social phenomenon—precisely the light in which I think the Occupancies are probably best viewed. Urban existence is inherently somewhat lonely for the best-equipped and most conformist among us. How much lonelier must it be for the semi-employable crackpot, the born-too-late hacky-sacker, the dyspeptic Social Credit pamphleteer, the lesbian anarchist who dislikes the other four lesbian anarchists in town?

The Occupants have been scorned as bored, mollycoddled trust-fund kids, but in Calgary they spanned the generations. This may, indeed, be part of the fun; people who don’t go to church no longer have much opportunity for face-to-face intergenerational amity. It goes without saying that the protest was also a supreme dating opportunity; those who came with tents carried their own ready-made makeout venues.

Some participants appeared to be engaged in an unapologetic search for attention, and many appeared to have misplaced the correct date of Halloween. One pretty but weirdly stern-faced girl put on a long display of hula-hoop expertise; watching her gyrate, I could not easily account for the thought process that led her to wake up that day and decide that her hula hoop was just the thing to to smash the corporate state once and for all. (What ever happened to good old dynamite?) But if you are good with a hula hoop, how many opportunities do you have to display that ability?

To join the Left and participate in street politics is to join a tradition, to link oneself up with a heritage of activism; there is no simple analogue on the Right, which prizes tradition as a principle but does not favour theatrical open-air protest (with exceptions for partisans of particular issues, notably abortion). It is safe to say that every Occupy Someplace attendee who has any awareness of history thinks himself engaged in creating a distant echo, however hollow and distorted, of Selma and Greenham Common and the Free Speech Movement.

But this is cargo-cult protest, a series of motions without meaning. There are no stakes to speak of, there is no target, and the Occupists are hazarding nothing more than a few hours in plastic handcuffs. They do not even have any demands. In fact, they insist quite firmly upon this point—that Occupying is somehow a mystical expression of unity and collectivity, but one in which the participants explicitly have no common aim, no shared principle to urge, and no intention of changing anything in particular at all.

Except, perhaps, by offering an example of peaceful protest itself. The medium is the message, right? Yet even this content-free agitation, this strait-laced, narcissistic example-setting, isn’t going so well. It turns out that the philosophy of total inclusion and “consensus” decision-making cannot scale up to the size of a corner of a city block without a certain amount of chaos, filth, and recrimination. One is tempted to suggest that the “marginalized”, the “disenfranchised”, and the “voiceless” are doing a reasonably good job of demonstrating how they got that way.

Is it really any wonder that an inner-legion capitalist demonoid like Mark Carney would praise the Occupants? They are the best advertisement that the “1%” could possibly have devised. At a time when finance, partisan politics, and big business are testing the faith of even their most expert practitioners, the Occupy Everywhere movement is out there on the streets, flooding the news audience with Reaganite hormones and hoisting the Protestant work ethic from its deathbed. Be honest, now: doesn’t reading about these people make you want to go out and put on a hard hat?

Picking on the Occupiers will bring forth a torrent of defenders to say “Well, what about the Tea Party?” And I suppose that this is a very good answer. The emptiness and incoherence of the Occupy Everywhere protests provides a hint that the equally incoherent Tea Parties are also open to the Bowling Alone analysis; these “protests” are a spontaneous response to secularization and alienation, and probably without much political potential—little more, really, than a means for the hurt and angry and confused to recognize like minds and to know that they are not alone. The Tea Parties are beset by mirror-images of the same camera-hungry attention-whores as the Occupiers, and where the Tea Parties attract footloose retirees in RVs, the Occupy protests draw distracted grad students. (This being the Viagra era, the RVs may be as active as the tents.)

The Tea Partiers, notoriously, look back to a past of self-reliance and minarchism that never quite was; the Occupants dream of a future of perfect social justice that cannot be. The crowds share only an irksome, poorly-elucidated sense that something is not quite kosher in America, that the common man is the mark in an ongoing con. Mercifully, it is hard to imagine a leader or a vanguard that could merge and exploit them.


Occupy Column-Inches!

  1. Essentially all meaning is up for debate or is personal, or is opinion,
    meaning is unimportant or is only important to the spectacle. This is why you
    have such large debates about meaning in old media forms that like to
    narrowcast meaning into categories and narratives. Right now the occupy Wall Street
    movement is covered in the context of what does it mean. The same can be said
    of the London riots earlier in the year, the media coverage was largely
    centered around the continued idea that meaning was undiscoverable. The
    spectacle is covered without a meaning, it is the image of
    occupying Wall Street or rioting in the streets of London that is important and
    self-reinforcing. The meaning or intention is no longer necessary to construct these events.

    • Old media forms like blogs, you mean?

  2. I think Americans have many things to complain about while Canadian protesters are mostly numpties who are unaware that Canada and America are different countries with distinct problems. 

    I am Tea Party type myself so I obviously think right wing have a point when they argue that America is bankrupting itself and Fed budget needs to be fixed. Occupy Wall St types are identifying one problem but not entirety – more focus needs to be on Washington and their technocratic beliefs. 

    Hula hoop woman should go to shambhala – it’s in her part of world – and do her thing there.


    • I think Americans have many things to complain about while Canadian
      protesters are mostly numpties who are unaware that Canada and America
      are different countries with distinct problems

      I don’t discount the notion that many Canadian “occupiers” are protesting at least in part in solidarity with the protesters in the U.S. with their bigger problems and more legitimate gripes.

  3. A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” – Maya Angelou

    • That’s cute

      • and that’s why you don’t understand.

        • It is so shapeless and formless and organically growing and transforming itself

  4. After your second paragraph in which you explained how you were well positioned to review the aims of the protesters because you weren’t able to hear any of the speeches, I decided that I would “enjoy” your blog post “as a purely social phenomenon” rather than reading it.

  5. There are a few hula-hoopers in Olympic Plaza at every event there – even in the dead of winter.  Once the buzz from their E has worn off they are quite apolitical.

  6. They are just as clueless in Vancouver.   Mayor Moonbeam dithers away watching his popularity go up and down, hoping all will disapear before elections.   At least in Calgary you will have snow and freezing temperatures on your side.
    “Protesters at the Occupy encampment in downtown Vancouver say they have no plans to go anywhere until their demands are met, but it is not yet clear what those demands are, or how they can be met.

  7. As a person who began my involvement with the movement saying many of the same cynical and dismissive things as I see here, I can understand how it appears to those who aren’t very well informed about our actual goals. They affect every one of us. I can also understand why no one wants to hang out in a park freezing with the protesters in order to learn more. So we invite you to take part in the dialogue here: http://occupiedcalgaryfreepress.wordpress.com/
    Your comments and contributions are welcome.

    • Your choice of ‘nom de plume’ is a great disservice to the legacy of Mary Wollenstonecraft.
      Your rambling diatribe on your link suggests you may wish to join a commune.  From Canada’s fiat money to “We want a society and culture that encourages relationships that result less frequently in divorce,”


  8. JESUS MAN! LEARN TO FUCKING WRITE.. FIRSTLY.  SECONDLY. WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?  I dont think you have a god damn clue and you are like a week behind with this crappy, pointless criticism.  We’ve read this same bullshit a million times. Come up with something fucking original. Lesbian Anarchists? Trust fund kids? Hoola hoops? Make out venues?! no intention of changing anything in particular? And then you mindlessly link to Perez hilton, GAWKER?? GOOD GAWD!  That’s frigging laughable right there. and you’re not funny. in fact… your viagra joke was flat out stupid.

    For the record.. I am NOT the “marginalized”, the “disenfranchised”, and the “voiceless”. I am not Jobless, Uneducated and afraid of showering. I have a voice, and a mind of my own. I think for myself.  And you sir.. can go fuck your self. PEACE AND SOLIDARITY ! <3

    • I “liked” this comment just because it’s so crazy! 

      It’s so right, and yet simultaneously so wrong.  I can’t tell if it completely obliterates Cosh’s points, or brilliantly succeeds in making all of Cosh’s points for him!  Incredibly, I think it somehow manages to do both simultaneously!  Somehow, it’s an amazing attack and defense of Cosh’s column at the very same time!

      It also wouldn’t shock me if Cosh is one of the people who “liked” it.  Sadly, I fear the “f-word” may appear one too many times for it to be long for this world.

  9. “This is the people’s movement, an awakening of the 99%, a global
    revolution, we will be heard, we will occupy the spaces, we will occupy
    the halls of power, we will occupy the earth and ultimately create a
    world where all people can explore their potential in peace and security
    without fear or servitude. Occupy.”
    – Chis A Hooymans, Occupied Calgary Free Press

    • Let me know when you guys get around to occupying the earth. It’s lovely this time of year.

      •  And we would really like to keep it that way. For everyone.

      • I love you, Colby Cosh.

  10. Why does this article scare me? I’m no journalist but I could probably come up with a bunch of reasons why people are protesting. Perhaps a lack of focus is a sign that things are even more serious than we think.

    •  You’re right. They are. The media can point our noses in any direction they choose while the things that truly affect you and me are going on in plain sight. We need to educate ourselves about what is really going on. Here is one starting point. http://albertafraud.com/

  11. Mr Cosh is part of a dying breed, his kind was found in the 1950s where everyone conformed, everyone went to church, and the rich where taxed at 90%. His whole ideaology yearns to go back 60 years but we live now and when the most power country in the world (United States) embraces the occupy movement (which they are doing now)
    his kind will wake up.

    • So, wait, you’re saying that Cosh yearns to go back to a time when taxes were higher and the top 1% had less power and a smaller percentage of the wealth?


  12. I thought that this was an interesting piece on “explaining” the Occupy Wall Street movement to pundits (though it is admittedly focused on the U.S. movement, which many argue is a whole different thing from it’s Canadian counterparts, given the much different situations in the two countries).

    Be prepared though, it begins “Here’s a helpful tip: if you are a political pundit and you still don’t know what Occupy Wall Street stands for, you are an idiot. If you purport to make your living analyzing the political landscape, or from parsing the effectiveness of various political messages, or if you write columns explaining what the American people want based on your deep, intimate knowledge of what the American people want, but you still, after a month, cannot quite grasp what these uncouth people in the streets are going on about, then you are categorically bad at your job.”  The whole thing is not quite so petulant though.  (And I hasten to reiterate that it is focused on the AMERICAN protests, and I acknowledge that arguably the people at the Canadian protests are protesting against some conditions that DON’T ACTUALLY EXIST IN CANADA).

  13. Is the message of Occupy Wall Street actually obscure, or is Colby Cosh willfully obtuse? It’s called “Occupy Wall Street” — that’s a clue! And the Calgary variant gathered at the Bankers Hall complex — another clue, although Mr. Cosh derides the protesters for choosing that venue.

    Consider this account:

    “Taking a lap through Zuccotti Park, you’ll hear snippets of conversations about the environment, gay rights, police brutality, the Iraq War, Afghanistan, the drone program, tax cuts, foreign aid, and more. But the single overarching theme of the protests has been corporate greed. It is this one-note song of economic inequality that has so far allowed a collection of students, the unemployed, activists, anarchists, immigrants, and union members to form a coalition. They say they represent the 99 percent; the wealthiest 1 percent, they point out, controls 40 percent of the country’s wealth.”

    That seems sufficiently clear to me.

    I agree with the commenter who says that the protests are more salient in the USA than here in Canada. And yet … I’m still paying 20% interest on my VISA card, even when inflation is near 0%. Strange, isn’t it? It’s almost like a vast conspiracy to keep consumers perpetually indebted.

    • Now that you mention it, it IS a little strange that you describe it as a “conspiracy” when you could always just go ahead and not have a credit card. (And 20% seems high; have you asked your bank about other options, or would that count as engaging with the 1%?)

      • Care to address the primary point I made, which is that the message of Occupy Wall Street is perfectly clear?

        • The emphasis on inequality is clear but I’m not sure that really contradicts anything I wrote. My point was that the movement very specifically, almost as a point of honour, has no particular *remedy* to urge—nor even a common account of affairs, beyond the revelation that Wall Streeters are very greedy.

  14. Ah yes, what about the Tea Parties? I don’t recall a Cosh piece snarking and mocking the Tea Partiers, though I could be wrong. I seem to recall lots of positive terms like “grassroots”, and warm references to “real” citizens, free speech and second amendment rights, though not specifically from Cosh.

    ““Well, what about the Tea Party?” … these “protests” are a spontaneous response to secularization and alienation…”

    Except the Tea Party wasn’t exactly spontaneous, was it? Between Dick Armey, the Koch brothers and Fox News, the Tea Party was about as spontaneous as a shuffleboard game on the Loveboat. And surprise, surprise, they were in favour of the same pro-wealthy policies as their sponsors/organizers.

    “As an observer, I had the incalculable advantage of not being able to make out any of the speeches that were being delivered…”

    It certainly is an advantage when one sets out to write a content-free “critique” of the people making the speeches.

    While I acknowledge that things aren’t as bad in Canada as they are in the US, if you claim not to understand what these protests are about, you’re just plain not trying.

    • Tip of the hat for “about as spontaneous as a shuffleboard game on the Loveboat”

  15. Occupy
    … an experiment in leaderless revolution, a revolution where every
    individual is encouraged to contribute to the larger effort in any and
    all peaceful capacities that they can, many battles, many issues, many
    fronts and many activists all existing under a unified banner. It is
    natural and beneficial to the movement that different individuals have
    different goals, demands, needs, wishes and priorities. Despite the
    apparent inefficiency and soft focus, this unique new form of peaceful
    revolution is a large part of its strength. Occupy. Occupy …
    already tremendously successful in gaining widespread attention after
    only a month since its birth in New York, it is different, it is always
    moving, always growing, shifting – the Occupy movement is already an
    unstoppable force even if it is largely inscrutable or undefinable to
    the mainstream at the moment. They are seeing, they are hearing and they
    will learn. The message, while complex is based on goodwill,
    responsibility and charity, these are powerful weapons as the enemy is
    strong. Occupiers stay the course, use your brain, use your pen, use
    your body to create the changes we need to take human existence to the
    next level. Human rights, respect, fairplay and dignity are the new
    watchwords and any enterprise that is operating outside these boundaries
    are hereby put on notice. Occupy. Occupy … through a
    persistent and strengthening commitment by citizens, real people not
    corporations will set the global agenda and actively define it fairly
    across borders, online and via face-to-face collaboration. This is the
    people’s movement, an awakening of the 99%, a global revolution, we will
    be heard, we will occupy the spaces, we will occupy the halls of power,
    we will occupy the earth and ultimately create a world where all people
    can explore their potential in peace and security without fear or
    servitude. Occupy.

  16. A wonderful array of ad hominem attacks, poisoning the well, non-sequiturs, and straw man fallacies!  Such rich pickings!

    • Well, I am a professional.

  17. “The Tea Parties are beset by mirror-images of the same camera-hungry attention-whores as the Occupiers”
    The Tea Partiers know what they want, or at least strenuously reject the crap government they’ve been forced to swallow.  The Tea Partiers have an anchor: the US Constitution, individual liberty and limited government.  The Tea Partiers are not anywhere near the attention whores you describe.  They are quietly and peacefully holding meetings in town halls, living rooms and church basements.  They are debating how best to return to respecting the founding principles of their country.  They are engaging in the political sphere to articulate, defend, and IMPLEMENT these principles.

    The Occupiers are blasting capitalism while b!tching that the wi-fi sucks in their tents for their tablets.

  18. For every protester camping in a park there are ten more working quietly and invisibly to create the changes that will benefit everyone. http://occupiedcalgaryfreepress.wordpress.com/
    We want YOUR story.

  19. I have a tent, a computer, and I LOVE my wifi. That might piss some people off since I can’t work.  I’m one of those barely employable crackpots though. I was around too many of Graham James victims. My brother, who played pro hockey, thought it was fun to act out abuse on me. But he plays hockey so he’s a HERO!

    Lots of my friends are unemployable too.  One of them cleaned up bodies in Afghanistan. Now he can’t get social supports or treatment. Do you know there is only one treatment center in the country for PTSD? And it’s private!

    Another of my best friends lost her hair due to being stalked by a high-ranking RCMP officer. She can’t work either. Too sick now. No support for her and no punishment for him. He’s just way too important.

    We really try hard to suck up all your taxpayer dollars but no go. Those dollars are meant for promoting business. YAY for business! Alberta Works is one of the most frightening social programs I’ve encountered yet. Feeding the most vulnerable people to the worst employers is scary as fuck, from my perspective.