In Which the New Yorker Gives Linda Hirshman Space to Feign Knowledge of OWS (and Promote Her Book)


Pic from the New Yorker.

I don’t know Linda Hirshman, and by the looks of this post on the New Yorker’s News Desk blog, she certainly doesn’t know anything about me, my friends, or the movement I belong to. The difference is that the most famous name in magazines doesn’t give me the space to rattle off her inadequacies without apparently doing even a modicum of research or engaging in any serious reflection.

Early on in her book promo/uninformed collage of Occupy stereotypes, Hirshman discusses how excellent activists were back in the day and, by implication, suggests that OWS’ talent pool is shallower:

Stonewall was the product of a handful of brilliant community organizers applying basic principles of social organizing. Without them, Stonewall would have been nothing more than one of several gay-bar pushbacks in the late sixties, or another one of the non-gay street demonstrations that characterized New York in that tumultuous time.

Without minimizing the outstanding contributions of the community organizers involved, Stonewall and the movement it precipitated were the products of all those who took part, not just the leaders. If thousands didn’t make the difficult decision to out themselves on the first Pride Parade that she (rightly) holds in such high regard, well, it wouldn’t have been much of a parade, would it? And if its experienced organizers she’s after, Occupy has a deep bench. I hate to rattle off names because I’m skeptical of the Great Man Theory of Activism, but to cite one amazing activist, how about Lisa Fithian? In 30+ years of action, she’s helped organize union strikes, WTO protests, relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina, and more. She’s also been invaluable to Occupy. We aren’t, in other words, the posse of mindless and unstrategic enfants terribles that Hirshman seems to think we are.

She then tries to score some cheap points by slamming flash mobs and our alleged meeting habits:

The activists also had a regular place to meet in a structured way–and meetings, not flash mobs, are the heart of an effective movement.

This is a pretty clear tipoff that Hirshman has probably done zero research. As I tweeted at her (she’s yet to respond), Occupy Wall Street has meetings literally everyday. We even have a list of these meetings on our website, easily available by Google for any author who wants to write a blog post about us for the New Yorker! If she’d bother to look and maybe attend one of these meetings, she’d find that they are even “structured.” Facilitators propose agendas, we consense on them, there is procedure for offering proposals and issuing opinions, etc. But why actually check things out when its so much easier to pretend we’re in a constant state of flash mob! (Noting against flash mobs–they worked well for ACT UP, too–it’s that just they’re far from all we do.)

Hirshman continues:

[Gay bookstore owner Craig] Rodwell did what any smart organizer would do: he brought in a handful of his trusted friends to plan the event. Rodwell’s committee met every week in the bookstore. He had a discrete, manageable goal: to get people to show up on a particular Sunday in June, 1970. Reaching out to all the factions that were rapidly proliferating after Stonewall, he did not have to get everyone to agree on some lofty mission or to mass in front of a dozen banks to protest everything everybody did wrong, as Occupy did to so little effect on May Day this year. Just come out, as the old gay slogan said. And so they did.

As Rodwell left the Stonewall Inn that Sunday morning, a year after the riots and forty-two years ago this month, there were perhaps a dozen marchers. But as they proceeded from Stonewall up Fifth Avenue to Central Park, the numbers grew until there were an unheard of crowd of thousands of gay men and lesbian women out and out of doors for the first time in history. And so the myth of Stonewall began. Strategic, discrete, well-planned, original (in its time), the Stonewall march is the pure manifestation of how social movements succeed.

That’s awesome! Honestly, I’m in awe. Truly revolutionary moments like this are why OWS has such a strong admiration for veterans of the Gay Rights Movement. But what does this have to do with Occupy, exactly? On May Day, we got thousands into the streets, too, but apparently we shouldn’t have picketed banks because–well, because what? Hirshman seems to be contradicting herself here, because earlier in the post she chides the movement for not having clearly articulated goals* yet here she’s saying the first Pride Parade was great because it was enough to “Just come out, as the old gay slogan said.” And you know what, for them it was. To come out as gay at that time was in itself a profoundly political act. On May Day–”to so little effect”–we channeled our political energies by picketing banks, holding a Free University with dozens of lectures and discussion groups, organizing a solidarity march from Union Square to Wall Street with unions and immigrant groups, and more. But yes, capitalism still stands. As much as I admire the march Hirshman describes, if you stop tracing the trajectory of the Gay Rights Movement at that point, it wouldn’t have had much of an effect either save, perhaps, the personal empowerment of its partcipants.

Which leads me to her next point:

It was the birthday party for Stonewall, not the birth the year before, that gave rise to the triumphant gay revolution.

Occupy has yet to reach its first birthday party. We’re nine months old. Yet according to her, the gay revolution essentially didn’t even start until a year after its opening salvo at Stonewall. As she surely knows, movement building is a long and arduous process. Forty-two years after Stonewall, most gay men and women in this country still can’t get married. For some reason, though, we’re expected to have broken up the banks and instituted a regime of economic justice in, oh, nine months, or else–in her words–”Occupy is failing.”

The Gay Rights Movement is a truly amazing thing. It continues to inspire me and many others affiliated with OWS. What I resent is Hirshman using Stonewall like a police baton to bludgeon her strawman version of Occupy. But hey, as she points out in her post, she’s got a book to sell (“I describe the scene in a new book, ‘Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution.’”) What better way to promote her tome than to talk up how much better her subject is than a contemporary movement she hasn’t even bothered to do cursory research on? Maybe it’s an excellent book. Maybe Hirshman is more concerned with getting the facts right when writing about a movement she cares about than one that she doesn’t. But I doubt I’ll read it. After all, I have OWS meetings to attend, ones with brilliant activists that meet in a structured way.

Maybe I’ll run into her at Pride, though. Based on the enthusiasm for OWS’ contribution to the upcoming festivities, OccuPride 2012, most activists are thankfully more interested in solidarity than ill-informed one-upsmanship.

*Hirshman should be reminded that “Gay Rights” is a broad movement, too. Did it want gay marriage, or to smash monogamy? Are transfolk part of the movement? There was dissent on these questions in the era she writes about (and there still is today, albeit to a lesser degree). But like Gay Rights, OWS uses its big tent to orchestrate targeted campaigns–cracking down on mob bars for them and, say, foreclosure resistances for us.

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One Response to In Which the New Yorker Gives Linda Hirshman Space to Feign Knowledge of OWS (and Promote Her Book)

  1. Steve Welsh says:

    Brilliant points, Travis. Kind of embarrassing the NY’er printed it. I hope you’re submitting these points to their ed staff…

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