Europe's 'holy fools' set the tone for US Occupy Wall Street protesters
From Greece to Italy to Spain, young Europeans, much like the Occupy Wall Street protesters who have followed them, have been pushing for answers to high unemployment and poor representation.
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Some decry capitalism, many think it is useful. They admit to having no easy answers. They are mostly educated. A lot of them walk on the margins of the job market. In Europe, they speak of a kind of spiritual vacuum, a distress that goes past just their material plight and is bothering their souls. There’s a humanist dimension to this in secular Europe. Their dreams of an easy life have been upended. They don’t want to be consumerist robots. Their central hated phrase comes from politicians and financial elites who tell them “there is no alternative,” meaning no alternative to an endless condition of debt and shrinking possibilities.Skip to next paragraph
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It is hard to imagine some protestors on a morning commute to banks or insurance companies. They don’t wear suits. But as economist Paul Krugman wrote sympathetically about “the malefactors” in a recent New York Times piece, recent experience “has made it painfully clear that men in suits not only don’t have any monopoly on wisdom, they have very little wisdom to offer. When talking heads on … CNBC mock the protesters as unserious, remember how many serious people assured us that there was no housing bubble, that Alan Greenspan was an oracle, and that budget deficits would send interest rates soaring.”
“We live in what are called democracies, but the people don’t have much power,” says Thierry, a thirtysomething who has two kids and has a degree but is in and out of work: “We watch TV all the time and that’s made many people stop thinking. A lot of people [in our group] will agree with me when I say, if you want to be successful, you have to be dishonest. If you stick with your own sense of right and wrong, if you listen for your own honest voice inside, you become weak in the eyes of others. So you block that out. You try to become strong on the outside.
“Our system is more capitalist than democratic,” he continues. “What we want is a democracy with heart … a capitalism of the human spirit.”
The European protesters are quite marginalized. They refuse to join the political game. But in their view, finding answers is the job of the politicians. They are saying how they feel, no matter how foolish this may seem.
Harvey Cox of the Harvard Divinity School wrote in the 1970s on the “Feast of Fools” – a medieval European carnival that mocked the worldly powers of the day. Usually that meant the priests, bishops, and cardinals of the church in Rome. The European variants of Occupy Wall Street are playing out the feast with the elites of 2011. As Wikipedia denotes holy fools: The “spiritual meaning of ‘foolishness’ from the early ages of Christianity [meant a lack of acceptance] of common social rules of hypocrisy, brutality and thirst for power and gains.”
Inchoate or naive as it may be, that approximates the Occupy Wall Street spirit on this side of the Atlantic.