You’ve got to love the French. The best-selling book on Amazon.com’s French site is “Indignez-vous!,” an exceedingly slim, elegant rumination on the state of the world by Stephane Hessel, a 94-year-old former United Nations diplomat, concentration-camp survivor and hero of the French Resistance.
The 32-page book, with about 4 million copies in print in 30 languages-- including a just-published English version titled “Time for Outrage” -- is clearly meant to serve as a timely blueprint for non-violent protest. It could come in handy for the growing Occupy Wall Street movement as it continues to search for its voice and its raison d’etre (as the French would say.)
Drawing on his profound experience in the Resistance, Hessel exhorts his readers to remember -- and continue to fight for -- the Four Freedoms outlined by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his 1941 State of the Union address: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear.
“We are told, shamelessly, that the state cannot bear the costs of certain civil measures any longer,” Hessel writes. “But how can we lack the funds to maintain these programs when our nations enjoy greater wealth than at any time since the Liberation, when Europe lay in ruins? How else to explain this but by the corrupting power of money, which the Resistance fought so fiercely against, and which is now greater, more insolent, and more selfish than ever?
“The wealthy have installed their slaves in the highest spheres of the state. The banks are privately owned. They are concerned solely with profits. They have no interest in the common good. The gap between rich and poor is the widest it’s ever been; the pursuit of riches and the spirit of competition are encouraged and celebrated.”
He reminds us of the importance of indignation and encourages “our younger generations” to rekindle the spirit of the Resistance in a non-violent battle against injustice.
“It’s time to take over! It’s time to get angry!” he says. “Politicians, economists, intellectuals, do not surrender! The true fabric of our society remains strong. Let us not be defeated by the tyranny of the world financial markets that threaten peace and democracy everywhere. I wish all of you to find your reason for indignation. This is a precious thing.”
For “the men and women who will make the twenty-first century,” he writes emphatically, “to create is to resist[;] to resist is to create.”
In an interview with his U.S. publisher, Twelve, a division of Hachette Book Group Inc. (full disclosure: my wife works at another publishing division of Hachette SA), Hessel reflects upon the unlikely success of his tome.
“It hit a moment where so many people in so many countries are unhappy about the way they are being led and therefore they have the will to be indignant about the values that are not being supported,” he says.
He calls upon like-minded people to “look around you, look at what you consider unacceptable and get together with others who feel like you that this is unacceptable, and then put pressure on your government through the normal ways [such as] the electoral system, which is there to allow citizens to have influence on their government.
“For instance, if you feel democracy is not being run the way it should be run, [then] we have to have an inventive” and “creative, new form of democracy.”
Advice for Protesters
The Occupy Wall Street protesters are halfway following Hessel’s sage advice. In cities across the U.S. and Europe, the movement has managed during the past six weeks to pull together like-minded people who aren’t pleased with the way things are being run in their democracies. In New York, the group has proved resilient enough to stay in and around Zuccotti Park -- even though it is privately owned -- and has managed to continue to attract the attention of politicians, the mainstream media and an army of followers through social networking.
Occupy Wall Street now needs to transform its numbers and its like-minded frustration into political action, as Hessel suggests. A year before the 2012 elections, Occupy Wall Street should take a page from the Tea Party’s playbook and find people from within its ranks -- or from outside them -- who share their views of what needs to change and how (although, it must be said, that remains a bit of a mystery) to serve as candidates for local and national political offices.
The movement may have to find office space to allow a genuine political force to organize a serious and effective campaign.
The candidates clearly exist: To understand the political potential of Occupy Wall Street, one need only look to neighboring Massachusetts, where Elizabeth Warren’s anti-establishment message seems to have caught fire.
This is the moment. Failure to seize the day will make for a long, cold winter in Zuccotti Park.
(William D. Cohan, a former investment banker and the author of “Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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