On #OccupyWallStreet

For last night’s Red Burns – Applications class, one of the group presentations addressed #OccupyWallStreet.  I don’t usually speak in large groups anyway, mainly because I really, really hate fighting for my turn to speak, but #OWS is tough because it really makes me seethe to listen to people talk about it.  It’s the same thing on Twitter.  Even the group itself, which went to Zuccotti Park (I don’t believe in calling it Liberty Park till it has a breakthrough, and I think it fitting that they are occupying a private park named after a real estate mogul) often in order to document the experience and take part in it as well, was split on how it felt about the protest.  A few classmates stood up to say that they are tired of protests and they don’t believe anything will ever change as a result of them, and they’ve seen it before from where they used to live (San Francisco, Phillippines, youth activist efforts).  One said that they didn’t go because they didn’t understand what #OWS wants.

Maddening.  I kept myself distracted by wrestling with a re-install of MySQL on OS X Lion, which I’d fucked up earlier in the day.

Here’s the problem I have with my fellow Americans with regards to #OWS.  These same people, who spoke glowingly of the noble, courageous efforts being undertaken by the downtrodden working classes in the Arab Spring become strangely silent when it comes to American-born protests.  On Twitter, I follow a lot of security people and people you would consider to be in the consulting, intellectual, and management classes.  While they tweeted up a storm on the Arab Spring, presumably because of its implications for regional security, when fellow Americans voiced their disapproval with current conditions (which are, I think it’s still under-appreciated, historically bad in terms of income inequality and prejudiced against the public good, reaching levels only seen before the Great Depression), these people mocked them or ignored them.

It was the same during the summer and fall of Tea Party movements in 2009.  And during the anti-war protests.  Mocking or ignoring.

I went to most of the Tea Party rallies in DC.  I was in DC during the inauguration, inauguration concert, OBL killing, government shutdown crisis, and other massive rallies (immigration, gay rights).  The tenor of the city has definitely changed since Obama came in.

While I disagreed with the Tea Party (mostly I think they do not understand the role of public policy at all) and thought its invocations of history were bankrupt (read my blog posts here and here), I do think they were symbols that the Jacksonian school of thought is well and alive in America, and I felt sad that fellow Americans saw conditions as being so bad.  The stupid two-party system, which has existed for, what, two centuries or something?, is now infused with corporate money and shadow organizations, introducing into our political DNA a pernicious political rift that only pits Americans against each other.

I do think that #OWS directly addresses the chief problems within the American system today.  We are fortunate enough in this country that we do not have one simple demand, which is what people seem to be looking for.  In other countries, this “simple demand” might be the removal of a corrupt dictator.  That is the danger of singular cause movements.  It focuses, essentially, on one person, or one group/class of people.

Saying you don’t understand what #OWS wants sounds precisely alike to me as when people say, “I don’t understand computers/science/math, it’s too hard.”  Were you just supposed to know it intuitively?  No, you have to go read about it and study and research it.  There are two billion articles about why #OWS doesn’t have or want a simple list of demands.  There are plenty of theories about whether they should seek specific issues later or just try to organize at this point.  It should be noted that the Tea Party kind of fell off the rails once it was co-opted by politicians, was confronted for its fringe elements, and came up with its specific list of demands.  Specific demands alienate people who were on board with some ideals but not others.

So saying you don’t understand #OWS is an intellectual cop-out.  I am disappointed that master’s-level students would use this argument.

Issues of The Occupied Wall Street Journal
Another point which some of the group members who presented brought up was that while #OWS may not amount to much, it is still important in itself.  The beauty of seeing the General Assembly, of seeing humans together, figuring out systems of hand gestures for communication or innovating low-tech solutions, forming working groups, blending internet viral activism with Occupied Wall Street Journal newspaper tactics; this is really important stuff.  If I had kids, I would want them to see that shit.  I would want them to see humans self-organizing, sharing, communicating, seeking a shared future.  When I went to Zuccotti Park and to the Washington Square Park protests, that was the real deal fucking Holyfield, seeing humans do what they do best: transfer information.

Some people are waiting for heroes to emerge to lead the movement.  They inevitably bring up MLK Jr. The problem is, if you’ve ever read about MLK Jr., most of his life was spent being extremely frustrated with the impact of his work.  He was thrown into fits of despair often when he would attempt to organize and galvanize people and it wouldn’t work.  It wouldn’t produce the results he wanted, either from getting the majority out into the streets, or in achieving political results.  It wasn’t until things magically came together at some of the larger national protests that his voice took root and now the legend has taken over.  But MLK Jr. was depressed during most of his time during the Civil Rights Movement.  Being a “hero” is often a lonely experience.  It ended in his assassination, and in JFK’s, and in RFK’s.  If that is not a somber message about the role of heroes, I don’t know what is.

Counter of People Worldwide Offering Support
Anonymous has been interesting.  It plays a fringe role in the Occupy movement, while it was pretty much center-stage on its own a year ago because of Wikileaks.  I doubt many people actually saw V for Vendetta (like they didn’t see the Tea Party rallies or #OWS events either) which is the basis for the Guy Fawkes Anonymous masks that you see more and more these days.  I think one of the most poignant scenes in that film is when the girl in the Anonymous mask is killed after she is caught putting up graffiti. After that, the social contract between the public and government breaks down, and the movie concludes with a sea of Anonymous masks converging in London, eventually overrunning the police and unmasking themselves to return to their real identities.  Anonymous is some kind of Hobbesian manifestation that bothers people in that it reminds them that the strongest, most powerful man is still just a man, able to be brought down by the weakest, least important of men.

Anonymous/Guy Fawkes
During a decade of post-9/11 hysteria, with all the stupid regulations from TSA, the newly-authorized secret spying on Americans based on mere suspicions, the corporate-endorsed wiretapping of internet service providers, anti-Muslim sentiment, and overseas military/intelligence/covert adventures, the anti-war movement barely registered.  It was kept at bay by a respect for the warfighters and their tasks.  It was kept at bay by apathy.

But most of all, it was kept at bay because very few Americans have ever actually participated in the armed services or known someone very close to them who has.  Military bases are positioned well outside the normal paths and travels of most people, so unless military blood is in your family, you’ve probably never seen the sprawl outside Fort Benning or seen the old World War 2-era barracks or even seen many people in uniform except at sporting events and in Grand Central Station.

So these servicemembers have lived a silent decade, where friends have died, some have lost limbs, others have lost their minds. They can’t talk about it in public, because 1) no one will understand or 2) they will be put on display like they’re in a zoo.  There is no shared sacrifice among the American public for military service.  Just imagine how much more insular it is within AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, and other large civil service programs!

The people who didn’t protest out of respect for the troops, I question their logic.  Had they shared the sacrifice, it would have been their necks on the line.  Servicemembers aren’t really going to protest war — they volunteered to do service for the government.  It requires attentive citizenries to defend the usage of servicemembers in warfighting for appropriate contexts.  That civilians have abdicated their responsibilities towards the servicemembers of the U.S. is the ultimate slap in the face.  But perhaps it also says a lot about the military, that it will continue to do its job professionally.  The Army keeps rolling along.

So pardon me if I question peoples’ stated intentions for participating or not participating.  Or maybe it’s not so much that, but the dismissiveness which those people give to OTHER people giving a damn about something.

I think that might be the only time I really get pissed.  When people denigrate the efforts of others.  When they put down or make fun of people who are trying to do something, anything, to make things better.  That is the worst kind of cowardice, whether it’s born out of elitism or out of past failures or out of being afraid of future failures.  Negative people tend to be reacting out of their own insecurities.

Maybe what topped the class off was sensing the disparity between the divided class and Red Burns, the mater familias of our program and a woman who’s changed the way thousands of people (at least) see the world.  She is old and feeble now, and hard to hear, and definitely stubborn, but she obviously thinks #OWS is something important for us to pay attention to.  But students, whom she is probably 3 to 4 times older than, ignore her hints that #OWS is a gamechanger.  She has a keen eye and most importantly, has experience that is directly relevant to our futures, and yet I feel like she was being dismissed.

Back when I was at Georgetown, I was picked by my program’s staff to represent the program at the Achievement Summit, which brought together people like George Lucas, Bill Russell, Desmond Tutu, Sylvia Earle, Michael Dell, and many others, to talk to us grad students about what to do with the rest of our lives.

The overwhelming message was not that we should pat ourselves on our backs, but that we had a deep responsibility towards society.  Given all these opportunities, privileges, and advantages, our role in life was to be leaders and to always look to better the lives of those less fortunate.  We were told that our job was to take the hands of others and help them succeed as well.  Our job was to use our talents and creativity and personal security to try things that were extremely risky, knowing they might fail, hoping to build something wonderful for the world.  If we, the privileged few, were not going to take risks or to look out for others, then who would?

That resonated with me but I’m not sure how much it gets to others.

When I was in the Army, I had my clearance temporarily suspended (but got it back later, since nothing was officially wrong with it) because I was blogging and taking photos of my experience in Iraq.  There weren’t the chilling effect regs there are in place now, which have stifled almost any word coming out of our overseas theaters. When I studied and worked in DC, my classmates and friends would refuse to use Facebook or other social networking because, mostly, they were afraid that employers would find out!

Now I would have trouble hiring someone who DIDN’T appear on social media, but I get that privacy is a big deal.  You should still show up SOMEWHERE though.

Anyway, here’s the kicker. America is indeed the land of opportunity.  You can come here as a poor immigrant and build a pretty good life for yourself and your family and your kids.  But you will probably have to keep your head down and stay out of trouble.  You will most likely not be able to have an opinion, or to campaign for the ridiculous idea of equal rights for all people.  You will have to act in your professional life like you never drink or party, that you never have a controversial opinion.  You will have to get slapped in the face and take it, because you understand that that’s what it takes to just get by and raise your family.

And my generation feels that tension at the higher levels.  You better have a squeaky clean resume if you want to go into finance.  All your outward correspondences better relate to your work (how many Twitter folks do you know who ONLY tweet about their work stuff? it’s kind of sad sometimes).  You better fit in or else you’re not going to get paid.  You won’t “succeed” in life.

I worry that kids coming out of higher education are ready to subvert their entire personalities just to get a job.  One problem with income inequality is that it narrows your choices. Instead of being able to find employment in a variety of services or good production or data analysis or entrepreneurial endeavors, you have to pick health care or finance or business or law.  Or you work as a barista.  There’s not as much in between, particularly outside of the large cities.  It hollows out society.  And thus you have to jump through more hoops to reach the higher echelons.  You have to keep your head down, calm down and carry on.

I don’t think any of us want to see the U.S. become a place where the calculus changes such that people would much rather set themselves on fire or stand off against the military because they have no hope of jobs, families, or future.  Right now most people still have options (though with vastly increasing structural unemployment, I worry this will change).

I don’t fault the companies so much.  They are doing what they should be doing.  Making money wherever they can, sending lobbyists to live lavishly in DC to represent their core interests, to evade taxes as best they can legally.  They are winning the policy war in DC.

Mostly it is government failing to assert itself as a balancer of public, private, security, innovation interests.  We have a complete failure of political leadership.  And while government protectionism of business stymies much of public ability to organize and voice its own opinion (since business employs much of the public), I still do blame at least a little the citizenry for not drawing the line somewhere.

We are just all too busy fighting for our own little Americas, instead of building a new inclusive American Dream.  I don’t think any of us were raised to be overtly tribal, but the system rewards those who do.

This is all the prism that the nation sees the #OWS movement through.  It’s a depressing state of affairs.  People arguing for separation of corporation and state, for denying corporate personhood, for removing private shadow financing of political campaigns, for increased enforcement by government agencies tasked to do what they currently are not doing, for balancing out the business-government-public-media equation so that they are all properly warring against each other.  These are not crazy concepts.  These systemic problems have been identified and much has been written on the subjects.

I don’t think my point is that everyone must participate in #OWS, but that those who don’t should not condemn it or dismiss it, for whatever reason.  It has fringe.  Yes, of course.  Everything inclusive has fringe.  Fellow Americans are taking part and we owe it to ourselves to understand it.  We owe it to ourselves to care about SOMETHING in this life outside of ourselves and the kids, products, whatever we leave behind.  How sad is it to see our best and brightest, our graduate students and creatives and intellectuals, saying they are “tired of protest” or “don’t think anything will change”?  Have they given up on life already?  Don’t we want to see our children be proud of what we have accomplished as human beings?  I want my kids to look at me as someone who gave a shit about something and stuck to it.  Or, to be, as Bill the Butcher says, “the only man I ever killed worth remembering.”

So here’s a challenge I guess.  Who do you want to end up being?  Will you end up defending your own interests at the expense of a majority’s?  What is going to end up being so important to you that you will do dumb things and sacrifice your time and humiliate yourself for, just because you believe in it?  And do you want to be the kind of person who puts down the beliefs of others?  Will you try to work with them to build something better?  Or will you keep your head down?  Are you your fucking khakis?

A final note.  Our guest speaker, Frank Migliorelli, an ITP alumnus from way back, was a great speaker, the kind of person you want to work with.  All the junky debate and politicking that people get engaged in melts away when around someone like this.  He’s passionate about education, about the opportunities and cool new niches that one could do the next project in.  You forget about all the other stuff and you just want to make cool things.  I’m happy that he ended the class on a good note, and I hope that he and others like him win the good fight.

OUT HERE.

  • Stu Stribling

    As the guy who writes the training for Apple’s enterprise customer support, I’m astonished you know how to spell MySQL, let alone know what it is and how to install it ;-)

    Nice post, btw.

  • Rtt233

    Ben, great post. I really appreciate it. Your comments resonated with me. Knowledge = power.

  • Mark Kleeb

    Ben, I think I shared similar sentiments, and I was seething when we left for break during Applications. The thing that bothered me the most was that OWS was described as a “global” movement, so of course many people viewed the 1% as the global 1%, not the American 1%. Sure, there is more opportunity in America than most other places, but OWS is an inherently AMERICAN movement. The disparity in the US is 100 times larger than most other countries as far as wealth distribution, and I think this is what we need to focus on. Many people still think OWS is just a bunch of unemployed hippies complaining about being in debt. They’ve never read a list of demands, and the media is still feeding people notions that nothing is serious. The only way things are going to change is if people start viewing this in a serious light and start doing something about it.

  • Uberleonard

    I agree. I disagree. Lots of issues. Income disparity is the most important issue and has to be addressed by government regulation (but I’m more inclined to gradually phase minimum wage up to a living wage pegged to inflation then I am to cap executive pay). Same time, a lot of government spending has to be cut away (sorry, social security is a waste of money). Maybe the new unemployment is the new baseline. Maybe there is no recovery. Passing through the needle’s eye of requirements to become part of the ‘elite’ is a pain in the ass, but it’s doable. A couple things I don’t like about the protests: the sense of entitlement, e.g. signs to forgive debt and student loan; the sense they could use their time more wisely, like engaging in innovation and entreneurship, figuring out ways to create income; the catch-all nature of the protest which can and will be co-opted, just like the tea party was. They need leaders and focus. I think it’s good overall that we’ve had a strong backlash to the government industrial complex from both sides of the aisle but now that frustration, these protests, need to be channeled into legislation.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Ben, glad to see you’re as passionate as ever. I’ll try to make this quick and add just a few thoughts. I think one of the reasons people are put off by OWS is due to the lack of an alternative. If you check out my rants on reddit under normal1 you’ll see that I think the problem lies in erroneous conventional wisdoms that label R’s as capitalists and D’s as socialists. 

    Since no one wants to be on the “losing” team or labeled a commie in our capitalist country, even those with reservations hold their tongues, too afraid to speak out. They express their unease with angry or cynical comments, but ultimately give up in frustration over  the whole mess. Sure, the hypocrisy of accepting corporate welfare as good and community welfare as bad is well known, but again, when your only other choices appear to be a variation on socialism, the choice is going to be the “devil you know.”

    This is a good place to stop. By the way, if I haven’t already mentioned it before in previous posts/emails, thanks for introducing me to some great web site (boing boing, Kottke, etc.)

    Tracie

  • Ben.  

    I came to this post because of the OWS/TeaParty Venn diagram and because I love your father’s writing.Let’s suppose both Venn diagram assumptions are correct.  Corporations have too much power and government has too much power.  What do we do next?  Surely it cannot be to give the government more power.  We’ve had a century-long experiment in giving the government more power, and it has given us Wall Street crony capitalism and unaffordable entitlements for middle-class seniors like me.Moreover, the share of entitlements going to the poor is going down.  Of course it is, because the middle class outvotes the poor; government spending benefits the biggest voting block.I recommend Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy.  Democracy cannot be the rule of the people, for the people cannot do any more than choose the men/women who will rule them.  Democracy is the rule of the politicians. Politicians rule, needless to say, by rewarding their supporters.Also try Deirdre McCloskey and her Bourgeois Cycle.  She combines virtue ethics and celebrates a bourgeoisie dignified and free.

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