Monday, 3 October 2011

The Other 99% (A Too-Long Blog)

I've suffered a great deal of confusion in the days of this Occupy Wall St. campaign.  I want to support it, in theory, but I don't truly know what it is.  I don't know what to call it - protest, rally, sit-in, community action - and I don't know what it's for.

I could have saved myself a lot of confusion had I just said the last phrase aloud.

In our personal lives, we strain for positivity (not always the best way to achieve it)  We lip service  gratitude, abundance, goal-setting, self-esteem, growth.  We clutch The Secret like a new bible book discovered in a long-forgotten cave.  We prayed to Oprah at 3pm daily.

We have taught ourselves that we must focus on the positive in order to achieve it.  We have demonstrated this with our lives.  Eyes on the prize.

So where does this go when we take up a "cause"?

Occupy Wall St. feels very much like a fighting against.  I do not know what they are spending their very valuable time, energy and intellect on.  I know that they are frustrated and angry (although they seem to be the mellowest frustrated and angry people ever).  I just don't know what a positive outcome would be in the situation they are provoking.

What are they fighting FOR?

Nicholas Kristof has made some suggestions here, and they are good ones, pragmatic ones, yet I've no idea if he's putting words into the mouth of this movement.  Zestyverse has championed Practivism (pragmatic, proactive, promotable activism) and Occupy Wall St. as yet does not qualify.  They are not getting coverage (though they are, truthfully) becuase they simply don't have a message.  As street theatre, they are quite unremarkable in a city where every street is a stage, in a world where natural disasters sweep away houses in the Phillipines and  ice caps melt and break off, where nations are fighting each other and themselves to create some kind of structure.

I'm not a fan of Wall Street or the stock market.  However, as the largest collective delusion we share, and the one most capable of creating abundance from absolutely nothing but  belief, it bears serious study.  Wall Street is home to some of the most amazing conjurers since He Who Shall Not Be Named.  They create millions of dollars from the idea of value.  That's powerful.

The markets have been as volatile as the American psyche in the last month.  Yet, we can't eradicate them.  Sadly, much, if not all,  of the Western economy is based upon them.  Can we make the system more fair?  Make CEO's take lesser rewards, stop bailing them out?  Can we empower our government not to be held hostage by the market?

Maybe.  But the movements I know about that were truly successful were those that were for a specific change - every pro-Democracy movement, the Civil Rights movement, the end Apartheid movement. 

Maybe this is a groundswell, an unplanned uprising (that seems to be very well-planned).  Maybe it will be the spark that ignites other passions and discussion, and eventually, change.

I hope so.  Yet I fear that this is just making angry citizens angrier, people who feel powerless less empowered, and frustrated people more frustrated.  I fear that the protesters look absurd in the face of the enemy they've chosen. 

If Occupy Wall St. achieves only motivating the already disenfranchised, it runs the tremendous risk of souring those who might join in a struggle for true social and economic change.  For the movement to reach a tipping point, it must offer something to those who are complacent, but uneasy.  It cannot alienate its potential base.  What made the Arab Spring so resonant is that the youth rose up to give voice and legs to the unexpressed thoughts and desires of the generations who came before them, and that energy spread to people who would not normally take these kinds of risks - it was their involvement that created something that could not be ignored.

Watching the new PBS documentary Prohibition and listening to the arugments of Carrie Nation and her cohorts actually made me want to go out and get a drink.  The proselytizing, the demonizing, the grandiose presumptions seem absolutely ridiculous 100 years on.  And yet - Prohibition was enacted, much to the detriment of the American people, creating a black market, violent crime, being responsible for the income tax law being passed, and much much more.  Over-zealousness seems to be a hallmark of American activism, and it often has dangerous possible outcomes.

As activists, it is far too easy to forget our gratitude.  Let us remember, that despite its tremendous flaws, we live in a republic, with representation, and recourse.  There are people around the globe today who are risking life and limb to bring this type of government to their country.  Can we apply gratitude to our goals and our processes for change?  Can we be leaders in the next step for those who may win some form of democracy or increased rights in their own countries?

Occupy Yourself is something I have seen floating around on Facebook.  This is an interesting place to begin.  Become seated in yourself, bigger inside yourself, until you are truly ready to engage with others.  If we approach Wall St. as something bigger than us, then we will be small.  It is not bigger than us, it is from us, of us, it is a collective belief made real by the human beings inhabiting this earth.  If we approach it as ants, we will be crushed underfoot, absent-mindedly by those sipping champagne.

There are things here we need to know and learn - chief among them - that there are, and have always been, more of Us than there are of Them.  If we rise up in solidarity, then, yes, we can triumph.  However, there must by nature be more leaders than followers, and the masses are always made up of individuals - very hard to galvanize behind anything but a very specific cause.

If we believe we are the 99%, then we must believe that we are in charge.  If we don''t believe we are in charge, then we must protest mathematics, as some of its axioms are clearly untrue, or we must tussle with ourselves until we grow into this power.  But if we are the 99% then yes we can hire a lobbyist - just by pooling resources - we can hire lawyers to sift through the thousands of pages of legislation that gives corporations loopholes and tax breaks and looks at ways to change the situation.  We have that option.  But if we have that option, we also have so many more - like creating a serious mandate that our elected officials do this work themselves, as it is what they were elected to do.

Yelling about something, as any adolescent with a mother can tell you, is the quickest way to turn off your audience.  What seems largely missing from the American public forum is dialogue. There are great spaces for speechifying, and the mutual masturbation of discourse - alternating monologue.  However, what is absent here is listening.  Our vehement belief - ingrained somehow in all Americans whenever they got there, wherever they came from as if the rocks themselves held these Puritanical beliefs - is that there is one right answer.

Maybe it is our youth as a nation, but we seem so invested in how other people live their lives, and want to make demands that they live as we think is correct.  While we swear by our melting pot status, we also have no interest in anyone else's opinion.  If this movement, such as it is, can inspire true dialogue, then that would be a victory.

As a nation, we need to learn listening, and then deep listening, if we are to progress.  There is, in fact, room for all of us, with our differing backgrounds and lifestyles, if we would only stop trying to legislate each other into one small way of being.  It may even be true that there is enough wealth for all of us, yet, I think we will never know it if we just keep shouting at each other.

I can't help having the sneaking feeling that we are fighting wrong.  That we have chosen wrong methods, lack discipline and vision.  That we are creating friction instead of opening passageways.  Every cliche about fighting fire with fire leaps to mind, as does every quote from Bruce Lee I've ever held close.  Somewhere out there or deep inside, the other 99% exists - proactive, positive, practical - and most importantly, effective in non-violent ways.

I plan to go visit Occupy Wall St.  I'm hoping to be surprised and excited.  I'm hoping it's not just a collective longing for some kind of positive community choosing to demonize another community in order to achieve cohesion. 

This blog post is already too long, and I keep coming up with more to say.  Maybe there'll be a follow-up.  Maybe you'll tell me what you think.  Maybe I'll see you there.

No comments: