Wednesday, August 22, 2012


The first thing I noticed when I became involved with the OWS movement was that it had an intuitive quality that I had not seen in other organizing I had been part of. In my past organizing I often found myself championing some specific point or other that I felt was so utterly essential to the success of the action being planned. I worried that we might be missing yet another opportunity if these specific points were overlooked. My feelings were certainly a function of the desperation I felt to stop the suffering that was being piled upon the world, but they were also tied to my belief that our actions could be more focused, more meaningful, and more widely received if we would only put that extra bit of forethought into them. When I started attending Occupy actions I noticed myself immediately starting to think along those same lines, “if only we… then our outcome might be…” But something was very different. I imagine my not being there from the beginning in organizing meeting after organizing meeting might have something to do with my perception, but it really felt like something new was happening. I started telling friends that Occupy was “self-correcting.” It’s hard to explain, but I found that whenever I noted some potential obstacle to the movement (and felt the accompanying feeling of urgency to remedy the situation) - I found that OWS as a whole seemed to recognize and remedy the situation before I could take any action myself. This intuitive quality allowed me to step back and not feel so desperate to be centrally involved.

So I find myself with a bit of an internal dilemma. I have such respect and gratitude for the tremendous scope and potential of OWS that I am often concerned about imposing my own limited perspective and perceptions on others within the movement. There is always the nagging thought - but what if I am wrong about this? But lately it occurs to me that if our collective intelligence (and intuition) are the core of our movement, then we really do need to be sharing our thoughts openly; not for the sake of ego, or for the sake of being right, but with the recognition that it is through the thoughtful participation of each of us that this movement grows and evolves. So I offer the following thoughts with love and mindfulness to my Occupy sisters and brothers.

The initial 1% response to Occupy Wall Street was to write us off as a bunch of do-gooder trust fund kids, who had nothing better to do than camp out complaining about our first world problems. The mass media mocked us saying that our use of smart phones and lap tops was proof that we weren’t really the disenfranchised poor that we claimed to be. The most common taunt heard near Liberty Square was “get a job.” I found the duplicity of these criticisms stunning, but these are just the most recent example of the us against them strategy deployed so successfully by the 1% (to strip young movements of their organizing power). When I was in College it was the “cultural elite” (hard to believe Dan Quayle came up with this one on his own) who were responsible for all of society’s ills. Under Reagan it was “welfare queens.” In Wisconsin it was the unions that were bankrupting the state. These fabricated conflicts are designed to misdirect the legitimate outrage of the people away from those actually responsible for our common oppression. And while we so righteously fight among ourselves, the 1% quietly (and often not so quietly) continue pillaging our labor, our resources, and our world.

So why are we so easily duped into this fabricated conflict? Well, I think it starts with a clever little bait & switch approach to our core identity as Americans.* At a very young age we are presented with a vision of our society firmly rooted in the concept of scarcity. Our own internal vision of our society (whatever that might be) is systematically replaced with this new vision that celebrates independence, competition, and the work ethic. The feeling of belonging and sense of purpose engendered through acceptance of these new ideas is a powerful motivation for impressionable young minds. This is the bait. The switch involves linking these new ideas and feelings to a new identity as “American.” I believe this to be the more significant step of our indoctrination, because while establishment of the core ideas is important, it is the implied threat of losing our new found feeling of belonging that steers us clear of critique and deviation from those ideas. And it is through this process that any suggestion of an alternative set of core ideas, in fact any critique at all, is easily cast as un-American, anti-freedom, etc.

Our adherence to these core ideas has manifested in some curious ways, each with it’s own internal mechanism for reinforcing the status quo. The emphasis on independence and personal liberty has created a kind of “culture of doubt,” where people find it necessary to strike a defensive posture even when they are in agreement with others. We have fetishized our freedom of choice to such an extent that the act of choosing takes precedence over questioning the choices we have been given. Within this framework, making up one’s own mind appears to be in direct conflict with any manner of collective decision making or collaboration. Setting out independence as a virtue unto itself does not allow us to evolve ideas or come up with alternatives through constructive dialogue and interaction, rather it instructs us to remain apart to avoid the undo influence of others who may want to change our opinion. The powerlessness that people feel in their lives further intensifies adherence to their existing beliefs - simple choices becoming noble causes to be defended at all costs. And herein lies the contradiction: while we are taught to value independence, our ability to think independently is crippled through strict adherence to the concept. With this wholesale rejection of dialogue, our ability to evolve our own ideas stagnates, and we are made dependent on the choices that are provided for us.

Similarly, when we are taught to value competition, we are not informed that a few select players will not be required to follow the rules of this game. These few players will be allowed to make off with the lion’s share of the treasure, leaving us to compete for the remaining scraps. Here again our adherence to the core idea keeps us paralyzed, so busy struggling to make ends meet that we have little time and even less resources to challenge the authority of those hoarding the wealth. When our President speaks of America “winning the future,” I find myself questioning - who will lose? This construct of winners and losers is meant to force our participation in the competition. After all, you can’t win if you don’t play; and if you don’t play, you will most certainly lose.

In my previous Occupy post I wrote “Inherent here is a recognition that the vast majority of the work we do is ultimately not for our benefit at all, but solely to produce profit for the 1%. And the 1% are relying on our tacit participation in order to continue to harvest the wealth from us.” The work ethic, like the values of independence and competition, is yet another strategy of self-enforced obedience. Like the other two, it is used as both carrot and stick. The carrot is the fabled American Dream - “if I work hard, I can make it.” The stick comes in the assertion that those who are unemployed, or do not work hard enough, are solely responsible for their own lack of success. It was this stick that was used over and over to berate occupiers at Liberty Square. It was intended to silence the truth that many occupiers actually had jobs, that many had actually sacrificed the security of having a job to be there, and that a large number were at Liberty specifically because they could not find work (or there was no work for them to find). For years I have heard the “get a job” taunt callously hurled at my homeless brothers and sisters, many of whom were now occupiers themselves. The irony was not lost on me. Witnessing thousands standing in solidarity, each with their own personal story, no longer simply demanding jobs but fundamentally questioning the value of the work ethic as a measure of our worth as human beings, the simplistic “get a job” retort seemed particularly absurd. As in Wisconsin the 1% were relying on the work ethic to supply the needed distraction. The 1% were counting on Wisconsinites to forget their common economic struggles and instead buy into a delusion casting union members as lucky beneficiaries of a free ride at the taxpayers’ expense. Rather than being encouraged to come together and find ways to make their lives better, the people are duped into jealously attacking any progress that their sisters and brothers have fought long and hard to achieve. 1% politicians (corporate fat cats that they are) cynically ask, “why should they have it so good while you suffer so?” They aim to stem rising anger throughout our nation and the world, strategically directing it back at any and all willing to stand up for the common good. Draining every last cent from the public trust in the process is a nice bonus.

Occupy Wall Street isn’t so easily duped into this ridiculous misdirection of our energy, or are we? Organizing from inside of our own culture it’s easy to take for granted all the conditioned beliefs that have been imposed on us. When we compare our actions in the US to the mobilizations of our sisters and brothers around the world, we must remember to take into account the specific hurdles that are intrinsic to our culture and not judge ourselves too harshly if we do not see identical results. It is good strategy to seek out transformative opportunities within the obstacles we face, but we must also bear in mind that the solution/resolution we seek may not be contained in the problem itself. The open model of OWS is a fantastic engine for new ideas, but we need not reinvent the wheel to address every challenge. Fear of co-option should not be allowed to assuage us from seeking allies, both domestically and internationally, with whom we can share and evolve successful tactics and strategies. We need not assist the 1% by echoing their messaging when defending against their attacks, our energy is much better spent creating and outreaching our own. The 99% is by definition going to include people at all different levels of social and economic strata, all with their own relative perspectives on the most pressing challenges for OWS, so how can we recognize and release our conditioned defensiveness so that we can address these challenges without habitually casting one another as perpetrators of the crimes committed against us? Perhaps if we can give up ownership of the identities imposed upon us, refuse to play the roles that have been scripted for us, we’ll be better able to see one another as sister and brother. Making our solidarity conditional to agreement on every detail, or to our individual experiences of oppression being equal, would be ultimately self-defeating. The us vs. them dogma that we have been fed all our lives needs replacing, but this time with the feeling of belonging that evolves quite naturally when we stop fighting for independence, stop competing for superiority, and stop working hard to get ahead long enough to take to the streets.

*I am once again using this term here to refer to those living in the USA, not to reference all of our sisters and brothers in the Americas.

Friday, August 3, 2012


For years now we’ve heard about corruption in politics, the influence of lobbyists, and the incompetence of politicians; but the Citizen's United decision and the election year cycle seem to have focused this dialogue more tightly. I am reading and hearing a single idea repeated over and over; it is essentially a concession that politicians must now do the bidding of their corporate sponsors or risk losing the funds necessary to win their respective elections.

Over the course of the Obama presidency this idea has evolved into a rationale for the passage of policy that the majority of people in the country do not want. Under threat of negative advertising and withholding of campaign contributions, politicians cast themselves as hapless victims of a system they have no control over. This relieves them of responsibility for the bad decisions they are forced to make. It is particularly disturbing to hear supporters of these candidates reduce their own critique to repetition of a variation on the single phrase, “What would you have them do? Their hands are tied.”

Americans* pride ourselves on our great empathy for others who are powerless to change their own circumstance. When our politicians present themselves as powerless to change the direction the country is headed, it is intended to resonate with our feelings of powerlessness in our own lives. Whether they feel your pain or they “know that times are tough,” they are recognizing your feeling of powerlessness and then relying on your empathy to validate their own appearance of powerlessness. If this is not an intentional fabrication, it is certainly a convenient one.

It occurs to me that by omission or by design, this powerlessness argument seems to miss two important points.

First, a growing number of our political officials are not simply under the influence of moneyed interests, but are in fact directly connected to the corporations that their policy decisions will affect; as former CEO's, major share holders, etc. Put simply, this is corporate leadership buying into office and then legislating for their own profit. I saw this in spades during Bush & Company's reign. Dick Cheney was CEO of Halliburton from 1995-2000, when he became Vice President. Halliburton received numerous no-bid contracts in connection with the Iraq War. The argument could have been made that the war was one for profit, but the media was seemingly too distracted by fictitious Weapons of Mass Destruction to investigate or even comment on this. Though Americans would support their President in defending the country, and even support defense contractors for a job well done, they might have had a different perspective if informed that those that stood to profit from the war were the same people that made the decision to go to war. Wholesale looting of the United States Treasury for private profit doesn't poll very well with voters.

Second, why don’t we have higher expectations of our political officials? On the campaign trail it is all “fight fight fight,” but why don't we expect them to act courageously on our behalf once they are in office? When they constantly reiterate the obstacles they face, no one asks them flat out what plans they are developing or what options they have for overcoming these obstacles. Isn't this their job after all? Why do we elect them/continue to elect them if they seem incapable of solving (or is it unwilling to solve) the problems we face? If you go to a demonstration and the society doesn't change the next day, you don’t just go home and give up. You have to be creative and come up with other ways of moving forward. If the authorities break up your protest, you can’t start using that as an excuse not to protest. It’s a self fulfilling prophecy. In Wisconsin the opposition senators left the state to keep the senate from achieving the necessary quorum to vote. They stood with their constituents and took action rather than spending time making excuses. What options do our political officials have available to them to solve the problems we face? Ask them if you don't know, tell them if you do, and above all talk to each other and come up with your own solutions.

*I am using this term here to refer to those living in the USA, not to reference all of our sisters and brothers in the Americas.