Because What The World Needs Is Another Blogger Writing About Occupy America
When I went to Occupy Oakland on the first day, a young guy with the familiar bearing of “about to walk you through an activist script” asked me why I was there. I didn’t really know how to answer the question, and I didn’t particularly want to, because the question didn’t make sense for me, somehow. As he walked me through his script, it got worse; he wanted me to talk about how I came to realize that it was time to do something, how I had become aware of economic injustice, what had I heard that brought me here. His entire shtick — because at a certain point his solicitous questions became a pitch from a clipboard — was based on the notion that the problem was essentially epistemological, that the hurdle to economic justice was getting people to realize things. And so, facts, stories, slogans. I was reminded of the slogan of an “anti-slavery-in-America” campaign that’s all over UCB at the moment: “now that you know, what are you going to do?”
I don’t really remember what I told him, but in that moment I felt my private narrative clanging against his script for the revolution. He wanted to know fact what had made me decide to come. But there are enough facts written on the wall in burning letters to keep us busy for weeks. I have nothing but facts that make me feel like I should be there. And so do you. We all know that shit is fucked up and bullshit. It just manifestly is. We don’t all agree on why, or what to do about it. But I know, in concrete terms, that the 2007 financial meltdown has made my life prospects a lot worse, and it has done this kindness for yours as well. And the United States is fighting wars everywhere, constantly, forever, and doing it with the money and security you no longer have as a result. I could go on — you could go on — but this is enough. The point is not the facts, but their basic glaring obviousness: we all know it.
I haven’t spent a lot of time at Occupy Oakland because I’m busy being a grad student, which is a busy thing to be. But I don’t feel good about it. I’m going to spend some time there today, but the thing is this: it’s never crossed my mind to doubt that I should be there, if not to unconditionally support, then to learn from their mistakes. This is where the action is right now. As obvious as it is that shit is fucked up and bullshit, Occupy Everything is the protest movement whose absence has been a mantra among the left for decades. How many times have you heard someone say “I don’t understand why people don’t just rise up”? I’ve heard that phrase a lot of times. Well, this is it: there are “political disobedience” movements (to use Bernard Harcourt’s felicitous phrase) in 200 cities right now, and it’s still growing. The movement may splinter, it may burn out, it may be violently crushed, it may be starved to death, who knows what may happen. But it hasn’t so far, not yet. And there simply is no other game in town.
I’ve been thinking about Slavoj Zizek’s “red ink” parable from the other day. I love Zizek, for all his limitations; for me, at least, he’s indispensable, in the sense that he does things we need that no one else does. And so I’ve spent this week — in the time when I wasn’t grading papers, working on dissertation, working on job applications, etc — turning over my head what kind of “red ink” it is that we lack.
In the first part of that little talk, he says that “red ink” is “the language to articulate our non-freedom,” that “the way we are taught to speak about freedom– war on terror and so on–falsifies freedom.” This is true, but limited. Who takes that shit seriously? More importantly, who takes that shit seriously that wasn’t already convinced, long before the words “freedom agenda” or whatever ever left Bush’s sneering mouth? It was the sneer, not the words, that convinced the people who were not waiting to be convinced, and the rationalization for why we must liberate the savages with bombs came long after the joy of the bombs. The same is true, I think, for expressions of class ressentiment like the “I am the 53%” tumblr: it is not the fact that they pay income taxes rather than payroll taxes that makes these people hate and despise the 47%. It is the reverse. The hatred for the weak, soft, and dirty comes first, and only then justifies itself by a spurious distinction between the two kinds of taxes that are removed from your paycheck, the good loyal American tax and the dirty deadbeat tax.
My point is that I don’t think we don’t lack red ink, we lack the desire to write in it. And we need to think about where that desire might come from.
Maybe it’s the energy. That’s a big part of it for me. I’m tired. I am more tired today — day in and day out — than I have ever been in my life, because I am working and worrying and despairing about my employment prospects, and working doubly hard at my underemployment to make up for it. In this, I‘m just one of the 99%, and I’m well aware that I have as good a shot as anyone, and better than a great many, at something resembling “the good life.” I’m celebrating my 10th year of making less than $20k a year (I’m 32), but my life is also pretty good, right now. But only relatively. I’m also so fucking tired, not of anything, but just by the grind of working and worrying and fearing, of waking up at night in a feast of self-loathing for being a day late and a dollar short on everything. And I’m realizing now how much this depoliticizes me. How this makes it easy to go home and Twitter, or mindlessly watch episodes of Star Trek the Next Generation — whose escapism I find particularly delicious at the moment — rather than even something so radical as reading a book, much less walking around in the rain occupying Oakland. I’ve done only enough of the latter to realize what it means for me not to do it.
But it’s also, of course, that we’ve lacked anywhere to write with our red ink for so long, even if we could find the energy to pick up the pen. The Democratic party has been — at least since the DLC decided to ditch the “special interests” and unions and focus on Wall Street money in the 1980’s — a giant sponge for sucking up our red ink, and its greatest creation in that regard was a young man name Barack Obama. He got three years to show if he was what we had — irrationally, I suppose — been hoping he would be, and he’s shown it. He isn’t. But even if every progressive apologist talking about structural constraints on the presidency or scare-mongering by pointing at Sarah Palin are right — even if he is literally doing absolutely everything he possible could do in his situation — the basic fact remains the same: he has failed. The mode of political engagement whose eggs we put in his basket has been broken, and it doesn’t matter whether he was outflanked by crafty republicans or simply handed them the football. We will accomplish nothing by electing Democratic presidents with huge Democratic majorities. We did that. It accomplished nothing but reinforce an unacceptable status quo.
The Occupy Wall Street movement certainly may have its limitations, and its critics — from the left and the right — have been oh! so happy to point them out, even through smiles of sympathetic identification. But show me another (potential) game changer on the landscape. If we measure it against the utopian movement that will meet our every desire (but has absolutely no historical precedent, except in how we misremember the past), we can find fault with it, and find a reason to stand apart from it. But if we miss this opportunity to make something of this moment, it will not magically turn into something better. It will turn back into the old thing.
I don’t know if this post is done, but I need to stop. I need to work on my dissertation, and then I need to start grading papers, and then — God willing — I might go out and spend time in an Oakland green space. I’m already going to have to go without doing the former today, as a result of writing this post; I know by weary experience that if I do the first two, I won’t do the third. But I started writing it because I’m becoming more aware of how sick I am at heart lately, and how that’s not going to change itself. I haven’t been blogging much lately, but not because I lack the time — I’ve always lacked the time — but because I lacked the heart to do something other than the work that will pay me (maybe). That’s always the thing about blogging– you do it for the love, but while the fact that love but won’t buy you money is a great thing, it’s also true that you need money in this world, and I live in this world. And I need to stop writing this post so I’ll have time to go down to Frank Ogawa/Oscar Grant plaza. Writing a blog post on Occupy Wall Street is not a substitute for going down there. It’s an excuse not to.
On that note, I want to close by noting a difference between two forms of solidarity that I happened to read yesterday. The first is Lee Siegel‘s Daily Beast column “How the Wall Street Protesters Can Win.” I’m not interested in what he says; some of which is good, I think, and some of which is not. I’m interested in how he frames the article, how he positions himself. He is writing to protesters who he urges to stay away from the media, to avoid being co-opted. And he is clear that he is not, himself, among their number (what with being media and all). “You are the ones out there in the blare and the glare,” he writes, “while I remain ensconced behind my comfortable desk.” He is right; they are and he is. But whether his column has good things to say or doesn’t — whether his suggestions have merit or not — this simple act of framing is vastly the more important thing. He wants them to save him, and he wants them to do it without his participation. Offering “advice” is bullshit if you’re not going to go down there and stand with them (which is one of the reasons why Mike Konczal gets my vote for best of the blogosphere award for OWS blogging). Advice from an “I” to a “you” is simply not solidarity. It might be something else. It might even be useful. But it is not solidarity. And solidarity is the thing we actually have a bleeding deficit of.
To put this another way, we have such an overabundance of facts and explanations — and tactical knowledge — when what we lack is the time to read them and the will (or the means) to act on them. Siegel has helpful suggestions about what the OWS people might use their red ink to write with, but he’s not only not going to pick up a pen himself, he’s also not going to admit that he should. He’s going to tell us what we might do if we were occupying wall street, but he’s also going to give us permission not to.
By contrast, Sarah van Gelder’s little YES magazine post of ten ways to support the occupy movement basically boil down to “put your ass out there”:
“1. Show up at the occupied space near you… 2. Start your own occupation…3. Support those who are occupying…4. Speak out. Get into the debates and the teach-ins.”
And so forth. This is not about living vicariously through someone else’s risk and creativity. Lee Siegel can only imagine himself participating as a detached (but expert) advisor, and by imagining that as an acceptable thing to do, encourages us to regard his example as a possible model. But it isn’t, not even you want to think of yourself as in solidarity. If you want to do that, you have to go there and get dirty. The question of what to do is so simple, so blindingly obvious, that if you aren’t blinded by it, you’ll move on to the next step, how.
In other words, Siegel is so profuse with his praise — saying ridiculous things like “You are the only authentic response…You embody my dream combination of human qualities: honesty, anger and playfulness” — because he doesn’t want to look too close at the Occupy movement, wants to maintain in his head an image of them as what he wants them to be. He doesn’t want to go down to the occupation and discover that they’re actually a lot of flawed, imperfect, and confused people,* that a General Assembly is the worst mode of government ever devised (except of course for all the others). The human microphone is creative and inspiring, but it’s also annoying as hell. Siegel doesn’t want to see the occupiers on the Charlie Rose show because he doesn’t want to find out that they aren’t whatever it is he idealizes them into being. He wants them to stay distant from him, so he can imagine them as “authentic.” But there is nothing more stultifying than authenticity. Lee Siegel’s article is also a list, but a list of what not to do. And it wasn’t really directed at the Occupiers, who do not seem likely to me to be all that interested in what Lee Siegel has to say; it was directed at you and me. It was a list of ways not to go to the occupation, one of the very many that an ostensibly sympathetic corporate-owned media has been happy to proliferate, like mass producing Che Guevara t-shirts. But there is no solidarity without engagement, and the only way to be a meaningful part of this moment is to be there, in person. Writing about it, being a spectator, even signing petitions of support are all meaningless, for the very reason this kind of protest is necessary and powerful: no one in power cares what you think until you make them.
* At Occupy Oakland, on the first night, a guy got up and warned us all that if we go to the hospital, we might get “chipped,” and narrated to us the variety of times the government tried to kill him. It was basically a laundry list of paranoid delusions, and people applauded because of the love he had for them and they for him. It was a beautiful moment, but that man was saying some crazy shit. Or the 16 year old girl who stood up and hammed for the crowd for 10 minutes, reveling shamelessly — and beautifully — in the fact that a thousand people were listening to her talk and sing into the microphone. Again, a thundering applause because she was kind of adorable and entertaining. But these are just the most obvious examples of what Occupy is and isn’t; people, not authentic idealizations. Luckily, imperfect people are also pretty good.