ISSUE 2 ISSUE 3 ISSUE 4
This is the second issue of a free online newsletter written by Fred Whitehead.
A quick search of the Internet reveals that the common Sandbur is a native of America, with some 20-25 species, the most prevalent in Kansas being Cenchrus longispinus. Its blade "tapers from the base to the tip and is scabrous." Each bur "encloses two to three spikelets within a round, hard, pubescent covering that is armed with 30 to 65 stout spines." All the State agricultural extension services provide directions for killing this hardy plant. "Sandbur," we read, "is a plant that no one loves."
WHY WE NEED “OFFENSIVE” ART AND LITERATURE
For the last several years, perhaps a decade or two, the general concept of “offensiveness” in literature and art has been seeing a real vogue, and entirely in a negative aspect. “That’s offensive to me,” or “we should not offend people’s sensitivities” and similar expressions have become common, even in halfway sophisticated newspapers and magazines. I have to admit right out that trying to minimize or even outlaw “offensive” cultural _expression irritates me no end. Now with the mayhem attending the circulation of a few cartoons about the Prophet Mohammed in an obscure Danish newspaper, we see this bedeviling word everywhere. Muslims say they are offended, and western editors and even politicians apologize and say “we mean no offense,” etc.
While one or two commentators have referenced historic controversies, mentioning the disputes about iconoclasm in medieval Byzantium or the desecration of churches during the Civil War period in England between 1640-1660, most intellectuals seem oblivious to this context. So a short review is now called for.
THE ORIGINS OF SATIRE
Most educated people will at least be aware that satire as a literary form originated in classical antiquity, with poets like Horace and Juvenal. Robert C. Elliott, in a notable scholarly study entitled The Power of Satire: Magic, Ritual, Art (1960), explored the earliest evidence for satirical poetry and utterance, and found that those who composed it were often considered to have deadly powers. That is to say, such a poem or chant could make its target sick, or even kill him. Elliott produces a remarkable amount of evidence drawn from different early societies: Ireland, especially, but also, quite interestingly, Arabia.
It turns out that the ancient Arabs valued and feared satire. “In early times,” writes Elliott, “the Arabian tribesmen periodically held formal contests of honor in which individuals, or sometimes entire tribes, competed in boasting and ridiculing each other. These were ritual occasions, and again the satires of the poets were probably thought to exert magical influence. In any event, the slanging matches often ended in murder and sometimes in tribal war.”
Elliott cites two cases of female satirists whom the Prophet Muhammed himself ordered slain. In his authoritative biography of Muhammed, Maxime Rodinson cites one of these, a woman named Asma bint Marwan, who was run through by the sword of a loyal follower, while she was sleeping with her children. A centenarian man, the poet Abu Afak, was killed similarly, in his sleep.
On another occasion, a group of Christians debated the divine nature of Jesus with Muhammed, but he soon grew weary of it, and “proposed that they should settle the matter by the old Arab method of reciprocal curses. Each side was to curse the other and they would see whose divinity would fulfil the curse. After consulting among themselves, the Christians withdrew.”
I cannot help but notice remarkable similarities between these ancient stories and folkways, and what is happening right now across the Muslim world. To be sure, not every Muslim attacks and burns embassies, but there are obviously enough “believers” to be effective.
This may explain why many Muslims demand that western governments “apologize.” That would constitute a formal admission of error and injustice. They literally do not comprehend that under conditions of freedom of speech and press in the west, governments do not have the authority or ability to control editors or publishers. [I speak descriptively here, and not pejoratively: my objective is first of all understanding, rather than condemnation per se.]
If the basic meaning of the word Islam is Submission, then apologizing for a wrong seems the natural and appropriate thing to do.
I will leave to those more knowledgeable than myself, the exploration of the entire question of Humor in Islamic cultures. But I do feel obliged to report two verses from the skeptical Syrian poet Abu Ala Al Ma’ari, of the 11th century: “The world is composed of those with brains and no religion, and those with religion but no brains.” Somehow he escaped torture or assassination, and even his texts have survived intact.
SATIRE IN THE 18TH CENTURY
Many decades ago, as a result of several years of studying English literature of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, I recognized that satire “comes with the territory.” The great writers of the period such as Swift and Pope were regarded by all as central, important, and world-class. Their idea, one learned quickly, was to impugn and attack political, economic and religious fanaticism and corruption. John Dryden, for instance, penned unforgettable lines about the evangelists of his own day:
A numerous Host of dreaming Saints succeed;
Of the true old Enthusiastick Breed:
‘Gainst Form and Order they their Pow’r imploy;
Nothing to Build, and all things to Destroy.
But far more numerous was the Herd of such,
Who think too little, and who talk too much.
Note that the target here is the sects of Christians, who applauded the execution of King Charles in 1649, and otherwise turned over all institutions of established order.
Or consider this fierce denunciation which concludes Swift’s “Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General”:
Come hither, all ye empty things,
Ye bubbles raised by breath of kings;
Who float upon the tide of state,
Come hither, and behold your fate.
Let pride by taught by this rebuke,
How very mean a thing’s a duke;
From all his ill-got honors flung,
Turn’d to the dirt from which he sprung.
Bear in mind that Swift’s target was no less than Winston Churchill’s notorious ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough. No wonder Swift had placed on his own tomb a Latin inscription which translates thus: “He has gone where savage indignation can lacerate his heart no longer.”
This is not the place to expound at length on the rich and various traditions of satire in English literature. It is remarkable, and includes such diverse figures as Fielding, Blake, Byron, Dickens, and Shaw. More recently, the irascible Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid.
In American literature, Mark Twain is our most famous satirist, though even in his case, he suppressed some of his most bitter writing about religion so as not to upset his wife or children. In the 20th century, we had Mencken, Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, and Dorothy Parker, among many others. One critic hailed the poet Tom McGrath, like MacDiarmid a proud Celt, for his invective.
My point here is that satire in one form or another is essential to modern British and American literature. It might be suppressed by Puritans here or there, but no educated person can imagine our culture without these landmarks.
OUR HERITAGE OF BLASPHEMY
The standard study of this subject is Leonard W. Levy’s massive book Blasphemy: Verbal Offense against the Sacred, from Moses to Salman Rushdie. Defining blasphemy as “abusive speech against religion,” Levy covers hundreds of years of cultural and especially legal history, from the denunciation of Jesus by the Pharisees to the present. Most people nowadays are probably wholly ignorant of this record, but it is also likely that our reluctance to prosecute the crime of blasphemy even when it might in one or another society remain on the law books, is based on some residual memory of its horrors.
I will give details of just one such case. In late October, 1656, with some followers, the Quaker James Naylor entered Bristol thus: “Nayler sat on his horse as if in a trance, while the others, bareheaded, surrounded him and led him through the mud, singing ‘Holy, holy, holy, Hosannah, Lord God of Israel.’ They spread their sodden cloaks for his horse to walk upon as he passed through the city streets.” The group was quickly arrested. At his interrogation, Nayler was asked: “Art thou the only Son of God?” and he replied: “I am the Son of God, but I have many brethren.” Levy observes that “the answers were pure Quakerism.”
Nayler was convicted, and narrowly avoided being sentenced to death. One who observed his punishment recorded it thus: “[I] went to see Nayler’s tongue bored through, and him marked in the forehead. He put out his tongue very willingly, but shrinked a little when the iron came upon his forehead. He was pale when he came out of the pillory, but highcoloured after tongue-boring.” He had previously received 310 lashes, and “there was no skin left between his shoulders and his hips.” As Levy notes, “a week later, Nayler still could not speak.”
For the whole sorry record of torture, mutilation and execution, see Levy, who also details the hundreds of cases where the result was merely imprisonment, fine, or exile. These cases occurred throughout Europe, in Britain, and in America.
The result was, over this long period, to emphasize the right to freedom of speech and press, over and against laws prohibiting blasphemy. Juries and even judges began to rule in favor of the defendants, eventually, overwhelmingly so.
Hence, in the west, we have literally hundreds of years of experience, much of it contentious and bitter, through which we have de facto if not formally decriminalized Blasphemy altogether.
This is, then, why we are not horrified or shocked at anti-religious expression, whether in speech or press, or in works of art. Let alone in cartoons. Of course, there are many among us—evangelical Christians, but also editors of “reputable” newspapers—who are uneasy about it. They might even repress it in their own publications. But a full-scale governmental repression of such criticisms is no longer legally tenable in western societies.
A CRITICAL LOOK AT THE OCCUPY MOVEMENT
In the few months of the Occupy movement, an enormous amount of commentary has erupted, from all sectors, right and left, Left and Right. Already there are books about it, collections of documents and the like. Clearly, it aimed to change the debate, to take the momentum away from the Tea Party, and to some extent it has succeeded. However, the marked enthusiasm of aging Leftists, often amounting to prayerful gratitude that Someone Is Doing Something at Last, should prompt scrutiny instead of hosannas. One anonymous observer on the Right quipped that their chants amounted to: “What do we want? Nothing. When do we want it? Now.” Ouch.
To be fair, the motivations of many Occupiers were clear. They had gone heavily into debt in their college education, had even graduated, only to find there were no jobs, and there weren’t going to be any jobs. Wise pundits reflected the “recession” might go on for years and years, or decades. It was an outrageous situation, and found expression in broadly felt outrage from those thus discarded from society.
But as the movement unfolded, with tent communities (a key word, to which we will return in a moment), remaining determinedly in all kinds of rain and storms, I kept thinking: I have seen this before, but where? At last it struck me one day: these young people are replicating the meme of Reality TV. A small but courageous band goes into the wilderness, paints their faces, contrives to shape some form of social group, beats drums until late at night, fends off all kinds of feral challenges, speaks in tongues, discards its weak members and rewards those who endure, and finally a saving remant prevails.
I have to admit I’ve never even watched one of these appalling TV shows. A minute or two with the sound off suffices. Like everything else on network TV, the very name of the thing is its opposite. They are anything but Real.
In the 1960s, the radicals of Students for Democratic Society, many of them “red diaper babies,” i.e. the children of parents who had been in or close to the Communist Party and similar organizations, at least knew there had been some kind of history back there. They didn’t feel they had to know anything about it, it just wasn’t necessary to study anything, and of course they subsequently reverted to archaic forms of revolt, similar to the terrorist activities of the Narodniks in 19th century Russia. Aiming to escape history, they became atavistic, and finally collapsed. Recently I forced myself to watch a documentary film on the Weather Underground. One after another, now old veterans of that period, some still in prison, others released after decades of incarceration, said that their devolution into terrorism had been erroneous and futile. Then they all firmly declared they would do it all over again. This is what passes for learning in present-day America.
Now the Occupy people do not even know that there was a history, of anything. At the encampment in Kansas City, near the Federal Reserve building, and ironically, tents cluster around a monument to the U.S. soldiers in the Spanish-American War. There was a Day of Learning, so I went to check it out. I was impressed at how young people could squat in the dusty grass and listen to hour after hour of repetitive harangues about the Evil Corporations. But there were no perspectives from the past. One group heard an incoherent lecture about Aristotle, followed by an ecstatic lesson in Dance.
There seems to be some new mode of communication, a ritualistic twiddling of massed hands, approving or disapproving what is being said. Lacking amplification (forbidden by the police), they repeat short sentences in cadences, giving the effect of an incantation.
The whole affair is clearly a crude and juvenile effort to start building some kind of community, any kind of community. Many participants have testified they have felt a part of a living group for the first time in their lives. This is no small matter: as in the 1950s, alienation in 2010s America has become deep and severe. The labor unions are but a shadow of their former selves. Schools are merely custodial and punitive. The mass media are full of palpable imbecility. It’s a real mess, and these young people have tried to begin to straighten it out.
The central “authority” in the Occupy sites is the General Assembly. But in practice they lapse into interminable and inconclusive chaos. Participatory democracy: good. Democratic centralism: bad.
The difference between the 1930s and now is that the Hoovervilles were populated by people who literally had no homes. Though the Occupy sites have attracted some homeless people, they are often viewed as nuisances by their supposed comrades, who are only fleeing suburbia.
Lest it seem that I am resorting to mocking dismissal, let me again grant that the grievances of the Occupy movement are real. The 1% have indeed ripped off the 99%, though I’d have to note that there are a sizeable part of the 99%, say 40% who still defend capitalism in spite of everything. That would be the Tea Party, unaware as they are that their organizations are being secretly funded by the 1%. America, I would argue, is the World Center of False Consciousness.
So, what to do? It’s difficult, because adolescence has been artificially extended in this society, far beyond what it biologically should be. It’s a trend of long-standing. Peter Pan and the kids around him never want to grow up. Grayheaded rock stars still strut their stuff before mass audiences, though lately the giant raves of yore have not been so successful.
The Occupy movement, like the society, needs to grow up, as St. Paul said, when he became a man, he put away childish things. A revolutionary movement would be active on all fronts, including electoral politics, because like it or not, that is where power in this society is lodged. No matter if you pound drums all night, the gates of the Federal Reserve will not swing open in the morning, and bankers will not issue forth to admit they have plundered us, and say: “Here is all our money.” We have to take their money, either peacefully through sufficient taxation to unseat their power, or through other means.
This is the 4th issue of a free online newsletter written by Fred Whitehead.
Issue #3 consisted of my critique of the Occupy movement. I quickly received several spirited responses, some in sharp disagreement, others supporting its theses. With the permission of those responding, here are their texts, written in December 2011 and January 2012.
I just finished reading (for the second time) the first version you sent to me. I have a few reactions to share.
First of all, I’m a bit surprised at the tone of this article. It reads like a blanket condemnation of two generations of activism in the country. Some of this criticism is fair—some seems a bit overdrawn. I think the greater problem was with the 60s movement (the fallout movements from the 60s were good, I think—a spreading of the civil rights movement). I was disappointed with the 60s-70s movements because they lacked a broader vision. They focused on civil rights (minorities, women, GLBT), and/or they focused on protesting the war. The environmental movement and the anti-nuclear movement also blossomed during this time. None of the various “movements” went on to pick up the economic issues—perhaps because it was a flush time for America. None focused on the emerging domination of corporate control. I think the Occupy movements are distinctly different. First of all, they were able to articulate and make the first effort at challenging global capitalism. Not since the Communist movements have we seen such political and economic focus. Taking the big picture, trying to “imagine” what the corporate beast is or is not, is a mighty task, and the meme of Wall Street made that work. It also, as Meridel would say, pointed out the true enemy—capital, not each other. I also think it is unfair to see them as Reality TV—those programs are ruthless and competitive—the epitome of capitalist mentality. I would also argue that the Weather Underground was such a minority and had little impact on the movement itself. They did provide a convenient hook on which the government could hang all protesters “in the name of” fighting terrorism. They were, indeed, terrorists in the modern jargon, but a very small part of larger movements.
I would also add, don’t piss on their preliminary and tentative messages, so quickly. Perhaps the movement will find a way to sustain itself. They certainly have the attention of the world. And they are weak right now (many more hundreds of thousands were out in Europe in support). And it is winter! I think we should instead praise them for having the right focus. It’s about capitalism. And they’ve captured the attention of the country. Whether they can maintain it, in this age of short attention spans, will be seen.
The only other thing that I would add, is that initially there is the strong anarchist influence. They are action-oriented, taking the idea of “occupy” from one setting to another, continuing to shine light on our oppressors and our oppression. Anarchists really don’t want to take power, they want to empower people. Getting people off the couch has done that, I think.
St. Paul, Minnesota
I have some burs on my pants from working outside yesterday in our unusual 45 F weather—a record I’m told. Maybe there’s a bit of a record in your Sandbur 3 seeing a sound path between follies both left and right.
Vivat, vivat, vivat!
Grand Forks, North Dakota
Hi Fred. Thanks for your thoughts on these pressing matters. I'm with you on all but the tv comparison. The Occupiers are not essentially about tents and camps, as the marches to close down the West Coast ports have demonstrated. I think they know full well that "Occupy" means to threaten to shut down the revenue flows to the biggest profit-takers, i.e. international commodity traders and financiers.
After all is said and done, these folks did change the political discourse of the nation, the way few others have been able to do: not we in the Greens, not we in the Labor Party, and not we older radical teachers. For this they deserve much thanks, as you recognize. It's true that an analytical dimension that is lacking, however. They do not investigate the root causes of economic crisis nor of systemic nature of the grave inequalities in the US. You're right that the ultrademocratic processes limit the movement's practical impact on economic and political change. We owe them much nonetheless for what their strengths have accomplished. I think their radical actions will teach them some radical lessons: about the police, the state, the profit system, the nature of a more mature movement for radical change.
Kansas City, Missouri
Thanks so much for this piece--your analysis of the movement is spot on. I was in London at the beginning of the St Paul's occupation. When I saw the hand-waving, it was difficult not to laugh. What I notice most is the sheep-like way the various groups around the country and world have mimicked the Wall Street group, institutionalizing forms that arose, al least to some degree spontaneously, and making them the blueprint for social change. Not unlike the multiple, but unsuccessful, attempts to replicate Seattle that attended international trade conferences for years.
A couple of weeks ago Ruben and I took part in a rally and march with the Occupy Anchorage folks. Nice people, but I have no idea how they expect tents to create social change--nor what change they really want. And the endless meetings and discussions and quest for consensus--f this is what democracy looks like, I want no part of it. But then again, being an individualist, I never did.
Anyway, great work.
Fred, you expressed in
words a great deal that I have been struggling to find words to express. The one
thing that I would argue that the Occupy movement could be (and perhaps to some
extend has been) successful at is making Democratic Politicians realize that
they can't take the Left-wing for granted, and that if they expect the latter's
support in the upcoming elections they have to start catering to them. I think
it no accident that immediately after the Occupy movement began, the President
began using much less Conciliatory language in attempting to push through
(however unsuccessfully) his jobs plan among other things.
All that said, it remains to be seen if the President's new-found fighting spirit will be too little too late. I've been thinking and meditating and praying on just how Orthodox a Marxist-Leninist I Am, if I am indeed a Leninist at all. To be honest I'm just not sure, but I do believe in the necessity of discipline in any political movement (in the form of Democratic Centralism), given especially that our wealthy adversaries are certainly highly organized and disciplined.
The only U.S. occupation I've been to was the one in Washington D.C., which had different characteristics because it was planned before the Wall Street thing started and because there's a crowd of people who go to D.C. demonstrations who are probably older and more politically-aware on average, with a more clearly internationalist and anti-imperialist focus than the people at the local occupations. I've tried to follow what's happening in Oakland and in fact am going to spend part of my vacation there. We'll see how it is. I think much of what you say is true about the lack of focus in this movement or convergence of movements but that the picture is better now than a few months ago, thanks to these movements. I see it a little bit in the context of what's been happening in Spain and Chile (and what's not been happening in Mexico).
Mexico City, Mexico
Ouch! Dear Fred, I
think you are being too hard on the young ones. Rebel without a cause? Or a
cause with no good rebels? But at least they turned up to be counted.
Santa Barbara, California
Greetings from Dakota!
Thank you for this email newsletter. I read your writing here with sincere interest and appreciation for your view point. Your own historical view is what, yes, seems to be missing from the Occupy group--typical of a generation that has not learned history in the public schools or on their own or from their mentors. Not that I know what I should about history, but I am not completely in the dark.
Fargo, North Dakota
Very interesting and useful, since I am forced to do some explaining of OCCUPY, in word and writing, simply because I am American - unfortunately I left NYC in September just a few weeks before it got started.
But, though admittedly far from the fray (or the American side of it, since it has been internationalized), I would question your stress. I am sure that what you say is all true, that making fun of the hand-wriggling and choral repetitions is, I think, unwarranted. Of course it has an adolescent - or even younger aspect to it - and a naiveté. But so what? Every movement of any length tends to develop symbols and the cultural gimmicks representing an in-group. I suspect that they are not only harmless but have the effect of cementing the group, which is could be good.
Far more important, your putting them down for lack of history and lack of theory, lack of real plans. Of course, this is certainly true, but cannot be blamed on them, - has the left - there (or here) succeeded in passing on traditions of history and theory. Unfortunately very little, this is not really its fault either.
But these failings, important as they may be, would be outweighed at least in part by experience, the best teacher of them all. And I guess that the violent, and evidently coordinated breaking up of the OCCUPY sites is a great supplied of experience. Who rules here, and how - plus their constant stress from the beginning on the nature of big biz in running the country, including Congress and to a great degree the White House. This knowledge and experience has, from what I can tell, really had a big effect on the dialogue in the USA. Perhaps not for the worst of the fundamentalists, but the slogan about 1 vs. 99 percent -e en if it has not been understood at all by 40 or 50 percent, represents a very big step forward in a country which was dominated mentally by the Tea Party people and the collaborators in t both parties. They obviously got frightened - and I think for good treason.
One big question remains. Even if the occupiers could dissipate with the winter snows and the forced abandonment, and they would be leaving a mark, not to be disparaged, but not necessarily of any permanent value.
But there seems also to be the possibility that they will not evaporate. The hookup with the West Coast ports, though evidently messed up by lack of coordination with the ILWU, still had very good aspects - supporting the strike in Seattle. A possible hookup with the Wisconsin movement to oust the governor could be another. The switch in Brooklyn to taking over empty homes and giving them to evicted families has a great potential, especially since it evidently involved breaking through the white student predominance and moving in to the ghetto and barrio. Those are big Ifs, Michael Moore expressed them well in his ten points.
Thus, even if the challenges are not met, it would seem the atmosphere was cleared of a lot of dangerous hot air, and won’t really be the same (as note Obama's recent speeches, whether hypocritical or not a new turn) - even mentioning OCCUPY's slogan). And there is that challenge there that the many of the Occupiers, with their new experience, could hitch up with the fight against the Walkers (?) in Wisconsin, and other key movements, including fights to elect or re-elect good people for Congress. And certainly in case a Gingrich or Romney gets elected - (and Obama anyhow!).
So - those are the ideas which your little article set in motion. All the best for the holidays, and a fighting 2012 with no wars!
Thanks for sending this. Pretty much sums up my take as well, though I’ve been occasionally hopeful that something of more substance might eventually develop out of the shapeless “movement.”
True, many of the Occupy people are students (or former students, or graduates) who have gone into heavy debt from their student loans and the lack of employment. Though it probably exaggerates to say that they’re the core of the movement. For sure, the lack of articulated goals, or even any broad consensus of ideas (other than “capitalism sucks” or some such) didn’t promise much for the movement over the long haul.
At the same time, there was – at least initially – some small show of support from various labor unions. Members of my union, the Communication Workers, sent a delegation to one or two of the larger public events. Quite a few other organizations of all sorts have also taken part, at least early on. There was a whole lot of potential – or maybe something less than that, whatever exists before potential – but it mostly hasn’t become much.
It reminds me sometimes of a joke Mort Sahl told once. He was talking about religion, religion in general and various religions in particular, and he started talking about Unitarians. (When I was a child, pre-school and early grade school, I went with my parents to Unitarian Church in several of the various places we lived back then.) Sahl was trying to describe what Unitarians are, what they believe, and after hesitating a moment, he said, “I guess… if you’re a bigot, and you want to harass a family of Unitarians, you burn a question mark on their lawn.”
I heard a fleeting headline on T.V. this evening, haven’t gone chasing it further, that “leaders” of the Occupy movement are saying now that the movement needs a political party. Anybody’s guess where that might lead.
If they’d organized to occupy, not symbolic public spaces, but – say – the trading floor of the Stock Exchange, that might have been a different story. I guess at one point some of the Occupy people in New York attempted something like that, but the police set up barricades and blocked them in the streets from getting near the Stock Exchange building.
In Minneapolis the Occupy movement, what there is of it, kept up a pretty steady presence in the large plaza in front of the City-County government center downtown, through this past fall, then numbers started to dwindle as the weather got colder at night, though a small hard-core cadre of people held out in the face of everything for a good month or more when the temperature at night was dropping into the 30’s. Eventually the city passed some ordinance or something prohibiting anyone from camping there overnight once the temperature got below 25 degrees, which has been known to happen in November here though this year November was relatively mild. But everybody’s gone from the government center plaza at this point, though there are still a few of their signs lingering there, fastened and propped up in a few spots. Last report I heard was that the Occupy people here were talking about holding occupation actions in foreclosed houses. Guessing that won’t lead far – once you start messing with privately owned property, you’ll have the cops down on your head pretty fast.
The analogy around Reality TV is tight and has me tittering on this rainy day. Bringing up the Narodniks and Weather Underground while appropriate as a warning and reminder but a bit of a stretch, since the mass character is still unclear even with these advanced lines of communication. Village peasant revolts without the expropriations come to mind out here with the small numbers, but in the urban cores of San Francisco and New York and the Northwest definitely potential uprisings where the last of the unions have strength.
Most of it rings true, and it's certainly not being said enough. People are so desperate for improvement that they don't examine the efficacy of what's being said or done (or not done).
One passage set me to thinking, though it's accurate in many ways and certainly provocative:
“In the 1960s, the radicals of Students for Democratic Society, many of them “red diaper babies,” i.e. the children of parents who had been in or close to the Communist Party and similar organizations, at least knew there had been some kind of history back there. They didn’t feel they had to know anything about it, it just wasn’t necessary to study anything, and of course they subsequently reverted to archaic forms of revolt, similar to the terrorist activities of the Narodniks in 19th century Russia."
Point one: "It just wasn't necessary to study anything"--that's not my experience. The red diaper leaders of NAM [the New American Movement], for instance, did study the radical past. They started a "new" organization because they thought their parents had failed, and they would do better. Similarly some in PL, RU, Socialist Party, Trotskyists, etc.--in more cockeyed ways...
Second point: the Weather People were at the extreme end of the movement. I knew some then, as I still do today. Then it was as if they didn't check their libidos at the door before they came in the bar. They were the end part of a very broad spectrum, however. Frankly I thought the "premature liberals"--those who went back to political moderation with unseemly haste as career ops began to open--were more damaging; certainly monster hypocrites.
But I don't think any corrections are called for here. Call it as you see it.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
I hope readers won’t think I’m opposed to the Occupiers or their aims. Did you see the Bill Moyers’ interview of Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson’ re their recent book, “Winner Take All Capitalism” I’m all for demonstrations against the “vulture capitalists”--i.e., the unscrupulous venture capitalists who strip businesses for quick profit rather than help start-up companies-- but the demonstrations need to be effective. As far I can make out the protesters are merely providing fuel to the righties and radio ranters who characterize them as the unwashed backwash of failed discontents. Sitting in semi-squalor in the rain and cold reinforces this view. The protesters need to project vigor & disciplined determination in action—through marches and rallies carrying colorful banners and chanting. The French have a long tradition of this. We have our own from earlier radical movements that the Occupier leaders seem to have forgotten.
This is really smart, and nails what
I've been thinking about lately in relationship to this...other than the obvious
native perspective which is "Occupy?" "New? WTF?"
Speaking of history,
having lived in Indian country for twenty
three years gives me the right to speak only for myself--a white woman well
educated by Native American family members. Occupy is one of the words that
describes contact with imperialism and colonization. For some in Indian Country
losing traditional homelands to western European colonizationis a kind of
massive occupation without end. Occupations are traumatic and leave Post
Traumatic Stress Disorder in their wake. Occupations have often also been
associated with words like genocide, conquer, conquest, colonization,
reservation, war, and all the place names that were "named and claimed" (think
"Susanville" and "Carson City"). For me it evokes a kind of visceral recoil
because generally occupations have been suffered by people whose homelands the
occupiers wanted and were prepared to take forcefully. But Occupy Wall Street is
different, I know...and Guy Fawkes may sooner or later come for all of us if we
are inattentive too.
Occupy Reno surfaced for most of us last September, and the young white college students who started it here have been joined by some pretty interesting folks in a tightly knit community whose city permits at the old Moana swimming pool--(yes, we have a city government that awarded our Occupy movement a permit to Occupy from September to February, and no, we don't know if it will be renewed). Permit renewal is a staff-level decision at City Hall but organizers are demanding to be on the city council agenda on the 25th to discuss their demand for a resolution calling for the de-personalization of corporations AND their permit at Moana Pool. Not following the process will force a confrontation--but OR organizers were on the ground in the Bay Area in November, so maybe that is intentional.
The permitted camp allows for a base camp
for a kind of mobile protest that until locating a mock camp in front of City
Hall very recently has moved to more prominent intersections protesting and
doing things like supporting citizens in court foreclosure proceedings during
the day. I guess a number of the 20-25 residents at the camp are there because
they lost their homes to foreclosure in the state with both the highest
foreclosure rate and the highest unemployment rate. News coverage over the
holidays has focused on interviews with some of the numbers of people who are
losing their homes and becoming part of Occupy Reno.
Occupy Reno has a draft declaration online now, and assemblies and discussion groups and trainings. There is a hoop house up on site: a D.I.Y. greenhouse design that allows for extended season gardening. (It's even more cool that they got it up since I sat through numerous city council meetings only to have the attorneys just say no to our request for a hoop house in an urban Reno community garden three years ago).
A media committee meets at the UNR, and
their escalation of the protest to the sidewalk in front of city hall made the
front page of the Saturday paper yesterday. I'm interested in how many will
attend a candlelight vigil in front of City Hall in honor of MLK, as they are
not supporting the traditional events hosted by Reno NAACP and civil rights
leaders that most allies attend here. Will students of color join them?
My family has only visited Occupy Reno once--my friend and professor of philosophy held an early evening Occupy Hannukkah lighting where she'd brought copies of The Economic Bill of Rights, a speech FDR made January 11, 1944. Even though the candles wouldn't stay lit in the cold wind, the small circle assembled took turns reading the demands--which are remarkably familiar to the working poor--and I was just amazed at how fresh his words were still today. Not much has changed.
But we had guests back home, so we gave the leadership at the fire pit some deer meat and left promising a load of firewood for the future. I want them to do ok. I want them to stay warm. I worried about the first round of television interviews where the organizers didn't seem to be able to say much about why they are out there...but things are evolving.
I get my news from Occupy Reno in my
inbox, and I still have a job and a place to make fire indoors this winter. I
don't see this movement just fading away as it has crossed my mind that we are
always a paycheck away from the precipice on any given day. FDR said, "People
who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made".
I always thought that was the stuff of which revolutions are made, too.
Angela Davis has spoken to Occupy protestors in New York, Oakland, and Philadelphia and the footage is pretty powerful online. Any of it, even with the crowd repeating every phrase and wiggling their fingers pointed upwards is worth the time to watch it. The first time I saw the whole repeat every phrase convention, it was her speaking, so I attributed it to her. It was call and response poetry. Gotta have something to say that bears repeating....
So I'll close with an analogy because some tea-tipped Americans hate immigrants so much that they have legislated racial profiling, decimated and now banned ethnic studies programs, even built a wall further dissecting whole communities and whole tribal nations. The worst among them patrol the border wearing camoflage, hiding their scopes and automatic weapons, and shooting at brown people, at women and children, at human beings, at my family. They rail at us with their "English Only" refrain, waving flags and calling themselves real proud Americans.
The English Only controversy particularly infuriates our elders because to Native Americans English is the language of their occupiers. It is ludicrous that you could expect speakers of any language that was on this continent first to understand their Mother Tongue as worth less than English. Similarly, once an elder actually said to me that the white politicians who are making racist laws against new brown immigrants are only immigrants who have been here longer. The same elder didn't live to see how bad it has gotten in Arizona and Alabama, but it has only been since the mid 1970's since Washoes could be seated indoors in Gardnerville restaurants, so she would not be pleased or surprised at this hatred by immigrants now.
I no longer have the Elders who were closest to our family to ask, but I can hear P'isew snorting disdainfully, wearing a wry grin with her head cocked to the left slightly, musing, "Who are these Occupy the Occupiers, anyway?”
Laura Smith Fillmore
Response by Fred Whitehead: I am most encouraged to have such thoughtful and cogent responses. It is vitally important to have some place where diverse viewpoints can meet and cross-fertilize! I agree with the suggestions that I was perhaps too hasty in my judgment—and agree also that this movement is still emerging and developing. My main fear remains that the lessons of history urgently need to be studied and assimilated by all participants in the struggle for justice. And I remain convinced that too many activists from the Sixties and now are not undertaking this adequately. As I write the Economics Department at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and the Occupy Kansas City movement are co-sponsoring a meeting this week on the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of the Thirties and its meaning for the present moment.