Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Occupy Wall Street, Part Two


In Part One I had noted two Occupy Wall Street encampments in my city. Also, a) I examined the homeless camp being noneffective, and b) I noted how no one in power was examining the folks in the white middle class camp and their message to us: No “summing up.”

As Juliet would ask: Wherefore the occupation? I’m no expert, and I wasn’t raised middle class, but still, I feel qualified to examine the middle class occupiers. I think I’m old and humble enough to know hubris when I see it. Hubris, to the Greeks, meant having too much pride to heed the Gods, leading to a downfall. To me hubris today includes being too prideful to heed history, common sense and the public.

To me the issue is our unwillingness to critically look at the need for, and the process of achieving, social change. As a society we won’t bother looking if we feel no hope, and the youthful protesters, who might have sparked our hope, won’t bother looking if they have too much hubris.

As for social change, for Wall Street and beyond, the obvious question is: Should we bother? Is change even possible? Can we ever learn from history? My answer is NO and YES.

In the 1960’s many longhaired youth thought we could change ourselves, could come to believe in Love, replacing cold capitalism with altruistic communism. My own experience is: NO, we can’t “learn” to change the human heart. There were Hells Angels working at Woodstock. Given our limited time and energy, there will always be as many or as few robber barons as we allow, barons at the fords of streams, and barons where streams of money pass by. There will always be individuals in the street agitating for crowds to riot or go to war. I was in Vancouver the week after the 2010 hockey riot made headlines around the world. The young people who participated were the same people who would have told you, a week earlier, with a straight face, (Give peace a chance) “Rioting is wrong.”

We may never learn the horror of riots, or the horror of war... no, not permanently, but YES, we can learn tactics for managing everyday life. We can learn, say, that if we are willing to regulate then there will not be another Great Depression. Hopefully. But if we forget, and if both major US political parties proceed to de-regulate, then there will be a Wall Street melt down and a World Wide Recession. The overall silence about this disaster, where no one is being named, is partly because both US parties are guilty of de-regulation. Neither party is adult enough, humble enough, to take responsibility and show remorse. Instead they have Hubris.

 My grandfather lived in Vancouver. He knew the hubris of the Great War. “They say”—and lots of falsehoods start with they say—they say that people of Grandpa’s time didn’t know enough to de-glamorize war. Grandpa was a sergeant major in the artillery reserves. He told me he liked going to summer training camp (which would have been barely two weeks in those less affluent, less unionized times) because at camp the sergeants would ride horses, his only chance to ever ride.

In my day many of the longhaired hippies were no strangers to horses. They were middle class: rich. Not working class. Not poor like my dad who as a boy had felt bad that he couldn’t always feed his dog, or like my mother who still feels bad that she had to feed us on—never mind. The hippies could oppose “the system,” and idealistically live on handouts, only because, in reality, they were merely slumming. I despised them as soon as I saw allegedly “poor” hippies eating potato chips. No, these people had never known hunger; they felt no need for real food.

Hubris meant that Grandpa’s peers in the horse cavalry wouldn’t go look at tanks, and one officer even said what do we need aeroplanes for? "From the air everything is a blur." And when an original thinker like Winston Churchill got the allies to try the first ever combined army-navy operation, the invasion of the Dardanelles, the forces didn’t even know how to cooperate. Today the hubris may still lurk, but today’s tactic, according to rumor, is to impede the promotion of any officer who doesn’t cooperate.

Society learned, at great cost, that society’s toolbox needs a mix of tools, without the pride of favoring, say, the tank tool over the airplane tool. Or government over business. Or business over government. Not everyone learned. Not the Japanese, blinded by the hubris of their glorious fascism. My uncle Jack was in the pacific for world war two. After the war, during the first weeks of the occupation of Japan, there was an innkeeper who, in fear and trembling, deeply apologized for having a few allied officers, from both army and navy, staying under one roof!

Unfortunately, Uncle Jack’s children of the 1960’s were not much better. Hubris again. We youth claimed to want a revolution yet we said, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty!” And so we cut off the “older generation.” We threw away that tool. Such madness: How can you fix a punctured, bent tire, and fix it so it makes revolutions, with a half empty toolbox? The cold fact is people willing to do the tedious self-disciplined work of, say, following the Wall Street money, to see which company controls what other companies, are more likely to be over age 31 than under 21. If only the youthful Occupy Wall Street people could have reached out to such old allies, started a movement, and then a groundswell… but it was easier, for their pride, to ignore the public.

So who are the occupiers? They are youth: Impatient, unself-disciplined and unlearning of history. But wait—what about the college protesters who occupy Wall Street? Doesn’t university teach you to discipline your mind? Well, I’ll attend to students later in this essay.

I’m no College professor, I’m no learned expert. But I’m a witness. I can remember, back in the 1960’s, having some trouble enjoying the popular TV show Laugh-In, partly because I didn't like the cast trying so hard to be "hip." My biggest problem, though, was that while knowing how expensive every second of TV was, I was trying to watch a show with a longgg time between punch lines. I felt like someone was holding open the refrigerator door. Meanwhile, in those days an intellectual Hollywood screenwriter, Harlan Ellison, was doing TV columns in the medium of print. My favorite line of his is surely a heartfelt one: “Television is chewing gum for the eyes.” Ellison, of course, was an original rebel, not a blind conformist. How he happy he was to hear some precious airtime was to be donated to the younger generation. At last! Now the youth could explain their side of things, cross over the generation gap, reach into homes across America. Hurray! But then, well, what he witnessed was…

Of course average American workers can’t go to college, they won’t read Das Kapita, or any political theory, not even in comic book form, but at least they can see. They will, perhaps while chewing gum, watch the tube. And so it was exciting when somehow precious airtime, no doubt with commercials included, was given to the “now generation.” Here was their one and only chance for the longhaired idealists to educate people, to explain how the Establishment, the System, could be improved… and they blew it.

I never saw that broadcast, myself, but I read Harlan’s column afterwards. It was sad. Apparently the show started with someone in a mini skirt saying something silly and gleefully swinging a big hammer at a gong as a joke. And that set the tone. It was all the same: glee, more glee, and never any substance. Ellison was crushed.

History repeats, God knows. When the G-8 was meeting just outside town, near Banff, and when protesters, those rich enough, and free enough, to travel, came idealistically from all over the continent, I kept watching the newspapers day after to day. Would any of them write a letter or maybe even a column to explain to the public exactly why the G-8 was a Bad Thing?... Nothing. I remember the protesters once did a stunt where they stood in a line, and mooned the crowd, with letters written across their butts, but that was all they ever wrote. Easier to have glee, and anger too, than to think and reach out and communicate. So don’t expect the people of my city to know any more about the G-8, today, than do the people in any other North American city. I understand there was indeed an educational thing put one night in the university gymnasium, but that was by locals and for locals… older locals.

I remember being angered, at the time of the G-8, at the sheer fascism of the young travelers that came here. I say “fascism” as being the opposite of democratic spirit. Not only were the youth uninterested in talking to me and my neighbors, but they spent an inordinate amount of their time and energy concentrating on trying to communicate with, and to educate, just eight—eight!—measly old white men. This in a city of a million souls. Had they no time to wander into beauty parlors, barber shops and beer halls? No time for greasy spoon cafes? ... Incidentally, a Member of the Legislative Assembly, Gary Mar, years before being sent to work as "our man in Washington," had the humility to come into a cafĂ© where I was drinking and sit down to ask for feedback… Had the rich youth too much hubris to believe in joint action? After all, here were a million bodies, right handy, ready to march. Or were these middle class kids prejudiced against admitting the less affluent classes like mine could ever learn? (“The proles will never revolt!”) Or had their schooling not made clear to them the joy of democracy over fascism?

As for schooling, before I touch the subject of college students, lets return to the folks with the nice store-bought pretty nylon tents: the local occupiers of Wall Street. I can say with confidence these folks failed to draw certain lessons from the earlier G-8 folks. This weekend, finally, the occupiers were kicked out. The summing up, I regret to say, came not from a political leader but from a local reporter. The Calgary Herald gave an entire page, A3, (Sunday Dec 11, 2011) to reporter Jen Gerson. Even on the last day, notes Gerson, with the protesters giving a press conference with “every media outlet in the city…cameras, recorders and notepads…” There was nothing of substance to report. At no time did a lengthy written statement ever come out of the occupation. Such youthful hubris. Such a waste.

So, again, who are the occupiers? If they lack the ability of a typical college student to draft a statement, if they can’t compose an essay, or even enjoy reading one, (let alone read a manifesto or Das Kapita) if they can’t think coherently and critically, then maybe it is because the campers weren’t attending classes, and furthermore, had no plans to ever feel engaged in learning. Maybe there were no students reading Calvin or Hobbs, no Leviathan, no students of economics or commerce with original insights into Wall Street or capitalism. And if so, if the Olympic Plaza occupation was barren of students, then maybe there’s no need for us to give up on all youth just yet. Maybe there is still a place for sparks and tinder from university intellectual romantic rebels and protesters. If there’s still hope for change, then there’s no need for us all to give up and be silent about Wall Street. It remains to be seen whether hubris will render some, most, or all of our educated youth ineffectual.

Who are the occupiers? Obviously not students. I believe they are, or were, what the Japanese call NEETs. It’s not a term I ever see over here: I only came across the concept this summer in an English translation of an anime. (Eden of the East) NEETs are a felt problem in Japan. A NEET is anyone not engaged in employment, education or training. At last I know the occupiers: NEETs with hubris.

It would be a mistake to hope such people would advance social change. The organizers of the American Revolution had self-confidence, but never hubris. They all had employment—and many were over age thirty... although they would not have called themselves "members of the older generation."

NEETs, eh? Surely college students deserve a separate essay, an essay building on what I’ve written here and in earlier essays. That is for another day. (A Part Three? Better call it Occupy Wall Street, Student Activists, For Dec 2011)

Because I have lived through social change I know more change could still happen. Change won’t be easy, it never has been. It surely won’t be done with a half empty toolbox. People of all generations and incomes, all the facets of our body politic, would need to feel involved. But I just don’t know if the NEETs are ready yet to add themselves to the social toolbox.

Sean Crawford
December 2011

I wish I could ask my late buddy Blair. I miss him at times like this.

"Keep the fairy dust from your eyes": My previous essay noted that, sometimes, to have the ability to see, and then to act, may require de-glamorizing youth mystique.

In the sci-fi series Harsh Realm, a series short-lived because the realm was too harsh for viewers, an early episode was named in homage to Leviathan.

Books: No, I haven’t struggled through Das Kapita myself, and I don’t expect others to, either. But there are easier classics to read. Anyone could get through Thomas Paine.
Equally clear is the work of Barak Obama’s long dead mentor (At least, “they say” he is the mentor) Saul Alinsky, a famous community organizer of his day. Before he died in 1972 Alinsky described his hopes and fears for student activists.

Alinsky, I think, would say the occupation is merely a “terminal tactic,” like a wave that crests, breaks and is gone forever. Wasted. Leading to nothing. Better to have a series of actions leading to an end game. I’m sure Alinsky would have tackled Wall Street if, and only if, the public had asked him. As it was, his invitations to help always came from discrete communities.

Here is a link, from a member of a minority group in New York city,  seeing the occupiers in NY as being greedy and hypocrites, because they hurt her neighbors.

Regarding glee, above, and the comments on protest being not an end in itself, below, here is a passage from The Dictator's Learning Curve subtitled Inside  the Global Battle For Democracy by William Dobson, 2012, p 226:
"For the group's leadership, ...(the movement is at a crossroads) The trouble is they know that some of the group's lieutenants, a second-tier leadership of say twenty to thirty people, are split on their objectives. Some fully share their more professionalized goals. Other, they fear, almost enjoy protesting for protesting's sake. These members would be quick to call a more pragmatic campaign a sellout of the movement's purest revolutionary goals..."


  1. Hi Sean,
    My only concern about the Occupy movement is that it will get violent. As a result more Draconian laws will be implemented which is the last thing that we need.

    It's ok to protest, just do it smartly. :)

  2. Hi Mazzastick,
    Good point. Thank you.

    Perhaps a protest is only functional when it is part of an overall plan, with other tools being used as well. The alternative, protest as (almost) an end in itself, strikes me as too much hubris or too much despair.

    Martin Luther King's protesters submitted to the authority being trained in nonviolence, while delegating King to use other tools: negotiations and publicity.

    It occurs to me that the hoops protesters would jump through to create a chain of command would not only give them the legitimacy to stop those who want to riot, and legitimacy in the eyes of the public, but something more: Like the hoops of forming and registering a non-profit, hoops help people to think through goals and objectives, and to feel accountable to their own plans.