How Did We Get Here?

I somewhat reluctantly put pen to paper today. Reluctantly, because I know that what I wish to write about has no cachet, not even a hint of the flavour of the moment. Then again, it has been ever thus, so why not plunge in?

Although I shall invoke the Occupy movement, today’s topic is only tangentially related. The Occupy campaigns as they play out across cities, and indeed, countries serve to embody the polarization that seems likely to destroy the very fabric of western society. Is that melodramatic? Perhaps I should colour in that stark outline.

I watched a couple of hours of live-streaming video of Occupy Oakland ‘protesters’ a few nights ago, and I was troubled. I was even more troubled by media reporting on the event, however, which was often sensationalistic, one-sided, un-nuanced, and untruthful. As an example of a direct lie, some media reported that “protesters stormed the YMCA”, which is not what happened. The door to the YMCA was opened by someone to allow the protesters in – for whatever reason – and there are a number of videos posted to YouTube that show this. For sensationalism, we have only to look at the pictures of the American flag being set alight over and over again. At least one blogger reporting on this incident who claimed to have knowledge of the perpetrator suggested that mental health may have been an issue: here is an example of nuance. Horror! Sacrilege! The very symbol of freedom desecrated! The people watching at home declare their outrage and even the supporters of Occupy decry the violence of ‘protesters’: this is one-sided.

 I cannot pretend to have an expert opinion on what happened, but I do have a considered opinion. By that I mean I watched live-stream  and main stream video, read bloggers and paid columnists, talked to people who were there, and listened to the opinions of others. Was there violence? Undoubtedly. There was violence on the part of those in uniform, and on the part of those styled as ‘protesters’. Again, I do not claim the definitive version, but the violence of the protesters seemed related to property. In any case, the violence of the police seemed much the preponderance.

How did we get here, my imaginary friend? To the state where everything is presented as black/white, either/or, this/that – but never the other? At the point where four hundred people are arrested, and a thirty or sixty-second sound bite serves to sum it up? Where lies outweigh the truth, and the honeyed voices of carefully made-up news anchors instruct us what to believe? And shriller and shriller becomes the other side – in desperation?

 Here is another aspect for your consideration: Occupy again, but this time at the encampment at McPherson Square, DC. Watch carefully, watch twice even.


 How on earth, in a free and democratic society, did we come to believe that police officers should do their job in such a fashion? Without even speaking to the man arrested, using the taser as casually as blowing one’s nose, faces devoid of expression, or animation, or indeed, of human-ness.

 All democracies are about the conversation: “How shall we live?” Absolutely, categorically, this conversation must happen for societies to grow and  flourish. This is the crux, right here. The question is not whether we condone violence: we do not, most of us. The question is not whether the police had a right or reason to  arrest the lone protester; the question is why their behaviour shows no respect, no human values what so ever. The question is not whether you support the Occupy movement or no. The question is “how shall we live?”, and those who avoid the questions and the conversation are supporting the violence and dysfunction of our society. The rights and freedoms of democracy that we have taken for granted – at least in my lifetime – means that each of us has an array of choices. What underpins the choices, the daily bread of existence, are the institutions of government, of justice, of public education, of taxation, of all the things devoted to the common wheal that we citizens of democracies have fashioned over the course of time. There is no private good without the common wheal.

 Make no mistake, I am not making a statement of ideology here, but a statement of simple practicality: regardless of what choices you make and how you choose to live personally, these choices will disappear, quite literally, without the framework of our institutions. So how we got here is perhaps a sociological, psychological, and political question of great complexity, but how to move forward is simpler. As simple as recognizing that good conversations have an equal mixture of speaking and listening, with  the odd pause for reflection. As simple as recognizing that we must begin to inform ourselves, not expect to be informed. And as simple as recognizing that opting out of the conversation, means at this moment, supporting much that is wrong and shameful.

 It was time to end this long ago, perhaps, but I cannot help reflecting on what the  iconic Canadian artist Alex Colville said: “I suspect that what troubles people about my work, in which they find mystery and intrigue, may well be the idea that ordinary things are important.” The ordinary things, the geography of our  daily lives and our nations, the taken-for-granted beauty of freedom and democracy  – we cannot celebrate these without recognizing the necessity of contributing to their flourishing. It is possible to consider the people of the Occupy movement as participants in the democratic process, rather than simply ‘protesters’. Their impassioned plea to redress the wrongs and shames of our nations in contrast to the deadened, impassive faces of the police arresting them shows the chasm we must bridge. Shall we choose to participate, or to invoke more violence by our silence?

Occupy: a conversation

Sean Hannity calls Occupy Wall Street protesters traitors. A US Marine (in uniform, although perhaps a former marine, not important) standing with the protesters on Wall Street, when asked how he would respond to Hannity says: “I’d tell him to fuck off”. CBC Television interviews Chris Hedges on his view of Occupy Wall Street, and ‘reporter’ Kevin O’Leary asks him if he is a “nut bar”. Hedges tells CBC at the end of the interview that he won’t be interviewed by them again. Thus is the public discourse on matters political framed; few sane people wish to participate, and only the bravest, stupidest, or those being  paid in one way or another do so. Meanwhile, the world faces economic volatility – you have to love that phrase – massive uncertainties about what climate change will bring to pass, horrific images from around the globe of bloodshed and starvation, fears about energy dependency and peak oil, and an ever increasing population of people feeling totally demoralized.

I heard that word ‘demoralized’ used as a descriptive of how the western world – or the 99%, if you like –  is feeling, and it struck a deep chord in me. My feelings of inchoate helplessness have certainly grown in recent months, and deeply thoughtful conversations with friends, and acquaintances, and anybody who  cares to converse in that fashion revealed this common thread. Not despairing, not depressed or filled with rage. People simply struck dumb by the brute ugliness of what leaders, opinion makers, and the media think it worthwhile to speak about while we in the millions are homeless, jobless, and otherwise deeply suffering.

I believe if there is any one thing that Occupy Wall Street could be said to be about, perhaps it is this refusal to accept walking through life demoralized. If the public conversation continues to be hate-filled sound bites, empty rhetoric, or pithy, pointless tweets, the private conversation has never the less been energized and emancipated. The use of the word emancipated is purposeful: it appears that this movement, or shift [insert your characterization of choice here] has indeed engendered a freedom to talk about how things ought to be.

I have no shortage of opinions on how things ought to be, but that is not the point here. Nor are your opinions, my imaginary friend. No, the point is this: that every meaningful conversation – conversation, debate, consideration of alternative views, sharing of experiences, and questioning of other’s experiences – is movement in the direction of how things ought to be. We forget, maybe, that this has been the time-honoured way of democracy right up to the very recent past. How shall we live? How shall we do business? How shall we govern ourselves? Yes, these are huge questions, and yet we have traditionally answered them as a body of one kind or another, as a group, as a community, a society.

It strikes me that how to fit the movement of Occupy Wall Street into the existing framework of bought media, partisan politics, or community cronyism is a backwards take. The pressing, crucial, larger idea is to engineer these systems to facilitate the conversations. Although ‘wake-up’ has been used as a catchphrase by protesters, it might serve as the appropriate metaphor, because there is no denying that something is stirring up the hearts and minds and spirits of people. I do not think it will be possible to go back to the demoralized world of even a few weeks ago. It bears repeating that democracy is what we wish back: the participation of all citizens in shaping and defining how things ought to be.