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?