Archive for the ‘social movements’ Category
I attended an awesome Obama 2012 fundraiser on Thursday. I am a proud supporter (and occasional participant) of the Occupy Wall Street and broader Occupy movements. I see no inconsistency. The only really weird thing is that I’m Canadian, and thus my American wife needed to pay for my ticket to get in (to the fundraiser; the protests are free and open to the public).
I’m an Obama critic, from the left. I’m also an Obama supporter. Any president who cites Philip Roth when discussing the Jewish community has my vote (if I could vote). I have problems with some of Obama’s domestic and foreign policy. I also think he’s done an incredible job as president, after having been dealt a horrible hand by George W. Bush, including a failing economy, two mismanaged foreign wars, and an opposition dedicated to thwarting him without any regard to principle. I suspect my position is not that different from that of many of his staffers and campaign managers, not to mention his millions of supporters.
You can see all that has been accomplished in the video above. It’s an impressive display.
Sure, there’s a lot more to do. OWS will keep fighting. But we need president Obama on our side. Or we need a president Obama to move further along to our side. Because we know that as spineless as Mitt Romney is, he won’t move that way.
Now some of the far left insist that dangling that lunacy of the GOP as a tactic to justify voting for Obama is cheap strategy. And that the two parties are too similar. Well, frankly, they’re wrong. Despite what they may say, there are real and significant differences between the two parties, particularly on domestic policy, that are felt by poor and working class and middle class people on the ground. Felt by women and immigrants and gays and lesbians. Huge potential differences in terms of Supreme Court appointments. And it appears that since Mitt Romney doesn’t give a rats ass about foreign policy, there will likely be big differences there as well in the coming four years. Ron Paul’s libertarianism is both cruel and inefficient and would lead to disaster, even if some of his policies are good, but he can’t and won’t win the GOP nomination. And of course if Santorum or Newt somehow became president, that would be a national nightmare. The left really would be cutting off its nose to spite its face and committing political suicide if it did not back Barack Obama 100%. And it makes me angry when radicals don’t see this, and think that voting for Obama is somehow selling out the left, or picking to best of two evils. Because it really isn’t. I’m on the left. I don’t just oppose the GOP. I support Barack Obama. And not just because it’s the pragmatic thing to do, though that is part of it, for sure.
Because really this should be, and is, a positive campaign. Barack Obama has done a lot of good. And with a free hand in a second term, not having to worry about re-election, and hopefully with a more amenable congress, he can and will do a lot more good. And when he is re-elected, because I think he will be, the left should continue to offer critical support.I don’t always agree with Cornel West, but he did say something before the 2008 election that I thought made a lot of sense. He said that if/when Obama got elected, he would dance a great dance of joy (perhaps similar to Balky Bartokomous and Cousin Larry on Perfect Strangers, though he’d do it with Tavis Smiley). And then once Obama got into office, he would become his biggest critic, holding him to the highest standard possible. West has been true to his word. I haven’t always agreed with that criticism, but I admire his consistency here.
Criticism is good. But I don’t think the left should be unnecessarily critical of Obama. They (we) should support him when he is advocating for change that we believe him. But when he isn’t, or isn’t hard enough, we should try to move him, and congress, in the direction we want. Not give up on him. Because I do think that he, along with the American people, have the ability to make the country and the world better. I’m optimistic. Great things can and will happen. But we have to get there.
So, if you’re American, donate some money to the Obama 2012 campaign. Volunteer. And make sure you and your friends get out and vote for Barack Obama in November. It’s the only right and rational thing to do, whether you’re a radical leftist, progressive, liberal, moderate, or even a sensible conservative. Si se puede. I’m in.
What the hell is going on in Syria?
The short version is that in the early 1990s Bashar al-Assad left his cushy opthalmology gig in England to return home to the Syrian army and ultimately succeed his dad as
divinely appointed monarch dictator. And he’s been a pretty brutal dictator ever since, ruling as the Ba’athist leader and part of the Alawite minority (a Shi’a sect) that dominates the military class in a majority Sunni country.
So he ran what was essentially a police state, but things weren’t really so bad until a bunch of the other Arab nations decided that the good ol’fashioned decades long dictator model may not be the best way to go. But whereas leaders of Tunisia and Egypt fell quickly and relatively non-violently, in Libya, as we know, it took an armed struggle to oust Ghaddafi, and in Syria, well, they’re still fighting it out. The uprising against Assad has turned very violent, the military is involved in a brutal repression of the movement, killing thousands over the past several months. What is the world to do?
For some intelligent and realistic answers, you can watch this video of Karam Nachar (a Ph.D. Candidate at Princeton in history!) on MSNBC’s Up With Chris Hayes. Nachar thinks that while at first the Syrian opposition seemed to want to go it alone, now they want outside intervention, not just in terms of sanctions, but a “credible military threat.” The Arab League admirably initiated a UN resolution called for Assad’s peaceful ouster and a transition to a new government, and the resolution would have passed but not for China and Russia’s vetos. And so we’re at an impasse. Nachar thinks that we should follow the “Korean precedent” of the early 1950s, and set up a “Friends of Syria” coalition, led by Nicolas Sarkozy of France, and any intervention should be carried out by the Arab League and Turkey at the helm. The idea of course, seems to be that only other (non-Iranian) Muslim nations should get involved in this Syrian Arab-on-Arab violence.
Maybe that’s what will happen. But let’s do a little what if. Recall one of the more interesting episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, from season 3 back in 1990, called “Yesterday’s Enterprise.” In that episode, the Enterprise we know and love, NCC-1701-D, encounters a space-time rift (as one does). Out of the rift emerges the previous Enterprise, NCC-1701-C, which had been en route to answer a distress call from a Klingon outpost under attack by Romulan Warbirds (Romulans!). In the original timeline, the Enterprise-C intercepted the Romulan Warbirds but was destroyed in battle, along with the Klingon outpost. The Klingons, however, being an honour-bound race, appreciated Starfleet’s rescue effort so much this led to a peace agreement between the Klingon Empire and the Federation. But… because of the space-time rift, the Enterprise-C no longer made it to its destination, and thus there was no Federation attempt to assist the Klingons, and no peace treaty. As a result, the normally peaceful exploration vessel became a Starfleet battleship, and the Federation was engaged in a life and death struggle with the Klingons Empire, which in fact they were on the verge of losing (in this new time-line). In the end, Captain Picard agrees to help send the Enterprise-C back through the space-time rift to the past (along with security chief Tasha Yar, but that info isn’t relevant to this post) to complete their rescue attempt, even though that means certain death for all their crew, because it will prevent the war between the Federation and the Klingons. And that’s what happens (Mission Accomplished!). The original timeline is restored, and the Enterprise-D can go back to seeking out new life and new civilizations and boldly going where no one has gone before.
You got that? Good. So how does this relate to Syria?
Well, in Nachar’s real word, an Arab/Turkish coalition, with international backing, would intervene against Assad’s Baathist regime in support of the Syrian rebels. That makes sense. But in my Star Trek fantasy version, Israel would do the intervening. That’s right: the Israeli Defense Forces would assist the Syrian rebels against Assad. Heck, they might even engage in some conventional warfare with the Syrian army and kick some ass like they did in 1967. They’d succeed in removing Assad from power. And the honour-bound Arab League would be so impressed that that they would agree to a peace agreement with Israel provided that Israel withdrew from the Sheba Farms and the Golan Heights, which they would then do. And then the the new Syrian regime would cut off all funds to Hamas and Hezbollah, and refuse to offer their fighters safe haven. And then Israel would withdraw from the West Bank and the international community would compensate Palestinian refugees and both sides would apologize for atrocities and there’d be a peaceful two-state solution between Israel and Palestine.
Of course, that would never happen, and so I’m NOT ADVOCATING ANY ACTUAL ISRAELI INTERVENTION IN SYRIA. Let me make that clear. In the real world, that would lead to the IDF killing Syrian civilians in their attempt to target military operations, and the entire Arab world turning even harder against Israel, probably leading to rocket attacks and civilian casualties in Israel, and then possibly the whole region erupting into a broader conflict. So that would be very bad. But wouldn’t it be nice if we could have our own space-time rift that could take us to that Star Trek world, if only just for a moment? Beam me up.
There has been a running debate, started by Chris Hedges, over the proper tactics of street protests and the role of violence in the Occupy Movement. Hedges, who was one of the first writers with an audience to support Occupy Wall Street, attacked Black Bloc, which he mistakenly seems to have identified as a cohesive movement, rather than a tactic. Black Bloc occurs when protesters dress the same (normally in black hoodies), move in a pack, and, often, provoke confrontation with the cops by smashing windows, overturning garbage cans, etc… By dressing the same, they make it far more difficult for police to single out individuals. Coming on the heels of the Oakland protests, Hedges called the Black Bloc, a “cancer” on the movement, who provoke unnecessary repression by the state, distract from the message, and practice a sort of negative politics of aggression, in which confrontation and the symbolism of militancy takes the place of organizing and coalition building.
In reply, David Graeber, one of the grandfathers of OWS, defended the Black Bloc. He corrected some of Hedges’ factual inaccuracies, but resorted to a fairly hysterical response to Hedges’ (admittedly unnecessarily provocative) language, accusing Hedges of using a rhetoric that “historically, has been invoked by those encouraging one group of people to physically attack, ethnically cleanse, or exterminate another,” and arguing that Hedges would be read as a call to violence against Black Bloc. (I, at least, sure didn’t read Hedges’ article as a call for genocide). More reasonably he pointed out that the police almost always resort to violence and that the media almost always blame this violence on protesters, whether or not the Black Bloc is involved. State repression will happen no matter what that kid in the black hoodie does. Finally he argued that the mythologies that have developed around supposedly non-violent movements have obscured how often they involved violent activities, most often of a far more deadly sort.
As a historian of the abolitionist movement I was struck by how timeless this debates is. Few issues tore the anti-slavery movement apart as much as the question of violence: should fugitives use violence to defend themselves? should abolitionist victims of mob attacks (like Elijah Lovejoy) violently defend themselves? Should insurrection be encouraged? Some, like William Lloyd Garrison (a pacifist and Christian anarchist), maintained that non-violence was both moral and practical in the long run (by getting the conscience of the North on their side). Others, Frederick Douglass being the most notable, but also Theodore Parker, Charles Lenox Remond, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, argued that it was “right and wise” to kill someone trying to capture a slave. Like today, activists debated both the morality and the pragmatism of violent activism (different issues that are too often conflated).
One interesting difference, though, was the definition of violence, where the line between violence and nonviolence got drawn. As Graeber suggested at the end of his letter, the violence that Black Bloc protesters have been accused of–breaking windows, spray painting, occasionally throwing rocks– is small beans compared to the violent tactics that have been debated in most political movements. For abolitionists, the question was about the morality of taking up arms against the state, something they did over and over again, killing a number of slaveholders and US Marshals. One group I study, called the Boston Anti-Man Hunting League, planned on kidnapping Southerners who were trying to capture slaves. Kidnapping the kidnapper, if you will. And when these actors set the terms, non-lethal force was rarely considered “violent.” In 1851, When a mob of black Bostonians pushed their way into a court room, grabbed a slave, “kicked, cuffed and knocked about,” some guards, and ran off, Garrison applauded the act. If he thought pushing their way into a court room and shoving down police officers crossed the line, he didn’t mention it. The point was, when abolitionists discussed what tactics were violent, they meant things far more radical and dangerous than anything that the Black Bloc thinks about.
Obviously the stakes were much higher in the fight against slavery than they are today in the Occupy movement. But violence of some form has dotted American social movements. Let’s not run away from this: the Left has often used violent tactics, as one, among many strategies. Unions waged pitched battles against state militias and violently kept scabs away from workplaces, black homeowners defended their right to integrate neighborhoods with the force of arms, and even the Stonewall Riot was, well, a riot, complete with firebombs, thrown bottles, and bloodied cops. What’s remarkable, in fact, is how little violence, all in all, the OWS movement has engendered. No talk of running to the barricades, no calls for “the deliberate increase in the chances of death,” or the “conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder,” no naming of “defense ministers” for the movement, or sloganeering about the “birth-pangs” of the new society.
The best defense of Graeber’s point, then, is that by defining “violence,” in such a narrow way (one that, without questioning it, includes property destruction as well as self-defense in the same category as aggressive violence against human beings), Hedges sets up an unrealistic standard, that few if any social movements could meet. If you get 100,000 angry people in the street, its hard to imagine that some won’t throw a rock or fight back when cops try to kick the shit out of them. This is especially true as cities impose greater and greater restrictions on the ability of protesters to meet, and as police resort to greater and greater acts of repression and violence. So hewing too closely to some mythologized vision of nonviolence, and working to exclude those violate the terms, means accepting a paralyzing and self-limiting definition of what are acceptable tactics.
The whole debate illustrates well the elasticity of the term violence, and the historically specific ways that it gets defined. At an earlier time, you were one of the “good” ones, if you eschewed armed struggle, and just limited yourself to the occasional excess in the street protest. Today, according to the administration of Berkeley, linking arms to resist police invasion is an act of violence. The Left should, rather than accept the state’s definition of what is nonviolent (and therefore what is “good” activism) fight back at an ideological level against definitions that only restrict our behavior.
At the same time, its hard to take Graeber’s wounded outrage totally seriously. Does he really not understand why nonviolent protesters are angry when a tiny minority hijacks their events? Does he really not see how a small group trying to provoke the cops endangers everyone? I’m not super offended by Black Bloc tactics, but if I were the type to engage in them, I sure wouldn’t be shocked when other people disapproved. I also have no patience for the ultra-leftists who openly detest unions, community groups, and the Democratic Party as a bunch of pathetic bureaucratic sell-outs, but then clutch their pearls in shock when anyone dares to attack their preferred group or tactic.
As Bhaska Srunkara points out, tactics like the Black Bloc are unlikely to lead to the type of democratic dialogue that will inspire more people to join a movement. Its hard to see how a smashed window will convince anyone to join your movement, but its easy to see how it will keep them out. “Masks, after all, aren’t good for talking to people.” And rarely do you see the “fuck-shit-up” crowd coming to the boring planning meetings or going out flyering with you.
In my mind, the proper response is for all sides to dial down the outrage. This question is old and probably never ending. I have absolutely no interest in throwing a brick or whatnot, but I think history teaches us that at a low level, at least, such things are likely to be part of any significant social movement. As long as serious acts of violence against people (as opposed to against property) don’t erupt, I’m willing to live and let live, while remembering that the real action should be in dialogue, organizing, and recruitment, not whatever happens to the Starbucks’ window.
While Peter was participating in (and ably chronicling) the Occupy Chicago’s protest of the American Economic Association’s (AEA) annual conference, I stayed behind at the American Historical Association’s (AHA) annual meeting to attend a panel commemorating the late historian Tony Judt.
The similarity and contrast between the two events is revealing. Before succumbing to ALS in 2010, Judt became an intellectual leader to the left, most notably in his moving 2009 NYU address, “What Is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy,” later expanded into a book called Ill Fares the Land. Had he lived, I think Tony Judt would have found a lot to admire in the broader Occupy movement and in this specific protest, for as Peter notes, he was an ardent critic of “economism,” the American cult of efficiency, and he howled against the decline of the welfare state and rising rates of inequality.
On the other hand, a central theme of the Judt retrospective, and of the latter half of Judt’s life, was his militant, strident anti-Marxism. All four panelists, John Dunn (Judt’s professor at King’s College), Marci Shore (eastern European historian at Yale), Peter Gordon (European intellectual historian at Harvard and my undergrad professor), and Timothy Snyder (also an eastern European historian at Yale) made this a major focus on their talks, particularly the last three presenters. Judt would have had no use for the Marxist and anarchist platitudes of the protesters.
I just got back from Chicago, where, along with attending the American Historical Association, I participated in a series of protests held by Occupy Chicago, along with CACHE (Coalition Against Corporatization of Higher Education) that targeted the American Economics Association (AEA). Its not everyday that the worlds of street protests and academic conferences blend so well. But then again, part of the point was to “puncture the bubble,” that academic economists live in.
The protesters gave out “alternative” awards for Most Conflict of Interests (Columbia’s Glenn Hubbard), Intellectual Narrowness (Harvard’s Greg Mankiw), and top prize, the “Toxic Waste of Space Award” (Harvard/Obama administration’s Larry Summers). Other than a brief yelling match that one protester got in with a professor, the tone was light and fun. Protesters “accepted” awards acting as Mankiw, Hubbard, and Summers (who reminded us how much smarter he was than us) and served “Rahmon” noodles, in honor of the Chicagoans impoverished by Rahm Emmanuel’s neoliberal policies. Overall a lot of fun, albeit fun that might have gone over the heads of the random shoppers on Michigan Ave.
According to protesters: “The bankrupt ideologies of ‘neo-liberalism’–trickle-down theory, austerity, deregulation, privatization–have all been proven empirically disastrous. Those ideas still enjoy a monopoly in the mainstream debate due to the massive scale of academic subsidizing by the bought AEA and it’s cohorts in the 1%.” Watch a great interview with an organizer at the bottom of this post.
It just so happens the protests came at a time of particularly hot debate about the ideology of the economics profession. The recent release of the minutes of the 2006 Federal Reserve Meetings well illustrates—along with Timothy Geithner’s utterly pathetic sycophancy towards Alan Greenspan—that the High Priests were asleep on the job, completely unaware of the looming housing crisis. Said one professor quoted by the New York Times:
“It’s embarrassing for the Fed,” said Justin Wolfers, an economics professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “You see an awareness that the housing market is starting to crumble, and you see a lack of awareness of the connection between the housing market and financial markets.”
“It’s also embarrassing for economics,” he continued. “My strong guess is that if we had a transcript of any other economist, there would be at least as much fodder.”
Not the discipline’s finest moment, no doubt.
I have a longstanding hatred/fascination with the foundational logic taught in modern Economics courses: its technocratic imagination, its inability to question its own premises, its ahistorical logic (see Daniel Rodgers’ Age of Fracture, Chapter 2 for more on how society, power, and history dropped out of the Economics discipline), its inattention to moral consequences, its reductionism (like the horrid Freakonimics series, which thinks all aspects of human existence can be explained by their simplistic assumptions about human behavior), and its normative amorality (seriously, studies have shown that taking economics makes students less generous people).
And this is all important because Economics inhabits a unique disciplinary position. Part academic discipline, part incubators of elite policy makers, academics in no other departments transition so seamlessly from academia to government to Wall Street. Look at a figure like Larry Summers, who has (in the last five years alone!) inhabited leading roles in all three worlds. While taking money from Wall Street while producing intellectual material about Wall Street suggests casual corruption, the influence that economists, and what Tony Judt called economism (the tendency to think of all social problems in terms of the marketplace) has deep ramifications on our public policy. The very power of economists makes it more likely that they will be captured by elites. I think, then, it is fair to target the AEA, even if many, if not most, economists are actually innocent of any corruption. It matters to the public what economists talk about, much more so than whats going on in, say, the MLA.
A silver lining, though, to the economic collaspe might be a rethinking of some economic thought.
Writing about the great shift in Economics departments that occurred in the 1970s, as Samuelson, Galbraith, and the other Keynesians lost favor, Daniel Rodgers writes:
“The economic crisis of the 1970s was, in short, not merely a crisis in management. It was also, and at least as painfully, a crisis in ideas and intellectual authority. An extremely confident analytical system had failed to explain or make sense of the unexpected.”
The results, according to Rodgers, were that the profession increasingly moved towards a more neoclassical model and microeconomics prevailed over macroeconomics. Meanwhile, the logic of markets and economic thinking invaded other disciplines: rational choice theory in political science, the “law and economics” movement in law schools, etc… One hopes that our recent crisis and the inability of our policy elites to predict or solve the problem, will produce a similar paradigmatic shift. This time, though, hopefully it will be away from such apologias for capitalism.
So in that spirit, I wanted to highlight two interesting thinkers. The first, I saw over at Crooked Timber, where New School economist Sanjay Reddy gives a fabulous interview about the need to bring moral reasoning back into the study of Economics. Reddy argues against the notion that Economics is a value-neutral science, restoring an “evaluative framework” to the discipline. It is impossible, he argues, to come to purely technical solutions to most problems. In a sense, Reddy is asking that we take moral sides before we engage in economic debate. First, for instance, we say that a goal of policy should be to aid the poor, then we figure out ways to so.
This seems to fit well with an article in the latest issue of Jacobin magazine (also featuring an excellent piece by friend of the blog, Andrew Hartman), by Mike Beggs, calling for radicals to occupy economics. Begg’s article asks economists to be less technocratic, and more openly political in their ends. Beggs takes a middle ground (for radical intellectuals), acknowledging that “mainstream economics is both an ideological bastion of capitalism and a genuine social science.” A tool for understanding the world, it is also wrapped up in a set of assumptions that are not neutral, but that favor a free market approach to the world. Nevertheless, as Begg’s points out, the stereotype that many have of a discipline of Milton Friedmans is actually unfair. A wide swath of economists agree with the need for some government intervention, and, other than a few reactionaries in Chicago or George Mason, most also acknowledge the importance of Keynes. The problem, Beggs suggests, is “not that mainstream economics was delusional, or biased to the right, but that it was technocratic.” It presumed it could manage and control, rather than take sides in class warfare.
In the opening editorial of Jacobin, the editors declare that, as the rebellion of Occupy Wall Street spreads, “we are in the last throes of the era of Ezra Klein.” What they mean, I think, is that the tepid liberalism of the technocratic elite (poor Ezra has, a bit unfairly, become a symbol of this) says nothing to the fundamental message of the OWS movement: the restoration of politics—full throated politics—to our understanding of class and economics. Class will no longer be something discussed in dry studies by the Brooking Institute or in economics seminars, but in the chants and marches in the streets, as those without challenge those with. Millions of people simply standing up and rejected these “market-based” solutions that have been crammed down our throats, will do more to change the dialogue than any polite article or policy paper ever will.
Occupy Wall Street is the Civil Rights Movement of our time. I’m not ashamed to say it. I don’t think it’s offensive or ahistorical. I don’t think it dishonours Martin Luther King’s name or legacy. In fact, I think the broader Occupy movement honours MLK, and he would have been a proud supporter of it.
When I refer to OWS, or the Occupy movement, what I mean is the fight against economic inequality. That’s economic inequality in America, and economic inequality throughout the world.
Right-wingers, conservatives, even libertarian racists like Ron Paul like to claim King’s mantle for themselves. Heck even Glenn Beck tried. They say that King was all about colour-blindess. Equality of opportunity. We were with MLK until 1965″ they say, but after that, it became about equality of condition, of entitlement, the road to socialism or serfdom and some-such doomsday dystopia.
Well that’s bullshit. I say that as a student of history. That’s just wrong. Watch the clip. MLK calls for a “radical redistribution of political and economic power.” He says: “If a man doesn’t have a job or income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness.” And of course: “all labour has dignity.” And “it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.”
Martin Luther King was a religious social democrat. He believed in social justice. In government assisting the poor. In supporting unions. He believed in REAL equal opportunity, which can only come about when healthcare, and education, and safety can be provided to all. He was the anti-Ayn Rand: he despised selfishness. You don’t believe me? Take Paul Krugman’s word for it. Or this awesome video by Jay Smooth.
Some people still might think this my analogy ridiculous and offensive. African Americans under Jim Crow suffered real, horrific racial discrimination. The suffering of the so-called 99% cannot compare, and thus cannot justify civil disobedience. Well it’s true that Jim Crow was horrible, and that America has made a lot of progress since the 1960s, thanks to people like MLK. But the poor in this country still suffer greatly. Poor people of colour still suffer worse, fighting against unequal opportunity, an unfair and brutal police system and prison industrial complex, racism and xenophobia, a real lack of safety net, and an unfair financial and economic system that privileges the wealthy. On a global level, the gap between the haves and have-nots is even more terrifying, and the racial divide is even starker. So I think all that is worth blocking a few streets, or yelling outside some buildings peacefully, and striking, and rallying, and demanding justice.
Maybe that’s just me. Or maybe it’s millions of people around America and the world.
Now I’m not a religious person, and MLK was not a saint. Just because he said something doesn’t make it right. But his legacy and his lesson remain valuable. For MLK was also not a Marxist or an anarchist. He was the LEADER of a broad-based social movement. He was able to achieve real change by engaging the political process, and democratically uniting people with disparate views. This is important because individuals matter in history.
The radical activists and anarchists have done the world an incredible service by getting this movement started. But their views are often undemocratic and represent a fraction of a fraction of the 99% (remember half the country votes Republican, and the other half Democrat). We should keep protesting. But we should also engage the political process, both through the Democratic party, and external channels like the idealistic but pragmatic 99% Declaration plan to hold a National General Assembly on July 4, 2012, in Philadelphia. It’s time to find leaders, make a plan, and keep moving forward, to make sure Romney doesn’t win and that Obama doesn’t kowtow to Wall Street and the 1%.
Some cynics might also think I’m over-exaggerating the importance of OWS. “Hasn’t the movement already fizzled?” Well, no. People left and right are talking about inequality, in and outside of politics. More importantly, let’s try to have some historical perspective here. When people think about the American Civil Rights movement, sometimes they think it started in 1960s. Maybe the late 1950s. Maybe Brown v. Board in the 1954. Actually, historians like to refer to the “long Civil Rights movement.” Some people date this to the end of WW2. Or Asa Philip Randolph‘s attempt to lead a March on Washington in 1944. Or to the activism of the 1930s and 1940s, often led by socialists and social democrats and communists, linking race and class. Or Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. Or the end of Reconstruction in 1876. Or the end of the Civil War in 1865. With the state of America’s hospitals, schools, and prisons, some people still don’t think it’s over.
I’m not going to rehearse those academic debates. But I am going to reiterate MLK’s oft-invoked quote: “the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.” This is a long, slow process. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s not going to happen in November 2012, even if Obama is re-elected. It will take time. But we’ll get there. Let’s not let MLK’s dream die.
Occupy Harvard, the student branch of the broader Occupy Wall Street movement, recently attempted to disrupt a Goldman Sachs information session run by Harvard’s Office of Career Services. The Crimson, the daily student newspaper I worked for when I attended from 2001-2005, printed an obnoxious editorial condemning Occupy Harvard for this noble act.
Among the stupid things they wrote:
to single out Goldman Sachs as a single target of opprobrium for causing the financial crisis is myopic and unoriginal; Goldman has been in the eye of the storm of banker bashing for close to three years now. No one has successfully proven yet that this one investment bank caused the financial crisis and benefited unduly from it. Instead, the bank was simply one actor out of many, and certainly doesn’t fit the role of super villain as well as the Occupy Harvard folks imagine it does.
More unsavory, the protest carried with it a strong sentiment against Harvard undergraduates seeking careers in the financial services industry. Perhaps it is not ideal that so many of us go on to Wall Street, but targeting individuals looking at career options in this way is hardly the appropriate remedy.
Those members of Occupy Harvard who tried to disrupt the Goldman Sachs information session should be commended. Rather than singling Goldman out, Occupy Harvard has simply targeted the bank as one of many offenders from a financial sector that severely damaged the United States economy. This was not an effort to sway students to work for J.P. Morgan. Indeed, this action represents the best strategy for Occupy Harvard, that is, to disrupt the corporate recruiting process as a whole.
You can read the whole letter here. I’ll add that I’m shocked and dismayed at how conservative The Crimson editorial board has become. It didn’t use to be this way.
Inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement, I wrote this poem. Hope you enjoy.
“The Genesis of Poetic Protest: An Ode to Occupy Wall Street”
By David Weinfeld
Some newcomers near the Occupied Zone.
“We agree with you!” the moderates moan,
tired of the strain that Wall Street rained down
on Main. “We’re of the 99 percent,
but here’s our two cents: you won’t get nothing
tweeting in a park.” But didn’t Rosa
Parks sit in a seat and spark a movement?
“Be practical, be tactical, be real.
You know the deal. Don’t be a radical.
Chill. Vote for Change in the Office. We know
we will.” But the State’s on sabbatical,
waging war abroad rather than righting
a range of homemade ills, impotent Mules
reduced to fighting frauds and fools galore.
Tea Time is over. A sleeping giant
has woken to the weeping wails, angry
at the corruption, shamelessness and greed
that left the game broken and the nation
to bleed. The people have spoken, their call
an eruption, not in one voice or name,
but all fed up, demanding a true choice.
“Join us!” They cry. “Share in our Creation!
We’re not after the cops but who’s on tops.
Bring a friend, listen, offer some advice.
Use your imagination. We’re rather nice,
and we’re all different, hardly a herd,
prepared to hear every word, whether
wise or witless, we’re democrats and proud.”
Now they’re so loud, their foes are scared shitless.
They address allies, cool cats who lean left
and stay skeptics stationed on the sidelines,
suspicious of the mobilized masses
from all classes. It’s time for oration
and argument in alliteration
with the occasional recourse to rhyme:
“We’re not merely bashing big bad bankers
and trashing trust-fund wankers wickedly
pursuing pleasure, treasure, and trinkets,
thinking they’re the best of us while taking
from the rest of us. We do not demand
handouts, just justice and the dignity
we deserve. We expect freedom, fairness,
respect. In the fight to protect these rights,
some principled pragmatism is great
to moderate the movement. We’d even
accept some righteous realism.
But we’re sick of cynicism. So please
suggest a strategy or stay silent
as we’ve got bricks to lay and miles to go.”
Sabbath brought smiles. Tomorrow is today.
I went to protest with Occupy Wall Street yesterday. I was not alone. Peter, a veteran of protests, came too. In fact, he helped organize the NYU student walk out yesterday, and has written about the protest eloquently here. Read him, and also Ezra Klein, who’s been doing a good job of covering OWS.
It’s easy to be cynical about big public protest movements. It’s also easy to overly romanticize and glorify them. It’s true that some conspiracy theorists and 9/11 truthers are tarnishing the movement’s good name. It’s true, the protesters don’t represent 99% of Americans. It’s true that they are targeting oil companies, and prisons, and military efforts that many not be directly associated with Wall Street. But the people who wore “I am Troy Davis” shirts weren’t all Troy Davis. “We are the 99%” is a slogan. It refers to the top 1% of American earners, but that should not be read literally. It simply implies that many people, people on the left, are angry. Wall Street is not their only target. But Wall Street is a convenient symbol, and not an inappropriate one, for their ire.
It’s true that the protests have radical, anarchist roots. I don’t consider myself a radical, or an anarchist. I’m not even one of the 99%, because I’m Canadian. But from what my friend and fellow protester and I saw, the bulk of the protesters aren’t after radical change. Of course, change is a funny word. It was the big tent mantra of “Change” that saw radicals, progressives, liberals, moderates and even some conservatives unite behind Barack Obama in 2008, never knowing what the word really meant to the campaign. These protesters also have disparate demands. But they are different. They are moving the conversation to the left. That is a good thing. The question is: how far left?
Excuse my lackluster posting. I suppose I can blame some combination of a surprisingly labor-intensive TA assignment and distractions created by the warm weather in Prospect Park. Also, sucking up my spare time has been a re-reading of War and Peace, this time the fancy new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. (Sidenote: is the translation all that its cracked up to be? I’m not sure. I can’t say it’s affected me any more than when I read the Maude translation, but I’m a translation skeptic myself. To me, fancy new translations of classic books are like organic vegetables, I can’t really tell if they’re any better, but I can definitely tell that its an excuse to charge me more.)
But, re-reading this reminded me of a topic that I wanted to write about: the influence that American abolitionists had on Leo Tolstoy. This always make me a bit happy, as it combines my academic interests with the more personal. I’ve come to think that both Tolstoy and the American Transcendentalists/Abolitionists whom he appreciates were disturbed by the the new importance of role-playing in the modern market economy, and sought ways to restore people to some sort of unitary moral vision.
The backstory, as Tolstoy himself writes, in The Kingdom of God is Within You, is that a copy of his Confession, got in the hands of one of William Lloyd Garrison’s sons, who sent Tolstoy some of Garrison’s old writings. Tolstoy found them a “powerful and eloquent … expression of a confession of faith.” Intrigued he looked around and found Adin Ballou, an old Garrisonian and Non-Resistant, who was still alive and faithful to the original Christian anarchist strand of Garrison’s thought, and began a correspondence. Unfortunately, as Lewis Perry writes, by the end of his life, Ballou was “bitter and argumentative,” and Tolstoy didn’t learn much. But his reading of Garrison profoundly influenced Tolstoy, who also wrote to Vladimir Tchertkoff of the “spiritual joy” that he found in Garrison’s writing.
Eventually, he wrote to Edward Garnett, that “it came to me that, if I had to address the American people, I should like to thank them for the great help I have received from their writers who flourished about the [Eighteen] fifties. I would mention [William Lloyd] Garrison, [Theodore] Parker, [Ralph Waldo] Emerson, [Adin] Ballou, and [Henry David] Thoreau, not as the greatest, but as those who, I think, specially influence me. Other names are [William Ellery?] Channing, [John Greenleaf] Whittier, [James Russell] Lowell, Walt Whitman—a bright constellation, such as is rarely to be found in the literatures of the world. And I should like to ask the American people why they do not pay more attention to these voices (hardly to be replaced by those of financial and industrial millionaires, or successful generals and admirals), and continue the good work in which they made such hopeful progress.”So what explains the affinity? Obviously there is Christian Anarchism, the belief that Christianity specifically forbids the use of force, and as governments are premised on force and violence, no Christian can pledge alliance to a worldly government. Garrison had proclaimed this in the 1830s, and it became central to Tolstoy’s political philosophy in the late nineteenth century. Lewis Perry interpreted the relationship as being about a shared appreciation for religious anarchism.
But this hardly explains some of the Transcendentalists whom Tolstoy celebrates: Emerson, Thoreau, Parker, and Whitman were hardly good Christians.* And Parker, for instance, was one of the “Secret Six” which funded John Brown, whom Emerson and Thoreau also praised, hardly the actions of a good non-resistant. (One more side-note, one sincerely wishes that the misogynistic and sexually repressed Tolstoy of The Kruezter Sonata could have paid more attention to Walt Whitman).
Perhaps Tolstoy simply didn’t have access to enough of their writings or was reading what he wanted. And to be fair, Tolstoy was hardly an orthodox Christian either, so perhaps he was drawn to the rebellious religious vision of the abolitionists.
From my reading of these guys, though, I think there is another, perhaps more abstract level at which Tolstoy and the Transcendentalists/Abolitionists connect. Both, I think, were deeply concerned with the ways that modern life, and especially the social roles that we gravitate towards, tend to limit our vision, and make us forget about our ultimate moral duty. Consider the following . Here is Tolstoy’s description of Napoleon during the battle of Borodino:
A personal, human feeling for a brief moment got the better of the artificial phantasm of life he had served so long. He felt in his own person the sufferings and death he had witnessed on the battlefield. The heaviness of his head and chest reminded him of the possibility of suffering and death for himself. At that moment he did not desire Moscow, or victory, or glory (what need had he for any more glory?). The one thing he wished for was rest, tranquility, and freedom…. Even before he gave that order the thing he did not desire, and for which he gave the order only because he thought it was expected of him, was being done. And he fell back into that artificial realm of imaginary greatness, and again—as a horse walking a treadmill thinks it is doing something for itself—he submissively fulfilled the cruel, sad, gloomy, and inhuman role predestined for him.
Napoleon, as Tolstoy draws him, is not the all-powerful Emperor of Europe, but rather a man driven by forces he doesn’t comprehend, stuck performing tasks thrust upon him by circumstance and by his position as leader. Unable to rise above this, he sets him own fate by invading Russia and by fighting battles because this is what is expected of him, not because it serves any ulimate end worth fighting for. Tolstoy’s “Notes on Soldiers” has a similar theme: the contrast between the official duty of the soldier, which is to murder, rape, and steal; and the duty of the Christian which is to love and heal.
Now consider Emerson on the problem of social roles:
Man is thus metamorphosed into a thing, into many things. The planter, who is Man sent out into the field to gather food, is seldom cheered by any idea of the true dignity of his ministry. He sees his bushel and his cart, and nothing beyond, and sinks into the farmer, instead of Man on the farm. The tradesman scarcely ever gives an ideal worth to his work, but is ridden by the routine of his craft, and the soul is subject to dollars. The priest becomes a form; the attorney, a statute-book; the mechanic, a machine; the sailor, a rope of a ship.
And Theodore Parker arguing for why Bostonians, even those who are policemen or judges, should disobey the Fugitive Slave Law and hinder its application:
“My official business as clergyman, fisherman, or statesman, is always beneath my personal duty as man. In case of any conflict between the two, the natural duty ought to prevail and carry the day before the official business; for the natural duty represents the permanent law of God, the absolute right, justice, the balance-point of all interests; while the official business represents only the transient conventions of men, some partial interest; and besides, the man who owes the personal duty is immortal, while the officer who performs the official business is but for a time.”
In this light, then, I think that both Tolstoy and the American Transcendentalist/abolitionists were interested in responding to the rise of a market economy in which old and stable life roles were no longer guides for action. As the industrial revolution expanded the division of labor, and new managerial positions developed around the economy, the old republican ideal of the whole man declined. One no longer could look to traditions and parents for a sense of how they should act. “Nothing is solid,” Emerson wrote, “everything tilts and rocks.” People began playing at roles—a wheat merchant in the morning, a father in the evening, a Christian on Sunday, etc…. No longer were people stuck in a handful of relatively old and stable classes, but instead had the freedom to move in and out of life roles. We so train ourselves to act in these roles– as good soldiers, or good merchants, or good 19th century historians– that our own self and moral center seems to dissolve away, only intelligible in terms of the roles we fulfill.
Tolstoy, I think, and the American thinkers he liked, responded to this problem by celebrating a particularly strict set of ethical duties that should precede the more particular roles that individuals took on. They both constantly asked that we question whether the particular traits that make us a good soldier or a good textile manufacturer might prevent us from becoming a good and moral person.
Speaking personally, I still find this vision meaningful and important. I prefer the more secularized language of Thoreau rather than the overtly Christian language of Tolstoy.
*Yes Parker was a Unitarian minister, but on the far left of the spectrum, such that its arguable whether he was a Christian, depending on how you define the term. He did not, for instance, believe in the special divinity of Christ, but, like Emerson and Thoreau, believed that Christ only breathed of the same divinity that was open to all of us, if only we were ready for it.