I do not really enjoy being a wet blanket with respect of Occupy Wall Street. The country is in a very bad way, and the protesters are trying to call attention to very real problems. To the extent that they can prove that a constituency for economic reform exists, they might shift the political process somewhat, although I suspect the White House feels sure it has that constituency in its pocket already and need not worry too much about it. Yet I continue to feel that the rhetoric of many protesters has an all-too familiar ring, and that the state of the nation has led them into the same dead end that too many of my contemporaries encountered more than forty years ago: a belief that nothing less than a complete transformation of a hopelessly evil society will suffice. Since such a transformation is neither possible nor really desirable, I worry that the results of OWS, like those of the "student revolution" of my youth, will be largely negative.
Let my illustrate my point with a couple of texts. I'll begin with excerpts from an interview by Chris Hedges, a popular liberal blogger, with a Millennial protester in Zucotti Park.
Jon Friesen, 27, tall and lanky with a long, dirty-blond ponytail, a purple scarf and an old green fleece, is sitting on concrete at the edge of Zuccotti Park leading a coordination meeting, a gathering that takes place every morning with representatives of each of Occupy Wall Street’s roughly 40 working groups.
“Our conversation is about what it means to be a movement and what it means to be an organization,” he says to the circle. A heated discussion follows, including a debate over whether the movement should make specific demands.
I find him afterward on a low stone wall surrounding a flowerbed in the park. He decided to come to New York City, he said, from the West Coast for the 10th anniversary of 9/11. He found a ride on Craig’s List while staying at his brother’s home in Champaign, Ill.
“It was a television event when I was 17,” he says of the 2001 attacks. “I came here for the 10-year anniversary. I wanted to make it real to myself. I’d never been to New York. I’d never been to the East Coast.”
Once he reached New York City he connected with local street people to find “assets.” He slept in the parks and on the street. He arrived on the first day of the occupation in Zuccotti Park. He found other “traveler types” whose survival skills and political consciousness were as developed as his own.
In those first few days, he says, “it was the radicals and the self-identifying anarchists” who set up the encampment. Those who would come later, usually people with little experience in dumpster diving, sleeping on concrete or depending on a McDonald’s restroom, would turn to revolutionists like Friesen for survival. Zuccotti Park, like most Occupied sites, schooled the uninitiated.
“The structure and process carried out by those initial radicals,” he says with delight of the first days in the park, now have “a wide appeal.”
The Occupy movements that have swept across the country fuse the elements vital for revolt. They draw groups of veteran revolutionists whose isolated struggles, whether in the form of squatter communities or acts of defiance such as the tree-sit in Berkeley to save an oak grove on the University of California campus that ran from Dec. 2, 2006, to Sept. 9, 2008, are often unheeded by the wider culture. The Occupy movements were nurtured in small, dissident enclaves in New York, Oakland, Chicago, Denver, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Atlanta. Bands of revolutionists in these cities severed themselves from the mainstream, joined with other marginalized communities and mastered the physical techniques of surviving on the streets and in jails.
“It’s about paying attention to exactly what you need, and figuring out where I can get food and water, what time do the parks close, where I can get a shower,” Friesen says.
Friesen grew up in an apolitical middle-class home in Fullerton in Southern California’s Orange County, where systems of power were obeyed and rarely questioned. His window into political consciousness began inauspiciously enough as a teenager, with the Beatles, The Doors, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. He found in the older music “a creative energy” and “authenticity” that he did not hear often in contemporary culture. He finished high school and got a job in a LensCrafter lab and “experienced what it’s like to slave away trying to make glasses in an hour.” He worked at a few other 9-to-5 jobs but found them “restrictive and unfulfilling.” And then he started to drift, working his way up to Berkeley, where he lived in a squatter encampment behind the UC Berkeley football stadium. He used the campus gym to take showers. By the time he reached Berkeley he had left mainstream society. He has lived outside the formal economy since 2005, the last year he filed income taxes. He was involved in the tree-sit protest and took part in the occupations of university buildings and demonstration outside the Berkeley chancellor’s campus residence to protest fee hikes and budget cuts, activities that saw him arrested and jailed. He spent time with the Navajos on Black Mesa in Arizona and two months with the Zapatistas in Mexico.*
“What I saw in the Zapatistas was a people pushed to the brink of extinction and forgetting,” he says. “Their phrases ring true: Liberty! Dignity! Democracy! Everything for Everyone! Nothing for Ourselves! The masks the Zapatistas wear check egos. People should be united in their facelessness. This prevents cults of personality.”
“I have no interest in participating in the traditional political process,” he says. “It’s bureaucratic. It’s vertical. It’s exclusive. It’s ruled by money. It’s cumbersome. This is cumbersome too, what we’re doing here, but the principles that I’m pushing and that many people are pushing to uphold here are in direct opposition to the existing structure. This is a counterpoint. This is an acknowledgment of all those things that we hate, or that I hate, which are closed and exclusive. It is about defying status and power, certification and legitimacy, institutional validation to participate. This process has infected our consciousness as far as people being allowed [to participate] or even being given credibility. The wider society creates a situation where people are excluded, people feel like they’re not worth anything. They’re not accepted. The principles here are horizontal in terms of decision-making, transparency, openness, inclusiveness, accessibility. There are people doing sign language at the general assembly now. There are clusters of deaf people that come together and do sign language together. This is an example of the inclusive nature that we want to create here. And as far as redefining participation and the democratic process, my understanding of American history is that it was a bunch of white males in power, mostly. This is radically different. If you’re a homeless person, if you’re a street person, you can be here. There’s a radical inclusion that’s going on. And if it’s not that, then I’m not going to participate.”
The park, especially at night, is a magnet for the city’s street population. The movement provides food along with basic security, overseen by designated “peacekeepers” and a “de-escalation team” that defuses conflicts. Those like Friesen who span the two cultures serve as the interlocutors.
“It draws everyone, except maybe the superrich,” he says of the park. “You’re dealing with everyone’s conditioning, everyone’s fucked-up conditioning, the kind of I’m-out-for-me-and-myself, that kind of instinct. People are unruly. People are violent. People make threats.”
“We are trying to sort this out, how to work together in a more holistic approach versus just security-checking someone—you know like tackling them,” he says. “Where else do these people have to go, these street people? They’re going to come to a place where they feel cared for, especially in immediate needs like food and shelter. We have a comfort committee. I’ve never been to a place where there’s a comfort committee. This is where you can get a blanket and a sleeping bag, if we have them. We don’t always have the resources. But everyone is being taken care of here. As long as you’re nonviolent, you’re taken care of. And when you do that you draw all sorts of people, including those people who have problematic behavior. If we scale up big enough we might be able to take care of the whole street population of Manhattan.”
Now let's go back about 42 years, to an address by an exact contemporary of mine to a mixed audience of young and old. (I don't want to give away too much, even though, google being what it is, there's no point in trying to keep it a secret and I will identify the speaker before the end of the post. Perhaps it won't take you that long.)
Many of the issues that I've mentioned -- those of sharing power and responsibility, those of assuming power and responsibility have been general concerns on campuses throughout the world. But underlying those concerns there is a theme, a theme which is so trite and so old because the words are so familiar. It talks about integrity and trust and respect. Words have a funny way of trapping our minds on the way to our tongues but there are necessary means even in this multi-media age for attempting to come to grasps with some of the inarticulate maybe even inarticulable things that we're feeling. We are, all of us, exploring a world that none of us even understands and attempting to create within that uncertainty. But there are some things we feel, feelings that our prevailing, acquisitive, and competitive corporate life, including tragically the universities, is not the way of life for us. We're searching for more immediate, ecstatic and penetrating modes of living. And so our questions, our questions about our institutions, about our colleges, about our churches, about our government continue. The questions about those institutions are familiar to all of us. We have seen heralded across the newspapers. Senator ______ has suggested some of them this morning. But along with using these words -- integrity, trust, and respect -- in regard to institutions and leaders we're perhaps harshest with them in regard to ourselves.
Every protest, every dissent, whether it's an individual academic paper, Founder's parking lot demonstration, is unabashedly an attempt to forge an identity in this particular age. That attempt at forging for many of us over the past four years has meant coming to terms with our humanness. Within the context of a society that we perceive -- now we can talk about reality, and I would like to talk about reality sometime, authentic reality, inauthentic reality, and what we have to accept of what we see -- but our perception of it is that it hovers often between the possibility of disaster and the potentiality for imaginatively responding to men's needs. There's a very strange conservative strain that goes through a lot of New Left, collegiate protests that I find very intriguing because it harkens back to a lot of the old virtues, to the fulfillment of original ideas. And it's also a very unique American experience. It's such a great adventure. If the experiment in human living doesn't work in this country, in this age, it's not going to work anywhere.
But we also know that to be educated, the goal of it must be human liberation. A liberation enabling each of us to fulfill our capacity so as to be free to create within and around ourselves. To be educated to freedom must be evidenced in action, and here again is where we ask ourselves, as we have asked our parents and our teachers, questions about integrity, trust, and respect. Those three words mean different things to all of us. Some of the things they can mean, for instance: Integrity, the courage to be whole, to try to mold an entire person in this particular context, living in relation to one another in the full poetry of existence. If the only tool we have ultimately to use is our lives, so we use it in the way we can by choosing a way to live that will demonstrate the way we feel and the way we know. Integrity -- a man like Paul Santmire. Trust. This is one word that when I asked the class at our rehearsal what it was they wanted me to say for them, everyone came up to me and said "Talk about trust, talk about the lack of trust both for us and the way we feel about others. Talk about the trust bust." What can you say about it? What can you say about a feeling that permeates a generation and that perhaps is not even understood by those who are distrusted? All they can do is keep trying again and again and again. There's that wonderful line in East Coker by Eliot about there's only the trying, again and again and again; to win again what we've lost before.
And then respect. There's that mutuality of respect between people where you don't see people as percentage points. Where you don't manipulate people. Where you're not interested in social engineering for people. The struggle for an integrated life existing in an atmosphere of communal trust and respect is one with desperately important political and social consequences. And the word "consequences" of course catapults us into the future. One of the most tragic things that happened yesterday, a beautiful day, was that I was talking to woman who said that she wouldn't want to be me for anything in the world. She wouldn't want to live today and look ahead to what it is she sees because she's afraid. Fear is always with us but we just don't have time for it. Not now.
Now I'm intrigued that John Friesen was so affected by 1960s music, because that brings up the fundamental, fatal confusion that did so much harm in those days--a confusion that might be summed up in that memorable phrase, "the personal is the political." Rock 'n Roll was a response to the emotional sterility of an age--a sterility, I now think, born of trauma, the incredible worldwide trauma of the Depression and the Second World War. It allowed a new generation to discover a depth of feeling that their parents had not bee able to teach them, because they had suppressed it. Leonard Bernstein understood this perfectly in a 1967 show he did about rock on CBS, now available on youtube. For our generation, he said, music was background--but not for these kids. Of course, emotionally sterile or crippled families still exist all around us, and maybe Friesen came from one. But the problem, then and now, was to think that the same intensity of feeling, of pure emotion, could also rule the political world. Modern political systems like our own are based upon rationality, not emotion. That is their strength. Because human beings are not, indeed, completely rational creatures, it's a struggle to hold our system up to its original rational ideals. Lately we have been failing that test. It's not the first time, and it won't be the last. But that system remains our only hope. The longing of the two young people quoted above to escape the whole thing is a fantasy, a natural fantasy to be sure, but one that leads nowhere. That is why, I think, both Friesen and Hillary Rodham in 1969--yup--both fall into inarticulate rambling when they try to describe what they are after.
And there is another link between the two, one very close to my heart. Hillary Rodham went into law and into politics. (She certainly allowed passion--falling in love with Bill Clinton--to rule her life: it took her away from everything she had ever known and sentenced her to 20 years in Arkansas, an ordeal conveyed quite well in Primary Colors.) But her contemporaries who went into academia did not have to abandon their rejection of the norms of western civilization. They could spend their careers propagating it, and they did. And now, two generations of undergraduates have passed through college without learning anything, unless they are very lucky, about what the American system is actually capable of. You will never convince me that that has not contributed, massively, to the collapse of our political life. You cannot rebuild the New Deal if you have no idea what it was or what it did.
It's natural enough, when young, to rebel against the routine and regimentation of modern life. It is, to some extent, unnatural, although it also offers its own rewards, and it's the only kind of civilization that allows people to live in such numbers as they do today. And yes, it can be improved. We could, like the Europeans, start our working lives with four weeks' vacation a year, for example, and we could have single-payer health care, a national system of day care centers, and a great deal more to make life more relaxed and rewarding. Nor can we blame the mess we are in, obviously, on the younger generation. The Millennials (b. 1982-2000?) have grown up every bit as obedient to authority as they GI grandparents were, and every bit as ready to enlist in a great crusade. The older generations have failed them by failing to offer one. They will have to undertake their own, smaller local crusades--but to have a long-term impact they will have to be within the framework of modern life, not outside it.
We are moving into a new Gilded Age. The first Gilded age had its own malcontents, many of whom fired by revolutionary enthusiasm, including Coxey's Army, Greenbackers and Grangers, the IWW, the anarchists, and many more. They have left very little behind. But the young people of the Gilded Age included W. E. B. Dubois, the founder of the NAACP; John L. Lewis, probably the most influential labor leader of the twentieth century; Henry Ford, who transformed production; Harold Ickes, Roosevelt's Interior Secretary and head of the Public Works Administration, who began life as a social worker and built dams across America; and the other titans of my current work in progress, Henry Stimson, George C. Marshall, Cordell Hull, and, of course, Franklin Roosevelt himself. They did not reject the system: they built it. Having grown up amidst chaos, they tried, with extraordinary success, to create order. The experience of the Boom generation, sadly, was the reverse. Had it not been for the Vietnam War, we might have revived America emotionally without crippling it politically. But that, we will never know.
Some years ago I did a post here about Bernhard von Bulow, the German chancellor of a century ago, who managed to avoid the danger of a new war until his fall in 1909. Reflecting on the differences between him and his successors after the catastrophe of the First World War, he remarked that he had the advantage of having lived in foreign countries that allowed him to see his country in better perspective. I lived abroad only once, but I have spent much of my adult life living in past eras and foreign countries through my work, and perhaps that has similarly distinguished me from my contemporaries. (Within universities, sadly, my fellow historians are now pretty much convinced that no one ever had a worthwhile idea before 1970 or so.) This hasn't stopped me from believing in progress. It has stopped me from believing that an outburst of enthusiasm can lead us, quickly and almost painlessly, into a new world.