Occupy Earth

In the week since the Occupy May Day General Strike, I’ve been thinking a lot about the impact of the event.

Friends who were in New York City that day say it was tremendously exciting, especially the permitted march from Union Square to Wall Street, which apparently stretched out strong over some 30 blocks.

As far as I could tell, mainstream media reported only the arrests that occurred, and that fairly grudgingly.  There has been little effort to explain or explore the anger and frustration that propelled hundreds of thousands worldwide out into the streets on May Day.

Maybe that’s because it’s an old story.  Yesterday’s news!  We know that students are unhappy about being $1 trillion in debt; we know that millions of homeowners are unhappy about being “underwater” with their mortgages, or losing their homes due to foreclosures.  We know that there aren’t enough jobs to lift our economy out of the doldrums.  It’s old news, people!  Tell us something we don’t know!

So the question becomes, is a protest effective if it is ignored by the mainstream media?

I would say yes: the fact that the MSM treated May Day as unimportant is more revealing of how out of touch the editors are than of whether or not the protest was real and meaningful.

On social media, May Day was well covered, especially at interactive, citizen journalism-type venues like Livestream and Twitter.

And if you go on the Occupy Wall Street site now, you’ll find that the organizers are already bounding on to the next action.

May Day was just one in a whole series of protests planned. It was an opening volley of what promises to be an intense, engaging spring.

But it opened up a question that is not likely to go away any time soon.

How important is it to actually show up, in the flesh, for a protest?

I was berated by one reader for choosing to stay in my classroom on May Day rather than joining the protests.

Other readers expressed their support for my decision to “occupy my classroom,” where my individual presence was perhaps more important than it would have been as an anonymous member of the crowd on Broadway.

I have been pondering this question in the past week.  As someone who is deeply involved with new media, I have to say that I believe that what happens in cyberspace is at least as important as what happens in physical space.

Maybe it’s even more important.

It is no exaggeration to say that millions of people participated in the May Day protests online, via Facebook, Twitter, Livestream and so many other interactive platforms.

The protests spread around the world, just like the May 5 “Connect the Dots” climate change awareness events.

Through the magic of cyberspace, we were all united in a common goal: expressing our outrage over the cynical manipulation and impoverishment of the 99% by the 1%, and demanding that the interests of the 99% be taken into account in matters of political and economic policy.

Although I have no doubt that face-to-face General Assemblies and marches are important, it is ridiculous to discount the impact of what goes around and comes around in cyberspace.

Are we approaching the weird tipping point when our cyber-selves will be more important than our physical selves?

As I keep reminding people, cyberspace is totally dependent on electricity for its existence.

So if we want to preserve cyberspace as a place of radical openness, communitarianism and oppositionality, it behooves us to pay attention to the real 99% in the current equation: the natural world that has been providing us with the means to create the current that runs the virtual world.

I might be tempted to buck my agoraphobia (fear of crowds) and make the leap from cyber-protest to physical protest if the goal were defending not just jobs or homes or social equality, but the underpinning of it all, the great mother herself, our beloved community, our Earth.

May Day: Here, There and Everywhere

A reader asks why I did not stay home from work and join the May Day protests today, and I feel like this question deserves a serious response.

Partly, I have always had a phobia about crowds, and never willingly put myself into a crowd situation.  I don’t even like to go to an agricultural fair, or a peaceful parade.  In my Manhattan youth, crowds and violence often went together, or at least crowds and the fear of violence.  I am a wimp.

Partly, I felt like I could do more good in my classroom today than anonymously out on the streets.  It is the last full week of classes at my institution; students are finishing up projects that need response and guidance.  If I didn’t show up to work today, it would throw a monkey wrench in the plans I made for a graceful and productive ending to our semester together.

Partly, I don’t have any beef against my own employer, so not showing up for work today would affect the wrong target, while making no difference at all to the intended target, the 1%.

I guess the biggest reason I felt like my presence was expendable to today’s protest is because no one would notice if I was or was not out there on the street, but I would definitely be missed from my classroom.

However, in at least one of my two classes today, I did spend some time talking about May Day and the reasons for the protest.

I was surprised to learn that very few of my students had any clue as to what May Day signified to the labor movement, or why the protests today were taking place.

I don’t know why I assumed that my students would be more politically aware than I was at their age.

Turns out, few of them even realized there were going to be significant protests today, much less what they were all about.  Some also had their doubts as to whether the Occupy approach was likely to be effective.

Well, I pressed them, if occupying public spaces is not an effective means of protest, what would be more effective?  Joining a political campaign?  Writing a letter to the editor?

No one had an answer to that, but I could see the wheels turning.

And that’s why I am glad I decided to stay at work today.  At least with this one small group of students, I was able to foreground these historic May Day protests in their minds, and ask some questions that no one else probably would have asked them today.

Maybe as a result they will be paying attention to the news in a different way, and thinking more concretely about how the issues blazoned across all those posters and banners are relevant to their own particular lives.

Whether working on the small canvas, in the classroom, or the big canvas, out in the street, we are working together to build up the necessary momentum to blast our way to a better world.

 

Which Side Are You On?

So here we sit on the eve of May Day 2012, and there is an eerie calm-before-the-storm kind of feeling.

The mainstream media is still doing its best to pretend that nothing out of the ordinary is going on.

The only May-Day related event reported in the NY Times today was that a lawsuit was filed in federal court to keep police from using “pen” barricades to hold demonstrators against their will.

Apparently news of the remarkable energy, creativity and defiant spirit showed by the Occupy movement in the countdown to May Day is not fit to print, ie, not important to the intended audience of The Times.

But if you move over to Twitter and search #Occupy, #OccupyWallSt, or #MayDay, you get a whole different picture of what’s going on.

Instead of the nose-in-the-air ho-hum of the fat-cat NY Times, suddenly you’re plunged into a hum of activity, down on the ground with a million twittering mice running around energetically, purposefully and thoughtfully.

There is @OccupyColleges calling for a student strike to protest the debt-bondage of student loans.

#OWS is trumpeting the latest total of 135 U.S. cities where general strikes have been organized for tomorrow.

The Nation, Democracy Now, and Truthout are publishing advance stories preparing for what’s coming.

The media landscape itself bears evidence of the huge and widening gap between the 1%-dominated old guard, napping on its laurels, and the feisty up-and-at-‘em new media webizens, who are vigilant and unafraid to welcome in something new and different.

For make no mistake, the General Strike planned for tomorrow is something new.

International Workers Day has not been celebrated in the U.S. for a long time.  In fact, during most of my lifetime it was demonized as a Communist holiday, which you’d be unpatriotic–unAmerican!–to take seriously.

We’ve come a long way in a very short time.

Thanks to the Occupy movement, being a worker, rather than a boss, is no longer a sign of personal shortcomings, as in: what’s wrong with you, that you’re still only earning minimum wage, bub?  You dumb or something?

Likewise, the Occupy Foreclosures movement has taught us that it’s not that we were stupid to apply for that tempting mortgage, it’s that the banks were predatory and sleazy to talk us into it.

Thanks to the Occupy movement, the onus has shifted to the 1% to prove that what they’re doing is responsible and for the good of all, rather than motivated by naked greed and self-interest.

The rapacious vulture Capitalism that has dominated the U.S., and hence the world, since the end of World War II has been exposed, and there is no going back.

It may be true that many of the strikers are motivated by self-interest rather than pure altruism.  They want jobs, along with affordable housing, education and health care.

But it’s also true that the Capitalist masters of the universe have lost control of the ship and can no longer pull levers to make jobs and other social benefits magically appear.

Unless, that is, the ultra-rich 1% can be persuaded to part with a fair portion of their loot.

History shows that when the gap between the haves and have-nots widens too far, something snaps and the mob takes over to reset the balance.  Think the American, French and Haitian Revolutions.  Think the Communist takeovers of Russia and China.

When it happens, it isn’t pretty.  Haven’t those in power learned their lesson?  Don’t they realize that they can only push the 99% so far before all the police barricades in the world won’t be able to hold us back?

I don’t think we’ve hit that snapping point yet.  But May Day 2012 is going to be something to watch, and something to participate in, too, if the spirit moves you.

Me, I’ll be teaching my classes this May Day, but with a tip of my hat to what’s going on down at the barricades in New York and all across the country.

And you?  Where will you be on this historic International Worker’s Day?

“Which side are you on, boys, which side are you on?”

(AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Let a million local media outlets and citizen journalists bloom

As we head into the 10-day countdown to May Day, once again the mainstream media is snoozing its way into irrelevance.

Check out today’s New York Times and you will find nary a mention of the busy preparations going on now for the day of action in New York and around the country on May 1.

This seems to just prove the point of media pundit Dr. Alan Chartock, founding president and CEO of the 20-station, seven-state Northeast Public Radio Network here in my neck of the woods.

Speaking last Sunday at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, Dr. Chartock depicted a coming media landscape dominated by a few big national and international players, reaching audiences principally through the World Wide Web.

Progressive media analysts have long been concerned about the homogenization of the news that comes as a result of corporate conglomerates controlling vast swaths of the airwaves, as well as almost all print news outlets.

The good news is that at least so far, it has been impossible to impose corporate control over the internet.  Witness the huge outcry over the proposed PIPA and SOPA legislation last winter, which critics said would have limited free speech on the Web.  Millions of signatures were collected on petitions against the legislation, and the proponents backed down—at least for now.

Dr. Alan Chartock

Dr. Chartock is worried about the wholesale media move to the internet for two good reasons.

One, accuracy: it is often impossible to know for sure that the information on a given blog or even larger online media outlet has been carefully and objectively reported.

Two, money: Where is the business model that will support the reporters and editors needed to continue to perform the traditional watchdog role of the press?

It seems to me that his own Northeast Public Radio Network provides a good answer to these issues.  It is supported by local listeners and underwriters who put their dollars behind the station because they recognize a good thing when they see one.  They would start to withdraw their support if the quality of the programming went down.

To counter the drift to a globalized corporate media desert, let’s let a million local radio stations, blogs, vlogs, livestreams, tweets and You-Tube videos bloom!

Let’s not only support our locally owned, locally produced media, let’s start producing it too!

Here in the Berkshires, we not only have WAMC and other Northeast Public Radio affiliate stations, we also have WBCR-LP, which is not only 100% listener-supported but also all-volunteer and open to any citizen journalist who takes the trouble to get trained as a programmer.

We have the Berkshire Record, our hometown print newspaper in Great Barrington, and we also have iBerkshires and various locally produced blogs and small websites.

And let’s not forget the countless Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and You-Tube channels devoted to getting us localized news we can use.

The truth is that the Occupy movement doesn’t need the New York Times to reach its target audience.  The fact that the mainstream media is ignoring the upcoming May Day protests is just one more example of how dominated by the 1% these big media corporations are.

Whose media?  Our media!  Mainstream media?  Who needs’em?

The question your grandchildren will ask: Where were you on May Day 2012?

Although you’d never know it from following the mainstream media, there are big plans afoot for this year’s May Day.

The global General Strike of the 99% called for May 1 is gaining steam as we move into the final days of preparation.

It’s going to be big.  It’s going to be loud.  It is meant to be an unsettling reminder to the 1% of how much their privilege depends on the cooperation and docility of the 99%.

What if everyone just decided to go on strike with their credit card interest payments?  Their student loan interest payments?  Their mortgage interest payments?

What if everyone decided to redirect their energies to revitalizing local economies, forming their own credit cooperatives, issuing their own currencies, reinstating barter and time banks, growing their own food?

What if everyone just opted out of the huge, unwieldy and oppressive structures that corporate globalization has imposed on us?

 

I am reminded of the Leo Lionni story about the snail who was so entranced with his creative power to build an ever bigger and more intricate shell that eventually he was pinned down by the enormous, gaudy fruits of his labors and had to abandon that monster shell and start anew, humbly admitting that bigger was not better.

Collectively, and with Americans in the lead, human civilization has created a monster that now holds us captive.

Collectively, we can work together to shift course and rebuild a more humane society where the wealth we generate with our creativity and hard work is shared fairly and is not used to destroy our beautiful planetary home.

It is true that the Obama administration has tried to move things in this direction, in important areas like health care and finance reform.  I believe Obama’s heart is in the right place, but he is held captive like all the rest of us by a rigid system created by the 1% to pander to the 1%.

When even our Supreme Court has been coopted to represent the super-elite above the vast majority of Americans, as was quite evident in the Citizens United decision, it becomes clear that working through the system is like swimming in place, swimming against an overwhelming tide.

So we need to try something different.  We are essentially at the same breaking point our American founding fathers were at back in the 1770s, when they knew that the only way they could move forward was to get the King’s boot off their necks—and the only way to do that was to fight.

I don’t want to see another armed revolution or civil war on American soil.  I am a pacifist through and through.

That’s why I support the concept of the General Strike as a peaceful way to withdraw from the system and remind the elites that the gears of their privilege won’t turn without the grease of our labor and cooperation.

This May Day, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, take up the gauntlet Thoreau threw down back in 1849 in his famous essay on civil disobedience: “Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.”

Occupying Leadership: What will it take to accomplish real change?

Environmental activist Tim DeChristopher and Jamphel Yeshi, the young Tibetan monk who set himself on fire last week, are more alike than might first meet the eye.

Tim DeChristopher outside a Salt Lake City, UT Federal Court

DeChristopher, one of the founders of the group Peaceful Uprising, took direct action to disrupt the sale of wilderness to mining companies in a closed Federal auction.  He ended up in prison, but he also did a tremendous amount to raise public awareness about the issue of land sales to corporate industry, and inspired the PeaceUp folks to greater activism.

Jamphel Yeshi also took a dramatic personal action at huge cost to himself—he lost not just his liberty, but his life. He and the 30 other monks who have taken this drastic step in the past have succeeded in letting the world know how deeply the Tibetan people are suffering under Chinese repression, and how passionately they yearn for autonomy to practice their religion and preserve their culture.

A monk looks at posters of Jamphel Yeshi in Dharamsala, India

Dramatic personal action is definitely a good tool to use in raising public awareness about an issue.

The problem with it is that one leader standing alone is an easy target—and if the action is a suicide, that heroic action is always going to be a one-time event.

That the Occupy movement has so far eschewed the single, high-profile leader model is a sign of the solidity of this nascent social movement.

Despite demands from the media and others for a leader to step out of the shadows and announce himself (the leader is always presumed to be male), Occupy has held firm to its founding principle of being a “leaderless movement.”

Occupy Oakland GA

This is true in the way the different “chapters” of Occupy, springing up at will anywhere in the world, are completely autonomous from the Occupy Wall Street folks who initially launched the movement last August; and it is true in the way that any passerby can join a General Assembly and have a chance to speak and influence or inspire the group. It’s true in the various Occupy online platforms that give anyone with an internet connection the ability to communicate with the world, and it’s true with the Occupy media, which are collective and often anonymous publications of strategies, theories and praxes of resistance.

I feel a tremendous sense of loss and rage that obvious, powerful leaders like Tim DeChristopher and Jamphel Yeshi are driven by frustration with the system and anger at injustice to commit acts of activist resistance that are either outright suicidal, or land them swiftly behind bars.

We in the West howl about human rights violations every time the Chinese throw another idealistic young activist in jail.

But we do the same thing here.

We reward the best and brightest of our young people as long as they play by the rules of the game and never question the wisdom of their elders in setting up those rules.

The Ivy league grads who will go on to become Goldman Sachs executives or corporate CEOs or weapons systems engineers—they are our golden children who can do no wrong.

But those young people who look out at what is and see the waste, the greed, the desecration of the planet, the horrendous danger in which the old game has placed us, as we cross the threshold of the 21st century into the new era of global heating, overpopulation, extreme inequality, toxic chemical poisoning, militarization…those young people are considered by the power elites to be annoying, pie-in-the-sky, unreasonable idealists who need to grow up and get a job.

In other words, they need to shut up and join the system.

The reason the Occupy movement is gaining steam is because the system no longer has enough places for all the smart, talented young people we are producing.

We can’t all join Goldman Sachs, now can we?

We can’t all join Greenpeace either.

When young people can’t pay off their student loans and can’t find jobs, and their parents can’t help them because they themselves can barely keep up with the mortgage payments…these young people are naturally going to be much more open to the possibility that something is quite wrong with the established system.

That’s where we are now.  That’s why suddenly we have not one or two extraordinary young leaders like Tim DeChristopher or Jamphel Yeshi stepping up, but a whole tide of young people who have the time, the talent and the energy to tackle the problems of our American society, and our global human civilization, head on.

One General Assembly at a time, they are creating a new vision of society and a new model of leadership.

It couldn’t be more different from the corrupt talking heads they grew up watching on TV.

It is, as Tom Hayden shared with us eloquently this week in The Nation, a return to the SDS and SNCC vision of true participatory democracy in action.

This spring and summer, it’s the numbers that will make all the difference.  They can’t lock up a million idealistic Americans whose only crime was to want to change our country for the better.

Did I say a million?  Let’s make it 10 million, all across the country, coming out and taking a stand for new rules to the game of life that are based above all on respect for the planet and her creatures.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, says the Scripture.

No wiser words have ever been spoken.  Let’s stop the hypocrisy and start practicing what we preach.  Let’s do it soon, before any more brave young leaders have to martyr themselves on our account, trying so desperately to wake us up.

Shades of an American Kristallnacht?

Tonight at dinner the conversation turned to politics, although it seemed that everyone at the table was reluctant to mention the name “Obama”—a sign of the deep disappointment in our erst-while hero.

There was some enthusiasm for the political satire of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, who are probably doing more to educate young people in politics than most high schools in America today.

There was derision for the spectacle of the Republican primaries, which I, for one, have been unable to stomach watching—not even for a moment.

And there was deep sadness over the unavoidable truth that now, in the wake of Citizens United, it has become totally legal for rich people to run politicians the same way they might run horses or greyhounds.  Just like that.

Maybe that’s what provides the eerie, zombie-like atmosphere in politics these days. You really have the sense that most politicians, especially the ones at the top echelons of power, are like old-fashioned Kabbalistic golems, animated out of clay by skilled magicians who can control them from afar.

Of course, that’s been going on for a long time.  Remember George Bush, a wind-up man getting remote control instructions through his earphone in the 2004 Presidential debates?

But it’s getting worse and worse.  That’s why I can’t stand to watch Gingrich and Santorum and all the other Republican wax model men mouth their lines on the stage these days.  You know they’ll say whatever they’re told…whatever they think it will take to win.

There is certainly a good chance that one of the Republicans will win.  The Democrats are dispirited and grumpy, not much in the mood to get all fired up about yet another election.

The Republicans, on the other hand, are rabid to take back the White House.  They’ve been busy as hell redistricting to try to gain every electoral advantage, and I have absolutely no faith in the electronic voting machines that they’ve been installing in every town and city in the land.

It’s very possible that Mr. XY Zombie Republican could seize power in November, with the backing of endlessly deep pockets like the Koch brothers, Big Energy, and Big Finance, and the blessing of the Supreme Court.

What then?

If the Republicans controlled all three houses of government, they could ram through the legislation they’ve been concocting during the past decade or so: legislation powering up the assault on the environment, on health, on social services, destroying any kind of safety net for people, animals or the environment.

They could escalate the war on dissidents (like me), who dare to oppose their plans.  In short order, the United States could turn into just another big banana republic, with a military-backed regime of elites governing through the indiscriminate use of fear tactics, with violence applied as necessary to keep the people in line.

Lately I have been re-reading Margaret Atwood’s marvelous sci-fi novel The Handmaid’s Tale, and finding it chillingly prophetic.  In Atwood’s dystopia, environmental catastrophe has rendered the elites infertile, and pushed them to withdraw into gated communities where food shortages are common, and people are regularly hung in the public square to keep everyone fearful and docile.

The narrator remembers how just before her world fell apart, there were signs of repression: books being banned and burned, identity cards being issued and required, mobility restricted, media censored.  All of a sudden, one fine morning, it was no longer possible for her and her family to get in their car and drive away to seek safety in Canada.  All of a sudden, they were trapped in a nightmare that went quickly from bad to worse.

Augusto Pinochet of Chile

This reminds me also of the many testimonials I have read from Latin America—true stories, not fiction—from the 1970s, when wealthy politicians wielding military power and complete control over the ballot boxes ruled their countries with iron fists, “disappearing” anyone who might remotely be a threat, including thousands of innocent students.  This happened in Chile and Argentina, in Guatemala and El Salvador and many other countries.  Often the shift from democracy to fascist dictatorship happened literally overnight.

As in Germany before the Kristallnacht, none of us here in the U.S. wants to believe that anything could happen to destroy our cherished freedoms, our vaunted  “American way of life.”  We don’t want to admit, even to ourselves, the extent to which our freedoms are already being encroached upon, day by day.

Just last week, for example, there was an outrageous episode in Arizona, where the government declared a whole long list of books by Mexican Americans to be unsuitable for school use, and went so far as to direct the school librarians and teachers to pull them from the shelves, box them up and put them into deep storage.

Among the authors banned are some of my favorite writers—Gloria Anzaldua, Elizabeth Martinez, Paulo Freire.

Paulo Freire

Yes, that Paulo Freire, the famous Brazilian educator and free thinker who wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a brilliant analysis of the way that traditional education indoctrinates students into conformity and submission to authority.

Freire proposed that instead of a banking style of education, where knowledge is deposited into students, who are then required to spit it back upon demand, education worth its salt should empower students to think for themselves.

Such a simple idea, but so powerful, too.  Education should teach people to think for themselves, and to work with each other to come to consensus on issues of importance to the larger society.

Isn’t that just what the Occupy movements have been trying to do?  If Freire were alive, he would be out there in the thick of the Occupy action, inspiring the young to shake off the false animation of Zombiland, and insist on dancing to their own authentic beat.

This reminds me of another beloved science fiction book, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, where the sinister IT controls all the inhabitants of a city by forcing them to conform to ITS rhythm.  Their hearts pulse to ITS rhythm, their eyes twirl to ITS rhythm, their thoughts are entirely subsumed by IT.  The only way to break ITS control is to think for oneself, to be creative, resilient and determined.

The children Meg and Charles Wallace succeed in rescuing their father from the clutches of IT by dint of their own powers of creativity and love, with a little help from some eccentric and freethinking guides.

Will the science fiction tale we’re living through now have that kind of happy ending?

Oh yeah, it’s not fiction, is it.

A new generation rises, and with them, our hopes

Today I gave the keynote address at the regional Model UN student conference sponsored by Bard College at Simon’s Rock.

On the one hand, it was heart-warming to look out and see that crowded lecture hall filled with bright, eager young faces, ready to step on to the world stage, if only in theory, and play leadership roles.

On the other hand, it was sobering to have to be the bearer of such grim tidings.

I started out by taking them back to a choral Ode in the Antigone that has always haunted me, the one where the Chorus sings the praises of human technological prowess, while at the same time sounding a warning note about how mankind’s “cunning…is the fertile skill which brings him, now to evil, now to good.

“When he honors the laws of the land, and that justice which he has sworn by the gods to uphold, proudly stands his city: no city has he who, for his rashness, dwells with sin.”

In other words, I told the students, we humans can do all kinds of amazing things with our great intelligence, but we will only prosper if we keep our moral compass and use our powers for good.

The Ode is basically a list of areas in which human beings have excelled, and that list is as valid today as it was in the 5th century B.C.: our power of navigation and transportation; agriculture; our dominion over other animals, wild and domestic; our ability to withstand the elements by building shelter and creating fire; our medical arts; our facility with language and “wind-swift thought.”

Truly we are a “wondrous” species.  And yet the fact that this list is recited in the tragedy of Antigone bears witness to the fact that our great “cunning” does not always guide us well.

In Antigone, Creon is a proud, vindictive tyrant who demands absolute allegiance from his subjects, including his niece Antigone.  When Antigone defies his order to let her brother’s remains be left in the open for the crows to feast on, and goes out alone to bury him, Creon goes into a fury and orders her arrested and sentenced to death.

It’s clear that the Chorus in this play believes Creon’s action is wrong.  Antigone was obeying her own moral judgement, putting her filial and religious obligations before her allegiance to the King. And just as the Chorus predicted in the initial Ode, because he is not using his power wisely and ethically, in the end Creon’s house will fall.

In our time, I told the students, the same kinds of battles rage, of good people standing up for their beliefs against oppressive tyrants, who don’t hesitate to imprison and even execute any who defy their power.

The Arab Spring showed us what can happen when enough people dare to speak truth to power and defy an authoritarian state  In the United States, the Occupy movements are now standing up, not so much against the state, as against the corporate capitalist elites—who often are the power behind the thrones of the various nations.

Even in our own country, the price of defying the status quo can be high.

But, I told the students, given the perilous state of the world today, the price of staying quiet and going along with the flow is inevitably going to be much higher.

I reminded them of the many dangers that face us today, including:

  • the homogenization of media and the reduction of education to multiple choice tests, instead of a media that stands strong in its watchdog role and an educational system that focuses on teaching students how to think creatively and question authority;
  • the tremendous militarization of police and national forces, with most countries fairly bristling with lethal weapons, from handguns to bombs;
  • environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity, including the contamination of our air, soils and waters with toxic chemicals caused by the very agriculture celebrated in the Antigone Ode;
  • serious health problems caused by environmental toxins and chemical additives in our food supply;
  • and above all, the looming menace of anthropogenic global warming.

These will be familiar themes to anyone who has been reading my blog these past few months.  But it was good to speak these ideas out loud this time, to the young people who are going to have to bear the brunt of the problems.

I quoted U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, who told negotiators from 200 nations gathered at the recent COP17 climate conference in Durban that the situation was so urgent that they could not afford to wait for unified global action.

“Don’t wait for a binding agreement,” he said. “It could take years. All member states should take their own measures,” before it’s too late.

“Last year we saw the highest emissions ever,” Mr. Ban said. “If we carry on as though it is business as usual we will be out of business.”

Those are pretty stark, unequivocal words from the leader of the closest thing we have to a global government.

Given the need for drastic change in the way we do business as a civilization, I challenged the students to dare to think outside the box.

I encouraged them to let Antigone be their guide as they began their Model UN negotiations. “If you know that a policy is wrong, don’t be afraid to say so, and to fight for what you believe,” I told them.

I urged them not to let artificial boundaries like nation, race, class, religion or gender cloud their vision of what is needed to succeed in the goal of making human society safer, more nurturing, and more sustainable for us all.

“It is a deeply flawed, damaged world you will all soon be stepping out into as young adults,” I said.  “We live in a time of accelerated change and unprecedented transition.  None of us knows what lies around the bend.  But we do know that no matter what, we will be better off if we work proactively to overcome narrow national self-interests and begin to think in planetary terms—and not just about human interests, but in terms of the good of the entire web of life of which we are a part.”

Our only chance at changing the way we do business as a civilization, I said,  rests with our ability to successfully communicate with one another–to use the powers of “speech and wind-swift thought” commended by the Chorus of Antigone. 

What we need are not the stylized battles of debate, but the true, open-hearted communication of consensus building, where all viewpoints are listened to respectfully, and all positions are judged both on their own merits and on how well they’ll contribute to the collective goal of making the world a better place.

As I stepped away from the podium, I felt sad that I had to lay such a heavy burden on these bright young people, who through no fault of their own have inherited a planet in such disarray.

But I also felt the surge of hope that always rises again with each new generation.  Maybe this generation will be the one to turn off the beaten path and forge a new relationship with our planetary home.  Perhaps they will be able to resist the centripetal pull towards conformity.

As they all filed out of the room to take up their places at the Model UN negotiating tables, my heart went with them.  They are our last best hope.

 

I Won’t Go Quietly

So the question arises, how seriously should we be taking the prospect of imminent climate crisis and environmental collapse?  How serious is the threat?  What should we be doing to meet it?

On the one hand, there are the Deep Green Resistance folks, who advocate a guerilla warfare approach to industrial civilization: sabotage to infrastructure, with the goal of saving the planet from the destructive predation of human society.

The DGR point of view is that the salmon and the frogs and the polar bears can’t wait; if we hesitate, they will go extinct, and there is no coming back from extinction.  And by the way, we homo sapiens are next in line.

Well yes but…blowing up bridges, cell towers and power lines is hardly in a day’s work for most of us.  I can’t see myself heading for the hills with a knapsack of dynamite on my back!  And could such a resistance effort work? As the example of Tim DeChristopher shows, it doesn’t take much pushback to land in jail.

At the other end of the spectrum are the people who just don’t see that there’s any problem.

That’s most of us Americans.  Most of my peers really seem to see nothing at all to be concerned about, ecosystem-wise.  I often feel  paranoid and ridiculous to worry about global warming leading to conditions of scarcity that will destabilize the social order. No one else is worrying about this, why should I?

People who love me warn me not to go too far; my neighbor wonders when the FBI surveillance will start on our block.

Really, am I nuts to be even thinking about all this?

But I can’t forget historical scenarios where the majority maintained a go-with-the-flow, maintain-the-status-quo position, and were stunned when their efforts at conformity landed them in the gas chambers.

This was only a generation ago, my friends.

Today our fear is not so much gas chambers as it is mass poisonings by other means: for instance, fungicide in the orange juice, heavy metals in the well water, or mega-hurricanes caused by global warming.

It is already happening.  Of course the powers that be, the powers that are profiting from the status quo, don’t want us to question.  They don’t want us to wonder whether saving the salmon is more important than, say, mining for gold in a pristine river.  They don’t want us to demand cars that run on hydrogen.  They don’t want us to insist on a moratorium on Round-up ready seed and fertilizer.

I’m sorry, but I can’t stand down and go back to minding my own business like a good little girl.  I won’t go quietly into the night.  I won’t be one of the capos who cooperates and shepherds the others to their doom.

But maybe we don’t have to choose between these two extreme scenarios: conformity or resistance.  Maybe we can take a middle route, a resistance movement that works with the conformists to bring about change.

Yes, it’s a reformist hope that refuses to die in me.  It’s a hope that I find echoed in the recently published conversation between imprisoned activist Tim DeChristopher and the writer Terry Tempest Williams:

“TIM: Well there’s no hope in avoiding collapse. If you look at the worst-case consequences of climate change, those pretty much mean the collapse of our industrial civilization. But that doesn’t mean the end of everything. It means that we’re going to be living through the most rapid and intense period of change that humanity has ever faced. And that’s certainly not hopeless. It means we’re going to have to build another world in the ashes of this one. And it could very easily be a better world. I have a lot of hope in my generation’s ability to build a better world in the ashes of this one. And I have very little doubt that we’ll have to. The nice thing about that is that this culture hasn’t led to happiness anyway, it hasn’t satisfied our human needs. So there’s a lot of room for improvement.”

DeChristopher says something surprising towards the end of this interview.  He says that going to prison was the most freeing thing that could have happened to him.

“TIM: I thought I was sacrificing my freedom, but instead I was grabbing onto my freedom and refusing to let go of it for the first time, you know? Finally accepting that I wasn’t this helpless victim of society, and couldn’t do anything to shape my own future, you know, that I didn’t have that freedom to steer the course of my life. Finally I said, “I have the freedom to change this situation. I’m that powerful.” And that’s been a wonderful feeling that I’ve held onto since then.”

A lot of us are scared and angry and depressed for precisely this reason: we feel we don’t have control over our futures.  We are like the salmon and the polar bears and the bats, facing an ever more inhospitable environment, with no way to fight back.

But what if we did have control?  What if we have a lot more power than we realize?

This is the lesson of the Occupy movement.  Another world is possible.  And we can welcome her into existence.  We don’t have to go quietly wherever the powers that be lead us.

Not yet, anyway.  There’s still time.  Let’s seize it.

From occupations to manifestations: Arundhati Roy imagines another world

I was excited to find in my inbox today an interview with one of my favorite women writers of resistance, Arundhati Roy.

Roy may be most famous for her novel, The God of Small Things, but I am most moved by her political writings.  She is the one who coined that very popular saying, which became a motto of the World Social Forum in the 1990s: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way.  On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

She has been a shrewd and no-holds-barred critic of transnational corporate capitalism for decades now, long before it became a trendy position to take.

As she wrote in An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire, “So much of what I write, fiction as well as non-fiction, is about the relationship between power and powerlessness and the endless, circular conflict they’re engaged in.”

Since she’s been thinking about these issues for so long, it’s not surprising that the comments she made to Arun Gupta, published today in The Guardian,” are right on target.

“I don’t think the whole protest is only about occupying physical territory, but about reigniting a new political imagination.

“I don’t think the state will allow people to occupy a particular space unless it feels that allowing that will end up in a kind of complacency, and the effectiveness and urgency of the protest will be lost.

“The fact that in New York and other places where people are being beaten and evicted suggests nervousness and confusion in the ruling establishment.

“I think the movement will, or at least should, become a protean movement of ideas, as well as action, where the element of surprise remains with the protesters.

“We need to preserve the element of an intellectual ambush and a physical manifestation that takes the government and the police by surprise.

It has to keep re-imagining itself, because holding territory may not be something the movement will be allowed to do in a state as powerful and violent as the United States.”

This certainly speaks to the question that has been worrying at me all day today, as news spread of the violent evictions of Occupy encampments in L.A. and Philadelphia.
Once the physical encampments are gone, will the movement die away?
Or can it keep bubbling up in guerilla fashion, as I advocated in an earlier piece on this blog, like the spontaneous street parties of European cities, that materialize, stage an intervention, and then vanish before they can be contained?
Also, what role will the internet continue to play over the winter?  Perhaps we should be moving from a stage of “occupations” to a new stage of “manifestations,” where the focus will be not on resistantly occupying a physical territory, but on proactively gathering, both virtually and actually, to manifest a new vision of social relations.
In the Guardian interview, Roy ends by pointing to indigenous people, and people who live close to the land, as key mentors in the days and months and years ahead.
As climate change and environmental degradation accelerates,  Roy says, “we are going to confront a crisis from which we cannot return. The people who created the crisis in the first place will not be the ones that come up with a solution.
“That is why we must pay close attention to those with another imagination: an imagination outside of capitalism, as well as communism. We will soon have to admit that those people, like the millions of indigenous people fighting to prevent the takeover of their lands and the destruction of their environment – the people who still know the secrets of sustainable living – are not relics of the past, but the guides to our future.”
There are many of us who are now waking up to the certain knowledge that the leaders we thought were our trusty guides have been taking us on a joy ride to nowhere, ending up barreling towards a cliff.
There have been those all along who have refused to go along for the ride, who have maintained their independent imaginations and worldviews despite intense efforts by the corporate capitalist world to beat them down.
Those are the people we need to heed now–if, as Roy says, we want to learn “the secrets of sustainable living” and survive.  And if, of course, they’ll have us.
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