Ruminating on the demand for “demands”: Protesters, stay on target!

This morning we were discussing Nietzsche in my Seminar class at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, and I asked the students to think about Nietzsche’s advice to his readers in the preface to The Genealogy of Morals.  “One thing is necessary above all if one is to practice reading as an art,” Nietzsche said; something that has been unlearned most thoroughly nowadays….something for which one almost has to be a cow and in any case not a “modern man”: rumination.”

In other words, Nietzsche says you have to read his work like a cow lying in a sunny field chewing her cud: slowly, deliberately, with total concentration.

If the “modern men” of 1887 had already “unlearned” this art, imagine how far away it seems to us now, in our age of the 24-hour media news circus, the Twitterati, and the sound bite.  Hardly anyone has the patience to just sit and ruminate anymore.  We are too busy clicking and chatting and running from one appointment to the next.

It’s in this busy, hectic spirit that, after having ignored the Occupy Wall Street protests entirely for their first ten days, we are now hearing impatient cries from the media for a list of “demands.”

It irritates me to no end that the media punditocracy, from Nick Kristof to Bill O’Reilly, are now pushing the protesters to get their collective act together and come up with a proper bullet-pointed list of all their grievances.  Unspoken is the subtext: tell us what’s upsetting you, dear children, so we can pat you on the head and make everything all right.

It’s condescending, again, and way too simplistic a response to the complex and serious nature of this rapidly spreading protest movement, which some are now calling the Tea Party of the left.

Some of the protesters, nettled by the insinuation that they lack focus and don’t know what they want, have hurried to put together a bonafide, if tentative, list of demands. These have been launched into the great wiki of the blogosphere, where thousands of minds are now busily turning them over and vetting them for possible political viability.  Not only the trade unions, but also Moveon.org and other big national political organizations are now poised to make hay in the sunshine of this nascent movement.

They all ought to take a deep breath and follow Nietzsche’s advice.  Take the time to ruminate.  Don’t leap too fast.  What is the hurry?  It took many years of steady, malicious manipulation to get us 99%-ers into this fix.  It’s going to take at least as long to get us out of it.

What the protesters really want cannot be contained by the old-fashioned concept of “demands.”  Their motivation comes from a much deeper place, a primal sense of justice and community.  They know that the 1%, the wealthiest Americans, have been living like parasites on the great sleeping flanks of the 99% for at least the past quarter-century.  If we 99 percenters wake up and stretch and begin to roar, there’s no telling what we might be able to accomplish together!

That’s why the protesters should not be lured in and fobbed off with the promise of a few candies or pats on the head.  What’s needed is deep systemic change of our social system.  There are some pretty radical ideas floating around out there right now, including complete debt forgiveness as a grand national “stimulus” plan.  Why bail out the banks?  Why not bail out the consumers?

This idea has merit, but it shouldn’t be just about getting us back into the same old groove of shopping for cheap foreign-produced goods, the production of which are contributing more and more to the destruction of our planetary environment.

There should also be a massive subsidy plan for renewable energy.  Instead of destroying the boreal forest in Alberta and building a misbegotten pipeline, we should be investing in low-impact renewable energy, especially solar and geothermal, which seem like the least hazardous forms of energy production currently available.

Coming up with “demands” implies faith in a political system to respond.  The Occupy Wall Street protesters are down there on the front lines precisely because they know the current political system cannot be trusted.  They’re right.

“I am no man–I am dynamite,” Nietzsche wrote in his autobiography, Ecce Homo. The Occupy Wall Street protesters are, similarly, much more than a group of individuals assembled in one place.  They are the long fuse that has now been lit; or to use a more contemporary metaphor, they are the surge in the power line.

What will happen next we do not yet know, but one thing is certain: it will not be reducible to, or solvable by, a simplistic list of “demands.”

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