Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Personal Possibilities

Today is my 22nd birthday. After being asked by many of my supportive friends and family how I would like to spend this day, I have chosen to instead focus on two upcoming occasions. In a few days I celebrate the first six months of my political writings and activism, and a week from then we will all be celebrating the six-month anniversary of Occupy. As this milestone in my life intersects with this great landmark of the movement, I cannot help but to take this moment to reflect on all that has transpired these last few months.

For years I struggled against the culturally enforced importance that is placed on the birthday celebration. In fact I shunned all holidays; no explanation of traditional celebration ever seemed rational to me. The only reasoning my pessimism permitted was that people celebrated these occasions to ignorantly escape the dreadfulness of their lives. To sing happy birthday, to set the table for thanksgiving dinner, to attend Christmas mass; these things seemed foolish and foreign to me. Of course I would still participate in the ones I had a stake in (what ten year old doesn’t want ice cream cake?). But by doing so I only concentrated my condescension, and hardened the hate I held in my heart.

It was this same cynicism that I silently carried through my adolescence, following the terrorist attacks on September 11th and the ensuing ‘War on Terror’. I know you all have felt some version of this; the crushing feeling that no matter what you may say or do, the world will only become worse and worse. Our cultural obsession with selfish individualism furthered my absolute disdain for speaking out; why should anything I have to say be of importance when there are so many others suffering in the world?

I have had the privilege of growing up alongside the intelligentsia of New York City, a community that values education, creativity and critical thinking. Unfortunately, intellectuals also have an inherent tendency to be somewhat elitist. Thus the ironic tragedy of this community was that it ended up being the prominent perpetuator of pessimism. The sub culture our generation developed became one of apathetic cynicism. Cool became synonymous with not caring or trying, certainly not believing in anything. The value of critical thinking and questioning institutions was turned in on itself with a cannibalistic frenzy. Every young person knew that the government did not serve our interests, the two party system was a farce, and all politicians were corrupt. We all understood that our news organizations lied to us, the global economy was rife with inequity, and the environment was being irrevocably damaged. It became axiomatic that the game was rigged, the house always won, there was no way to stop it. For us, there seemed to be only two options: climb the falling ladder quicker than the next guy, or stay on board the sinking ship and laugh at the fools trying to escape.

I opted for the latter path of self-destruction. I was too angry at my peers for their proud apathy in the face of global crisis to join them. I thought that somehow it was better to jeer at consumer culture than participate in it. But was it? After all, had I not taken the same path of selfishness just in the opposite direction? My rejection was nothing more than a quiet acceptance of all I took issue with. If anything, I aided in making it worse.

I could see in the eyes of my peers the same restrained rage yearning to be released that I felt in myself. How could everyone feel this and still not share it? Although I didn’t understand it then, it is obvious to me now that the burning anger we felt was born out of bitter disappointment. For in order to be disappointed to begin with, you have to have had ideals which failed you. In order to obsess over not caring, you must have once cared.

This is when I began to write. How could I be mad that no one else was voicing what I was thinking when I wasn’t even doing it myself? After months of self-reflection, I published my first political article ‘Shock and Awe’ on the 10th anniversary of September 11th 2001. I ended the article with an appeal for discussion. This was my attempt to appropriate the political ‘holiday’ of 9/11 as the moment to break the silence of our time. The reaction was mild but did not live up to the unrealistic expectation I had built in my mind for months. Although I got a few responses from my immediate friends, I foolishly allowed myself to again be frustrated with disappointment.

Six days later on September 17th was the start of Occupy Wall Street. It seems odd to me now that I did not recognize the clear connection between the birth of this movement and my own personal journey. I had appealed in my article for a new national discourse, one that would “preach critical questions, not absolute answers”. I am not at all claiming that I somehow anticipated the movement; on the contrary it took me completely by surprise.

That first day I went down there on a whim, having never previously participated in any sort of political activism. After hours of messy first attempts at general assemblies, I left carrying the same cynicism as always. I leveled the critique shared by so many others; that it was too disorganized to accomplish anything specific. But over the next few weeks I slowly began to change my mind, and eventually came to recognize the important discourse it was developing. I decided to align myself with the movement by occasionally attending and writing articles of support. It was then that I encountered both cynical critiques but also curiosity from many of my friends. In my peer group I became the go-to ‘occupy’ guy, and I took it upon myself to explain and defend the integrity and significance of the movement to anyone who would listen.

Yet at this point I was only paying lip service to my ideals. I often wrote and talked of the necessity of general assemblies when I myself had only been a passive participant in them. I was still too intimidated to speak my mind, even in the midst of an encouraging environment.

Then came the illegal raid on Liberty Plaza in November. The tipping point was when the NYPD destroyed the People’s Library by burning books. This symbol of blatant fascistic oppression prompted me to go down and join the mass action on N17. I made my first physical sign of protest, which asked “Why is it legal to Occupy Baghdad with guns but illegal to Occupy New York with books?” It was also the first day I was there without anyone else I knew personally, which in a sense forced me to have dialogues with strangers. Still, I was nervous about openly speaking my mind, and at first only passively did so by holding my sign. I would be lying if I didn’t say this was largely prompted by a fear of the extreme display of force by the authorities. The street that lead to the stock exchange was blocked with tank traps and military vehicles and the sidewalks were flanked with battalions of riot police. I witnessed in person for the first time police attacking and arresting unarmed civilians. I was scared and angry at the same time, but the positive energy of those around me kept people generally calm and safe. We stood strong and managed to delay the opening of the trading bell, and a feeling of victory overtook the crowd.

Soon after we marched back and retook Liberty Plaza. A fiery debate ensued, provoked by those with more extreme points of view. These people wanted to go back and rush the stock exchange with force, while most wanted to regroup and continue to follow the plan of nonviolent disruption that had already been set for the day. One of the problems presented by a general assembly is that those with more extreme opinions tend to dominate discussions. Luckily, there were others in the crowd who had equally strong and rational voices that managed to diffuse the tension. It is because of the danger of rabble rousing that it is important for everyone to speak up, in spite of how intimidating it might be.

About that time, the NYPD began to encircle the park, moving the barricades up on all four sides. It had been a tactic to trap everyone inside in order to more easily arrest them. People responded by pulling barricades out of the hands of the police, and that’s when the violence really started. As I watched with silent fear as people were being beaten with batons, I felt a hand on my shoulder throw me to the ground. A primal anger swelled in my gut as lizard brain defense instincts kicked in. Standing up, I noticed that many people around me were experiencing the same thing; consumed totally with the feeling of righteous defensive anger. In this moment it occurred to me that if the crowd suddenly fought back we would lose the moral high ground, and with it the integrity of the whole movement. I looked at the police pouring in to the park and saw the same defensive anger controlling them, and suddenly it all clicked. It is this anger that gets manipulated one way or another in order to keep us in a state of self-destruction. It keeps us fighting when we should be working together.

It was this moment of realization that inspired me to use the Peoples Mic for the first time: “NYPD. We are on your side. We do not want to fight you. The banks don’t give a fuck about you. Join us. Join us.” Albeit crass, what I said hit a nerve in the crowd, and inspired others to calm themselves. My appeal to resist the urge to fight back was contagious. For the first time I heard my words reverberate across the crowd. Others soon chimed in with their own words of peace and de-escalation. Eventually, the police were forced to halt their aggression and leave the park.

That was possibly the single most empowering moment of my entire life. Confronted with the worst feelings I had, I managed to control myself and act on my principles, not my impulses. In the months that have followed since that day, I have slipped back into destructive or hateful habits more than I would like to admit. But that moment has managed to stick with me, and my journey since then has been one of working towards replicating it as often as I can.

I have chosen to share this story not to glorify or romanticize my own actions, and certainly not to claim some sort of authority or self-importance over what’s going on in the world. Instead, I have shared it with the hope that you may find parallels in your own experience, and perhaps you have come to the same conclusions as I. Ideals are not just fantasies, but can be practically applied to behavior and attitude with positive results. If you want a voice of reason to conquer extremity of thought, you must make it your own.

Most importantly, the act of recording and sharing a personal history is in and of itself a necessary aspect of social development. The objective of Occupy is for the people to reassert their right to determine their collective history, which begins when we as individuals claim agency over our own personal histories. Then and only then will the connections between our internal existence and external reality enter a true dialogue. I do not think it is coincidence that Occupy began less than a week after September 11th 2011, only two blocks away from the site of the former World Trade Center. I do not think it is coincidence that at the same time for the same reasons I was feeling the same thing. The Occupy movement is in some part a collective expression of the repressed feeling that has been bubbling in all of us for the past ten years. Its beginning six months ago served as the unpredictable spark that has reinvigorated and revitalized the hope of the people. In the most general sense Occupy is a symbol that has the potential to inspire individuals to improve ourselves and the world around us.

So I ask you all to join me on March 17th to celebrate our six-month anniversary. Particularly to those who are the die-hard cynics, I ask you to find the wounded idealist within and give them another chance. You must no longer wonder or wish or pray that the world will become better. We each hold a bit of history in our hands. When we combine them, we are unstoppable. Another world is possible.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

REDEFINING REVOLUTION SINCE 2012

Redefining Revolution Since 2012

A new year has begun, and those who dominate the mainstream American political discourse would have you believe there is only one thing on their minds: the 2012 presidential election. The pompous party politicians have already begun parading their prized pigs before the public. This is nothing more than a collective casting session for the poorly scripted television extravaganza we’ve all come to know and hate. In the next few months we will see this circus enter it’s full swing, and like any circus it will come complete with dancing elephants, trained monkeys, and a big barrel of shit hidden behind the curtains.

But the recent wave of attempted crackdowns and mass arrests, the moves being made to limit the mainstay of free public communication, and the further militarization of our domestic security all reveal that the political institutions in this country have something else much more pressing on their mind: the Occupy movement. As much as our leaders and “representatives” would like to pretend, they can no longer ignore the voices of the people. The organizers of Occupy itself have made this impossible during the last month, by coordinating mass occupations of the seat of leadership in our nations capital. This marks an important milestone for the movement. Occupy Congress reminded all of us that endemic economic corruption is made possible by the failure of our politicians. It has reminded us that our congressmen are meant to represent us, not the interests of the 1%. It has reminded us that government for the people and by the people is not an empty phrase.

It has also reminded us that you cannot put a band-aid on a flesh wound. If the 2008 election has taught us anything, it is that reshuffling those in office will not produce the fundamental changes that our society and the world so desperately need. Of course there are individual politicians that are more responsible than others for the problems we face. Sooner or later, they will be ousted from office and held accountable for their crimes. But by simply replacing them with others, we will ignore the systemic roots of corruption and allow for the same problems to arise again and again. What this country needs is not an election, but a radical reworking of our political system. In other words, a revolution. This is the call of the Occupy movement.

Before we allow our minds to jump to extremes, let us divorce the fear driven images of violence that are typically associated with the word ‘revolution’. The Arab Spring, the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the Indian independence movement and countless other examples have shown us that political revolution can be successfully non-violent. But beyond that, we must remember that the word revolution refers to something even more fundamental than political change. If we wish any revolution to be successful we must first understand how to define it.

Let’s start off our definition by examining another word that is often (and incorrectly) used interchangeably with revolution: rebellion. A rebellion is a fight against a controlling authority. This can be on a massive political scale (a popular uprising), or on an individual scale (resisting your parents or teachers). By fighting against an authority, a rebel is acknowledging that the authority has power over them, and thus validates the legitimacy of the terms defined by that power. Simply put, a rebellion recognizes and therefore actually agrees with the authority it is fighting.

Revolution on the other hand, is not primarily about fighting anything at all. The core meaning of revolution is that of massive change on a basic fundamental level. Hence we have terms like the ‘agricultural revolution’ and the ‘industrial revolution’, which mark gigantic changes in how humans utilize resources. Or the ‘scientific revolution’, which marks how discoveries change the way humans think about and participate with their environment. In the realm of politics, revolution is when a society irrevocably changes the way it thinks about and participates with it’s government.

Whereas a rebellion fights within the terms of the status quo, a revolution completely redefines it’s moment. Our own history underscores this important distinction. After several unsuccessful colonial rebellions, America’s first political revolution declared it’s independence from the British empire not only by refusing the authority of the King, but by refusing the very nature of monarchy itself. The revolutionary idea of popular government then spread back to our mother country and mainland Europe, completely changing not only our own politics but also the world’s.

The similar worldwide spread and growth of a revolutionary idea is what we are now seeing with the Occupy movement. That is why we cannot allow ourselves to be sucked into the nonsense of the upcoming presidential election. Again, the lesson of 2008 is change does not come from above. Change begins in the mind. It eventually reaches the hands, hopefully without having made too long a detour at the mouth.

Thus it is now, more than ever, important for us to be able to make this distinction between rebellion and revolution. Not just in terms of the movement at large, but in our own thinking. The desire to change ones politics almost always begins with a rebellious impulse. But we must ensure that we are committed enough to take that impulse into the realm of revolution. We must constantly examine and reexamine our thoughts and actions through this lens. What am I doing that is simply rebellious? What am I doing that is truly revolutionary?

A rebel seeks to kill the king. A revolutionary seeks to remove the monarchy. A rebel romanticizes and fetishes their actions, breaking integrity in the name of flair. A true revolutionary feels no need to decorate or announce their actions; they speak for themselves. A rebel flexes their thoughts with hate. A true revolutionary is guided by love. A rebel acts with haste. A true revolutionary has patience. A rebel prepares and hides weapons fashioned in fear. A true revolutionary’s weapons are their words. A rebel will stop fighting when conditions in their life change. A true revolutionary recognizes that life is always changing. A rebel expresses ideas and tactics encased in solid steel; unbreakable, unreasonable, and dogmatic. A true revolutionary is flexible, and can adjust their ideas without compromising their core values. A rebel goes home when they are tired. A true revolutionary stays where they are needed. A rebel talks tall. A revolutionary listens closely. A rebel makes demands. A revolutionary holds discussions. A rebel inflicts chaos. A revolutionary organizes. A rebel fights against their nation. A revolutionary fights for the world. A rebel watches cautiously from the sideline as history passes by. A true revolutionary Occupies.

Monday, December 5, 2011

PATRIOTS, ACT!

PATRIOTS, ACT!

What is a patriot? One who lives by the standards of their national values? One who believes in the integrity of their cultural identity? One who decides to participate in their society as a stand up, model citizen? What is a citizen? A resident of the state? A functioning member of the workforce? Or a signatory to the social contract which guarantees them their rights? What is a right? What is an unalienable right? Or put more insidiously, what is an alienable right? According to the U.S. Senate as of this past Thursday, the writ of Habeas Corpus.

Even though it has remained largely uncovered by mainstream media, most anyone who is connected to the internet has at least heard of ‘The National Defense Authorization Act for the Fiscal Year of 2012’, and it’s special provisions for declaring the United States’ homeland a battlefield. The enemy? Its citizens.

The act was passed on the senate floor with a startling majority of 93-7. The primary defenders of this vote bring up the reasonable argument that the document is basically a thousand page annual budget for the Defense Department, with only a few meager subsections that strip away our most fundamental freedoms. Take a look and read sections 1031 and 1032 yourself, but here’s the short version: any citizen who is associated with a terrorist organization in opposition to the United States forfeits their legal rights to a trial, and can be detained indefinitely at the discretion of a military council.

Hey! Wait a second! I’m not a terrorist, so this won’t affect me, right? Wrong. According to Section 802 of the Patriot Act, pretty much anyone who engages in active civil dissent is a domestic terrorist. That means whether you’ve attended your local Occupation or even just had a conversation in which you expressed doubt in our political leadership, you can effectively be designated a terrorist and held in a military prison. Forever.

Well, skeptics say, isn’t the wording of all this a little vague? I mean, nowhere in the NDAA act does it explicitly state that our own citizens would be targeted, rounded up and put in a series of new, American based Guantanamos. Nowhere in the original constitution does it explicitly state that blacks are slaves, or women can’t vote. That is the danger of the vagueness of language; it inevitably leads to the vagueness of thought and standards. That is why the people of this country and elsewhere have literally fought for specificity of law. The ability of a government to reflect those needs is the measure of its liberty. That is why we have a Bill of Rights, to guarantee particular freedoms against vague tyrannies. The rights to think, speak, assemble and act freely must be specific.

We must not think of these civil securities as historical aberrations. Freedom of thought and expression are not privileges; they are rights. The ideology of Democracy has developed historically on the assumption that the State exists principally as the vanguard of the rights of the citizen. This is especially true in the American context, where we see the primary national struggle as pertaining to the further inclusiveness of the definition of the citizen. Originally, this definition and the freedoms it protected were guaranteed to an elite class of white male property owners. So for hundreds of years, people have struggled to expand the club of citizenry through the means of civil disobedience and legal redress. It is only very recently in history that we have gotten to the point where we can proudly declare that one may be a citizen based on the sole criteria that one desires to be a citizen.

And in one night the passing of the NDAA act has overturned the entire democratic enterprise. After all of that struggle to expand the definition of citizen, a few paragraphs in a military budget removes the value of the title. The right to Habeas Corpus is not some peripheral privilege; it is the origin of modern democracy. It was the first legal victory of the common man (by the Common Law in 1679). Above all else, it cannot be sacrificed.

That is why we must now defend it. Having fought for the definition of citizen, we must now fight to redefine patriot. Or rather, we must reassert the true meaning of the word: one who believes strongly and acts upon the values of their nation. The realest value of our country is Democracy, and so to fight for the rights to freedom is to be the true patriot. We must all begin to understand that this act is just one move in a long line of others designed to destroy our civil liberties. We, as citizens of America have literally had war declared upon us by our own government. This is not just an abstract discussion of ideological imperative; this is a harsh reality that has been thrust upon you. Yes, you!

Your rights are at risk. Your freedoms are being threatened. Your life is in question. Your hopes, dreams and desires have been stripped of their security. Your future has been stolen because of the intolerant ignorance of those who represent you. If you want those things back, you cannot trust another leader, another occupier or journalist to do it for you. Anyone who claims the ability or authority to do so is a liar and a demagogue. Anyone who tells you that you are incapable of doing it yourself is an embittered, lost soul.

Freedom is not an attainable goal; it is a way of life! We have already seen through history that the struggle for these rights has been and always will be uphill. We are citizens, yes, but only in so far as that title grants us the rights to our truer identity: a free humanity! It is now up to you to fight for that freedom!

Yes, it is inconveniently obtrusive to our daily lives to do so. Yes, it can be scary and intimidating to speak out against the norm. Yes, it can feel soul-crushingly pointless at times to oppose the seemingly inevitable downward spiral. But those are the passing feelings which give us purpose; the doubts which keep us in check but on the march.

It is not enough to simply pay lip-service to your freedom. It is unacceptable to simply say this latest violation of our rights is unacceptable. It is time for each of us to take it upon ourselves to find our own ways to reassert our freedoms.

The first step is to undoubtedly overturn the secret provisions of the NDA act. If it manages to survive a veto and another vote, we must openly resist the act. Flood the office of your Senator with letters, emails, and telephone calls and that let them know how despicable you think the act is. If they reply with an automated message, resend your message another hundred times. Enough emails all sent at once will damage, if not at least clog their server. If you want to keep it straight, you can lift an official email from the ACLU, but those with time on their hands may find a more creative approach. Maybe mail order a couple of tombstones to your local representatives office with ‘Freedom’ as the epitaph.

Non-violent disruption on a mass level is the method we must use to make clear that we, the citizens of this country, feel this is totally unacceptable. Whatever your schedule or temperament, it’s time for you to act. If you have enough energy to spare, go join the frontline soldiers in the War on Freedom at your local Occupation. Jump into the nearest general assembly you can and let them know you’re mad as hell. Even if you don’t have the time to do so, you have a support role just as important. Spread information like wildfire and nip this act in the bud.

We all comprise the reserve force in the battle for our liberty. Do not delude yourself that this is a struggle you will be able to escape. The ideological lines are already being drawn. You don’t have to wait to ask yourself whom you side with; those in the streets or those with the seats. The time is now. Patriots, Act!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Fight Fire with Thought

Fight Fire with Thought

Just a few hours ago, under the cover of nighttime and an enforced media blackout, the NYPD followed an order from the Mayors Office to evict the Wall Street Occupiers from Liberty Plaza. The trashing of Liberty Plaza’s library of over 5,000 books has been one of the more archaically barbaric tactics employed, but by several eye witness accounts there have been many acts of physical violence inflicted upon the peaceful occupiers. Although the order was ostensibly given as a cautionary order to eliminate the ‘fire hazard’, the timing and unnecessarily brutal nature of the eviction invalidates that possibility. The much more likely conclusion is that Bloomberg’s nerves finally got to him and he brought down the hammer.

The political pressures the protests have caused for those in charge of the city (and more broadly, the nation) seem to have provoked a momentary lapse in their reasoning. For those in charge must realize by now that the empirical record does not support a strategy of force against a peaceful movement, particularly this movement. When the authorities invested their aggression a few weeks ago at Oakland to stop a thousand, they got themselves a 100 times return and a General Strike. OWS itself first caught the attention of the mainstream media with the infamously despised pepper-spraying incident. If this more recent raid has accomplished anything, we can expect that tomorrow morning thousands more will pour into downtown, and even more will march in solidarity this coming Thursday.

Thus, we can safely assume that the immediate goal of the Mayor’s office was already lost in it’s inception-you cannot break a peaceful movement with force. However, if the police activity in New York (as well as elsewhere) continues to become of a more openly hostile nature, the Occupy movement will be in serious danger of retaliating and disintegrating. Already, some of the Occupiers who represent more extreme political philosophies have taken to reacting to the police raid by provoking them further. As I am watching this foolishness unfold over live stream, I must take this moment to iterate that any form of reactionary violence will kill the movement. This is not simply a moral concern, although many do feel that aspect of it (i.e. violence is inherently bad, therefore we should not engage with it). Beyond that, there are two very critical tactical reasons behind preserving non-violence.

The first is that just as the more reasonably intelligent decision makers in the Mayor’s Office must come to understand that they cannot use force to evict thought, the moderate forces of the Occupy movement must acknowledge that it is impossible to defeat a riot tank by popping it’s tires. The strategic value of the movement lies not in any forceful capability, but in it’s ability to manipulate memetic trends. Quite literally, it’s strongest weapons are it’s ideas. Therefore, it will continue to be successful and victorious against reactionary forces so long as it engages in this realm. The minute the occupiers give in to anger, they will play into the hands of those who advocate and therefore are superior at fighting with force. If you fight back with violence, you are accepting their faulted premise that violence will solve this issue.

The second is that those inflicting violence upon the occupiers are eventually going to need to throw their support behind them. The police are just as much pawns in this political drama as the rest of us. Save for a few genuine sadists (which reflects the same percentage as in the general population), police officers are hard working, blue collar men and women who generally are trying to do the right thing. They are nominally the vanguard of the people’s rights to freedom of assembly and speech. If they have been turned against those principles, it is not due to any sort of inherent ‘police’ character, it is because the system has failed them as well as us. It must be a crucial principle of our movement to not allow the 99% to be broken up by the meanderings of identity politics, particularly one that is occupational.

Therefore, although it is emotionally comforting, it is intellectually reductive to view the police as ‘other’. We must only engage with the police so far in we open up the dialogues that will lead to our unity. This must be our goal in the coming days, as we can expect the failed aggression of this morning to get worse in anticipation for Thursday. When that day comes, the only way we will be able to make a real stand at the stock exchange is if the officers who have sworn to protect us do so.

As I write this, I hear the echoing chants of the dispersed masses on Broadway and Pine, who when confronted with another wave of riot police, chant ‘Let us through. Drop your weapons. Join us, join us.’ This must be the one and only message we send out to the police, and all other facets of the corrupt edifice we seek to chip away at. We will not fight you. We will not have to. Join us.

Friday, October 7, 2011

This is What Democracy Looks Like

This is What Democracy Looks Like

I don’t know what is more amazing; the rapid speed in which Occupy Wall Street has captured the imagination of people across the world, or the need for some to immediately marginalize and condemn it. The big question that keeps circling around is ‘What is it trying to accomplish?’

If you are talking about Occupy Wall Street, then it has already succeeded. The movement serves to initiate questions, not provide answers. It is an expression of collected frustration at the failures and corruption of the political and financial systems. It is a grassroots, non-hierarchal movement that asserts that the current political dialogue (or lack thereof) does not address the real problems of the people. The only ‘objective’ of the movement is to create a new political discourse that reflects the people it represents. It is not just so much anti-capitalist as it is pro-democracy.

The mainstream media and the reactionary politicians they give voice to have continuously marginalized the movement as lazy hippies, godless anarchists, and in one particularly laughable case, the work of foreign saboteurs. While there are representatives of various political extremes, this in no way reflects the intentions or even the majority of the people involved. Labeling the movement as homogenously socialist or anarchistic is just a divisive tactic used to create irrelevant debates about the purpose or character of what is essentially Democracy in action.

If you are on the fence, feel skeptical, or even disillusioned, go down to the aptly renamed Liberty Plaza and participate in the New York General Assembly. You will find a much more open climate and wide array of perspectives than the mainstream media would have you believe.

I was there on Day One. I listened to a number of the assemblies, and quite honestly, walked away out of the same disillusionment many people still feel. It seemed too disorganized to accomplish anything concrete, and too riddled with extremists to last very long. But as the days went by and the movement slowly grew, I noticed that the extreme voices were eventually hushed in favor of reasonableness, and that the movement wasn’t disorganized, it was simply decentralized. By the definition and structure of the assemblies, no one group or viewpoint could possibly hijack the others. It was then I realized that the occupation is not about definitive decisions, but critical discussion.

Thus, we must evaluate the ‘success’ of Occupy Wall Street in terms of the discussion it generates. Not just in the mainstream media and political sphere, but in our homes, our jobs, our schools, our families and friends. For democracy to function, Politics can no longer be marginalized or seen in strictly abstract, validated forms. Politics are not a hobby, an adolescent phase, or a profession best left to the trained and trusted. Politics are a question of survival, and in order for us to survive, we must discuss them. Occupy Wall Street is a forum for this discussion.

That is why no matter your political affiliation, moral inclination, or cultural perspective, you should support Occupy Wall Street. If you are concerned with the state of the world, Occupy Wall Street. If you have lost your job, house, or hope due to the financial crisis, Occupy Wall Street. If you are old and have been robbed of your senior benefits, or young and have been saddled with unpayable debt, Occupy Wall Street. If you feel crushed and abandoned by a culture of excess, Occupy Wall Street. If you fear for the future of your children and grandchildren, Occupy Wall Street. If you believe that Liberty, Equality, and Justice are more than just words, Occupy Wall Street.

What started in New York and is fast spreading around the country is a suggestion that perhaps people can come together and change the world outside the framework of a corrupt established order. The criticism then leveled is that there is no alternative, or that the alternative is too anarchic or chaotic to imagine. Conceiving another world is difficult, and in some ways, impossible to predict. After an era of secure comfort, even with something that is wrong, it is downright frightening to imagine losing it. But the course of change throughout History is inevitable, for better and for worse. No economic, political, or social system lasts forever. Eventually, something else will take its place. The world is changing, and our leaders know this. Half hearted attempts at reform and reactionary backlash are both expressions of the old order dealing with the new. Occupy Wall Street seeks to have that dialogue in the public sphere, not behind closed doors. If you believe in Democracy, Occupy Wall Street.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

SHOCK AND AWE

Shock and Awe

A Reflection on America’s inability to cope with 9/11

The 10th anniversary of 9/11 is fast approaching, and all everyone around me keeps talking about is how excited they are. “It’s amazing, isn’t it,” someone says to me with a nostalgic smile, “that it’s been a whole decade.” And as they tally off the memories and memes of yesteryear, my throat plummets into my stomach as I realize capitalist values truly have finally conquered Terrorism. They have turned it into a commodity. In the process, all semblance of critical analysis or healing have been sidelined. On September 11th, 2011, there will be parades, speeches, television specials, souvenirs, memoir sharing, and other melancholy whims dictating this tragedy as some sort of cultural yardstick. But most truly and most frighteningly, there will undoubtedly be a national minute of silence. This silence will be louder than the explosive force of the planes slamming into the towers. This silence will be louder than the cries of onlookers as civilians hurled themselves from flaming wreckage. This silence will be heard around the world. Because this moment of silence reflects the decade of silence that has followed the World Trade Center attacks.

Much has been said about 9/11, and god knows how much has been done in it’s name. There have been countless books, films, songs, and shows all about how it happened, why it happened, and who was really responsible. The new trend, cued and scheduled in league with the upcoming anniversary is that of ‘closure’. Media is now obsessed with trying to wrap up the 9/11 saga, to find the perfect end for the made-for-TV movie. The recent assassination of Osama bin Laden has been immensely helpful towards this effort. The daring raid on the Pakistani compound was the third act climax in the media driven drama surrounding 9/11. Now all they need is the denouement, the soft landing where we can all sit around and reflect on ‘how far we’ve come’.

However, in the midst of this supposed reflection, mainstream culture and political discourse has failed to mention the true lasting legacy of the attack; that 9/11 has passed into the realm of mythos. Aided by the infinitely reproduced images of the attacks that Tuesday morning, political culture has determined that our response to 9/11 will always be emotional, not logical. As Americans, we can think of the attacks only in terms of the immense sense of pain, loss, and violation.

Why is this a problem? Is this not the fate of most of history’s turning points? Is it not altogether natural and expected for such a sensational dramatic event to be sensationalized and dramatized?

No. It simply seems natural because it fits with our narrative model of history. We tend to simplify events into one to one relationships to make them easier to understand. A happened, which caused B to happen, and therefore resulted in C. This mode of thought is so ingrained in us that we use it to categorize everything from major historical developments to the mundane tasks of yesterday morning. In all fairness, it is often a quick, useful model to describe basic occurrences.

But this model is highly flawed, and the way 9/11 is treated and discussed is a testament to these flaws. It is no coincidence that this attack occurred simultaneously at the burgeoning age of new progressive models of information distribution, and the re-legitimization of reactionary politics in the West.

Think about the very nature of how 9/11 was reported as it was happening. Every one of the major 24-hour news networks was tapped into a live feed depicting the smoldering fires billowing from the World Trade Center. The attacks on the Towers and the Pentagon were the most photographed and recorded moments in all of American history, perhaps even the world. Those images, along with the countless others of the towers collapsing and the first responders emerging from the ruins covered in dust, were then repeated and reused endlessly for all sorts of television programming. They were also immediately reproduced and distributed all across the internet, and still retain a wild popularity on sites like YouTube.

Because of the obsessive repetition of these images, they have been now been permanently burned into our cultural psyche. It is a case of collective Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, with a social symptom of forcing ourselves to constantly relive the horrible experiences of that day. And much like many victims of abuse, we relive the experience not to grow beyond it, but to punish ourselves.

At first glance, it seems quite paradoxical that the amount of media that has been generated in the name of reflecting upon 9/11 has instead produced a masochistic fixation. But the format and content of these reflections have tragically lacked any sort of insight. The majority of these pieces have deliberately played into the worst sort of base emotions, sensationalizing the attack. Particularly in the first few years after, the media became highly politicized and deliberately used the memory of that day to play upon people’s fears. It simply was not in the interest of either the information networks or the current political climate to genuinely attempt to relieve the trauma of post 9/11 America. By manipulating the emotions we as a nation felt on that day, the powers that be were able to mobilize support for a slew of archaic, reactionary policies. Some of these, such as our failed forays in foreign affairs, gained much attention in political discourse as they were painted as directly relevant to the attacks. Others, such as the further dismantling of the great Compromises of Capitalism and the privatization of social guarantees, were quietly swept under the rug.

All of this was legitimized by the harsh memory of 9/11, under the Orwellian blanket term ‘War on Terror’. Even to this day, this ‘War on Terror’ is politically and socially untouchable. The question is always one of how it should be conducted, never whether or not it should be at all. But why is it that our democracy does not rigorously discuss these refutations of democratic ideals? Why does a society supposedly based on plurality refuse to debate the institutionalization of jingoism? If the ‘War on Terror’ nominally exists to protect such rights as freedom of thought, why does no one feel free to think otherwise?

Herein lies the true legacy of 9/11. By becoming the most powerful symbol and myth of our time, the emotional response to the attacks of September 11th, 2001 were manipulated into becoming synonymous with the political climate of the ‘War on Terror’. The culturally enforced inability to rationally reflect on that nerve shattering moment produced in us all a quiet acceptance of the status quo. And as much as most of us would like to think those early days of vengeful reaction are behind us, we have to come to terms and acknowledge that they have been permanently embedded in our politics and our culture, and therefore our minds.

Of course, there have been dissenting voices over the past decade. But unfortunately, the highly publicized crypto-scientific babble of a few conspiracy theorists ensured that any critique of the official response to 9/11 would be marginalized. Thus, to even begin to ponder the more involved causes of the attacks put you in the whacko ‘9/11 truthers’ camp. This unfortunate grouping has made it nearly impossible to both be patriotic and also question the motives and intentions of your government. It also undermines and completely ignores one of the greatest tragic ironies of 9/11.

It is simply a historical fact that the attacks on the World Trade Center were an extreme reaction to foreign policy failures of the United States in the second half of the 20th century. It is obviously not the only reason, and perhaps not even the most predominant reason. But to ignore the fact that our morally questionable military excursions will eventually have consequences is not just stupid; it is irresponsible. And yet to even suggest that the United State’s actions abroad in some way contributed to 9/11 is political heresy. By refusing to accept this reality, we embarked on new imperial adventures. These indisputably stirred up more anti-American sentiment across the world, ironically increasing the chance for another 9/11 to occur.

Thus, the problem of 9/11 becoming a myth is not just a cultural abstract one, but in fact is very rooted in our own continuation of the cycle of violence. Because of our emotional reaction to 9/11, more people have suffered and died, and more will undoubtedly continue to do so. It is not only within our power to stop this, it is our responsibility.

Furthermore, this perspective is not mutually exclusive with one of national grief. I myself was born and raised in lower Manhattan. I went to elementary school a few blocks away from the World Trade Center. Most of my friends lived in Tribeca. I often frequented the observation deck in the south tower. I lived, played, and grew up in and around the Twin Towers.

Ten years ago, I watched my childhood innocence crumble before me a mile away. All sense of security and hope flushed out of me that day. It was immediately replaced by a burning sadness, which then quickly turned to hatred and a lust for vengeance. I wanted nothing but that feeling of violation to be compensated for. Like most of my family and friends, I heartily supported the invasion of Afghanistan and the hunt for Al-Qaeda. In retrospect, I do not regret that I felt this way. I do regret that those in charge of the dominant world power had the same reaction as an emotionally disturbed 11 year old. It is one thing to feel anger, another to act upon it, but completely inexcusable to manipulate it.

It is also inexcusable to stand by and let a new wave of atrocities be committed in our name. It is inexcusable to allow our culture to consume itself with constant fear mongering. It is inexcusable to maintain our silence simply because the memories are too painful.

The memory of that day has been stolen from us, contorted into the myth it is today so that those with power may more easily lie to us. They have taken our righteous anger and deflected it onto existential enemies that do not exist. They have robbed us of our right to the memory of 9/11, and by doing so committed a grave insult to the victims of that day.

If those in power use such symbols against us, then we must take tomorrow as an opportunity to create a symbol of our own. We cannot allow them to use the 10th anniversary of 9/11 to complete their narrative, close that chapter, and forgo our wounds. It is time to end the tyranny of thought that has plagued the last decade. Our politics must preach critical questions, not absolute answers. Reclaim your memories from those who seek to control you, and rewrite your history as you see fit! Do not let them make the lasting legacy of September 11th a sentimental and sensational bit of theater. Instead, let us ensure that day is forever one of dialectic discussions on the long-term preservation of democratic process and liberty of thought.

By the promise to protect these ideals, those in power have usurped our rights and stripped us of dignity. Freedom has become self-interest, Patriotism has morphed into militarism, and Democracy has been condensed into conformity. Words unheard of before 2001 now strike ultimate fear into both our ‘enemies’ and us alike. The term 9/11 itself no longer directly refers to the September 11th attacks, but now connotes a general foreboding fear. They have taken language away from us, reshaping our most fundamental principals into deliberate abstraction. By not clearly defining the specific objectives or timeframe of the ‘War on Terror’, they have sought to use it as a permanent political tool of oppression and imperialism. But no tyranny, be it of law, thought or material, lasts forever. Their very fear of language proves that. For it is not with guns, bombs, cameras and interrogations that Freedom will prevail, but with words.

That is why tomorrow, when we are asked for that moment of silence, we must speak up as loud as we can. We must smash the shackles of social dogma, and fire our words against that with which we disagree, regardless if it is considered unpopular or taboo. Do not let the memory of this attack slip into history as the moment that the world became the worst version of itself. Instead, let this be remembered as the moment that we proved liberty is not just an ideal.

I do not expect nor ask others to agree with my assessments or opinions. But, I beg of you all, please use September 11th 2011 to develop your own. Discuss this event with all who are willing, and speculate on how we may ensure it never happens again.