Sunday, January 1, 2012

Spreading the Flames of Social Discontent

Two thousand eleven was a year of worldwide social unrest and, perhaps also, a signal of hope for democracy and freedom. From Tunisia, Egypt and Syria, to Wisconsin, Zuccotti Park, and Oakland, California, to Libya and Moscow, the world has been on fire with the yearnings of citizens struggling for freedom. Case in point, Time magazine designated its annual “Person of the Year” distinction to “The Protester.”

While it is perhaps premature to compare the ongoing Occupy Wall Street movement with the anti-war/counterculture demonstrations of the 1960s and ‘70s, there are certainly similarities. Both symbolized the political awakening of a generation of young Americans, who were convinced their elders had mortgaged their futures to imperial war and economic hardship. Though the future of the Occupy movement remains uncertain going into 2012, it does appear protesters have lit a spark that refuses to be blown out. In the words of Bob Dylan, “Something is happening here, and you don’t know what it is/Do you, Mr. Jones?”

The youth involvement is, in my mind, the greatest aspect of Occupy Wall Street. I cannot convey how discouraged I had become of routinely being the youngest person at anti-war rallies in Monument Square. Let us hope the youth participation was not merely some short-lived trend, but the beginning of a new generational uprising.

And to Occupy’s progressive critics (of which there are, unfortunately, quite a few) let me be clear: I am fully aware the movement is far from perfect. I am hard pressed to identify a progressive movement throughout history—be it the struggle for women’s rights, the civil rights movement, or the Vietnam anti-war efforts --that was ideal upon its initial inception. And I concede the encampment aspect of Occupy has run its course—particularly here in Portland’s Lincoln Park. It is time to move on to the next stage, whatever that may be.

But I, for one, would prefer to embrace and work with an admittedly imperfect movement, rather than stand aside and criticize its shortcomings. Occupy does not benefit from cynical, nitpicky criticism. At the end of the day, I agree with Chris Hedges’ assessment of Occupy Wall Street: “Either you join the revolt taking place on Wall Street and in the financial districts of other cities across the country or you stand on the wrong side of history” (“The Best Among Us,” 9/29/2011). In other words, if you are not going to help, get the hell out of our way.

Hedges goes on, in the same article, to claim nonviolent civil disobedience is the “only form left to us” to halt the ongoing “plundering of the criminal class on Wall Street and the accelerated destruction of the ecosystem that sustains the human species…” He is right. And, in all of human history, the stakes have likely never been higher.

The United States has effectively undergone what some have called a “coup d’├ętat in slow motion.” Global corporations currently wield far more power than they were ever intended to possess and, as a result, have hijacked our democracy. Corporations produce the clothes we wear, the food we purchase, the media (including the news) we consume, and the candidates we elect. (Even Blogger, which hosts this blog, is owned by Internet goliath Google.)

Indeed, Occupy Wall Street and its various local off-shoots may well represent our last, best chance to regain citizen-oriented democracy. For those who have so far been sitting on the sidelines offering “spiritual” support to the movement, it is not too late to become physically (as well as spiritually) involved. But time is of the essence.

Such a mass popular uprising aimed at promoting social  and economic equality—the very kind Occupy Wall Street encourages—will only come about when the so-called “guards of the system” finally and thoroughly awaken to all citizens’ common mutual humanity. As the late historian Howard Zinn writes in his now famous, A People’s History of the United States:

“In a highly developed society, the Establishment cannot survive without the obedience and loyalty of millions of people who are given small rewards to keep the system going: the soldiers and police, the teachers and ministers, administrators and social workers, technicians and production workers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, transport and communications workers, garbagemen and firemen. These people—the employed, the somewhat privileged—are drawn into alliance with the elite. They become the guards of the system, buffers between the upper and lower classes. If they stop obeying, the system falls.”

We saw a little of this phenomenon played out when the police joined protesters in Egypt this spring, or when some of the law enforcement authorities at the Madison Capitol building abandoned their posts and locked arms with the public workers. As Zinn writes:

“…[T]he more of the 99 percent that begin to see themselves as sharing needs, the more the guards and the prisoners see their common interest, the more the Establishment becomes isolated, ineffectual. The elite’s weapons, money, control of information would be useless in the face of a determined population.”

Here’s to a happy and prosperous new year. Let us continue to spread the flames of social discontent throughout 2012.


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