There are a hundred responses to the strange harumph-harumphing coming from otherwise progressive thinkers on #OWS, but I like, for convenience, Brendan Kiley’s defense here and Glenn Greenwald’s defense here (this one from a while back). Some progressives, like Grist‘s David Roberts, began critically and changed their minds. This is compelling, even if it might come with caveats.
Indeed, there’s a weird rugged individualist streak that’s seeped into the commentary—commentary born of acute minds. This attitude of “tell me what I’m protesting for and I’ll join” or “I’ll just keep doing my own thing, relying on my own, particular interactions with others to inspire change until I see a strategic policy plan” seems pretty self-serving. Maybe it’s easier to continue what one’s doing because it feels immediate, easier to measure. For my part, I’ve been a teacher for more than 600 state-college students over the last six years (and these students adamantly do NOT live in a “fake”, ivory-towered world; they lead real lives, and many have exceedingly real troubles), and I’ve made the argument that my teaching is my form of activism, my contribution to the cultivation of critical and careful thinkers to do work in a corrosive and beautiful world. So it’s not necessarily the attitude that frustrates me, but rather the urge to express it and pretend it’s just to say “You go! But I won’t.” This is not a pretentious position to hold, but I do think it’s a pretentious position to broadcast. If you don’t dig it, don’t do it. No need to say so and hold (whether you mean to or not) the holier perch. For another thing, it’s not “you’re with us or against us”—one scarecrow I’ve seen: I haven’t spoken to anybody who’s said that; on the contrary: the prevailing message I hear is support it if it resonates with your ethic or experience or expectations, don’t if it doesn’t; or, if it doesn’t, do some more research, look to this problem, look to this possible solution. Look around you! Look at the experience of this person, this group of people, talk to more people involved or at risk. If you still don’t wanna throw the weight of your voice behind it, no problem. But I wish we wouldn’t shoot others’ feet because we don’t wanna engage in exactly what we’re waiting for: helping grow and mature the movement precisely by working together to create specific objectives to follow on the heels of outrage. And my god, please don’t rely on media reports to glean the OWS message. If it looks like merely another herd mentality to you, I have to believe you’ve not spoken to nearly enough people involved.
In a lot of what I’ve read, solidarity as a justified end is written off (usually wholly unmentioned) as less important than some hand-in-glove policy agenda. This strikes me as intellectually lazy. This is a SOCIAL, not an individual movement. OWS is a long overdue expression of specific collective outrage, especially after the 30-year exhaustion of the usual routes to large-scale political change—a rough beast of a camel whose back was finally broken by these iron straws: Barack Obama’s ultimate complicity in a shattered, plutocratic system, which itself heralded the deeper and deeper breakdown of the congressional process in Washington, sabotaged as it is by corporate influence (cemented by the “Citizens United” ruling), the “Old Boys’/Yacht Club” mentality, and a legislature that will never legislate more regulation of its friends in “industry” for the sake of health or environment.
I haven’t been deeply involved in OWS or Occupy Seattle. I’ve only once brought my body to the movement. I saw some amazing things, some people who’ve been destroyed by the political conditions of the twentieth century given a platform that has been systematically denied them. I saw “normal” people among the usual anarchists, and socialists among tea-partiers (not many of the latter, to be sure), all sharing a care for the suffering our political system causes. And I saw some annoying things. I don’t love chanting slogans (or at least the same ol’ ones all the time, over and over). The “People’s Mic” is vulnerable to the thoughtless, the self-interested, the whiny, the foolish, the unsure, the person-who-thinks-(wrongly)-they-can-rouse-the-rabble, the dedicated Ron Paul supporter, the LaRoucher. Some of these can sap the spirit of the movement, can diffuse the clarity of purpose. And I cannot support calls for violence, or provocation of police force. These things happen. They are risks. But I will not sit back and help snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by offering my scrawny beeves from the pulpit in my armchair. This IS poetry: this is poetry of the body. Not (only) the kind that might happen in the yoga studio, or on the dance floor, or on the stage, or on the page, or in the lovers’ bed. This is poetry of the body politic. Poetry of the bodies.
It might not work. Seldom has poetry “worked” in this way. It, after all, has been said to “make nothing happen.” I love that positive nothing. But while I’ve got mine (for now), solidarity is enough for a start. It is a poetics. Solidarity for the people and values suffering from the fundamental, global injustice of our political and economic system, and solidarity for the people working on this all over the world under conditions that a functioning intellect should quickly recognize as devastatingly close to hopeless. I will support them, even if part of that support means waiting in humility, enduring ambiguity, absorbing the uglier parts of the public, the dredges of the dialogue. “If anything of moment results,” wrote William Carlos Williams to open Spring and All, “so much the better.” It’s a risk. Let’s take it.
(And sorry for all the adjectives and adverbs in here.)