by John Duffy
“But what do you want?” a political cartoon jokes, of the Occupy Wall Street protesters, who hold so many signs with clear demands. I myself hear this question posed as criticism daily, almost as much as I hear “Get a job,” yelled from a speeding car. Of course, all it would take for people to figure out what we (or at least I) want, would be to come, sit down, and speak with us. Not for five minutes, four of which are spent telling us what we are doing wrong or why our movement is doomed to fail. Come sit, and have a serious discussion with even-tempered young people, and then come and have another. And another. You’ll find that yes, most of us do have jobs (though we likely hate them) and you’ll find that the core of our grievances is not just wealth disparity, not just rampant political corruption, not just the abject theft of trillions of dollars from the national treasury by financial institutions, but that the world built by our fathers, and their fathers, and their fathers is one we are not desirous to inherit, much less propagate.
The first protest in this movement started in New York, with the intention of physically occupying space on and around Wall Street with the hopes of packing in enough bodies to disrupt the business there. Support protests sprang up globally, so it is reasonable for most people to assume that the movement is focused on corporate excess, greed, and the unchecked crimes perpetrated by white collar criminals who graft with impunity. Yes, I have a problem with that. But it is not my only problem with our society, and many of us in the Occupy protest movement feel that it would be disingenuous to not point out that the crimes of the financial world do not exist in a vacuum. They are symptoms of a greater disease.
If a person contracts a virus, they may vomit, have a fever, feel body aches, and get diarrhea. If this person only attempts to treat the vomiting, the virus will persist, still damaging them in other ways. The economic collapse of 2008 was very visible to everyone, and thus the derivatives, Mortgage Backed Securities, robo-signing, bond rating fraud, illegal foreclosures, and all of the other malfeasance attached to the collapse of the housing bubble are like the vomit induced by an intestinal virus. Society sees it, they smell it, and they want it cleaned up. However, this fiduciary puke pile is not unrelated to the acidification of the oceans. It is also not unrelated to the glyphosate in our drinking water or the dioxins in the breast milk of every mammal on the planet. It is not unrelated to the children working in sweatshops to make sneakers, the labor leaders assassinated in central America, the ongoing clusterfuck in Afghanistan, or the collapse of honeybee colonies worldwide.
So what is the disease? Consumerism? Capitalism? Civilization? How many layers must we peel back to find the pulsating root of our collective nightmare?
My first night at Occupy Austin, I spoke with a young man about values. What does our culture value? From my limited perspective, I can say that the only truly valued things are money and power, which themselves can easily transpose. There is no value for life in our culture (despite the stumping of republican politicians). Truly, how can our culture claim to value life over money when it is so readily willing to destroy an ancient forest for the private profit of a handful of people? How can we keep a straight face claiming in one moment that our culture values life, when we spend the following moment showing off a smart phone that required the exploitation of people and land bases through every phase of its production, and that will continue to do so with its use and when it’s finally disposed of? How do we not plainly see the absurdity of a culture claiming to value life, when the culture has come to perpetuate itself and its expansion on the burning of petroleum — the extraction of which not only requires the militarization of the globe but which also destroys vital ecosystems, and the usage of which disrupts the atmosphere and threatens to alter the climate patterns of the planet?
It’s enough to make you want to smash your head in a car door until it either pops like an overripe cantaloupe, or until you’ve done enough frontal lobe damage to yourself that television shows become watchable, and you can slip into a slow coma on your couch like the majority of Americans.
That, or it makes you want to take to the streets, where you can throw the flesh of your body against the gears of the machine like so many salmon swimming headlong at a concrete dam, hoping that maybe, just maybe, you can inflict some critical wound in that which robs you of your birthright.
After talking about this only a week ago with a young woman who currently studies at the University of Texas, she asked me “How are we supposed to fix problems like these?” I was as honest as I could be. I said I didn’t know. I said I had some ideas, but that we would never solve any of these problems if we don’t first acknowledge them. If we don’t sit down like rational beings and honestly account and confront the multiple calamities that are barreling down on us, we will never solve them. We will merely do our best to survive them. The media and its many critics of the Occupy Wall Street movement push a toxic meme on the population which is best summed up as “the cult of the solution.” Basically, anyone who popularizes a social problem will be lambasted if they do not bring with them a prepared and seemingly workable solution. Further, this solution must fall within the parameters of the current political and economic paradigm. The mainstream punditry will not, upon hearing of the toxicity of pesticides for instance, allow a solution that demands corporations, “Stop making and using pesticides.” Our culture values money and power over life. To stop making and using pesticides would cost various corporations and thus a handful of wealthy and well-connected individuals their money and power. Sure, it would extend lives. Sure, it would preserve the health of the land for future generations of humans and non-humans. But life is low on this culture’s list of priorities.
I told the young woman from UT that the spaces being created by the Occupy protests are venues to discuss our values, to discuss how we will go about solving problems, and most importantly, to educate each other on the interconnected nature of our systemic disease. I asked her to please come back. And then to come back again. To bring other students, because it’s their time to answer the call to put something on the line for others, to sacrifice personal time and comfort to work so that other people may live in a more just world. Most importantly, it’s their time to rebuke the cultural, economic, and political paradigms being handed to them by their parents, who either willfully or not, perpetuated systems of human organization which stand on a foundation of widespread exploitation, slavery, violence, and death. The systems in place which comprise the viral malady from which we all suffer are not set in stone. They were not handed down to us at Sinai from God. They are the creations of shortsighted and sociopathic men. There is no command we must obey that says we must employ these systems ourselves. The world we build can be one of our choosing, where the value of a thing is found in its interplay with the world around it. The world we build can be one in which our decision making efforts set their focus generations into the future. The world we build can be one that doesn’t begin from the egocentric view that human race and the desires and comforts of its individual members trump the very real needs of the ecological systems which give our species the necessities of life in the first place.
The world we build will not be perfect, but it can be better, and it all starts with a coming together of minds and hearts that start from a common realization: “That which was built before we came does not satisfy us, and we are not going to allow it to continue any longer.”
John Duffy is an artist and an activist currently residing in Austin, Texas. Having disavowed the culture, he has given up on his previous career choice as a filmmaker in favor of growing food and raising hell. His previous essay in this space appeared in April 2011.
On a closely related topic, please join me in supporting the production and distribution of a series of short films on the Occupy movement.
Finally, my monthly essay for Transition Voice is here, lightly edited from an essay in this space.