Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Pre-Occupied


I've been pre-occupied. Just now I went searching for a piece of personal memorabilia that pops into my head whenever I think about Occupy Wall Street or hear Elizabeth Warren’s talk about companies growing rich partly thanks to common roads and publicly-funded law enforcement.




Among the notebooks and papers I have falling out of every drawer in no order whatsoever, I was somehow able to locate a letter I sent the Boston Globe in 1999. I wrote it on the commuter train back from my internship at Senator Kerry's. I was in that idealist post-graduation phase then, living with my parents and trading days between Kerry's downtown office and the early shift at Starbucks in the neighboring town of Concord. Easy to be idealistic when you have nothing to worry about, right? I wanted to work on environmental issues and I wanted to write. In college I'd learned about climate change, deforestation, and ozone depletion. As an intern in the Massachusetts Senators office, environmental issues were local and personal. A fisherman out of work because of new fishing regulations, a lifelong resident of Cape Cod trying to hold onto her family’s house now on public land in a national park. The issues were muddy. It was hard to be righteous. Environmental protection sometimes came at high personal cost. But, balanced against individual happiness, the common good was the prevailing theme. 

Driving to Starbucks on my off days in the barren pre-dawn winter streets of Concord, I thought only rarely of the revolution that had taken place steps away from where I handed out Maple Oat Nut scones to wealthy locals willing to pay as much for a cup of coffee as the current hourly minimum wage (then, $5.25 in Mass, now $8). No matter how many of my friends heard the call for social, environmental, or economic justice in those years, it never sounded grand or sweeping and I don't know why. Were we too comfortable? Did we have too many things on our To-Do lists? Were we just too focused on our own creative visions? (Paint supplies and guitars amps--artsy and edgy but not environmentally friendly.) Radical unrest and collective social change, that kind of thing belonged to the 60s, our parents' generation. MLK, JFK, those leaders were long gone. Corporate America and the writers at Rolling Stone got along. The Republicans were wrong --obsessed with a frivolous impeachment -- but seemed fairly harmless. The Nation was right but whiny and hopeless. The cold war was over. Even if there weren’t many, women could be CEOs, minorities from impoverished neighborhoods could go to great schools. The hole in the ozone hadn't seemed to spell ecological disaster after all. It was there (we created it), but off vaguely over Greenland somewhere. Like most troubling things, it was someone else’s problem. Dylan played in the background, but we had indie rock to give us our own slightly dissenting (if fuzzy and indistinguishable) voice, and that’s all we seemed to need. Did we get lost in there somewhere, riding high on the technology bubble after college that burst and scattered most of us in still pretty okay places? Landing somewhere in the realm of--I know I should care more, but I don't--let's go to happy hour. We were after the Me-generation, at the cusp of the igeneration but not raised in it. We'd known a time when people talked at dinner, wrote letters [I have many -- overflowing those drawers again, up through 1999!!], used in-between moments to think or pause or reflect rather than pretend to connect. Through most of high school we still handed in final papers written by hand. 

In my house we had a computer very early on (1983), which didn't quite jive with the neighborhood we lived in. (I have to admit I always enjoyed the first 30 seconds when a new friend came over and thought we lived in a mansion until the sprawling houses came into view as something the friend had maybe never seen: condominiums.) For me the best thing about the computer was a game called King's Dominion. It was one of the first with a graphic interface. You had to get past moats and dragons and poison to get the sword or whatever it was on the throne in the castle. When you got to the edge of each screen you pressed an arrow button for the next screen and then literally waited, just waited, like 3 full minutes at least for the next page to load. 

Back then, waiting was still okay. It wasn't something you hated. It wasn't something you had to run screaming from, in fact you often did it happily. Waiting out in the driveway for a friend to arrive. Waiting to get home to see if someone called you back. Waiting for your birthday--because maybe you'd get that remote control car or cabbage patch doll you wanted so badly. You didn't already have it, and you didn't know for sure if you'd get it or not. It was a possibility, which is the greatest thing in the world. I got a pogo ball one year for my birthday. My best friend Heather got one too and for weeks and weeks at recess as soon as the bell rang all the kids in the class ran outside formed two lines to get a turn to jump. It amazes me still to think about it. First, the civility of the turn-taking was so classic McCarthy-Towne, our progressive (public—thank you, taxpayers without kids who still felt it a worthwhile endeavor to educate local schoolchildren) elementary school, and second, that with all these loaded families, no one else's parents bought their kid a pogo ball. You didn't get everything you wanted. Two pogo balls was surely enough for 26 kids to share. Besides lining up giggling with anticipation was way better than a yard full of 6th graders all bouncing alone.

You waited a lot then. Waited to see if your friend would write you back from summer camp. Waited for the results of a backyard experiment. Waited for the nightly news to see what happened that day. (Speaking of, can you believe this quote is from 1854, Thoreau in Walden: “Hardly a man takes a half-hour's nap after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, ‘What's the news?’ as if the rest of mankind had stood his sentinels ... Pray tell me anything new that has happened to a man anywhere on this globe". Doesn’t this sound just like us now?) You waited for your mom or dad to get home to find out how their day was. What do you ask people when they walk in the door home from work now? You already know what kind of apple they ate on their walk home and which trash can they hurled the core into. I remember--even in 1994--sending away for Weezer lyrics by mail and checking the mailbox each day to see if they had arrived yet (Say in ain't so).

Now the background noise of dissent is gaining momentum, and, with Occupy Wall Street, it feels like something we didn’t know we were waiting for all this time finally happened. And the chant seems to align itself with the sentiment from this 12-year-old letter. (The two follow-ups The Globe published can be seen in the previous post.) I hope it’s not in bad taste to put this out again given that the initial target is now dead. (Keep in mind this doesn't even refer to the insider trading, housing bubble, mortgage crises, relaxed regulations, insane corporate greed, privatized gains, etc. that finally led to a collapse of the system in 2008.)

The rich owe society for the benefits they receive
What William F. Buckley Jr. overlooks in his plea on behalf of the wealthy (“Is capitalism petering out?” Commentary, March 1) is that they became wealthy at the expense of those who did not – the working poor who provided cheap labor and a mass market for their products.
         Citing what he considers basic tenets of the Constitution and a “metaphysical regard for property,” Buckley argues that the wealthy should be allowed to keep more of the money they earn. Perhaps he would be right if they earned that money only as a result of some combination of hard work, talent, good luck and good timing.
         But the truth is that they are part of a system that functions by keeping 36.5 million people below the poverty line, 12 million workers earning minimum wage, and an immeasurable number of Americans paying the real cost of big business and big industry - - air pollution, water contamination, depleted resources, loss of wildlife, loss of open space, and the widespread and often life-threatening health problems associated with environmental degradation.
         The conclusion is simple and yet lost on Buckley—those who benefit more from the imbalance of a capitalistic society should be required to give more back.




**


During the past decade, even as extreme weather became perversely more extreme, and the rich richer and the middle class nearly extinct, for a long time the call for change still never sounded all that compelling. Often I found myself writing short stories instead of letters to Congress, reminding myself that characters reveal themselves through action even while I refused to act.  I joined in here and there. Marching in NY and DC against the war. Campaigning for Kerry and Obama. But it all seemed muted, as the digital revolution, technological innovations and social media webs continued to take over the landscape like Kudzu plants, ravaging everything in their path, even as they often served merely to highlight the trivial. It was all giant and tangled, huge and global and endless, sucking us and trampling right over us, hitting us from every direction. More powerful than a call for change, day to day, was that obliterating urgency of now that swallowed up the present moment—What’s happening? What just happened? Like Thoreau waking up from his nap: Has anything changed in the past hour? What’s next? What’s new? Keep me updated! Have I missed anything at all? (Other than my own life.)

For the first time I’m grateful for what social media can do, Facebook, Youtube – even Twitter–these democratic platforms for virtual assembly, connection, and open discussion not filtered through the so-called liberal media (And that, my friends, is the most impressive smoke and mirrors show of all. Remember the last line in The Usual Suspects about the Devil's greatest trick? To me, the greatest trick the Republicans ever played was convincing people the media was left-wing.) So that brings us to the urgency and necessity of places like blogs and social networks to let people actually speak. Finally, Marshall McCluhan’s vision of a “global village” realized in a newly occupied world. 

The shots are being heard 'round the world now, and not just the world as in Manhattan. I've been down to Zuccotti Park a few times, started donating, fundraising and writing letters. I am hoping the groundswell will suck us in. The voices are loud now--the "we the people" corporations went too far, finally, like Icarus-- so many Americans are joining in for the first time. Mine wasn't among them, but those true dissenting voices were there all along (see The Nation, again, Moveon, Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, Paul Krugman, Howard Zinn, Mother Jones, among others).  If you believe it, you’ll see it, and I suppose hear it too.

So what am I trying to say? Occupiers in Zuccotti Park, Oakland, and Denver – I hear you. I’m with you. In Taiwain, Hong Kong, Australia, Rome, Athens, Flint, Michigan, and Fairbanks, Alaska, your message is not lost on us. Midnight riders, passing information back and forth at speeds so fast they compete only with the speed of light, I’m with you in Rockland, where you must feel very strange.

I am tied to my computer of late, that machine of conflicted obsession, checking for updates. Remember the archaic game King’s Dominion? It would be insufferable to play that game now. But what made it interesting then? The active role the player played, the decisions he or she made. Which arrow to press? What door to open? How big a risk to take? We have those choices now, for real, in the relentless interactive interface of our cyborg lives. We're on the sea-journey now on the highway across America, with the chance--given to us by brave protesters willing to face down police, pouring rain, ridicule, and many sleepless nights--to show that we still believe in the common good. Character will be revealed through action. Even though new parents like me have maybe just finally started sleeping through the night again, I hope we heed MLK’s advice to our parents' generation and don’t let ourselves sleep through this revolution. 














"I'm with you in Rockland/where you must feel very strange"
and "I'm with you in Rockland/in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night"

both from Howl, Ginsberg

The rich owe society for the benefits they receive

I'll explain this in the next post.


The rich owe society for the benefits they receive
What William F. Buckley Jr. overlooks in his plea on behalf of the wealthy (“Is capitalism petering out?” Commentary, March 1) is that they became wealthy at the expense of those who did not – the working poor who provided cheap labor and a mass market for their products.
         Citing what he considers basic tenets of the Constitution and a “metaphysical regard for property,” Buckley argues that the wealthy should be allowed to keep more of the money they earn. Perhaps he would be right if they earned that money only as a result of some combination of hard work, talent, good luck and good timing.
         But the truth is that they are part of a system that functions by keeping 36.5 million people below the poverty line, 12 million workers earning minimum wage, and an immeasurable number of Americans paying the real cost of big business and big industry - - air pollution, water contamination, depleted resources, loss of wildlife, loss of open space, and the widespread and often life-threatening health problems associated with environmental degradation.
         The conclusion is simple and yet lost on Buckley—those who benefit more from the imbalance of a capitalistic society should be required to give more back.


Attack on wealthy shows ignorance of economics
         In her letter to the Globe (“The rich owe society for the benefits they receive,” March 6), Rachel Federman of Acton asserts that wealthy individuals acquire their wealth at the expense of the poor. This could not be further from the truth.
         In market transactions, consumers willingly give up their dollars for things of value. Individuals acquire those dollars by providing things of value (e.g., higher-quality goods and services at lower prices). Consequently, wealth is achieved by making other people happy.
         Ignorance of basic economics and prejudice against money-making have been the source of many disastrous policies. Envy is a seductive but ultimately self-destructive vice.
         Jeff Milyo, Concord




Naïve view of economics ignores market coercion
          Jeff Milyo’s assertion in his March 12 letter that wealth is amassed only through the happy provision of desirable goods to discriminating customers is painfully naïve. It completely sidesteps the question of how those of us with nothing to trade must nonetheless pay to live.
         It is furthermore not evident that persons who amass wealth by speculative buying and selling of commodities contribute to public happiness. The price of real estate, for instance, has been escalated beyond the reach of most Americans in the last 20 years not by increasing quality (to the contrary) but by speculative resellers. A few people have in this way become very wealthy by making many other people unhappy, i.e. homeless.
         Milyo also denies the possibility of extortion. It is hard to describe the exchange of sweatshop labor for pennies a day as either voluntary or happy, except for the sweatshop owner. This implicit threat of destitution exists for many workers (who “should be happy to have a job”) throughout the modern world.
         Jonathan Clapp, Pelham