Sunday, November 20, 2011

Was everyone a tomboy back then, or did it have more to do with all the hand-me down clothes?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

It's the process, people

What does Occupy Wall Street want? What are its demands. Policy recommendations? It's all well and good to be angry about the recession, but what would you have us do, exactly?

All these questions maybe miss the point.

My mom called me while I was standing in Foley Square in downtown Manhattan on Thursday night where over 30,000 people gathered for a rally before making their way over the Brooklyn Bridge. She told me she'd passed by protestors gathered in Acton (my hometown, in the suburbs of Boston) with 99% signs. That she beeped and waved and sent money to Occupy Boston.

I was thrilled to hear Acton was occupied and I guess, proud. It has always seemed to be a place of civic responsibility, a town that takes pride in its proximity to the birthplace of the American Revolution. But I hadn't thought of it in relation to this recent movement, one which, to quote a protestor marching ahead of me Thursday, made me "optimistic for the first time in my adult life".

I went home that night and searched for Occupy Acton. I found a video of their occupation, and listened to some guy talk about Acton's democratic tradition and the fact that they continue to carry on an open town meeting. That's how they make decisions. When there's a conflict or big decision to be made, citizens of the town show up in the High School auditorium, make their points, argue face to face, then vote and call it for the majority. By participating, you agree to comply with the majority rule. You may or may not agree with that ruling, but the important point is you've agreed to abide by it.

There are only two major, really heated votes I remember in taking place during my Acton tenure. In one case, my father was deeply involved, engaging neighbors, conducting research, drafting proposals, and finally making an impassioned speech in front of several hundred locals. In both these cases, we left on the losing side. We were disappointed. That night after my dad's speech we pulled out of the parking lot seething with a mix of sadness and fury. Then the next day we woke up, and went about our business, and complied with the will of the opposition.

As the NYTimes argued beautifully in its Opinion pages after Clinton was impeached in 1999, the test of a democracy isn't the first president ruling peaceably, it's the first person voted out of office packing his bags and going home. The party impeaching the president had not gotten over their guy's (Bush Senior) single-term presidency. They never got over Clinton beating him in 1992. They were using millions in taxpayer money and every tactic they had to exact revenge on the guy who moved in after him. They did not accept the will of the people.

The Republicans in Congress today have made it clear--they're not even trying to hide it--that the single most important goal for them is to get Obama out of office. They are willing to sacrifice the country's health and safety in order to do that. They've bragged about it. Back in 1801, when John Adams got his suitcase out of the White House closet and started tossing his shirt vests and stockings inside, he was probably seething and just a little eensy bit disappointed. But the people had spoken, and he deferred to their will. He went home (to Massachusetts). If Obama loses in 2012, we'll expect him to do the same thing.

What we can't do is suppress votes or let banks create policy for us. We can't let the courts decide that corporations are human beings except that they can never be charged with a crime. We can't let money control the media. We can't let the media keep reporting on facts as if they were matters of legitimate debate simply because the one dissenting scientist out of 20,000 leading international experts has more money backing him than the other 20,000 combined.We can't let corporations donate obscene sums of money to political campaigns and therefore handpick the public servents that serve them rather than the public.

Enter Occupy Wall Street.

Occupy protestors aren't there to draft policy, at least not yet. They're not there to make budget demands or recommendations. What they're there for is to show that the 99% still exist, even though it hasn't seemed like it for at least a decade or two. They're there to say that we've lost our way, that we're no longer participating in our government, that--forget outcome--we're not engaged in the process anymore. The democratic process has been hijacked. The people are not being heard. Remember James Carville in Clinton's 1992 campaign, the one where he beat Bush Senior, saying, "It's the economy, stupid"? Well, here's today's equivalent: It's the process, stupid.

The point is: we are the 99% and we need to reclaim our democracy from war profiteers and bankers that engage in illegal speculation and then appoint themselves to top government positions. We don't need to draft charts comparing OWS objectives to the Tea Party's. We shouldn't pit one against the other. Of course the anonymous corporations making a killing off class warfare they've engaged in for 40 years would love to see that. "See how much you guys hate each other? You're never going to agree."

It's true. We may never agree on outcome. Tea Partiers may want to go on cutting taxes for millionaires, dismantling Social Security (the single most effective anti-poverty program ever, so well-funded it has lent money to the rest of the government for decades), and destroying public education.

But what we all agree on is the point that we no longer feel we're being represented by our government. We don't have to agree on the outcome of our decisions, all we have to agree on is the decision-making process, and compliance with the outcome of a decision-making process that's fair. 

True patriots love their country, and believe it can be better. They're willing to face opposition to make it that way. They're willing to speak up, speak out, occupy, hold candles, be arrested, face twisted expressions, pepper spray, rubber bullets and silent disdain. In our 235-year history, millions have given their lives to protect that right for the rest of us. If you're confused about what occupiers want, think back to junior high history. If you're still confused, ask yourself why. Then try to answer. Come down to your town square, local rally, or Kelly's Corner on Main Street in Acton, Massachusetts. Honor your right to civic participation. It's an essential part of democracy.

Monday, November 7, 2011

From the Shadows to the Marketplace

It’s a good thing I’ve spent the past year or so digging myself out from sinkhole of distracting social obligations because I am now in the process of digging myself into a vital social obligation and by that I mean, supporting the Occupy movement. I’m hesitant now to even say Occupy Wall Street because I’ve already offended at least one banker friend and scared off nearly everyone who spends the day occupying a desk in any kind of corporation at all (which sort of includes me in much of my freelance work).

One thing I wanted to make clear is that I support the movement not as an under-employed, underserved individual, but as quite the opposite, one—as I’ve mentioned before on this blog and I hope made clear in all my accounts—whose been enormously privileged my entire life from every possible point of view. I went to fantastic schools, public (through high school) and private (college). My low-interest student loans are manageable. I’ve gotten many jobs without putting in much effort to get them and gotten demoted once I was there for putting in too much. I live in subsidized middle-income housing right smack dab in one of the greatest cities in the world. Although I have an antiquated flip phone and I’d consider myself one of the least invested in my appearance of any of my friends (my appearance itself can attest to that) I still have too many clothes, way too much too eat, way too many gadgets (including a Garmin GPS running tracker which I can’t get around to charging!) and way too many things in general. Wally’s room is overflowing with toys and clothes--almost all gifts and hand-me-downs. In addition to a few guitars, a bass, and a keyboard, I actually own a grand piano (although I’m not sure where it is). I’ve been to Europe four times. I go on a summer vacation every year. The water that comes pouring out of the tap here is clean, the grocery stores are stock full of FDA-inspected produce (bugs in boc choy not withstanding) and I’m surrounded by public parks and playgrounds. I have health insurance as does Wally thanks to Alex’s job and the wonders of domestic partnership. Wally goes to a special ed preschool the state and city pay for, hoping to “mainstream him” as soon as possible and recoup the cost but it's a gamble and they may not. When I worked full-time for Barnes & Noble publishing I made $12,000 more a year than an amount that would already have put me in the category of the richest 1% of people in the world ($38,000).

So I am not joining in the OWS movement as a laid-off, disenfranchised, down-on-my-luck, struggling freelance mom, but as someone whose been given so much and accepts the responsibility that comes with that. (See: Spiderman, JFK, and the Bible.) My great-grandparents and one grandfather came here as refugees or poor farmers. After that, all four grandparents graduated from college; two earned masters degrees. (Then there’s me: regression to the mean.) Our family got to live out the American Dream. The system worked out great, for us.

But not for everybody. These days, not even for most people. To stay silent in the face of peaceful protests trying to bring attention to that fact doesn't feel right. If nothing else, how could I explain that to Wally? To stay neutral or even intrigued but skeptical –“Yeah I get what they’re doing down there, sort of, but the whole dirty hippy/anarchy thing just skeeves me out”—is a slap in the face to my inheritance, to my Jewish and Irish ancestors who were all outsiders in their day. I’m not an insider at Goldman Sachs, but I am an insider in that I grew up in a stable home in an upper-middle class town in a peaceful, prosperous time. My dad worked for the government, which meant compared to my friends' parents he never made much money but outside of a few threatened or real government shut-downs, we did not live in fear that he would lose his job. How could I be complicit with a system that now denies hard-working people not only an advantage but even a chance to attend a safe public school, work for a fair wage, obtain health insurance, or dig out from under college debt?

In this blog, I’ve been trying—in a patchwork way—to sketch out a way forward as a mom, and as a person, trying not to let the strident voices of "What will people think?", social pressures, path of least resistance, commercialism and capitalism drown out everything else. In a mostly lighthearted way, I've tried to engage in Jung’s process of individuation, of “becoming”. The role of parent threatens to obliterate the self, but I think I've finally realized that to become a better parent, I have to become more myself. I would have to come to a full stop in that process if I wasn't willing to speak up, at least a little, to throw my voice into the Occupy mix. I can’t teach Wally to share on the playground then show him I don't care when our society abandons the practice altogether.

Why do we teach our kids to share? Why is that so fundamental as a parent? Because that’s “what friends do”. Because it prevents fights. Because not sharing is not socially acceptable. Because it keeps people from getting sad or angry. Because our kids will be more well-liked. Because they'll do better in school. Because it keeps the society, the system—in this case, the playground—in working order, keeps it from degenerating into the Lord of the Flies. Because it’s fair. But most importantly, sharing is part of a social contract we agree to by being part of a community. We are human, we live in groups, we look out our neighbors, we sink or float together; that is what we do. It's not every man for himself. The race is not to the swiftest. It's not a dog eat dog world, or at least it shouldn't be. (Any more semi-relevant cliches I can toss in there?)

Sometimes it may not seem exactly fair to have to share. Maybe one kid brought a brand new scooter and he didn’t even get a chance to try it before the teeming mobs of scooter-less kids demanding a turn descended on him. Maybe the scooter kid paid for the scooter with his hard-earned allowance money. It could be he spends an hour every night after dinner washing dishes and sweeping the floor while the other kids—the ones who want to take an unearned turn—sprawl out watching Phineas and Ferb. But it doesn’t matter. You still share. You just do. You take a turn yourself—you don't let them steamroll right over you—but you give others a turn as well. It’s how humans operate. And besides, for every kid watching Phineas and Ferb there were probably 10 more washing dishes whose parents couldn't afford to pay them to do it. So that's not fair either, but they're there, on the same playing field as you with your overflowing piggy bank. You share. It’s the kind of playground you want to play on, the kind of world you want to live in—the one maybe your grandparents lived in. If they all came here “with nothing” (and people universally report their immigrant ancestors' experience this way), then someone must have shared with them, whether it was a relative, neighbor, friend, employer, teacher who taught them, police person who protected them, or government that believed in giving people a new deal. Someone must have. You can work hard, but you can’t pull yourself up entirely by your own bootstraps. You’ll look ridiculous and you won’t get anywhere.

So that’s kind of my version of Michael Moore’s letter about how he can be in the 1% and support the other 99%. In this fight I may not look it but I believe I am coming from the side of privilege; I hope in the end I am left standing on the right side of history.

It occurred to me that because of my ambiguous freelance work status, falling-apart furniture, generally ragged appearance (complete with blood-stained shoes), and the fact that I now make less than 1/5 of what I used to, (this time with a kid), that I could easily be mistaken for a---dirty hippy? (hope not), angry female with a guitar? (ugh), anarchist? (don’t flatter yourself--you shop at Whole Foods and have a really comfortable bed)---but you know, mistaken for someone who feels that I deserve more. If anything, I deserve less. But I do think we’ve all been left out because our voices have been lost, and we all deserve a better playground for our kids to play in, if nothing else. What’s the point of riding around in our shiny new scooters if some people haven’t even gotten a turn to see how badly they'd wipe out? And one kid hoarding a whole bunch of new toys and refusing to share them is just sh*tty and annoying and ruins the whole vibe. (Especially when he wiped out the other kids' savings accounts to get them. Then took a public bailout. Then made record profits. (Okay playground metaphor straining against its limits. But that kid hoarding all the toys always seems to be having the most miserable time of all, doesn't he?)

The main thing OWS is trying to do is give us a voice, to ask for our opinions--that's why they keep saying it's not a protest really, it's participation. They want to make a small peace offering to democracy, to say--we still believe in an open dialogue and making decisions by majority rule that will benefit the greatest number of people. That’s partly what makes it so damn inscrutable. The assembly is all of us. All with different opinions. Or it should be, at least.

Do any of you recognize the title of this post? The line right before it is "Fortune calls". It's pretty clear now that starting on September 17, it's been calling. In the song there's a palace of mirrors, a coldblooded moon, merchants and thieves, hungry for power. In it, false idols fall. Toward the end of the song comes the first reference to the title, in the lines "Eden is burning, Either brace yourself for elimination or else your hearts must have the courage..."