Thursday, May 24, 2012

BOOK NOTE: “Occupy!” (plus Todd CNBC online video!)

It is hard to make the case that the Occupy Wall Street movement is fully reasonable, I think, given some of their strange ideas about economics and their strange behavior – yet they are tolerated.  It’s worth noting there has been fighting, vandalism, rape, and even a shot taken at the White House amidst the Occupants’ activities.  You have to doubt any of this would have been tolerated if the Tea Party did it.  (Judith Weiss pointed out a recent National Review article about the Southern Poverty Law Center’s complete lack of interest in violence among the Occupants.)

Still, even Occupy has some good points, and here’s video of the fairly civil dialogue I had with a couple Occupy activists (plus less-radical CNBC and Google+ commentators) three weeks ago today (the tech wizards at Google+ finally figured out how to have me enter the dialogue at the 7 minute mark, then lost me again about fifteen minutes before the dialogue ended). 

Careful observers will notice I deploy the same cowboy hat and “V Guy” mask I wore at the beginning of last week’s Dionysium event in Williamsburg (of which I hope our videographer will have footage next week that I can link).

I don’t always talk to Occupy radicals and anarchists, though, and you can also see a photo nearby (by Doug DeMark) of me at this month’s conservative-filled Phillips Foundation gathering (flanked by Rachel Currie and Laura Vanderkam), and tonight at 7:45pm I’ll attend NYPD terror-tracker Hannah Meyers’ album release party at Fontana’s (admittedly after a quick 7pm stop at King’s Head Tavern to see a bunch of anarcho-capitalists).  I’m thanked in her liner notes. 

And speaking of liner notes, it looks like the most prolific female writer of album liner notes, Dawn Eden, will join Hannah onstage at our next Dionysium (June 21, 8pm, in Williamsburg) – but Dawn is by some measures even more conservative than Hannah and instead of rocking will in this case be discussing her new book My Peace I Give You about the Catholic saints and psychological healing.  More soon.


I think I can safely say I have some handle on how the Occupants actually think after the dialogue above, a few trips to Zuccotti Park, and reading issues of the journal n+1’s spun-off Occupy! Gazette, plus the essay collection Occupy! from Verso Books, written by numerous Occupants themselves (indeed, I was the one who likely boosted the book’s sales at the release party by suggesting they make a prominent “only $5 per copy” sign, which they did). 

I’ll take a closer look at the Occupy! anthology below – but first, a final word about left-anarchist anthropologist David Graeber, who is affiliated with the movement and about whose book Debt I blogged earlier this month (he is also, by the way, a former Yale anthro colleague of anarchism-sympathizing James C. Scott, author of Seeing Like a State and the forthcoming Two Cheers for Anarchism).

I have repeatedly complained (including in the CNBC chat above) that Graeber is not merely opposed to student loan debt or Third World debt but to all debt-recording, accounting, and in the end even math itself (gotta give him points for consistency and radicalism, though I assume he’s opposed to points-awarding as well).  I will grant him this: Constant calculation can make people cold. 

One study suggests that even being a utilitarian (as I am) – that is, someone who wants to calculate how best to maximize other people’s happiness – may be
correlated with rather cold-hearted, sociopathic tendencies.  But there’s no getting around the fact that calculation and rationality will be needed to make wise decisions in a complex world where gut instinct or “heart” alone won’t always cut it. 

In the end, I think we need people empathic enough to want to calculate how to make people happy – which is really how I think.  But maybe it’s a frighteningly rare combo.  

Still, I would not want us all to just throw in the towel and start thinking like anti-rationalist Frankfurt School types, who think (much like some traditionalist conservatives!) that science and economics have robbed the world of its magic.  And some of the latter-day Frankfurt types one encounters, especially among artists and the like, certainly do seem eager to engage in magical thinking. 

I think I’ve noticed a subtle increase lately in the number of them who say things like “I’d like to imagine a world where we don’t need property rights” – and then I assume they proceed to imagine it right there in front of you, though they never articulate how this world could function, so it’s best to smile, nod, and move away at that moment.  Articulating details of what it is they’re imagining is not their job, apparently.  Voting for Democrats and hating property owners is.


I will say this for Graeber: I share his desire to see all of life characterized by what he calls “mutuality,” a broadly-shared assumption of kindness and beneficence in everyday interaction that we more-capitalist types often call mutually beneficial exchange.  It’s the key to understanding life’s good points, from business to love to friendly conversation.  Without an awareness of mutually beneficial exchange, all of life seems like exploitation – since someone must always be winning or losing.  I now think the darkest parts of our animal psyches are always primed to start thinking in that brutal way under sufficiently chaotic, violent, or paranoid circumstances. 

Because of that, socialists, labor unions, sexual sadomasochists, religious authoritarians, common pickpockets – even in some (aesthetic/psychological) sense Ayn Rand with her Nietzschean assumption that the only alternative to self-abasement is self-aggrandizement – will always think, anxiously, as if it’s “exploit or be exploited,” predator or prey.  But in truth, everybody can interact in a positive, happy, cooperative way that ends up benefiting everyone – while respecting property rights – and there’s no reason not to aim for that, except cowardice.

Everyone from “communality”-praising Graeber to sanctimoniously self-sacrificing altruist-Christians needs to learn that we do have a choice besides “hammer” or “anvil.”  Kindness is the very foundation of civilized life, and we must not let it seem uneconomical, unphilosophical, or unhip to say so. 

I meant to mention in my prior entry about him that, as if Graeber’s basic argument weren’t weird enough, there were a few brief tangents in Debt that were so stereotypically lefty it was a bit embarrassing, and unworthy of even his odd academic standards, such as when he suggested at one point that radical Islamic women’s groups in the Middle East might be the richest current fount of economic ideas and the potential source of an alternative to finance capitalism.

Well, maybe, but you have to at least suspect he would not think they were geniuses if Bush hadn’t dropped bombs on them, so to speak.  Maybe war raises IQ scores (if I can be forgiven for trying to quantify things again).

Given the origins of Occupy Wall Street in Canada’s Adbusters magazine, its support from labor unions, and its visits from minstrels such as Jeff Mangum, I am inclined to blame Canada, the workers, and alternative rock for the whole thing, but the real roots of the problem may have been captured by a graffito I saw on the men’s room wall at Café Loup during a meeting of the book club with whom I read and discussed Debt: “HEGEL IS AN ASSHOLE.” 


Graeber himself may not be an asshole, and as a libertarian, I certainly have to enjoy his radical skepticism about the idea that the state is a natural representation of our vast, unpayable “debt to society.” 

Indeed, all sorts of existentialist ideas flood in once one accepts libertarian or left-anarchist ideas instead of the usual socialist and nationalist appeals on which we’ve been raised for a century or so.  Graeber goes too far in wanting to abolish even private, voluntarily-assumed debts, but his skepticism is not bad as a Max Stirner-like exercise in dispensing with ghostlike imaginary social obligations. 

And though he is wrong to try indicting capitalism simply by showing that historically it was so often entwined with the state (why not liberate it instead of killing both?), his book is a reminder that instead of gradualism, we might do well to try the ambitious method of tearing out religion, state, and other coercive relations by the roots all at the same time, as parts of a single bad idea, dangerous as discovering the alternative may sound. 

I will sound too radical to some – and some will think it’s crazy I spent the past year praising the Ron Paul presidential bid – but the existing system is not exactly sane itself, and down at Occupy, they always seem to have multiple tents and stations set up to cope with all their members’ literal mental illnesses.  I may in the end be the sanest option you’ve got. 

One of the many photos of Occupy supporters in the Occupy! essay anthology that gives you an idea how culturally tone deaf the activists can be shows a woman holding a written “I am the 99%” statement that says she has “three diagnosed mental illnesses” and needs help.  Who better to restructure the economy and reinvent democracy, her kind or mine?


Gawker noted an early-morning April 30 raid of a New Jersey Occupy organizer’s apartment in which cops broke down the door and rushed in, ostensibly to arrest the organizer’s roommate on a six-year-old open-container charge.  And that’s the sort of thing that can make even a very moderate citizen think, “I don’t care what crazy thing the protesters are protesting about – the cops are jerks.”

Still, one can sympathize with the earnest efforts of the Occupiers without agreeing with their beliefs.  I notice that several essays in the anthology are by Astra Taylor (the sister of the even more hippie-named Sunaura Taylor and the wife of the aforementioned ex-Neutral Milk Hotel singer, Jeff Mangum).  She once even managed to piss off my left-leaning old philosophy professor Martha Nussbaum by sticking her in a documentary that implied that the purpose of philosophy is left-wing political activism.  Small world! 

Taylor also made a documentary praising the vapid and vaguely anti-Semitic yet dangerously popular left-fascist philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who is beloved by the kind of males who can’t articulate the reasons for their anger but are pretty sure they’re entitled to smash a Starbucks window or something while they’re figuring it all out. 

No matter how weird the people behind it, the Occupy! anthology is a neat glimpse inside a historic movement, though.  Some moments from the book:

•Revelation: people have pointed to the New York Times changing that bridge headline about whether the protesters were lured onto the Brooklyn Bridge by cops as evidence of pro-police chicanery, but in fact one essay here notes the protesters were proud of blocking the bridge and getting arrested for it and were not duped.

•Co-editor Sarah Resnick confesses at one point, “I experienced a moment of paranoia: Was it possible the police were behind the drum circle[?...A] more brilliant plan couldn’t have been devised: Drive everyone to irritable madness!”

•At messy Zuccotti, “This camp is not Burning Man!” was repeatedly shouted. 

•More serious criticism is leveled against the Black Bloc anarchists, who would sometimes instigate fights with police and then leave other, non-violent – even disabled – protesters behind to do the fighting. 

•One contributor to the anthology mentions seeing Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia (described by comedian Angry Bob as the worst film he’s ever seen) during a break from protesting. 

•Another describes the painful process of ousting the homeless. 

•Resnick notes rumors and conflicting reports within the Occupy camps about things like whether schizophrenics were showing up of their own accord or being dropped off by police.  She reprints a series of tweets about whether or not one protester had been fatally run over by a car.

•“Safe spaces,” including group tents, would eventually be created for people who “identified as female.”

•Zuccotti had a huge General Assembly debate over whether to release $3,000 to do laundry. 

•The Alternative Economies Working Group had a printing press run by people who hadn’t done printing before.  I hope all the Occupants learned within weeks how hard it is to rebuild civilization instead of taking seven decades to learn that lesson like the Soviet Union. 

•But any leftist book that insults NPR can’t be all bad.  Contributor/activist Keith Gessen notes feeling insulted by OWS’s depiction on NPR’s Wait Wait...Don’t Tell Me!, which he confesses he’s begun to find irritating over the past couple years. 

I know the feeling – they got some crucial details of a story about me wrong, and then they laughed about it (specifically, that incident in which I argued on C-SPAN2 with an ex, with whom I’ve since quietly buried the hatchet, now that she seems to be sincerely reassessing her life and planning her next, likely very cool, career move).  I should probably sue NPR, but I’m busy enough just writing long blog entries and worrying about the collapse of the global economy.


Anonymous said...

You have the same haircut as an eight-year-old.

Anonymous said...

You've ruined your career. You're never going to get a book published - the female-dominated publishing industry won't touch an abusive creep like you.