First, a big, sincere thanks to everyone who came out for Vivian Gornick yesterday and made our first Thoreau Farm Forum a great success. We had a very nice turnout, a highly engaged audience, and of course a famously engaging speaker (and topic!). I have to say, I was really honored to be there introducing and “facilitating” (is that the word?) the conversation. It’s a role that’s fairly new to me, and you know, I kind of enjoyed it! Here’s looking forward to many more of these events. Stay tuned for our announcement of the next forum this spring.
Over dinner in Concord afterwards, Vivian and I got to talking, at times pretty intensely, about politics and activism, and especially how we define the inner wellsprings of activism and political commitment, the sort of personal transformation that seemingly goes hand in hand (as it certainly did in the case of Emma Goldman) with a life-changing decision to become deeply engaged in a cause. And at some point we got to talking about cynicism (our paralyzing cultural disease, especially perhaps my generation’s), and the idea, as Vivian said in our interview and again at the forum, that we don’t live in a “political moment.”
I’m not so sure that ours isn’t a political moment. All moments are political in their way, of course, and if we resist the impulse to measure everything by the yardstick of the ’60s and ’70s (that last “great,” “transformative” political moment, for both left and right), we might find this moment is pretty political in its own right. But there’s no doubt that even the Tea Party and Occupy movements look pretty small, pretty tame, compared to the upheavals of the civil rights, women’s rights, and antiwar movements. Point taken.
But that keeps bringing me back to the issue of cynicism. I’ve certainly been guilty of it (or maybe guilty is the wrong word — afflicted by it?). Maybe less so since I left my career in “mainstream media” — where a kind of professional cynicism is almost expected, a sort of attitudinal dress code — but I still struggle with it. I know exactly what John Nichols means, for example, writing last week in The Nation about Wisconsin, Occupy, and what he calls “America’s Youth Uprising,” when he says that “journalism these days respects cynicism rather than optimism.” He writes:
Even among the most progressive observers, there is a disinclination to employ the language of possibility for fear of stirring false faith—and, just as important, for fear of being identified as one who dares to believe that what is to come might actually be better than what was.
No doubt, that belief can be a pretty hard sell these days. But Nichols is pointing out that something is happening among young people on the left:
A remarkable transition has happened since Wisconsinites occupied their streets and their Capitol. Progressives have moved from despair to hope. Not to victory, but to a sense of possibility. That is the radical progress that students, young workers, rockers and rappers demanded from a political process too prone to cynicism and surrender—and it is the radical change they have made.
Another piece last week about Wisconsin’s uprising, William Finnegan’s report in The New Yorker on the recall campaign against Gov. Scott Walker, lent support to Nichols’ sense of possibility (as I hope Nichols noticed). Finnegan shows how Walker’s drive to strip public-sector unions of collective-bargaining rights set off huge, historic protests in Madison a year ago, and the piece describes how the recall campaign managed to submit more than a million petition signatures in January (twice the number required to force a recall vote). As Finnegan notes, the mass protest movement in Wisconsin is widely credited with anticipating and inspiring Occupy Wall Street. “Wisconsin’s activists are aware of being in the vanguard of something larger, ” he writes. “Some of the main themes of the Occupy movement were sounded early in Wisconsin.” One of the young protest leaders tells him:
We’re a few months ahead of the Occupy movement nationally. We occupied the Capitol last February. Now, with the recall, we’ve moved on to electoral activism. This recall drive is building a powerful organization….
That move to “electoral activism” is crucial (and something much needed on the OWS front). But Finnegan’s excellent piece also reminds us where the cynicism comes from, and how hard it is to leave behind. The real kicker, near the end of his piece, is this:
On the snowy Tuesday when the petitions, weighing three thousand pounds, were filed with the Accountability Board, in Madison, Scott Walker was on Park Avenue, in New York, attending a five-thousand-dollar-a-couple fund-raiser for the anti-recall effort. The event was hosted by Maurice Greenberg, the billionaire former chairman of American International Group, the insurance company that was rescued from bankruptcy in 2008 by the largest federal bailout for a single institution in United States history — $182 billion.
Yep. That’s the kind of thing that leaves a lot of people thinking, Why bother? The game is rigged. Nothing will ever change. And yet, look at what’s happening in Wisconsin. And in Ohio, where a similar anti-union law was rejected by voters 62 percent to 38 percent. It’s true that nothing will change — until the grassroots are stirred up, and people start taking responsibility for their own democracy, taking political action, right where they live (in many cases for the first time in their lives).
That kind of stirring and awakening has been a big theme in a lot of the best writing about Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy movement as a whole. In particular, I want to point to the series of pieces by Michael Greenberg in The New York Review of Books: “In Zuccotti Park” (Nov. 10, 2011), “Zuccotti Park: What Future?” (Dec. 8, 2011), and “What Future for Occupy Wall Street?” (Feb. 9, 2012). In that most recent piece, written just before Zuccotti Park was cleared by police in January, Greenberg gets at something really central, I think, to how this awakening comes about, and what it offers the activists he’s met and spent hours talking with:
The ambitions of the core group of activists were more cultural than political, in the sense that they sought to influence the way people think about their lives. “Ours is a transformational movement,” Amin told me with a solemn air. Transformation had to occur face to face; what it offered, especially to the young, was an antidote to the empty gaze of the screen.
In meetings and elsewhere, this Tolstoyan experience of undergoing a personal crisis of meaning, both political and of the soul, seemed deeply shared. Apart from Amin, I’ve met an architect, a film editor, an advertising consultant, an unemployed stock trader, a spattering of lawyers, and people with various other jobs who, after joining OWS, found themselves psychologically unable to go about their lives as before. For weeks last fall, gatherings on the eastern steps of Zuccotti Park had the aura of a revivalist meeting.
In the previous piece, written in early November, Greenberg had already noted much the same thing about two of the young organizers he met, a medical doctor named Alec and a filmmaker named Katie:
Talking with [Alec], as with Katie, I was reminded of the so-called Tercer Mundista priests I met in Mexico in the early 1970s, who broke with the Vatican and actively supported revolutionary movements in Central America. Both Alec and Katie possessed that calm sense of devotion to a higher calling—not a certainty of belief so much as a certainty of purpose. They both spoke of the movement in unabashedly spiritual terms. And while neither talked explicitly of religion, they seemed to have faith that they were progressing toward the kind of social system that would provide participants a measure of peace and “mental fulfillment.”
Rebecca Solnit, too, has noticed that the Occupy movement “has some of the emotional resonance of a spiritual, as well as a political, movement.” And there have been comparisons to other movements that merge the spiritual, the moral, and political. Toward the end of his last piece, Greenberg writes:
Some of the Occupy Wall Street members told me that they hope to emulate the civil rights movement of the 1960s, which was able to pose a clear moral question. In 1961, only 28 percent of Americans approved of sit-ins at lunch counters and freedom buses as a way to end segregation. Over the next seven years and more, because of the civil rights movement, Americans had to ask themselves whether official, overt racism could be tolerated.
If Occupy Wall Street is to become the embodiment of public conscience, it will have to pose similar questions that defy moral evasiveness and make people urgently ask, for example, what degree of inequality and what forms of corporate influence on government will be tolerated
Is that kind of awakening possible, in this country, at this moment in history? I don’t know. We’re going to find out. At the very least, the question is now being asked. Not widely enough, yet, or with enough urgency — but maybe just enough to begin giving us an alternative to cynicism.
P.S. A few other essential readings I’d highlight on the Occupy movement, before moving on: George Packer’s “All the Angry People,” in The New Yorker (Dec. 5, 2011); the book Occupy! Scenes From Occupied America (Verso), compiled from the Occupy! Gazette broadsheets and edited by Astra Taylor, Keith Gessen, and editors of the journals n+1, Dissent, Triple Canopy, and The New Inquiry; and Todd Gitlin’s recent piece on nonviolence and the future of Occupy, “In Chicago, Throwing Down the Gauntlet,” which first ran in The Occupied Wall Street Journal (Jan. 25, 2012). And back in the early fall, The New Republic published “Liberalism and Occupy Wall Street: A TNR Symposium,” with a range of views from the (more or less) center-left. This list barely scratches the surface, obviously. If you have other suggestions, by all means, let me know. -WS