April 1, 2017 orangeq2017

Toward a turbulent, if not shining, sea

Rachel Jendrzejewski

 

Ibrahim Abdallah, an Egyptian-born, New York-based marketing specialist who has spent time at both Tahrir Square and Zucotti Park, told PRI’s The World that he thinks Occupy Wall Street has “failed,” because protestors have lacked a “clear goal” and “clear slogan.” He elaborates, “When I talked to people there [at the protests in Zucotti Park], some of them actually were saying that they were happy not to have a clear goal, because they wanted to create a bigger discussion between people. They wanted people to get involved, and talk, and discuss the issues. But in my opinion, I don’t think that works. I don’t think that works because the average Joe cannot operate that way. You need to give him something really simple that he can follow.”[1]

I was listening to this report on Minnesota Public Radio while driving, and the last part of his statement made me laugh out loud. How hilariously awful, I thought, pausing at a stop sign, to imagine the “average Joe” as someone who literally cannot have a conversation and instead needs to be spoon-fed someone else’s instructions on how to think and act. The PRI reporter moved right on to the next question. I wondered for a minute if Mr. Abdallah might be one of the Yes Men[2], pulling a stunt to reveal the absurdity of marketing mentality at its lowest extreme. Yet very soon I realized he was absolutely serious—and that his sentiments actually echo those of many people in the wider public.

This sobering moment shifted my whole perspective on Occupy Wall Street, which I had been following closely since I first learned about it in September (through friends on Facebook, not the news). I realized that economic disparity is not the most dire issue that the protests are illuminating. Rather, the much more fundamental and pressing topic just might be our country’s disinterest, unwillingness, or—per Mr. Abdallah—utter incapacity to have intelligent conversation about complex issues. The bewildering behavior of too many Congress members has long supported this notion, particularly in their dealings with President Obama over the past few years. But are they representing the rest of us more accurately than I’d like to believe?

As a playwright and performance artist, I spend most of my waking hours creating theatrical work in collaboration with people who may or may not share my views. This work eventually brings all kinds of other diverse people together to experience that work and, should they wish, talk about it. In other words, my whole career is essentially rooted in the practice and facilitation of discussion, typically around pretty big central ideas — memory, grief, relationships, power, fear, mortality, love. Listening to Mr. Abdallah, however, I realized that I take for granted that such discussion is vital and desired. I take for granted that it helps us learn about the world and have compassion for each other. Perhaps most of all, I take for granted that people want, let alone are able, to learn about the world and have compassion for each other.

Yet, even as I take these values for granted, I’m toying with a riddle, because one of the biggest obstacles to making art in this country is our market-driven culture, and people supposedly drive the market. We all know that success is often gauged, deliberately or not, by financial profit (or in the arts, whether or not one gets paid anything at all—Arena Stage made national news recently for giving salaries and health benefits to playwrights). Artists working in all disciplines know that risk—and I’m not talking about the titillating suggestion of risk, which does interest many, but the actual risk of failure, banality, offense, etc. required to explore and advance new ideas—rarely sells seats. If one is driven to take risks in one’s work, one better have a good back-up skill that will pay the rent. People outside art communities often don’t even realize risky work is happening. They ask me when they’ll be able to see my work in Hollywood or on Broadway. Those avenues have certainly figured out some formulas that “work,” financially, but in my humble view, they largely specialize in entertainment over art. I don’t mean that in a pretentious or even mutually exclusive way; I wholly enjoy summer blockbusters and perform in cheesy musicals. I certainly believe that both can be art, that art can be entertaining (and is often better for it), etc. The distinction, to my mind, is simply one of intention. To borrow from Guy Zimmerman, Artistic Director of Padua Playwrights, “The artist wants to wake us up; the entertainer wants to help us fall back asleep.”[3] Mr. Abdullah would probably agree and thereby propose art is useless in society, because it’s far too demanding. It asks too many questions. “The average Joe cannot operate that way. You need to give him something really simple that he can follow.” Judging by box office records and the number of schools that have cut arts programming in recent years, he wouldn’t be alone.

Now, I have encountered intelligent, thoughtful, curious people all over this country—enough to know that plenty of “average Joes” not only believe themselves capable of discussion, but very much enjoy it. In fact, I should think most people might be offended and downright alarmed at the suggestion that anyone ought to “give” them “really simple” ideas to “follow,” in lieu of conversation about and autonomous participation in current events. Mr. Abdallah’s words nag at me because they undeniably echo the same critique of Occupy Wall Street that I’ve heard again and again from respected friends and colleagues, and certainly from the mainstream media: Those protestors need a simple, direct message. They need a clear set of demands. They need to market their points better. They need to put forward what they want. Otherwise, they are—or will be—ineffective.

I often wonder when our culture came to prioritize certainty over inquiry. We rush to know and say what we believe because that somehow makes us strong, smart people. We’re fearful of appearing uncertain or unprepared, especially if we’re in the public eye, and for good reason—we’re quickly and ruthlessly shamed if we falter in the slightest way, yet most wisdom traditions paradoxically encourage “not knowing.” I’m not talking about ignorance—quite the contrary, I think—it’s the idea of “beginner’s mind,” staying open, without preconceptions, and therefore always learning, ever seeing more clearly. The great theatre-maker, Richard Foreman, speaking of his own practice, explains:

We abide by cultural directives that urge us: clarify each thought, each experience, so you can cull from them their single, dominant meaning and in the process, become a responsible adult who knows what he or she thinks. But what I try to show is the opposite: how at every moment, the world presents us with a composition in which a multitude of meanings and realities are available, and you are able to swim, lucid and self-contained, in that turbulent sea of multiplicity.’[4]

Foreman’s process replaces product, embodying endless possibility. Occupy Wall Street’s emerging process as policy[5] offers a similarly open sea, one whose turbulent waves are waking us up and spurring our imaginations toward new, improved systems of balance and accountability.

Seized with fear over a need for certainty, however, we reduce possibility down to binary choice (Republican versus Democrat); and increasingly, we skip process altogether. Most people living in this country feel extremely disconnected from the government and the ways in which decisions are made[6]. And yet, with technology driving the pace of living faster and faster and attention spans growing shorter and shorter, we’re increasingly impatient with the concept of process anyway. We don’t even want it. We expect our President to solve the world’s problems in four years. We skip fact-checking to get breaking news out faster. We promote our work more than actually doing whatever we supposedly do. We send emails while barely tasting our lunch. At this rate, our relationship to process is in danger of being phased out altogether with people operating as little more than products, packaged and available for perusal on your favorite social networking site, self-marketed in 140 characters or less.

We do this to ourselves also, in part, because advertising is the language we know best. We are better educated in marketing than anything other subject, period, if only innately. According to Dr. Jean Kilbourn (known for her work on the image of women in advertising as well as critical studies of alcohol and tobacco advertising), each one of us is exposed to over 3000 advertisements per day.[7] Advertising so thoroughly surrounds us from the moment we open our eyes to the world that it becomes ingrained within us. We have internalized its structures, patterns, habits, and strategies. Of course, many of us dismiss ads and insist they don’t affect us. We scoff and say, “It’s not like I’m going to run out and buy that car,” and “It’s not like I think that mascara will make someone love me.” And, most likely, we really won’t and don’t. But advertising works on a much more subliminal level. Kilbourne explains, “Advertising is a pervasive medium of influence and persuasion. Its influence is cumulative, often subtle and primarily unconscious. A former editor-in-chief of Advertising Age, the leading advertising publication in North America, once claimed: ‘Only eight per cent of an ad’s message is received by the conscious mind. The rest is worked and re-worked deep within, in the recesses of the brain.’” [8] Marketing professionals study consumers closely, not just to cater to their lifestyles, but to manipulate their desires and steer trends. They’re not evil people, of course; they’re just doing their job. They’re selling products.

Over time, however, the heavy saturation is responsible for some serious cultural conditioning—conditioning which devalues relationships, attaches spiritual value to material possessions, and fuels addiction, according to Kilbourne. Advertising skillfully and intentionally breeds cynicism, dissatisfaction, and craving, because these feelings beautifully fuel consumer behavior. Kilbourne elaborates, “Advertising performs much the same function in industrial society as myth did in ancient societies. It is both a creator and perpetuator of the dominant values of the culture, the social norms by which most people govern their behaviour. At the very least, advertising helps to create a climate in which certain values flourish and others are not reflected at all.” In a climate where a homeless man is sentenced to 15 years in prison after remorsefully returning a stolen $100[9], while the CEO of one of the nation’s largest privately held mortgage lenders is given just three years for his role in a $3 billion scheme that is considered one of the biggest corporate frauds in U.S. history[10], I cannot help but question our country’s flourishing values.

Now, mind you, I’m not here to argue the merits or dangers of capitalism, and I’m not proposing that we stop buying things. I am intrigued, however, that so many people think marketing strategies—which are designed to control and sell, even at the expense of human life—might be the way forward for Occupy Wall Street, whose precise object of critique is a culture that repeatedly prioritizes financial gain for a few over the well-being of most.

I have found hope in Occupy Wall Street because, in the face of widespread corruption and powerful financial influence on politics, these protestors are asking—collectively, transparently, and loudly—how we might re-imagine our culture to actually value people equally. They have begun, not by pretending they know what’s best for the world, but by launching discussions in public. They have created literal, visible, physical spaces in which everyone (including homeless communities) can come together, look each other in the eye, talk, learn, and brainstorm. And people from a near infinite range of generations, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds have been showing up, by the thousands, to participate. All over this country and all over the world, diverse people have been spending the last few months gathering ideas, voicing concerns, exchanging perspectives, holding teach-ins, having debates, sharing meals, making music, and dancing out broken prayers of stubborn, determined hope. Dr. Cornel West of Princeton University observes that this phenomenon is doing the following:

[raising] political consciousness so it spills over all parts of the country, so people can begin to see what’s going on through a set of different lens, and then you begin to highlight what the more detailed demands would be. Because in the end we’re really talking about what Martin King would call a revolution: A transfer of power from oligarchs to everyday people of all colors. And that is a step-by-step process.[11]

To be sure, inclusion is confusing and exhausting, because it means people from all contexts, with different backgrounds, belief systems, opinions, and even methods of communication are equally welcome in the same space. Everyone will be concerned with different facets of the issues. Individual needs and opinions will clash. Collaboration is downright hard and can feel frustratingly inefficient because listening and tackling something creatively with others takes way more time than making decisions alone. It is quite literally counter-cultural; it expands rather than diminishes process. But I’m convinced it’s worth the sweat.

Comparing Occupy Wall Street’s push for inclusion with the Tea Party’s penchant for exclusion, clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst Todd Essig writes:

The ‘we’ of OWS is worldwide, a globalized, networked ‘we’ full of good and bad existing simultaneously and everywhere. The messier the better; better to let in those you don’t want then miss out on including those you do. Of course, inclusion can be a big problem because people say and do lots of really stupid things. And all that stupidity is then felt as ‘us,’ not ‘them.’ But that’s the trade-off of inclusion; you have to take the good along with bad. For Tea Party members, the world will always remain full of persecutory others (“Obama is the devil!”), while OWS holds out the promise of community, no, of communities of difference. The effort after inclusiveness can be so dramatically full of sympathy and concern for others that you may feel the movement respecting your subjective experience before they even know what their own point of view is. But if you knit together the union worker and ex-hippie, the college student sharing some shade with the cop, you find a belief that working together instead of against each other presents the very real possibility that people will end up not as triumphant winners but as people with enough—and in a radically inclusive networked world enough is, well, enough.[12]

This emerging model of inclusion and “communities of difference” swims hand-in-hand with the explosive, leveled openness of the internet, illuminating ways in which the rapid advancements of technology can help embody, rather than eliminate, process. Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff calls Occupy Wall Street “America’s first true Internet-era movement,” for, like the Internet, it is sprawling, interconnected, and nonlinear. He proffers that Occupy Wall Street is different from “civil rights protests, labor marches, or even the Obama campaign” in that it “does not take its cue from a charismatic leader, express itself in bumper-sticker-length goals and understand itself as having a particular endpoint.” It’s a new kind of protest for a new juncture in how we live, or could live. Rushkoff writes:

The members of Occupy Wall Street may be as unwieldy, paradoxical, and inconsistent as those of us living in the real world. But that is precisely why their new approach to protest is more applicable, sustainable and actionable than what passes for politics today. They are suggesting that the fiscal operating system on which we are attempting to run our economy is no longer appropriate to the task. They mean to show that there is an inappropriate and correctable disconnect between the abundance America produces and the scarcity its markets manufacture.[13]

Millions of people around the globe are cheering for Occupy Wall Street. The website www.occupytogether.org tracks hundreds of occupations in cities nationally and internationally that have launched their own conversations. People who cannot participate on-site have sent donations of food, warm clothing, tents, and other supplies, as well as financial support, videos of encouragement, letters of testimony, and other shows of solidarity. “Thank God there are people in the streets who understand that there is nothing inevitable about this misery,” wrote Mark Weisbrot for The Guardian, at the end of a dismal update on American unemployment and political paralysis [14]. “It is their strength and organisation that is currently our best hope for a better future.”

Yet, here on our home soil, plenty of people are still rolling their eyes and flipping the channel. As I write, city officials are sending police departments to forcefully break up and remove the discussions from sight—generally, by way of raids in the middle of the night with full riot gear, despite the movement’s insistence on nonviolence. Accounts fly, many documented on video, about peaceful protestors all around the country being injured, pepper sprayed, dragged by their hair, kicked, beaten, arrested and sent to jail, sometimes without urgently needed medical attention.[15] Many of these raids are conducted claiming a need to “clean” protest sites, citing “concerns” about sanitation, despite committees of volunteers rigorously dedicated to cleaning[16]. In the most recent New York events, police destroyed thousands of books, laptops, and other personal belongings[17], used flashing strobe lights to prevent people from being able to document their actions on film[18], and arrested journalists (or barred them from the scene altogether)[19]. It all sounds like a bad movie; my partner and fellow playwright, upon hearing a friend’s account from Zucotti Park, shook his head in disbelief and said, “Yeah, if one of my students had written that, I might have suggested that the laughing cop throwing books in the dumpster was a little over the top.” But this is all happening, right here and now, in the United States of America.

So what gives? Why such disdain and fear surrounding proactive discussion? Why are people being mocked and arrested for trying to have it? What is this climate we’ve cultivated and what values are flourishing? Perhaps Mr. Abdallah was spot on about “the average Joe” being unable to “operate that way”—not for lack of desire or intellectual inability, but because he sees very clearly that we’re not actually free to gather publicly with others long enough to have the discussions that need to be had in this country. But I also can’t fully get behind the “us versus them” language, because it’s all a bit more complicated than that. People are layered.

Slavoj Žižek, speaking to Occupy Wall Street in Zucotti Park this past October, observed, “What we are missing is . . . [t]he language to articulate our non-freedom. The way we are taught to speak about freedom, war and terrorism, and so on falsifies freedom.”[20] He’s right; language we grew up using (“all men are created equal”) does not reflect the values that our system upholds. Yet we are all inextricably part of that system, so what are we going to do? Over the past few months, Occupy Wall Street has started to build a new vocabulary from scratch, one that I believe is helping us reclaim our imaginations and envision what a culture prioritizing balance, transparency, sustainability and human life over big money might look like. In order to get there, though, we have to keep the discussion going.

[1] Werman, Marco. “An Egyptian View of Occupy Wall Street.” PRI’s The World. Rev 11/2011. http://www.theworld.org/2011/11/egypt-occupy-wall-street/ (11/2011)

[2] http://theyesmen.org

[3] Zimmerman, Guy. “The Lens of Gravity, Light and Time.” The Times Quotidien. Rev. 4/2011. http://www.timesquotidian.com/2011/04/22/the-lens-of-gravity-light-and-time-2/ (11/2011)

[4] Via Maggie Nelson, The Art of Cruelty (W. W. Norton & Company, 2011), 51.

[5] Essig, Todd. “The Contrasting Psychologies of ‘Occupy Wall Street’ and the ‘Tea Party.’” Forbes. Rev. 10/2011. http://www.forbes.com/sites/toddessig/2011/10/16/the-contrasting-psychologies-of-occupy-wall-street-and-the-tea-party/ (11/2011)

[6] Montopoli, Brian. “Alienated Nation: Americans complain of government disconnect.” CBS News. Rev. 6/2011. http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-20074813-503544.html (11/2011)

[7] Kilbourne, Jean. “Lecture Series.” Official Website. Rev. 2011. http://jeankilbourne.com/?page_id=12 (11/2011)

[8] Kilbourne, Jean. “Jesus is a brand of jeans.” The New Internationalist Magazine. Rev. 9/2006. http://www.newint.org/features/2006/09/01/culture/ (11/2011)

[9] Thangham, Chris V. “Homeless man gets 15 years for stealing $100.” Digital Journal. Rev. 1/2009. http://digitaljournal.com/article/265402 (11/2011).

[10] Barakat, Matthew. “Paul Allen, Ex-Mortgage CEO, Sentenced To Prison For $3B Fraud.” Huffington Post. Rev. 6/2011. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/22/mortgage-fraud-ceo-prison-paul-allen_n_881946.html (11/2011)

[11]Goodman, Amy. “Cornel West on Occupy Wall Street: It’s the Makings of a U.S. Autumn Responding to the Arab Spring.” Democracy Now. Rev. 9/2011. http://www.democracynow.org/blog/2011/9/29/cornel_west_on_occupy_wall_street_its_the_makings_of_a_us_autumn_responding_to_the_arab_spring (11/2011)

[12] Essig, Todd. “The Contrasting Psychologies of ‘Occupy Wall Street’ and the ‘Tea Party.’” Forbes. Rev. 10/2011. http://www.forbes.com/sites/toddessig/2011/10/16/the-contrasting-psychologies-of-occupy-wall-street-and-the-tea-party/ (11/2011)

[13] Rushkoff, Douglas. “Think Occupy Wall St. is a phase? You don’t get it.” CNN. Rev. 10/2011. http://edition.cnn.com/2011/10/05/opinion/rushkoff-occupy-wall-street/index.html (11/2011)

[14] Weisbrot, Mark. “The U.S. today: economic stagnation, political paralysis.” The Guardian. Rev. 10/2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/oct/07/usemployment-useconomy (11/2011)

[15] “Beyond UC Davis, Worse Tactics than Pepper Spray.” http://www.businessweek.com/finance/occupy-wall-street/archives/2011/11/beyond_uc_david_worse_tactics_than_pepper_spray.html

[16] OccupyTVNY. “Occupy Wall Street Sanitation Committee Gets Down to Business!” Via YouTube. Rev. 10/2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-Je9NXKcV0 (11/2011)

[17] Anderson, Brian & Carr, Erin Lee. “Who Smashed the Laptops from Occupy Wall Street? Inside the NYPD’s Lost and Found.” Rev. 11/2011. Motherboard. http://motherboard.tv/2011/11/18/who-smashed-the-laptops-from-occupy-wall-street-inside-the-nypd-s-lost-and-found (11/2011)

[18] Kafanov, Lucy. “Occupy Wall Street: Tough Policing Fails to Deter the 99%” RT News. Rev. 10/2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1YZnLnwxy1Y

[19] Mirkinson, Jack. “Occupy Wall Street ‘Media Blackout’: Journalists Arrested, Roughed Up, Blocked from Covering Clearing.” Huffington Post. Rev. 11/2011. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/15/occupy-wall-street-raid-journalists-arrested_n_1094564.html (11/2011)

[20] Watch or read his speech at http://occupywallst.org/article/today-liberty-plaza-had-visit-slavoj-zizek/

 

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