1. I'm so glad that Charles J. Shields's biography of Kurt Vonnegut (whose birthday is today!) is finally out. I've been looking forward to And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life for a long time -- though now that it's out I've got a few other books to get through before I can begin. This will be my slow pleasure reading for the holiday season.
I've dreamed up a political project so crazy, so utterly out of step with the mood of American media coverage today, that you know I'm going to have to run with it.
Many have suggested that the Tea Party movement and the Occupy Wall Street movement have a lot in common (many others have ridiculed or severely ridiculed this notion). Well, I don't think it's worth dwelling on whether or not they currently have a lot in common. Instead, let's look to the future and ask if a common political platform -- addressing the economy, social issues, foreign policy, the environment and electoral reform -- can possibly be built that might capture the enthusiasm of a significant fraction of both Tea Party and Occupy protesters. And I'd like to try to construct that platform over the next few Philosophy Weekend blog posts, with your comments and suggestions. I can hardly think of a more exciting and ambitious project to take on.
A unified protest platform for the United States of America -- why not? One thing I'm pretty sure about: there are only a few bloggers or political commentators
stupid ambitious enough to seriously try something like this. And I'm one of them.
I believe a unified protest platform is possible because the need to fix structural problems in the USA government is so urgent that caring citizens on both sides ought to be willing to cast a wide net in the pursuit of change. Who are the real opponents of Tea Party and Occupy protesters? The automatic answers might include Barack Obama (if you're a conservative) or the Koch brothers (if you're a liberal), but I'd like to propose instead that these are the real opponents:
- Dishonest government bureaucrats
- Corrupt lobbyists, and the businesses that pay them
- Pessimistic citizens who fear the future and prefer the safety of the status quo
- Apathetic or uneducated citizens who don't understand the urgency of either protest movement
Please note that I said "opponents", not "enemies", because a friendly and non-judgmental approach towards fixing major problems is much more likely to gain traction than a hostile and accusatory one. My proposal is to examine the practical political platforms represented by both protest movements, identify the areas of mutual agreement, and suggest some compromises that might appeal to moderate or action-oriented protesters on both sides.
Mickey Z. is a veteran activist and author of several punchy books about politics, revolution, environmentalism and life in New York City, including Self-Defense for Radicals: A to Z Guide for Subversive Struggle, 50 American Revolutions That You're Not Supposed to Know, Darker Shade of Green and Personal Trainer Diaries: Making the Affluent Sweat Since the 1980s Vertical Club. He's been covering the Occupy Wall Street movement at Fair Share of the Common Heritage as well as his own blog. After several failed attempts to run into Mickey at Zuccotti Park (he and I never seemed to be there at the same time, and there's kind of a big crowd), I gave up and invited him to converse with me online about the protest movement, where it's going, what hazards it faces, and how it has inspired us both.
Levi: Mickey, I know you've participated in a lot of protests and actions in your life. These are always difficult, high-intensity, high-danger events, and they often run into conflict or trouble. Yet Occupy Wall Street seems to be growing at a steady rate, and remains peaceful, focused, well organized and internally harmonious after more than a month in the tents and on the streets. Are we getting better at running protests? It seems that way to me.
Mickey: I'd disagree with your characterization that OWS has "remained peaceful." It is surrounded by armed enemies - filming everything and everyone and willing to strike without warning. Thus, I'd clarify, protests don't just "run into conflict or trouble." They run into State repression.
That said, I do feel that OWS has learned from so many false starts and, as a result, the occupants don't view this as a finite protest, per se. They are cultivating an alternate model of human culture and it's fascinating to witness how quickly skeptics are won over once they take time to visit the site and interact.
Bill Vallicella, who blogs as the Maverick Philosopher and often argues for conservative political and social positions, asks a provocative question:
If you are a pacifist, why aren't you also pro-life? If you oppose the killing of human beings, how can you not oppose the killing of defenseless human beings, innocent human beings?
You call yourself a liberal. You pride yourself on 'speaking truth to power' and for defending the weak and disadvantaged. Well, how much power do the unborn wield?
I am a liberal and a pacifist, and I know this is a serious question, so I'd like to answer. Then I'd like to ask the Maverick Philosopher (and anyone else who would like to respond) a serious question in return.
As a pacifist (and, more simply, as a human being) I care about all living things, and this care does extend to the unborn. I feel that every abortion is tragic, and I have never advocated abortion as a personal choice.
But, being pro-choice and being pro-abortion are completely different things. I am not pro-abortion, but I am pro-choice. I know that many sane and reasonable women have chosen abortion and will continue to choose abortion (whether it is legal or not). Whether or not I would make the same choice in their position, I cannot support a law that takes away their right to make this decision, even though the decision differs from the decision I would make.
Is there a correspondence between being pro-choice and making a choice to have an abortion? I suspect that there isn't. A list of abortion statistics by U.S. state shows that there are lots of abortions in so-called "red states" like Kansas and Texas, just as there are in "blue states" like New York and Massachusetts. I bet that many women who profess to be pro-life have abortions, and I know there are many women who are fervently pro-choice who would never choose abortion for themselves. Bill Vallicella may be correct that a pacifist will recoil at the idea of abortion -- but he is wrong to imply that this has anything to do with the political controversy regarding the legality of abortion.
I hope this answers the Maverick Philosopher's question, and here's my question back: how can you claim to be a libertarian, and yet want the government to outlaw abortion?
People complain that the Occupy Wall Street movement has no goals, even though the General Assembly has posted a clear statement of principles. I consider myself a part of this movement, and I'd like to state what I think this important protest needs to achieve.
I know a little bit about finance. No, actually, I know a whole lot about finance. I worked two years directly on Wall Street, and another two years before that for a banking research boutique, Loan Pricing Corporation (now known as Thompson Reuters LPC). In 1999 I made a personal profit of over $100,000 on a dot-com IPO (as I wrote about in my memoir of the Silicon Alley boom). I have gained and lost money on other stock market investments as well, and I've read many books about high finance, from The House of Morgan by Ron Chernow to Too Big to Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin.
I hung around the Occupy Wall Street protests in downtown Manhattan last week for a couple of days. Here are a few things I saw that I liked:
- a quiet meditation circle, just a few steps from noisy Broadway, where about 60 people sat in peaceful contemplation
- a great march that proceeded west on Wall Street, north on Broad Street, up to the Federal Reserve Bank, and back to Wall
- cops that were mostly friendly
- cheerful rapport between protesters and Wall Streeters at work ("join us!" "yeah, whatever")
- well-organized free food for those living in Zuccotti Park
- a vast do-it-yourself protest sign-painting operation
- a few highly active drum/dance circles and horn jams
- various informal information stations where tourists could ask questions
- an open performance spot, where a young girl sang a song and a poet read a poem
- a small group earnestly discussing techniques of non-violent resistance
The best moment for me came Friday night just after dusk, when I began hearing that a general assembly was about to take place somewhere nearby. Curious as to what exactly an #occupywallstreet general assembly would consist of, I asked around and got pointed to a spot in the middle of Zuccotti Park. There seemed to be nothing going on at this exact place, so I hopped up to sit on a wall and wait. A few minutes later a group of people who turned out to be the regular facilitators of each evening's general assembly began to gather around me. I had picked the right place to sit, and was now in the center of the action.
Soon somebody right next to me yelled "Mic check!", and a group of people milling around us yelled back "Mic check!". At this call, others began to melt into the group, and people began to sit down on the park's paved floor. Soon there were about 250 people gathered around. Four of the facilitators sitting next to me stood up and introduced themselves, and one of them explained how the communication in this large group was going to work.
I did not find myself on Wall Street by accident; I had graduated from a state university with a computer science degree six years earlier, and had taken a series of jobs that each brought me closer to the top of my field. I wasn't particularly interested in high finance, but I was ambitious for an exciting career, and the financial industry was considered the most prestigious place for a techie to work in New York City at this time. I did not find what I hoped for there. My two year adventure at JP Morgan left me deeply disappointed on many levels, and I consider myself lucky that I was able to leave the financial software marketplace for better work elsewhere (I never looked back, except sometimes in anger).
I wouldn't make a very good creationist, since I believe completely in Darwin's theory of natural selection and human evolution. I know that the scientific evidence for evolution is overwhelmingly persuasive. I find most religious creation myths childish and inane, and I've been known to snicker about creationist museums in Kentucky or Miss USA Pageant candidates who find the question "should evolution be taught in school?" hilariously tough to answer.
However, I try to check myself before laughing too hard, or else I might commit my own fallacy and conclude too glibly that anyone who does not believe in Darwinism today must be mentally addled or badly miseducated. I might allow myself to feel intellectually superior to creationists, and this would be a dangerous overstep. As an elaborate scientific theory about the distant past, Darwin's great discovery will never have the same force of persuasion as any theory that can be simply proven with direct experimentation. The evidence for evolution requires explanation, assumption and interpretation; it is not directly and immediately obvious. If I forget this basic fact, I might commit the error of lumping the theory of evolution in with more urgent and alarming recent theories and reports about man-made climate change. I might conclude that conservative politicians are engaged in a "war on science", and draw a hard line: if you don't believe in both global warming and evolution, you are a liar and a fool.
Here's a tough challenge for anybody: talk about politics, about everything our muddled, dysfunctional democratic government is doing wrong, without resorting to the following cliches:
- Declaring that the other side is evil.
- Declaring that the other side is stupid or uneducated.
- Declaring that the other side is so hopelessly corrupt that negotiation or compromise is pointless.
These easy excuses have become very popular in the United States of America, and of course the sentiments are the same on the right and the left. Many of those who find hope in the Tea Party movement believe that our government has been infiltrated by socialists or Marxists ("evil"), that decades of soft-headed liberal education has left Americans unable to understand and appreciate the hard edges of the U. S. Constitution ("stupid", "uneducated"), that Washington D.C. is a nest of thieves that must be wiped clean ("hopelessly corrupt") before our society's true inner goodness can be revealed.
On the other extreme are the frustrated liberals who may have once held some hope for Barack Obama's leadership, but are disgusted with the results so far. They believe our nation is in the grip of racist, hate-filled voters ("evil"), that the Fox News-watching, Rush Limbaugh-listening, Sarah Palin-fan club populace knows nothing about history or economics ("stupid", "uneducated"), that Washington D. C. is a nest of thieves that must be wiped clean ("hopelessly corrupt") before our society's true inner goodness can be revealed.
As I write these words, the United States Congress is attempting to wrap up one of the most surreal, theatrical and plainly ugly legislative battles in its history. The Republican-majority House of Representatives and the Democratic-majority Senate cannot pass a bill to raise the nation's debt ceiling, putting us days away from defaulting on our own national debt. This would be the equivalent of declaring national bankruptcy within a world economy that has always considered our debt to be completely solid and reliable.
The noisy spectacle aside, most observers are confident that a last minute compromise will be reached. (If it isn't, I trust that the smart and sensible Barack Obama will take steps to ensure the nation's solvency using every resource available to the Executive branch. We are at least a couple of options away from economic catastrophe.)
But what does it all mean? Here's what I think about the bigger issues, and I'd love to hear what you think too. I'll keep this as brief and succinct as I can.