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?
It's a strange and delightful fact that the Occupy movement which began last month on Wall Street was not born on Twitter or Facebook or a blog. Rather, the idea emerged from a dusty print-based medium that almost nobody cares about anymore (or so we thought), a format that dates back to the days of Husker Du and Pagan Kennedy. Occupy Wall Street was born in a zine.
Adbusters was founded in Vancouver, Canada in 1989 by Kalle Lasn, an Estonian-born filmmaker outraged by the insidious and deceptively "warm" television commercials the timber industry was running in the Pacific Northwest to cover its destruction of vast areas of forest. Adbusters began using humor and parody to highlight and combat corporate and consumerist groupthink, and over the past two decades has staged many events and campaigns: TV commercials that mock other commercials, "open source" sneakers resembling existing sneaker brands, a "Buy Nothing Day" to combat holiday shopping mania, fake tickets to place on the windshields of SUVs. The zine became a staple of bookstore magazine shelves in the 1990s, sharing space with other worthy indie publications like Bitch, Giant Robot, Bust, Maximum Rock 'N' Roll, Craphound and Factsheet Five.
Like many other media jammers such as Julian Assange, Kalle Lasn is stronger on vision than on charisma, and likes to keep a low public profile. He occasionally appears on TV, and wrote a book, Culture Jam: The Uncooling of America, in 1999. Unlike other media organizations with less political conviction, Adbusters appears to be truly opposed to mainstream success, and has resisted the temptaion to dilute its message in search of greater popularity. But the organization's intrinsic hostility to media respectability has sometimes left curious newcomers confused about its program, and has given its opponents an easy opportunity to dismiss the (clearly honest) organization as extremist, Marxist, sympathetic to foreign influences.
Returning to Romania, my native country after 30 years, made me feel like Rip Van Winkle. I didn’t fall asleep for that many years, but I did fall out of touch with my native country — and Eastern Europe in general — as I was focusing on my personal and professional life in the United States. My memories of my native country didn’t fade, however. I kept them alive through my fiction, the novel Velvet Totalitarianism that I’ve already written about on Litkicks, and that has just been republished in Romanian translation as Between Two Worlds (Intre Doua Lumi). The image of Romania in my head was also somewhat faded: a kind of black and white — or gray, more like it — snapshot of the communist country my family fled from in 1981. I described this dire image as vividly as I could in my novel:
While Eva waited for the pietoni (pedestrians/walk) sign to turn green, her eyes couldn’t help but focus on the poster of General Secretary Nicolae Ceausescu directly facing her. The dictator’s face was frozen into the larger-than-life image he wanted to convey: his hair was still dark, glossy and youthful; his brown eyes sparkled with a reassuring warmth; his sensual mouth smiled with compassion; his aquiline, Roman nose took away some of the face’s natural beauty but gave it an air of authority. Eva thought how different this man was, and his benevolent image, from the day-to-day reality facing most Romanians. She turned away her gaze with disgust, yet found no consolation in her immediate surroundings. That winter evening, everything looked gray—the streets, the dingy buildings, the people scurrying about. Even the falling snow couldn’t add a glimmer of beauty to the gloomy atmosphere. Disoriented snowflakes fell helplessly onto the ground and disappeared without a trace into the pavement. What a pity, Eva whispered to herself, thinking that during the past few years, Bucharest in the evening had become a depressing sight. The formerly lively capital, filled with dazzling lights, picturesque cobblestone streets, Napoleonic-style buildings and its very own version of L’arc de triomphe (Arcul de Triumf) looked anything but triumphant now.
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.
The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined is a new book by psychologist Steven Pinker (I introduced it here last week, and it's on the cover of today's New York Times Book Review) that documents in exhausting detail how much less violent our planet is than ever before in history. The First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It by David A. Bell, one of my all-time favorite history books, is an illuminating look at how the Napoleonic wars following the French Revolution began a new era of vicious ideological warfare in Europe that set the pattern for the genocidal horrors of the past century. War and politics, according to David A. Bell, have never before been as broadly destructive as they are today.
How can both of these books be telling the truth at the same time?
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.
The popular psychologist Steven Pinker has written a provocative book about politics and history, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. The title comes from Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
This book proposes that we often miss a vital point when we talk about war, violence and genocide. On a broad historical level, says Pinker, mankind is doing great. Fewer people are victimized by war or violent crime than ever before. This cuts against the common idea that our civilization has declined, that the 20th century was a century of military and genocidal horror, that the 21st century is shaping up to be even worse. Pinker explains the moral significance of his contrary findings, and his approach in writing the book, in the introductory chapter:
The belief that violence has increased suggests that the world we made has contaminated us, perhaps irretrievably. The belief that it has decreased suggests that we started off nasty and that the artifices of civilization have moved us in a noble direction, one in which we can hope to continue. This is a big book, but it has to be. First I have to convince you that violence really has gone down over the course of history, knowing that the very idea invites skepticism, incredulity and sometimes anger. Our cognitive faculties predispose us to believe that we live in violent times.
Not surprisingly, initial reviews of this book are expressing skepticism, incredulity and sometimes anger. Elizabeth Kolbert considers and dismisses the book's purpose in the current New Yorker, objecting to Pinker's cold calculus. Even if statistics prove that the world gets less violent as it civilizes, Kolbert asks, what solace is this to teenage shooting victims in Norway, to the murdered millions of World War II, to inner-city African-Americans unlucky enough to live in depressed housing projects that fail to follow the happy trend? Kolbert's reaction is exactly the one Pinker predicted in his introduction (though, of course, the fact that Pinker anticipated Kolbert's criticism doesn't mean that Kolbert's criticism is invalid).
The book's inevitable critique has an emotional subtext that you won't pick up unless you begin to read the book yourself. Pinker, a Harvard professor who has also written How the Mind Works and The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, writes with the excited tone of a smart-ass at a party who enjoys offending polite society with uncomfortable truth, and the excitement in his narrative voice becomes palpable during the long passages in which he describes the high incidence of pillage, child slaughter and rape (committed, unfortunately, by the good guys) in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and in every book of the Hebrew Bible. This is a book for pacifists, but like many pacifist books, Better Angels is designed to deliver a punch.
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).
There once lived a giant of philosophy, a rock star of ethics, now almost completely forgotten, named Auguste Comte. Born in Montpelier in southern France amidst the tumult of the French Revolution, he made it his life's mission to integrate the Revolution's better ideas into a scientific structure, Positivism, that sought rational principles to guide our understanding of both the physical and the moral world.
His scientific writings would gain wide favor in the Darwinian era, but he challenged his readers to follow his arguments beyond science into the thorny arena of culture and politics. He is often cited as the founder of Sociology, and he invented the word "altruism" (in French, altruisme, based on the Latin root for "other"). With a deft perception that often eludes us today, Comte described altruism as a basic fact of human nature -- not an illusory by-product of selfish interests, but a primary, inviolable element of the soul.
Auguste Comte was vastly admired during the late 19th Century, not only by his peers and followers (philosopher John Stuart Mill, novelist George Eliot, theologian Richard Congreve) but also by the public at large. He was a rare intellectual celebrity of international proportions, and his fame grew even greater after his death in 1857. Basking in popularity towards the end of his life, he went so far as to found his own "religion", a scientific and philosophical "Church of Humanity" that would last for decades (one elegant church building is now a tourist attraction in Brazil). He and his followers were so sure that they had found the key to a happy and peaceful world society that they decided to invent a new calendar, the Positivist Calendar, with months and days named after great thinkers (today, according to this calendar, is the 15th of Shakespeare). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes Auguste Comte's influence at its peak:
It difficult today to appreciate the interest Comte's thought enjoyed a century ago, for it has received almost no notice during the last five decades. Before the First World War, Comte's movement was active nearly everywhere in the world. The best known case is that of Latin America: Brazil, which owes the motto on its flag ‘Ordem e Progresso’ (Order and Progress) to Comte and Mexico are two prominent examples. The positivists, i.e., the followers of Comte, were equally active in England, the United States and India. And in the case of Turkey, its modern secular character can be traced to Comte's influence on the Young Turks.