Artists and Skeptics in OWS
During times of conflict, nations and individuals are inevitably confronted with a few key questions. What the fuck were we doing again? Why did it matter? Why is Snooki here?
No matter what you do or who you are, you inevitably find a purpose for existence. That is, you find reasons why the world needs your skill set, be it confidant, agitator, comedian, athlete, or number-cruncher. As the floodwaters rose in New Orleans, as the buildings crumbled in Chile, organizers and philanthropists got off their asses and motivated the rest of us. Incapacitated by the sheer size of the tragedy, we needed those groups to nudge, prod, and poke our brains into action. Only then could we become a part of the solution instead of an anchor on the problem. On September 11, 2001, it was the police, the firefighters, the able-bodied men and women who pointed us in the right direction. On Sundays, it’s Drew Brees who inspires and leads. On weekdays, it’s the teachers. At nights, the chefs. We all have our place. We all have our goals. We all have someone who needs us.
I personally identify as a member of (at least) two distinct groups – writers and skeptics, both of whom constantly deal with the same version of the same problem: Do we focus on our long-term goals and do we join the weekly roundtable? Or: When exactly do we matter? As skeptics, we have to ask ourselves about the importance of the global warming fight when America’s economic system is eating itself. How much energy can I invest fighting the anti-vaccine nutballs when there are riots in our streets and boots on the ground in over 900 cities worldwide? We shouldn’t chase storms. But we should be flexible enough to understand that social movements occasionally take precedence. Sometimes, we matter. And occasionally, “sometimes” becomes “now.” This movement, this Occupation of Wall Street, needs skeptics and it needs artists. More so, I would argue, than it needs economists, philanthropists, or even community organizers (but maybe less than sanitation workers). #OWS is a cultural and conceptual movement that springs out of a gut reaction to deep-seated, institutionalized inequalities. The economic figures are so staggering, the legal-ese so overwhelming… how do we fight it? How do we conquer a system decades in the making? Through clear thinking, clear alternatives, and clear rallying points. This is what we’re fighting for – we want you to break up the monopolies. This is what we want – a tax on hedge fund gambling. These are distractions – anything using the word Communism. Clean it up, repackage it, put it back out there. We need to harness the best versions of our arguments and we need to be intellectually secure in our points before we get aggressive about them. We need to be unafraid to truthfully examine opposing ideas, so we’re confident that A) we’re fighting the right fight and B) we understand the counterarguments. This ain’t easy.
Skeptics are good at nuance. They’re okay with being wrong. They’ve learned not to demonize the opposition. They work hard at being reasonable. And in times of ultra-polarized conflict, reason is the first thing to get defenestrated. Even recently, with videos of the spiraling Oakland protest multiplying across Facebook and Twitter, it was disconcerting to see the immediate lines being drawn in the sand: protestors v. police. Obviously, it’s human nature to build alliances and identify as part of a team. But in these protests, we confront an interesting situation – the elements of state control, the coppers, have a vested interest in our fight. They were hired to maintain public safety, protect civilians, and maintain order. We hired them to do that, because we want that. No one wants martial law – we simply want the right to express our grievances and the opportunity for change. And the protestors at Occupy Oakland understood that. They were urging non-violence, preaching peace, but a few bad apples got in there and threw some paint and tossed some bottles and things got bad. Did the police overreact? Yup. Were some of those protestors full of the suck? Sure. But it’s the way in which we react to this incident that defines it—not the incident itself. And sadly, because many of us are so insanely frustrated that the actual objects of our hatred and derision — the corrupt economic systems, greedy CEOs and dumb-ass speculators—aren’t around, we revert to silly, easy symbology: Those dudes are representatives of the State -> The State fucked us -> Fuck those dudes. The reality, as is often the case, is much more complicated. What we cannot do is lose sight of the goal. We want conflict, we want resolution, we want an A + B = C situation. But we can’t have these things… at least not right away. This is a crucial time for a global movement and rational minds must prevail, or we risk unnecessary time, effort, money, and blood. All of these may be necessary at some point, but let’s invest carefully. We have truth on our side, we have numbers on our side, and we have history on our side. It’s our game to lose. We can afford to be non-violent because we are right. We can afford to be gracious because we are right. We can afford to shout because we are right. Similarly, when and if the situation calls for it, we can afford to be aggressive and messy because we are right. But to make real progress, we need to be comfortable with gray areas, messy progress and admitting fault. Skeptics, pick up your banners and lead the fuckin’ way.
Bold, sweeping claims are usually wrong. But I’m going to make one. Here: Most great social movements were started and spread by artists and philosophers. From Socrates and the Greeks to Voltaire and the Enlightenment, groundswells of reason and the messy birth of radical ideas almost always erupt from the mouths of writers and poets. This profession has the luxury to rally through fiction, to reimagine through words and images. Imagine Obama’s election without the iconic images of Shepard Fairey, the masculinity debate without Fight Club, the gender debate without Hillary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry or even the libertarian argument without Atlas Shrugged. Artists give us the tools with which to fight, the words to express ourselves, and the images to rally around. Occupy Wall Street needs words and images. It needs solid ideas. It needs viable new worlds to chant about. It needs songs and plays and books and new brainstems prowling the borders. It needs hope and inspiration. Artists, this is about you. This is what you do. It’s a clash of worldviews, a head-on collision between greed and philanthropy, between “I” and “Us,” between a shared future and a fractured, combative narrative. Hike up your pants. Tell us a new story. Make us a new flag.
This Occupation comes as a result of decades of shitty right-wing framing and profligate lies. If you use their words and you accept their starting points, the game is already lost. “War on Terror” and “top earners” and “pro-life” and “Obamacare” and “tax relief” and “gay marriage” – use these phrases and the endgame is locked down. You blew it. We must do better at telling our own stories. We must do better at understanding the world we live in. We need leaders now, more than ever, from the artistic and skeptic communities to devote time and energy to this movement, because if this thing fails, it may not rise again. So stop waiting for the “movement to crystalize” or “the amorphous goals to congeal.” Fucking make the goals. Crystalize the movement. You’re the one who needs to do it. We need skeptical minds and artistic voices to shout and rally and create and lead. If there ever was a time, it’s now. The next uprising, should it come, may not be as peaceful.