Sunday, November 20, 2011

Some Thoughts On Occupy Wall Street, and Finally a Plea

I'm trying to keep up the writing! Yet I have begun to come down with a cold so I apologize for the often rambling nature of this short piece.

It was a little reported development a few days ago when the Occupy Wall Street folks moved into a rented office space in NYC. This is an indication of planning for the future and entering into a new phase of ongoing political agitation, one that is frankly overdue for the Occupy camp. Let's all be honest: who really expected the movement to be approaching winter and still going strong in cities that haven't forcefully ejected protesters? It is the strongest statement of American progressivism since the seventies and has brought rhetoric of our staggeringly unequal society, and corrupt corporatist policies into everyday people's lives.

The strength of Occupy Wall Street is unfortunately its chief weakness. The movement is purposefully leaderless, as it seeks to model a new society of radical democracy and equality, rejecting the oligarchical leanings of our political and economic systems. This is great. However, it has also had its issues: how Zuccotti Park almost collapsed from an inability to leverage an end to the drum circles comes to mind (though it was resolved by the established process) but otherwise it has been a well-functioning, self-governing organization. However, this is where it ends.

There isn't a sense of organization between the different cities, outside of sympathy and base camaraderie, and this hampers further directions for political agitation.

They need to buckle down and organize. They need to take their power to the unions (not the dreaded SEIU, who has drank the partisan Kool-Aid and is now seeking to make OWS a voting drive for the Democrats), the women's groups, the LGBT groups, the race groups, the immigration and anti-war groups, farmer's associations, and religious institutions with the message that all of their struggles are connected. This isn't just about financial malfeasance anymore: this is now about a broken system, a hydra of corruption encompassing politics, the media, and big business.

It is a broken system that creates a Meta-Narrative (yes, engaging critical theory) that supercedes everything. The problem isn't an institutional failure to combat Wall Street corruption, it's the dreaded Iranians; we shouldn't concern ourselves with ending the war, because look at these awesome toys the Pentagon is blowing billions on; don't question the obvious con of the two-party system, because partisan sparring is just so entertaining. No need to discuss patriarchy, or the war machine, or racism. It doesn't suit those in charge for those challenges to be made. This is where OWS can step in, build coalitions, and agitate for a new American Left.

This is what it will take. You can only occupy for so long until you build a long-lasting structure that can organize and sustain a viral presence in the American consciousness. There needs not to be control, but direction. You do not have to sacrifice the spirit of the movement's rejection of hierarchy in order to do this. Read up on Parecon and other alternative methods of sustaining large organizations in egalitarian forms. There can be a national body of coordinated action and ideas, and we can create a truly grassroots swell of popular support. We need to organize and do outreach, educate, and empower people to truly act in their own interests.

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Now, an open letter:

OWS: Don't forget that you represent the cops, even if they mace you. Police brutality and violence are structural problems born out of power, conflict, and the adaptation to roles (see: Stanford Prison Experiments). It will only benefit Wall Street/K Street/Congress/big Media to create an adversarial relationship with law enforcement by carving up your constituency. Do not play into this, as I fear you are, and make this about taking down the police. Acknowledge the role of institutional power and privilege, and how ultimately the rule of law is directed by those above and beyond the police.

The very nature of law enforcement, and our justice system in general, is based around three concepts.
  • One, heavily penalization of crimes committed most proportionally by poor people, which in turn leads to suspicion, deception, and occasionally violence by some impoverished communities against police officers, who react in kind with everything from ignoring crime in poor neighborhoods to treating all people of a certain stripe as potential criminals.
  • Two, a thriving and powerful prison lobby, who donates heavily to politicians that support long and strict incarceration policies. Here the incentive is to incarcerate even perpetrators of minor crimes, most often leading to high recidivism rates (usually for worse crimes!) among those released.
  • Three, a war on drugs founded on misconceptions and falsehoods that perpetuate a black market for narcotics, which leads to endemic violence and tangential criminality. Most violent crime is drug-related, and our nation's drug trade strongly influences social unrest in a variety of Latin American country's (Mexico and Colombia, to name two).
None of these problems are caused by police officers, yet they have to abide by these influences and operate within a system that heavily sanctions poorer people and in some ways encourage criminality. These create a strongly unequal society, and gives the police undue power over citizens. The incentive for an aloof and stern police force is high, and there is little to gain in reacting with acceptance of even support for disobedience of any sort, especially if it directly challenges those in power. When entities like J.P. Morgan can finance the NYPD at the drop of a hat, and the mayor of your city is a billionaire media tycoon with a flagrant disregard for the law (and does not-at-all-undemocratic-things like pushing through legislation to eliminate term limits) who has the ability to fire the police commissioner for whatever reason, police seem a lot less powerful.

Class war is a brutal thing because the power of those with capital and political connection to turn those beneath them against each other. Do not let this movement be a casualty of those manipulations.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Age of Innocence

The more urbane types hold the pat stereotype that professional sports - and by extension, college sports - are the domain of redneck idiots and go-nowhere inner-city youth playing ball for the enjoyment of an ugly and dull sect of the American character. It's easy to identify yourself by not just ignorance of sports but a pointed rejection of it, cutely remarking on sports culture's inherent absurdity while you go home and listen to your sensitive white-boy rock, kicking your feet up to the new Jeffrey Eugenides novel. These types of people have been judging the Penn State situation the harshest, calling for the elimination of college sports based on a perception of the institution's character, and displaying their own prejudices and classist annoyance.

The Penn State football program has been referred to by many as 'Camelot,' with varying tones of irony. If Penn State was Camelot, then Joe Paterno was its Arthur, and Jerry Sandusy was its Galahad or Bedivere. They were integral in creating a legendary team, the so-called "Linebacker U," known for producing a defensive line like none-other. Beyond this prowess was its reputation for honor, truth, and the good stuff only found in apple pies baked by a boy scout. Joe Paterno not only ran his football team, he was simply the most prominent person on Penn State's campus, and arguably its most powerful.

In a world rocked by shady, backdoor deals and the programs that allowed them Penn State was an exemplar of a school doing right.

It may be hard for my aforementioned urbanes to get the appeal of sports, but it's something that has existed since the dawn of civilization, when Greece had its Olympics and other feats of strength were recorded prior. Where states and cities have industrial might, the mercurial and vaguely imperial notions of cultural superiority (NYC I'm looking at you, here), and cultural squabbles, sports provide an identifiable measure of strength and skill that gives those who identify with a team bragging rights and pride. While the majority of sports fans are not on the team (har har), they can bond over the trivium of numbers and stats, the heritage of franchises and programs, have friendly debates over what and who specifically need replaced in order to finally gain a playoff berth (Browns fans represent), and have a generally unserious competition with other people.

It's identity. Sports creates a cultural flag that identifies you as part of a community and creates a built-in understanding, a bond, among people, and Penn State fans had an understanding: "We have something special going in Happy Valley."

What happens then when you find out that shining star in the franchise is rotting from within? Not with something relatively silly, like trading merchandise for free tattoos, but the top-to-bottom systemic concealment of a child rapist, a predator? What does it mean when your Galahad preyed on disadvantaged children, children groomed from the very charity he began, and nothing was done about it? The Grand Jury report - required reading for anyone interested in becoming engaged with this case - runs down the list of people who knew something was dreadfully wrong, and did nothing. Clinton Valley school district, the board of the Second Mile charity, the Penn State football program from a low-totem graduate assistant and up to the president of the university. Yes, that includes Joe Paterno.

There's been a lot of rigamarole and hoot-n-holler that Paterno did his legal obligation, and did not know about the extent to which Sandusky was abusing these children. This, however, is not a popular take. The Grand Jury report, a recent New York Times article, and a damning Deadspin interview with a former PSU Grad Assistant all suggest that this was not just an institutional failure, but a pointed cover-up, one that is not unprecedented.

You've got to be a Martian cave dweller or a vegetable to not have heard of the litany of accounts that members of the Catholic clergy have sexually abused young boys in their ward. What is most disheartening is the fervent desire among many to have this swept under the rug and ignored. The Church's overall stance remains a denial that any impropriety had occured, despite the sheer universality of accounts, and this has deeply divided the Catholic community. Many are willing to take the clergy at its word, and see accusations as sensational and manipulative. Others (largely atheists, agnostics, protestants, etc. ... the people predisposed to hate Catholics anyways) see this as a failure of the famously hierarchal and secretive faith. Religion, sports, not too far off from one another. Trade the football for a few lines of baptismal procedure and you've got the same damn pig.

However there is a nuance here that some will acknowledge. Those Penn State fans whose response to the scandal was a sober, muted introspection get it. The Catholics whom prayed for the heart of their faith, get it too. I suspect everyone who jammed to "Never Can Say Goodbye" and later spent hours learning to moonwalk, get the idea also. The terrible realization that our idols are often hollow, for easy carrying, and for us to pour our projected morality into. The fear that evil lurks in every locker room, every message board, and we won't always be able to save our children from it. The tragedy that there are some people who are untouchable, thanks to the efforts of powerful people in whose interest it is that some folks are never touched.

What happened in Penn State is not unprecedented. It is psychology; Kitty Genovese, Abu Ghraib, the Glen Ridge Rape, Phil Zimbardo's awful legacy: that a few sick people can eke by on the pliability of those weaker. That when Galahad comes around it's in your best interest to look away. Look at how people rioted when Joe Paterno was fired, you want THAT to be your legacy? Seen as the whistle-blowing idiot who ruined the kingdom? What if Mike McQueary, or Gary Schultz, or that poor bastard Graham Spanier went to the cops, tried to get Galahad put in child-rapist hell? You would be killed, cast out, your name cursed for the ages. That's why you do what you can, you pass the buck. This is why there are chains of command, after all, why should the man two notches up the pole take charge of a situation when in plain block letters, it says to report this up?

There is institutional failure all around, here, from the coaches to the university to the police, the district attorney, possibly even the attorney general, because who wants to expose a rot in the heart of Penn State? Would you want a legion of blood-thirsty college kids on your doorstep?

I was disheartened by the riots, like anyone with a moral compass and an appreciation for the color gray. I was annoyed by the ur-nationalistic fervor that people had in enshrining a man who was most likely complicit in child rape. I was flooded with fury that it took so long for Penn State students and alumni to show any solidarity for the victims (by way of a candelight vigil, the universal signal that 'we cannot figure out how to appropriately react to this tragedy, so here are some candles and be happy about it'), and that a ball-man was thrown out. But once my own tension receded I considered the heartbreak felt that Camelot is sick, that the world is sick, the remembrance that there is a world outside the valley full of deviants of all stripes, where culpability is a gray area, and that there are no replays and no stats to make sense of.

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When the financial crisis hit in 2007 I felt as though people buried themselves in sports and entertainment. Maybe it was my own perspective, but cheering for a pass completion seemed that much louder, the integration of team apparel and everyday wardrobe seemed that closer, and people I'd have never taken for sports fans were there dutifully on Sundays cheering. It all seemed strange to me, but now I see that as a national yearning for an age of innocence, where the elite can debate about corporatism, mortgage-backed securities, and political corruption, but leave "us" our heroes and a world where things can be right. "We" want to be reminded that virtue and hard work can be rewarded, and that there are places free of the world's corruption and painful truths.

See you in Avalon, Joe.