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Compassion Is Our New Currency: Notes on 2011’s Preoccupied Hearts and Minds
Posted on Dec 24, 2011
By Rebecca Solnit, TomDispatch
The word “occupy” itself speaks powerfully to the American disappeared and the very idea of disappearance. It speaks to those who have lost their occupation or the home they occupied. In its many meanings, it’s a big tent. It means to fill a space, take possession of it, employ oneself, busy oneself, fill time. (In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the verb had a meaning so sexual it fell out of common use.) It describes the state of being present that the Occupy movement’s General Assemblies and tent camps have lived out, a space in which—as Mohamed Bouazizi might have dreamed it—the disappeared can reappear with dignity.
Occupy has also created a space in which people of all kinds can coexist, from the homeless to the tenured, from the inner city to the agrarian. Coexisting in public with likeminded strangers and acquaintances is one of the great foundations and experiences of democracy, which is why dictatorships ban gatherings and groups—and why our First Amendment guarantee of the right of the people peaceably to assemble is being tested more strongly today than in any recent moment in American history. Nearly every Occupy has at its center regular meetings of a General Assembly. These are experiments in direct democracy that have been messy, exasperating and miraculous: arenas in which everyone is invited to be heard, to have a voice, to be a member, to shape the future. Occupy is first of all a conversation among ourselves.
To occupy also means to show up, to be present—a radically unplugged experience for a digital generation. Today, the term is being applied to any place where one plans to be present, geographically or metaphorically: Occupy Wall Street, occupy the food system, occupy your heart. The ad hoc invention of the people’s mic by the occupiers of Zuccotti Park, which requires everyone to listen, repeat, and amplify what’s being said, has only strengthened this sense of presence. You can’t text or half-listen if your task is to repeat everything, so that everyone hears and understands. You become the keeper of your brother’s or sister’s voice as you repeat their words.
It’s a triumph of the here and now—and it’s everywhere: the Regents of the University of California are mic-checked, politicians are mic-checked, the Durban Climate Conference in South Africa had occupiers and mic-check moments. Activism had long been in dire need of new modes of doing things, and this year it got them.
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Before the Occupy movement arrived on the scene, political dialogue and media chatter in this country seemed to be arriving from a warped parallel universe. Tiny government expenditures were denounced, while the vortex sucking our economy dry was rarely addressed; hard-working immigrants were portrayed as deadbeats; people who did nothing were anointed as “job creators”; the trashed economy and massive suffering were overlooked, while politicians jousted over (and pundits pontificated about) the deficit; class war was only called class war when someone other than the ruling class waged it. It’s as though we were trying to navigate Las Vegas with a tattered map of medieval Byzantium—via, that is, a broken language in which everything and everyone got lost.
Then Occupy arrived and, as if swept by some strange pandemic, a contagious virus of truth-telling, everyone was suddenly obliged to call things by their real names and talk about actual problems. The blather about the deficit was replaced by acknowledgments of grotesque economic inequality. Greed was called greed, and once it had its true name, it became intolerable, as had racism when the Civil Rights Movement named it and made it evident to those who weren’t suffering from it directly. The vast scale of suffering around student debt and tuition hikes, foreclosures, unemployment, wage stagnation, medical costs, and the other afflictions of the normal American suddenly moved to the top of the news, and once exposed to the light, these, too, became intolerable.
If the solutions to the nightmares being named are neither near nor easy, naming things, describing reality with some accuracy, is at least a crucial first step. Informing ourselves as citizens is another. Aspects of our not-quite-democracy that were once almost invisible are now on the table for discussion—and for opposition, notably corporate personhood, the legal status that gives corporations the rights, but not the obligations and vulnerabilities, of citizens. (One oft-repeated Occupier sign says, “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas puts one to death.”)
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