Saturday was Yom Kippur and tomorrow is (observed) Columbus Day. I haven’t been downtown yet to the tent city at City Hall. I have watched a few hours of the live-stream from New York, LA and DC. This is so exciting! Thousands of people have taken to the streets and are occupying public spaces in a dozen cities! The Occupy Wall Street action began three weeks ago, in response to Adbusters’ call. (The magazine is one of my favorite occasional periodicals.) The common chant, “We are the 99%,” has broad resonance. To me, it appears that small communities of activists are staking out space, staging marches, attracting attention from the police, and quickly outgrowing the space they’ve occupied. The handful of “organized” people in New York said they’d begun with supplies for two weeks, but run through everything. Volunteers, donations and a spirit of generosity were providing for people’s basic needs.
The live-streams have been moderated by various participants, across a wide range of perspectives. Interviews invariably begin with, “Why are you here?” Answers are as expected: “I can’t find a job.” “I lost my house.” “I can’t pay my student loans.” People who have been badly hurt during the current economic upheaval have come with their grievances. They are seeking redress. They have seen the top 1% get richer and richer while the rest of us continue to lose our personal and common wealth. As yet, I have not heard any single demand arise. General Assemblies are forming at each occupation, and people are talking, but no list of demands, agenda or manifesto has appeared. There are certain to be documents and drafts of documents circulating. I want to see them! And I want to find the best, most interesting ones and send them around.
This is a teachable moment, a pre-revolutionary moment.
* *What is being taught? What is being learned?
Every learning situation is different and unique, but there are fundamental questions the learner and the pedagogue should raise. The answers will be displayed in several dimensions, from recorded “hard data” and well-defined objectives to ephemeral observations of how learners “feel” and the identification of teachers’ unconscious biases of teachers. What is taught and what is learned are sometimes not the lessons we intended. What we observe about this “teachable moment” ought to help us figure out how to best take advantage of the opportunity.
The teachable moment arises in situations when our vulnerability and our trust in authority are challenged. An example of a teachable moment, taken from my student days, may be helpful. By the fall of 1967 I had decided to defy the government’s order to report for military service. Like many young people, I had no interest in taking part in the war in Vietnam, or any war, but I registered anyway and was issued a draft card. I suppose it was meant to rouse some sense of patriotism. As a student, I completed the forms to postpone my service. My cooperation wasn’t coming from allegiance to the flag or any semblance of duty to my country. It was motivated by fear. I was afraid of the stigma of “refusing the call,” as well as the hardships of incarceration for refusing to serve. I knew this, intellectually and viscerally, but it wasn’t until another student talked about it that I understood how that fear was reinforced and used to manipulate us.
The student, David Harris, asked the men in the audience (it was an anti-war rally) to take out their draft cards and read what it said on the back. Basically, it was a threat to fine the registrant (me) up to $10,000 and imprison him for up to five years if he destroyed the card or failed to comply with Selective Service orders. This piece of paper was the material reinforcement of the fear I was meant to feel. It was a symbolic and physical instrument of state power and social control. By law, I was required to carry it in my wallet. The draft card was a teaching tool, and what it taught was not love of country, but fear.
As Walt Kelly sagely observed, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
* *Things to do? Something Is Happening ...
The Occupation (#OWS) appears to be very fluid. As learning environments, each occupation is unique, but all are temporary, mobile, open and inclusive. Very different from the usual classroom. Who are the teachers? Who are the learners? What are the “objectives” and who defines them? What is the curriculum and who decides that? Is there a trend toward discussion, away from lecture? How are arrangements made for “class meetings”? Is there a class project? a practical application of what’s being learned? Are there links to other “classes” at other occupations? I think there is a great deal of useful information and experience that can be shared, but making the connections between occupations is essential. This could be a first attempt to distribute power (information) horizontally on local, regional, national and global scales. (More on this from Jeremy Rifkin: The Empathic Civilization, & YouTube.)
The first point to understand, I think, is that this is not the revolution. There is no foolproof recipe for revolution -- each is unique to its time and place -- but there are some common features that precede the overthrow of the state. One of these is the “oppressed classes” (the 99% ?) beginning to get past the divisions that have separated them. Antagonists are forming coalitions. A feature yet to come is the broad understanding that privilege is power. The practical work of building alternative and parallel social structures to replace the state that’s about to be smashed must continue or be initiated. These are some markers along a possible path toward a fair and sane future.
I hope the lessons of the Occupation are clearly stated and shared as they emerge:
- This is what democracy looks like: an open, inclusive and transparent process.
- All sovereign state power is the expression and exercise of the will of the privileged: the law will always protect power and privilege.
9 October 2011