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Never Underestimate the Value of Just Showing Up
In response to “Beyond Occupy” in today’s NY Times:
Dear Bill Keller,
I was surprised and pleased to see that on your recent trip to India, you made time to talk with the social activist Anna Hazare–or at least, with a member of his team, since the great man himself, “exhausted by his latest hunger strike and weary of the media melodramas that have bedeviled his team,” had just “announced that he had taken an indefinite ‘vow of silence.’”
Obviously you didn’t think much of this as a tactic for activism, but you went ahead and talked to his associate, a woman, “Kiran Bedi, who battled for reforms as India’s first policewoman before joining Hazare.”
Despite this conversation, and despite the name of Hazare’s organization, Team Anna, you came away from this encounter with the impression that the movement is dependent on the personal charismatic leadership of Mr. Hazare. You also noted approvingly that Hazare is “always very explicit about his objectives”–he makes specific, winnable demands.
You used this information to criticize the American Occupy movement for its “consensus-oriented and resolutely leaderless” character, and its stance as a “composite of idealistic causes, many of them vague.”
You also took the occasion to contrast the Occupy Wall Street movement, which you say is “scornful of both parties and generally disdainful of electoral politics,” with Team Anna, which “uses Indian democracy shrewdly” to advance its aims. And while you say that the Occupy movement “has at least a strong undercurrent of anticapitalism,” the Indian movement of Hazare is, according to spokeswoman Bedi, “not anticapitalist,” but rather “pro-integrity.”
You ended your column by sticking it to the Occupy Wall Street crowd with a pithy zinger that I’m sure had you chuckling to yourself:
“I’m prepared to celebrate when the Occupiers…accomplish something more than organizing their own campsite cleanup, demonstrating their tolerance for tear gas, and distracting the conversation a little from the Tea Party. So far, the main achievement of Occupy Wall Street is showing up.”
Well, Mr. Former Executive Editor of the New York Times, I think you need to get over yourself and wipe that self-congratulatory smirk from your face.
You are among the 1% who “showed up” to be crucial cogs in the capitalist and electoral wheel that cranked us inexorably to where we are now, mired in an economic and political system so corrupt and so destructive that it has effectively locked out the millions of young people in this country who might have wanted to give American-style democracy and capitalism a chance.
Despite having covered the news for the past thirty years or so, you don’t seem to have realized that there are very few American dissenters today who can evade capture and imprisonment or even worse, assassination. Noam Chomsky and the late Howard Zinn got away with it. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Mumia, Peltier and even Tim DeChristopher have not.
The strength of the Occupy movement is precisely in its “resolutely leaderless” quality. It’s also, as Slavoj Zizek perceptively noted recently, being strategic in not coming up with a unified “platform,” with planks that can be shot down by snipers from all sides.
Yes, the Occupy movement is suspicious of electoral politics. That’s because it’s smart enough to figure out that if even someone as apparently idealistic and populist as Barack Obama enters the maw of American “democracy” and comes out zombified, the system itself is not worth trying to win. It has to be changed from the ground up.
And that’s what those resolute, leaderless people on the ground at Liberty Parks all over the country are out to do. By just showing up, day after day, they slowly pull the Bill Kellers of the world out of their insulated comfort zones and into the conversation.
I may not like what Keller has to say, but I’m glad he’s talking about these issues, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to engage him in dialogue about what’s wrong with our society, and how we might go about making it better.
Never underestimate the power of a company of dedicated activists who JUST SHOW UP, day after day, to change the world. They just might be able to do it.
Let’s give them credit, let’s give them a chance, and let’s give them a hand!