Friday, October 28, 2011

Occupy Everything: Let's Stay Here 'Till it Sucks

One of the poignant hilarities of Burning Man this year was Ted's realization that most people live their lives according to a passive principle we now call "Let's Stay Here 'Till it Sucks." At Burning Man, when things are not sucking, they tend to be AMAZING, so the principle works the opposite way it works in the default world. In other words, Let's Stay Here 'Till it Sucks means "This is great! I love it! I want to do it for a while longer!" at Burning Man, but in the rest of the world it often means "I don't hate this, so let's keep going until I do."

The state of not-really-hating your life is what many Americans have mistaken for being happy with their lives. I think about this more and more often at Occupy, but also often in conversations with people about sex, sex work, the law, literature, art, traveling, and love, which are all political conversations to me, even if they don't seem that way to others. (Every day I talk about these things. This is one major way in which my life does not suck at all.) The point is, people stay in relationships that seem okay, because they aren't obviously abusive and everyone around them isn't objecting. They stay in jobs that aren't obviously soul-crushing or patently destructive to the world in an immediate sense. They eat food that seems alright because it was marketed to them in a relatively legible way. They have sex that has worked for them in the past, and even when it seems less and less sexy, they accept that as a kind of normal decline, and that's ok too.

And they don't notice that things have really started to suck.

Laura Kipnis wrote a book called "Against Love" in which she argues that this is why people cheat on each other: not because they are basically hard-wired to be nonmonogamous (although she believes that too) but because you don't really understand how bored or uninspired you are until BLAM! someone comes along and kick-starts your sexy hormones and ALL YOU WANT IN THE WORLD is to feel that good. It's the same argument for any drug, including the ones I like best: sugar and compliments. You seem alright, but then, something comes into your body or your peripheral vision, and it seems so much better, and you are faced with the choice to run after it and risk your life as it was, or ignore it, and risk your life as it was.

And this is why Occupy is so beautiful, even as the Los Angeles General Assemblies implode and the listerve gets cranky and the sleepless activists start hating each other for drum circles or pot smoking. It's still a group of people who looked at their toaster pastries and their bank statements one morning and thought, "This really sucks. This sucks BECAUSE it is supposed to seem as though it doesn't."

Our banks are supposed to seem like they are ok. Obama is supposed to seem ok. The WARS are supposed to seem ok. It's all supposed to seem inevitable and normal and even "natural," and people talk about "human nature" when the cops tear gas a crowd of incredibly dedicated, motivated people in Oakland. I say, bullshit. We stayed here (American status quo) long enough, everyone. It sucks now.

Our main-stream movies mostly suck. Most of our food sucks. Our constant self-congratulatory rhetoric about how powerful we are sucks. Women still make 74 cents on the dollar despite the fact that they are graduating from college at a rate of almost 2-1, which means some percentage of men are not only doing worse in school, others are clinging to their positions of power and not helping anyone. We put nearly 25% of our black men in prison and then pretend it's their fault they are under-employed.

It's not that I believe griping does much. But I do still hear complaints from those outside the Occupy movement about how we don't seem to know what we want. We do. We would like to see people starting to care about how much life in America sucks for a huge percentage of its population. Even that would be enough. Just that would change the tide of our media, would fundamentally transform us from a pseudo optimistic populace of people who have grown used to being lied to into a crowd of getting-educated voices attempting to redress grievances and understand each other.

And so if one thinks of every space as a place to Occupy, which means a space in which to think very carefully about what could be BETTER here, the whole zeitgeist will change. The philosophy of acceptance of things that don't seem to suck will give way to a philosophy of constant visionary attempts at change for the better. Do you know who already does this? Kids. Watch them. They are never satisfied with things that are simply acceptable. And this is the message of the Occupy movement that keeps getting drowned: we want things to be better, and that is a risky position we are willing to live in, and willing to make sacrifices for, and willing to defend against the inertia of a country that has been basically exhausted and worried and just trying to get somewhere that doesn't suck for so many years it doesn't seem to know how to run after the sexy, the bright, the unfamiliarly beautiful.

The major tactic to use against the Occupiers, which is happening right now in Oakland, SF, NYC, and DC, is to make life suck there. Hurt them with tear gas, rubber bullets, and make them feel hopeless about their power. It's a more direct way of making people unhappy than the many years of consumer culture that make them numb. And this is why the whole thing is so important: the serious attempt being made to shed the years of voiceless, numb, nonparticipatory isolation that makes the middle and lower classes despairingly unable to change their government.

Living this way has made me extremely sensitive--if I wasn't already. I'm crying while riding the bus to school, I'm begging people in class to think about the life-and-death consequences of their beliefs and actions, I'm groaning and laughing and feeling overwhelmed and getting hurt all the time and getting in fights and inappropriately ruining "nice" conversations and feeling more urgency to everything. When there are moments of tenderness or rest, I'm sinking into them recklessly. I got sick last week and still all this was happening. Because it's always happening. I just caught the train this time.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

I Live Mostly in a Tent and It's Great

I write from the apartment affectionately known as The Bedroom in MacArthur Park, downtown Los Angeles, where I'm on a break from Occupying LA to be online, eat food, clean my body, replenish supplies, and get ready for a weekend in the Bay Area doing readings for the new awesome anthology Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience (OV Books! Get it!)

My new friend Jonas took this photo last weekend on the one-week marker for the LA Occupy group. Last night's General Assembly meeting was the first time I saw LA occupiers really lose their focus, yell at each other unnecessarily, break the consensus process, and generally break down before they rallied again in solidarity with each other. Because the movement is getting big, there were a lot of occupiers who never even saw the meeting. Democracy, and its incarnations here, fascinates. Someone very insightfully noticed that we were all getting scared--scared of the process breaking down, scared of the implications of warnings that came in from police, scared of what happened to our comrades in Boston, scared that we may get nowhere and all end up dispirited and jobless, scared and scared and scared. Try doing this out of love instead, he said. Cliche? Who cares? It was wise. People calmed down. I wonder if he has kids. I hope he has some soon. 

I'm going to a few links below to those who want to read more about the Occupy movement, as many participants and sympathizers are offering incredible analysis even as we speak. What I want to say here is what I have been saying to many in my life who are reluctant to come down to the Tent City. 

One does not have to know exactly what the Occupy movement is demanding to know that we are doing something this country hasn't seen for years, if ever. That fact alone should excite anyone who is upset by the American status quo. My friends who are not occupying have many objections to the movement. I actually don't care to refute them. What I care about is that everyone who wants to have issue with us, must come meet us. You must know your candidates to vote responsibly. Just come down and visit, I say. We'll eat a sandwich on the lawn and talk to people. You don't have to pitch a tent in your first hour here. And who wouldn't want to see the spectacle? Well, the friends come. The people I can't be close to don't. Sometimes life offers you a litmus test of incredible predictability, and you have to feel some pain of loss to get to the truth. I'm relieved to know who I can trust now.

At Occupy, we often use the rhetoric of consciousness-raising groups from the radical left of the 60s and 70s, and one phrase in particular that I love is :we've "woken up." It doesn't mean that we all agree on what exactly the "dream" was, but there is a sense of real exodus towards a new civic reality, and because we are downtown in the city where we live, it isn't like the high-on-the-mountain peak experience of Burning Man. It's a sustainable more transparent reality that is actually attempting to dig in its heels. We've got drum circle people, iPhone people, hardcore organizers, teenagers who stop by for dinner, lawyers, preachers, and full-time students who are suddenly discovering that living in tents with each other for weeks on end is not only politically radical, it is REALLY FUN. We want justice, and we also want to be able to eat some beans and rice in a circle and talk about justice for hours on end.

This is something I'm not seeing in the media that much: how enjoyable it is to be frustrated by community, as opposed to frustrated by isolation. I would much prefer to witness a degenerated consensus meeting where 200 people are struggling to hear each other than retreat to the silent box of this apartment every day. And this is a lovely apartment. And of course I am grateful in this moment to have its amenities and its temporary quiet--but it is becoming more and more clear to me that in some truly deep-seated Foucault-ean sense, the rest of my daily life is designed to keep me from being in gatherings of large people. (BTW, fellow occupiers, contact me if you want to come over and shower or meditate or whatnot. We are easily accessible by Metro.)

My Teds in Montreal say that there are tons of activists and demonstrations there, and that the crowd of people moving in on an issue is not a rare or anxious sight. I think the U.S. has trouble dealing with anything that isn't sound-byte or logo-ready, and so the Occupy movement offers a terrifying reality: we may be speaking truth to power simply by figuring out how to speak to each OTHER, and we're really not that interested, many of us, in coming up with a bumper sticker for KTLA to put on the nightly news. Some people are, sure. That's because everyone is here! But the lack of quick slogan is directly tied to the fact of community building--a large group of people talking does not a bullet point make. I'm not against the list of demands, I'm not against the pithy signs (oh, I really love a lot of the pithy signs!) but I think that the cacophony is truly delightful, and it is actually a sign of unity, not a sign of dissolution.

I've been waiting for this. And I still am not even sure what it is.

Check out the OccupyLA website and get involved!
Read Steve Almond's piece about OWS at The Rumpus