Occupy Wall Street at Take Back the American Dream
Excerpts of speeches from the Monday morning session of the Take Back the American Dream conference devoted to the Occupy Wall Street protests, featuring Nelini Stamp of the Working Families Party in New York, Tracy van Slyke of the New Bottom Line activist group and Liz Butler of Rebuild the Dream.
Even the sympathizers don’t always get it. I’m sure I get a lot of things wrong too, but here’s one thing I do understand: Change doesn’t begin with policy. It begins with perception. And you don’t change things by asking. You change them by acting.
But it begins with perception. “All money is a matter of belief,” as someone once said.
In the New York Times, Nick Kristof shows that he understands the #OccupyWallStreet movement more than most of his peers. “The protesters are dazzling in their Internet skills,” he writes, “and impressive in their organization.”
But like many other sympathetic observers, he misses their most important point when he says “the movement falters in its demands” because “it doesn’t really have any.”
As movement participant Nelini Stamp told the Take Back the American Dream conference this morning, “We don’t have demands. If we make demands of Wall Street, we’re saying that Wall Street has the power.”
But the fact that the movement doesn’t make demands of Wall Street – or Washington, for that matter – doesn’t mean it doesn’t have demands. It does, but they’re not directed at Wall Street, or K Street, or Pennsylvania Avenue. They’re directed at you. And at me, and at every other citizen in this country.
To be sure, these “demands” are’t couched in the strangely condescending and hostile language of all the Democratic fundraising emails going around lately. (“You think of yourself as a smart voter, don’t you?” said one I got this weekend). These “demands” come in a friendler, more respectful tone, that of one person saying to another, “Hey, did you see that?”
Some mainstream liberals and politicos rolled their eyes at the protestors’ response to requests that they come up with “one demand.” Their “one demand” page includes the execution of Troy Davis (“Ending capital punishment is our one demand”), Yahoo’s blocking of emails that included the occupywallst URL (“Ending corporate censorship is our one demand”), and a list of others: “Ending health profiteering is our one demand.” “Ending American imperialism is our one demand.”
That was a signal for the snark to commence. “I’m not a genius at math,” said one commenter, “but I’ve been counting these demands and I’ve gone way past one.” Meanwhile well-intentioned voices like Kristof and my friend Mike Konczal helpfully provided them with policy demands. And they’re good ones: A financial transactions tax. Investigate Wall Street crimes. Cancel excessive debts.
But the “one demand” that matters most is directed at our society, not our policymakers, and it’s much more fundamental than these excellent ideas. The demand is this: “Come back to sanity.” That’s the underlying demand that unifies all those items on the #OccupyWallSt website. Our culture is insane today, and they recognize that. Create a transactions tax, and they’ll simply rob us another way – until we restore our society to sanity.
“Sanity: The ability to think and behave in a normal and rational manner; sound mental health. Reasonable and rational behavior.” Oxford Dictionaries Online
The scope of our confusion and delusion can’t be addressed by specific policy measures, any more than you might have overthrown Mubarak’s regime in Egypt with a “single demand” to end the torture of political prisoners, or fixed elections, or the theft of the nation’s billions by Mubarak and his cronies. The first step is to lift the veil from everyone’s eyes, as they did in Egypt, to say to others and to themselves: “This isn’t democracy – and it isn’t inevitable. We can change it.”
Why mention Troy Davis and the death penalty while you’re demonstrating against the power of corporations and the big banks? Because executions are a diversion that corporate America throws at the people to draw our attention away from their misdeeds.
The public’s getting upset: Wage inequality is worse than its been in modern history. Bailed-out bankers are still paying themselves huge bonuses with taxpayer money. Our corporate politicians always know what to do in a tight spot like that: Kill another black man and change the subject. That’s how Troy Davis fits into the demonstrators’ “one demand.”
Why is “American imperialism” on the list? Because politicians in both parties are determined to cut Social Security and Medicare, even as they support military bases around the world and prosecute two unnecessary wars. Those bases and those wars enrich the corporations that serve the Defense Department.” Those wars are a symptom of democracy hijacked by corporations.
Why is “corporate censorship” on the list? Because in both a literal and metaphorical sense, certain information is marginalized or blacklisted in our social media and our traditional media. A majority of Republican voters – not Democratic voters, Republicans – want to protect Social Security benefits and close tax loopholes. A vast majority of Americans want the government to create jobs more than it wants deficits to be cut..
But try finding a news report about the budget that doesn’t treat these ideas as marginal, extreme, “lefty,” and impractical. See how hard it is? That’s corporate censorship.
In every voice, in every ban,
the mind-forg’d manacles I hear.
Here’s how insane this country has become. You can find “liberal” pundits and leaders from both parties on every channel who will condemn American homeowners as morally bankrupt and unworthy of help. But the banks they trusted, who sold them mortgages on the false promise that real estate values would rise forever, and who then when on a crime spree, walked away free. And their CEOs are broacast and quoted as they were legitimate, mainstream American voices.
While the middle class dies and the ranks of the poor swell, this country is talking about cutting the government’s spending. While one home in four is underwater, this country’s worried about the financial health of banks. While we fight two unnecessary wars, war criminals like Dick Cheney are given television platforms as if they were simply representing a different political point of view.
We executed an innocent man in Georgia while guilty people on Wall Street go free. That’s insane.
Conservative Democrats whose views are far to the right of Richard Nixon’s, and sometimes even of Ronald Reagan’s, are considered the “left” side of the debate. That’s insane.
How do you end insanity? By seeing the reality as it is – not by seeing parts of the truth, but by seeing the whole. You start by seeing that we’re being run by, and manipulated by, a system. It’s a corporate system that drives our politics, our news, and even our entertainment. You begin to see it as a system that’s overthrown our basic values and discarded our basic sense of decency, replacing themwith an exaltation of consumerism and a condemnation of the unfortunate.
People have been waiting for someone to connect the dots. They’ve been waiting for someone to explain how these forces act together and work totether to exploit us. They want to know how and why they’e been losing their wealth, their security, and even their self-esteem.
The #OccupyWallSt protestors are succeeding. They’re carrying the message – and they’re being heard. They’ve won over the Transit Workers Union, the Airline Pilots Union, the SEIU, and – in an echo of Tahrir Square – soldiers in uniform who are willing to defend them. You don’t do that by proposing a financial transactions tax, as important as that is. You do that by demanding an end to the insanity, the madness that’s being manufactured and distributed every day by the leaders of corporate America.
John Samuelson, head of the Transport Workers Union, told Keith Olbermann that his union and the protesters are “singing the same song.” My work takes me deep into the weeds of economic policy, but there comes a time to recognize that a financial transactions tax – necessary as it is – is not a “song.” Before the words, there’s the music. And it’s the music that makes us dance.
“Emancipate ourselves from mental slavery,
none but ourselves can free our minds.”
Being as analytical as he is, Konczal delves deeply into the theories of anarchist movements and “autonomous zones.” It’s a fascinating read, even if you’ve read up on this sort of thing. But the main point is: This is a song, not a policy platform, and there’s no one composer. Everybody’s making it up as they go along, and everyone else is welcome to join – as long as they don’t lose the beat.
Let’s compile our list of policy ideas. They’re badly needed. But first comes the song: End the corporate-driven insanity. Restore the values that have guided our country for more than 200 years. Make us human again. Make us a community again. Make us sane again.
Oh, wait. I almost forgot to tell you who said that “all money is a matter of belief.” It was Adam Smith, who’s been adopted by the free-market types as their philosopher/guru. Smith was right. A change in the money begins with a change in our minds. More socially conservative liberals may be uncomfortable at the protesters’ dress code, or their masks, or slogans that sound strange to older ears.
Well, as they say, “democracy is messy.” And sometimes it wears masks or unusual clothes or says cryptic things. But when it comes to the beliefs that drive an economy, that “matter of belief” that makes us who we are financially, then – as the Who used to say – “the kids are alright.”
The Who. British guys from the sixties. Never heard of ’em? “Hope I die before I get old”? Ah, forget it. Different generations sing different songs. But they sing for the same reason people say birds sing: To be free.
That’s why Nick Kristof recognizes that what he’s seeing in lower Manhattan is the same thing he saw in Tahrir Square. It’s what I saw in Eastern Europe, too, during the fall of Communism. It’s democracy in its purest form. That’s why the Transport Workers are coming to the demonstrations. And the pilots. And maybe even the Marines, if the rumors are true.
It’s the reason I’ll be there, too. How about you?