Change the culture; the politics will follow

Sam Smith

One sign that the occupiers are doing well is that their target – and its fankids in the media – can’t figure out what the hell is going on. The Wall Street elite is not used to dealing with problems without an agenda, talking points and a strategic vision, or at least something that passes for one. That’s not the way things work when it manipulates a labor union, offers too little to buy some business, forecloses on someone, or twists a merger its way. What are its lawyers meant to do with a crowd without policies and procedures, best practices or a bottom line? One that sits around listening to some 92 year-old singing folk songs like it was the 1960s?

But that’s precisely the secret. The establishment is used to setting the rules for change, blocking, modifying or postponing as the case may be. The occupiers, on the other hand, are not playing by those rules. Rather than attempting to change the politics of the situation, they are changing the culture that created the politics.

Under the present political rules there is virtually no chance of decency, fairness or common sense prevailing, because these rules function in a culture that is largely devoid of such values. To change anything, you have to change the culture, in this case a culture of greed, social indifference, arrogance and cruelty that has thrived for some three decades.

This culture was not just a matter of law, or even of corporate propaganda and manipulation. It has also included distorted education by supposed intellectuals and their universities, sleazy business school concepts so pervasive that even virtuous non-profits adopted them, and selfish values passed on by a media that thought it was just saying the obvious.

This is not new. Every major change requires a cultural transformation. Sure, the politicians will ultimately inscribe it as law, but before that there must be a massive alteration in how people see, understand, and believe things.

Think about the civil rights movement. Before it, even those who knew there was something badly wrong didn’t know what to do about it, didn’t dare say it, or didn’t know who else might be thinking the same thing. The movement liberated these suppressed feelings and gave them a visible and powerful new home long before the first civil rights measure was passed.

So it is today. For three decades America has increasingly been going along with the lies of the corporate elite. In time, these lies became remarkably successful in destroying the culture of progress that had blessed this land from the New Deal to the Great Society, and had dramatically improved the role of the worker, the middle class, blacks, and women, just to name a few

And then it stopped.

But, again, it wasn’t a law or a collection of laws at first. It was a change in the language, the values, the icons and the clichés. It was a new culture that incrementally eradicated what had preceded it and replaced it with what we have today.

To get a sense of how irrational and strange this change has been, consider that among today’s major pop cultural icons are Lindsay Lohan and the Kardashians. Now look at our political icons and consider how similar they are: vapid, talentless, unreliable creatures famous merely for being famous. With the exception of Ron Paul, not one of the presidential candidates breaking single digits in either major party is really a political figure at all – in the sense of someone who possesses and has pursued a clear political course with integrity and purpose. Presidential contests have become just one more TV reality show.

And this is not politics. It is culture.

The occupiers are in a lusty tradition of challenging the accepted culture of the moment to revive the possibility of change. It is not the full story, it is not the end of the story, it is not the solution. But it is the beginning.

No, they have not prepared a bill of particulars. So what? We have gone through years of being deceived by illusions of rational thought crafted by our disastrous elite, whether it be justifications for foolish wars, excuses for ill-deserved subsidy of the wealthy, or passing off investment Ponzi schemes as a suitable alternative to useful economic production. And if you just said the right words, spewed enough data on enough pages, made enough obscure assessments, then all was well.

Instead, the first American republic collapsed.

Each movement of cultural change does it differently. Some want admission to the culture. Some want to turn it upside down. Some want to make it irrelevant. Some dream of replacing it with something far better.

And within each movement, each individual can see it differently and perhaps a consensus will be hard to reach.

But this movement of occupiers has made the wisest first step: challenging the culture that has done so much damage to us all. The movement has already made every claim to the virtues of corpocratic meglamania not only seem stupid, but no longer even worth talking about, even on Fox News or CNBC.

The politics will come later. But for less than two months it’s not a bad start.

Sam Smith, Why Bother? Getting a Life in a Locked Down Land, 2001 – There is a lusty tradition in American politics of citizens of disparate sorts, places, and status coming together to put power back in its proper place. At such times, the divides of politics, the divisions of class, the contrasts of experience fade long enough to reassert the primacy of the individual over the state, democracy over oligopoly, fairness over exploitation and community over institution. This could be such a time if we are willing to risk it, and one of the soundest way to start is to trade a few old shibboleths for a few new friends.

But there is a problem. The system that envelopes us becomes normal by its mere mass, its ubiquitous messages, its sheer noise. Our society faces what William Burroughs called a biologic crisis — “like being dead and not knowing it.”

The unwitting dead — universities, newspapers, publishing houses, institutes, councils, foundations, churches, political parties — reach out from the past to rule us with fetid paradigms from the bloodiest and most ecologically destructive century of human existence. What should be merely portraits on the wall of our memories run our lives still, like parents who retain perpetual hegemony over the souls of their children.

Yet even as we complain about and denounce the entropic culture in which we find ourselves, we are unable bury it. We speak of a new age but make endless accommodations with the old. We are overpowered and afraid.

We find ourselves condoning things simply because not to do so means we would then have to — at unknown risk — truly challenge them.

To accept the full consequences of the degradation of the environment, the explosion of incarceration, the creeping militarization, the dismantling of democracy, the commodification of culture, the contempt for the real, the culture of impunity among the powerful and the zero tolerance towards the weak, requires a courage that seems beyond us. We do not know how to look honestly at the wreckage without an overwhelming sense of surrender; far easier to just keep dancing and hope someone else fixes it all.

Yet, in a perverse way, our predicament makes life simpler. We have clearly lost what we have lost. We can give up our futile efforts to preserve the illusion and turn our energies instead to the construction of a new time.

It is this willingness to walk away from the seductive power of the present that first divides the mere reformer from the rebel — the courage to emigrate from one’s own ways in order to meet the future not as an entitlement but as a frontier.

How one does this can vary markedly, but one of the bad habits we have acquired from the bullies who now run the place is undue reliance on traditional political, legal and rhetorical tools. Politically active Americans have been taught that even at the risk of losing our planet and our democracy, we must go about it all in a rational manner, never raising our voice, never doing the unlikely or trying the improbable, let alone screaming for help.

We have lost much of what was gained in the 1960s and 1970s because we traded in our passion, our energy, our magic and our music for the rational, technocratic and media ways of our leaders. We will not overcome the current crisis solely with political logic. We need living rooms like those in which women once discovered they were not alone. The freedom schools of SNCC. The politics of the folk guitar. The plays of Vaclav Havel. The pain of James Baldwin. The laughter of Abbie Hoffman. The strategy of Gandhi and King. Unexpected gatherings and unpredicted coalitions. People coming together because they disagree on every subject save one: the need to preserve the human. Savage satire and gentle poetry. Boisterous revival and silent meditation. Grand assemblies and simple suppers.

Above all, we must understand that in leaving the toxic ways of the present we are healing ourselves, our places, and our planet. We rebel not as a last act of desperation but as a first act of creation.

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