I recently spent 10 days with a local Occupation movement, that bases itself on Occupy Wall Street. I helped clean up a bit, contributed some writing and thinking, served as a timekeeper and a moderator a couple of times, collaborated with others in thinking about order and civility, and made various kinds of donations. In the end, I decided to leave, because I felt that there was insufficient resolve to maintain civility and order in general assemblies as well as health and safety for all at certain other times. Needless to say, this perspective wasn’t smiled upon (especially if you mean it and don’t concede that, no, everything is in fact all right, and a lot of other people are leaving at the same time and for similar reasons). In a smaller. Midwestern version, the movement craves numbers, unflinching support, and glossing over any deeply glaring flaws. I would like to say they’ve been gracious about the departure, but then it was precisely because they were often so ingracious to each other that I felt the need to leave them to it. One hates saying things like that, but I think honesty and transparency are even more necessary where an at least partial absence of those are part of the problem. Besides, it’s not a movement of the 99% if it doesn’t include people who observe and think and write about what they observe and think. It isn’t democracy if we have to agree.
My experience was that the characterizations often hurled by opponents of democratic movements are unfounded in most cases (not all), but the positive characterizations by supporters aren’t always accurate, either. This is not the venue where I’ll write about that stuff, but here I’ll just say that my friends, colleagues, peers, and associates wondered, sometimes aloud, usually in private, and occasionally admitted wondering why I bothered. I’ll say this: I still feel that wherever anyone is getting their head busted in, their civil rights deprived, their liberty stolen, their lives exploited, it’s happening to me too. And I really still feel the police response in Oakland, Boston, Denver, New York, and other places is stupid, bigoted, irresponsible, and representive of a deeply destructive set of attitudes in this culture. Sorry, if you don’t agree, but I think it’s unconscienable and indefensible, and you should too. I also think the kind of half-literate gibbon-ravings of a Glen Beck and his ilk make us all look like the townspeople in To Kill a Mockingbird, when they give their version of the Occupy Wall Street movement. I have no respect for the fools-level denunciations one finds in the Sarah Palins of the world. Sorry, but I think part of having an education, or aspiring to acquire one, is that we don’t confuse the level of rhetoric in something like Mein Kampf for actual substance. Cleverness is not intelligence and, perhaps I am biased but, if so, the bias toward sanity is a function of education. So I defended them, and then I went down there, and then I met real people, and then I stayed to serve them, because I liked and respected many of them deeply, and it was certainly contributing in some ways to my life. Immediately, though, I observed deep dysfunction in the community, a lack of resolve to make it healthy, and people leaving for the lifeboats at about an 80% ratio (in revolving door fashion), or else taking two steps back to remain on the fringe. A number of people came to me repeatedly and asked for help, for advice, on what organization measures might reduce chaos at free and open democratic assemblies, without sacrificing the right of all to speak, all to be fully informed, and all to vote, and without yielding it to top-down, authoritarian leadership.
Well, I’ve done this sort of organizational development and community organizing before (much of it before there was a world wide web), so I contributed my thoughts and my writing about it. And almost all of it was used, voted in, usually unanimously, and I made some excellent friends who were appreciative of my presence and contributions. It wasn’t important to get credit for a contribution, either. That came more in small, personal expressions of appreciation. There were no awards for highest grossing sales, etc. And that was great, because I didn’t need to own it. It wasn’t a community based on identification of individuals for reward and advancement. In a corporation, for instance, you usually find it necessary to add resume items. But this was a neat experience in that I could let things go. If I said something and someone else picked it up and ran with it, I didn’t need to say “Wait a minute! That’s mine!” It was like putting out cookies for your family, or taking cookies that were there. It was just open, and you could use or not use, give or not give, what you wanted. There were some responsibilities (clean up after yourself, maintain order and civility – at least we kept lobbying for these things), but you didn’t have to maintain or enhance reputation. Unfortunately, we all bring a certain amount of training and experience from the power-driven environments we were born into (the 1% of the soul, so to speak), whether it was the training we got in school or years of corporate and other organizational life. That meant some people were definitely there to enhance their reputations (build other networks, etc), some were deeply concerned about “running” things and getting and maintaining power, and there were a mass of enablers that, in any power-driven environment, serve the purpose of enabling them. In fact, those two kinds of power-driven approaches (internal and external reputation) found it natural to form an alliance.
The dysfunction in that ran up against the desire for a truly collaborative, democratic environment, and resulted in the use of chaos, incivility, and disorder to actually drive some sense of power continually back into the hands of the few. It was, ultimately, why I left. The resolve wasn’t there to a sufficent degree to keep it healthy. Partly, that’s because a lot of people drop off donations, have a meal, spend an hour or two, but aren’t there every night to participate fully in the general assemblies. So, on the surface, you really can’t see the underlying chaos. Another reason is an incredible need to be “nice” even when that’s enabling some pretty harmful injections of power (it’s part of the Midwestern ethos, and not one I share). And finally, even when people know what’s happening, and are willing to try to address it, there’s a culture of conspiracy that discourages transparency, is afraid of losing numbers (though that actually costs it numbers, so it doesn’t work), and feels a need to protect the reputation of the movement at all costs, to present unison at any price, and to make the movement itself an absolute – so that openness about serious problems below the surface isn’t very welcome. There are times in consulting when you just tell the client that I think it’s not a good fit. My primary contribution would always be writing, thinking, and consulting on organizational improvement. I could help with strategic planning, too, but only to the degree it was a healthy organization or community. Once I determined that I would have to work in an environment that wasn’t going to repair seriously damaging underlying problems, that resolve wasn’t as great for that as for a desire to seem OK, I knew I couldn’t stay. But, in response to my friends and associates, who are curious and have been watching, I carried away a number of things that are useful:
- It reaffirmed that I simply cannot get distracted from my work – the real work of my life. My business maybe, but not the stuff I’m doing that’s really important. Rome may be burning, but I need to keep on writing, innovating, and working on growth. At least that is the case if it’s your average white people out there for other average white people and their concerns. It’s not about race, of course – but it is partly about culture. My family, associates, religion, and culture is more international and, frankly, we get the best treatment and are made the most comfortable in ethnic communities which, as Camile Paglia points out (Sex, Art, & American Culture), have a whole different attitude and set of concerns (and much more similar ones to each other) than caucasian civilization has arrived at. If it was King, maybe. If it was Ghandi, maybe. If I could do something to stop trafficking of Asian women and children, or prevent Mexican immigrants from being abused and deprived, maybe. But the plain truth is that the people that are my culture in all superficial ways are not actually my culture – they don’t often produce people like me, they frequently don’t help them thrive, and they don’t even tolerate them in many cases. My work is, inherently, my own form of protest against my culture and simultaneously on its behalf, and I need to keep doing it. For me, it’s incredibly expensive and costly in a host of ways to get involved in social movements, let alone political ones. This experience reaffirmed that, despite the lofty expression of their goals, I must still regard it as essentially another expression of the luxury it presumes to criticize, another means of securing that luxury for people who won’t thank me for it, and likewise, as an activity, it certainly would be a luxury for me to engage in, when there is so much else to do.
- I learned a lot that isn’t quantifiable in mere principles. Sure, I can state a lot of principles that came from it. Sometimes it’s better to achieve consensus on a good answer than win on the best answer. Sometimes it’s better to achieve consensus on a bad answer, if it is survivable and can be repaired, if the community is willing to revisit when it doesn’t work, in order to do the greater good of achieving some consensus (Project mgmt will often use this principle when negotiating w. the client, and the client is adamant about things they shouldn’t be). But there are more important things I learned than just principles that I know how to extract. There are underlying things. I learned to yield myself to the will of something larger for its own good. I learned to set aside the person on the inner throne for a while and serve at any level I could be effective. I learned to submit myself to people out of respect, voluntarily, in a way that didn’t require a zero sum game of it being taken from me or forced on me, or me losing myself, because it was good and right and would help. I never had that in any traditional corporation, for instance. I learned deference because of real contribution, and to lift up others based on their contribution, and show them to others in their grandeur, not just work for my own resume or advancement. I learned to exalt the lowly. I learned to call for respect and listen based on service and experience. I learned to respect age and life experience where it wasn’t being forced on me, but because it really did matter and was effective and its own kind of contribution, and drew other people’s attention to it, but without expecting it for myself, even when I knew my experience was greater. I learned to listen to criticism that I didn’t agree with (though this was very hard – many of them certainly find it hard, too), even when I still may not agree with some of it, not for whether it is true or not, but for whether there is anything I can do to make things better without losing myself or my value and contribution. I stopped working on that when I was attacked for leaving, of course, because then it was force and I couldn’t submit to force. I learned how important it is to tell people what you appreciate about them, not just go along, to make a point of expressing appreciation, and of letting them know, without flattery, what they do and bring that is excellent. If you do it, they respect you for being able to appreciate someone besides yourself, and they actually make a point of looking more perceptively at what you bring and how it may be a substantive contribution, and then they even defend you.
- It reaffirmed that the people I respect the most and like the most as peers and friends are those I work with, who bring honor and integrity to their work. Sometimes that’s the honor and integrity of simply delivering our best, honestly and without restraint, to the mutual endeavour. Delivering at the highest level one can. Sometimes it’s the flexibility and openness that comes with a sincere desire to see something beyond yourself succeed, even to the point of getting out of the way (I learned to get out of the way when I needed to), but not with the corporate use of that lingo to justify just handing it to yet another power center. It reaffirmed who my peers are in the world – they are always those who are honest about a thing, even if at first I don’t agree, or never agree, and not those who will see success or their own way even if it requires dishonesty. My peers are those who work and who are most real.
- I learned something, tho I haven’t processed it yet, and need to work on it alone in my gut and head, about when to abandon a thing to its destiny, even if I could help it survive. Sometimes there aren’t enough of us, and they won’t listen, and it’s almost wrong to keep trying to save it when we’re not the consensus and the consensus wants to drive it off a cliff. I’ve always held to a fondness for Czarism as my thinking on such things – the notion that benevolent monarchy has done the world immense good. The reign of Elizabeth I. The tsars before Peter and Catherine. The world is driven by vision, and vision is leadership. But I learned a lot that reaffirmed the value of bottom-up democratic involvement, too. I’d been involved in collaborative projects like that before, of course, some lasting years – using consensus models, fully democratic models (voting), etc. But you might say this is the first one that was so 100% fluid (interesting experiment – I’m thinking it’s not very sound). In other places there were at least some roles held for more than a day. But if it’s a thing that cannot inherently be driven by monarchial leadership, and likewise constructive vision is ignored, and democratic leadership (contribution) is confused with power (we have these co-opted words in our language – two meanings of leadership, two meanings of authority/authoritative), then sometimes you have to let it go, even if other people determine they must stay and try to keep it alive. You might have to let those people go too. That’s the hardest thing – to let your peers go – because without them, you’re truly alone (unless, of course, you’ve maintained other aspects of life and not given yourself wholly over to the new thing – I certainly didn’t go completely under, and never will). But even if you have, you have to step out over the abyss with just the self and at the same time without the self, in the conviction that more peers will come, and you’ll never run short when you’re doing what you’re meant for.
- It reaffirmed that there is no political movement that I believe in. I still am the rational anarchist. The thing is, it may be that the system we have now is incredibly unjust, obscenely destructive and immoral. I certainly agree with that. But I must continue to work within it on the projects my short life is dedicated to. I have to resist the call to come out and change the system and change the world. My way of changing the world will work no matter what. My way will work inside or outside the system. Sure, there’s a time. If it turns into the Night of the Long Knives out there, or little Stalins are in the streets and it’s Dr. Zhivago, but until then, my role is to keep being the professor at the university, the prima donna at the ballet, or Stephen King. Those guys, you notice, survive all but the worst revolutions, and sometimes their work is all that remains of the time before – that contains the timeless memory of the people. It’s hard. One wants to take up a sign. One wants to contribute organizational skills to help them build a structure or a movement. One wants to serve at a base level, ladle soup, to help build a community (and ladling soup is not a misuse of talent – it’s noble – it’s perhaps one of the most nobel things. Every brilliant soul should have the the opportunity at some time in their lives to feed people. To do the simplest forms of human compassion and interaction, or else our isolation is complete, and we live in towers of giving without a relationship to those we give to. We cast scraps down from the castle walls.) But doing these things helps one clarify vocation and how, in the long run, he will contribute. I can work within many political systems, so that’s what I need to do, in the way I’m actually meant to work.
- It reaffirmed that committing yourself isn’t piecmeal. It’s to a whole community. If, for instance, some people are being mistreated, it’s not enough to just stand for yourself. You stand for them, too. So if you do commit yourself to something like this, it’s not going to be something you get out of easily. If you have to leave, because it’s being destructive, you won’t helicopter out, any more than I did from overseas. You cover the exit, you do a tactical withdrawal and protect as many people as you can who are trying to leave intact. That may look like a long-term commitment. It’s the commitment you’ve already made by getting involved at all.
- It reaffirmed that political movements, like religious ones, and all other ideological movements attract a high percentage of the most neurotic minds, and not a few pathological ones. There are superb people involved, but it only takes one Cromwell to start cutting off heads, or a Luther to burn Ullster. True believers are the most dangerous thing to humanity on earth, and I suppose it had been a while since that was reaffirmed. Give me selfish businessmen who only want advancement, yuppies who focus on trivialities of where the capers on their pasta came from or what kind of olives they’re eating, any day of the week – any day – over the true believer with justice on his side who says words like “at any cost” or confuses unity with unison and dissent with dissension. I already know that I live in a world of selfish and disgusting decadence and waste. But I also know how to live and survive in that world, and I’m not sure we’re not better off. Ask the citizens of Ullster. I’m not sure they wouldn’t prefer the Pope. After all, every war we’ve conducted has included the pretense that it’s to liberate someone and make their lives better. But at the cost of countless lives and families, and immense suffering and misery – the time we became the only people in history to nuke entire cities, twice – the time we burned alive and mined half of Viet Nam, Laos, and Cambodia – the times our “right wing” supported insane dictators who committed holocausts for Molech, like Pol Pot – all the times our “left wing” lauded the model civilization under Stalin, who managed to kill more than eight times as many people as Hitler. I think my pacifism has to remain incredibly skeptical about most revolutionary movements and circumspect about the risks and dangers. Even if I may approve of some of their express goals and attitudes, I think joining them is probably out of the question 99 times out of 100. And if, in fact, making my art, and doing my work is not a contribution, then where does that leave me afterward in the society they hope to create? Where does that leave my peers and my family, and you my colleagues? There seems to be some confusion among them about whether they want to completely change all of the negative structures in our society or whether it’s just about some tax law. If the one, then I’m just as much in danger from a revolution as anyone else – it’s almost always ordinary people that get crucified in the name of saving ordinary people. If the other, then frankly I don’t believe, and don’t think it will do more than make the situation equally worse in proportion to making it better. I’m back to wanting less law, not better law. I’m with the Buddhists who sweep the ground as they walk, to avoid trampling an insect – they know that for every innocent or well meaning footstep we take, we crush a life, and our best intentions at doing the simple, obvious, and right thing almost always inflict a new form of suffering. I’m back to rolling my eyes over those yuppies and their capers, but not trying to change the world for them, or deny them an overpriced dinner of crap that their waiter is disgusted to have to serve.
The business endeavours I’m involved in with some other organizations will bring about change too. One of the things that bothered me about the movement is that it’s kind of an arrogant, young upstart. Sure, unions and other organizations are hitching their wagons to it for good reason – it will propel them forward by years. But make no mistake – they don’t intend to yield their own identities to it, either – their support is realpolitic. If I think there’s any value to democracy, I’ll say I think democracy is a slow movement, like the slow food movement and other slow movements. I look at the so-called “Arab Spring” and, while it’s tempting to rejoice, I’m also circumspect given the fact that Egypt yielded immediately to the exact same apparatus that was there in the form of the military and, what did they do? First opportunity, they mowed down my own people, among the Copts. I’m not very confident in Libya, either, since they didn’t have the integrity to offer Qadaffi a trial, and there’s enough corruption there with their OPEC oil that it’s just Disney thinking to believe it will not remain corrupt. But there are movements that been at work for a long time. They’re slower, and they’ve done enormously good work, and they haven’t done much harm. And instead of screaming for, and even believing in, instant change (Women didn’t get the vote from instant change. Blacks didn’t get civil rights from instant change. The 8hr work day and no child labour for white people didn’t happen from instant change.), these movements, expressed in both organizations (from Amnesty to Greenpeace to PETA) and apart from organizations (design movements, slow living movements, etc) have patiently gone about integrating the work of societal improvement with their own personal work. I’ve met people who gave up their jobs to serve in a tent encampment in the Occupation and, I must say that, while I don’t fault them, it’s not the Red Cross or the Peace Corps, either. If you can’t pay your rent, you’re dependent on donations and city permits, and how is that different than homelessness and going on welfare in the name of improving people financially? I don’t mean to pick on anyone. As I say, there are superb people involved. But when it comes to me considering those choices, I think I want to fight the good fight by doing things like solving the “job” crisis instead of figuring out how to force the wealthy to give up more cash. I’ll tell you an open secret. A lot of people aren’t out there for one simple reason – we want the opportunity to *become* wealthy, or at least improve our situation in life. Isn’t that a normal, decent concern? Again, Paglia is required reading. Frankly, I think that concern has done a lot of good for a lot of people, too. Behind the Austrian School is that same fundamental observation. If the middle class have generated as many jobs as we say, have created as much capital as we say, then why fault them for remaining middle class – which means going to work and generating more wealth, most any given day of the week?
So, this is a complex experiment. I was recently criticized for using the word “experiment” in my personal blog (the attitude is that I’m not genuine enough, because I treat all of life experimentally), so I decided to actually write about it, because I’m far from ashamed at how I approach the world. Far from being sinister, I’m looking for what works, what’s effective, what improves things, in all ways. It’s not about pragmatism – the ends justifying the means – that’s for the guys saying “whatever it takes” and “at all costs” – the extremists attracted to whatever is the latest ideological pulse with an energized crowd, like vampires to a beating heart. No, I want things that work for me, ethically, too. There are a lot of criteria something must have to be truly useful, and that criteria becomes more complex when it’s a social and political movement. In that sense, yes, engaging anything is not blind commitment – it’s an experiment, because I’m it engaging with my eyes open, with cautious optimism, and watching to see whether it remains healthy, sound, and constructive. I don’t do anything that I don’t evaluate. I don’t touch anything that I don’t think about, write about, talk about, and draw some sort of self-improvement from if I can. A fist in the air is not enough, if there’s not critical thinking behind it. In fact, I don’t understand people who treat things like bean dip in front of a TV, mindlessly munching away past the point the food’s doing anyone any good. It’s got to matter, to me, and in a way I can appreciate, and so yeah I’m considering it when I’m doing it, before I do it, and afterward. In that sense, it’s always an experiment.
So, how did the experiment fare? I can’t call it an outright fail, even though I’m out and never going back – because I took with me some things that I’ll use and find helpful for years to come – tools to build other things with (which is what all of us ethical hackers collect – those of us for whom life is an experiment and who like tools almost as much as building things). I took away understandings that will contribute to projects I find meaningful. I like what I got from it. And I gave good stuff for it. If it’s not appreciated anymore, because I parted ways with them and that’s a form of dissent, so it’s all suspect now, it was nonetheless lauded, requested, and applauded at the time, and in droves. Was it worth it? I don’t know – I don’t think I can think like that. I’ve been in situations in other places in life that were dangerous, stressful, and ill-advised. But I look back and, without those, I wouldn’t be able to draw upon those experiences now. I’ll just say, at the risk of sounding quite NLP, that I think the worth of an experience is never an absolute. These experiments are never completely summed up in the +/- of a balance sheet. The experimental attitude toward life itself can give any experience value. It’s the attitude you take toward past experiences that determines their value. If you draw from them any useful lessons, any constructive tools, then it has value. Clearly, I did. I wouldn’t do it again, given the opportunity, and perhaps that’s what we mean by a fail. But I just want to qualify that recognition with the statement that, while the time involved and the time it’s taking to disengage is certainly a costly investment, I didn’t end up with nothing.
Result of this experiment: Fail. (I got a lot out of it that’s useful, but I wouldn’t trade again for what I got, given the choice, I think. Only time will tell how useful the results will be.)