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Jedediah Purdy

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Occupy Your Voice

Posted: 02/ 2/2012 10:30 am

The Occupy encampment nearest me (Chapel Hill, NC) voluntarily disbanded a few weeks ago, and for months people have been saying "Occupy Everywhere" to describe the (non)program after the Manhattan eviction. What could that look like?

The answer has to come from a sense of what it means to Occupy anywhere: what happened in those encampments that people can carry out into everyday life? Now is the time to think about this, before the term declines into a meaningless catch-phrase.

Here's one answer: Occupy Your Voice.

Give me a minute to explain before you decide I've completed the slide to meaningless catch-phrase.

Recently, thinking about Occupy, I read some reflections on the occupation movement in Argentina during the financial crisis at the end of the 1990s. These massive, leaderless public assemblies, despite their refusal to issue specific demands, played a key role in the political crisis that led to the country's rejecting the International Monetary Fund's Washington Consensus program, renegotiating its debt, and shaping its own recovery. They, along with the alternative-globalization protests that have dogged the World Trade Organization since 1999 in Seattle, are the precursors to the worldwide encampments of 2011.

These Argentine reflections read eerily like notes from Occupy, or, I suspect, many of the other global encampments. They return again and again to a theme: personal healing through this new form of politics. Argentine occupiers describe recovering a feeling that they can take action in their lives, be "the protagonists" of their own stories. Through the blending of voices in the public squares, they restore their own voices and power to speak the truth as they see it.

"Speak your truth" is a cliché, an often irritating one. The Argentines were talking about taking back politics after a brutal military dictatorship (in which tens of thousands of dissidents were "disappeared") that slid into a market democracy without any real historical reckoning. The fear and silence that persist after a genuine national trauma is surely different from whatever Americans have felt the last few years, and that difference deserves its full moral weight.

Still, the idea rings true to me. The standard thing to say about Occupy, that it has "changed the discourse" by raising attention to inequality, economic power, and the tattered condition of democracy, is basically right. And how did a few thousand people, many of them quite marginal, few of them independently powerful or influential, do that? Somehow, they encouraged -- literally "gave heart" to -- a bunch of liberal pundits and politicians, and (most important) everyday people, to say what had been true all along.

Occupiers did this by saying what seemed undeniable, but no one else would say. The economy isn't working for a lot of people. The political system ignores the poor, slights the middle class, and grovels to the rich. The official story about America -- that hard work and competition make us all better off, and we're all in it together, headed for a better future -- can seem like a cruel satire.

Why was this such an event? It's hard to overstate the inhibition that has been squatting like an imp on the anxious chest of "responsible" opinion for two decades or more. Call it the inhibition of realism. There's nothing to be done about inequality, because the market and globalization are real, while hopes for a fairer society are dust in the wind. There's no use hoping for a more honest and open politics: the rules of the game are set, and everyone but the suckers will learn to play by them. The most anyone can do is carp from the sidelines, in tones of irony or (less amusing) high-minded disappointment. Regardless of this color commentary, the game will go on.

Occupy was devastatingly, willfully naïve, like some kind of God-touched fool. Its obdurate, fresh-faced repetition of a few true things woke up something sleeping in people who had stopped believing in an alternative to cynicism.

This wasn't the first time that the unsayable has suddenly been said -- loudly -- with the rush of relief that brings. In 2003, Howard Dean spoke against the Iraq War in a time of fearful silence, when almost no one "respectable" would cast doubt on that terrible mistake. In 2007 and 2008, Barack Obama made many believe for the first time that politics was not just a cynical game, that people acting together could make democracy real. In both cases, the relief and shot of energy were palpable.

The difference, after three years of the Obama administration, is that we now halfway know that it isn't enough to let leaders speak for us. We have to do it ourselves.

The experience of an Occupy general assembly, working by the "community microphone" of many voices, was of taking responsibility for speaking. Every word spoken in those debates was literally embodied in every voice in attendance. Whatever you said came back to you in the voice of the gathered crowd. Whatever your opponent said, however laced with mistrust, however unfair it seemed, you recited back along with everyone else.

Developed as a work-around in a park that banned electronic amplification, the community mike felt liturgical. It became a practice of moral learning. The knowledge that each word would resonate through every voice dissolved some of the ordinary narcissism of oratory and lent care to even angry and fractious words.

In that strange, potent, polity-making ritual, there is a link between what happened inside the encampments and what Occupy did for the rest of the country, and a prompt for what it could mean to Occupy Everywhere. The link is in the wish to speak sincerely and truthfully, to refuse lies and half-truths. We have learned that if we want this in our politics, we cannot wait for it: we have to do it ourselves, in our own voices.

Vaclav Havel, the Czech president who was a jailed dissident before the fall of his country's Soviet-backed government in 1990, and who died last December, was best remembered for the idea of "living in truth." He meant simple refusal to share in official, even mandatory lies. Living in truth meant taking small, personal acts of conscience that reasserted personal freedom and cracked the ubiquitous but fragile shell of authoritarianism.

Our government, for all its ugly abuses of power, is not authoritarian. But our public speech is still full of mandatory lies and half-truths, which enforce themselves by taking advantage of fear -- the fear of what opponents will say, the fear of seeming unrealistic or irresponsible.

Consider President Obama's opening claim in his State of the Union address, that the catastrophe in Iraq left the United States "safer and more respected in the world." Consider the fact that the only way he found to talk about American solidarity was to compare citizens to Navy SEALs on a kill mission. Consider that, because there is no way to do something about climate change right now, the country's political class and most of its media are ignoring the fact that, without massive and rapid innovation in carbon-neutral energy, the global economy is on an epochal collision course with the globe itself. Never mind the wild claims coming out of the semi-feral Republican Party, which are mostly reported with good, cynical brio as moves in a familiar game.

Acting as if these things were true and acceptable is giving up your own voice. As Argentine occupiers reflected over a decade ago, that means giving up the power to be the protagonist of your own life. It also means giving up on forming a community based on shared voicing of the truth, which could act as a collective protagonist in its national life. That, after all, is exactly what democracy is supposed to be. Sliding through an agreed-upon, half-believed untruth is like non-lucid dreaming. No matter who else shows up in a dream, the dreamer is always alone.

One way to Occupy Everywhere, then, is to try to live in truth, in a country where we're free enough that lies don't come from a propaganda ministry or get enforced by the police, but inhibited and blinkered enough that we often treat our lies as if they were mandatory, which means they might as well be.

All this is, of course, one guy's opinion. My own time at the Manhattan Occupy site lasted only a few days, and I always got cold around 2 AM and slunk off to the floor of a friend's tiny apartment. But anyone who cares about what Occupy has meant, and might mean, has a call to think through these things.

When politics is not just brute force, it is composed out of very simple elements: non-violent bodies and words. With only two ingredients, we should be intensely concerned about the quality of either one.

In his 1970 Nobel Peace Prize Lecture, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, another anti-authoritarian, offered a slogan for resistance (paraphrased just slightly here): "Let the lie come into the world and even reign over it, but not through me."

This fixation with personal purity can seem a kind of anti-politics. But it can also be a beginning to a more candid, and candidly hopeful, politics. That politics would also have to be candidly radical, in the strict sense of going to the root of things (where the radish, that great root vegetable, gets its name), because our half-truths and evasions are so basic. Refusing to let them occupy your voice, every day, in every place, is one way to Occupy Everywhere.