Last spring, after 14 years as a labor activist, I walked away. After devoting my adult life to building worker power, I hung it up for comedy. I told my comrades, "Peace out, dudes! I'm running away to join the circus. I'm still down for the cause. If the revolution comes, call me and I'll totes mcgotes join you on the barricades."
It felt like a scant 10 minutes later that hundreds of occupistas got arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge. "Oh the revolution is now? Are you sure? Right now? I didn't think reality would call my bluff."
And I took myself forthwith to the barricades.
The last few years disappointed me deeply. I got my hopes up about Obama even though I knew better. I knew I was being seduced and beguiled. I knew he would have his way with me and leave me in the back seat of a car with no pants on crying into an empty Zima bottle. It was a common mistake. Serious People™ always told us that if we elected more Democrats, then good would reign. I had my doubts, but the election of 2008 was the GRE test of the theory and America flunked out of community college. But when Obama said, "America, this is our moment," he meant it literally. Our moment came and went on Election Night 2008.
The disappointment was epic. We got genuine hopes up during the Obama campaign, got born again about participating in something bigger than ourselves. And then, just like every other calculating, vacuous, venal political leader, Obama and the Democrats shit in our hands. I didn't expect Obama really to be The One, but I also wasn't prepared for how thoroughly white America would go off the Tea Party deep end or how the Democrats would perfect their credo of preemptive capitulation. More than disappointed, many people who got hoped & changed looked heartbroken. The kind of heartbreak that at another point in my life would have involved chest-heaving sobs and listening to Sisters of Mercy at full volume, and it would have been about a girl. I might have recovered by swearing off girls and reading Camus.
Then the dirty anarchists in Zuccotti Park kicked the door down on America, and on a lot of our broken and scabby hearts.
In the world of embattled activists and aloof comedians, cynicism is as ubiquitous as taco trucks. We use our cynicism to salve the pain of unrequited hope. Occupy Wall Street mounted a frontal assault on my marbeled cynicism with courage, wit, and compassion. A lot of us have invested gigawatts of energy into powering our cynic turbines. Occupy, in its sincerity, invited us to parade our cynicism around, which manifests as head-shaking, eyebrow-askancery, and shrugging among Serious People™.
Among the dozens of attempts to launch a movement against greed and inequality this year alone, no one will ever know exactly why Occupy Wall Street actually worked. Now cynicism and inequality face hard questions from all corners. The challenges to inequality unfold more publicly than those to cynicism. There are at least three examples of tortured cynicism we can assume with confidence are occurring, even if the actors don't report to duty in the twitterverse.
1) Established activists, organizers, and the institutional forces of progressivism feel hella butthurt over OWS. We spent decades shouting into the abyss, hoping our shenanigans would spark a national movement for economic justice. Then a movement started without us, and it didn't even have the decency to give us credit or accept our obviously superior leadership. It turned out we never planned for what we would do if the uprising we always wanted to happen actually happened. We can assume that every union leader, lefty intellectual, or nonprofit operative lingering at the margins is really thinking, "Why isn't this MY movement?"
2) There have been nay-sayers in Zuccotti Park. We don't know their names, but they're there as dependably as drum circles. In the weeks from the first general assembly through the arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge, there was someone, probably a white guy, raining on everyone's parade. "Dudes, camping in the park will never work. Hobos have been doing it for years and nobody cares about them either. It's cold. Let's go home." Ever since the 99% caught the world's attention, that dude has had to eat his words all the livelong day. Every morning one of his tent-mates wakes up shouting, "In your face, chump!" And he can only pull his sleeping bag tighter around his face and shrug, "My bad."
3) You often hear the complaint about Occupy Wall Street, "when will this movement lead to SOMETHING?" If your definition of "something" is a dutiful get-out-the-vote program for corporate war-monger Democrats, you will be sorely disappointed. Nevertheless, "something" has already occurred that will make lasting change in the world, but cannot be seen from afar. The defense of the encampments and Occupy-inspired mobilizations have been a Petri dish of cross-fertilization of social movements. Anarchists, newly engaged activists, disgruntled Obama enthusiasts, unionists, environmentalists, racial justice organizers, have found themselves linking arms in struggle. They're getting to know each other, sharing skills and experiences, getting freaky-deaky in the tents, and making solidarity for real.
I've had my doubts about Occupy Wall Street, mostly questions or tactical quibbles. Can you at least agree on tactical leadership? How does a movement of the 99% be inclusive both to impoverished and marginal people our system has failed and to middle class professionals comprising the upper reaches of the 99%?
Then I remember that the rising of the 99% has achieved something historically unprecedented. It's not merely spreading to cities large and small across the country in less than two months, commanding majority public support, shifting the national discourse, and winning a host of political and tactical victories. Occupy Wall Street did something far more dramatic: it got me to shut the fuck up for once. I've never achieved a fraction of what this movement has, so I'm going to pipe down, not pretend that I have all the answers, and try to learn something. My hope is requited.
I'm still a comedian, but now need to discover what an optimistic comedian is. This year reminded me that the biggest obstacle to building a just society is our own discouragement.
Nato Green is a San Francisco-based standup comedian who will be appearing with Laughter Against the Machine at SF Sketchfest on February 2.
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