04/02/2012 06:13 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2012

Why I Came to Occupy Wall Street and Why I Left: an Introduction

I attended my first Occupy Wall Street general assembly on October 15 of last year. After that, I gave myself over completely to OWS. At the beginning, I worked around 15 hours a day, 7 days a week. Later I cut it down to about 12 hours a day. Occasionally I would take a day off or a couple half-days, never more than that. After four months I emerged, with a social circle, a state of mind, and a set of life-goals that had all been thoroughly rearranged.

There are so many things about the movement that people ought to understand but that never get properly expressed in the public discussion or the mainstream media. It's hard to know where to begin writing about it. A good starting point, though, might be my arrival in the movement and my departure. The two are closely related.

The day after that momentous general assembly of October 15, 2011, I had to go to Union Square, in Manhattan, to meet a friend. When I arrived, the southern steps of the square were buzzing with activity, as they always are. Towards the center of the upper steps, a debate had broken out among three strangers, inspired (it seemed) by OWS. Having grown up in the city, I'm familiar with New-York-style curb-side political discussions, and this one was no exception: all three people were yelling at one another, no one was listening. And, as often happens in these situations, a crowd of fifteen or twenty people had gathered around to observe the commotion. Several had taken out cell phones and were video-taping the proceedings. But none of these onlookers were trying to weigh in: indeed, how could they? They'd have needed a bull-horn. And also, why bother? No one was listening to anything that got said anyway. The discussion was impassioned, it was civically engaged, but it was going nowhere.

Now, ordinarily -- or, I should say, prior to October 16, 2011 -- whenever I encountered this sort of scene, my impulse was to get into the fray. Sometimes I thought I had better arguments for the side I agreed with than those already in the ring. More often, I thought I had a more nuanced and balanced position to put forward, one that would acknowledge the good points being made from all camps and challenge the bad ones. But, of course, such impulses are worthless. In shouting-matches like these, no one's going to stop to listen to a more nuanced position, and no one cares -- or is even going to notice -- how good your arguments are.

This time, though, with the previous night's experience fresh in my mind, I didn't want to convince anyone of anything. I didn't want to prove anything or put forth any compromises. All I wanted to do was get those three people to quiet down, listen to one another, and give the twenty people standing around them a chance to talk. And unlike that old impulse to convince, this one -- getting people to listen -- seemed like something I was actually capable of doing.

I couldn't do it -- it would have taken time and I had to go find my friend -- but just seeing the possibility was transformative. The more I thought about it, the more I thought that listening was the one thing we all needed. Getting listened to opens people up, it gets them ready to change their minds, to see new perspectives, to admit that they're not so different from the people they disagree with. Getting listened to means getting recognized; it transforms your relationship to the people around you; and it's something that nearly everyone in this society, to one degree or another, is aching for: we all live in fear that no one gives a crap what we have to say.

Indeed, this is the essential feature of political debate in America today: each side repeats its arguments in isolation, oblivious to what the other side is saying; and each is driven by a terror of the other. The result is a volatile and yet strangely monotonous political narrative, which swings wildly between two poles, yet never seems to get anywhere.

Education policy provides an excellent case in point. Since at least the 1930s, American education has danced back and forth between the limp Romanticism of the child-centered classroom and the rigid, passive pedagogies of neo-classical projects like "back-to-basics" and "no excuses." It is breathtaking to observe the single-mindedness of each side: the Romantic pedagogues of the '70s and '80s dismissed all rebel notions of fixed curriculum and rigor with the same haughtiness that today's neo-liberal education reformers wield their quantitative measures and their market-logic to quash objections from psychologists and educators alike. If one follows these debates, what strikes one most is not the content of any one argument, but the vitriol of all of them. It is a vicious cycle, in which each wave of reformers reacts against the obliviousness and self-righteousness of the other with an even greater obliviousness and self-righteousness of their own. Even now, one hears the stirrings of a strident neo-Romantic revolution. If I don't get into a debate once a week with some lefty who thinks charter schools are the anti-Christ, it's only because I tend to avoid the subject.

It's hard to avoid the impression that there's something deeper going on here than meets the eye, that this heedless back-and-forth is only a cover for, or operates in the service of, some underlying progression. I don't mean anything cynical or intentional; I mean rather a cultural momentum, a subtle or not-so-subtle current in society, a blind machine. I mean that we go back and forth and back and forth, each generation louder, more strident, and more single-minded than the last, and all the time, we actually are getting somewhere, but that somewhere is somewhere that none of us really want to go. Look at our education system, for example. Or look at our food supply. Or our cultural institutions. Or our democracy.

On October 18, I began to think that getting people to listen to each other might be our only hope. That's why I joined Occupy Wall Street. And that's also why I left. There's so much more to say about this, but this post is too long already.