Compassion Is Our New Century

Published: Friday 23 December 2011
“Nothing has been more moving to me than this desire, realized imperfectly but repeatedly, to connect across differences, to be a community, to make a better world, to embrace each other.”

Usu­ally at year’s end, we’re sup­posed to look back at events just passed — and for­ward, in pre­dic­tion mode, to the year to come. But just look around you! This mo­ment is so ex­tra­or­di­nary that it has hardly reg­is­tered. Peo­ple in thou­sands of com­mu­ni­ties across the United States and else­where are liv­ing in pub­lic, ex­per­i­ment­ing with di­rect democ­racy, call­ing things by their true names, and oblig­ing the media and politi­cians to do the same.

The breadth of this move­ment is one thing, its depth an­other. It has re­jected not just the par­tic­u­lars of our eco­nomic sys­tem, but the whole set of moral and emo­tional as­sump­tions on which it’s based. Take the pair shown in a pho­to­graph from Oc­cupy Austin in Texas.  The ami­able-look­ing el­derly woman is hold­ing a sign whose com­puter-printed words say, “Money has stolen our vote.” The older man next to her with the base­ball cap is hold­ing a sign hand­writ­ten on card­board that states, “We are our broth­ers’ keeper.”

The photo of the two of them of­fers just a peek into a sin­gle mo­ment in the re­mark­able pe­riod we’re liv­ing through and the as­ton­ish­ing move­ment that’s drawn in… well, if not 99% of us, then a strik­ing enough per­cent­age: every­one from teen pop su­per­star Miley Cyrus with her Oc­cupy-homage video to Alaska Yup’ik elder Es­ther Green ice-fish­ing and hold­ing a sign that says “Yirqa Kuik” in big let­ters, with the trans­la­tion — “oc­cupy the river” — in lit­tle ones below.

The woman with the stolen-votes sign is re­fer­ring to them. Her com­pan­ion is talk­ing about us, all of us, and our fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples. His sign comes straight out of Gen­e­sis, a de­nial of what that com­pet­i­tive en­tre­pre­neur Cain said to God after fore­clos­ing on his brother Abel’s life. He was not, he claimed, his brother’s keeper; we are not, he in­sisted, be­holden to each other, but sep­a­rate, iso­lated, each of us for our­selves.

Think of Cain as the first So­cial Dar­win­ist and this Oc­cu­pier in Austin as his op­po­site, claim­ing, no, our op­er­at­ing sys­tem should be love; we are all con­nected; we must take care of each other. And this move­ment, he’s say­ing, is about what the Ar­gen­tin­ian up­ris­ing that began a decade ago, on De­cem­ber 19, 2001, calledpo­lit­ica afec­tiva, the pol­i­tics of af­fec­tion.

If it’s a move­ment about love, it’s also about the money they so un­justly took, and con­tinue to take, from us — and about the fact that, right now, money and love are at war with each other. After all, in the Amer­i­can heart­land, peo­ple are be­gin­ning to be im­pris­oned for debt, while the Oc­cupy move­ment is ar­gu­ing for debt for­give­ness, rene­go­ti­a­tion, and debt ju­bilees.

Some­times love, or at least de­cency, wins.  One morn­ing late last month, 75-year-old Josephine Tol­bert, who ran a day­care cen­ter from her mod­est San Fran­cisco home, re­turned after drop­ping a child off at school only to find that she and the other chil­dren were locked out be­cause she was be­hind in her mort­gage pay­ments. True Com­pass LLC, who bought her place in a short sale while she thought she was still ne­go­ti­at­ing with Bank of Amer­ica, would not allow her back into her home of al­most four decades, even to get her med­i­cines or di­a­pers for the chil­dren.

We demon­strated at her home and at True Com­pass’s shabby of­fices while they hid within, and stu­dents from Oc­cupy San Fran­cisco State Uni­ver­sity demon­strated out­side a True Com­pass-owned restau­rant on be­half of this African-Amer­i­can grand­mother. Thanks to this sol­i­dar­ity and the media at­ten­tion it gar­nered, Tol­bert has col­lected her keys, moved back in, and is rene­go­ti­at­ing the terms of her mort­gage.

Hun­dreds of other fore­clo­sure vic­tims are now being de­fended by local branches of the Oc­cupy move­ment, from West Oak­land to North Min­neapo­lis. As New York writer, film­maker, and Oc­cu­pier Astra Tay­lor puts it,

Not only does the oc­cu­pa­tion of aban­doned fore­closed homes con­nect the dots be­tween Wall Street and Main Street, it can also lead to swift and tan­gi­ble vic­to­ries, some­thing move­ments des­per­ately need for mo­men­tum to be main­tained. The banks, it seems, are softer tar­gets than one might ex­pect be­cause so many cases are rife with legal ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties and out­right crim­i­nal­ity. With one in five homes fac­ing fore­clo­sure and fil­ings show­ing no sign of slow­ing down in the next few years, the num­ber of peo­ple touched by the mort­gage cri­sis — whether be­cause they have lost their homes or be­cause their homes are now un­der­wa­ter — truly bog­gles the mind.”

If what’s been hap­pen­ing lo­cally and glob­ally has some of the char­ac­ter­is­tics of an up­ris­ing, then there has never been one quite so per­va­sive — from the sci­en­tists hold­ing an Oc­cupy sign in Antarc­tica to Oc­cupy pres­ences in places as far-flung as New Zealand and Aus­tralia, São Paulo, Frank­furt, Lon­don, Toronto, Los An­ge­les, and Reyk­javik. And don’t for­get the tini­est places, ei­ther. The other morn­ing at the Oak­land docks for the West Coast port shut­down demon­stra­tions, I met three mem­bers of Oc­cupy Amador County, a small rural area in Cal­i­for­nia’s Sierra Nevada.  Its largest town, Jack­son, has a lit­tle over 4,000 in­hab­i­tants, which hasn’t stopped it from hav­ing reg­u­lar out­door Fri­day evening Oc­cupy meet­ings.

A lit­tle girl in a red parka at the Oak­land docks was car­ry­ing a sign with a quote from blind-deaf-and-ar­tic­u­late early twen­ti­eth-cen­tury role model Helen Keller that said, “The best and most beau­ti­ful things in the world can­not be seen or even touched. They must be felt within the heart.” Why quote Keller at a demon­stra­tion fo­cused on labor and eco­nom­ics? The an­swer is clear enough: be­cause Oc­cupy has some of the emo­tional res­o­nance of a spir­i­tual, as well as a po­lit­i­cal, move­ment.  Like those other up­heavals it’s aligned with in Spain, Greece, Ice­land (where they’re ac­tu­ally jail­ing bankers), Britain, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Libya, Chile, and most re­cently Rus­sia, it wants to ask basic ques­tions: What mat­ters? Who mat­ters? Who de­cides? On what prin­ci­ples?

Stop for a mo­ment and con­sider just how un­fore­seen and un­fore­see­able all of this was when, on De­cem­ber 17, 2010, Mo­hamed Bouaz­izi, a Tunisian veg­etable ven­dor in Sidi Bouzid, an out-of-the-way, im­pov­er­ished city, im­mo­lated him­self. He was protest­ing the dead-end life that the 1% econ­omy run by Tunisia’s au­to­cratic ruler Zine Ben Ali and his cor­rupt fam­ily al­lot­ted him, and the po­lice bru­tal­ity that went with it, two things that have re­mained front and cen­ter ever since. Above all, as his mother has since tes­ti­fied, he was for human dig­nity, for a world, that is, where the pri­mary sys­tem of value is not money.

“Com­pas­sion is our new cur­rency,” was the mes­sage  scrawled on a pizza-box lid at Oc­cupy Wall Street in Zuc­cotti Park in lower Man­hat­tan — held by a pen­sive-look­ing young man in Je­remy Ayers’s great photo por­trait.  But what can you buy with com­pas­sion?


Quite a lot, it turns out, in­clud­ing a global move­ment, and even pizza, which can ar­rive at that move­ment’s camp­ground as a gift of sol­i­dar­ity.  A few days into Oc­cupy Wall Street’s sur­prise suc­cess, a call for pizza went out and $2,600 in piz­zas came in within an hour, just as ear­lier this year the oc­cu­piers of Wis­con­sin’s state house had been co­pi­ously sup­plied with pizza — in­clud­ing pies paid for and dis­patched by Egypt­ian rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies. 

The Re­turn of the Dis­ap­peared

Dur­ing the 1970s and 1980s dic­ta­tor­ship and death-squad era in Chile, Ar­gentina, Brazil, and Cen­tral Amer­ica, the term “the dis­ap­peared” came to cover those who were kid­napped, held in se­cret, tor­tured, and then often ex­e­cuted in se­cret. So many decades later, their fates are often still being de­ci­phered.

In the United States, the dis­ap­peared also exist, not thanks to a bru­tal army or para­mil­i­taries, but to a bru­tal econ­omy.  When you lose your job, you van­ish from the work­place and sooner or later ar­rive at empti­ness in your day, your iden­tity, your wal­let, your abil­ity to par­tic­i­pate in a com­mer­cial so­ci­ety. When you lose your home, you dis­ap­pear from fa­mil­iar spaces: the block, the neigh­bor­hood, the rolls of home­own­ers.   Often, you van­ish in shame, leav­ing be­hind friends and ac­quain­tances.

At the ac­tions to sup­port some of the 1,500 mostly African-Amer­i­can home­own­ers being fore­closed upon in south­east­ern San Fran­cisco, sev­eral of them de­scribed how they had to over­come a pow­er­ful sense of shame sim­ply to speak up, no less de­fend them­selves or join this move­ment. In the U.S., fail­ure is al­ways sup­posed to be in­di­vid­ual, not sys­temic, and so it tends to pro­duce a sense of per­sonal dev­as­ta­tion that leaves its vic­tims feel­ing alone and lying low, even though they are among le­gions of oth­ers.

The peo­ple who de­stroyed our econ­omy through their bot­tom­less greed are, on the other hand, shame­less — as shame­less as the CEOs whose com­pen­sa­tion shot up36% in 2010, dur­ing this deep and grind­ing re­ces­sion. Com­pas­sion is def­i­nitely not their cur­rency.


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The word “oc­cupy” it­self speaks pow­er­fully to the Amer­i­can dis­ap­peared and the very idea of dis­ap­pear­ance.  It speaks to those who have lost their oc­cu­pa­tion or the home they oc­cu­pied. In its many mean­ings, it’s a big tent. It means to fill a space, take pos­ses­sion of it, em­ploy one­self, busy one­self, fill time.  (In the sev­en­teenth and eigh­teenth cen­turies, the verb had a mean­ing so sex­ual it fell out of com­mon use.)  It de­scribes the state of being pre­sent that the Oc­cupy move­ment’s Gen­eral As­sem­blies and tent camps have lived out, a space in which — as Mo­hamed Bouaz­izi might have dreamed it — the dis­ap­peared can reap­pear with dig­nity. 

Oc­cupy has also cre­ated a space in which peo­ple of all kinds can co­ex­ist, from the home­less to the tenured, from the inner city to the agrar­ian. Co­ex­ist­ing in pub­lic with like­minded strangers and ac­quain­tances is one of the great foun­da­tions and ex­pe­ri­ences of democ­racy, which is why dic­ta­tor­ships ban gath­er­ings and groups — and why our First Amend­ment guar­an­tee of the right of the peo­ple peace­ably to as­sem­ble is being tested more strongly today than in any re­cent mo­ment in Amer­i­can his­tory. Nearly every Oc­cupy has at its cen­ter reg­u­lar meet­ings of aGen­eral As­sem­bly. These are ex­per­i­ments in di­rect democ­racy that have been messy, ex­as­per­at­ing and mirac­u­lous: are­nas in which every­one is in­vited to be heard, to have a voice, to be a mem­ber, to shape the fu­ture. Oc­cupy is first of all a con­ver­sa­tion among our­selves.

To oc­cupy also means to show up, to be pre­sent — a rad­i­cally un­plugged ex­pe­ri­ence for a dig­i­tal gen­er­a­tion. Today, the term is being ap­plied to any place where one plans to be pre­sent, ge­o­graph­i­cally or metaphor­i­cally: Oc­cupy Wall Street, oc­cupy the food sys­tem, oc­cupy your heart. The ad hoc in­ven­tion of the peo­ple’s mic by the oc­cu­piers of Zuc­cotti Park, which re­quires every­one to lis­ten, re­peat, and am­plify what’s being said, has only strength­ened this sense of pres­ence. You can’t text or half-lis­ten if your task is to re­peat every­thing, so that every­one hears and un­der­stands. You be­come the keeper of your brother’s or sis­ter’s voice as you re­peat their words.

It’s a tri­umph of the here and now — and it’s every­where: the Re­gents of the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia are mic-checked, politi­cians are mic-checked, the Dur­ban Cli­mate Con­fer­ence in South Africa had oc­cu­piers and mic-check mo­ments. Ac­tivism had long been in dire need of new modes of doing things, and this year it got them.

A Mouth­ful of Truth

Be­fore the Oc­cupy move­ment ar­rived on the scene, po­lit­i­cal di­a­logue and media chat­ter in this coun­try seemed to be ar­riv­ing from a warped par­al­lel uni­verse. Tiny gov­ern­ment ex­pen­di­tures were de­nounced, while the vor­tex suck­ing our econ­omy dry was rarely ad­dressed; hard-work­ing im­mi­grants were por­trayed as dead­beats; peo­ple who did noth­ing were anointed as “job cre­ators”; the trashed econ­omy and mas­sive suf­fer­ing were over­looked, while politi­cians jousted over (and pun­dits pon­tif­i­cated about) the deficit; class war was only called class war when some­one other than the rul­ing class waged it. It’s as though we were try­ing to nav­i­gate Las Vegas with a tat­tered map of me­dieval Byzan­tium — via, that is, a bro­ken lan­guage in which every­thing and every­one got lost.

Then Oc­cupy ar­rived and, as if swept by some strange pan­demic, a con­ta­gious virus of truth-telling, every­one was sud­denly obliged to call things by their real names and talk about ac­tual prob­lems. The blather about the deficit was re­placed by ac­knowl­edg­ments of grotesque eco­nomic in­equal­ity. Greed was called greed, and once it had its true name, it be­came in­tol­er­a­ble, as had racism when the Civil Rights Move­ment named it and made it ev­i­dent to those who weren’t suf­fer­ing from it di­rectly. The vast scale of suf­fer­ing around stu­dent debt and tu­ition hikes, fore­clo­sures, un­em­ploy­ment, wage stag­na­tion, med­ical costs, and the other af­flic­tions of the nor­mal Amer­i­can sud­denly moved to the top of the news, and once ex­posed to the light, these, too, be­came in­tol­er­a­ble.

If the so­lu­tions to the night­mares being named are nei­ther near nor easy, nam­ing things, de­scrib­ing re­al­ity with some ac­cu­racy, is at least a cru­cial first step.  In­form­ing our­selves as cit­i­zens is an­other.  As­pects of our not-quite-democ­racy  that were once al­most in­vis­i­ble are now on the table for dis­cus­sion — and for op­po­si­tion, no­tably cor­po­rate per­son­hood, the legal sta­tus that gives cor­po­ra­tions the rights, but not the oblig­a­tions and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties, of cit­i­zens. (One oft-re­peated Oc­cu­pier sign says, “I’ll be­lieve cor­po­ra­tions are peo­ple when Texas puts one to death.”)

The Los An­ge­les City Coun­cil passed a mea­sure call­ing for an end to cor­po­rate per­son­hood, the first big city to join the Move to Amend cam­paign against cor­po­rate per­son­hood and against the 2009 Supreme Court Cit­i­zens United rul­ing that gave cor­po­ra­tions un­lim­ited abil­ity to in­sert their cash in our po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns. Oc­cupy ac­tions across the coun­try are planned for Jan­u­ary 20th, the sec­ond an­niver­sary of Cit­i­zens United. Ver­mont’s in­de­pen­dent Sen­a­tor Bernie Sanders, who’s been speak­ing the truth alone for a long time, in­tro­duced a con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment to re­peal Cit­i­zens United and limit cor­po­rate power in the Sen­ate, while Con­gress­man Ted Deutch (D-FL) in­tro­duced a sim­i­lar mea­sure in the House.

Only a few years ago, hardly any­one knew what cor­po­rate per­son­hood was.  Now, signs de­nounc­ing it are com­mon.  Sim­i­larly, at Oc­cupy events, peo­ple make it clear that they know about the New Deal-era fi­nan­cial re­form mea­sure known as the Glass-Stea­gall Act, which was par­tially re­pealed in 1999, re­mov­ing the wall be­tween com­mer­cial and in­vest­ment banks; that they know about the pro­posed fi­nan­cial trans­fer tax, nick­named the Robin Hood Tax, that would raise bil­lions with a tiny levy on every fi­nan­cial trans­ac­tion; that they un­der­stand many of the means by which the 1% were en­riched and the rest of us robbed.

This rep­re­sents a strik­ing learn­ing curve. A new lan­guage of truth, de­bate about what ac­tu­ally mat­ters, an in­formed cit­i­zenry: that’s no small thing. But we need more.

We Are the 99.999%

I was my­self so caught up in the Oc­cupy move­ment that I stopped pay­ing my usual at­ten­tion to the war over the cli­mate — until I was brought up short by the cat­a­strophic fail­ure of the cli­mate ne­go­ti­a­tions in Dur­ban, South Africa. There, ear­lier this month, the most pow­er­ful and car­bon-pol­lut­ing coun­tries man­aged to avoid tak­ing any timely and sub­stan­tial mea­sures to keep the cli­mate from heat­ing up and the Earth from slip­ping into un­stop­pable chaotic change.

It’s our na­ture to be more com­pelled by im­me­di­ate human suf­fer­ing than by re­mote sys­temic prob­lems. Only this prob­lem isn’t any­where near as re­mote as many Amer­i­cans imag­ine.  It’s al­ready cre­at­ing human suf­fer­ing on a large scale and will cre­ate far more. Many of the food crises of the past decade are tied to cli­mate change, and in Africa thou­sands are dying of cli­mate-re­lated chaos. The floods, fires, storms, and heat waves of the past few years are cli­mate change com­ing to call ear­lier than ex­pected in the U.S.

In the most im­me­di­ate sense, Oc­cupy may have weak­ened the cli­mate move­ment by fo­cus­ing many of us on the ur­gent suf­fer­ing of our broth­ers, our neigh­bors, our democ­racy. In the end, how­ever, it could strengthen that move­ment with its new tac­tics, al­liances, spirit, and lan­guage of truth. After all, why have we been un­able to make the major changes re­quired to limit green­house gases in the at­mos­phere? The an­swer is a word sud­denly in wide cir­cu­la­tion: greed. Re­spond­ing ad­e­quately to this cri­sis would ben­e­fit every liv­ing thing. When it comes to cli­mate change, after all, we are the 99.999%.

But the in­ter­na­tional .001% who profit im­mea­sur­ably from the car­bon econ­omy — the oil and coal ty­coons, in­dus­tri­al­ists, and politi­cians whose strings they pull — are against this change. For decades, they’ve man­aged to pro­pa­gan­dize many Amer­i­cans, in and out of gov­ern­ment, into cli­mate de­nial, spread­ing lies about the sci­ence and eco­nom­ics of cli­mate change, and un­der­min­ing any pos­si­ble leg­is­la­tion and in­ter­na­tional ne­go­ti­a­tions to ame­lio­rate it. And if you think the evic­tion of el­derly home­own­ers is bru­tal, think of it as a tiny fore­shad­ow­ing of the dis­place­ment and dis­ap­pear­ance of peo­ple, com­mu­ni­ties, na­tions, species, habi­tats. Cli­mate change threat­ens to fore­close on all of us.

The groups work­ing on cli­mate change now, no­tably 350.​org and Tar Sands Ac­tion, have done as­ton­ish­ing things al­ready. Most re­cently, with the help of na­tive Cana­di­ans, local ac­tivists, and al­ter­na­tive media, they very nearly man­aged to kill the sin­gle scari­est and biggest North Amer­i­can threat to the cli­mate: the tar sands pipeline that would go from Canada to Texas. It’s been a re­mark­able show of or­ga­niz­ing power and pop­u­lar will. Oc­cupy the Cli­mate may need to come next.

Maybe Oc­cupy Wall Street and its thou­sands of spin-offs have built the foun­da­tion for it. But per­haps the great­est gift that it and the other move­ments of 2011 have given us is a sharp­en­ing of our per­cep­tions — and our con­flicts. So much more is out in the open now, in­clud­ing the greed, the bru­tal­ity with which en­ti­ties from the Egypt­ian army to the Oak­land po­lice im­pose the will of rulers, and most of all the deep gen­eros­ity of spirit that is be­hind, within, and around these in­sur­gen­cies and their ac­tivists. None of these move­ments is per­fect, and in­di­vid­u­als within them are not al­ways the great­est keep­ers of their broth­ers and sis­ters.  But one thing couldn’t be clearer: com­pas­sion is our new cur­rency.

Noth­ing has been more mov­ing to me than this de­sire, re­al­ized im­per­fectly but re­peat­edly, to con­nect across dif­fer­ences, to be a com­mu­nity, to make a bet­ter world, to em­brace each other. This de­sire is what lies be­hind those messy camps, those rau­cous demon­stra­tions, those card­board signs and long con­ver­sa­tions. Young ac­tivists have spo­ken to me about the ex­tra­or­di­nary rich­ness of their ex­pe­ri­ences at Oc­cupy, and they call it love.

In the spirit of call­ing things by their true names, let me sum­mon up the de­scrip­tion that Ella Baker and Mar­tin Luther King used for the great com­mu­ni­ties of ac­tivists who stood up for civil rights half a cen­tury ago: the beloved com­mu­nity. Many who were ac­tive then never for­got the deep bonds and deep mean­ing they found in that strug­gle. We — and the word “we” en­com­passes more of us than ever be­fore — have found those things, too, and this year we have come close to some­thing un­prece­dented, a beloved com­mu­nity that cir­cles the globe.

Read Tom En­gel­hardt’s re­sponse here.

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San Francisco writer Rebecca Solnit is the author of thirteen books about art, landscape, public and collective life, ecology, politics, hope, meandering, reverie, and memory. She has worked with climate change, Native American land rights, antinuclear, human rights, antiwar and other issues as an activist and journalist. A product of the California public education system from kindergarten to graduate school, she is a contributing editor to Harper’s and frequent contributor to the political site and has made her living as an independent writer since 1988.

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