Sunday, November 20, 2011

Occupy, Occupy, Here Comes Occupy

I’ve been wanting to comment on the #Occupy movement for quite some time, but events keep outrunning my prose. That’s still true today. So this is just going to be some disjointed musings to emphasize how delighted I am with these young people—the ones who’ll have to live in the mess we’ve created—and how crucial I think their movement is. Just consider: a few weeks ago, the wacky right seemed firmly in command of the entire political spectrum. Obama was reeling from hits to every one of his proposals, no matter how lame. All we heard was the Tea Party and the rantings and ravings of the Republican pretenders to the White House: Tweedledum and Tweedledumber-by-the-minute (I mean really, has there ever been such a gathering of cruel, incompetent morons in a presidential primary?)

Now, though, the #Occupy movement in city after city has changed all that. Just this morning, for example, I read a piece about the latest initiative in Congress: Ted Deutch, (D-FL) has offered a constitutional amendment (he calls it OCCUPIED: Outlawing Corporate Cash Undermining the Public Interest in our Elections and Democracy) to affirm that “rights protected by the Constitution belong to human beings, not to for-profit corporations or other business entities.” It would “prohibit business corporations and their associations from using money or other resources to influence voting on candidates or ballot measures anywhere in America.” Amazing. The Democrats in Congress are clearly feeling the heat from the occupiers, and some, at least, are starting to find some damn backbone.

Of course, it won’t be enough. But this is what such movements are supposed to do: change the debate, and force legislators to act rather than hide behind mealy-mouthed rhetoric. And just before this, I watched a video of a few dozen occupiers marching—on foot, along the highway where people can stop and congratulate them—from New York to Washington. They plan, according to some of their interviews, to barge in on the deadlocked “Super Committee” that’s supposed to be coming up with compromise measures to reduce the deficit. Of course, this “stupor committee” will do nothing of the kind, but the occupiers are pushing ahead, getting some press, and dramatizing the determined inaction of the U.S. Congress.

Even before that, I read the beautiful op-ed written (NY Times)by former poet laureate Robert Hass about his encounter with the police at UC Berkeley’s occupy gathering last week. In brief, Hass and his wife, poet Brenda Hillman, decided to monitor police behavior the night they were to remove the occupiers from UC’s Sproul Plaza. Instead, the Hass’s found themselves stuck in a crowd being forced together, and when Hillman sought to engage a policeman in dialogue, he struck her to the ground, also striking Hass when he tried to come to her aid. Hass, nursing bruised ribs, decries the militaristic tactics of the Darth Vader forces that have attacked, without provocation, the occupiers from New York to Denver to Oakland to San Francisco in what many see as a coordinated attempt to intimidate the occupiers, break their movement, and discourage any others who might be thinking of joining them. It hasn’t worked so far. Each broken-up demonstration has simply come back stronger—a fact we learned in the 60s, i.e. that inducing the authorities to overreact is part of revolutionary strategy. And these days, i.e., post-9/11, one hardly has to induce at all. The militarized police forces—the equipping of whom has become a booming industry for America’s military-industrial complex—seem to all be either on hair-trigger alert, or specifically instructed to beat the hell out of a few hundred demonstrators, regardless of provocation or law-breaking, to send a message. Fortunately, the message is having the opposite effect. Police brutality is encouraging, rather than discouraging more people to join the movement. And if polls are correct, millions of Americans, like myself, are cheering them on from the sidelines.

The police will, and already have scaled back their brutalities—especially after the horrific video of a helmeted officer walking calmly back and forth spraying pepper gas directly on a sitting group of UC Davis students blocking a sidewalk; which spraying called forth condemnation and an investigation by the UC Davis Chancellor. But things have gone very far already, and the police, like all authorities, are fixed in their attitudes. Crowds threaten them. Protest types disgust and alarm them. Used to intimidating, used to immediate compliance with their orders no matter how unreasonable, their responses are virtually automatic (their force has been rationalized by one spokesperson who said “linking arms is a form of violence”). Indeed, the conflict between police/soldiers and unarmed demonstrators has become the emblem of our time—in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Yemen, in Burma, in Libya, in Syria. The only question in any such situation is how far these “upholders of law and order” will go to snuff out the legitimate cries of the suffering.

And this is why, in the end, the #Occupy movement is so important. Ordinary people, mostly young people, are demonstrating that the situation—of inequality, of organized theft, of corporate malfeasance, of ecological disaster—has become so dire that they are willing to put their bodies on the line to change not just rhetoric, but everything. Even former lawmen—I know of two who have recently joined the occupiers, Ray Lewis, former police chief of Philadelphia (arrested), and Norm Stamper, former police chief of Seattle—are adding their voices to the rising chorus. Where all this will end is anybody’s guess: it could fizzle in the cold and wet. But one thing is sure. Those in power are taking note, and planning furiously to deflect the movement, infiltrate the movement, discourage and discredit the movement (this just in: Reader Supported News is reporting that a well-known DC Lobbying Firm has proposed an $850,000 plan to conduct ‘opposition research’ on the Occupy Movement and construct ‘negative narratives’ about it. See it at There is fear in their hearts, because they know that the movement has focused on the one truth that cannot be denied: We really are the 99%, and without our cooperation, they cannot maintain their exploitation of the masses. For that alone, I salute the occupiers. And hope, when the time is ripe, to join them.

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

One Continuous Mistake

I’ve recently read an inspiring book called Fire Monks, which tells the story of how five Zen monks from the San Francisco Zen Center, against all odds, saved the center’s monastery at Tassajara, near Big Sur during the raging forest fire there in 2008. In one segment, the writer, Colleen Busch, quoted a phrase that SF Zen master Suzuki Roshi liked to use: it referred to life, even a Zen master’s life, as shoshaku jushaku, Japanese for “one continuous mistake.”

That resonated with me. Being a perfectionist, I’m always trying to get everything just right. I think it’s a common ailment among humans: We think we can outwit life and, by doing things just right, insulate ourselves—from rain water coming into our houses, from waste water leaking out, from fire, from flood, from storm, from sickness and death, from all the shocks that flesh is heir to. We cannot. Everything we do, every decision we make is dogged by mistakes. Indeed, when looked at carefully, most life decisions are impossible decisions, impossible to get right, that is. We are constantly making mistakes, always falling short to one degree or another, except where we’re very lucky.

Even in baseball (I’ve also been reading A. Bartlett Giamatti’s profound study of American sport, especially baseball, Take Time for Paradise), the situation is the same. As Giamatti points out, America’s sport is a game dominated by failure. Most attempts to reach base safely, not to mention getting home, are failures. Even the .300 hitter, the game’s crème de la creme, fails to hit safely 2 out of 3 times. Which is to repeat that life is one continuous mistake; we work hard to realize our “dreams,” but most of the time, most of us fail.

I have been reminded of this lately while doing work on my house. To engage in this kind of work—carpentry, painting, roofing—is to engage in continuous mistakes. Measurements don’t work out. One forgets to consider some inner cut. A carpenter I used to work with years ago had a wonderful way of dealing with this: “The universe,” he said only half joking, “is off by a quarter of an inch. Measure all you want, you’ll always be off.” I think he was right. We humans insist on making right angles of the world, when in fact, nature is all circles and curves. So whole pieces of lumber or fittings get wasted. The paint is either too thick or too thin and the color never looks the way it did on the sample. And when it comes to painting it on, there are always “holidays,” or slips of the brush splattering glass instead of wood, and if you’re really paying attention, boards that turn out to be dry-rotted or termite-infested. One continuous mistake.

Nor is it any different in the writing business. Years ago at Harcourt Brace, a manuscript I was preparing for publication had book titles typed in capital letters—a convention for typed manuscripts before computers (typewriters had no italics). The editor was always supposed to convert such caps for the printer by marking them ‘ital’ and lower-casing all but the first letter. In the first book I edited on my own, I overlooked this little detail, so the book was printed with book titles in all caps. Humiliating; but I never mentioned it and no one seemed to notice. Writing one’s own books carries the same, or even greater hazards. The writer lives in fear of that mistake—the one that appears in the title, in chapter titles, in boneheaded misquotes, in whole paragraphs that get cut off. In fact, I have never written an essay for publication that didn’t get mangled by the publication in one way or another. Most people never notice, but the writer does, living always with the knowledge that no book, no piece of art is ever perfectly rendered, and it haunts him. One continuous mistake.

Even when a star rises to the top, how many are there who avoid conspicuous, often fatal mistakes? Consider the last few presidents we’ve had—successes in the most exalted sense, having made it to the highest position available in America, or, for that matter, the whole world. And yet, think of the recent ones: Lyndon Johnson resigning in frustration over the Vietnam War, with war protesters shouting outside the White House, “Hey Hey LBJ, how many kids have you killed today?” Richard Nixon following him, with a great landslide victory over Humphrey, with a re-election landslide over McGovern, which triumph led to encomiums about his political genius; and within weeks had him embroiled in the greatest scandal in American history, Watergate, and within months, with impeachment looming, resigned in disgrace. Consoling himself only with that pathetic mantra, “I am not a crook.” Then Ford pardoning Nixon, another scandal, mouthing his presidential mantra that no one is above the law, but of course sometimes the law must accede to “reality” (i.e. power). Jimmy Carter taking office next, with high hopes, but shortly after his major achievement at Camp David, confronted with the Iran hostage crisis that drove him from office in ridicule. Then Reagan: Mr. “Morning in America.” But before too long, mired in his own disgrace, Iran-Contra, confirming him as lawbreaker-in-chief, and in hindsight seen by many as the architect of the long-term collapse not so much of the Soviet Union, but of American capitalism itself. Then G. H. W. Bush faltering on every level, shortly after claiming a transformative victory over Iraq. And Clinton with a few victories in the economy, but so unable to control his wee wee he ends up barely fighting off impeachment, his legacy “I never had sex with that woman.” And W; need we say anything about W? Non-existent weapons of mass destruction as justification for war? Deaths in the millions for what? To create the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression? And now Obama, failing utterly to fulfill the promise, siding with the worst elements that brought the nation to the brink, abandoning those who swept him into office, and unable now to get even a small bill through Congress.

In short, the U.S. presidency, not to mention the current Congress, is one continuous mistake.

The trick, for the zenist, and for all of us, is how to come to terms with this, with this knowing that no matter how carefully one proceeds, mistakes are continuous. (The obverse is that in zen, it is said, one can never make a “wrong” decision; or a “right” decision, for that matter. One just does what is needed at the time.) Or, as Suzuki Roshi used to say, just commit and do your best: ‘It’s the effort that counts, the sincere commitment to wake up, wherever you are. That’s all anyone can ask.’ Which is also to say, awake to what life is. Despite the assurance of our myths, life is not success; life is not progress; life is not keeping the rain out completely (other animals simply get rained on; and don’t melt). Life is one continuous mistake. Which is pretty much how it proceeds. Mistake after mistake, leading over time, perhaps, to a little tinkering here, a bit of tinkering there with just enough of us getting by to keep it going, the only success being its continuation; our continuation. It goes on; we go on: the entire creation. Which is about all we can say; and isn’t that, mistakes and all, miraculous enough?

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Wake-up Time?

I have to confess that I didn’t go to the polls yesterday, having glanced at the sample ballot to find mostly school bond issues of little interest to me now. But across the country, what an election it was. Though it may be too much to hope, it seems that our great unwashed are finally waking up to the fact that capitalist democracy, in its present form, is not going to save them. Rather, the oligarchs and banksters and Wall Street billionaires now in control of both the economy and the political process will never be satisfied until they have ground the faces of the working classes into the dirt, stripped them of all dignity, and forced them to shut up, watch the circus, and become slaves. But wait: enter the Wall Street occupiers who, contrary to all expectations, seem to have changed the conversation, and now, voters across the country have shown that they, too, are fed up.

In Ohio, where Governor John Kasich had emulated his Republican counterpart in Wisconsin by pushing a law, SB 5, that stripped public sector unions of their right to collectively bargain, the voters repealed the law in a huge victory for union rights. Over 60% of voters stood with nurses, teachers, policemen and firefighters in a victory that had the Ohio governor sheepishly acknowledging that he had “heard the voters.” I just bet he did. I bet the smart-ass governor of Wisconsin heard too. Perhaps even the billionaire Koch brothers, who financed much of this concerted Republican attack on workers, heard it as well. Because this wasn’t the only reversal for the conservatives who just months ago appeared poised to take over the whole nation.

No. Progressive victories took place in several more states, including Maine, Mississippi, Iowa, Arizona and North Carolina. Something is happening here, Mr. Jones. In Maine, the people voted to maintain their same-day voter registration policy after the right-wing legislature had passed a law to repeal it—employing their usual argument about “voter fraud.” The people didn’t believe it, saw it as disenfranchisement, and yesterday took their right back. In Mississippi, voters struck back on a different front, rejecting another attempt by fundamentalists to pass a constitutional amendment granting “personhood” to a “fertilized egg.” That’s right. On the one hand, these right-wing bozos grant personhood to corporations; on the other, to “fertilized eggs”, thus putting at risk not just abortions, but even birth control. Even benighted voters in Mississippi said “no thanks” thank god.

But my two favorites, at least in the U.S., were Arizona and Missoula, Montana. In Arizona, the Republican state Senator who had pushed the state’s nasty immigration bill, SB 1070, one Russell Pearce by name, was recalled. Tossed out of office. The gopher for the notorious American Legislative Council (ALEC)—funded by corporate special interests including the aforementioned Koch Brothers—Pearce this morning was talking about having to re-examine his options after his big defeat. Which probably means figuring out how to maintain his racism by putting a more palatable face on it. No matter. He’s gone and SB 1070 should be toast. The Koch brothers suffered another defeat in Wake County, North Carolina where voters defeated four conservative school board candidates backed by the Koch’s “Americans for Prosperity” who wanted to get rid of the district’s diversity policies. In other words, to re-segregate the schools. The voters said no, and replaced them with Democrats. Why, it might even be called morning in America!

Finally, in Missoula MT, (site, incidentally, of the camp where Italian Americans were interned during WWII), citizens passed a resolution proposing to amend the U.S. Constitution to END CORPORATE PERSONHOOD. To me, this is potentially the most important victory of all. This is because the absurd notion that corporations are actually persons, with all the First Amendment rights granted to human beings by the U.S. Constitution—including and specifically free speech (the basis for the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United granting corporations complete freedom to throw money at any and all candidates for public office without restrictions)—makes a mockery of democracy itself. Corporations are fictitious entities. Persons organize themselves into corporations specifically to limit their liability as individual humans in business dealings. That limited liability is granted because it allows corporations to do what individuals cannot—so to then turn around and grant a fiction with immunity the same protections as vulnerable humans is an absurdity. Further, the Supreme Court itself never actually decided on this issue; it was a clerk working for the court, J.C. Bancroft Davis, who added a headnote to the 1886 Santa Clara case that assumed the personhood of corporations—a headnote that slipped by and became precedent ever after. In other words, corporate personhood should never have had the force of law. Since it does, however, the remedy is to pass a constitutional amendment to bring the situation back to where the Founders—Jefferson, Madison, and others who insisted that it was the people who needed protection from corporations—initially put it. Humans have human rights. Corporations do not, except in the fictitious world established in the United States in recent years. As one sign in the Occupy movement put it, “I’ll believe corporations are persons when Texas executes one.” It is time to abolish this so-called right, and the voters of Missoula, Montana took a first step. My hope is that before too long, the entire nation will wake up as well, and take the necessary actions to put corporations and their power back in the bottle where they belong. If, that is, it isn’t already too late—which it will be if now all of Italy comes undone (Berlusconi’s downfall another victory), joining Greece, and the whole Eurozone follows suit. Then, it might be too late not only to save Europe, but to save capitalism as well.
First things first, though, and today we can raise a glass to some small, but significant victories. May they continue.

Lawrence DiStasi