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The ‘Occupy’ Movement: Rebels Without a Clue?

Mildred: “Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?”

This protestor must be a computer geek.

Protest Sign for the Modern Computer Geek. From skynews.com.au

Johnny: “Whadda you got?”

-Exchange between two characters from the movie The Wild One, 1953, with Marlon Brando

I’m classified as a late-stage baby boomer, having been born in the late 1950’s. During the decisive and divisive decade of the 1960’s I was a snot-nosed school kid; the most important crisis of my life was when our TV died and it took weeks before Mom could afford to replace a bad tube. (No, not the tube you looked at—one of several tubes inside the box that generated heat and helped make the picture.) The country was embroiled in Vietnam. JFK, MLK and RFK were assassinated, and the civil rights movement was in full swing. Back then it was common for young people to stage protest marches, sit-ins, and acts of civil disobedience to make a point about something. The war, equal rights, poverty, injustice, or political misconduct—it didn’t matter. Everything seemed fair game and it was all done to a rocking soundtrack. The evening news was filled with stark images: soldiers on the front lines; water cannons deployed against civil rights marchers, and students shot by National Guardsmen at Bowling Green University in Ohio. As a kid I soaked it all in but much of it didn’t make sense. The only thing that solidly connected was the certainty that I would be drafted by my Government to fight for them when I turned 18. I didn’t want to die so I prayed every night for the abolishment of the draft, protection for our soldiers, and an end to war. It’s a shame that any kid who hasn’t reached the age of 12 had to pray every night about death and dying but it’s what I did.

Years passed, Vietnam ended, and the draft was abolished for a window of time. America sailed through the disco years and into the prosperity and growth of the eighties. Everything was okey-dokey, at least on the surface. There were societal issues that needed to be dealt with but we were caught up in a capitalistic furor. Go to college, get a great job, make lots of money to buy stuff, and grab a piece of the American dream. I remember reading a magazine article back then by someone decrying the flaccidness of our youth’s resolve to change the world. “No one has a cause to fight for anymore. All they care about is money.” The piece was probably written by an ex-hippie protestnik remembering the golden age of social activism. I remember thinking that, perhaps, that time had passed and the role of the mass protest had become unnecessary. In actuality capitalism and the acquisition of worldly goods lulled us to sleep. Meanwhile a lot of Very Bad Things were going on behind the scenes, and crimes against the citizens of this country went unchecked. Our political process, which was never very clean or honorable, had long ago yielded itself to corruption.

Suddenly we found ourselves in the new millennium and realized that things had gone to Hell. America was attacked in grand Hollywood style on September 11, 2001. We found ourselves involved in multiple wars and losing our individual rights and freedoms on a daily basis in the name of security. Rich corporations received massive tax relief for years in order to “build the job market,” and did just that—for foreign countries. They’d started shipping American jobs overseas to save themselves money in the nineties, but really ramped up their efforts during the past decade.  Many local economies were devastated as towns whose residents supported the steel mill, auto plant, or multinational shipping conglomerate saw those businesses close with no jobs to replace those that were lost. Then we discovered that the financial institutions—the ones the government had failed to properly oversee—had perpetrated several types of shell games using our money and our economy nearly went under, wiping out many families’ finances and future retirement plans.

The citizens of our fine country suddenly found themselves totally screwed by those who were supposed to represent and protect them, and helpless when they tried to express their anger. Politicians didn’t seem to listen or care about anything except their own jobs and keeping the ‘other party’ at a disadvantage. Some bright people decided they’d had enough and marched on Wall Street to denounce corporate greed, the lack of jobs, homelessness…in fact, everything that had been repressed for years came rushing out in a torrent.  That movement became “Occupy Wall Street” and gained strength over a few weeks to encompass protests across the country.  Despite the best intentions of these people to have peaceful demonstrations, local police ratcheted up the tension by employing tear gas and pepper spray, then used force to shed blood and hauled hundreds of them away to jail. The protester’s resolve was unbroken. When told they couldn’t use electronic amplification, they created ‘human P.A. systems’ by having crowds loudly repeat what a speaker said for the benefit of all. They set up mobile food kitchens, portable Internet hotspots, bathroom facilities, and extensively used social networks to organize the faithful. There’s no doubt that they’re determined and dedicated to their goal of making the voice of the people heard.

But many people are asking: “If everyone’s shouting different things, can they really make a difference?”  Part of the problem is that we’ve been silent for so long that a lot of things have turned sour. And, unfortunately, many of those things are inter-related. People can’t get needed assistance after natural disasters because funds were bled dry by numerous calamities this year, and the cost of ongoing warfare in multiple theaters of combat as well as a divided Congress hampers their replenishment.  The job market sucks because the economy nearly collapsed from the corruption of Wall Street insiders who weren’t properly overseen by the government due to its own corruption and incompetence.  Got that? How can you attack any one of those points without attacking the others? How can you fix jobs without fixing the economy, and how can you fix the economy if the government can’t be trusted to ensure that the companies manipulating the economy are honest? It’s a rabbit hole that Alice couldn’t tackle without major chemical assistance.

The other problem is that our fledgling young protesters don’t seem to know how to affect social changes of this magnitude, any more than the youth of the sixties did when they began their journey. Back then they had to flex their muscles, find their voice, and experiment to find the best way(s) to express their views. Today’s youth are no different. They’re like Neo who, after being freed from his pod in The Matrix asks Morpheus, “Why do my eyes hurt?”

His answer was simple: “You’ve never used them before.”

The Occupy movement is in the chrysalis stage—it’s well on its way to becoming a mature force to reckon with. For now it’s stretching, flexing, reaching out to test the capabilities and power within its grasp. The list of its demands seems way too broad and unfocused but they’re quickly learning to prioritize. The ways of the original sixties protestniks are well documented—both good and bad—and widely available through the web, and you can bet they’re soaking in everything they can learn.

As of this writing things have quieted. Occasional protests sporadically occur but as winter settles in the Occupiers appear to have lost their will to fight.  Appearances are deceiving. Kalle Lasn, who conceived Occupy Wall Street, was quoted in Rolling Stone’s January 5, 2012 issue as saying, “The first phase was wonderful, it was leaderless, it was demandless, it inspired millions of young people to get politically engaged. Now we’re moving into another phase. … But the really interesting stuff will start happening next spring.” For these tech- and internet-savvy protesters I’m sure it will be a busy winter as they research, plan, and organize for next year.

I’m happy that people are finally getting off their butts and making their voices heard. We’ve all witnessed the changes that began with the so-called “Arab spring” and I’m sure many are drawing inspiration from the Middle East events of the past year. However, the government has heard the voices of its citizens in the past year and, to be honest, I’m not sure they care. Congress seems fixated on fiddling while the country figuratively burns. Not even the Republican candidates for next year’s election seem to get it. Newt Gingrich’s statement during a recent debate was particularly telling:

“All the Occupy movement starts with the premise that we all owe them everything. They take over a public park they didn’t pay for. To go nearby to use bathrooms they didn’t pay for. To beg for food from places they don’t want to pay for.  To obstruct those who are going to work to pay the taxes to sustain the bathrooms and to sustain the park, so they can self-righteously explain that they are the paragons of virtue to which we owe everything. Now that is a pretty good symptom of how much the left has collapsed as a moral system in this country, and why you need to reassert something as simple as saying to them “Go get a job, right after you take a bath.””

Never mind that the Occupiers are meeting on public property for which they were paying their share with their tax money when they had jobs, or that the message wasn’t “You owe us jobs” but “You owe us accountability for your screw-ups and you’re obligated to responsibly manage our country and our assets.”  Gingrich’s response is similar in spirit to that of Chinese Emperor Hui of Jin, recounted in the Zizhi Tongjian. When the Emperor was told that his subjects didn’t have enough rice to eat he replied, “Why don’t they eat meat?”  The protests in the Middle East began peacefully but when the respective governments employed violence against their protesters, those protesters retaliated in kind.

The thing I fear most is the increase of violence on both sides in this country. Some may say, “This is the United States of America; that’ll never happen.” I don’t think there’s another way this can play out, especially when our Government simply refuses to get the point. If non-violence doesn’t work escalation is the logical result. Violence has become an integral part of the overseas protests, just as it did here in the sixties. People aren’t stupid and they realize that terrorist methods get an immediate response. One or two nutjobs operating completely outside the actual movement could kick the whole thing off while using the movement as a cover. Everything quickly escalates and gets ugly; bloodshed on our own soil becomes rampant; protestors and their sympathizers get branded as domestic terrorists. Then if President Obama signs the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 as he’s promised to do, the Government could “go Guantanamo” on anyone it brands as a domestic terrorist and can make them disappear without a trace.

The anger and frustration in the air seems physical, palpable; it’s as though you could grab a handful if you simply reached for it. Perhaps things will settle down over the winter, or maybe they’ll boil over as the buffoons in Washington continue playing their brinksmanship games.  All I know is this: 2012 will prove to be a most interesting year. I’m grabbing a good seat right now to enjoy the show—how about you?

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Playing the Blame Game

or, Why Do People Waste So Much Time Scapegoating?

 I worked for the local PBS station in a previous life in IT support. I considered it a dream job—I not only supported computers but got to indulge my interests in audio, video, doing voiceovers, and TV.  It was really great for the first year-and-a-half…and then things started coming unglued.  Besides the fact that the working environment was, as one of their video editors put it, an “effing Peyton Place,” the top management was inept.  There was a President/General Manager who didn’t understand many of the technical complexities and didn’t care (surprise!), he just wanted to use every available resource to make money.  The Chief Engineer at the time, and my boss, was a big Teddy Bear who was always eager to please and would roll on his employees and his decisions when the President barked.  Those of us who understood how things worked and asked detailed questions about proposed plans were deemed “negative and un-cooperative.”  I was unfortunate enough to get tangled in some of those “Peyton Place” machinations and, after experiencing a catastrophic event that is every IT support person’s nightmare, was eventually invited to tender my resignation as the station and I were “no longer a good fit.”  They were generous in that I was allowed to work part-time for six months at full salary, while I searched for a new job.  (They were probably afraid I’d do something nasty to them or their computers, or sue them for wrongful termination.  But after another staff person admitted they’d been deliberately corrupting the station’s program rights database and I got her fired, you’d think they would have understood I don’t play that way. Whatever—I got another, better job within a few months.)

That nightmare catastrophic event was the failure of a hard drive in the station’s PBS messaging and email server. At the time PBS gave every station an Apple Quadra 650 (as I remember) that ran a program called FirstClass.  The machine came with a magneto-optical drive (remember those?) for backups.  A backup program ran a script nightly, and the backup discs were regularly rotated.  The problem with most backup systems is that you cannot tell if your backups are any good unless you try to restore them.  One evening the main hard drive in the Quadra failed.  An attempt to restore the previous day’s data failed, as well as the day before that, and the day before that.  I was finally able to restore the data from several weeks before, but a lot of data was lost.  Since most of the staff used FirstClass as a virtual filing cabinet for all their data (despite being warned many times not to), several important people like the business director were ‘inconvenienced’ in a major way.  I admitted the failure to the entire staff in the weekly meeting and accepted the blame for the failure without making excuses.  That must’ve been a first; the director of corporate sponsorship told me later with a hint of awe that he really admired me for doing that.  Later I found out that the business director went nuclear in a closed door meeting with the upper level staff and ranted, “Somebody’s got to pay for this! There has to be consequences!”  Not long afterward the invitation came that forever changed my life for the better.

In the ten+ years since I’ve thought a lot about that phase of my life, and what I’d have done differently.  We were always pressured to cut costs and do more with less, but I should have invested in a couple of identical hard drives to practice installing the backups onto.  I should have retired those damned MO discs and simply used hard drives in a regular rotation.  Forcefully reminding the staff to copy their valuable information onto other media on a weekly basis would have been a good idea.  (So would having a boss that would make a decision and back it and his staff under pressure, but I digress.)  I’ve also thought a lot about the business manager’s insistence for blood in retribution for his loss—not in a vengeful way, but in a realization that the bloodshed didn’t solve one single problem.  Instead of looking at the issue and saying “It doesn’t matter how we got here—how can we work together to solve this crisis?” the only acceptable option was to “kill” the person who screwed up regardless of that person’s previous record.  (In my case the other entanglement sealed my fate, but my boss’s revelation that the President/GM never thought I was the right pick for the job probably meant I was a goner anyway.)

I’ve seen this problem before, many times—most recently in the case of Tony Hayward, BP’s beleaguered CEO.  Tony was probably like most corporate CEOs.  Most if not all of the company’s daily operations were not even on his personal radar except in the broadest sense.  His primary concern was most likely how to grow BP and increase its value for shareholders.  Things like safety violations and drill rig design compromises were left to others many management levels below him, and when those topics arose they probably never got to his level.  Yet BP made Hayward its public face, a spokesperson charged with soothing frayed nerves and tempers while trying to spin the tragedy into a less negative event.  There were a couple of problems with that decision.  Hayward was not from the States so he had no idea about the area and what it provided to the country.  He was unable to soothe tempers or nerves when various attempts to stop the leak failed.  He was chained by company lawyers into political triplespeak that shielded the company from serious legal consequences if they admitted certain things outright. And he had a fatal flaw many enlightened people share: he could see the futility of the blame game and he visibly displayed his intolerance for it.

Keep this in mind: I’m not advocating for Mr. Hayward or his company in any way. What the company did not only in its reported flaunting of safety rules and regulations as well as compromising the well’s design is inexcusable.  The best thing BP could have done early on was to accept full blame and financial responsibility without leaving wiggle room by saying they’d pay “all legitimate claims.”  The media were in full offensive position before, but feelings toward BP became more hostile after that statement was made.  Then came the thousands of reporters asking the same inane questions over and over again, as well as the constant interviews with “the little people” (as BP chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg gaffed during a press conference) showing how their lives were devastated.  All of this constant attention and yammering is like a hammer, beating the carcass of the horse long after the beast’s life has departed. I believe BP gets it—they screwed up in the most public way possible and were caught in flagrante delicto.  I believe they know exactly how much trouble they’re in and how much the environment will be impacted, but perhaps not how much it will cost them.  Mr. Hayward had finally had enough when he said he wanted his life back—a statement that further infuriated the populace but was one of the more heartfelt expressions of humanity to come out of BP’s side of the tragedy.

But it still wasn’t over.  “His life? What about ours?” the residents of the Gulf started to wail and cry.  Then Congress got involved, doing what they do best—spinning their wheels and wasting taxpayer dollars by putting on a public spectacle worthy of Roman gladiators, attempting to beat the oil industry in general and BP in particular into a bloody carcass for the delight of the American people. It got to be too much for Mr. Hayward, who had started the hearing hat in hand with apologies from BP.  When the inanity continued and refused to let up, he returned after a break with an attitude of disdain for the process.  He began answering questions with perceived contempt, even looking at his watch at one point as if to ask when it would finally be over.  He left the hearing more despised than before, but the entire point was missed by many people who watched every interminable moment of the proceedings.  The exercise was a waste of time.  It might have made people feel better by putting a human face on the disaster rather than a corporate one, but not one more gallon of oil was captured or prevented from flowing when it was over. Congress doubtless thinks they did their job and justified their place in the government, but all they really did was to stir an already smelly pot (literally and figuratively) while fanning the flames of public outrage.

When will we learn?  It is every single person’s responsibility to do what they can, to pull together in times of crisis to solve whatever problem has presented itself.  As for the Gulf spill, there will be time after the well is plugged and the cleanup is underway to assign blame and collect retribution.  Oh, and you media types?  Why don’t you do right now what you do so well after a disaster—turn your cameras off, go away, and stop making a circus out of this mess.  Only this time, give updates when something newsworthy is happening, and try to find some bright spots in this dark night of our souls. Stop being so incendiary and be more helpful. Screw the ratings for once. That goes for especially for you, CNN—dump the ‘bug’ on your screen pointing out how many days the oil crisis has gone on.  When the blame game is played everyone loses.

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