Thursday, October 27, 2011

An Observation (ii)

A friend whom I highly esteem has wondered aloud in the hallowed hallways of facebook, What in fact, is the point of Occupy Vancouver? Vexed by the ambiguity of their self-proclaimed purpose, is perhaps closer to what he said.  He's a writer like that.  Vocabulary aside (and accuracy, for that matter), his question did leave me wondering if I was actually clear on what those tenters downtown are saying and if I needed to perhaps be a bit clearer about my own reasons for participating as I am.

The Occupy Vancouver website contains the following:

We, the Ninety-Nine Percent, come together with our diverse experiences to transform the unequal, unfair, and growing disparity in the distribution of power and wealth in our city and around the globe. We challenge corporate greed, corruption, and the collusion between corporate power and government. We oppose systemic inequality, militarization, environmental destruction, and the erosion of civil liberties and human rights. We seek economic security, genuine equality, and the protection of the environment for all.

I'm not sure I would call this ambiguous.

But of course, they have yet to describe what specific ends they are pursuing.  You know, using those SMART goals that were all the rage back in the early millennium. And I guess I can see how that is bothersome.

The difficulty is that specific goals and measurable outcomes are kind of what created the mess in the first place. Maybe it's time for a more hard-to-put-my-finger-on-it-but-damn-this-feels-different kind of change. Maybe it's time for all of us to decide that waiting to measure whether or not we're being Just Enough, or Equal Enough, or Integritied Enough (my apologies for the word-making-up, but some days the English language fails me) is in fact just a decision to change the paint on a crumbling building. Sure it looks a bit better, but ain't no paint gonna keep that thing standing next time it gets rocked, you know what I'm sayin'...?

And now, because the change can not be negotiated or bargained or bought, we of the Elevator Speech Generation are getting bored and want them to carry on to their next project.  But instead, they say they will stay.  They will endure cold and wet, the disdain of the many, the ire of the inconvenienced, the misunderstanding of the masses - they will endure all of that so that there remains a physical, hard-to-miss, traffic-wrecking reminder that The World Is Not How It Ought To Be.

I went searching for a quote of Martin Luther King Jr.'s that of course more poetically drew the point I am working at but found another that sent me reeling:

“Not only will we have to repent for the sins of bad people; but we also will have to repent for the appalling silence of good people.” - Martin Luther King

I am mostly certain that I am not a bad person. On my good days, I think I'm probably even good people. However, when I think that my silence might be added to the list of sins that must be repented for by The Saints... my heart weeps.

And so I'll blog on, and I'll put my lot with the dread-locked tenters and their grandmothering lawn-mates who are living together in solidarity with the Least, the Last and the Lost and inconveniencing us at every turn so that we can not say, "But no one told us."  The deepest injustices may not be happening on my block, or even in this nation of ours, it's true.  And yet we benefit and our lives are better because of evil done by others.  If I collude with my silence, I am no better.

Better.  It's an ambiguous goal. It lacks in specificity to be sure.  I can't even say if it's attainable or realistic. But it's worthy, and thus I'm in its pursuit.  I will make tiny changes and have great faith that even getting to A Little Bit Better will count as success. 

Occupy Me. 

The original quote I was seeking, I still think is worth including: “I said to my children, 'I'm going to work and do everything that I can do to see that you get a good education. I don't ever want you to forget that there are millions of God's children who will not and cannot get a good education, and I don't want you feeling that you are better than they are. For you will never be what you ought to be until they are what they ought to be.” 


  1. Let me first out myself, for third-party observers, as the vexed friend.

    For the sake of brevity, I think I'll itemize:

    1) What 'mess' are you referring to when you say "the difficulty is that specific goals and measurable outcomes are kind of what created the mess in the first place"?

    While these protestors may seek to speak for all humanity, I understand them as first and foremost concerned with the lot in life of Vancouverites and, maybe, Canadians.

    Here's the thing: we have never had it so good.

    By nearly every standard I can name, Canadians have a better life than they've ever had before. This is true not only true on critical issues like healthcare, lifespan, freedom of speech and access to education, but also true in trivial ways--twice as many Canadian homes have dishwashers as had them in 1980.

    It's in a precious few areas, including housing affordability and income inequality, that we've seen any kind of decline in the average Canadian's standard of living.

    Are our governments infallible? No. Is there much more that can be done? Yes. But let's acknowledge that, on nearly every axis, the lives of the so-called 99% have gotten better, and will continue to improve.

    2) Protest is an important and valuable tool of the common person. It is a right of all Canadians, and I don't number myself among those who would see these protests ended by force.

    However, are all protests good and useful? I don't think so. Consider the Black Bloc 'protest' during last year's Olympics.

    So, we then need to evaluate what makes a good protest, and what makes a lousy one. I think a good protest has specific, attainable goals. Why? Because the ones I know of that have worked have these characteristics. Also, because those with decades of experience in advocacy work tell me that this is so.

    3. "...economic security, genuine equality, and the protection of the environment" are, when you get down to brass tacks, incredibly ambiguous. Consider that it takes years for scientists and environmentalists (let alone companies, governments and First Nations groups) to agree on, say, the specific fraction of an old-growth forest that must be protected to preserve an ecosystem's integrity.

    Mr. King may have wielded the lofty language, but he and his team also had the policy proposals and specific objectives in mind.

    4. Finally, here's my very practical concern: the public has a limited appetite for public dissent of any kind. Each day the Occupy Vancouver protest continues, it reduces the opportunity for generating attention for winnable issues.

    Would you rather support Occupy Vancouver or Pivot Legal's quite-effective homelessness advocacy? Would you rather support Occupy Vancouver or CPAW's protection of boreal forests across the country?

    Like it or not, public protest is a zero-sum game. And right now, lousy players are hogging the spotlight.

  2. @Darren, I so appreciate your verbosity and have spent much time wondering how best to respond. I could take on each point and explain my own take on each separately, and perhaps I ought. And yet I will not.

    Instead this: I do not share your lens, to use a in-this-case-so-useful word. When I describe what I see and then explain my response to it, you can only be confused and perhaps even vexed, because what you see is so clearly, entirely different. I don't know how to change your lens and so instead put my efforts into making changes in my own life to reflect what I think is the right and good response to what I see through my own.

    I'll post a pictorial response that maybe better shares my lens.

    But I'll also say this: when our best response to those who have been marginalized, victimized or otherwise made less by being required to participate in a system built on greed and evil-doing is, "What are you complaining about? You've got a dishwasher", probably that's all I need to hear to be reminded that I don't want to play anymore.

  3. Fair enough--we have different views on this issue, and they can exist in mutual exclusivity without canceling each other out.

    On the final point, I think you're being a bit too reductive. First off, what proof do we have that Occupy Vancouver protestors are, in fact, "those who have been marginalized, victimized or otherwise made less"? And, furthermore, what proof is there that they are "being required to participate in a system built on greed and evil-doing"?

    I can direct you to organizations, like Pivot Legal or Union Gospel Mission, who righteously speak for and offer succor to the people you describe. I am unconvinced that Occupy Vancouver does so. That's also, incidentally, why my family gives money to the former organizations, not the latter.

    The dishwasher is a metonymy for the vast improvements all 100% of us have experienced over the last 100 years: the right to vote, the right to marry who we want, universal access to education (including relatively cheap post-secondary education), socialized healthcare, free access to information, significantly increased lifespan and so forth.

  4. To be clear, I did not assert that the protestors are anyone in particular at all - just that they are pointing me to consider the marginalized, victimized and otherwise made less. As for proof that they are being asked to participate in that messy system, perhaps I would have done better to say "we" - it is *my* belief and assertion that we are all required to participate in a system built on greed and evil doing. That the Occupy Movement has used some similar language in their own writing strengthens my sense of kinship with them, but most likely only in the one direction. Having never spoken to a one of them, I can not say for certain what they would say.

    The organizations you mention are probably worthy of your support if in fact your purpose is advocacy and succor. I am proposing that my own purpose be an end to the need for their existence. Were we all to advocate in our daily lives for those who must turn to Pivot, or take in those we know or know of who end up lining up for turkey at UGM, both those agencies could close up shop, no? But instead we send our $25 every few months and figure "those people" have been taken care of... I think I'm required to do more.

    To quote the now-official wordsmith of this post, “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. ”
    ― Martin Luther King Jr.

    Finally, I am actually going to look up the word metonymy - so fancy! In my own version, dishwasher is a metonymy for every Good Thing we are meant to be thankful for that in fact distracts us from the deep poverty of our souls, souls that live in a world where material wealth trumps all else, even lovingkindness for our friends and neighbours.

  5. Fundamentally, I think we just have differing world views. I'm a cynical pragmatist, and you're a soulful idealist.