Thursday, December 20, 2012

Newtown, Occupy and The Book of Mormon

1.  When I first heard about the school shootings in Newtown, I didn’t have a particularly strong reaction.  I saw the headlines, I saw the number 20, then it became 26, but I didn’t read the details.  When a friend said on the phone, “That’s so sad,” I agreed without really thinking about it.

Friday evening I went to a meeting at a café.  The Palestinian owner served my wine.  I noticed he looked upset.

“How are you?” I asked and he said, “Not very good.”

I asked why and he pointed to the television.  Military guys were moving around ambulances and at first I thought something must have happened in Palestine.  But the words on the screen said it was Connecticut.

He has an 18-year-old daughter.

It was only then that I stopped to feel the news.
Omar al Masharawi, killed by Israeli shelling
in Gaza, November 14
2.  The mainstream media is nonstop funerals, speculation about the shooter, debates on gun violence, tedious interviews with the same law enforcement people and politicians.  The progressive media has moved on to speculations about how different the discourse would be if the victims or the perpetrator had been people of color, at home or abroad.  They remind us of all the deaths we’re not grieving, from kids killed by gun violence in Chicago (117) to kids killed by drones in Pakistan (168) to kids killed in last month’s Israeli bombing of Gaza (30) (read their names).

These are totally valid things to remind us of, fair and even necessary questions to raise.  Usually I’d be right there with them.  But the efforts at parallelism are making me uncomfortable.

I think that’s because it emphasizes the profound alienation we leftists feel from the rest of our society.  It feels like we want to wallow in our alienation and fling it in people’s faces.

And I can’t help feeling that wallowing in alienation is what brought Adam Lanza to the point where he could think it was right to kill 20 children and 6 women.

Aren’t drones the ultimate expression of the alienation our society promotes?  It’s a form of warfare that alienates the actor from their actions, the shooter from the target, the person from their compassion. I don’t want to encourage any more alienation, by seeming to criticize people for their emotional response to the suffering of other parents.

I know that’s not what my friends and fellow leftists are aiming for.  They want people to feel the same compassion for the parents in Gaza and Pakistan and Oakland that they feel for the parents of Newtown.  But I can’t help feeling that heaping negative information onto people’s consciousness will only encourage them to distance more, to dull their awareness of other people.

For years, I believed that if only people knew what was happening, knew the cost of our policies, they would care, and they would do something.  But the evidence is that it doesn’t work that way.  What it usually takes for people to change their positions or their actions is deep personal contact with someone who is hurting.

Would white Americans feel the pain of Palestinian parents if they could see a Palestinian father grieving for the families in Newtown?
3.  In my writing class on Saturday, we discussed the first few chapters of my novel, Murder Under the Bridge.  Most people found the American peace activist highly annoying.  (Everything I do to try to make her more sympathetic seems to have the opposite effect.)

A young woman said, “I knew a lot of people like her in college.  They all went into the Peace Corps.”

“Yes,” said the teacher, “people who go into the Peace Corps are usually annoying.”

“They’re idealists,” someone else said.  “And idealists are annoying.”

That’s true, I realized.  In our culture, idealists are considered very annoying.  Why?  Because their refusal to be suitably alienated makes us question our own alienation?
4.  A friend and I saw The Book of Mormon on Thursday night.  (Please do not ask how much we paid!)  It’s hilarious.  It’s also deeply offensive on so many levels: casually racist, sexist, making jokes about things that aren’t funny like AIDS and rape.  A lot of its comedy is mean-spirited, but it’s sharp and the music and dancing is incredible. I couldn’t decide which I was more ashamed of: enjoying it or criticizing its political incorrectness. I’m pretty sure the fact that it’s such a huge hit says something about how we can do such terrible things to each other, not to mention those we consider Other.  Cynicism has become our religion.  Idealists are annoying.  Alienation is our god.
5.  Karl Marx predicted that under capitalism, workers would “inevitably lose control of their lives by losing control over their work.”  But Marx did not see capitalism continuing for this long.  He foresaw that the working class would rise up and reassert control over their lives through socialism.  Aren’t these mass shootings, at their most basic level, a response to the prolonged alienation of people from our labor, our environment and each other?

But a transition to socialism, whether by revolution or some more gradual means, can only take place if the alienation that separates us from each other is somehow lessened or challenged.

Occupy was the answer.  People were coming together, relating without the mediation of wages and commodities, representation and hierarchy.  That’s why it had to be so swiftly and thoroughly repressed.  It might also be why the crime rate in Oakland declined during the encampment at Oscar Grant Plaza.  But the repression succeeded.  The new manifestations of Occupy, smaller, targeted campaigns for foreclosure defense, debt relief, labor support, are great but they do not offer that broad, easy access to an alternative vision of what our society can be.

What the brief flame that was Occupy/Liberate/Decolonize did was cut through the cynicism that says that idealism is just annoying.  It made a space for ideals and the people who hold to them to be loved and cherished.
6.  Today is the Solstice, the End of the Mayan Calendar, The Great Turning.  Let it be a turning toward a world in which idealism is cherished, not annoying.

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