1) Not long ago I heard a writer claim that her publisher had demanded that the word “manifesto” be replaced in the title of her novel. This is an Asian American woman who is feisty and strong-willed and political, who during readings calls out “blond boys” for flaunting the privileges of their maleness and their whiteness. But she yielded to her publisher’s demand, and the title now is sassy but catchy, sure to draw scores of readers who would have rejected anything connected to a manifesto. Yet those of us who now know the original title wonder whether the book has lost some of its sting, its purpose. The names of books, like the names of humans, can be so defining.
Can anyone be surprised that Oprah Winfrey, when launching her own cable network, named it for herself so that its acronym becomes a verb she embraces, OWN? We cannot live our best lives, she would say, until we own our identities and our actions; and when, triumphant, we do manage to live our best lives, we embrace the rewards — we own.
The Occupy Wall Street movement is a misnomer to the extent that it is not Wall Street but a nearby park that is being occupied. But its acronym, OWS, while not exactly a word, is close to two very different words. One is the plural of an exclamation of pain — “Ow!” — and is familiar to anyone who has dropped a bowling ball on a toe or caught a hand in a slamming door or browsed comic books. The other is the present tense of a verb — “owes” — and is familiar to anyone with a small income and a large debt. And so, though different, both words fit the movement. Yet the most important word in the name is the first: “occupy.” It is a word we associate with power. First a dominant group asserts its ambition to overcome a weaker group, then it engages and overwhelms the weaker in battle, and then it takes the land of the weaker. It occupies that land until, after a time, it claims to own that land. Sometimes, rather than claiming the land, it merely asserts and maintains a military presence there. The army thus occupies the land of the conquered people. The occupation may end, but the people remain conquered.
2) Any reference book will identify the period of the formal occupation of Japan as the years 1945 to 1952. On television programs in which people ask for appraisals of their possessions, programs such as Antiques Roadshow, we sometimes see items marked “Made in Occupied Japan.” If the items are authentic — and there seems to be little incentive to forge them — then we have a good idea of the date of their manufacture. The value of such items seems to inhere in their history rather than in the quality of their handiwork. “You own a piece of history,” the appraiser assures the curious owner, “made during a time when Japan was transforming itself to the modern nation it has become today.” Left unspoken is the idea that, on one side of the transformation, Japan was a rapacious imperial bully and that, on the other side, it has tried to beat Western capitalism at its own game and has been failing miserably.
The occupation of Japan might have officially ended in 1952, but the United States has maintained a military presence there ever since. During the Cold War, this presence, we were told, remained a bulwark of freedom against a spread of Communism into Asia. In the post-9/11 world, we are told, it remains a bulwark, albeit against a different enemy that is simultaneously more invisible and more ambient. This leaves unaccounted for the period between the fall of Communism and 9/11, a decade in which the people of Japan must have wondered about the bulwark function of American troops roaming their cities and countryside. In fact, an occasional scandal erupts when a U.S. soldier invokes his “blond boy” privilege and is accused of raping a local woman. In Okinawa, this sort of scandal has erupted often enough to provoke demands that the military leave, despite the local economy’s relationship with American soldiers. This is a problem of long-term occupations. A conquered people may hate the conquering occupiers, but they cannot deny that their own prosperity is hostage to the occupation.
3) I was born in Tokyo a decade after the war ended and the Occupation began. My father was stationed there for the U.S. Air Force. He and my Japanese mother married shortly after the formal end of the Occupation, which means, by some definitions, that my mother is not a “war bride.” What could possibly link sex to death more than the idea of “war bride”? Soldiers for the United States, waging wars today, engage the enemy in less face-to-face combat, as more killing is the work of private contractors and high-tech remote-controlled weapons. We hear of the deaths of civilians in Afghanistan during strikes by weapons-delivery missiles called “drones.” My white grandfather was a beekeeper who knew all about insect drones. These are the male honeybees who attend to the queen’s sexual and maternal needs and appetites but who otherwise stay at home in the hive while female workers venture out to gather nectar. In the late summers of my childhood my grandfather brought honey-filled frames into his basement to extract the honey, and sometimes a few drones draped themselves over the frames. My grandfather assured me they were harmless, as drones have no stingers, but I kept my distance just the same. Today’s military drones, however, are not harmless. And, because they are less precise than they are meant to be — that is, because sometimes they kill untargeted civilians — prospects for American soldiers finding, at war’s end, any hopeful war brides are considerably diminished. But then, as anyone knows after seeing Sayonara and other Hollywood movies set in postwar Japan, the U.S. military discourages its blond boys from taking Asian war brides.
Many wise leaders of movements for racial justice have noted that, in a perverted way, the slaveowner becomes dependent on the slave, the oppressor on the oppressed. Soldiers of an occupying army, answering to their raging hormones, come to depend on local women who become the future’s prospective war brides.
4) The names we have given to movements of the American past are noun phrases: the civil rights movement, the suffrage movement, the temperance movement, the peace movement, the women’s movement. Their slogans may be brave and angry calls to oppressors to end injustice, but their names are polite nouns. But “Occupy Wall Street” is a verbal clause, an imperative. It is a demand, even if the principal verb is no raw Anglo-Saxon monosyllable such as “burn” or “eat” or “die.” We might even say that “occupy” comes from the lexicon of oppressors. It is, after all, conquerors who occupy. Besides, the imperative “Occupy Wall Street” aims inward, enjoining not the oppressors but the protestors to do the occupying. The oppressors, the moneylenders and CEOs, already occupy Wall Street. It is the protestors who are ordinarily kept away from Wall Street and who now, in the very name of their movement, announce their intention to occupy it. And so the name twists and turns, pirouetting against movements of the past. It is as if, during the Vietnam war, conscientious objectors had organized a movement called “Conscientiously Object.”
We might even say that the movement has appropriated the language of oppressors. This is a nice reversal of oppressors’ tactics. Back in the 1990s a bill called itself a “civil rights initiative” even though it aimed to abolish Affirmative Action. Post-election surveys showed that many well-meaning but confused people of color voted for the initiative in a belief that it would save civil rights policies such as Affirmative Action. Emboldened by the success of this act of dishonesty, oppressors have since appropriated terms from the lexicons of diversity and empowerment to fool victims into supporting racist and sexist schemes. This is a fundamental shift away from the bad old 1980s days of Ronald Reagan disingenuously labeling a weapon a “peacekeeper.” Reagan might not have been smiling, but surely anyone else who called that missile a “peacekeeper” must have enjoyed a smug, and maybe even public, chuckle over the brutally unsubtle irony. And that chuckling would have drowned out the objections of peaceniks. Oppressors have a vicious sense of humor.
But maybe the protestors are not enjoining themselves to occupy Wall Street. After all, they are there already. Maybe they are telling the world to occupy Wall Street, or the most reasonable representative or symbol of Wall Street in their towns and villages and countrysides. Their local banks, their media companies, their multinational corporations that underemploy and underpay them while outsourcing jobs to impoverished nations: these are the representatives of Wall Street they exhort us to occupy, in whatever fashion we see fit, as long as we make the point and share the rage. And it really is rage. When Barack Obama was challenged to address statements made by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, he asked white America to understand the rage of black America, a rage informed by history and driven by contemporary social inequalities. The United States is a racially unequal nation, and that is cause for anger. Unfortunately, Obama himself did not model that rage. He did not even mention it again during his presidential campaign. During his time in office, supporters have complained that he has tried too hard to placate political adversaries. This is not rage but its opposite: capitulation. During his term, inequalities in all arenas — race, gender, and especially class — have widened. Every day seems to bring news of a study demonstrating again that the gap between the richest and the poorest is widening, and, worse, that the poor have little reason to hope for better. James Baldwin once wrote that it is the moral and political obligation of a black person to feel and even express that rage, for as long as it continues. This is not to say that we cannot also express love, at least to the extent that we feel it, for each other, brothers and sisters in oppression. Those among us with better natures may even feel and express some love for our oppressors, though for most of us this is an almost impossible ideal. Still we might try to hate not the racist but the racism, not the misogynist but the misogyny, not the tycoon but the racket. Protestors in this new movement seem to be expressing their rage not at the bankers and CEOs as individuals but as symbols of a system of inequality, a system that knowingly created and just as purposefully profits from inequality. I tell students that racism is like a human resources office, offering employers a short cut to determining who works which jobs under which conditions for how much, or how little, pay. I add that a quick way to end racism is to take the profit out of it. Judging from media images coming daily from the movement, most of the Occupy protestors are white, and people of color may even be underrepresented. But so far I have heard no complaints that this is a white movement, and the blessings lavished upon it by activists of color such as Cornel West suggest that, merely by taking a stand against inequality, protestors can best speak for all victims of injustice by refusing to claim to speak for all victims of injustice.
And the rage is there. Today, as I write this in late October, many have been arrested in protests all over the nation, but little violence has been reported. How then can we know about the rage? Sometimes rage boils over and erupts, but sometimes it simmers. For the last several years the rich have been getting conspicuously richer, and we have abided it. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have hurt the national economy, and so have massive tax breaks to the ungrateful rich, who have flaunted their ingratitude by refusing to use their tax breaks to create jobs and slow the yawning gaps in wealth. At first we were quiet because the war profiteers dominated public discourse, and they waved a flag around national security. And then we were quiet because the incompetencies and injustices of the government’s response to victims of Hurricane Katrina stunned us into silent incomprehension. How could anyone in the twenty-first century get away with abusing those people in a way that seemed so flagrantly racist? Kanye West was only half-right when he charged that George Bush did not care about black people. The full truth was that the people whom George Bush represented — the only people he really represented — did not care about black people. After leaving office, Bush told the AARP — the very American Association of Retired Persons, no less! — that his biggest regret was that, as president, he failed to privatize Social Security. While all those studies coming out almost daily show that, in today’s economy, the bottom “99 percent” of Americans are suffering, they also show that blacks and Latinos and Native Americans suffer disproportionately. Privatizing Social Security in this economy would amount to stealing from workers who had trusted the system with sizable chunks of their paychecks; and, even though — or even because — the chunks entrusted by unemployed and underemployed blacks, Latinos, and indigenous are smaller, their needs as disabled or elderly people may actually be greater. The social fabric was wearing thin, and it had to break. The agent of this rending — whether it is an outraged reaction to the callous libertarianism of the Tea Party or to the Republican presidential hopefuls’ blithe disregard for the suffering of the longtime poor and the newly poor, or a hopeful continuation of the “Arab spring,” or even, as some have claimed, the beginning of capitalism’s final erosion — matters so much less than that the rending has begun. To paraphrase a slogan from a bank that nestles among the hated “one percent,” a patient, simmering rage has its rewards.
5) When I was a boy, Frank Sinatra famously crooned about entering the “autumn” of his years. At around the same time, John Ford directed a film about the lamentable fate of indigenous peoples, and he called it Cheyenne Autumn. I remember accompanying my grandfather to appointments with his doctor, an elderly man whose office was in the back room, probably the kitchen or pantry, of an old house, and whose waiting room, the former living room, was framed with paintings of hunting scenes. In these paintings a lone hunter raised his rifle as his dog indicated the direction of the flushed waterfowl. My attention fixed not on the hunter or the hunting but on the sky, which in every painting was gray and hung close to the ground. The clouds were not menacing but suggestive of a kind of calm reflectiveness that comes before age and mourning. The light, like thin, old milk, did not filter through the clouds but leaked from them. When I first heard the phrase “October light,” I thought of the sad light in these paintings. I seem to recall that in his novel October Light John Gardner perfectly describes the sadness in this kind of sky. It is a sadness without reason that comes before a real sadness that has a reason. In the “autumn” of his years Sinatra revived his career. Ford’s lament represents Hollywood’s best, though still feeble, effort to immortalize a presumably vanished people. An autumn is pensive, quiet. The winter that follows may be blustery and brutal, but autumn — real autumn — never is. The noise that comes with the season is ours, not nature’s, and so we attach it to the word “fall,” as when we call baseball’s World Series the “fall classic.”
Visiting and celebrating the Occupy Wall Street movement, Cornel West linked “Arab spring” to what he called “American autumn.” It is a nice phrase, “American autumn,” suggesting the title of a meditative composition by Aaron Copland. If painted by Wyeth or Hopper, “American autumn” would show the setting sun casting a pale light over the gray stubble of a grain field, and a young girl, and maybe a dog, would be standing on one side of that field, gazing out at an object that we cannot see. If “fall” suggests something that is happening or might already have happened — leaves are already on the ground, trees are bare — then autumn suggests that mortality is still pending if close. Those who cannot help but resort to noun phrases in naming the Occupy movement seem, like West, to be embracing “American autumn,” but the inescapable suggestion is of an impending end — of America, maybe of capitalism. The October skies of the northern half of the northern hemisphere are gray with a pale and waning light. Scoffers predict that, upon the first snowfall and first freezing night, protestors will give up and the Occupy movement will lapse into a memory. This may happen — suffering is a plight they hope to end, not indulge — but the movement’s reach, beyond New York, beyond even the United States, hints at an extended life. A factoid in November’s Harper’s Index cites a finding that ninety-four percent of the nation’s millionaires confess to grave concerns about global unrest.
When Cornel West names an “American autumn,” he invokes no gray skies or pale light. Rather, he invokes the promise of the “Arab spring,” and so he redefines autumn, turning it bright and youthful and vibrant. He is not naming a movement that fades. It has purpose and direction. It progresses.
6) The United States has constructed a handy narrative of postwar Japan. Vanquished in war, the Japanese people rejected feudal and divine tradition and leapt past modernity into postmodernity, embracing Western culture with a zeal that at first dazzled and then frightened Europe and North America. By the late 1980s, as Communism was falling in Europe, Japanese excellence in manufacturing and money management provoked an inevitable backlash in the United States: Japan-bashing racism found a voice even among white media liberals. Only after the imploding of Japan’s economy — and, later, of the economies of other “Asian tigers” — did Americans relax their views of the Japanese. Still, contempt for Japanese foreignness found an outlet when, last spring — “Arab spring” — European American comedians joked about the March tsunami and nuclear-plant catastrophe.
And the unofficial occupation of Japan continues.
7) Occupation, as a military or political strategy, devastates the occupied people. But occupation, as the name of a dedicated state of long-term employment, promises productivity and satisfaction. An occupation is not a career. Students who come to college to train for a career plan to define themselves in relation to money and status, not work and productivity. Students do not come for an occupation — I have never heard a student refer to her or his hopes for an occupation. An absorption into the physical aspects, even the physical rewards, of work — that is an occupation. To occupy is to take physical action. The Occupy movement today may not be physically occupying Wall Street and its subsidiaries, but its very name holds out a threat of physical action.
Wall Street is of course a symbol and a metaphor, just like money. Speculation generates more economic activity than real transactions. That is, metaphoric manipulation of a metaphor accounts for more of the nation’s economy than the real physical buying and selling of goods and services. Can the moneylenders possibly sleep well at night? But then we have seen teenaged boys and girls absorbed in video games for hours at a time, oblivious to the world around them; and so maybe the moneylenders regard metaphoric trading in the same way, equally oblivious to the world outside the stock exchange. But in that world people suffer, and much of that suffering is a consequence of the moneylenders’ transactions. Wall Street is thus aptly named, for the moneylenders have constructed a metaphoric wall between themselves and the consequences of their speculations. Besides, if the money being traded is not physically real, then how can the claims of suffering be believed? And, besides, all those laid-off workers, rather than play victim, should join the fray and play the game themselves. This is the idea behind privatizing Social Security: force government and employers to stop caring for workers, and force those workers to speculate, to transform sizable chunks of their incomes into bite-sized versions of the metaphors that the moneylenders metaphorically exchange. But most Americans would rather not speculate, even if the market were fair and honest — and women and people of color know that the economy has never been fair and honest — and so, even among white people, more than half do not invest in it. Pretend-money may adequately substitute for real money on Wall Street, but there is no substitute for poverty.
Occupy Wall Street reminds us of the difference between fake and real.
8) The university where I work has demanded, almost every two or three years, that my department write a mission statement and a vision statement. I worked for twelve years in a pharmaceutical company that also expected its various units to draft statements of mission and vision. Presumably the difference is that, while a vision statement defines a work unit, the mission statement announces the unit’s ambitions and goals. But the vision statement, if it were any good, should imply a unit’s mission; and a mission statement, if it were any good, should imply a unit’s vision. Who can explain why both are demanded when one should be enough? For that matter, why spend precious time and energy writing a mission statement rather than actually fulfilling the mission? Does anyone ever read mission statements? Who would want to? I can imagine a high school that defines its mission as preparing the young minds in its charge to dispatch themselves responsibly in college, the workplace, and society in general, so that they might contribute to a better world. That seems a fine ambition. But I cannot imagine that any other high school would prepare a mission statement that would differ much from it, that would, say, claim to prepare its graduates for a life in crime, misery, and degradation.
Occupy Wall Street has been scolded for lacking a mission, much less a mission statement. So far protestors have produced no manifesto, no list of demands. Media “experts” complain that, without specific demands, protestors cannot be taken seriously. What these “experts” really mean is that they do not take the protestors seriously, that they choose to dismiss the whole movement. The implication is that these “experts” have known all along about economic inequalities, which are an ambient if regrettable part of the American social landscape, and that nothing has been done because nothing can be done. Any claim to the contrary is merely the claim of spoiled and restless college students who exercise their hormones by speaking out against The Man and camping out near Wall Street. But a year ago the same media “experts” showed far more respect for Tea Party protestors, even though the Tea Party seemed to comprise several different kinds of libertarianism, some of them competing, most of them willing to merge, with the Republican party. And six months ago they showed far more respect for the protestors who created “Arab spring,” even in the absence of clear indications that a more democratic Egypt or Syria would delight U.S. political and business leaders. If today their coverage of the Occupy movement is inadequate, the reason may well be their fear that they are a target of the movement, that they have invested far more of their fortune in Wall Street than in Main Street, that they represent the interests of those top “one percent.”
Mission statements are the disposable tools that a leisured class forces the unleisured to create. The whole world needs only one mission statement, which should say something such as “To learn history so that we might make a good world for everyone today and tomorrow.” Need we say anything more or different? If only to demonstrate their literacy, media skeptics should read the imperative in the movement’s name, which for the time being may be mission enough: Occupy Wall Street.
9) Sometimes change needs no force, nor even any nudging. Sometimes it is a result of long social and natural processes that, reaching back in time, cannot be reversed by even the most repressive of laws. Apparently longtime conservative activist Pat Buchanan has begun to bemoan the eventual death of all that he values, a death he believes is inevitable if only because, within a few years, white people will be a racial minority in the United States. He calls this a national suicide, but only because he defines the nation by a heritage deriving exclusively from Europe and Christianity; and so, if dark-skinned peoples become a majority, and if the nation practices democracy, then that proud heritage will surely be marginalized. He seems not to have heard of apartheid, or else he thinks that the dark-skinned majority, still lacking the economic and political power that will remain white, will rule by numbers and by culture. Most likely, however, on the first day that we outnumber whites, most prisons will still be full of our young black men, and laws will remain in force that disproportionately disenfranchise our black and brown people, and our indigenous peoples will still suffer the early mortality rates of people in horribly impoverished places. But Buchanan is what my grandmother would call a worrywort. The change that he fears will not come from irreversible demographic processes. It will come only when victims of injustice achieve an end of that injustice. This will require hard work, solidarity, and belief. Whether the Occupy Wall Street movement represents a first, unstoppable wave of change is less important than that it is working at all, that it refuses to focus on a single injustice but identifies a variety of injustices, all of them related, for the poverty of millions is enforced by a network of legal and corporate exclusions. Beholden to the ethics of the enforcers, Herman Cain blames the poor for their poverty. He believes himself exceptional enough to be elected president, then he ignores the truth that exceptions prove rules. If he knows history, then he knows that no one works harder than those who are forced to work for their very existence, and that those people are poor. Who works harder, slaves or slaveowners? But who is richer?
10) A man brought a small teacup and saucer to be appraised. He knew by looking at their undersides that they were made in occupied Japan. But he did not know whether this gave them any monetary value. The appraiser examined them carefully before turning them over and reading the “Made in Occupied Japan” stamp. The man inquired into their value. The appraiser asked where they were made, and the man said in Japan, occupied Japan. The appraiser asked how he knew. He said that the bottom of the cup said so. The appraiser asked, “What is the language of the phrase? Since they were made in Japan, why is the phrase that says so written in the language of the occupier?”
Protestors in New York and elsewhere have appropriated that language of occupation. This land is their land.
21–24 October 2011
John Streamas is Associate Professor of American Studies and Comparative Culture, Gender, and Race Studies at Washington State University.
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