Tuesday, January 27, 2009

I've Failed At This, Let's Protest It!

I'm not a terribly opinionated person these days. That is a change in me from my punk rock roots.

This isn't to say that I don't have opinions, because of course I do. But the fiery, I'm right and you're stupid brand of egotism that sometimes reared its head in me as a punk rocker are less of an issue with me now. One reason is the realization that I'm not always right, and there may be ways of approaching issues differently that are effective. And the ongoing ridiculousness of punk rock is another.

I've always enjoyed the punk scene, the various bands and groups that have passed through my life. I feel like I've learned a lot from being involved, and I'll always be glad that I was. But I needed a small group of dedicated and fun people, which I got in the contained scenes in which I was involved. The punk scene was what me and my friends were doing, not a movement or a subculture or a music magazine. Most of my friends were a part of it, we did most of the work and had most of the fun, and everyone knew everyone else. Often more intimately than was sensible or hygienic. Anytime I ventured into the broader subculture, I was appalled and annoyed. I didn't get the flag waving, the fashion silliness, the divisions. (Apparently neither did anyone else: indie rock became emo, hardcore became metal. People ask me what my band sounded like and I throw up my hands and scream, "I don't know!")

Punk rock was the protest of my friends, and in a small way maybe the protest of my generation. The bands we liked did songs about sexism, capitalism, and gender identity. But somewhere the political expressions of a small group of sincere, silly kids became something like a movement. It crossed paths with the evil hydra of political protest, and went careening into hell.

One large reason for this is that people fall into these little offshoots of pop culture when they don't do a very good job of fitting into the broader society. Some people form a critique of aspects of their social structure, and decide it isn't for them. Some simply fail their way into whatever group is too nice or open to kick them out. As is pointed out to my hero Homer Simpson, in any other country they would have starved to death long ago.

So, the reason for this train of thought: I was approached by a gaggle of punk rockers at the bus stop as I was trying to get my kids moving. They asked me for money for the bus. I'm a nice guy, I had a few quarters, so I gave it to them. I wanted to point out, though, that it isn't anti-capitalist to beg money for the bus from guys who have kids, based on the assumption that they are not poor like you. It's just that I am doing the capitalist slaving for them. So instead of wasting their precious time being enslaved to the man, my enslavement to the man allows them to ride the bus in addition to allowing my kids to eat. (Technically, I work for myself, kinda. So the man referred to is me. But still.)

I knew a ton of these people when I was more involved with the political world. They lived off of food stamps or disability, and spent their days railing against the system and trying to pick up college girls. Which is fine. (MORE than fine.) But once you fail severely at being a part of the system, you lose credibility when you attack it. I always liked the former big shot businessman who quits and works as an organizer. All six or seven of them that have ever existed.

We need people to challenge the problems of this society. But we need sincerity and self awareness from these people in order for anything real to happen. I see so little of that that I cannot be involved in any way with people that, ostensibly, I agree with. Which says something unfortunate about the state of activism today, or about Americans today.

One big problem is the romanticism of the movement. People protest wars and injustice as though there is something good in it. There isn't. I would very much like it if there were no problems, and no protests. That is the ideal state of being. If things are bad enough that we must do something about it, that isn't nice: it's merely necessary. You almost get the sense that these people are happy that problems exist, so they can protest and fight. I am against unregulated business polluting our environment and paying us crap because that is bad for us. I'm not happy to be against it. It isn't good that we have to even have the conversation! When it becomes a lifestyle, we're in a weird area.

I feel about political awareness the same way I do about violence. I don't like it, I wish it didn't exist, but I do my duty to my friends and family if I am threatened. Choosing to ignore it and fetishizing it are both poor options, to my mind.

(PS Edit: I have corrected a million things in this post, any more typos just have to be accepted. Or protested!)

19 comments:

Herc said...

When I was organizing the anti-war protests (I mean "peace vigils"), I was having a lot of fun. The folks around me were having a lot of fun too. And I guess there's nothing really wrong with that (I guess), but one Saturday we were planning some shenanigans or another and a Robert E. Lee quote shot into my mind:

"It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it."

Then I remembered... oh yeah, war is bad. It threw the whole thing into perspective and showed me just how much of an ass I had become.

I figured it out and a few others did as well - it changed the mood and the tactics a bit.

Thank you, Marse Robert, for putting me in my place.

WildBeggar said...

I understand having fun with it, totally. I mean I have fun with whatever I do. But when people make it a lifestyle is when I get lost. Professional protestors.

jeff said...

its funny, because i agree with most of the basic points here, but i have an almost inverse critique.

that is: you said, "But once you fail severely at being a part of the system, you lose credibility when you attack it. I always liked the former big shot businessman who quits and works as an organizer."

i have actually always had issues with the businessman who quits and works as an organizer because, 9.9 times out of 10, he's a condescending fuckhead with some kind of messiah complex. while it seems like the system is set up so that the majority of people will fail to be a part of it in any way other than to slave away at meaningless and soul-killing jobs. thus, living off foodstamps or whatever and spending your time doing something more constructive (protest, bands, art, whatever) has always seemed like a smart and sensible option.

not that the food-stamp punks don't produce fuckheads, but it seems to produce far fewer in my experience. except in seattle. for some reason 99.9% of the punks in seattle are just fuckheads. its weird.

my point i guess is that it seems odd to say "But once you fail severely at being a part of the system, you lose credibility when you attack it." to me it seems that failing to be a part of the system is the norm, and is, in itself, a perfectly valid reason to attack it; that failing, and thusly seeing the holes and cracks in the system writ large in your life, lends more credibility to one's attacks.

Herc said...

But if failing at the system was the norm, most folks (by definition) would be failing at the system. And the system wouldn't be "the system," it would be the old system, replaced by a new system that would better preserve itself (for better or worse).

Living off foodstamps/support, etc when it's not needed has always seemed like a bad idea. If you need it, hell yes. I've done it myself.

If you *can* work and choose not to and you're not a load on others, then awesome. I totally support that. It's not my lifestyle, but more power to the folks that dig it.

But if you *can* work (or can support yourself) and just mooch off of other folks and even the government, I dunno, it just seems a bit shifty to me.

If someone doesn't want to work, they should find a way to be self-sufficient. Whether that means joining an intentional community or being a hobo, fine. Great, actually.

But people who think that they'll just get food stamps and maybe a government check are very directly benefiting from the system they're supposedly so very against.

They're not just driving on the state's roads or walking in the state's parks, they're directly being supported by the system they claim to be against.

And they don't just stop there. They bum money, rides, couches, food and tons of other stuff off of folks who are employed in "the system" that these food stamp punks claim to be against.

Either way, they're benefiting from the system they're supposedly against.

I just don't think that's a good idea.

I do agree that "the system" failing you is good ammunition to use to fight it. But if all these "food stamp punks" are doing is mooching off the system and their friends/family who are part of this "system," then, what sort of serious statement of protest can they possibly be making? Who could possibly take them seriously?

WildBeggar said...

right. what herc said.

actually this post was originally a bit longer, but i cut it down, because i didnt feel like typing that much so i imagined no one would feel like reading that much.

i do wish i had elaborated a bit more on the point about the system being set up in such a way. it's very important to understand that the system is not set up to make people fail. it is set up to allow the rich to stay very rich, keep a small percentage very poor, and allow most of us to survive without being too unhappy or powerful. if it were otherwise, as herc says, it would collapse.

also, let's be honest: 99percent of punks everywhere are tools. Seattle just has vocal and obvious punk tools.

it's like hippies. some fun people, sure. i like some nice hippies in seattle. but most are smelly loads.

which is fine. i don't have to want to hang out with you. but my point about people falling into a nice or "alternative" lifestyle because they dont fit in everywhere is valid, mostly.

woo hoo now i've pissed off punks and hippies: now i gotta put together a post about Bastyr and every person i know in seattle will be after me!

WildBeggar said...

well cathyjoel maybe won't be... a post about... parents?

jeff said...

what i'm getting at is that a system that is, as ryan said, "set up to allow the rich to stay very rich, keep a small percentage very poor, and allow most of us to survive without being too unhappy or powerful" is a failed system. if the the best you can say is that the majority aren't "too unhappy or powerful" then the system is failing the majority; it is only successful for the rich and powerful. just because the system successful at keeping enough people happy enough to not rebel doesn't mean those people are succeeding within the system; only that the system is good at sustaining itself (e.g. the manufacturing of consent).

as for taking food stamps and stuff from the government: from my perspective the government / ruling class have the wealth and power they do because they have taken it from everyone else (marx's basic critique of capitalism, with which i agree). if you can take some of that back for yourself, bully for you i say. that is: its not taking support from the system, its taking back what is by rights yours from a system that steals it to begin with.

i more-or-less agree with herc on the loads. but i've also had people living on my couch and in my driveway (in their van) for months. and i never cared as long as they were clean, polite, participated in the household (i.e. contributed to food with dumpstered goodies, helped out around the house, were generous with their food stamps for communal meals, etc.), etc. and truly, the vast majority of them were exactly like this. i.e. i always felt like they were carrying their own loads, and thus not loading on me or anyone else.

so what we're talking about is a very small minority of a very small minority of a very small minority (load food stamp punks, within food stamp punks, within punks).

and i like punks because, in my experience, only 90% are fuckheads (and most of those are indie rockers and drunk punks). which is a much better percentage than any other subculture. club kids being the most irritating at probably 99.99999999999% fuckheads, hippies next at 99.99999999%, followed by metal kids at a straight 99%, then hip hop and alt country kids tied at 91%. i've left ska kids off of here since they're somehow 129% fuckheads. i'm not sure how that happens.

as an aside, i think its fun that you two are rehearsing a more polite version of bookchin's anti-lifestylism argument. =)

and on an only marginally related, tho hilarious, note:

http://www.theonion.com/content/news/obama_disappointed_cabinet_failed

Herc said...

OMG LOL!

I've never read Bookchin, not even in college.
I don't like his name. Seriously.. Bookchin?

I also don't really feel that I'm rehearsing much of anything. I'm all live, baby.

But mostly LOL and OMG. Mostly.

Herc said...

Wait.. I remembered that I have read some Bookchin.

So... totally LOL and OMG, I guess.

WildBeggar said...

Jeff says 'if the the best you can say is that the majority aren't "too unhappy or powerful" then the system is failing the majority; it is only successful for the rich and powerful', but it all depends on what you want, or are hoping to get, from 'the system'. Let's keep a realistic perspective. Not everyone can have all the power and wealth, nor is it automatically due to everyone who just happens to show up. Personally, I'm not sure that's what I even want, which might be why I don't really care all that much either way... we're fine, we're all fine here, how are you? - Jaime

jeff said...

guess who can't sleep.... uhg.

first and foremost: hey jaime!!! its so rare that you participate in our crazy conversations... this is exciting!! yay!! =)

anyhoo... i guess what i'm getting at is that i believe that a community's system must provide: free access to excellent housing, food, clothing, healthcare, and all good and services as well as direct and equal say in everything that effects a person (absolute direct democracy i guess). i believe that a system that does not provide all of this is an intrinsically unjust system, and thus can not meaningfully be a community (in the political sense, not the way we use it in daily discourse). and i believe that these are the minimum basic human rights... that without them "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" and such are just empty rhetoric.

on the flipside, i believe that the individual has a duty to give the community s/he lives in whatever labor and support and suchlike s/he can provide to make sure that all of these things are available to everyone.

i guess this might seem idealistic or utopian or something. but i have no problem with that. especially since i don't think its possible to be realistic. i think we're stuck in the continuum of optimism or pessimism, waxing and/or waning between hope and despair. so i'd rather be hopeful and push for the best. besdies, i've always loved the old watchword "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need".

jeff said...

and yeah, with a name like bookchin the dude was pretty much doomed to be a crumudgeon.

his book about the spanish anarchist movement before the spanish civil war was awesome, tho!

Herc said...

It's not possible to be realistic? Really? I think most of us are able to do just that.

The system you talk about is truly a great thing. I'd love to wake up one day and WHOOP there it is. But honestly, as much as I'd like it, I don't see it happening. Hopefully I'm wrong.

But what I do see is a system that, yes, is broken (or at the very best, horribly imperfect). It forces us to do things that we don't want to do, to make decisions we shouldn't have to make.

It forces us to get jobs or decide to not get jobs and end up loading (first off the system, if possible, but then off of family/friends/community). This is definitely a horrible choice to have to make since it's automatically isolationist and breeds some very anti-community vibes.

Nevertheless, it's the system that is there and until it changes or goes away, it's the system we have to live within.

You always told me that we live in a capitalistic society, so we have to deal with money, etc. That's no less true when dealing with "the system."

And you can see in your own life right now that you have a job. You have realized that you have to deal with the system. You got a job in Seattle too.

To be honest, you often have jobs - so I'm not really sure where this denial of the system comes from. Ideologically, yeah. But realistically, you realize that you need a jobby job to not be a loady load.

So I guess what I'm saying is that in writing you disagree, but in action you acquiesce.

jeff said...

i think being realistic requires the ability to be objective; which in turn requires a lack of subjectivity, or (spiritually speaking) an ego-less existence. so realism is only functionally possible from the perspective of a totally enlightened sage. the rest of us view things from the basis of our accumulated experiences, prejudices, etc. -- thru the lens of ego -- ever moving along the continuum of optimism and pessimism, and thusly can not be realistic. we might have moments of realistic flashes, moments of clarity... but a truly realistic perspective requires living one's life from the basis of ego-lessness.

as for the rest: i've not denied that we have to deal with money, have jobs, etc. in fact, i'm arguing that having to have a job you don't love, having to mediate your relationships thru money, lacking any of the basic human rights i outlined, etc. is evidence that the system is failing you.

this is not saying you can't make the best of it. but again: since the best you can do is "make the best of it", this is evidence that the system is failing you.

i totally agree that we have to face and deal with the world the way it is, and in that sense accept it. "whatever the beloved wills", as the darvishes say. but i think part of this is recognizing that the world is intrinsically unjust, so we have to accept our responsibility to change it. which again comes down to "whatever the beloved wills". what i outlined in my previous post is what i think are the barebones, basic necessities of a just world.

as for the "loading off the system"... i don't think its possible. the system is the load. the more a person can get from the system the better. its wealth that by rights belongs to everyone anyway.

the problem is only when you load on your friends and family. if you can, however, (like some of the crimethinc kids i know) take your foodstamps, government check, and whatnot and use your time, energy, and resources for the benefit of your friends and family, as well as in the effort to make a better world, then not only are you not a load... you're the opposite of a load.

Herc said...

I didn't realize that we were suddenly talking about a spiritual reality. What we were talking about was a material reality (which, I know, is oxymoronic, but that's how it works). Yes, you have to be a sage/realized, etc to see true reality. But we're talking about having a job and stuff like that.

Anyway, you said something really interesting: "having to mediate your relationships thru money..." What you're saying is that by having a job and being "part" of "the system" means that you have to mediate your relationships through money. But that doesn't have to be true.

And more importantly, in our current, unfortunate system, not having a job pretty much guarantees that we must mediate our relationships based on money.

If someone lives with another and can't chip in when the rent is due, then the relationship becomes commodified. And while, yes, the system is at the core of this problem, the load is making it worse for those who are trying to contribute by taking the load in.

And while housing is a basic human right, basic human decency comes into play here.

Giving some food stamps is a good thing, for sure. But that cannot even begin to cover the other financial needs.

It sucks that this system forces us to think and act like this, but it does actually *force* us to think and act like this. And until the system is overthrown/changed/goes away, that's how it's going to be.

And so, to lessen the nastiness of that system, we all must equally contribute to each other as much as possible. Anything else is theft from the ones you love.

jeff said...

i don't think we're actually disagreeing here, herc. it seems more like we're mostly emphasizing different aspects of the same point.

one possible point of contention: mediation thru money. money is mediation, that's what it is. it is the means of alienation between labor and product, between people and services, etc. which basically comes down to: if money is an aspect of any relationship, than that relationship is mediated (alienated) thru money. (again, this is marx's basic analysis -- extended thru guy debord -- with which i agree).

as an example: living with people... of course everyone should carry their own loads, etc. that is not in question at all. the issue with money comes in thru the fact that, when it comes down to it, the most important contribution one can make is thru money. pay the rent, pay the bills, etc. this forces us to see one another as means to an end; as commodities.

that is: money forces the household to have an outward focus, mediated by money. it ultimately can only matter a little if everyone is helping keep the place tidy, contributing to and making food, etc. because the baseline (mortgage/rent, bills for basic necessities, etc.) is never secure. this can be minimized by everyone participating equally in a relatively healthy economy to the point where there is never any overt stress. but the lack of stress does not mean a lack of this basic issue. it just means that the group in question is "making the best of it". because: what happens when the economy goes to shite and one or more of the household is laid off?

it would seem that a single income family model would escape this, but i think the italian autonomist-feminists are correct that being a homemaker, student, (they include the unemployed in here,) etc. is unpaid labor (that is: they help to create, in various ways, society's wealth and power... which is them mostly stolen by the rich / powerful). the situation of being unpaid makes the money issue even more of an issue since they have to rely on the single-income for their wages.

as for the spiritual / material distinction: its problematic to put too fine a point on this, too much of a line between them. that is, while there is a distinction it is a distinction of degrees; ultimately it is all the god, as all the texts tell us. so one can not have any clear, realistic understanding of material reality except thru spiritual reality. hence, one must be enlightened to be realistic.

jeff said...

on a slightly different note: i want to say thank you all for this discussion. i miss you all sooo much! and i miss getting to hang out and just talk and goof off and all! and while this is a poor (mediated, ahem =P) substitute to actually getting to hang out, i'm incredibly thankful for it nonetheless =)

Herc said...

I wasn't going to, but..

How is it problematic to differentiate between spiritual and material? Seems pretty practical to me. If I want spiritual growth, I do spiritual things. If I want material growth (wealth, family, friends, etc), I do things in that vein.

It's very cut and dry. The problematic part arises with the materialistic spirituality (which is really just justifications, excuses, envy and laziness). And that's pretty much what you're talking about.

I'm not sitting around all day theorizing this stuff. I'm just speaking from experience. If you can't make out the difference between the spiritual and the material, don't assume that you have to be fully realized/enlightened to do so and don't assume that everyone else finds it impossible to differentiate.

But really, we're not talking about the spiritual. You're the one who brought that up. Sure, I took the bait, but you baited. The reality we're all talking about is having to get a job, not being a load and chipping in. That's all. If it makes you feel better to not call that reality, so be it. But that's how it is (which you know since you DO have a job).

And with that, I close my argument.

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