10 October 2011

Interview about the Occupy movement

Devin Hunter of Pagan Newswire Collective conducted in email interview of me for an article about Pagans and the Occupy Wall Street movement. As is the way of things, only some of my comments fit into the finished article, so here I have the full text of my comments.

The Occupy Wall Street campaign has been launched to highlight the economic, health, and taxation variances between the ruling 1% of the American population and “the other 99%”. Do you feel that as a Bay Area citizen you have witnessed a distinct variation between the lower and middle class and the upper-class?

Living in San Francisco confronts one with juxtapositions of class in a way that one does not see as often in suburban America. In an ordinary day — or even an hour — walking around San Francisco one can rub shoulders with well-to-do professionals, hardworking poor immigrants, bohemians both rich and poor, dot-com millionaires, the impoverished underclass, service industry workers just scraping by, and even the stratospherically wealthy. For a while I was working in an office in the same building as Gump’s, a big store which sells beautiful, useless, inconceivably expensive tchotchkes to rich people, yet fifteen minutes’ walk could take me to the charity kitchen under Glide Memorial church in the Tenderloin. I suspect that a similar overlap between rich and poor in everyday life in New York City contributed to the Occupy Wall Street movement beginning there.

This all comes at a time when both the US and World economies are experiencing extreme fluctuations in stability, in your opinion how does this effect your own life as well as those within your immediate community?

I count myself lucky that I work as one of the skilled professionals relatively insulated from the recent shocks in the economy, but I still find these times frightening. Technocrats like me live on a shrinking ice floe, in danger of falling out of the charmed circle: you see it in our obsessions with our careers and our kids’ educations. In the Bay Area, I know a lot of left-leaning professionals who feel frustrated at our complicity in a machine we help to run but cannot seem to change because even we do not hold the real power.

In my greater community, the economic shift has had unmistakable effects. I know a lot of people facing very hard times with no end in sight. Solar Cross has had to set aside our financially ambitious community center project for now, and focus on more tactical projects, because the economy has made the necessary fund-raising impossible.

As a pagan community leader do you feel this is the beginning of the next “American Revolution?”

(I'm not sure I qualify as a “pagan community leader.” I think of myself as just an articulate guy who keeps heavy company.)

I feel the temptation to think of Occupy Wall Street in revolutionary terms, and believe that it has exciting implications if its momentum continues to build, but I hesitate to call it a harbinger of “revolution” just yet. If the Occupy movement proves as resilient as I hope, the next stage will take a form no one can predict. But we cannot yet say what, if any, lasting significance OWS will have. Significance on the scale of the original American Revolution remains a stretch, and much more than we can likely expect of this particular movement, but I hold out hope. The rhythm of American history includes a punctuating crisis once each human lifetime — the Revolution, the Civil War, the Depression/WWII era — and if the pattern holds, that time has come again, so perhaps Occupy Wall Street will prove to be a manifestation of great change brewing.

For the first week of protests media coverage of the events was slim to nonexistence. Reports of major media covering-up the protests by not providing them the appropriate coverage have been made. As a citizen how do you feel about the supposed media cover-up?

I would not call the early invisibility of Occupy Wall Street in news media a “cover-up,” exactly. Never attribute to malice what one can explain better with incompetence. The early hesitation by mainstream news institutions to cover OWS reflects an inability to fit it into the standard narratives they understand. As the growth of the movement has finally compelled attention, we see the media’s limited narratives in another form as they reach for their tropes of hippies and political demands and so forth and stumble trying to describe OWS on those terms. Mainstream American news media is, by definition, a mechanism of our social/political/economic order, which makes it unable to apprehend a movement like OWS which makes a radical critique of that order. The media’s inability to cover OWS properly is frustrating, but unsurprising; if they could tell the story of the fundamental systemic problems that we face, we wouldn’t have those problems the way we do in the first place, and wouldn’t need OWS.

On the first day of protests Comedian Roseanne Barr called for a combination of capitalism and socialism and a system not based on "bloated talk radio hosts and that goddamn Ayn Rand book.” In your own words do you feel that incorporating Socialistic policies into our Capitalistic government is a good thing or bad thing, please explain.

Market capitalism provides enormous benefits. It efficiently allocates resources, produces a cornucopia of goods, and fosters innovation. The abundance it produces sustains modern civilization. But market capitalism for all its undeniable strengths does a lousy job of other things that you want in society, like ensuring that the goods it produces get distributed to people fairly. If you regard prosperity for all as a goal of your society, as I do, then you cannot rely on market capitalism as the only organizing principle in the economy.

The term “socialism” gets overloaded and confused in the US, so I would rather talk about what Europeans call “social democracy”: a society which uses market capitalism to address the many problems it handles well but also uses government to mitigate its rough edges, ensuring that people get fair access to their share of society’s wealth. In the US, we have some elements of social democracy already, like public education and social security, but I believe that we can and should do much more.

To frame this in Pagan terms:

Hermes stands on top of Grand Central Terminal in New York City, cresting a sculpture entitled “The Glory of Commerce;” directly at his back lies the New York Stock Exchange, an institution whose history and spirit descends directly from the agora the Greeks held as sacred to Hermes. I honor Hermes and make an offering to him every day. But a wise Pagan knows that the gods’ purposes differ from our own, and you do not want to live a life of All Hermes All The Time any more that you want to live in Morrigan World or Skaldi World or any god’s domain exclusively. The Pagan sensibility, rightly, sees exclusive devotion to one god as neither desirable nor even truly possible, seeking balance in evoking each god in its time and directed to its proper purpose. So too with market capitalism, a force I respect but wish we had better balanced with its more egalitarian cousins.

The collective movement has proposed a list of four demands for the outcome of the protests which are— One, to protect the environment. Two, to care for the people. Three, to tax the rich. And four, to end the wars. How do you feel this relates to the ethical, spiritual, and economic values of pagans? How do you feel it relates to the Bay Area?

I believe that thinking in terms of conventional demands, even ones as broad as “protect the environment”, misrepresents the nature of the Occupy movement. At this stage at least, OWS offers a radical critique that comes prior to any specific policy solutions. In its rhetoric of “we are the 99%”, Occupy Wall Street says that we have developed a social and political order that does not serve 99% of us properly, that the wealthiest 1% control the system, that therefore that 1% have responsibility for the system, and that until we recognize and address this fundamental failure of equity and democracy we cannot meaningfully talk about more specific problems.

I believe that presuming Pagans to share a set of ethical, spiritual, and economic values which translate in to a specific kind of politics or political agenda misrepresents the diversity of the Pagan movement. Politically and culturally liberal Pagans like me tend to imagine that we represent the core of Pagan culture, but we do not, any more than politically and culturally conservative Christians can rightly claim to represent the core of Christianity. We must respect how Pagans span the full political spectrum, left, right, and otherwise.

Many argue that as Pagans universally call nature sacred, Pagans share a political commitment to environmentalism, but even that seemingly uncontroversial claim of Pagan unity casts our community too simply. Obviously many Pagans have deep ties to environmentalism, and I count myself among them, but that can mean very different things to different people. For example, many environmentalists, Pagan and otherwise, find nuclear power abhorrent, but I myself have come to favor nuclear power because the vital importance of reducing carbon emissions makes it worthwhile to get electricity by every emissions-free method possible. For example, I know a Pagan — not a suburbanite who casts circles in the backyard but someone living very close to nature, deeply committed to reducing his environmental impact — who is also one of the most vigorous global warming skeptics I know. Assuming that “Pagan” implies any particular politics misses the breadth of Pagan culture.

As a Practitioner of paganism, what do you feel as a culture pagans could be doing to support the effort — if at all? If you do not support the protests how could pagans help put an end to them?

I believe that Pagan diversity precludes a general Pagan political agenda, but I also believe that Pagan visibility is important. When Pagans speak and act either for or against the Occupy movement, if we identify ourselves as Pagans that will help to make Pagans visible as citizens.

That said, as both a vigorous supporter of the Occupy movement and a Pagan, I would urge Pagans, as I would urge anyone, to take a close look at the statements from Occupy Wall Street and seriously consider supporting both OWS and their local Occupy movement, as I hope and expect that many Pagans will share my enthusiasm.

On October 6th the ongoing movement moved to the streets of San Francisco which included a march from Mission to its base of encampment at 101 Market Street where is continues. Have you experienced the protests first hand? Do you intend to?

I have contributed supplies to both Occupy Wall Street and Occupy San Francisco, and have visited Occupy San Francisco a few times now, though I did not participate in the 6 October march. I expect to continue to vigorously support both, and I hope to spend significantly more time participating in discussions among Occupy San Francisco participants in the weeks to come.

Protesting and demonstration have been a large part of movements commonly associated with paganism such as Women's Rights, the Green and Environmental Movement, and Native rights. Do you feel that this movement is of spiritual significance to the pagan community and/or US population?

I believe that Occupy Wall Street, like many activist movements, reflects for many people a spiritual hunger that many Pagans would recognize. American bourgeois consumerism in itself leaves a vacuum of meaning and purpose in society and in individual life; at the level of society, the hunger to fill that void can bring people to social justice movements like OWS, while at the level of the personal that hunger brings people to spiritual practice, Pagan or otherwise.

Cornell West famously said, linking the spiritual and the political, “never forget that justice is what love looks like in public,” and I believe that a spiritual yearning ultimately motivates OWS.

How do you feel the political climate has changed since the beginning of these protests?

I confess that like many politically-aware people, I had fallen into a kind of despair in the last year; in the wake of the supposedly-transformative 2008 election, too little had changed, suggesting that the American political process could not admit, much less affect, the grip which the wealthiest 1% held over our society. The plutocrats had driven the country into a ditch, crashing the economy with terrible consequences for most of us, and yet they still prospered and had the instruments of government supporting and favoring them. It seemed that nothing could loose their grip or get us to even name what we see happening. I spoke dismissively of the possibility of a mass popular uprising confronting the situation, and I was wrong.

Occupy Wall Street has already done more to name and confront the systemic problems in our society than I had believed possible, so I cannot help but feel excited and optimistic about what comes next. I know that other people feel the same way, and I suspect that there are a lot of us.

What do you feel is the best possible outcome from these ongoing protests?

My greatest hope for Occupy Wall Street is that it permanently changes the way we think and talk about politics in America, that we routinely ask the fundamental question, “What is society for, if not to provide for the needs of all of our citizens? What can we do to accomplish that?” I hope that OWS unlocks the yearning for justice and equity which most Americans feel, turning it into effective action. If we can break the hold of wealth and power over our current politics, and make building a social and political order of justice and equity our new politics, the results would be truly revolutionary.

06 October 2011


Occupy Wall Street has issued their Declaration of the Occupation of New York City. The whole thing is worth reading, but I want to call attention to a segment of it.

As one people, united, we acknowledge the reality: that the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members; that our system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to the individuals to protect their own rights, and those of their neighbors; that a democratic government derives its just power from the people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth; and that no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power .... We have peaceably assembled here, as is our right, to let these facts be known.

That's followed by a list of specific grievances. Emphasis mine; I read that and thought bingo; if it sounds familiar to you, too, it should. The title of the statement is no accident. Here's the US Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

The Declaration of Independence, of course, follows with a list of grievances as well. Occupy Wall Street shows that they understand and respect American founding documents a whole lot better than the Tea Party does, for all their claims.

The conclusion of OWS's Declaration is interesting, too.

To the people of the world,

We, the New York City General Assembly occupying Wall Street in Liberty Square, urge you to assert your power.

Exercise your right to peaceably assemble; occupy public space; create a process to address the problems we face, and generate solutions accessible to everyone.

To all communities that take action and form groups in the spirit of direct democracy, we offer support, documentation, and all of the resources at our disposal.

Join us and make your voices heard!

In other words: yes, this is connected to the Arab Spring, and if our leaders won't step up to encourage that global movement, then we will.

Nice work, Occupy Wall Street. Keep it up.

Why Steve Jobs

That’s a picture taken by Matt Harris of the spontaneous memorial to Steve Jobs in front of the Apple San Francisco store tonight.

I am moved by this. I am kin to the people who did this.

And yet earlier today, I invested hours and a big chunk of money into procuring and ferrying supplies for the Occupy San Francisco folks. The Occupy Wall Street movement is a protest of the unjust wealth — and more importantly, of the unjust power — of the wealthiest people in America. And make no mistake, Steve Jobs was one of those guys.

Let me underline that. I hesitated to say this today, not wanting to speak ill of the dead (and I did my little unalloyed appreciation in that spirit earlier), but it’s important to understand that an important but mostly-unhearalded part of Steve Jobs’ business mojo was his understanding of manufacturing. It was the main focus of his attentions during the last few years before he was forced out of Apple in the mid-80s, and his attention to manufacturing is integral to Apple’s current ability to field devices that deliver more for the money than competitors. So when it came out that conditions in Chinese iPhone factories were so horrific that workers were driven to suicide, there was no doubt in my mind that while he likely didn't know the specifics of the story before they came out in public, he did know fundamentally the kind of work situation at his suppliers. When the story came to light, Jobs didn't rush to change what Apple was doing but rather actively defended what Apple had done. I am very clear on that. I am very clear that though this may be the most horrifying skulduggery Apple has perpetrated at Jobs’ direction, it’s not the only example by a long shot.

How can I reconcile this with the urge to be among those building an altar to a fallen CEO?

Let me offer something I have said about Apple under Steve Jobs for years. Apple is a vast machine for making exactly the tools that Steve Jobs wants for himself, and in order to pay for the exorbitant cost of making them it sells copies of Steve's toys to all the rest of us.

People in the industry chuckle when I say that because it describes an important part of how Apple works, but I say it now in order to confess that there’s an important way in which my quip gets it exactly wrong. Just yesterday I pointed to an article by blind blogger Austin Seraphin saying that the iPhone is “the greatest thing to happen to the blind for a very long time, possibly ever.” Apple has aggressively worked on accessibility for users who are blind or deaf or have other limitations, an effort that makes no “business sense” but surely makes human sense if you read that or any of the countless other articles about what a boon the iPhone has been to the blind. Today I see Susie Bright saying that her pioneering magazine of lesbian liberation, On Our Backs, was not just the first magazine created on the Mac. It was only possible to publish it because of the Mac. Both of these stories, and countless others that people are telling today, tell how Apple products empowered and delighted them in ways that are impossible to imagine without Steve Jobs. Speaking for myself, the profession which I practice and love could not exist in the form I enjoy today without the Macintosh and its success and the influence it has had, so in an important way I owe the life I love to Steve Jobs.

That is what Apple is for. Yes, Apple makes money, but that is instrumental to its true purpose. That was what Jobs’ life was about. Yes, Jobs made a mountain of money himself and had his legendary ego gratified, but those are byproducts of his mission of making beautiful things that deliver power and pleasure to people. There are more important things, yes, but that's pretty darned good. It's why people are laying flowers at the door to his store, and why I am with them in spirit.

Bringing it back to Occupy Wall Street, consider:

Is such a memorial to any other CEO even conceivable?

Is it all that hard to see why it isn’t?

I’d leave it at that but there's just one more thing.

I dig this picture of the original Macintosh development team blogged in a fascinating remembrance by John Siracusa.

Notice that there are a lot of women in that picture? That it’s mostly White people, but not entirely? Both in an era when tech skewed even more White and male than it does now. And notice that there's a fella holding his baby right in front there?

This sure looks to me like a shaggy bunch of goddamned hippies who have cleaned up for Picture Day. Which is no surprise: Jobs himself was a goddamned hippie who once lived on an ashram and dropped acid and did his major corporate announcements dressed in a black turtleneck, jeans, and sneakers and referenced Gandhi and Bucky Fuller in advertisements and thought that finally adding the Beatles to iTunes was an announcement on a par with launching a whole new product line. Jobs was a hippie who built a hippie organization.

I submit that it’s no coïncidence that this hippie organization is now arguably the most successful company in the world. Because while we shouldn’t pretend that Apple isn’t ruthless, isn’t exploitive of its workers, isn’t deeply concerned with bean counting, and all that, just doing those things doesn’t explain Apple’s success, either in making money or in inspiring love. Making great products and services that serve people is what did it. And that, I submit, comes of taking a bunch of smart oddballs and giving them a mandate to do something great. That comes out of a culture, not just in the sense of “corporate culture” but in the sense of culture at large.

Update: To honor the 10th anniversary of us losing him, Apple made a lovely little propaganda film of him saying, basically, swing for the fences to make something worthwhile. Whatever ambivalences I still have about him, that is the right project for anyone, especially someone graced by Fortune to hold the resources he did.

05 October 2011

Goodbye Steve

Steve Jobs
Titan of industry

Look at his face at 4:00:

He’s not smiling for the applause. He’s smiling because he got it done.

The loss of him would have been news if had he only created the personal computer industry. Or if he had only committed to turning the Xerox Star into the Macintosh, “the first computer good enough to be worth criticizing”. Or if he had only founded the first major computer animation film studio. Or if he had only rescued Apple from the brink of disintegration. Or if he had only led the Macintosh renaissance of OS X and the iMac et cetera. Or had only rescued the music industry from their own stupidity. Or had only captained the creation of either the iPhone or the iPad.

Having done all of those is hard to conceive, even knowing it to have happened. A life well lived.

Let’s memorialize him by making it unexceptional that a corporation should make beautiful products that empower people and bring them joy, shall we?

It turns out I had a lot more to say.