Compassion Is Our New Currency: Notes on 2011's Preoccupied Hearts and Minds
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Usually at year’s end, we’re supposed to look back at events just passed -- and forward, in prediction mode, to the year to come. But just look around you! This moment is so extraordinary that it has hardly registered. People in thousands of communities across the United States and elsewhere are living in public, experimenting with direct democracy, calling things by their true names, and obliging the media and politicians to do the same.
The breadth of this movement is one thing, its depth another. It has rejected not just the particulars of our economic system, but the whole set of moral and emotional assumptions on which it’s based. Take the pair shown in a photograph from Occupy Austin in Texas. The amiable-looking elderlywoman is holding a sign whose computer-printed words say, “Money has stolen our vote.” The older man next to her with the baseball cap is holding a sign handwritten on cardboard that states, “We are our brothers’ keeper.”
The photo of the two of them offers just a peek into a single moment in the remarkable period we’re living through and the astonishing movement that’s drawn in… well, if not 99% of us, then a striking enough percentage: everyone from teen pop superstar Miley Cyrus with her Occupy-homage video to Alaska Yup’ik elder Esther Green ice-fishing and holding a sign that says “Yirqa Kuik” in big letters, with the translation -- “occupy the river” -- in little ones below.
The woman with the stolen-votes sign is referring to them. Her companion is talking about us, all of us, and our fundamental principles. His sign comes straight out of Genesis, a denial of what that competitive entrepreneur Cain said to God after foreclosing on his brother Abel’s life. He was not, he claimed, his brother’s keeper; we are not, he insisted, beholden to each other, but separate, isolated, each of us for ourselves.
Think of Cain as the first Social Darwinist and this Occupier in Austin as his opposite, claiming, no, our operating system should be love; we are all connected; we must take care of each other. And this movement, he’s saying, is about what the Argentinian uprising that began a decade ago, on December 19, 2001, called politica afectiva, the politics of affection.
If it’s a movement about love, it’s also about the money they so unjustly took, and continue to take, from us -- and about the fact that, right now, money and love are at war with each other. After all, in the American heartland, people arebeginning to be imprisoned for debt, while the Occupy movement is arguing for debt forgiveness, renegotiation, and debt jubilees.
Sometimes love, or at least decency, wins. One morning late last month, 75-year-old Josephine Tolbert, who ran a daycare center from her modest San Francisco home, returned after dropping a child off at school only to find that she and the other children were locked out because she was behind in her mortgage payments. True Compass LLC, who bought her place in a short sale while she thought she was still negotiating with Bank of America, would not allow her back into her home of almost four decades, even to get her medicines or diapers for the children.
We demonstrated at her home and at True Compass’s shabby offices while they hid within, and students from Occupy San Francisco State University demonstrated outside a True Compass-owned restaurant on behalf of this African-American grandmother. Thanks to this solidarity and the media attention it garnered, Tolbert has collected her keys, moved back in, and is renegotiating the terms of her mortgage.
Hundreds of other foreclosure victims are now being defended by local branches of the Occupy movement, from West Oakland to North Minneapolis. As New York writer, filmmaker, and Occupier Astra Taylor puts it,
Not only does the occupation of abandoned foreclosed homes connect the dots between Wall Street and Main Street, it can also lead to swift and tangible victories, something movements desperately need for momentum to be maintained. The banks, it seems, are softer targets than one might expect because so many cases are rife with legal irregularities and outright criminality. With one in five homes facing foreclosure and filings showing no sign of slowing down in the next few years, the number of people touched by the mortgage crisis -- whether because they have lost their homes or because their homes are now underwater -- truly boggles the mind.”
If what’s been happening locally and globally has some of the characteristics of an uprising, then there has never been one quite so pervasive -- from the scientists holding an Occupy sign in Antarctica to Occupy presences in places as far-flung as New Zealand and Australia, São Paulo, Frankfurt, London, Toronto, Los Angeles, and Reykjavik. And don’t forget the tiniest places, either. The other morning at the Oakland docks for the West Coast port shutdown demonstrations, I met three members of Occupy Amador County, a small rural area in California’s Sierra Nevada. Its largest town, Jackson, has a little over 4,000 inhabitants, which hasn’t stopped it from having regular outdoor Friday evening Occupy meetings.
A little girl in a red parka at the Oakland docks was carrying a sign with a quote from blind-deaf-and-articulate early twentieth-century role model Helen Keller that said, “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt within the heart.” Why quote Keller at a demonstration focused on labor and economics? The answer is clear enough: because Occupy has some of the emotional resonance of a spiritual, as well as a political, movement. Like those other upheavals it’s aligned with in Spain, Greece, Iceland (where they’re actually jailing bankers), Britain, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Libya, Chile, and most recently Russia, it wants to ask basic questions: What matters? Who matters? Who decides? On what principles?