[Sabbath is a Sunday feature that examines intersections of life and work.]
13 Ways of Looking at Occupation
On Thom Hartmann’s Big Picture, the author Naomi Klein talked about the power she felt being among the protesters camped near Wall Street. She described one man who was carrying a sign with these words: “I lost my job and found an occupation.” The play on words is significant in more ways than one. Pundits, including former President Clinton, keep asking what this group wants, what it stands for. What the wise ones can’t understand is that some actions speak a language that belies simplicity.
The word occupy is not easily defined. In one sense, it holds the definition of taking something, best seen in a military occupation. In another, the occupant lives in a place – to occupy is to be at home. The definition I find most interesting, however, is occupation as engagement: What occupies you thoughts? The protesters in New York, and their supporters across the U.S. and several other countries, are engaging a culture that is stuck in a rut. Rather than try to provide a simple answer (think 9-9-9 or “Drill, baby, drill” or “Change”), they are opening a space where questions are possible. What’s next? Who knows?
Writing in the October 17 edition of the New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg captures this movement of open questions: “Occupy Wall Street is a political project, but it is equally a cri de couer, an exercise in constructive group dynamics, a release from isolation, resignation, and futility. The process, not the platform, is the point.”
Yesterday, the process spread to cities in other countries. There was a riot in Rome, which the corporate-owned media took great pleasure in reporting. But, as this post in the Daily Kos indicates, the crowds that marched in Time Square, America’s blaring shrine to the media, indicate that this movement – whatever it is – is growing. People want to engage in the process. They want to occupy the space our leaders have abandoned in their weakness, greed, and small-mindedness.
My lens for understanding this phenomenon is Wallace Stevens’ poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. When I first read this poem as an undergraduate, it struck me as nonsense. But, as I wrestled with it – and with Stevens – it became clear that sometimes it’s about not being clear. We constantly experience complex, beautiful phenomena. But our practical world, our Ben Franklin common sense, makes us segregate and simplify.
"A man and a woman
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Reality is all about how we look at something. The media wants a simple story that can be told in a few seconds (leaving more time for commercials). Occupy Wall Street hasn’t given in to such simplicity. Neither did the people who occupied Tahrir Square in Egypt and those who camped in the streets of Tel Aviv, the protestors who have marched in Greece, Britain, and the brave souls in Syria who remain strong in the face of bullets.
What do we see? How do we see?
"When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles."
We don’t see the full of reality, just the “edge of one of many circles.” We try to make sense of a reality that is moving around us like a black bird flying in the snow. The protest movements crisscrossing the world are about a different way of seeing. Will they change the way we live?
Naomi Klein and John Nichols speculate on the meaning of Occupy Wall Street.