Compassion Is Our New Currency
This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.
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 elderly woman 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 percent 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 are beginning 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?
Stop for a moment and consider just how unforeseen and unforeseeable all of this was when, on December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian vegetable vendor in Sidi Bouzid, an out-of-the-way, impoverished city, immolated himself. He was protesting the dead-end life that the 1 percent economy run by Tunisia’s autocratic ruler Zine Ben Ali and his corrupt family allotted him, and the police brutality that went with it, two things that have remained front and center ever since. Above all, as his mother has since testified, he was for human dignity, for a world, that is, where the primary system of value is not money.
“Compassion is our new currency,” was the message scrawled on a pizza-box lid at Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan—held by a pensive-looking young man in Jeremy Ayers’s great photo portrait. But what can you buy with compassion?
Quite a lot, it turns out, including a global movement, and even pizza, which can arrive at that movement’s campground as a gift of solidarity. A few days into Occupy Wall Street’s surprise success, a call for pizza went out and $2,600 in pizzas came in within an hour, just as earlier this year the occupiers of Wisconsin’s state house had been copiously supplied with pizza—including pies paid for and dispatched by Egyptian revolutionaries.
The Return of the Disappeared
During the 1970s and 1980s dictatorship and death-squad era in Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Central America, the term “the disappeared” came to cover those who were kidnapped, held in secret, tortured and then often executed in secret. So many decades later, their fates are often still being deciphered.
In the United States, the disappeared also exist, not thanks to a brutal army or paramilitaries, but to a brutal economy. When you lose your job, you vanish from the workplace and sooner or later arrive at emptiness in your day, your identity, your wallet, your ability to participate in a commercial society. When you lose your home, you disappear from familiar spaces: the block, the neighborhood, the rolls of homeowners. Often, you vanish in shame, leaving behind friends and acquaintances.
At the actions to support some of the 1,500 mostly African-American homeowners being foreclosed upon in southeastern San Francisco, several of them described how they had to overcome a powerful sense of shame simply to speak up, no less defend themselves or join this movement. In the United States, failure is always supposed to be individual, not systemic, and so it tends to produce a sense of personal devastation that leaves its victims feeling alone and lying low, even though they are among legions of others.
The people who destroyed our economy through their bottomless greed are, on the other hand, shameless—as shameless as the CEOs whose compensation shot up 36 percent in 2010, during this deep and grinding recession. Compassion is definitely not their currency.