Monday, October 31, 2011

OWS: Applauding the Squirrel

Occupy NH, Veterans Park, 10/29/11
photo by J. Stimmell
Mark Kingwell, in an extremely insightful essay,* questions the nature of work in a modern affluent society by showing that the reasons given by economists for work like profit and growth are illusionary. Instead, according to Kingwell, “the real reason for work is work.”

To explain this apparent tautology, he quotes John Kenneth Galbraith: "as a society becomes increasingly affluent, wants are increasingly created by the process by which they are satisfied.”

This statement by Galbraith, he says, echos Herbert Marcuse and Hannah Arendt, who also observed how capitalism by its very nature, creates superfluity – excess or superfluous goods and services.
What Galbraith adds is  “the additional insight that capitalism must then create the demand,” which didn’t exist before, to soak up this excess.

Galbraith uses a vivid metaphor to highlight the absurdity of this contradiction:

‘The case can’t stand if it is the process of satisfying wants that create the wants. For then the individual who urges the importance of production to satisfy these wants is precisely in the position of the onlooker who applauds the efforts of the squirrel to keep abreast of the wheel that is propelled by his own efforts.

The squirrel metaphor perfectly describes the essence of modern capitalism. The corporate 1% applauds the efforts of the other 99% of us who strive to keep abreast of the wheel, propelled by our own sweat and tears – while the corporate 1% pockets the profits of our effort.

You ask what OWS is all about?  Perhaps to rip down the curtain and show the other 99% of us who is really running the show.

* quoted from the essay, The Language of Work, by Mark Kingwell published in Harper’s Magazine, July 20111

Saturday, October 29, 2011

What Art, OWS, and Indigenous People have in common

Speaking in Stone by Nora Valdez who describes her work as how "the dialogue between the artist and the stone becomes a conversation. The artist starts; the stone answers, asks for 
what it needs." Andre Institute: Brookline, NH
Photograph by J. Stimmell 9/10/10

We Americans have belittled art since our Puritan ancestors arrived on the Mayflower. As a result, it is probably not surprising that the United States has produced relatively few citizens who, in the words of art historian Robert Hughes, “draw sustenance from the high-wire acts of the artistic imagination”[1]

The problem seems to be that American culture has never understood the essence of art – and, by extension, you could argue – life itself.

We have always followed our Puritan ethic of valuing hard work but certainly not as an end to itself – otherwise, artists would get credit for the extremely hard work they do making art – but as a means to something else: higher status or making money.

Unfortunately, this attitude has now even spread to artists themselves. Check out this recent “Quote-of-the-Day” on my Google Home Page by American novelist, Mark Helprin: “Of course, you would have to be insane to hope your child grows up to be a playwright or poet. Given the odds, you would have to be quite cavalier about your children’s future.”

Nevertheless, despite these enormous obstacles, art quietly thrives, even in America, because it is so much more than a mere thing to be bought and sold like pork bellies on the commodities exchange.  As Hughes so acutely observes, Art discovers its true social use, not on the ideological [free market] plane, but by opening the passage from feeling to meaning…This impulse seems to be immortal.”[2]

Lewis Hyde has written the classic in the field, an illuminating book called “The Gift,[3]” searching for the core impetus that inspires the artist to create.  Utilizing a renaissance man’s breadth of knowledge, Hyde pulls together innumerable threads of disparate evidence, only to discover that the answer is simple and unequivocal: artists make art to create a meaningful exchange with others.

The underlying motivation of every artist is to not to produce a collectible to be bought or sold but the desire to produce a gift to be freely given and shared.

Hyde begins his book by noting that the first colonists almost immediately coined the word “Indian giver” to describe the Native American belief – so uncivilized and distasteful to the white man – that gifts should not be kept but returned or shared, or in any case, passed on.

“The opposite of  “Indian giver,” Hyde says, “would be something like ‘white man keeper’ (or maybe ‘capitalist’), that is, a person whose instinct is to remove property from circulation… (or more to the point for capitalism, to lay it aside to be used for production).[4]

Later in the book, Hyde points out that the Peasants’ War in Europe during the Reformation involved the same “struggle between spirit and property” as the Native American’s fight with the Europeans: “a war against the marketing of formerly inalienable properties. Whereas before a man could fish in any stream and hunt in any forest, now he found there were individuals who claimed to be the owners of these commons.” [5]

And isn’t that what OWS is really all about:

A protest against corporations owning not only our public commons but our government; a protest against corporations marketing our formerly inalienable properties, including now even the water we drink, and increasing, the genes and cells, not just of plants and animals, but parts of ourselves; a protest against being discarded like last year’s model just because we happen to be poor, old, infirm, or even, heaven forbid, an artist.  

XXX (571 words)

[1] Robert Hughes from his book, The Shock of the New, quoted from Lewis Latham piece, Art and Money Exchange, posted on TomDispatch 3/15/10.
2 ibid
3 Lewis Hyde, The Gift. NYC: Vintage Books, 2007
4 ibid  pp 3-4
5 ibid p. 157

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The game called consumerism

Province Town, July 2010    J. Stimmell ©2011
It’s almost Halloween. Scary movies are hitting the big screen, left and right. The scariest movie I ever saw was The Truman Show, supposedly a comedy-drama, starring Jim Carrey as Truman, who, up to the age of 30, was unaware that he had lived his entire life on a constructed reality television show. The plot involves Truman discovering the artificiality of his perceived reality and then, his quest to escape.

The movie lifted the veil, making me see clearly for the first time how we all, like Truman, were being used, becoming pawns in some one else’s game. And, since the movie came out in 1998, things have only gotten worse.

Media theorist, McKenzie Wark, in his recent book, Gamer Theory, claims that the process is now complete: life under consumerism has become totally gamified:

“Ever get the feeling you’re playing some vast and useless game whose goal you don’t know and whose rules you can’t remember?” asks Wark. “You are a gamer whether you like it or not, now that we live in a gamespace that is everywhere and nowhere. As Microsoft says: Where do you want to go today? You can go anywhere in gamespace but you can never leave it.”

Maybe that’s what Occupy Wall Street is really saying: We've figured out your game and we're not playing it anymore!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

In Praise of Innocence

Liberty Park NYC   J. Stimmell©2011
Here's my take on OWS, a version of which,
was  published 10/19/11 in the Concord Monitor

In Praise of Innocence
I took the bus last Saturday from New Hampshire to New York City to visit the Occupy Wall Street site at Liberty Park to support, at least for one day, this blossoming new movement. A majority of the protesters were young but people of all ages were represented.

The thing I was most struck by was the mellowness of every one involved, an observation confirmed by New York City’s public advocate who has praised the occupation for being “a very peaceful movement by the people.”

There is a sweetness to this movement, an element that seems almost naive. People are streaming here from all over the country who appear to relish connecting to one another and building community more than making demands.

Of course, this is not how it is done, the pundits lecture: Nothing constructive will happen, they say, unless the protesters focus on specific demands. But I think the press and the pundits are missing the big picture. What this movement is about is not specific demands but something more important: addressing what our underlying values should be.

Do we want to live our lives insecure and isolated, captives of corporate driven, survival-of-the-fittest, unregulated capitalism? Or do we want to go back and reestablish more humanistic foundations which acknowledge the preciousness of each and every one of us and our inalienable right to organize and have a real voice in determining our future.

 I don’t know how the mainstream press missed this. Occupy Wall Street has made their position clear since their first declaration on October 1:

“As we gather together in solidarity to express a feeling of mass injustice…As one people, united…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.”

My own impressions randomly talking to occupiers in Liberty Park last Saturday squares with this Declaration.  The majority of those I talked with were not pushing particular agendas but voicing aspirations: hoping for a sustainable future, living in concert with Nature; hoping to raise healthy kids within a caring community; hoping for a future where social justice reigned and children didn’t die from starvation and war.

Some people’s aspirations sounded new-age like the declaration that “ I am a whole and complete human being,” Others were down-to-earth like the talkative, middle-aged dishwasher who has been volunteering at the park since the first day of the occupation: “I’m not too smart myself but I’m smart enough to know that people are more important than money and helping here at the occupation has made me feel for once like a worthwhile person with a real part to play to make this country a better place.”

Personally, I celebrate the naivety and innocence of this movement and pray that it spreads.

The well-known psychotherapist, Alexander Lowen, has written on this subject, reminding us how we all can remember moments of joy when we were very young – before we became self-conscious and lost our innocence. Unfortunately, he said, in America we welcome this loss: “We don’t want to be innocents, for that leaves us open to being ridiculed and hurt. We want to be sophisticated…to feel superior.”

And that’s just what the glossy ads of consumer culture promise: buy our product and you, too, can be one of the cool ones, part of the sophisticated set, partying, having fun, with no limits to what you may desire.

No wonder the innocents are having difficulty being understood by the press!

How difficult it is to compete against the massive seductive power of consumer society and mass media when, as Lowen notes, all the innocents have going for them is “an open heart, simple pleasures, and faith.”

The name of the book by Lowen that I have quoted from is Narcissism: Denial of the True Self.  It is my hope, against all odds, that the innocents of this new movement will inspire us,both individually and as a nation, to renounce our narcissistic, market-driven – and ultimately self-defeating behavior – in favor of rediscovering our true selves.

XXX (730 words)

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


View from Fort Foster after Portsmouth rally, October 15, 2011



Monday, October 17, 2011

Ariel Dorfman, A mentor to the 99% of the rest of us

Rally in Portsmouth, NH accross from the Shipyard, 10/15/11

Fifteen months ago, back on June 29th of 2010, I vented my frustration in my blog, ranting about the “rampant injustice bubbling up all around us. While we fight endless wars no more productive than the BP oil gusher, the rich get richer while the rest of us get poorer.”

“And even more galling to me, here in New Hampshire, one of the richest states in the union, state government is balancing the budget on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens during this great recession (depression?) when so many are unemployed and suffering in countless ways.”
I wrote about taking solace from reading, Thinking Class, by Joanna Kadi, particularly her chapter entitled Writing as Resistance, Writing as Love: “Do I espouse the oppressive lie about 'pulling myself up by my bootstraps...' Or do I understand my literacy and writing skill as one tool for resistance and liberation? Why do I write? For who, for what? Who benefits?” 
I went on to credit Kadi's straight talk for giving me a needed wakeup call: “As a self-described working-class, lesbian of Arab ancestry, she viscerally understands her position in society, feeling discrimination to the very core of her being. As a white man, because oppression is not constantly in my face, I sometimes forget. (Although as a Vietnam veteran, I shouldn’t).”

Then I offered my take on the situation: “The truth is: It's too late for talking heads and blue ribbon committees to fix this mess.  Instead we must join with one another in solidarity and resist!” 

Now, 15 months later, I am elated to see it really happening: People, all around the world, standing up, shoulder to shoulder with one another, RESISTING! First came Arab Spring with courageous folks across the Middle East massing together and demanding democratic change. And now, in September, the emergence of a burgeoning new movement in this country, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) which went global last weekend with actions in over 900 cities throughout the world.

Today I want to sing the praises of another writer and activist, Ariel Dorfman , who like Joanna Kadi, uses his writing not just to resist oppression but to offer hope and encouragement to the rest of us. In Dorfman’s recently published memoir, Feeding the Dream, he writes about his difficult journey as an exile after he was forced to flee for his life after the military took power in Chile in 1973, after killing Salvadore Allende.

Salman Rushdie has praised the book as a passionate reminder that "we are all exiles," that we are all "threatened with annihilation if we do not find and celebrate the refuge of our common humanity," as Dorfman did during his "decades of loss and resurrection."

Dorfman’s memoir about “his decades of loss and resurrection,” resonates with me, even though I’m just a private on the battlefield compared to Dorfman.  I remember the crackling energy and optimism in the air in the late 1960s and early 1970’s: we felt we were riding an irresistible wave to a shining new future; the Age of Aquarius was Dawning. When that wave lost momentum, stalled, and receded…and then continued to recede over the last three decades, we were devastated, left to drift aimlessly in the back eddy of what was increasingly stagnant water.

Hunter Thompson described it poetically in his book, Songs of the Doomed

“And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil.  Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that.   Our energy would simply prevail.  There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs.  We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave...
“So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look west, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back. “(pp 140-141).

After the wave broke, like Dorfman,  I lost my compass: dropping out of grad school, going back to the land, fruitlessly attempting to write. I can so identify with Dorfman when he says that after beginning his exile, he “began to type like a man possessed…But only a flood of recriminations and despair guttered out and I forced myself to stop. 
Dorfman is heroic because despite his despair and feelings of powerlessness, he was able to keep the faith: “I did not want to add to the tragedy we were living unless I could offer some glimmer of hope, unless I was able to express a truth that was at that point in my existence, quite simply unspeakable. The silence I lapsed into lasted two more years, the worst of my life…”

That’s what ‘Feeding on Dreams' is about: “the story of that desolation and how I managed to survive it, keeping my dignity and even my sense of humor intact, all that I learned from that experience.”
Persevering against all odds, he rediscovers his voice: “When I ultimately emerged from the earthquake of that experience, I began to write myself back home, began to write a home for myself in the literature I was blessed to inhabit…” And more important, paint a picture of a positive alternative reality, a shining city on a hill, a new community that is there for all of us to join.
“I am still flooding the world with my secrets. Except that now I have company in those who read me and in those who struggle in countries of recent rebellion and nascent democracy that inspire the globe today. 

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Einstein and Buddha: What is Reality?

Warped water swirl red leaves in the riffling current
 of my storm-swollen stream
Jean Stimmell ©2011
The Following is my essay about Einstein as published 10/8/11 in the Concord Monitor:

Sitting here this morning, looking out the window, pondering my washed-out driveway and sodden firewood that I forgot to cover, my mind rebelled, seeking some stupendous, out-of-this-world event to think about instead.

The controversy that is currently shaking the whole scientific community came to mind.  

It all started a few weeks ago when European physicists announced that they had detected subatomic particles moving faster than the speed of light.  Alvaro De Rujula, a leading nuclear researcher, called the claim “flabbergasting,” going on to say, “If this is true, then we truly haven’t understood anything about anything.”⁠1 

Multiple plans are already underway to conduct new experiments to determine the validity of this claim. The stakes are high. Indeed, if this discovery is confirmed, the implications are staggering, stretching the human mind to ponder unimagined new frontiers – far beyond my sodden woodpile.

Einstein, whose theory of relativity established the speed of light as the ultimate limit, predicted that if objects could move faster than the speed of light, then it would be possible for faster-than-light travelers to take a trip from Concord to California today and come back yesterday.  Some physics theorists postulate that if, indeed, neutrinos move faster than light, the subatomic particles may have found a shortcut through a warped 5th dimension, opening up a whole, new alternative universe.

But then I caught myself. As a stoic Yankee I didn’t want to get too carried away.

 Even if it is true that Einstein’s speed limit has been broken, it won’t be as earth shattering as it first appears. Although we are, by nature, creatures of habit, wedded to the status quo, Buddhists have it right: life is change. 

 Sudden paradigm shifts happen all the time in our own personal lives as well as in science. After a period of adjustment, we find ourselves adapting, coming to terms with the new information whether it is that the sun does not revolve around the Earth, removing us from the center of the universe, or that gravity really exists, something that Newton did not discover until three centuries ago.

If we look at ourselves honestly, we’re forced to admit that our grasp of reality is tenuous and fleeting. We pursue knowledge like children chasing a shiny soap bubble, only to have it burst once it’s in our grasp. 

At some point we have to ask ourselves: What is really real?

When working with my clients, I often tell them the old story of the three blind men and the elephant: Three blind men encounter an obstacle (an elephant) in their path. The first blind man reaches out and feels the trunk of the elephant and declares it is a hose; the second blind man feels the elephant’s tusk and thinks it is a sword; the third touches the elephant’s leg and insists the elephant is a tree. They end up in a hopeless argument, not being able to agree on what is real.

I use this story to point up a major tenet of postmodernism: Our sense of what is real depends upon our perspective. Indeed, we all have our human truths that are vital to us from our unique vantage points of socially conditioned reality—that’s fine and the way it should be. 

The point is, we should be extremely leery of declaring these human truths to be absolute Truth – even if they come from Einstein himself!

I remembered a quote I’d recently read from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that wonderfully illustrates this point, our human predisposition to confuse a partial sampling with the whole: “We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world.”⁠2 

Thinking about speeding neutrinos worked: my thoughts are no longer on my washed out driveway and bedraggled woodpile: they are in the cosmos.  Not only that, the sun is starting to come out.
Ultimately, imagining neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light is more important as a spiritual and existential exercise than a scientific one if – for even just an instant – it pierces our cognitive facade and cracks us open in shock and awe to the sheer mystery of the world around us.

XXX (708 words)

Occupy Wall Street: A Movement whose time has come

Ground zero at Liberty Park in Wall Street 10/8/11
Jean Stimmell ©2011
to see my 24 slide photo-essay of my visit

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Remember what life was like in 1510: Global Warming and Hyperobjects

Bar Harbor officials ponder  Spanish conquistador congestion    
Jean Stimmell ©2011
Timothy Morton calls global warming a prime example of what he calls a hyperobject: something that affects us all intimately in the here-and-now yet, at the same time "an object that is massively distributed in space-time... [covering] the entire surface of Earth and...extend[ing] up to 500 years into the future. Remember what life was like in 1510?"

"You are walking on top of lifeforms. Your car drove here on lifeforms. The iron in Earth's crust is distributed bacterial excrement. The oxygen in our lungs is bacterial out-gassing. Oil is the result of some dark secret collusion between rocks and algae and plankton millions and millions of years in the past. When you are looking at oil you're looking at the past. Hyperobjects are time-stretched to such a vast extent that they become almost impossible to hold in mind. [Yet] they are intricately bound up with lifeforms.

"The spooky thing is, we discover global warming precisely when it's already here. It is like realizing that for some time you have been conducting your business in the expanding sphere of a slow motion nuclear bomb." 

The above quotes are from Peak Nature by Timothy Morton in the current Adbusters Magazine- Vol. 19 No. 6