I have no memory of my birthplace of Tallinn, Estonia. I was two years old when Red Army busted through the Leningrad Blockade and marched in.
The Russians were hardly liberators. They were almost worse than the Nazis. They’d culled the population of Estonia to a million people, and who knows what fate my family would have met had we not fled on one of the last boats out.
My earliest memory is the raw, dank smell of the earth. I was huddled in the dark next to my mother in a root cellar in the west of Germany, surrounded by sacks of potatoes, while sirens blared above.
We ended up in a series of displaced-persons camps. Food was scarce. Some weekends we walked deep into the German countryside to barter with farmers. Once my mother exchanged her precious fur coat for a bag of eggs and vegetables.
My father got a part-time job at the UN Relief organization UNRRA — and to the great joy of the whole family he would sometimes bring home a can of Spam, baked beans, a jar of strawberry jam.
As the repatriation efforts began, I remember a tall American soldier with a disarming aw-shucks smile scooping me up and pressing a Hershey bar into my hand.
I spent the next five years in and out of those refugee camps – till age seven. And then another five years in refugee camps in Australia.
I basically spent my entire childhood in a bubble.
We’d been kicked out of our own country by the Communists, leaving everything behind. So anything that smelled of collectivism was anathema to my father.
“Those commie bastards . . .” he would mutter.
I pretended to sleep but listened intently to the drunken late-night banter of Estonian expats . . . “I’d like to line those fucking commies up against a wall and mow them down one by one . . .”
One night they argued about a book called The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler. The notion that Western civilization was decaying and may soon die off was too big, too scary for me to engage with. But this idea has been stuck in my mind ever since.
My father was a tennis champion. His actual job was as a lawyer for the Estonian government, but who he was, was an athlete – and something of a national hero. Before WWII started, he was the singles tennis champion of all the Balkans. He captained Estonia’s Davis Cup team, and played Wimbledon. But he could never beat Sweden’s Kalle Schröder. That’s why I think he named me after him.
When I stepped onto campus at the University of Adelaide, I don’t think I had a political bone in my body.
I noticed two types of students running around. The beer-drinking righties with their Bertrand Russell, A.J. Ayer and Gilbert Ryle, more British than the British.
And then there were the Gauloise-smoking, coffee-sipping Lefties, with their Kierkegaard, their Nietzsche, their Sartre and Camus. I wondered: Which side am I on?
I studied pure and applied mathematics because my parents with their refugee mentality urged me to study the sciences so I could make a “decent” living. But my heart was in philosophy.
The philosophy department was firmly in the British “logical positivist” camp. Every word, every sentence, every thought had to be rigorously scrutinized for logical purity — all religious and metaphysical nuances lopped off by Occam’s razor.
Wading through Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus I found a few gems: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” In his Cambridge lectures he would often bury his head in his hands and mutter, “I am a fool … I am a fool.” At least that was the story.
Later I read his Philosophical Investigations. The hard dogmatism of his Tractatus gave way here to something softer, more forgiving. A few of his aphorisms had a mystical ring to them. Wittgenstein fought for Austria in WWI. The first time he glimpsed the Russian enemy, he wrote in his diary, “Now I have the chance to be a decent human being, for I’m standing eye to eye with death.”
That quote has stuck with me. Maybe because it carried a message that something more than logic has to be at stake in life.
Wittgenstein’s last words on his deathbed were “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”
A friend introduced me to classical music. His love for Berlioz, Bach and Beethoven bordered on the obsessive, and some of it rubbed off on me. I joined a record club, and once a month when the disc arrived, I’d put my head close to the gramophone late at night. The dark tones of Sibelius. The sublime quiet movement of Beethoven’s 9th. The triumphant cannon blasts in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture. And later in life, the dissonant forebodings of Bruckner and Mahler.
In my final year, someone passed me a copy of The Outsider by Colin Wilson, one of Britain’s so-called “angry young men.”
The philosophy I’d been reading had been rarefied and narrow, tiny plots of land tended by high-minded intellectuals. This was different. Here was this guy hoeing into life like it was a barroom brawl.
The Outsider was a kind of grand, unifying theory of the fully alive Western man – a spiritual and cognitive quester, a freelance warrior soul.
You could learn a lot, Wilson was saying, from the intrepid scouts who had gone to the edge and reported back. Kafka. Nietzsche. Camus. T.E. Lawrence. Dostoyevsky. Nijinski. Van Gogh. What these artists were chasing was intensity — a rare thing in a culture that seemed frightened of such animal impulses. All of them had experienced what Wilson called “moments of vision.” Some of them were a little bit nuts. But they saw further, vibrated faster, sucked the stars out of the sky. They were misfits not because there was anything wrong with them, but because there was something very, very wrong with society.
So this is what revolutionary fervor looks like.
The Outsider was written like the author thought he was going to be shot at dawn. I ripped through it. It was ecstatic. It promised deliverance to a higher plane of being. The idea was that you could catch lightning in a bottle if you just had the guts to stand out there in the thunderstorm, with an open heart.
Wilson’s brand of existentialism was a different beast. Sartre thought everything is pure chance … “life is a useless passion.” But my gut feeling has always been the opposite: that we humans are on the verge of an evolutionary leap to a higher plane.
Then one day I discovered what Wilson’s ecstatic vision of rebellious authenticity really looked like.
It was late one Saturday night. After a long bull session in somebody’s room, drinking beer, getting high on something, a few of us ended up in a loft in the warehouse district.
The tenant was a rawboned guy with long messy hair and a beatnik beard. On his wall, a smash of posters, newspaper tear-outs, scribbled musings. Behind his bed a stolen traffic sign that said DETOUR.
He was a poet, people said. He held strong opinions about everything and spoke with dramatic force. He had ten years on me, easily. He’d gone through what I was going through now and punched through to the other side, into a wild, free life.
This guy’s whole existence said: You can rebel.
I was absolutely taken by him. I wanted to be like him.
I never saw him again.
Australia was a culture shock in the opposite direction — more chloroform than caffeine. Did we really need to talk about Aussie-rules football on the tele all the time? Plus Australia was just too far away from the rest of the world. A racy book by Mary McCarthy called The Group was a best seller in America at the time, but you couldn’t get it in Oz; it was banned for “offending the public morals.” I remember thinking: What the fuck is wrong with this place?
The Australian government paid my way through university, and in exchange I gave them three years of my life. I played war games for the Department of Defence. As soon as my contract was up, I hopped on a boat heading for Amsterdam.
But the boat made a stop in Yokohama. There, unfolding all around were the mysteries of a culture that turned everything I believed inside out. I was entranced. Three days later the boat left for Amsterdam. I wasn’t on it.
I got a job with a consulting company, and soon after starting my own marketing firm, grandiosely called International Computer Research (ICR), in Tokyo’s Roppongi district. I made tons of money. That’s no brag; in the booming Sixties anybody could.
I hit the clubs most nights with my ad-agency pals. Behind the scenes, I dabbled in Judo & Zen. Savored Kawabata’s The Sound of The Mountain, Yukio Mishima’s Forbidden Colors, Osamu Dazai’s No Longer Human.
Then one day… Basho.
a quiet temple pond
a frog jumps in
What made Japan so fascinating was that that this sparse, ancient Zen aesthetic could survive the blast of go-go postwar capitalism.
The legendary calligrapher Sesshu would spend many days preparing himself — and then put the whole weight of his soul into one fierce stroke of the brush.
One afternoon I caught Yasujiro Ozu’s Ikiru and walked out of the theatre stunned. His masterpieces were Tokyo Story and Equinox Flower. His subject was family life, and the camera was always placed low down in the sitting position. On the surface not much happens. In Tokyo Story there’s a scene of an old couple, who have come from the country, sitting on a park bench in the sunlight. They don’t speak. Nothing happens. The scene lingers for what feels like forever. It is incredibly profound.
In the bars, night after night, I met disillusioned American GIs on R & R leave from the Vietnam War. They told me stories of the hell that was being loosed over there. Many of them went AWOL, hiding in their girlfriends’ apartments until the military police tracked them down and dragged them back to their units.
Then I got wind of another uprising. It had started in Paris’ Latin Quarter and quickly spread around the world.
The English-language Japan Times reported that angry young men and women were rising up against consumer capitalism. Students, artists, nurses, doctors, bus drivers. They occupied campuses and factories and hospitals, singing songs, issuing manifestos. All over Paris they sprayed slogans like Live Without Dead Time and Under the cobblestones, the beach!
Through the speakers of GI radio came a siren call out of Haight-Ashbury. Otis Redding had a pretty good view of things from the dock of the bay. “If You’re Going to San Francisco,” Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair. That lifted my spirits every time I heard it. The spirit of ’68.
It was time to see what it was all about.
“Feed your head,” Jefferson Airplane sang.
Grace Slick would later say that song (“White Rabbit”) was inspired by Miles Davis’s Sketches in Spain. She said it meant follow your curiosity. But everyone knew what it really meant.
LSD was the original love drug — ecstasy before there was Ecstasy. An empathy machine. It dissolved boundaries between individual people and between people and the world. It made us all truly get the idea of the collective. No one understood “we’re all in this together” like the hippies.
The people I was meeting in San Francisco were like the guy in that smoky loft in Adelaide, the guy right out of Colin Wilson’s The Outsider.
I found myself planted in the middle of an oxymoron: a community of rebels. We felt that a lot of things were broken, and we could help bring the fix. We’d take this old world that our stuffy parents believed in, and shake some passion, compassion and camaraderie into it.
Set it free.
There are moments in history “when millions of people surge into the streets and refuse to leave until real shifts are made in the social order. These moments accomplish in days what takes history years or even decades.”
The American historian George Katsiaficas called it The Eros Effect.
In a blink there is a total values shift. “Instead of patriotism, hierarchy or competition being the dominant values, people construct new values of solidarity, humanity, of love for each other.”
Mainstream sociologists consider these cultural heaves a kind of mass hysteria, bursts of madness. And yet, as Katsiaficas put it, “when we look at them from the bottom, from the perspective of ordinary people, these are moments of freedom. Leaders are unable to control the love of people for each other.”
In these moments, something universal within us is ignited. And radicalization and revolt follow as day follows night.
I bought a used VW beetle and drove all over America.
I was 200 miles from Memphis when Martin Luther King was shot and the riots broke out everywhere at once. I headed south to Mexico, then deeper into Central America. Through Nicaragua when General Somoza was still in power. Through Guatemala and Costa Rica and Panama. I spent half a year in what was then still called British Honduras.
Chatting with all the other five-dollars-a-day backpackers, I learned the real story of how the Panama Canal was built. How, before Castro, Cuba was America’s gambling brothel. How the CIA trained death squads in Brazil and propped up Pinochet in Chile and let Baby Doc Duvalier run amok in Haiti.
The same questions kept bubbling up: What is America? The country was built on slavery, their Monroe Doctrine has been doing dirty deeds in Central and South America for a hundred years. They have a long history of interfering. Just as they were doing again now in Vietnam.
My father’s and my own love affair with America was taking a beating. Yes, America saved the world from the Nazis in World War II; however — at least at the level of their administration — they are not the beautiful people on the right side of history that I had so fervently believed in. It was like handing over my American History textbook and upgrading to Howard Zinn.
But on good days you could ride the cultural riptide out beyond those shoals and escape. The Beatles. The Graduate. Ginsberg. “Follow your inner moonlight; don’t hide the madness.”
Wherever I went I’d find a rep cinema and slide into the anonymous dark and catch a matinee.
I returned to Japan, married my sweetheart and together we decided to start a new life in Canada.
The National Film Board of Canada had a reputation as one of the most exciting documentary filmmaking institutions in the world. No artist could fail to feel its pull. As soon as we arrived in Vancouver, I bought a 16mm projector and all I did the first few months was borrow NFB films and watch them over and over again.
Blew my mind.
Norman McLaren was a gateway drug to his brilliant, troubled protégé Ryan Larkin, whose psychedelic short Walking left me in an existential reverie. That you could take the private world in your head, your wildest and most profound stirrings, and splash them across a moving wall and still call it documentary, was a revelation.
Light, hand-held cameras and portable sound recorders were opening up new ways to make documentaries. All kinds of innovative cinéma vérité moves were suddenly possible.
A bunch of us started a film commune in the house on False Creek that’s now the site of the Adbusters offices. We made experimental films and subsidized ourselves by selling mandarin oranges from roadside stands at Christmastime.
The best thing we did was Schizophrenic Superman — a collage of comic book cutouts assembled to the beat of a square dance record I found in the basement. It was a big hit in the weekly film showings we held on Sunday nights, complete with cheap homemade beer infamous for giving everyone the trots.
For the next 15 years I made documentaries. My first real success was Ritual, a half-hour documentary about Japan shot mostly with a handheld Bolex camera. PBS picked it up and it aired repeatedly across all their affiliates. This was my passport into the NFB, and over the next 10 years I made a series of documentaries for them, mostly about Japan.
But it was while making a film about the global economy that I had a bit of an epiphany. I interviewed many mainstream heavyweights, but it was a small group of maverick economists who took me by surprise. They said things like, “Stop making money out of nothing,” and “Existence is a free gift from the sun,” and “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever is either a madman or an economist.” Prominent among them was Herman Daly, a former Yale economist and author of Steady-State Economics, who said, “We are ruining this planet . . . like a business in liquidation.”
This was a revelation to me. It made me wonder if there was something fundamentally wrong with “the dismal science” and the whole way our global economic system is managed.
Over time, though, the NFB lost its mojo. It was sad to see, this legendary organization losing its relevance. But it happens, right? Dynamic institutions are shooting stars. They blaze and then fade away. Whole countries. Whole cultures. The whole Planet?
Bureaucracy was slowly choking the NFB (as Peter Jones, one of its legendary producers explained to me just before he retired). Where once the director-magicians ruled, bottom-line-driven executives now called the shots. They killed the film board’s creative spirit.
I knew it was time to move on.
In the spring of 1989, British Columbia’s forest industry launched a slick multimillion-dollar campaign called “Forests Forever.” On billboards, in newspapers and on TV, the government bragged about the marvelous job it was doing managing the province’s forests. Rest easy British Columbia, their ads proclaimed, you’ve got nothing to worry about, you’ve got “Forests Forever.”
A few of us green-minded filmmakers were incensed. We decided to come up with our own 30-second TV spot telling the other side of the story: that British Columbia’s old-growth forests were being logged at an alarming rate and the future of this precious resource was far from secure.
But when we tried to buy airtime, we were in for a shock. Nobody would take our money.
We decided to fight back . . sent out press releases . . . got our story into the Vancouver Sun . . . started a newsletter . . . launched a legal action against the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).
We never did get our counter-ad on the air, but in a victory of sorts, the CBC finally relented and stopped running the Forests Forever campaign. We were ecstatic.
Meanwhile, our newsletter had become quite popular. It was exhilarating to have a voice, to speak truth to power. When I told my journalist friends I was thinking of turning the newsletter into a proper magazine, they warned me against it. (“Your garage will fill up with unsold copies. You’ll go bankrupt. Your wife will divorce you.”)
Taking a cue from a little NGO startup across town named Greenpeace, we called ourselves the “journal of the mental environment.” We printed 7,000 copies of issue #1 and sold half of them locally in Vancouver.
In the beginning Adbusters was a typical Lefty rag, full of impassioned essays, rants against evil corporations and fervent calls for radical change, with nary a photograph or cartoon for comic relief. We mimicked the Utne Reader, The Nation, Mother Jones and championed all the Lefty causes of the time.
We decided to rely only on subscriptions and newsstand sales . . . vowed never to sell space to advertisers.
And bit by bit we embarked on an aesthetic journey. A journey, you might say to get off the grid; to blow up the norms of print; to abandon that sanitized, soul-destroying modernist look . . . to create a magazine that was less about the content you “consume” than a river you jump into and are swept downstream.
The first thing we did was kill off the page numbers, because they are just speed bumps that break the spell . . . like someone pulling out a measuring tape in the middle of sex.
And who needs a table of contents? Or article headings? Or even a contributors page? On a fiery mind journey, who needs to be interrupted with pronouncements?
Then we took the letters to the editor and sprinkled them throughout (a very democratic move).
Then we ripped ads we hated out of other magazines and used them as counterpoint (a reversal of capitalist appropriation).
We started dropping in cartoons and poems, not randomly like the New Yorker does it, but carefully, where they’d resonate with flotsam in the flow.
I once heard the story that Yasujiru Ozu measured the worth of his films by how many bottles of sake he and his collaborator drank over many weeks concocting the script. Every issue of Adbusters was a little like that . . . a passionate one-off affair . . . a visually driven comic-book flow from cover to cover. If you read it front to back a kind of emotional momentum would build.
After a few years, Adbusters was all over Canada. And then the US. By the mid 1990s we were selling briskly on newsstands around the world.
What everyone remembers from that period are the spoof ads on our back and inside covers. Absolut Vodka. McDonald’s, Philip Morris, Obsession, Nike. We went after any mega-corporate ad campaign that pissed us off. These companies had spent millions to build a nuclear glows around their brands, and now, in deft, judo-like moves we threw them on the mat with their the power of their own momentum.
That’s culture-jamming, baby. Let’s have some fun.
And then, we decided to take them all on at once.
Buy Nothing Day was our first big social-marketing success. We caught the zeitgeist. The fledgling environmental movement was banging the drum that overconsumption was at the core of all our planetary woes.
We produced a 30-second TV spot showing a pig wallowing on a map of North America. The voice-over threw out some sobering figures about consumption levels, and chided that “the world could die because of the way we live . . . Give it a rest. November 26 is Buy Nothing Day.”
The meme spread. Buy Nothing Days popped up in Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, Austin, New York. It jumped the ocean, to Sydney and Melbourne, then to London (where they called it No Shop Day). Within a few years, Buy Nothing Day was a yearly celebration of frugal living in over 60 countries around the world.
We learned that if you let loose a tantalizing meme at just the right cultural moment, it can hit the public imagination with incredible force.
We noticed that some teachers were using our magazine in their classrooms; they even had their students making spoof ads. So we added a 16-page Media Literacy supplement into the middle of the magazine. Ads were soon being altered, mucked with and “detourned,” Situationist-style, all over the world. Culture jamming had became a new activist playground.
We produced a flurry of 30-second TV spots. First we called them “antiads,” then “subvertisements,” and finally “mindbombs.”
There was Autosaurus, a takedown of the auto industry involving a rampaging dinosaur made of scrapped cars, and ending with a vision of the future: folks riding bicycles over the car-free plain.
There was Obsession Fetish, a critique of the fashion industry featuring a bulimic Kate Moss look-alike. The tagline over the extremely unhappy-looking model: “The Beauty Industry is the Beast.”
There was Tubehead, which spoofed TV addiction, and hatched with a slogan that’s only become more relevant in the age of Facebook: “The Product Is You.”
Bull In The China Shop mocked economists for mis-measuring progress. When everything – even ecological disasters — make the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) go up, something doesn’t add up. “Economists,” we suggested, “must learn to subtract.”
In our brainstorming sessions we plotted a full-fledged onslaught against the trillion-dollar corporate advertising machine. Inspired by how the anti-smoking TV spots had demolished Big Tobacco, we now wanted to turn commercial television into a battleground of competing ideas. To fight an all-out meme war — where our mindbombs are constantly taking the piss out of the corporate pro-consumption agenda. We thought that this kind of culture jamming on TV would capture the imagination of the world, and we were confident we would win this meme war.
But again — just like with Forests Forever, the TV stations refused to take our money.
The ABC network’s commercial clearance boss Art Moore was predictably defiant. “There’s no law that says we have to air anything,” he shouted at me on the phone. “We’ll decide what we want to air or not.”
NBC’s Richard Gitter said, “We don’t want to take any advertising that’s inimical to our legitimate business interests.”
And Robert Lowery at CBS finally put it straight. “This commercial . . . is in opposition to the current economic policy in the United States.”
I remember getting a creepy sense of déjà vu listening to remarks like that. I was born in Estonia where during Soviet rule people were not allowed to speak against the government. There simply were no media channels for debating controversial public issues because the government did not want such discussion to take place. And here I was 50 years later in “the land of the free” and there was a lack of media space in which to challenge consumptive, commercial and corporate agendas — you were not allowed to speak out against the sponsors.
We spent $100,000 fighting a legal action against the CBC, arguing that every Canadian citizen has the right under the Canadian Charter to walk into their local TV station and buy 30 seconds of airtime for a message they believed in. The legal squabbling continued for more than 10 years, until we could no longer afford to pay the lawyers their $500 per hour fees. (One of our lawyers, Clayton Ruby, had a conflict of interest that utterly destroyed our case, but he refused to take responsibility or give back any of the vast sum we’d paid him. I will never forgive him for that).
But it turns out that nothing is more tantalizing than something that’s been banned. People wanted to see the rejected ads, to know why they were rejected. Our culture jamming anti-ads circulated widely.
And we made a lot of people question what television, the most powerful social communications medium of that time, was really all about if citizens can’t buy airtime under the same rules and conditions as corporations do. After all, doesn’t Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly state that: “Everyone has the right . . . to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes . . . the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
At the apex of the Adbusters’ flight path, as our worldwide circulation climbed beyond 100,000, a strange thing happened. I became disillusioned. Or rather, I became pretty profoundly disappointed with the other kids in the sandbox. And me too in there with them.
We Lefties just weren’t … making things happen.
A protest could draw a million people, but then everyone resumed business as usual. Internet campaigns whipped up great anticipation, but then a week later you hardly even remembered what they were about.
We whined. A lot. We knew what was wrong with the world but had no idea how to fix it.
And excuse me, but when did the Left start taking itself so seriously? Where did the “people’s laughter” go? Weren’t we the people who knew how to live, love, think and have fun?
And, you know, care? About the big stuff?
I saw my compadres fighting smaller and smaller battles. Choking on critical theory. A sort of self-purification program seemed to be happening – an “I can hang my head lower than you” one-upmanship of gooey liberal guilt that was frankly embarrassing.
The Left suddenly just … wasn’t cool anymore.
And that’s not trivial. Because when you lose your cool you lose your influence. Cool’s sneaky superpower is its ability to propagate, to replicate in some critical mass of human minds. Lose that and you’ve lost the game.
I wrote an editorial saying, “The time has come to jump over the dead body of the old Left.” And I’ll never forget how the progressive luminaries of the time came down on me. Like I had betrayed the side.
After 50 years of identifying as a Lefty, I realized I couldn’t in good conscience wear that label anymore.
And then something happened.
Like a Basho poem read on the floor of a stock exchange. Or welders at Toyota laying down their torches and praying to the fire gods.
No doubt about it, the image of the ballerina on the bull had its roots in Japan. Serenity in chaos.
As a call-to-arms image it worked like a charm. But that’s not why Occupy Wall Street ignited. It ignited because people were furious.
What was happening in the United States, in the spring of 2011, violated the sense of fairness that Americans have always believed in. They knew there was something very wrong at the heart of the financial system. The guys in those towers had gambled away the farm. And they got away with it, while others suffered.
Recent graduates saw their future simply vanishing. They stared down endless debt and precariousness — a bottomless black hole.
At the same time, in the Middle East, young people rose up and chased corrupt President Ben Ali out of Tunisia . . . Tahir Square kept pulsating until Egypt’s long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak crumbled . . . it was exhilarating . . . it felt like the beginning of something big . . . we said to ourselves: Why can’t we do something like this . . . in our brainstorming sessions we kept on asking: Why not an American Spring?
We came up with an audacious idea: Let’s go to the iconic heart of global capitalism on Wall Street and occupy the damn place.
We chose my mother’s birthday, September 17, to kick it all off, and started pumping out tactical briefings.
We sent the first of 34 briefings out on July 13. It read:
#OCCUPYWALLSTREET: A Shift in Revolutionary Tactics
Alright you 90,000 redeemers, rebels and radicals out there…
On September 17, we want to see 20,000 people flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens and peaceful barricades, and occupy Wall Street for a few months. Once there, we shall incessantly repeat one simple demand in a plurality of voices.
We started talking to activists on the ground in New York. David Graeber and the local activist community mustered. And on Sept 17 it happened: a peaceful battalion of a few thousand marched to the bull.
In Zuccotti Park the mood was ecstatic. It was the summer of love all over again. Eros west of the Bowery. OWS HQ was a village, with its own newspaper, even. Local pizza shops sent in loads of free pies.
From the wings came support over a ridiculously wide spectrum — from the Anonymous collective to Michael Moore to Elizabeth Warren to Barack Obama. Electric speakers, from the philosopher Slavoz Zizek to actress Susan Sarandon, kept occupiers’ spirits high.
It was leaderless, joyous and intense.
The energy built, fanned unwittingly by mayor Bloomberg’s tone-deaf pushback and the NYPD beat cop caught on camera viciously pepper spraying a couple of teenage girls. On October 3, more than 700 protesters were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge.
And it spun out. Occupations popped up in Chicago, LA, Seattle, Atlanta, Miami, Washington. The wave of protest jumped borders: Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver. And oceans: London, Paris, Madrid. Sydney. Jakarta. Bangalore.
At its height, there were occupations happening in more than 2000 cities around the world. For a few heady weeks a tantalizing question hung in the air: What if the whole world turned into a Zuccotti Park? Could this be the beginning of the first global revolution?
It was uncannily similar to what happened in 1968 when a small uprising in the Latin Quarter of Paris spread like wildfire around the world. For a few heady weeks back then we also thought a world revolution had begun.
Looking back, what killed the momentum of both the 1968 protests and Occupy Wall Street wasn’t that people failed to put their asses on the line. They did. But we failed to deliver what every revolution needs: one big issue to galvanize around.
We didn’t have our memes figured out. We had the ear of the world but couldn’t muster much beyond a few cryptic pronouncements. We kept shouting, “We are the 99%!” But when winter crept in and Mayor Bloomberg ambushed us in the wee hours of the morning, we lost our momentum and will to fight back.
OWS fizzled out, went out with a whimper. At least that’s what people say.
But I don’t see it that way.
Those three months in 2011 reinvigorated the left and stoked a debate about inequality that’s still gathering momentum today. You can trace a direct line from OWS to the rise of Bernie Sanders, Black Lives Matter and the Green New Deal.
It politicized a whole generation, just like my generation got politicized back in 1968.
Now, in the wake of #MeToo, #BLM, the corona pandemic and the spectre of a climate-change conundrum that no one knows how to fix, the time may be ripe for a third wildcat general strike to sweep the old world order away.
It will be for millennials and iGen to make that happen.
World Revolution . . . third time lucky.
One evening in 2019, while reading a New York Review of Books article called “Two Roads for the New French Right,” I had an aha moment.
The cultural critic Mark Lilla was surveying the European political landscape. And what he saw excited him. Something fresh was coming up between the old intellectual swamp gas of the Left and the poisonous xenophobic populism of the Far Right: a generation of intellectually daring young politicos who aren’t easily categorized.
They put out small magazines that punch way above their weight. (“The point of little magazines is to think big in them,” as Lilla put it.) These magazines are peppered with references to George Orwell, the mystic writer Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt, the young Marx, the cultural conservative American historian Christopher Lasch . . . they argue about Heidegger . . . publish critiques of neoliberal economics and environmental policy as severe as anything you can find on the Left. They rail against unregulated global financial markets, neoliberal austerity, genetic modification, consumerism, soulless modernism. They say that the European Union has been centralizing all the power in Brussels, conducting a slow coup d’etat in the name of economic efficiency.
Some of them believe in zero growth. They want Big Tech reigned in — calling for a dismantling of the Google-Facebook-Amazon troika that’s mindfucking us.
They’re passionate. Committed. They have a plan.
The catch? There is a strong strain of social conservatism about them. The Left wants nothing to do with these Young Turks because their plan comes from an ideology that’s grounded in tradition, and even faith.
That sounds radical to me. In the best way.
It speaks to a spiritual dimension that’s gone AWOL on the Left. A dimension I fell in love with in Japan. So many of the Shinto-based rites I explored in my documentaries are about cherishing your ancestors and acting in a way that reflects honor upon them. That attachment to the past, to tradition, to legacy, gives meaning to our lives. These are stories that started long ago and will continue long after we’re gone.
Lilla had somehow exposed the bigger picture that the Left, I feel, has turned its back on. Yes you are fighting the good fight for equality, human rights and justice, but you are also part of an “organic continuity” that stretches back thousands of years. On this view, the fundamental task of society is to pass on a kind of moral code to future generations — to put people into the larger organic flow of things.
What the job of society definitely isn’t is to become a clubhouse for “autonomous individuals bearing rights,” as Lilla puts it.
When I read that, I thought to myself, “fuck,” this is basically what I’ve deep-down believed in all my life.
For the last 20 years, I’ve increasingly felt that we on the Left are marooned in a dry place and don’t know how to make the flowers bloom. There was a piece of the puzzle of living that the Left wasn’t giving me. And all of a sudden, I sensed it, felt it, unbelievably, coming from the Right.
One of those Lefty shibbeloths – and I know I’m going to get into trouble here – is abortion.
Since Roe v Wade, a woman’s right to choose has become such a given that it’s now a reflex. Somewhere the lofty principle of justice got uncoupled from the primal human response to the sacrifice itself. Because sitting with the triumph and the horror at the same time is just too hard.
To allow that abortion makes you uncomfortable isn’t the same as saying you’re constitutionally against it. But I dare you to try it. The slightest hint of ambiguity around the issue strikes the Left as outright treason, and the blowback you get is calibrated to kill.
Well, fuck it. I mean, come on. We’re human. We contain multitudes, and all that.
I do find it strange that progressives can be “pro-life” in every context but this one. We fight tooth-and-nail against the death penalty, against war, against state-sanctioned killings across the globe. Even meat is murder. Progressives are about the sanctity of life above all else except in this one domain.
And I get why this issue’s different. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always felt that a woman has the final say about whether to go through with her pregnancy or not, and nobody should ever take that right away from her. All I’m saying is, if a life is taken, it should be done with the same reverence as happens in every other context. Whatever a fetus is, it is not medical waste.
There’s a Japanese Zen ritual called mizuko-kuyo — literally the “water baby” — that has found its way to America. As practiced in the States it is surprisingly politically generous. This is not just something pro-choice families embrace. It is a sacred rite. We mourn lost life here no less than the descendants of soldiers mourn the dead at cenotaphs, or Argentinian mothers mourn those “disappeared” in that country’s Dirty War. An activist drugged and thrown from an airplane into the ocean; an unborn baby sectioned and vacuumed from a womb: if the thought of both of those doesn’t make you hang your head a little, paralyzed with emotions bigger than you can hold, honestly, I’m not sure where we go from there. If we can’t find a place to meet in things that are the very denominator of our species, what hope is there for us?
I am 79 years old. Sometimes I feel like simply saying, as Wittgenstein did, “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life,” and call it a day.
But there’s one thing that continues to excite and tantalize and bedevil me. It is a new vision of what it means to be a political animal in the 21st century.
Somewhere rooted in an ancient philosophy, brought forward into contemporary times, lies the way out of this mess we’re in. It is a politics beyond politics, a system that will bury the whole Left vs. Right paradigm for good.
And I know, we heard this kind of talk from Tony Blair and Bill Clinton in the ‘90s, and the new consensual model that was going to come up the middle between capitalism and socialism and create kinder, gentler human dealings forever. That model seems to have sowed the exact opposite. Now no one’s talking at all.
What’s emerging this time is different. It’s not a movement of political parties or of the government; it’s a movement of regular people, coalescing in cyberspace. It behaves uniquely and evolves organically. Within its many-chambered heart lies a secret so fucking dangerous and beautiful that it opens up all possibilities for governing ourselves in the future.
This is the Third Force.