Lessons Learned From #OWS

The American public has been curious, interested, and at times confused about Occupy Wall Street since its birth last fall, and especially given the recent perceived tactics in Oakland. They've watched with some fascination and some uncomfortableness a series of social, political and organizational experiments unfolding in the middle of a widespread, if not yet very large-scale, protest movement. Most well-known have been the general assembly with a set of unique facilitation procedures and hand signs which became somewhat iconic, the poetic and effective people's mic, emphasis on being leaderless with the intent to set the lowest possible entry barrier for everyone to get involved, emphasis on non-conventional demands with the intent that all demands are possible through changes of laws and votes only when we change enough hearts and minds, and militant non-violent civil disobedience. These and many others have been lessons for me about values and about code of conduct, and ultimately about beliefs of which I have been reminded sometimes, and challenged at other times.

Lession No. 1: I am because we are -- a civic revival

Coming from collective cultures of both traditional Chinese culture, and the violent modern implant of the communist revolution, being individualist had saved me from "conventional wisdom" and "hive mind" when our society had gone through the madness of the Cultural Revolution, rampant government corruption, and heartless gold rush. My individualism has faced a surrealist challenge coming to America after I was exiled from China. The extreme individualist in Nietzsche's superman with willpower, or more directly the influential Ayn Rand, seem to have so successfully produced the myth of a corrupt version of the American Dream. Instead of an America being the land of the free and equal opportunity; the myth tells American youth that even though billionaires are few, and getting fewer and richer, in fact, you can be one of them tomorrow.

Joe the Plumber did not have a business that makes over $250,000 a year; he was making $40,000. But why someone like him would worry about higher tax for $250,000 earner and above? I don't know Joe the Plumber, or the McCain metaphor. but I have known similar behavior and speech. I think many like him sincerely believe that given some hard work and a little bit of luck, only the sky is the limit for their personal wealth accumulation, if only the government does not get into the way of the magic of a free market that self-regulates.

This extreme individualist triumph measured almost exclusively by monetary success has more than one cause, chief among which is the decline of the collective and the decline of the commons. This myth is not just a daydream, but a nightmare when it fosters a culture of political apathy. The apathy I speak of here is not lack of political ambition -- there is plenty of that in extreme individualism and elitism. The apathy is the decline and even distrust of civic virtue as a participatory common citizen, as seen in our low voter turnout, and as seen in almost complete lacking of sustained grassroots mobilization to tackle the worst problems with broad impact this country has faced.

When I first stepped into Zuccotti Park last fall, I immediately felt that the magic was in the communal participation. It's the communal connection, not so much who these individual occupiers were before the movement that was inspiring, that was transformative, and that was even transcending. I had thought, on my way over there, that with a life of experience in social movement and philosophical deliberation about what constitutes a just society, I've had a lot to teach the first-time young activists. Instead, I quickly realized that I had little to teach the movement. (The only speech I've made at Occupy Wall Street eventually was to repeat the most successful and inspiring memes of OWS to Liberty Plaza occupiers on Thanksgiving Day 2011.) I had realized the power of the park is for anyone who cares to go there to have a conversation about our common problems and shared future (and doing so in a way outside the current system symbolically and physically -- this is another lesson to be discussed separately). I have noticed that there are many others who have more profound ideas than I, and more thorough understanding about movement tactics, and about the sophistication of the policy, legislative, and electoral issues. I've also noticed that so many of them are eager to teach the occupiers the best thing the occupiers should do. There are many more well-meaning, politically conscious people who didn't come to the park, but wish that occupiers come up with solutions that fit nicely in their comfort zone. To them, the movement is only meaningful and mature if OWS carries out this or that demand and agenda.

I have buried the lede with this long rambling. I'm one of the early converted who felt that "to step up and occupy with fellow citizens" is a clear enough demand for now, and should be the most important demand for the foreseeable future.

The movement has called for communal conversations in hundreds of American cities to successfully shift national dialogue from hypocritical austerity discussion to social and economic fairness, and achieved a moral high ground that's rarely associated with political campaigns. The fact that all of these took place in a short two to three months' time has not been enough for the broader population who are curious, interested, or even supportive of OWS to feel connected, a challenge for the movement if OWS is to build a broader base and to continue to inspire and mobilize. It indicates to me the profound apathy of the American general public. We have long failed to translate our own guts' feeling of a deep problem related to money and politics into civic participation; and we can only relate to politics in the form of policies, votes, and electoral candidates. We have so comfortably lived in a loser mentality of being treated as consumers, voters, and viewers in commerce and in politics, retail or wholesale. We don't know yet that we are all part of this, collectively. We bought the lunacy of this corrupt version of the American dream, thinking that if we kept our heads down and moved long, and if we worked hard and were lucky, we would do better, we would get ahead, way ahead as a triumphant super individual.

There is a deeper realization in this amazing and much-needed civic revival. The individualist culture succeeded in protecting The Private. But when it has gone to the extreme as the last decades have trended, it kills The Public. The PUBLIC good, such as saving a democracy, the PUBLIC virtue, such as justice and fairness, needs more than charity and philanthropy; it needs more than argument and counter-arguments; it needs more than clever messaging. Given the heightened political awareness during these short few months, I've learned so much about existing efforts that many have made, libertarians, liberals, and deeply political independents. In the past three to four decades they have made great efforts to set this country back on the correct democratic track. But when I ask the obvious questions of why all these efforts by and large fail and our country ended up in such a troubled times, I've gotten either no answer or long-winded deliberation. OWS has taught me the simple but profound answer. The Public Good needs a foundation for all these service-y good deeds to stand upon. Without that, all the volumes of books, talk shows, billions of charitable donations are just a mirage. Without that, all good intentions have to make the tired old sales of "lesser evil" next to sheer thirst for wealth and naked power.

For those who fault these forms of direct democracy for its naive belief that with enough talking and communal participation, misunderstanding and honest disagreement will simply give way for collective wisdom and consensus, you have missed the point. Naivete? Maybe. Useless experiment? Absolutely not. Somethings are better done privately, somethings, individually. To reclaim our Commonality, and to rebuild our Public Good from corrupt politics, public and collective participation is the necessary means that will produce the desired results. It is the foundation that is missing for many other legislative and electoral causes.

I felt then, and I know now, I am part of that foundation ever since I was in the first general assembly meeting through people's mic at Liberty Plaza. It was immediately poetic, immediately emotional, and decisively political and powerful. I was reminded my best civic virtue education through the writings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. I was reminded the interconnectiveness I felt in Tiananmen and the best of social movements I've had the privilege to be part of. The connectiveness that Gandhi and King talked about. The connectiveness that is the very soil Public Virtue and Public Good can take root, grow, flourish, and bear fruit. Different from 1980s China, when our student movement turned massive demonstration, America has no shortage of sophistication on issues and policy options. They seem as if they are potted plants in a greenhouse at best, or a museum at worst. What this country needs, I believe, is a flood that will grow all these wonderful seeds into a jungle of flourishing. Only then can we change the apathetic political environment. Only then we can have a new atmosphere of civic revival. And only then will all the policy issues have a chance to be deliberated and implemented in a functional democracy.

The flood has been held back by the flood gate of political apathy fostered by the strange myth of ultra-individualism. OWS needs to continue its efforts to bust the flood gate open by massive grassroots participation. For all patriotic Americans who are part of this, whether you realize it now or not, stay curious, stay interested, stay supportive, or even stay critical if that's the way you stay connected to OWS. For OWS is busy creating the space for your demands to have a shot of success. OWS is doing so by changing hearts and minds, so you can change laws and votes, especially when you step up and becoming part of it.