Oct 27, 2011

Notes on Occupy Wall Street



Scene 1: in which we get off the bus from Great Barrington, plunge into the subway, and emerge right in Zuccotti Park.

Here I am, wandering the encampments of Occupy Wall Street with hands in my pockets, listening faceless with politesse as people fire off their views and opinions and myriad contentions around me. In the first five minutes, standing in the food line, I saw one man throw coffee in another’s face and stride away, simply quaking with righteous rage. Everyone around him in line (all men in bulky jackets, prepared to hunker down for the long haul) wanted to know, earnestly, what had happened, what the debate was. I went to the protests – like many people, I think – expecting to be swept off my feet by a sixties-revolutionary-style exuberance and collectivism that would incite me to… something. A smiling curly-haired boy handed me a freshly damp yellow flower and I smiled back at him, awed and taken out of context of my skepticism for a moment. Had I just felt an iota of peace?

While it’s true that this spontaneous collection of people, with their humane causes and armbands, is a beautifully unprecedented thing in America; this is not the sixties. The political issues are more indistinct, contentions are higher, there is much less violence and oppression… and then there is the issue of marked self-consciousness about it – the self-adulation of incessant tweeting and filming. It creates an atmosphere of ceaseless chatter, broadcasting absolutely everything to the point where it becomes more about the propulsion of the collective rather than the issues they are trying –  swipingly, abstractedly – to address.

Occupy Wall Street is obviously an expression of vitality that cannot be ignored, and I love that. What I do not like is that they seem to see themselves as perpetrators of change in American politics simply because they are all gathered together there in Zuccotti Park, simply being, simply showing themselves before the great faceless Moloch of New York City business and saying, Here we are, we the people without wealth or conventional social standing, we who do not buy into the capitalist system of success, we the 99%, here we are! Drop your Starbucks cup of capitalist gruel and listen to us breathe, here.


Scene 2: in which we assemble outside a Peter Seeger/Arlo Guthrie concert and follow the two fading folk balladeers down the streets of Broadway, singing.

Pete Seeger is smiling, doddling along with his cane and starry-spangled blue eyes, looking a bit dazed with happiness as masses of people around him tote acoustic guitars and iPads, singing Civil Rights-era protest songs that less than half the crowd knows. Seeger is 92 years old and can still hold himself up in the midst of social discontent. As I found myself pressed into the line of people, being pushed back onto half of the sidewalk by police (by “pushed” I mean that they asked us to move it over and we did), occasionally yelling out slogans I didn’t fully understand just to feel a bit more alive but quickly hating myself for it. It’s a strange thing to march for a cause that is not yours – at least not as you understand it. I hung back on a street corner with my friend to try to catch a glimpse of Arlo Guthrie’s gray clown mane bobbing through the crowd, but couldn’t find him anywhere. Apparently it all ended with the protestors and the sixties figureheads sitting in a circle singing songs into the night… I did not stick around for that possibly sublime moment of culture/era-shock, but was already on the subway rattling back into the bowels of the Bronx, thinking, feeling ashamed for wanting nothing to do with Occupy Wall Street.


Scene 3: in which I sit on the floor of the city, chanting and humming and straining my muscles towards enlightenment.

LOVE... IS... LOVE. LOVE... IS... LOVE. LOVE... IS... LOVE. LOVE... IS... LOVE. LOVE… IS… ringing in bodies around me, sitting stilled in the frigid wind of the city, traffic wheedling and drum-circle drummers bashing the lips of garbage cans, thudding away on overturned buckets, playing the railings… dancing, and we are still, sitting on the ground, meditating, in front of the Community Altar/Sacred Space (so denoted by a cardboard sign stuck to a tree). There is a thin man with bright, energetic blue eyes and a white beard pacing inside the circle, giving meditation direction. He has been saying things like: “The revolution will not be online. The revolution is in your heart” and “You are becoming a gem, feel the fire…” and “This is happening now. This has never been experienced before.”

This is warrior meditation, he explains, meant to make you internally strong so you can defeat your enemies. Quite literally… at one point I found myself tilting towards Wall Street itself, long beige buildings in the gray sky, with one arm extended, thumb pointed flat, and the other drawn close to my side like a bow-and-arrow. We rocked back and forth, leering toward the towers, chanting, “HAR. HAR. HAR. HAR. HAR. HAR. HAR. HAR.” The whole thing takes on a distinctly performance art atmosphere, especially with the rings of people gathered around us, watching… more than once, I felt a person pass a panning camera lens in front of my closed eyes. 



Scene 4: in which I spend my last evening in Zuccotti Park crouched on an icy marble bench, writing ceaseless notes and trying to make sense of it all.

Threads of mace, threads of weed, threads of chant through the primal drumbeat. This tenacity of this tiny human explosion on Wall Street is flavored with sex, felt through music and the luscious filth spreads of the tents. That insane, interminable, tribal drum-circle inundating everyone’s minds in pure rhythm… somehow the most eloquent expression of frustration and social contention I’ve witnessed here yet. I saw one sign today – cardboard, markered, leaning slanted against the ground – that said something like, “I don’t want money, I just want a girlfriend and some love. Occupy Wall Street forever!” Something like that.

It is early evening and the sky is bruising blue to black slowly above the glowering towers of Wall Street. Threads of B.O., bomb-shelter desperation, with some proud splashes of cologne here and there, cigarette tang, and the pure crushed-warm-leaves scent of human threading through the crowd. Sirens. Maybe I can still pass for a revolutionary, just sitting here… maybe the people around me think I’m writing brilliant, fluid anti-capitalist tracts of manifesto and documentation. I have felt the white-light flash of a few people taking my picture already. Believe me, conjecturers, I wish I could, but my brain is otherwise on fire. Under NYC sky, spiked with sky-scraping instruments of incisive capitalism. Helicopters provide a realistic atmosphere of civil disobedience. Girls tilted back, smiling and waving to the helicopters, hovering. Small conspiratory groups huddled surreptitiously around Burger King tables, getting warm and hi-jacking wi-fi.

A battle of emotions wages on all sides of me, a battle without any enemy except the towering landscape – the very TOWERS of capitalism! – around, and so it loops around and around in an endless drumbeat. So, middle-class America wants to feel human again. Hasn’t that always been the way? Despite the cool, drifting surrogate realities of their iPhones and scrolling Twitter feeds, these people want to feel like wet raging blossoming breathing singing breast-beating souls again, dancing to the primal blood necessities of drums and twisting their own minds outward to speak, speak, however indistinctly. MIC-CHECK! Mic-check. MIC-CHECK!! Mic-check! They are cocking back their heads and staring stonily into camera lenses, panning the crowd slowly to catch every face of contorted passion and that same stony revolutionary… stare…. The horrifying thing is that they are watching themselves act, watching themselves watch themselves, documenting every little detail and replaying… watching...

There are plastic Guy Fawkes masks bobbing around the air above my head, throwing off the sheen from streetlamps and rushing headlights. Guy Fawkes sits, a hunched iron statue with its pale plastic face crinkling mirthfully down at his lap. I sit next to him… I’m still amazed by how it is truly never dark in New York City – even the midnight sky is gray. How could you sleep even if you somehow madly wanted to? I feel myself sitting looking out the window of the bus tomorrow morning and feel numbing loneliness bestilling my brain like cruel, self-hating alcohol. Even if I don’t quite belong to this protest, this improvised collection of anarchism, socialism, good old kicking-and-screaming American individualism but mostly just anti-everything, I belong in New York City. Of course the first true American poet sang a song of himself – what else is there that can be sung, really? Francine Prose wrote a brief devotional for Occupy Wall Street, saying, “I kept feeling these intense surges of emotion – until I saw a placard with a quote from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself: ‘I am large, I contain multitudes.’ And that was when I just lost it and stood there and wept." I just can't get close to this revelation, this beating vitality and blessed release that some people have felt at the hands of Occupy Wall Street -- when confronted with the very spectacle of it.

More importantly, what other single value can America agree upon besides individualism? It is what fuels this movement thundering around my ears this very moment and also what fuels the capitalist government they are raging against. Another placard, bobbing white and briskly joyful in the gloaming, sings Dylan Thomas: “Do not go gently into that good night – Rage, rage against the dying of the light!” A closing quote, a closing scene-snapshot... the couple sitting huddled in the cold next to me was basking in the whole weird wonder of the place, and the man said to the woman in a brotherly tone, “Listen, listen: tonight is all about you having fun with your friends and trying not to get arrested.” That's as good a slogan as any.

Oct 18, 2011

The Responsibilities of Higher Education: Inside Peter Laipson's Recent Article

Here is the article that I am talking about. What you read will make infinitely more sense if you look over this first: http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2011/09/26/essay_on_a_threatened_sit_in_during_a_first_day_leading_a_college
On September 26th Peter Laipson, our newly inaugurated provost [at Simon's Rock], posted an article on Inside Higher Education outlining his views on recent student protests and attempts at negotiation about the recent change in library hours. He describes how “four juniors and seniors, who claimed to speak for the student body at large” wrote him a letter outlining their reasons for dissatisfaction and the promise that if the administration failed to heed them, there would be a sit-in. Laipson describes how he handled this calmly, all the while impressed with the students’ precociousness and initiative, managing to successfully brush off the responsibility of a dialogue with the assertion of compromise. The compromise, as I’m sure we all know, is that the library is now open from 11 to 5 on Saturdays instead of being entirely closed. This, however, is exactly what the students were protesting against; yes, it is better than nothing, but it is certainly not enough for a functioning college campus. It is in his article that Laipson steps back and delivers the kind of paternally level-headed statement that attempted to explain the college’s unresponsiveness to these students’ demands. He writes, “I was also piqued that students had planned a sit-in even before asking for a meeting. Real dialogue is an honest conversation in which both parties are prepared to change their minds, not a negotiation coerced by displays of power.”

By far the most illuminating part of Laipson’s article is the debate that kindled, sparked, and intermittently exploded in the comments section below. Dylan, who signed himself as a Simon’s Rock alumn, responded eloquently with, “It’s hypocritical to be piques that they called a sit-in before asking for a meeting, yet to take it as a given that you were right in making a decision related to student resources without consulting students (As a side-note, one of the most popular things the old provost ever did in the four years I was at Simon’s Rock was extend the library hours” (emphasis mine). It’s true that the administration has not asked students directly what they think of the library hours, or what they feel that they need out of their college resources. And when a group of students attempts to assert their opinion to the provost, they are treated more as a curious phenomenon than contenders for discussion. Marie Holtby, mother of sophomore Carmen Holtby, was particularly indignant about Laipson’s treatment of the issue: “Why on earth does the provost feel that chipping away at the only key study facility for the students could ever be justified? Makes this parent think that the students’ education isn’t really very high on his list of priorities.”

Jared Weiss (current sophomore), one of the only commenters siding with the administration, writes, “I hope that the alumni reading this will rethink their criticisms. I know that you too are all well-meaning and are looking out for us students, but in general, it is not best to criticize somebody or something that you do not fully understand.” This smacks of the same condescending paternal tone that Laipson uses in his article, and also implies the same misconception about students’ complaints about the administration; any criticism about or decisive organization and action against authority figures is not merely insolence. It is an effort to generate some kind of reaction, make the higher-ups aware of inner workings of the body that they supposedly govern, and create dialogue about relevant issues. If we are to have mutual understanding, through honest non-evasive dialogue, then maybe both parties will be able to more fully understand each other and come to some kind of constructive compromise. Upholding the principle of sanctity and immunity of administrative opinion will only lead to further power-struggles and miscommunication, and certainly will not produce any results in favor of student interest.

I personally wrote an email to Laipson one Saturday night after dinner, saying that I was thinking of him because dinner had just ended and this would ordinarily be the time that I go to the library to study for a few hours but I realized that I could not. I told him that on a college campus, the library is the last resource that you should skimp on for budgeting reasons. It’s insulting to have this basic, essential need cut off from students on the weekend – a time when, despite Laipson’s assertions that it is a low-traffic time for the library, the majority of cramming is done. It is true that there are other places on campus to study, especially for non-freshmen (all dorms except the tri-dorms have isolated study rooms), but you have to search for quiet sanctuaries if you do not have access to these rooms. The Student Union is obviously not a quiet study space, and other buildings on campus close well before midnight. Darcy addressed this issue in a comment on the article: “As a recent alumn, I know exactly why students reacted so poorly to the library being closed; the past few years have brought a constant erosion of space for students… Every year, we came back with fewer and fewer collective spaces.” Another thing that hasn’t been discussed much at all in this controversy is the resource of the actual books in the library; these are essential resources for study and college life in general.

The fact remains that there has been no believably honest statement released about why the college is unable to hire another person to fill the vacant position on library staff, or why they are not at least looking to remedy the situation. Despite student efforts, there has yet to be a mutually respectful discussion with the administration about this issue. At least Peter Laipson cannot be quite as contented with himself and his ability to “say yes when you can so you can say no when you have to” after the backlash that his article has received. 

Beethoven Sonatas: Concert Review


In an endurance test through a career-spanning collection of Beethoven’s sonatas – from 1796 to 1815 – Peter Wispelwey (cellist) and Lois Shapiro (pianist) commanded a relatively full house of classical concertgoers in the McConnell last Sunday afternoon. Despite the overall seniority of the audience, the program notes seem to be geared toward Simon’s Rock students. In an overweeningly bloated run-on sentence to rival anything from a Soph Sem paper, it begins with: “Many consider Beethoven to have been a visionary – along with Freud, Darwin, and Marx – who significantly shaped our sense of ourselves as ‘Human’: i.e., beings endowed with a rich and complex inner life, and a Will, capable of reflection as well as action in the world.”  There follows a description of each piece, with intimate historical and structural anecdote, written by Shapiro herself. Her philosophical insights into the music are wonderfully perplexing; about Sonata in G min, Op. 5 No. 2, she writes, “The music is seemingly trying to come to terms with its somber destiny and, throughout, Beethoven exploits the protean potential of Classical sonata form to masterfully delineate a process of dramatic ‘becoming’.”

This level of emotional investment and excitement in the work is easily perceived in Shapiro and Wispelwey’s wonderfully subtle theatricality onstage. Wispelwey held growling low notes steadily sustained until the very end of his bow, dispelled at a touch with a jettison of brief, yipping high notes. He arched his neck, shook his head open-mouthed, and flung up his hands at the end of a particularly well-punctuating phrase. His partner, Shapiro, kept her eyes riveted to the music while the rest of her body gave little jolts, tensely crouched onto the piano bench, jerking and punctuating the phrases along with Wispelwey, both entranced and vibrating to the consternated moody indigestion of the great Beethoven.

There is a slow, heavy opium cloud of silence suspended between the music; hands fly up, arch, poise, and begin again. Arch, poise, retreat; the slow, liquid fall of arms retreating from the forefront of sound – the edge of the keys, the end of the bow. The end of a movement. The pair bow and smile, retreat offstage for a few moments, and there is that awkward circumstance of the page-turner left sitting alone onstage without any act to present to the audience. She smiles tensely and ducks behind a painted-black rampart on the stage until Wispelwey and Shapiro re-emerge. Wispelwey snaps a few hairs from his bow as needed, settles in, Shapiro nods to him, and they begin. This shuffle is played out between each sonata.

The program constituted the complete Beethoven sonatas, which are: Sonata No. 1 in F, Op. 5, No. 1 (1796); Sonata No. 2 in G min, Op. 5, No. 2 (1796); Sonata No. 4 in C, Op. 102, No. 1 (1815) [“ineffably luminous”, as Shapiro describes it]; Sonata No. 5 in D, Op. 102, No. 2 (1815); and Sonata No. 3 in A, Op. 69 (1808). Shapiro’s characterization of the music truly cannot be matched for its enthusiasm and passion, and is a fitting epitaph to the concert: “What ensues – the sometimes grainy, even coarse, but ultimately radiant and exalted fugue that culminates the entire piece – is perhaps Beethoven’s music metaphor for a Phoenix rising up out of the ashes: the difficult and exacting, yet exhilarating, process of self-invention.”