How I’ve Changed Since Moving to New York City
Living in Zomerica
I started out and made my name as an activist in Alabama, where the left is deeply influenced by Martin Luther King Jr. I always spoke in the language of Biblical and moral imperatives, sometimes overtly, very much in the tradition of the Southern left, and I even had the chance to speak at Martin Luther King’s church in Montgomery (click for article and photo of that experience). I’m currently working on a memoir that details this part of my life, how I grew up in foggy South Alabama and became a successful activist. It opens on my speech in Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. So, from the beginning, I feel a gap between me and left politics nationally; I come from a vastly different place than most people involved in politics.
That gap is now a chasm. After I moved to New York City in August 2008, the economy went belly up, and I saw every aspect of the world change. New York City’s hospitals began to crumble in a serious way. Several important hospitals closed. The state rehab hospital I was stuck in until September 10th, 2009, will close in 2014 and the patients they don’t move to the new location in Harlem—probably around 2,000 people out in the cold (by my own math) because of less available space—will be screwed. Living in this facility, the fact that most of my fellow patients had no hope of ever getting out, that the system is never going to respond, that I got out due to LUCK, was very clear to me.
For a time in fall 2008, it seemed the bad actors that built an elaborate house of cards atop mortgage scams and derivatives fraud would face the consequences of their actions, and, after going through bankruptcy as their victims had to, would finally make way for a new generation of financial professionals who would re-build. Instead, the Democratic party-run Congress gave the bad actors trillions, so an awful system can continue to hurt the American people. Constituents went ballistic; naturally, calls and letters were 100-1 opposed to TARP. Initially it was voted down in the House, right-wingers from Texas had the most impassioned arguments against this shocking, bald-faced corporate welfare. Then Vice President Cheney swooped in, lobbyists and their millions came knocking, and TARP passed overwhelmingly. Former IMF chief economist Simon Johnson characterized this as a “quiet coup.” That corporate influence could override the will of the people, and so quickly, indicated to me that FDR’s nightmare, private entities becoming more powerful than the state, was here.
Unhappy events abroad have retaught us two simple truths about the liberty of a democratic people. The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic State itself. That, in its essence, is fascism — ownership of government by an individual, by a group or by any other controlling private power.
The second truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if its business system does not provide employment and produce and distribute goods in such a way as to sustain an acceptable standard of living. Both lessons hit home. Among us today a concentration of private power without equal in history is growing.
— President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Simple Truths message to Congress (April 29, 1938)
I had always thought of government having enormous potential to be an instrument for all Americans, we the people, doing things together that we can’t do as individuals; after all, civil rights legislation triggered a tectonic shift in Alabama. But there I was, in a state hospital on the island in the East River named after FDR, realizing that everything had changed. The U.S. experiment trying to have a democracy and unrestrained influence of plutocrats over elections simultaneously was over; the transformation into corporate state, by which I mean government of the corporation, by the corporation, for the corporation, was complete. The corporate class has utterly monopolized the levers of power via campaign finance; government will not be an engine of good for the foreseeable future. This was a very difficult conclusion for me to come to, I want government to be a change agent, but the conclusion became unavoidable.
The state is such a marionette, it props up banks that were already exsanguinated by malfeasance and mismanagement; instead of shuttering dead banks, the marionette pumps in billions and billions, creating zombie banks. These zombie banks are a new and disturbing sight in America, insolvent and decayed, but remaining open thanks to government largesse. They take deposits, but no longer function as banks in the traditional sense; they don’t do loans or extend lines of credit to small businesses, but they may eat other banks and turn them into zombie banks. TARP wasn’t temporary as promised. It’s still reanimating zombie banks, and since the continued aid isn’t reviving the banks, I wonder if the purpose isn’t simply funneling wealth upwards to the puppet masters, the banks’ primary role to be conduits.
We also have zombie financial firms, zombie real estate, zombie schools, zombie hospitals. Too many of us have become zomericans.
A few months after that, I applied for affordable housing. I got a rejection letter back about 60 days later. It said that the Section 8 list had been closed since 2006, and “your application has been destroyed.” Great feeling.
In the Fiscal Cliff Bill, Goldman Sachs got subsidized housing for their building in Manhattan (triple tax exempt, no local, state or federal taxes, plus they get Liberty Bonds, only supposed to be for WTC reconstruction). Not kidding. Even in a time of supposed austerity. This alone has really changed my thinking. For details, see Naked Capitalism | Eight Corporate Subsidies in the Fiscal Cliff Bill
If it weren’t for a series of serendipitous and bizarre events that made it possible to move in with Alejandra (my partner), who has affordable housing through a different, local, program, I’d still be in the facility. I’ve lived here since September 10th 2009, in Lower Manhattan. I am bizarrely lucky, and know it. And I’m very grateful.
We live very close to Zuccotti, so we observed the Occupy Wall Street movement closely. Alejandra and I are part of the Occupy “disability caucus,” trying to bring disability issues to the attention of the wider movement. Just holding meetings where people with disabilities can talk openly about their predicament following the collapse of the economy has been very valuable; our concerns never see the light of day in media and political circles. And contrary to media portrayals, the old economic configuration is gone and never coming back.
Occupy Wall Street is a reaction to the economic system dying, its apparent murder via mismanagement, malfeasance and predation shoving it off the cliff. There’s no complex list of demands. It’s a protest of the crimes of the bad actors of Wall Street, the resulting collapse of the economy and the attendant suffering, and our political system’s inability to even see the problem. The Occupiers tend to be students or recent grads who bought into the American dream, got into debt pursuing advanced degrees, then realized the economy had capsized and there were no jobs with a living wage, much less jobs in their fields they expected would provide them desperately needed upward mobility and loan repayment. A lot of dreams shattered on the iceberg of the 2008 economic collapse. The concerns expressed by Occupy Wall Street are completely legitimate.
The response to Occupy by the NYPD, the FBI, the rest of our agencies was awful. It removed any doubt I had that we have a corporate state, because the security establishment (NYPD, FBI, etc.) responded to protests against the obviously harmful practices of corporations like Goldman Sachs as a direct attack on the state itself. Though it was called Occupy Wall Street, the NYPD never let the protesters get near Wall Street around the NYSE building; they cordoned off the area around it and sent a very clear and violent message whenever Occupiers tried——in non-violent marches—to get past the barricade. Several times, I saw Occupiers, by the thousands—amazingly strong numbers, cross in front of our building to get closer to Wall Street. The most violent responses from the NYPD came in these moments, that’s when the tear gas and rubber bullets came out, that’s when you have officers breaking heads and mounted police blocking streets with highly coordinated Roman-style formations. I learned a lot from this. It seemed very important to protect the people in and around the NYSE from even seeing the protests. They also—in the final weeks of the occupations in Lower Manhattan—had a new satellite-dish-looking technology that disabled cell phones, cameras, and other digital devices, so the more violent incidents couldn’t be photographed or documented in any way.
Both the NYPD and FBI have acknowledged the non-violence of Occupy Wall Street. The movement has hewed to Martin Luther King’s teachings of non-violent civil disobedience almost flawlessly. But simultaneously the FBI labeled it a terrorist group. Heavily censored FBI memos (released in response to a FOIA request, but not until the media lull between Christmas and New Year’s to reduce exposure) revealed a lot about the government response to Occupy. The JTTF (Joint Terrorism Task Force) was deeply involved in monitoring the movement and writing memos about “the threat” to banks and other financial institutions; the memos’ tone treats the corporations like they’re the customers. Then there’s the infamous assassination memo, revealing the FBI knew an outside group in Texas planned to kill Occupy “leaders” with suppressed sniper rifles “if deemed necessary.” The memos provide a rare, disturbing look into the thinking of our security establishment, which, by the way, hasn’t lifted a finger to investigate ridiculously obvious malfeasance on Wall Street. For an excellent analysis of these memos, and links to the documents themselves, see: Naked Capitalism | Banks Deeply Involved in FBI-Coordinated Suppression of “Terrorist” Occupy Wall Street
A lot of things, especially the economy, have changed dramatically for the worse since autumn 2008. The system has decayed to a frightening degree. But it isn’t that I hate the rich. I don’t. And I don’t blame capitalism; capitalism at its best, when not corrupted beyond all recognition, encourages lower prices and better services through competition. Giant corporate welfare troughs like TARP and ObamaCare, requiring every American to buy health insurance from select companies, enshrining certain banks by name as “Too Big To Fail,” these things have nothing to do with capitalism. This is Mussolini-style corporatism. Corporatism is the problem. The segment of the corporate class that’s monopolized the Congress and executive branch with big money, the estimated .05% of Americans who max out at the legal limit for campaign contributions each year, these guys are the problem, not “the rich” writ large. As I document in a recent post, we’re now in the America of Congressman Bribo and the House of Bribasentatives. We’ve allowed a tiny, shadowy minority to monopolize the levers of power, which makes impossible the aim of our founding fathers, for, as Federalist No. 52 put it, a Congress “dependent upon the People alone.” (Source) Since we have allowed this, which isn’t a “conspiracy,” but rather total spinelessness and capitulation of our craven political class in the face of a corporate class that very openly pursues its self-interest with more and more sophisticated methods, we increasingly enter FDR’s nightmare, and the attendant “acceptable standard of living” problems that he mentioned.
My thinking has changed dramatically. Back in Alabama, surrounded by GOP wins in the 94% Soviet-range, I thought electing Democrats en masse would put us on a better path, or at least help a little via incremental reforms (I was always skeptical of the powerful). Now, I realize movements are everything. Now, the Left gets most of my resentment. They have capitulated and betrayed their own to such an extent, for so long, monstrosities like ObamaCare, which, at its core is $400 billion in subsidies to the dying private health insurance industry, are embraced as “liberal.” ObamaCare is not progressive; it takes us backward. It doesn’t address any of the Medicaid issues I have fought to bring to light over the years. Instead, it is almost solely about federal cash propping up zombie health insurance, as jobs increasingly no longer provide health insurance. We’ve entered an economy based on freelancing and short-term contracts, and I’m not saying that it is necessarily bad in-and-of-itself, but it’s the reality and instead of addressing the reality, ObamaCare addresses employer health insurance plans that are increasingly a relic of the 20th century economy. The economic configuration we grew up with is GONE. ObamaCare is like inventing a better 8-track player in 2012, there is a major disconnect from reality.
Ultimately there is no power to narcissistic, self-indulgent thinking. Authentic thinking originates with an encounter with the world.
— Abraham Joshua Heschel, in Ch. 5 of Who Is Man? (1965)
The disconnect between the liberal establishment and the realities for the rest of us has increasingly widened as the Left courts the same donors at the top of the corporate food chain, the .05%. That disconnect upsets me the most. It means they’re not encountering the world, not seeing the painful realities and unintended consequences of their policies. The hermetically-sealed bubble they live in is obvious when liberal pundits are baffled by protests. “Why are they protesting?” they ask, as debt, unemployment, and hunger reach unprecedented levels.
Death of the Liberal Class by Chris Hedges presents overwhelming evidence of the Left’s “death.” Obama is particularly appalling. I felt some guarded optimism at first, but what faith I had that Obama would help quickly evaporated; I don’t see anything that this administration has done as great. The few times Obama admits there are serious problems under his administration of happy optimistic shiny wonderfulness, like when he did the Q&A on immigration on Univision, he acts powerless to lead, or even affect change in any of the federal agencies that answer to him. Has corporate influence neutered him that thoroughly?
Here are my own observations: I’ve never heard Obama say the words “poor” or “poor people.” There’s no connection to Martin Luther King’s legacy or his poor people’s campaign. The newspeak-esque language that’s used is always “middle class families,” or “working families,” which is not only bloodless and doesn’t acknowledge the suffering out there, but also sends the message “don’t worry corporate lobbyists, we only want to help families that work, not those pitiful lazy wretches who can’t find work.” Never is the disintegration of the family that’s happened in-tandem with economic disintegration mentioned. Though the homeless heavily dotted the streets of Washington DC in 2003 when I was there, and it must be exponentially worse post-collapse, Obama can’t find the strength to say the word “poor,” much less mention the homeless people he must pass in the presidential limousine.
The fact that the left media meekly pleads with Obama: The Nation | White House Meeting with Low-Income Americans? —Obama has not met meaningfully, not once, with poor people or anti-poverty activists (but the author still can’t say the P-word!) and Salon | Will Obama cave on Social Security? shows how far we’ve fallen.
The bubble seems so impenetrable, it’s looking like the Orwellian caste system: there’s the Inner Party: the 0.5%, the segment that controls the elections, the president, Congress, and the corporate class, then the Outer Party: the craven media, political parties, left and right organizations, universities, etc., who are recognizable by their eagerness to serve and provide cover to those within the Inner Party so they maintain the pillowy cocoon of economic safety during the present instability. Then, there’s everyone else. I’m reluctant to call us proles, since there’s still a lot of wealth in our ranks, even an upper-middle-class, but we don’t have much voice and the Outer and Inner Party aren’t very aware of our concerns.
The collapse of The Left is so complete that Mussolini-style corporatism is now the “center,” and pursued doggedly by the Obama and his administration of corporate courtiers. I now blame The Left more than the GOP, much more than the Tea Party, who are responding to the economic collapse and bailout culture same as Occupy. I wish Occupy and the Tea Party could band together and fight the bailouts that are continuing.
We need to look at HOW it got so bad. The corporate culture is suspect #1. It bombards us constantly like the TVs in Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four you can never turn off. Turn that $#!T off. Too often, the messages coming through are “buy our newest product, and [subtext] buy this thing, it’s all you need to be happy! You don’t need community, church, a moral core, the Bible, etc etc etc.” The messages coming in via mass corporate culture are usually the exact opposite of the inherent value of human life, humans having inherent value and sanctity and dignity, instead, the only value lies in what you produce, your income, or how ruthless you are. Not to mention the pornification of everything; if I had a daughter, I would burn the TV. Several rabbis have pointed out, the dominant mass media culture is closer to the ancient Greek culture that glorified the body and beauty over everything else, than Jewish and Christian cultures that glorified spiritual and intellectual ability. The messages we’ve become acculturated with, have resulted in our loosening our grip on the moral imperatives we must hold fast to….
We’ve lost a lot. Movements which forced President Nixon to sign important legislation like the Clean Water Act, OSHA, etc., they’re gone now. The labor movement is mostly gone.
What do we need to do to fight back against corporate dominance, national decay, and the zombification of everything? First, we need a realistic assessment of where we are and how bad it’s gotten. Then, we have to, on the macro level, build new regional and national movements that articulate the concerns of the poor and disabled, in language that flows from the conscience and moral imperatives that can’t be denied. Only radical love can beat radical evil; I’m for radical love. Occupy Wall Street needs to come back into the streets, but much more is needed. We need the kind of movements that are so powerful, the corporate state has to respond, like Solidarity in 1980s Poland or Tahrir Square in Egypt. Movements are everything.
On the micro level, we must rebuild community. Americans have too often bought into the cult of the self, that if you just buy the new product, you don’t need others. We’ve been lulled into isolation, buying the idea that government will take care of those in need: the poor, the disabled, the elderly. Even when Medicare and Medicaid did provide for the material needs of people like me, which is less and less true today, there’s a need for social and spiritual connection. I myself really need community. We have to rebuild communities that provide those connections. Churches and synagogues need to be a part of this effort, and need to articulate the moral imperatives that give movements their power.
Here’s an example of the moral thinking movements need, from Catholic theologian Paul Tillich:
…When Augustine equates the Kingdom of God with the church and the Kingdom of Satan with the great world empires, he is partly right and partly wrong. He is right in asserting that in principle the church is the representative of the Kingdom of God; he is wrong in overlooking the fact…that the demonic powers can penetrate into the church itself, both in its doctrine and institutions. He is right to the extent in which he emphasizes the demonic element in every political structure of power…
— Paul Tillich in Theology of Peace
…The technical development is irreversible and adjustment is necessary in every society, especially in a mass society. The person as a person can preserve himself only by a partial non-participation in the objectifying structures of technical society. But he can withdraw even partially only if he has a place to which to withdraw.
…It is the task of the Church, especially of its theology, to describe the place of withdrawal, mainly the “religious reservation.” It is the task of active groups within and on the boundary line of the Church to show the possibilities of attack, to participate in it wherever it is made and to be ready to lead it if necessary.
…Christian action must find a way to save the person in the industrial society.
— Paul Tillich, The Person in a Technical Society
We have to find the strength to build very new movements that articulate the reality the poor face. We can’t wait for a moribund Congress and Goldman Sachs-controlled presidency to do it. Without national renewal, we face national collapse.
Looking forward to your comments,
Recommended reading: The Working Poor: Invisible in America by David K. Shipler
The Death of the Liberal Class by Chris Hedges
Feed your brain a long-form meal, not a sound-bite