Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Images of Black Friday

This past Friday, in a moment of masochism, I went to the local Wal-Mart to bear witness to the horrors of Black Friday. I arrived at midnight. For some reason, there was a long 15-minute line I had to wait in--perhaps to manage just how many people could be in the store at one time.

Consumer with two TVs #1.

These people were lined up in the frozen section--not for food--but for some hot electronic item du jour. Wal-Mart management was cleverly finding ways to reduce traffic in heavily browsed areas of the store.

Consumer with two TVs #2


Consumer with two TVs #3

After that, I walked over to the Factory Outlet Mall. Shoe stores, food courts, clothes stores..

The mall crowd was much younger than the Wal-Mart crowd. Except for some minor fashion alterations, the girls looked just like the girls from my high school days, and same with the guys. Super-tight jeans, stupid looking boots, and the guys with square, athletic jaws with slightly sinister yet kinda happy-go-lucky smiles.

It was, needless to say, incredibly depressing. And while I do think there's reason to be optimistic about the Occupation Movement, I can't help but think that it's going to come to nothing when I see something like this... When you have 50 people here occupying some city plaza and 200 students demonstrating on their college campus, it's easy to believe there there is some ongoing "mass movement." But the truth is, a block away--on Wall Street in NYC or Harvard Square in Boston--people are walking around and shopping like they've always done. The country's youth are not "uprising"; most of them are walking around malls, deluded into buying mostly useless crap. 

A fifteen year old male wearing his hat to his side was inspecting jewelry for his girlfriend. A trio of young girls--who all looked the same: skinny, long brown hair, stupid boots, super tight jeans--had draped new, still-expensive clothes over their arms like slabs of meat. Outside, I had to step off the sidewalk to make room for a lady carrying three absurdly large pillow-sized bags.

The horror... The horror...

Here's an old entry I did on Black Friday.

More images of Walden Pond

I was staying with a friend in Boston for, oh, a week and a half, so I decided to buy a $12 train ticket to Concord to visit Walden Pond. (I'm currently in Western New York spending time with family.) I've been to Walden Pond before (and wrote about it here), but I've uploaded some new images below.

Here's a bronzey sculpture of Thoreau, which, for some reason, is slightly smaller than human scale--and behind the sculpture is his "replica" cabin. The original was long ago used as firewood.

The Pond. It was a pretty dreary day and I got thoroughly (or Thoreauly?) soaked when eating a banana at the site of his original cabin. No moments of transcendence, unfortunately.

Lots of rails and wire to keep foot traffic from harming the land. Supposedly it gets pretty busy here in the normal months.

Original site of cabin.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Figuring out my political ideology

UPDATE: David, over at his "Into the Woods" blog, has a reaction to my post, which you can read here.


In October of 2008 I moved into my friend’s basement in Denver. I moved there to make a little money before I went to Duke, but also to—I hoped—help Obama become our next president.

So I became a canvasser.

My job was to go door-to-door in the Denver suburbs. For the homeowners who were “on the fence,” we were trained to tell them about how Obama would create jobs, save the environment, and solve the energy crisis, among other promises we all wanted to believe were true.

I only lasted two days. I couldn’t stand the job. I hated bothering people; hated rousing them from dinner tables, hated interrupting phone conversations. They all had this “Oh, not again…” look on their faces when they saw me—the sort of look I’d normally reserve for Jehovah’s Witnesses or bums begging for change.

I only found one person “on the fence,” but I was too sheepish to thrust my opinions on a complete stranger. Walking down his porch steps, I think I said something like “maybe it’s time for a change, ya know,” hoping that he’d catch my drift and cast the tie-breaking vote that would turn Colorado blue.

While I wasn’t a canvasser anymore, I was as passionate as ever about Obama. My friend Josh and I hosted a party on election night. There were balloons and streamers. I painted my chest blue and made an elaborate chart to keep track of Senate seats.

During Obama’s acceptance speech, the camera panned over the audience. Everyone was crying. Jesse Jackson was crying. Oprah was crying. I might have been trying to hide some sorta allergic reaction going on in my eye. It was glorious.

In a moment of half-drunken, half-naked impetuousness, Josh and I sprinted through suburban Denver around midnight, victoriously hoisting “Elect Mark Udall” banners that we’d appropriated from neighbors’ yards.

Having read his books, listened to his speeches, and attended his rallies, I really did think that Obama might be the answer; that he really would “change” things for good.


Three years have passed and you don’t need me to tell you that things haven’t gotten much better. We still have an embarrassing disparity of wealth, millions of Americans without access to affordable health care, pointless wars, a warming climate, yadda yadda yadda.

And while I realize Obama has had to deal with the filibuster, Republican majorities, special interests, and everything that stands in the way of creating a better world, I’m still disappointed with the guy.

Here’s a guy who got elected because he was so skilled with rhetoric, with storytelling, with symbols, but stopped using all of the above the moment he moved into the White House. He’d presented himself to voters as an anti-establishment hero—the incorruptible Luke Skywalker—a man full of morals and mettle who’d rebel against the Darth Vaders of the world, fighting them to the death, no matter the odds. But this narrative ended the day he got elected. He negotiated. He compromised. He made deals. He started governing, but stopped leading.

I still have a sneaking suspicion that the guy is good deep down; that there’s a real progressive in there somewhere; that he really wants to be a transformative Lincoln-like leader. But whatever hope I’d once felt is gone. He can still give a helluva speech, but his words have become hollow to me, his message, empty. When I hear him speak, I am like a cuckold with his fingers in his ears, and he, the adulterous lover, whose promises I secretly wish to believe.

Why couldn’t he have taken a stand on something? Why couldn’t he have gone down swinging on an issue? I wouldn’t have cared if he’d have “lost.” I wouldn’t have cared if the initiative-of-the-day had been struck down. Just show me some backbone for God’s sake! Show me you still have ideals. Show me that you’re willing to risk great failure to achieve great success.

To quote the movie Braveheart: “Men don’t follow titles. They follow courage.” Yet it seems he’s obsessed with seeming nice; with seeming competent. But this world doesn’t need nice and competent; it needs radical and revolutionary. It needs courage.


So maybe Obama isn’t the guy to lead us to the promise land… But who is? Or better yet: What political party or ideological group is?

In order to support a group or movement, we have to be able to envision a better world. We have to see our own little utopia. And with that utopia in mind, we give our support to certain groups or parties that will hopefully get us there.

Honestly, there isn’t a political party I identify with. There’s not one group that represents my views or wants to take the country in a direction I want it to go in.

Here’s why:


For starters, I respect and agree with a lot of what libertarians believe. I, too, believe that people might be happier if they were more dependent on more natural social safety nets—like families and communities—and less on the programs of a big, faceless government. But their obsession with private property and free markets is just, well, kinda cultish and creepy, not to mention out of touch with reality.

And while I appreciate some of the benefits of a free market, I don’t see the need to worship it as if it were an infallible, do-gooding god, especially when our country is everywhere tiger-striped with the smelly skidmarks of capitalism: the inky oceans, the smoggy skies, the flaming hydrofracked water faucets.


It’s hard not to like the idea of universal education, universal health care, a vast publically-owned park system, or a government-run oil industry, not to mention economic and social equality… Yet I just can’t bring myself to wholeheartedly embrace a society that’s so governmental, so manipulated by an amorphous blob of bureaucracy that decides everything from what schools we attend, to what jobs are available, to what old folks’ homes we die in.

I guess my utopia is too individualistic, too farm-on-the-prairie, too cabin-in-the-woods for me to identify as a socialist. Having lived up in Alaska, I’ve seen how much good there is in community-based, rather than government-based, social structures.

But hoping to go back to some idyllic agrarian way of life with seven billion people on the planet is unrealistic. And while part of me wants to support the sort of libertarian initiatives that would reduce the influence of big amorphous blobs on our lives, I end up realizing that the world I wish we'd build is no more real than the forts I’d make out of bed sheets and upended couches as a boy. So, despite my dreams of rugged individualism, I can’t help but wave away the figments of my fantasies and determine that it’s probably just best to vote for the most empathetic, left-leaning politician available.

Capitalism: Republicans and Democrats

I don’t even know where to begin with Republicans. Between the adoration for big business, their lust for war, their revulsion for equal rights, their denials of manmade climate change, and their belief that man coexisted with the dinosaurs, it’s hard for me to believe I’m part of the same species, let alone citizenry, as a whole third of America.

While I tend to side with Democrats, I don’t think either party is pushing us in the direction we need to be pushed. And while Democrats have at least a couple of redeeming qualities, they, like the Republicans, still seem to accept consumer-capitalism as the end-all, be-all of economic systems. Grow, grow, grow. Spend, spend, spend. Sprawl, sprawl, sprawl. This is the two-party way. Even far left liberals like Paul Krugman think that American citizens should spend to keep the economy growing, prospering, stimulating.

For all I know, he might be right. To get back to the way things were, and the way things were going, perhaps we really do need to stop saving and start spending to “stimulate the economy.” Maybe; but I guess I don’t want to live in a country and take part in an economy where frugality, prudence, restraint, and saving are looked down upon, and where buying the latest cheap configuration of plastic crap is somehow a virtuous act.

The Occupy Movement and a Third Party

I guess if I could make a party it would be the “Sustainability Party,” or the “Zero-Growth Party,” or the “Amish Party”—some party that shall address the most important, pressing, civilization-ending issues that most all of these other groups sweep under the rug.

I think that maybe the best thing that could come out of the Occupation Movement is a viable third party. Maybe the country’s not ready to accept the Amish way of life, but a group of anti-corporate, pro-people leaders that could, at worst, influence the greater political discussion and, at best, actually represent real people, would do a lot of good. (Personally, I’d rather the Occupiers storm the Capitol with a list of demands, but this will do, too.)

Zuccotti has been cleared out and there are murmurings the movement is coming to an end. But getting kicked out of Zuccotti should mean very little. It was inevitable. Besides, movements of the past didn’t need to continuously occupy space. And if their eviction is the end of the movement, then, well, the movement simply wasn’t meant to be.

I support the movement and hope it keeps going because the occupiers remind me I'm not alone. None of us have parties to vote for or leaders to follow. If our problems could be solved by simply voting for the right guy or gal, there’d be no reason to march downs streets and occupy places.

If McCain was in office, I’d wager that there’d be far fewer occupations, protesters, demonstrations, if any. Not because things would be better (as I think they'd be far worse), but because we’d still have hope that “our guy”—someone like Obama in a future election—would swoop down and save the day.

So it's funny how it took actually getting our guy in office to make us lose hope with our government, with our democracy, with him. We tried to get "change" with votes, not knowing, quite yet, that it would take demands.

Monday, November 7, 2011

More thoughts on OWS


Since I'm currently staying with a friend in Boston, the other day I decided to check out "Occupy Boston" in Dewey Square. It was similar to "Occupy Wall Street," but clearly more civilized, more tame, and more orderly; and clearly less raucous, less fanatical and less crazy. The tents were in orderly rows, the people looked a little cleaner, and there was far less congestion down all the walking lanes. (Then again, I was only there for twenty minutes.) It was less like the frenzied festival-like atmosphere of Wall Street, and more like, at best, an unusually enthusiastic bake sale.

While Occupy Boston looks like it has its shit together, Occupy Wall Street seemed to throb with an angry, frustrated, and (dare I say) revolutionary energy that could keep it going longer despite all its faults. And while it appears Boston doesn't suffer as much from having their ranks swelled with the disinterested and the insane, they lack that angry, sweaty, farty vibe, not to mention the symbolic importance of OWS--the absences of which might make it difficult for them to bear the challenges ahead.

I don't know what to think of this movement.

I guess I'm delighted that it's happening. For all the (mostly unfounded) criticism it gets, it's clearly, at the very least, creating awareness about our country's ridiculous disparity of wealth and corporations' role in the buying and enslaving of politicians.

But I personally won't be happy if the movement merely gets Congress to pass half-assed legislation that distributes wealth somewhat more fairly, thus placating most everyone involved until things gradually shift back to the way things are now. If our country is a house, this to me would be like adding decorative trimming while the crumbling stone foundation is neglected.

Yet I have trouble seeing how the occupation will contribute to even minor improvements.

The movement isn't angry enough. It's not big enough. It's not mobby enough. While there are occupations everywhere--and some who are doing really incredible stuff--the occupations constitute a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of each city. To get what we want, we cannot merely pester and annoy. We must frighten and overwhelm.

Among the occupiers there are plenty of homeless people who could care less about the movement. And there are those--sorta like me--who only come for the cultural experience, so they could say they were "there." But what was most telling about the state of the movement were my impressions of the "real" occupiers--the good ones. These men and women were aware and upset, but not desperate and fierce. They were smart and articulate, but not livid and determined.

I can't help but guess that creating awareness, occupying, and going on modestly-sized protests will soon become tiresome to both the occupier and media alike. And when the occupiers see that their efforts have produced no change, and when the visitors thin and the media attention wanes, they will begin to wonder if it's worth this cough, these numb hands, these grimy clothes.

Frankly, I think it's out of the occupiers' hands for now. I think things need to get far worse before this movement can realize its potential. We need a deeper depression, or a Republican president, or more egregious behavior from the powers that be. We need angrier, more determined people. We need to make young people think they're "missing out" on something big. Dissent needs to become "cool," and playing videogames for hours on end needs to be rightfully deemed slothful.

And if that happens, then we need a clear goal to strive to attain. And while there's lots of stuff messed up in the country and world right now, the movement can't be so fractured and unfocused.

My idea: If the dissidents were to swell to appropriate numbers, the occupations should relocate to  Washington, hopefully so that they're no longer an easily extinguishable rabble of scruffy-faced kids that could be snuffed out with the twist of a cop's boot heel, but an intimidating million-strong conflagration. The demand must be simple and understandable to all. And if there's anything that unites the left and right, young and old, black, brown and white, man and woman, it's to have for ourselves an actual democracy; to remove corporations, special interests, lobbyists--whatever you want to call them--from our elections. The other changes that need to be made should follow.

Things of course wouldn't be perfect. Our government would still have its faults. Not all the occupations' demands will be met. But at least with representatives chosen by the people, we will for once be able to both govern ourselves and let people with our interests in mind govern us.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Salon: My stay at Zuccotti

I'm in Salon again. I did a story about my week in Zuccotti, which you can read here.

I'm currently in Boston staying with my friend Chuck, under a deadline to finish book proposal stuff. Wish I could still be out there braving the cold, but I must first complete this personal project.