Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Occupy Burbania?

Sometimes it feels like two worlds doesn't it?  Folks who have participated in the protests  at the various "Occupies" do not, for the most part, actually sleep there.  We come in from our various lives when we can.  We bring ourselves, our voices, our children, our food and water.  We do our part (and blog incessantly).  Then we go home.

Now some folks no doubt go back to communities where people are curious about what is going on at the occupation.  Maybe there are even people going in and coming out at various times throughout the week.  One non-geographic community I am a part of is exactly like this.  That would be the loose association of liberal clergy all across this nation who have embraced the new movement.  In Burbania, though, interest and understanding are harder to come by.  We go into the city by train or car, passing full soccer fields and busy shopping districts.  Then we come out and it is as if we had never left.

I think we have a challenge in getting to the folks who live in suburban America.  Suburbs (particularly past the "second ring" of 'burbs that wrap a major municipality) are inward-looking places.  They have their own (usually very local) issues, their own interests and concerns.  It is easy out here to forget the suffering of other people.  In fact, the culture in some ways encourages us to do just that.  In many parts of the 'burbs things like unemployment and homelessness are balanced by worries about which kid gets the big part in the school play, who scores the winning goal, who has cleaned up the fall leaves...and who has not.

Still, there is no point in complaining unless you are going to do something about it.  The first step, I think, is to identify some of the challenges that exist in getting the word out and helping people understand what the movement is about.  The place to begin is with cultural issues.  There are certain streams in our lives that make it difficult for Burbanians to relate to the Occupy movement.  Actually, they exist in each of us regardless of our geographical location.  When I list them it might make sense for us to consider how they play in our lives.  Do we embrace them?  Do we struggle to keep them in perspective?  Do we ignore (and therefore unreflectively integrate) them?  I for, one, have noticed my reaction to these streams changes over time.

Good Order: The suburbs are a place where structure is given a great deal of authority.  "Good" suburbs are places where people feel they have a great deal of control over their environment.  "Bad" suburbs are--not surprisingly--the opposite.  A "bad" suburb has too much of the city in it or it is a little too country.  The goal, it seems, is to approximate Mayberry as much as possible (kids, ask your parents).  I know it looks like it is rural in a sound-stage kind of way.  But it isn't.  The goal is closeness and closedness.  That is what people mean when they celebrate how "everybody knows each other".  There is a place for everyone we know...and everyone has their place.

Occupy is not about order.  It is about disturbing that order so that people can look at things differently.  Chaos is something we see in the city (diverse populations, traffic, crime) and in the country (weather, nature, and, yes, diverse populations again).  If you live in a place where good order and social stratification are basic building blocks of society, this chaos is frightening.  We can, and do, fixate on side issues that then loom large in our minds.  Is the park clean?  Did somebody step on the plantings?  Did someone really spit on someone else?  Why is everyone yelling?

The Aspirational 1%:  Not everyone who sides with the 1% are themselves wealthy.   As we know, there are many folks in that 1% who side with the 99%.  Why then, wouldn't it also go the other way?  There is a stream in our culture--often unexamined--that declares the good (even just) life to be the pursuit of as much wealth as possible.  These folks can be found in all strata of middle and upper-class 'burbs.  It is part of life.  People's parents and grandparents believed it, too.  The rules are simple and we all know them.  It is better to own than to rent.  It is better to live in a "good" suburb than a "bad" one. You must trade up in cars and houses regularly or be left behind. Your job need not be one that returns anything back to society, nor do you need to contribute your time and money in other ways.  If you make enough, then some lemon bars for the PTO every once in a while (along with assistant coaching) should cover your social obligations.  Particularly if you obey the law.

Occupy attracts a different group of people.  I already mentioned the clergy.  We are not alone, though, are we?  Teachers spring to mind as a much abused group in this category, but there are others.  The problem is that if your view is that what you make is what you are worth than it must also be true that there is something wrong with people who make less.  It is a challenge to the Burbanian model that literally does not compute.  There are people, for example, who honestly believe that folks are protesting so that they personally can get a job.  In this aspirational stream there is no concept of a fleet of boats being lifted together.  No understanding of union in its broadest sense.  No wonder the message seems so vague to some observers.

Busyness: I don't even know why I bother with this one.  If you live in Burbania, you know what I mean.  We are on a roll the minute we get up until the minute we get to bed.  Because of this we don't always have the time to examine and reflect.  We cannot stop even if it means missing the most important social movement in the last decade.  I am not judging, believe me, I know how hard it can be to get out of work and realize that for the next four hours you will be a catering and bus service for the fam and after that...you will go back to work for a couple hours.

What we need is clear communication.  We need ways to find out what is happening "out there" (in my case about 15 miles away) that are clear and at least somewhat accurate.  This brings us to yet one more stream...

Poor Communication: As I mentioned earlier, the 'burbs tend to look inward.  We are worried about our lawns and our kids.  Past that things become hard to understand.  Now, this isn't to say that there aren't millions of us who are interested in the world around us and trying to do the right thing.  The fact is, we do go in to the city to protest and we do engage in a vast number of activities in our community to make the world more just.  That said, it is hard to learn about the world outside the suburbs, particularly about Occupy.   This has to do with the weak information stream that we get from the press.

Here is an example.  This Saturday I participated in a march in Boston that had thousands of people.  I mean, it was HUGE.  We started up on the historic Common by Park Street Station.  Then we worked out way through the Financial District to Dewey Square where the encampment is.  We made a lot of noise.  We stopped traffic.  However, press coverage was...light.  It turns out Deval Patrick (our governor) decided he needed some Occupy glow and went down with his coffee to stroll around the encampment while nothing else was going on.  That was the story of the weekend.  Patrick talking to handful of people in a fairly empty tent city.  Unless you were in Boston that day, you might get the impression the movement was a rather ho-hum affair.  The reality was far different.  As I have mentioned in an earlier post, we have seen the same thing around the demographics of participants.  According to the regular press, everyone is an unemployed student.

The press, by its own admission, was slow to notice Occupy Wall Street and then the rest of the movement.  They have also been, by its own admission, slow to figure out how to cover the event.  Many articles are defensive reports on how there aren't any demands.  We are making their job hard and it bothers them, so they say the movement is complicated.  In reality it isn't all that complicated.  There is a fairly steady and consistent economic critique.  Also, there is some good modeling of an alternate democratic process in how the movement runs.  Yes, there are specific demands in certain areas that vary.  Any movement this large will be like that.  It isn't a problem, but it is chaotic, egalitarian, and at times hard to describe in a sound bite.

It should be noted that one of the ways around the information gap is the internet.  I get a great deal of news that way.  On Facebook I have "liked" the Occupy movements in Boston, New York (Wall Street), Worcester, Bangor, and Providence.  I also get updates from friends and acquaintances in each of these places and in many others.  I read articles (pro-, con-, and mixed) that are easy to find.  Still, for many folks social networking is just email-with-pictures and blogging is a mystery.  For them other solutions need to be found.

Occupy the 'burbs...in a way.  I am thinking that the mission of occupiers who go in to the city and then come out is a simple one.  We need to talk.  We need to bring up in friendly suburban ways that we went to the march.  We need to give people opportunities to discuss in ways that make them comfortable.  Mostly, though, we need to give the movement a face that our neighbors recognize 'cause we're not all that bad.

The question then becomes where we do these things.  That is up to you.  I see people at the kids' schools.  I see them picking up and dropping off.  There isn't a lot of time, but I do try to let them know where I have been.  I also see people at church.  Church is a good place for discussions, actually.  It is part of our mission to come together as a congregation.  It is also a place that naturally attracts people looking for something more in their lives.  Church people expect to resist the inward-looking streams.  I believe they hope that we will help them do that.

These places may not work for you, of course.  I think the important point, though, is to remember that the real work isn't walk around with a sign.  The real work is changing the world for the better.

Good luck.  Keep the Faith.

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