The “Act” in “Activism”

11 11 2011

One of my all time favorite movies is The Departed.  I could go on for an entire blog about why I think it’s not only Martin Scorsese’s best work, but ranks high among any film ever created. But that is material for another post.

As Frank Costello proves, appearances aren't the whole story.

In the film, Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) asks Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), “Do you want to be a cop, or do you want to pretend to be a cop?  It’s a simple question.  A lot of guys just want to pretend to be cops.  Gun, badge, pretend they’re on TV.”  It’s a question I want to pose to many people involved in the Occupy Wall Street protests (and affiliated “Occupy” protests all over the country).  Do you want to be activists, or do you want to appear to be activists?  A lot of people just want to appear to be activists.  Sleep in a tent, smoke some weed, chant about how some fat cats have “got to go.”

Like Queenan, I am challenging those involved in Occupy Wall Street to do something to change the situation, not just make a big noise about it.  Costigan has to be thrown out of the force, be convicted of a crime, then fall in as a criminal with Boston kingpin Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson).  He has to not be the hero.  In fact, he doesn’t even succeed in bringing down Costello.  However, by denying his own glory, he provides the conditions in which justice can be served.

Occupy Wall Street (and Boise, and Portland, and Olympia, etc.) appears to be activist.  It’s very public, very apparent, and very eye catching.  While corporate zombies and pandas against police brutality appear to be grand statements, they are little more than that:  statements.  It is only in sustained and focused action and organization that any tangible change will come from these protests.  For that, the activists need to take off the costumes, stop the posturing, and get down to the business of electing the people who best represent their interests, promoting the causes they hold dear, and raising funds to raise awareness of those not convinced by buckets and costumes.  They have to not be heroes.  They have to take action outside  of notoriety.

This was taken at an Occupy Boise march during October. Photo: Lexy Leahy

I have volunteered at Treasure Valley Community Television for seven years, and I am deeply committed to its mission to provide a forum for non-commercial access to television broadcast and video equipment to all members of the community.  This provides the freedom of speech in a very pure form—unmitigated by corporate interests who seek ratings in return for funding through advertising.  This free speech is not limited to cable television—we stream online 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  What’s more, community producers have access to video equipment they can use to put their own video content online—on vlogs or YouTube or wherever might best serve them.  These community members have access to equipment that most of them can’t afford.  I count myself among one of those. We have been providing a method to “Occupy” television—to combat the messages of corp0rate interests on their own turf, for ten years.  We’ve been doing this since long before the term “occupy” was applied to this kind of action.

Tonight, TVCTV is holding an on-air fundraiser to help to buoy the station in these trying economic times.  It will air from 7 to 9pm Mountain Time, and will be in the form of a talent competition.  Acts will perform for 15 minutes, and viewers can “vote” for their favorites by donating in their names.  In the end, the act with the most money collected will win 20% of the total amount raised.  The winner, of course, is beside the point.  The real winners of this fundraiser are the members of the Treasure Valley Community, who will continue to have this forum for their unencumbered free speech.  The acts that are competing are the real activists here–but they won’t appear to be activists.

Watch the fundraiser here:  TVCTV Online  Donate with a credit card by phone at (208) 343-1100; or using paypal at the website; or in person by coming to the station at 6225 W Overland in Boise.


Semiotics, Fashion, and ‘The 99%’

21 10 2011

“70% of what people react to [is] how you look; and 20% is about how you sound; and only 10% is what you say.” — Eddie Izzard, Dress to Kill, 1999

As a transvestite stand-up comedian, Eddie Izzard should know a thing or two about the importance of appearance. As humans, our primary method of perception is through sight. We are also a species that seeks meaning in the things we experience. Our ancestors turned to religion to explain the mysteries of the world, and we continue to seek the meanings of our everyday experiences. For us, what we see tells us something because it means something. The signs we see tell us just as much as the words we read or the speech we hear, and in many cases, even more.

Semiotics is the study of signs. Ferdinand de Saussure defines a sign as consisting of two parts: the signifier and the signified. The signifier is the part of the sign we see (or read, or hear). The letters “m-a-r-m-o-t,” put together, are the signifier “marmot.” The signified is what we understand that signifier to mean. The signifier is “marmot,” and the signified is “medium-sized, furry rodent.” A red octagon on the side of the road is the signifier, its meaning is that cars should stop at that point on the road.

Words and road signs are not the only methods of signification. Everything we see is a sign, we attach meaning to parts of existence we might not even be aware of as we are doing it. Our appearances are ready and apparent signs that others use to evaluate who we are. From our dress to our hairstyles to our posture, we make choices that align us with certain groups of society, which I will refer to as “tribes.”

The tribe in 'Hair' is readily identifiable.

In contemporary American culture, it is perhaps easiest to associate the term “tribe” with fans of specific sports teams. They will paint themselves the team’s colors, they will wear jerseys and other team-license clothing, laden with logos. Each tribe is distinct from other tribes—one wears red, another wears black; one wears foam blocks of cheese on their heads, another holds their hands up with the index and pinky fingers extended to imitate longhorns.

Of course, tribes exist in other venues as well. In the 1960s, men with long hair, flowing clothing and sandals were easily identified as hippies. In the 1990s, men with long, dyed-black hair, flowing black jackets and high leather boots with multiple buckles were easily identified as “Goths.” In assigning those identifications to these individuals, a multitude of other assumptions can be made. As a hippie, we assume that the man from the 1960s listens to The Grateful Dead, smokes marijuana, and enjoys casual sex. As a Goth, we assume that the man from the 1990s listens to The Cure and Nine Inch Nails, drinks red drinks with frilly names like “The Vampire’s Kiss,” and is obsessed with the occult. We attach connotations to these men that go along with our classifications of them: the hippie is lazy, the Goth is apathetic.

While outsiders make generalizations based on appearance, those who choose the appearance are identifying with many of those generalizations already.

The assumptions and connotations we make from our primary sensory intake—sight—dictate how we then understand any other signs we find in the person. Anything they say is colored by our attitude of them as a hippie or Goth or yuppie or hipster or “outdoorsy person” or jock or whatever. Our attitude about any action they might make is seen through the lens of our own classification of them. We might dismiss a political point of the hippie as being to simplistic, idealistic, or liberal. We might presume that the Goth works at Burger King because he’s too lazy or dumb to go to college. Maybe the person we’ve classified as a hippie is making a political point in support of the policies of Richard Nixon. Maybe the Goth has a master’s degree. While our opinions of people can and do change as we get to know them as individuals, the initial impression made by our visual assessment is long-lasting.

When Eddie Izzard first introduces the idea that ”70% of what people react to [is] how you look; and 20% is about how you sound; and only 10% is what you say,” he is talking about the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner. If you look like you’re into it, and you sound booming or impressive, it won’t matter if you forget the words. He brings back the idea when pointing out that John F. Kennedy’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner,” statement would technically be translated to him saying he was a pastry, not a citizen of Berlin. But the audience was supportive. He looked presidential, he was standing at a podium, he sounded passionate and confident—the actual words were of little consequence in the understanding of the meaning.

70% how you look, 20% how you sound, 10% what you say

In order for a person to be a truly successful in getting across their desired point—in transmitting the meaning that they mean to communicate—they must take into account more than just their speaking points. Everything about their appearance is taken into account by their audience in evaluation. In the world of Slam Poetry, the scores are supposedly given for the individual performance. However, the understanding of that poem is colored as much—more—by the poet’s dress, posture, gestures, hairstyle, and cleanliness as it is the spoken words of the poem. When the dress and behavior line up with the purpose of the words, the poet can accurately communicate what she had originally intended.

The protesters involved in Occupy Wall Street come from a large cross-section of society—from many different tribes. Their demographic, like their message, is passionate but not necessarily unified. The very first story from a major news outlet that I heard was a radio interview on NPR. The interviewer was asking questions about the meaning behind the protests of one man who was part of a small band of people dressed as “corporate zombies.” The zombies were described in detail, and the man answered all questions in-character, as a zombie. He made statements like, “Must… get… more… money… Never enough!”

The end result was that the story came across less as hard news or even an informational interview, but as a personal interest piece. “What are these crazy kids up to? Dressing like zombies? How fun!” It seemed like something you’d see at the end of the local news telecast—a waterskiing squirrel or an old lady who taught her dog to bark John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Some see this as deliberate omission or censorship by the “mainstream media” (a term I don’t like to use). The interviewer seems to have deliberately picked one of the more campy groups involved in the protests in order to dismiss them overall as frivolous or without any real substance—it’s just costume games and play-acting.

But I think there’s more to this episode than that. The interviewer, even though the format was radio, wanted something that was a strong visual image. It’s 70% how you look. The zombies caught her eye, the descriptions of the zombies provide a visual to create in the mind of the listener. The zombies had her attention, and subsequently she had mine. Perhaps the person who was interviewed made a mistake in continuing the satire. Once he had our attention, he could have dropped the act and given a more plainspoken explanation. The 70% was completed, and the remaining 30%, the sound and the statement, could have been less theatrical. Of course, I can make this statement from 2,500 miles away and in hindsight. Chances are, I would have approached the interview like the zombie did—wanting my look to line up with my speech and my words.

The Occupy Wall Street protests are operating, arguably successfully, within the 70-20-10 ratio of appearance to sound to speech. The groups are relatively large, peaceful and spreading to towns all across the country. Perhaps the most unified of the visuals for these protests are the photos of people holding hand-made signs explaining why they are part of “The 99%.” In these photos, there is no sound: they are images and words. They are purely visual, capitalizing on the primacy of role of sight communication. While the action that goes with understanding is still to come, they certainly have my attention.

Mark Zuckerberg and Troy Davis

23 09 2011

Karl Marx famously stated that “religion is the opiate of the masses.”  By this, he meant that the institution of religion keeps the masses satiated and compliant to the will of those in power—those with the capital, those whose ultimate goal was profit above all else. Clement Greenberg had similar ideas about kitsch (though he would be appalled to be so closely linked to Marx). Kitsch satisfies the uncultured, the uneducated, and can be used by those in power to manipulate the opinions and will of the people to their own ends.  Walter Benjamin saw similar potential in entertainment, specifically in film—both Benjamin and Greenberg saw the way Hitler used propaganda and mass-appeal to his own ends as examples of entertainment, rather than religion, as the opiate of the 20th Century masses.

“Entertainment” as such is a bit more difficult to pin down in the age of simulacra, pastiche, and the hyperreal.  It has become ubiquitous and constant in American culture—the rise of the smart phone has brought the power of the internet into the palm of your hand.  Yet this power is used more often to play Scrabble with friends or fiddle around on Facebook or Twitter. One never has to wait to be entertained by an inane post from a friend, a Star Wars/kitten meme, or an insipid 140-character rant from a B-list celebrity or athlete.  Even while waiting in line at the movie theater to be entertained, we seek entertainment from our phones.

The infinite power of the internet... at its best.

The power of Facebook is both greater and less than it is purported to be, either by media outlets or by its own self-promotion.  There was fanfare and congratulations over the role the social media site played in the Arab Spring, with much media attention centered on its use in Egypt.  “Facebook made democracy possible in an oppressed country,” seems to be the underlying attitude of many.  But Facebook did not liberate Egypt:  Egyptians did.  Surely, there was some communication between protesters that did take place on the site, but it was the protests and actions taken by the people, and their resistance against being put down by force, that ultimately resulted in regime change.

Still, the perception of Facebook as the ambassador of democracy to a troubled region has led to an inflated sense of both pride and confidence among Americans. Since the ideology of democracy is at the core of our identity (i.e. “Democracy is Good”), and Facebook helped bring democracy to the Middle East, then Facebook is an example of democracy at its finest.  This, of course, is not true.

Facebook was invented, and is only possible, in a country that holds the Freedom of Speech in high regard.  Facebook is not a democracy, it is a corporation—a private enterprise.  The content placed on Facebook is the sole property of Facebook itself, which can censor anything it chooses (so far, it has chosen not to censor and has been banned in China since 2009 as a result). It can also make changes however it pleases, regardless of what its users may think about the changes.  This week has seen a major change to the layout of the site, with some new features added, and has brought the “wrath” of its customers, with countless angry posts (on Facebook) complaining and demanding a change back.  Mark Zuckerberg is not going to change it back.

This twerp's a billionaire. Do you honestly believe he gives a crap about what you think?

This is not the first time Facebook has made changes, and not the first time its users have been upset.  In the end, by and large, the users don’t leave.  There was an outcry over rules changes in 2009 that ultimately did pressure a reversal of stance by the website.  However, as far back as 2006, the “Students Against Facebook News Feed” group pressured the site to give some control to users to “opt out” of the news feed feature.  In 2009, those controls were removed.  In 2010, nobody was complaining about their lack of control of the news feed.  A year ago, the site made a gradual change to a “New Profile,” that initially seemed voluntary, until the “New Profile” was the only option.

What is dangerous is that Facebook provides the illusion of democracy outside of itself.  Jean Baudrillard made similar statements about the hyperreality of Disneyland.  Baudrillard is not concerned with the fiction that Disneyland presents (i.e. a cleaned-up version of American Main Street), but its function as a “deterrence machine… It’s meant to be an infantile world, in order to make us believe that the adults are elsewhere, in the ‘real’ world, and to conceal the fact that real childishness is everywhere.”  For Baudrillard, the fiction of Disneyland allows us to think that the real world is just that—real.  When, for him it is hyperreal (especially Los Angeles):  a series of images and simulacra.

Facebook is not a democracy. However, the use of Facebook, even when acknowledging that it is an autocracy, allows users to believe that democracy is real outside of Facebook.  The ubiquity of the site—the fact that so many people use it—make it seem as if it is the perfect vehicle to enact democracy, even if it isn’t one itself.  However, this ubiquity feeds the notion that enacting democracy can be as simple as posting a link or a status or a profile picture.  “I’m communicating with so many people,” seems to be the thought, “of course this will make a difference.”  Posting on the internet, without any real-world action, is lazy activism.  It is akin to wearing a sandwich board on the sidewalk, shouting through a megaphone.

The same day Facebook users were writing outraged posts over the new layout, convicted murderer Troy Davis was put to death in Georgia.  The execution was controversial, not just because of the fact that it was an execution, but because many of the witnesses who had testified in the trial had changed or recanted their testimony.  Yet, through all the appeals and Supreme Court hearing requests, the verdict remained unchanged.

There was plenty of Facebook traffic regarding the case.  Many, many of my Facebook friends posted messages of hope for a stay or a pardon, dismay at the fact that the execution was carried out, and scoldings of the people posting about Facebook while a man who may have been innocent was put to death.

The similarity of the Facebook and Troy Davis posts struck me.  In a week, or a month, or a year, who will remember what the old Facebook layout even looked like?  Can you remember the layout in 2009?  Two days after the changes, I see no posts complaining about the layout, when it seemed to be all anyone talked about on Wednesday.  Those so passionately posting about Troy Davis are today posting about their writing, their workdays, their plans for the weekend.  There is no mention of injustice.  There are no links to websites organizing protests against capital punishment.  I am not saying there is no Facebook activity regarding Troy Davis—there are numerous pages and posts—I am saying that the traffic in my circle of friends has very little to do with the case two days after the execution.

This image puts the issues into perspective, but it highlights the limits of Facebook activism (I found this image on Facebook).

Facebook provides the illusion, not necessarily of democracy, but of involvement.  You can post, you can have your say, you can feel like you’ve been a part of something.  Then you can go back to your own life, back to your minutiae, back to being entertained.  When speech is not followed up with action, nothing changes.  When nothing changes, the powerful maintain power over the masses—whether it is Mark Zuckerberg, the State of Georgia, or a dictator in the Middle East.

As an Epilogue, I must say that I believe in the power of the Freedom of Speech, and I believe that Facebook (or, say, blogs) can act as a key communication tool to foment change—to act as the spark of activism.  But the key to activism is action—which takes work in real life, not just online.  I am curious to hear how people go about following up their internet communication with action, especially from those who may be rightfully angry about my dismissal of posts regarding Troy Davis.

The Nostalgia of 9/11

9 09 2011

Here we are nearing the middle of September, a time when, once again, we start to see a buildup in cultural production—television programming, radio interviews, news commentary, etc.—centered around the topic of remembering the attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.  This year, marking the tenth anniversary of the event, has the familiar commemorative speeches, memorial services and monument dedications that we have come to expect.

The further away we get from the date of those attacks, and the more memorializing that happens concerning them, the less impact the events seem to have.  The iconic images are, by now, quite familiar—the video shots of planes hitting the towers, the collapse of each, almost in slow motion, the people fleeing from the onrushing cloud of dust and debris, the thousands walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, the photo of the firemen raising a flag on a damaged and twisted flagpole.  The repetition of those images, especially over time, begins to obscure our own personal memories, our own personal experiences, of that day.

Jean Baudrillard argues that the attacks, to most of the world, were in fact a non-event.  I was living in Spokane, Washington, nowhere near New York City, Pennsylvania, or the Pentagon.  My experience of that day was through the images, not in the events themselves.  The attacks did not really happen to me.  But in a hyperreal world, “factual” experience isn’t the end of the story.  While the physical attacks had no bearing on my experience, the symbol of the attacks did.  The images that were repeated over and over again that day, and in the weeks and months that followed, on television, radio (if  you’ll remember, all radio stations switched to whatever news-format they were affiliated with for about a week), and the internet.  The images were re-born in conversations between friends, family, and acquaintances.  The violence did not happen to us, but the symbol of violence did.  As Baudrillard states, “Only symbolic violence is generative of singularity.”  Rather than having a pluralistic existence—each person with their own experience and understanding of any given topic—our collective experience is now singular.  Nine-eleven didn’t physically happen to me, so it’s not real, but it is real. It’s more real than real.  It’s hyper-real.

But in the ten years since, the hyperreality of the attacks seems to be fading into something else.  As the vicarious (for most of us) experience fades into memory, the singularity of that symbolic violence is shifting into one of nostalgia.  The events as historic fact are replaced by our contemporary ideas about that history as it reflects our own time.  Nostalgia films of, say, the 1950s aren’t about the ‘50s.  They are about how we view the ‘50s from 2011.

The 1950s scenes in Back to the Future don't show us the 1950s. They show us the 1950s as seen from the 1980s.

We’ve seen this nostalgia as early as the 2008 Presidential campaign, which included many candidates using the shorthand for the attacks (“Nine-eleven”) to invoke the sense of urgency or unity or the collective shock of that day.  The term “nine-eleven” no longer just refers to the day and attacks, but to everything that went with them and to the two resulting wars and nearly ten years of erosion of civil liberties.  What happens with this nostalgia is that details become muted and forgotten, and we end up molding whatever we are waxing nostalgic about into something we want to see—to a story we can understand and wrap our heads around.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
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This morning I listened to a radio interview of a man who carried a woman bound to a wheelchair down some 68 floors of one of the towers on the day of the attacks.  He was labeled a hero, but in subsequent years, slid into survivor’s (or hero’s) guilt and general cynicism.  He looked around the United States in the years after the attacks and saw the petty strife, the cultural fixation on celebrity trivialities, and the partisan political divide seemingly splitting the country in two.  He longed for the America of the time immediately following the attacks, “Where we treated each other like neighbors,” the kind of attitude, as suggested by the interviewer, that led him to offer to help this woman he did not know in the first place.

Certainly, there was the appearance of national unity after the attacks.  Signs hung from freeway overpasses expressing sympathy for those in New York.  Flags hung outside every house in sight.  People waited for hours to donate blood on September 12, just to try to do something to help.  The symbols of unity were abundant, but division abounded as well.  Many were still angry, skeptical, and suspicious of George W. Bush, who had been granted the presidency by a Supreme Court decision which, to some, bordered on illegal.  Within communities, fear and paranoia led to brutal attacks on Muslim (and presumed-Muslim) citizens.  Fear led to post offices and federal buildings blockaded from city traffic.  In Boise, a haz-mat team was called due to suspicious white dust, feared to be anthrax, on the steps of the post office.  It turned out to be flour placed there to help direct a local running club on their course. The flags were still flying, but the supposed sense of unity and “neighborhood” was, in actuality, suspicion.

To look back at September 11th, 2001 and view it as a time of unity in comparison to the contemporary political divide is nostalgia.  The view is not of the historical time period, but what one wants that time period to have been that then acts as an example of what the present “should” be.  Perhaps nostalgia is inevitable.  As time passes and memories fade, the repeated symbols of any given time or event become re-purposed, gain new meaning from the reality (or hyperreality) from which they are being viewed.  The goal for many regarding the attacks is to “never forget.”  The repetition of the images keeps us from forgetting, but it also contributes to the memory changing.

Sources:  Baudrillard, Jean.  “The Gift of Death.” originally published in Le Monde, Nov. 3, 2001

Here and Now (radio show).  “A Reluctant 9/11 Hero Looks Back.”  Airdate:  Sept. 9, 2011


22 07 2011

On a day like today, it is hard for me to justify engaging in something so seemingly-frivolous as art and deconstructionist analysis of the minutia of popular culture.  Today I can’t stop thinking about the tragic and horrific events that took place in Oslo, Norway.  As I type this, the price of this attack has been 87 lives and unknown injured.  As I type this, one man is in custody as a suspect, and authorities seem to believe this was all a result of his actions alone.  Today has been described as Norway’s Sept. 11, in that the nations collective innocence (or, perhaps more accurately, sense of safety) is lost.  I was in contact with a Norwegian cousin today who described the series of emotions that ran the same course as mine on that fall day in 2001—the rumors and confusion, the anger at an unknown attacker or attackers, the frustration with countrymen jumping to conclusions and targeting a race and religion, and her own frustration with her own anger at those countrymen.

I am tempted to describe this as Norway’s Oklahoma City, in that it seems to be the actions of a single person resulting in a massive death-toll of innocent people.  That, however, would be a mistake.  Little has been released about the man, and while he seems to have acted alone, the investigation is unfinished.  His motives are unknown, and any proclamation resembling a definitive judgement is premature.  And yet, in a time with instant access to news, opinion comes just as fast—possibly faster.  In a hyper-heated US political climate, a friend I have great respect for is already drawing links between this attack and right-wing extremism in the United States, citing a web source linking the attacker to “right wing extremism (“Oslo Terrorist Tied to Right Wing Extremism,” Little Green Footballs).”  The coincidence of today also including a breakdown in party negotiations regarding the US debt ceiling, and the partisan rancor that has led up to and will no doubt follow this, led to the connection.  For someone leaning toward more Progressive politics in America, the Right Wing seems unreasonable, unpredictable, and extreme.  A connection to terror is in no way justified.

Unabomber Ted Kaczynski saw himself as politically motivated, but was in no way tied to any organized political movement.  Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh had similar ideas about himself.  Both were mentally unstable.  The same with the more recent Arizona shooter Jared Lee Laughner, though, while his mental illness is apparent, his political justification is not.  In fact, to connect any of these solitary terrorists with a greater right-wing political ideology is as dangerous and as prejudicial, as connecting Islamic terrorists with the entire religion of Islam and therefore all Muslims.  Both are justifications based on fear, and both greatly damage any healing that can come out of these tragedies.

The images of today’s events in Oslo have moved me to grief and sorrow.  My sympathy, desire to help, and frustration with my inability to do so are similar to my feelings about the citizens of New York on September 11, 2001.  Anger is understandable, but generalized anger, whether toward a political ideology or a religious faith, is dangerous and counterproductive.  So rather than wallow in anger mired in our own politics, let us as Americans focus on the victims and the country of Norway, as we did with New York and the US ten years ago.  We spent hours in lines waiting to give blood on September twelfth.  We might not need to give physical blood tomorrow, but we can give the blood of our empathy, of our support, and of our resolve to rebuild the sense of safety for an entire country.

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