#OWS: America’s Id

Those of us who believe America has been co-opted by greed and fallen victim to radical nihilism view the agitation of the 99% as the manifestation of our nation’s morality, if such a thing can possibly exist.

The police barricaded the corner of William and Pine streets in lower Manhattan, preventing the tributary of protestors who had broken off from the main throng from doubling back toward Wall Street. Cordoned off, several chose to sit in the street and accept incarceration in the name of civil disobedience.

It’s 9 a.m. on Nov. 17, the International Day of Action for the Occupy Wall Street movement. The arrests are just beginning.

I’m aware of the time because, for a moment, everything is eerily silent but for the sound of the bell from Our Lady of Victory Church tolling above us. The din of the helicopters overhead and the shouts of “Shame!” as protestors are dragged into the nearby NYPD van fade away while the bell rings for what seems like an eternity.

As the last chime echoes in the street, the cacophony returns as though someone is controlling the volume button to the soundtrack of dissent. Gradually, my eyes return to the scene unfolding in front of the church door, which bears a quote from Cardinal Spellman. It reads: “This Holy Shrine is dedicated to Our Lady of Victory in Thanksgiving for Victory won by our valiant dead, our soldier’s blood, our Country’s tears, shed to defend men’s rights and win back men’s hearts to God.”

How strange that a church, born during World War II and forged in blood, should serve as the backdrop for the nation’s symbolic struggle against the excesses of the neighborhood it calls home. America’s new Civil War is spilling onto the streets of cities throughout the country; and here, in this moment, it is raging beneath a monument to our spiritual and temperate selves.

Over the past few years, I have made no secret of my contempt for Wall Street and the insidious corporate interests that run this nation. Admiration for the Occupy Wall Street movement has gushed from my fingertips and poured onto the page, as I am perpetually amazed at the breadth and fervor of the burgeoning revolution. Being here, seeing it evolve and take shape so quickly, so dramatically, has influenced every corner of my mind. Those of us who believe America has been co-opted by greed and fallen victim to radical nihilism view the agitation of the 99% as the manifestation of our nation’s morality, if such a thing can possibly exist.

The question of morality is central to America’s struggle. We perceive ourselves as a good and righteous nation, purveyors of liberty. At times this has been the case. Often, however, our actions belie this view of ourselves, particularly during imperialistic periods of expansion. To wit, we spent the better part of the 19th century expanding our empire to its natural boundaries, squashing and annihilating the indigenous people of the continent every step of the way. Then we deified the likes of Andrew Jackson by imprinting his likeness on our currency, thus bestowing him with the greatest honor of a capitalist society. These are not the actions of a moral nation, but victories such as these in the name of Manifest Destiny have always served to rationalize our pursuit of omnipotence.

The first half of the 20th century held more promise. The country as we know it today was nearly assembled and America was finally recognized as a dominant player on the world stage. Our financial and military ascension gave weight to the Monroe Doctrine and the Roosevelt Corollary, which established complete hegemony in our hemisphere. Yet despite Teddy Roosevelt’s bellicose nature and hawkish views, his and most subsequent administrations tended toward isolationism. Between the great wars, which were seen as moral imperatives, there was work to be done at home. And during this time, America hammered out a legal, industrial and economic infrastructure that fully recognized our potential as a nation.

Internally, this approach also allowed us to focus on social issues such as equal pay and civil rights in the latter half of the century. Unfortunately, while the nation toiled away at crafting a system that recognized the rights of all of its citizens, we began behaving badly in the rest of the world. At precisely the halfway mark of the 20th century we became embroiled in the fighting in Korea. This conflict and the conjuring of bogeymen in far-off lands presaged an era of unprecedented immorality when we would conduct costly battles against phantom enemies. More precisely, it marked the beginning of the Military Industrial Complex.

In his book A People’s History of the United States Howard Zinn describes the dawn of this era as “an old lesson learned by governments: that war solves problems of control. Charles E. Wilson, the president of General Electric Corporation, was so happy about the wartime situation that he suggested a continuing alliance between business and the military for a permanent war economy.” Two million Koreans and 36,000 Americans perished in the formation of our newfound ideology, which continued into Vietnam and, most recently, in Iraq and Afghanistan. America has exported fear and death in the name of democracy but in the actual pursuit of oil and natural resources.

But our politicians did not go it alone. No one person owns these deeds. Over the past few decades the interests of Christian Fundamentalists, Wall Street tycoons, the ruling class and individuals of enormous wealth have gradually coalesced in the quest for a new world order. They are the 1%. They are the reason I’m standing almost nose-to-nose with a cop in riot gear, his club drawn and his eyes fixed on me as I chronicle the events by the church.

There are those who decry Occupy Wall Street as unpatriotic, misguided, or worse. These are understandable reactions to an uncomfortable reality.  The reality is that OWS is more than a movement to restore sanity to the financial markets and equality to our economy. OWS is a cry for help from America’s id. It is the realization that we have strayed not only from the optimistic perception of ourselves but also from what we strive to be as a country.

Ultimately this is a test of our commitment to the First Amendment. But it isn’t simply about free speech or the right to peaceably assemble. This is about the right to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” As a free, democratic society this is the penultimate failsafe, the last opportunity before total revolutionary collapse.

So as the Occupiers continue to refine their message, our political leaders would be wise to listen carefully. This is not a dress rehearsal. This is a very real battle; perhaps the first battle since World War II worthy of the inscription at Our Lady of Victory.

No More War

What now are we to do with these wars? Where will we place them in history and in our minds? How will we explain them to our children and in what context will the textbooks place them? Our leaders have painstakingly repackaged these power grabs as celebrations of democracy and assiduously sold them to the world.

The wars we fight are no longer just, only justified. This is the truth our warrior-children are coming to know and the truth we have yet to own up to as a nation.

Cinematic depictions of ongoing conflicts abroad perform poorly in the theaters and news reports of anything less thrilling than “shock and awe” fail to galvanize us as a people. Fighting has become a job. Just something we do as a country.

In the months following 9/11 Americans were compelled to thank first responders and servicemen, as well we should have. Politicians, stadium announcers and even antiwar protestors called on us to support our troops regardless of our feelings about our involvement in Iraq or Afghanistan. By now, we all know the drill. We put magnetic stickers on our cars, incorporate the Stars and Stripes into our corporate logos and are guided by a vague notion of how to behave appropriately with respect to speaking about the wars. But as the war in Afghanistan rages on, and even as the war in Iraq comes to an unceremonious close, our nation’s discussion of these conflicts is intellectually dishonest and an affront to all those who serve and sacrifice. Yet our attention span as a nation is far too short to gather a universal sentiment of disdain for war as Washington chicanery manages our expectations almost at will and throws us off the scent of discord.

The child-veteran returning home from Iraq or Afghanistan will not have to face the misplaced anger the Vietnam veterans received upon their return. Yet instead of accusing them we dishonor them by discarding them. I am old enough now to look at embarking and returning soldiers and say, my God, they’re just babies. Babies we are feeding into an incomprehensible reality. Many of them who return home are discovering there are few who even understand where they have been, let alone what they have been through. They are the walking dead who lead anachronistic existences slightly out of step with the rest of us as we go blithely about our days. There are no ticker-tape parades or statues of sailors kissing nurses; drug addiction and stress are the new realities of our young veterans.

Numbers don’t lie; they are absolute. But casualty figures omit critical aspects of combat. The numbers would indicate that we are getting better at fighting wars, or at least more efficient. The reduction in U.S. forces lost to our current wars is stunning compared to the wars of the 20th century: 58,000 U.S. soldiers lost in combat in Vietnam is exponentially greater than the nearly 6,000 lost in the past decade; this figure being further dwarfed by the nearly 400,000 men who lost their lives in World War II. But that doesn’t make these conflicts any less savage.

Those who survived Normandy or the Holocaust spoke little of it in the years following World War II, and when they did it was in hushed tones. There was a reverence toward what happened, almost shame on behalf of humanity that they were called upon to fight in order to preserve it. They carried the burden of a world gone mad and wrestled with whether or not what they had witnessed was real or even possible. Perhaps the honor of liberation assuaged the post traumatic stress of those we now refer to as the Greatest Generation—a feeling presumably absent from soldiers who fought with honor in strategic wars dishonorably plotted by politicians in North Korea, Vietnam, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq. Today, we are distracted to the point of absolution for our actions abroad so long as the numbers reflect a palatable perspective of loss.

What now are we to do with these wars? Where will we place them in history and in our minds? How will we explain them to our children and in what context will the textbooks place them? Our leaders have painstakingly repackaged these power grabs as celebrations of democracy and assiduously sold them to the world.

For my part as a citizen and a member of the media I can only apologize to our soldiers. We are grappling with our own bizarre reality of profit and loss statements, unemployment claims, and an information glut that dilutes our attention. Perhaps we, as Americans, would have grown weary of these conflicts and tapped into our outrage if the number of dead was simply larger and more tangible, gruesome as it sounds. But because we failed to harness the outrage of our citizenry to prevent profligate demagogues from leading us to war this past decade, the best we can do is continue celebrating our soldiers’ service, care for their bodies and their minds upon their return, and bring an end to senseless political wars in the future.