A parable.

A man lives in an apartment building that pays a super to maintain the plumbing system, and one day he goes into his kitchen and sees water leaking onto the floor. He calls building management, and they say, “Just put a bucket under it and some tape on it, and don’t worry,” and he does. As the days go by, the leak continues, even as he works at emptying the bucket; but eventually, while he’s at work, the bucket overflows. He calls the building, and they say they’ll send someone, but they don’t. And the leak continues, and the floor becomes warped, and mildew grows on it, so he spends hours scrubbing but has to eventually start eating in his bedroom. And the leak continues, raining down into the apartment below, so he makes more and more furious phone calls, and they do nothing. And eventually he says he will withhold his rent, and they do not answer. And then he does withhold rent, and they sue him for back rent, the damaged floor in his apartment, the damaged ceiling below, the costs of the phone calls he made to them, and the salaries of the people who answered the phones, as well as the cost of the invisible plumber.

And, finally, after he makes a counter-suit and several calls to newspapers and the city, they send a plumber, and he appears and says, “What do you want me to do?”
The man replies, “Uh, fix that big leak.”
“Yeah, but how?” asks the plumber. “If you can’t tell me how you want me to fix the leak, what do you expect me to do?”
The man looks at him and says: “I don’t need to know how to fix the leak. All I need to know is that the floor is wet and you are the plumber.”


Kol Nidre Occupies Wall Street

This past Friday hundreds of people gathered on Liberty Street in downtown Manhattan -- right across Broadway from Occupy Wall St. -- and held a religious ceremony, one mandated by their tradition and conjoined by them with the protest across the street. This article in The Forward reflects the event very well -- the most communal and positive and still serious service I've perhaps ever attended, the most honest and vital as well.

In these days, what we call the High Holidays, Jews reflect on the deeds of the past year, consider their own shortcomings and rejoice in the limitless possibilities of the new year, to live clean, honest, and conscious lives in the days to come -- with a focus on community and humanitarianism.

The fact that on Yom Kippur we confess and ask forgiveness from G-d as a community -- not as individuals -- for a long list of sins we, personally, may not have committed has always struck me as important. This year, at this service, I realized this is what the Occupy movement helps us to do -- because of course the step after confessing our faults as a community is to take steps as a community to remedy those faults. We have allowed this system to grow up, so now we must, first, acknowledge the faults and, second, truly address them.

Friday's service, utilizing Occupy's 'human microphone' since it had no permit for technological sound amplification, was the full Kol Nidre, during which the community renounces all lightly made vows, oaths created under duress and, according to one of the leaders of the service, those vows we make through bad habits. We ask for a clean slate for the new year in which we hope to focus on only the most important and holy actions. During the ceremony, the gathered crowd also made the traditional expiation for a long list of transgressions -- one amended for the occasion, which included the line:
For failing to defend Israel.

This felt a little awkward in the circumstances, until it was followed immediately by:
And for failing to defend Palestine.

Along these lines, in the only other alteration of the service, one of leaders asked that, instead of chanting the traditional Aleynu prayer, members of the gathered call out a social commitment they wanted to make for the new year and all those who wished to take it up also called out "Aleynu". It proved a particularly rousing, engaging, and moving moment -- again, particularly when two women called in unison, something akin to: "I will take responsibility for the treatment of Palestine" and people cheered.

I asked an orthodox couple at the ceremony about this, about my surprise that this certainly religious group would prove so focused on social justice and openly declare a position that few would associate with religiously observant American Jews.

She looked at me and said, "If you actually read Torah, you have to be like that."

Occupy Sukkot begins today at Occupy Wall Street with the building of a "civil disobedient sukkah" in observance of the "eight-day festival of Sukkot [which] reminds us of the abundance we have, and how very fragile that abundance is". Check out the information here.


If you see something, say something.

As the Occupy movement continues to grow and to spread, we see the growth also of a kind of intangible value to the protests, what stands side-by-side, almost invisibly, with the declared demands and causes, what underlies perhaps the most important facet of the uprisings' significance: The appearance of true and widespread dissent in the United States of America.

While the great gripe the protests voice about the American economic-political system -- this one in which we fire teachers (and cut after-school programs and arts and sports and AP classes) while funding several wars, erase pensions while giving tax money to the banks who gambled away those pensions, and so on -- remains clear to many of us, many have noted how shocking and important it is that people are simply saying: Enough. I'm pissed off, and I'm pissed of enough to plant myself in the street next to other people who are pissed off about the same shit.

At the very least, the Occupy movement has shattered the apathy of many Americans. Indeed, the people who have taken to the streets around the country are doing a favor for all of us who cling to our little crumbs of the pie and try to keep our eyes closed. They have altered the inertia; they have woken up many of us and hopefully will continue to wake up more, so that we stop allowing the rich and powerful and greedy to lead us around by our noses to toil in their service.

Paul Krugman -- Nobel Prize winner in Economics and professor of Economics and International Affairs at Princeton University -- wrote in yesterday's New York Times a very clear piece about the effects of the protests on the mindsets of "wealthy Americans who benefit hugely from a system rigged in their favor" as seen by how they "react with hysteria to anyone who points out just how rigged the system is". He points out the overreacting, panicked terms some politicians, finance figures, and commentators have been using towards the protests. He contends they do so because they don't like seeing themselves called out and "realize, deep down, how morally indefensible their position is."

Because that's partially what we have at stake here, a moral issue -- do we want the United States to be a place where each is out for him/herself and will sell his grandmother -- or, rather, yours (Social Security/Medicare...) to get ahead? That has never been our creed, though it has often, if not always, been our practice.

This reminds me of Christopher Hitchens's Letters to a Young Contrarian and the more recent (and hot-selling) short essay by Stéphane Hessel, a 94-year-old who fought the Nazis and participated in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, called in English Time for Outrage!. These publications share an admiration of the importance -- indeed the fundamental importance -- of questioning the status quo, of rocking the boat, of contradicting the party line, of expressing your anger.

This, in part, is what the Occupy movement is already doing for us: It opens a space for dialogue and contemplating -- and perhaps acting on -- ways to create a better society. It gives us a chance. At the least it should cause us to examine ourselves; at the most, who knows?


Who Are the 99%?: a return to vitality

Ok. It seems I’ve returned to blogging. (Please forgive my rust.) I haven’t written since election day 2008; in fact, since his acceptance speech that night, I have not watched Barack Obama at all. I have barely followed any news with any specificity. I knew ahead of time I couldn’t handle it. I knew reality would never match up with the glorious dreams many of us shared that night, that the events that would transpire in our country and, indeed, around the world, would prove horrific to stomach. Until the horror landed on my doorstep. Until I could ignore it no longer. And—until Hope rode again along with it. I give thanks that this has happened, is happening. It is no mystical occurrence. It’s come borne on the backs of Americans (a term I apply to any person within the borders of this nation, regardless of immigration status), namely those who have ‘occupied’ Wall Street over the last few weeks.

Most of us have done our best to ignore them or discredit them – Who are “they”? What do they want? What’s their plan? What are their demands?

Most of the mainstream media coverage – though this seems to be changing, a touch, perhaps – has followed this sheepish, cynical, and demeaning line of attack. My friends are mostly artists and graduate students. Many of them have asked me the same questions. My family, liberals, too. Maybe we all figured this country's hallmark protest movement here (the “hippies”) failed and deserved to. Maybe we’re too scared to risk what little we have. Maybe we’re afraid the “protestors” are… right. We miss the point.

The point is not: What is their structure? Who is the leader? What is his five-year plan? What will they really accomplish?

The point is rather: We – different, dis-unified, dissimilar – have come together to stand up and alter the tide that’s sweeping us all under. To shake our society and force it to break the inertia that deadens us and leads us to follow, like lemmings, our fellow fools over the cliff to a dismal demise. It's true that "they" have no one demand nor a clear list of demands, but reflects not the competency of the protestors but rather the very reason for protest: so many things need changing in this country that we cannot attack one item at a time (see health care), but rather, we must alter the underlying nature of our system. We must change ourselves.

In that sense, I don’t care what the goals are. The act itself is what matters to me. That we not only awaken and recognize the dismal state we’re in but that we see we’re not the only ones and that we can come together. That we stand up not only for ourselves but for each other – for those who cannot or will not stand up, too. That we at least put up a (nonviolent) fight.

Can we by pure accumulation of mass, change the gravity field that currently pins us down? Where government by the (rich) people and for the (corporations that now count as) people does not continue to work its own self-serving agenda unimpeded by the People it manipulates to keep running its con-game? Yes, I understand this is how government often works, but let’s not make it so easy for them, alright?

When Goldman-Sachs is the biggest bank on Wall St. and Goldman-Sachs alumni serve at top levels in the U.S. Government, we have a problem. When people are losing their life savings and college savings when Lehman Brothers collapses, but Lehman Brothers employees get huge sums of taxpayer money at the same time, we have a problem. When, in the midst of high unemployment, massive personal debt, and irrational credit-interest rates, Credit Suisse North America reports great earnings, we have a problem. Pulitzer Prize-winner Chris Hedges lays this out rather nicely in this rather contentious interview.

I have, to a large degree, chosen my own situation – barely part-time employment, no health care, a significant credit-card debt. As things go, I will never buy a house or be able to retire. But I chose it only by not going to business school or law school – by following my own dream, the one promised me by this country. I chose it by not sticking to a job – for a Wall Street bank – that had no job security and provided actually no benefits. I chose it by not sticking with a job that made me desperately miserable, had no chance for advancement, and provided meager health care and no dental coverage. I chose it by dedicating myself to the full-time job of artist – in addition to the part-time job of substitute teacher and private tutor, since to actually earn a living as an artist in this society is largely absurd.

Still, I could choose law school. I could choose finance. Med school. Corporate marketing. Telecommunications consulting. If I took out massive loans. I’m, relatively, in a position to do that – ignoring that it’s never taken me less than eight months of searching to get a ‘real’ job. So could -- assuming somehow they could pay for it and could gain admission -- all the “kids” who have joined this burgeoning movement, all of the people who marched yesterday. Of course, if we did, our country would have no: schools, cars, restaurants, garbage collection, running water, electricity, roads, buildings or motherfucking art. (Among a lot of other things.) There would be little where people did things for each other and not just for themselves. I don’t want to live in that place. I suspect neither do you.

So, if you want to question the motives of the people around the country stirring up trouble, just think for a moment. Remember that, unless you are part of the top 1% richest Americans, they’re actually enduring your scorn to help you.

So, the 99% aren’t a well running organization. Considering how our political institutions function in this country, I say: Good. So, they have not articulated their demands to your liking – that’s part of the point. Their mere presence should remind the rest of us that we need to think outside the boxes to which we’ve become accustomed. We need to wake up. So, they have no plan beyond staying in the street as long as it takes for a tidal change in sentiment across this nation that maybe can lead to tangible changes. I’m okay with that. As we saw with the election of Barack Obama and also with the toppling of Mubarak in Egypt, among other events, the act of uniting people and changing something in and for ourselves can be its own victory, no matter what follows.

Labels: , , , ,


God Bless Us

For all those who made calls and knocked doors, for all those who left home and worked in the campaign, for all those who sent money, for all those who talked to a friend or neighbor, for all those who wrote, for all those who prayed, for all those who went to the polls, thank you. We the people have tonight taken an unprecedented step, opening a door to a wide open future for us and for the world. Let's make it great.


Sloppy Democracy: A Tale of Election Woe

I set out for the polls at noon with a light heart that now has sunken. At the end of short walk in sunshine of a glorious autumn day, I arrived at my designated polling place -- the Peter Roujet Middle School in Brooklyn -- and approached the information table, excited to exercise this most sacred of American duties. I told the woman my address; she looked in her materials and told me to get in line for the 20th district. I did.

Immediately in front of me in line were three young, Latino Brooklynites, voting for the first time. They were excited about it. But when, after about 15 minutes, they reached the table to get their voter cards, they found that not one of them was in the list of registered voters. They were offered paper affidavit ballots instead. They refused, thoroughly unconvinced that such ballots would be counted. They stormed out. During the minor fracas, a middle-aged Latino came to back the young men, saying he'd been turned down the previous year -- despite his having lived in the same house in that neighborhood for the past 30 years.

"They're trying to keep out votes out," he said, half-yelling. "But that's okay. The black man is still gonna win. White man trying it again."

This rattled me. Then I stepped to the table.

"He's in the wrong place. He should be at 15."
"The information table sent me here."
"She'll take you over to the front of the line."

Another poll worker appeared and led me to the front of the massively long line for district 15 and offered me to the three workers there. They told us to wait. She told me, "I'll be right back." She never reappeared. The workers at the table snapped at me, told me I had to get in the back of the line. I explained the situation -- they'd already heard it from the worker who'd brought me to them. They resisted. Told me I was being unfair. I started to step towards the back of the line, when one of them said, "Fine. I'll take care of you after we take three more people."

After two people were processed another poll worker approached the table.

"The computer fixed now?" they asked him.
"Seems to be."
"Take him," they said, laughing and gesturing to me. "Take him. You, go with him."
"Just go with him. You want to vote on the computer?"
"Why? And is it even working?"
"It's fine. It's fine," he told me. "If you don't like it you can come back and get in line."

What was this? Testing mattresses?

I went with him. Woodrow, a very affable, elderly African-American, seated me at a small desk with slight blinders on the sides and fed a voting form into the machine on the desk.

He said, "You can read, right? Just read the screen. Ask me if you have any questions. It will be fine."

I looked at the machine, made by a company called AutoMark. I realized it was essentially an automated way to fill out a 'handwritten' affidavit ballot, the kind given to people who don't appear on the list of registered voters. Would my vote go into that pile? Would it then even get counted? And would this happen just because I'd been sent to the wrong line and the poll workers didn't want to deal with me?

I stepped easily through the two-way, linear, touch-screen process. It was a simple system that notified you if you tried to move onto the next race without having looked at all the choices for the previous one. And it double checked if you tried to skip a race altogether. But I balked at the multiple listings for some of the candidates. What happens if I voted for Obama/Biden as the Working Families Party? Would that vote stick to the people or the party? Why were Obama/Biden Democrats at the top of the list, followed by three listings for McCain/Palin (Republican/Conservative/Independence)? And why were those four the only choices visible on the first page?

When I finished making my selections, the machine proffered a summary page to review my choices before finalizing them. It then spit the form back out, now blacked in at the appropriate places. Woodrow handed me an envelope -- just like those I'd seen given to the affidavit voters. I filled out my name and address on the envelope, dated and signed it. But what to do about the section that said I "MUST" mark one of three choices, explaining why I was filling an affidavit ballot? I wasn't. None of the choices applied to me.

Woodrow said, "Just write 'BMD'. Even though it says you must choose one, you don't have to."
I thought: Isn't that a surefire way to have my vote disqualified?

I questioned him about it, but he smiled and tried to reassure me. I folded my printout, sealed it in the envelope, after folding it awkwardly because it didn't fit, and handed it back to him. He told me then he'd take it back over to the table, the one with the workers who'd snubbed me.

Dazed, I stood in the hallway of the middle school for a few minutes. What had just happened? When I managed to wander out, I started talking to a young man who had used the computer right after me. He had no idea what had just happened.

He said, "The guy just came over to the line and asked if anyone knew how to use a computer. I raised my hand, and he told me to go with him."

He seemed even less clear than I on how we'd just voted and if we'd managed to disqualify our votes unknowingly and at the hands of the poll workers.

Woodrow was helpful and honest with me. When I asked, he told me he and his wife had had a four-hour training with this BMD ("Ballot Marking Device" " I discovered when I got home and Googled it) and then had operated one during the primaries. He seemed confident. I'm less so. I hadn't even filled in a Voter Card. Would my vote be tossed in with the affidavit ballots of people not on the registered voters list? Does that mean it will be counted? Will it even get into the system? Did this particular BMD make an internal record my vote and store it on its hard-drive? Does it have a hard-drive, or was it just an easier way of marking a 'hand-marked' ballot?

Look, I know that here in Brooklyn a few votes here or there probably won't make a difference nationally. But my experience illustrates some of the grave problems with our hodgepodge election system. Even within one polling place, I witnessed at least three different forms of casting ballots, and at least minor chaos resulted. What could be the result of millions of such places, multiplying each others' errors all over the country?

I also saw three young voters storm out, possibly forever, soured on the whole idea of voting because of the inefficiencies of the system that suddenly seemed to line up with the oppressiveness they'd experienced in previous interactions with the state. And, I had just literally attached my name to my vote. So much for the privilege of the secret ballot.

Yes, this may have taken place in a district that was probably already in the bag for one candidate; but if it happens here it can happen in states with a much closer margin. Obviously, these things degrade our democracy. They depress voter turnout and threaten the chance that the will of the people really be done. This was not voter suppression (though my general impression has been that, historically, Democrats try to get more votes counted and Republicans try to get more votes discounted) but it might as well have been. It may be worse. It's our own incompetence.

Fired up! Ready to go!

Sen. Obama's final pre-vote rally last night, in Manassas, Virginia. No doubt that we need him to lead us.

First Voting Photo of the Day and God Bless Dixville Notch

A couple of you have already sent us comments about your voting experiences -- from Japan to Mississippi to New Jersey -- and if more of you feel so moved to send such things our way, we'd be honored. And if you need to vent your anxiety or share any other thoughts on this exciting, thought-filled day, please do.

Oh, and if you hadn't yet heard, at least two New Hampshire towns have chosen Sen. Obama: He won early-voting and traditionally Republican Dixville Notch, NH, 15-6. Watch the vote count here. And he took Hart's Location with 17 votes to Sen. McCain's 10.

Final Words In This World

Election Eve and I'm scared shitless. Maybe because I think polls are inaccurate, sensationalist crap. Maybe because I've never yet backed a winner for the Presidency. (Admittedly, this is only my third time voting for it.) Maybe I'm hedging my bets, so that a let-down won't hurt so hard. Maybe I'm a pessimist. But, really, I think it's this: A win by Barack Obama would be such an indescribably great and wonderful occurrence that I can't really believe it will happen.

A President Obama would mean so much -- almost, dare I say it, on a cosmic level -- that I find the possibility Nov. 5 could dawn with him as President-elect only fantasy. (What would follow an Obama inauguration on Jan. 20, 2009, is a problem for another day. I can't consider policy anymore. For now our universe is a closed system, consisting of one choice. Beyond that, nothing.)

Over the last few weeks I've found myself too sickened, too distraught, too concerned to parse my thoughts or analyze coherently enough to write, thanks to the dastardliness of Mr. McCain's campaign, during which the man sold all his principles; the deja vu of proud ignorance and rabid hatreds riled by Mrs. Palin; the overconfidence of Obama supporters; my constant dread the worst will always happen. Rather than be torn asunder and rabidly consumed by the furor of this violent, national circle jerk, now barreling into climax, I retreated.

While in hiding, I've firmed my belief that polls such as have yanked us around by our collective genitalia for the last months are bunk at their mildest and, at their harshest, severely imperil our political process. I've firmed my belief that we must have a nationally standardized voting process that ensures greater accuracy and transparency. For the Crusaders of Democracy the mechanisms of our own systems cry out embarrassingly for help. So much so that both sides in this election have vociferously called for greater diligence to prevent voter fraud (Republicans) and voter stifling (Democrats).

Yet this need for transparency must extend beyond candidate vetting and campaign finances. It must infuse the White House. And only one of the two campaigns has shown anything other than wretched disregard for transparency, truthfulness and human decency -- and it's not the one that once touted itself as the Straight-Talk Express, an engine than long ago went off the rails. America deserves better.

As we should have learned over the passed eight years, America also deserves a leader who relies more on fact and brainpower than his own arbitrary whims and fantasies. One who actually values the education so-often debated on the campaign trail.

I want a President who is smarter than I am. Someone who understands better than I how to make a government work best for its people and the world. One who is better educated and a better diplomat.

If you consider casting your vote for the guy who seems just like you (despite his several homes and numerous cars), consider this: Do you really think you should be President? If you think one guy is better to have a beer with, go drink with him, but for God's sake don't vote for him. (Anyway, he'll have more time for that drink with you if he's not busy running the country.)

Give me a public servant with a brain and with knowledge. And give me one who wants to help people -- not one who thinks war and the enforcement of a unilateral morality are the sole purposes of government. Not one who incites hatred and anger but one who values peace and co-existence, so that We the People can simply enjoy our rights to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. How do you expect a President to educate our children well, so they can compete in the world, when he did his damndest to get expelled from the institution of higher learning to which his family legacy handed him admission -- and who now mocks people who have worked hard for, earned and utilize an American education?

Electing Obama would be so great in large part because of what he represents. Not as the USA's first non-white President (though that would be historic and important) but because, despite what culture-war mongers like Sarah Palin would have you believe, he truly represents the best of America. Not only the part of it the Republican candidate for Vice President called the 'real America', but the expansive, encompassing, living, breathing, roaring underdog-mutt of a nation that we are. Obama is pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps; he represents the best of America and would best and most effectively represent us to the world -- and run our country.

After all, the Presidency is not an honor to be earned. Which candidate deserves the office more is a malignant consideration. The Presidency is not an honor. It's a job. You don't hand an old-timer the reigns of your company based on what he's given to the place. It's not an honorary position. You hand the job to the candidate who will not only represent the best of the company and stay truest to its mission but will best guide the company day-by-day towards its greatest potential. Don't vote for John McCain because he 'deserves' to be President. If you wish to truly honor his decades of service to America give him what he's earned: a rest.

In a few hours, we, the great, brash American experiment will launch ourselves onto a new vessel, in hopes it will serve us better than our current sinking wreck, as we continue our heaving and rising and plunging through ever-turbulent seas. Which of the two proffered ships will we choose to carry us onward?

Despite my raging doubts, I hope that as you read this you're visualizing your recently passed or soon-to-come trip to the voting booth and are eagerly awaiting 7 p.m. EST when the first polls close. As we sit poised on the edge of a potential turning point for our country and our time, I sit and hope that we as a nation put our collective balls on the table and take a step towards the future and not the past, a step towards change in which even I can believe.


Republican Off The Rails

I just woke up nauseous and panicked from a nightmare -- what I thought was only a nightmare at first. Then I remembered it could be real. In it, I saw hundreds of screaming people lining a small roadway, waving (poorly-made) signs, begging the candidates to stop their campaigns and fix the economy.

This is absurdity. Suddenly, Pres. Bush is feeling left out of all the excitement, so he calls an urgent press conference and requests the two Presidential candidates return to the Hill and save the day. John McCain has jumped on his horse, slung his six-shooters on his hips and is ready to ride to the rescue, eschewing Friday's Presidential debate and, hell, the entire campaign until this problem is solved. Why?

Do we really need Mr. McCain trying to dig us out of financial crisis that was already visibly underway when he was telling us "the fundamentals of the economy are still strong"? Is the man whose candidacy was bolstered at the GOP convention by Fred Thomson's mocking Democrats for worrying over the health of the economy really who we need trying to fix this mess? The man who spent his career fighting regulation on Wall Street will suddenly save the day by implementing regulations on Wall Street? Suddenly, now that Sen. McCain has finally been convinced that there's a problem with unfettered financial gambling when it imperils his campaign, everybody has to stop what they're doing? The man who, at a Republican primary debate last December, was quoted as telling reporters: "The issue of economics is not something I've understood as well as I should," McCain said.

But even so, even if we really need all our legislators involved on this immediately, why cancel the debate? Does Mr. McCain need more time to study? Can he not work on legislation for two days and then handle an hour-and-a-half debate? A President needs to be better than that.

Sen. McCain would have us believe that canceling the debate and suspending the campaign would be a selfless choice. But simply by saying that, by claiming to put politics aside to work together, Mr. McCain is making a solely self-serving political move. He bets that the American public won't see that he's just trying to use our financial woes to gain points in the polls based on his character, his willingness to sacrifice, to work out a problem everyone else has already been working on for days while he's campaigned. Sen. McCain's suggestion isn't really a suspension of the campaign, it's rather an attempt to bring the campaign to Capitol Hill. As Rep. Barney Frank said about the impending arrival of the candidates:

"We're going to have to interrupt a negotiating session tomorrow between the Democrats and Republicans on a bill where I think we are getting pretty close, and troop down to the White House for their photo op," said Frank, the House Financial Services Committee chairman. "I wish they'd checked with us."

Harold Meyerson suggests that McCain, realizing that Obama is more right on the economy than he is, will use the pressure of pseudo-bipartisanship in national crisis to erase the distinction between them in the minds of the public.

And, by avoiding debate with Sen. Obama, Sen. McCain is continuing the traditional Republican ploy of hiding from scrutiny, hiding from the people. Now, when we need to hear from it most, the so-called straight-talk express tries to slip into a dark tunnel. If the Democrats -- and we the people -- don't nail McCain's ass to the wall on this, they might as well roll over now. And that would make for a real nightmare.