13 March 2012

#OccupyDameStreet - Commentators got to Comment

Well that was interesting. Top tip for Internet folks, if you ever want to drastically increase the amount of online comments your site receives, write a post about folks who leave online comments. My post on Saturday was reprinted on Monday over at Politico.ie, and later in the afternoon Broadsheet picked it up, so between the original post, the syndicating websites, their Facebook pages and Twitter the post generated upwards of a hundred comments (nearly one for every garda involved in the #OccupyDameStreet eviction). Even better, the majority of the comments were rational and well thought-out, even (and/or especially) when presenting a critical counter-argument.

On my ending thesis that living in the always-on Facebook age has encouraged mass conformity and social conservatism amongst Gen-Y (a deliberately provocative stance to take), there was some agreement but in the main folks suggested that all social media does is reinforce existing real-world prejudices, with one commentator on this blog saying that:
"The Facebook point is very good, and I have in fact noticed some of this to varying degrees, however, I still think it is simply strengthening these pre-existing paradigms or perspectives...I don't see enough of a change in people's core ideas in recent years to blame social medias in any way, so far as I can see all it does is just sets things in text that would otherwise have only transpired in passing conversations."
with a second anonymous commentator adding:
"If the Internetz are so perniciously conservative, explain the Arab Spring or more effective foreign implementations of Occupy and other anti-austerity movements?

The Internet and social media are force multipliers for whoever can use them the best."
while on the Politico.ie Facebook page Anna Kenny wrote:
"it was a vehicle for widespread expression during the Arab Spring and also OWS and ripple street risings, or mass dialogues. Maybe now it is time to take the dialogues off the Street and into other forms of action. Trolling is a tactic - perhaps a guerilla tactic for a virtual world with goodies and baddies depending on which side of the fence you sit. It is not anti communication - it is a form of agitation perhaps , and one of many tools used to plant opinions and advance agendas or alternate forms of info mation. some good some not so worthy. You will make of this interface what you make of it - I have found it to be very rich experience."
I've written a fair bit before about my thoughts on the Western love affair with the notion of Twitter and Facebook as being the enablers of the Arab Spring and referred back to a great article in New Left Review by Hazim Kandil who was heavily involved in the Egyptian Revolution and argued that Old Media played a much more important role than New:
"Abroad, the impression is widespread that Facebook was the leading medium in the uprising, and it was certainly critical for the younger generation in the first few days of the protests. But for most ordinary Egyptians, the talk shows were much more widely accessible. Once the uprising was under way, they would invite the demonstrators to come onto the shows, they would interview policemen, reporters, businessmen, serving as an open forum for discussion. The effect was very powerful."

- Hazim Kandil, New Left Review 68, March/April 2011
My belief is that Social Networks can disseminate knowledge at a far greater scale than ever before, so are a very powerful tool for informing people, but conversely they also enable people to feel involved with a struggle without actually having to take any actions, they encourage passive support not active, it is very much a double-edged sword. As anybody who has ever organised an event on Facebook where 1,000 people have clicked "I'm attending" will tell you, less than 10% normally show up. Online support is not the same as activism, it is more like passivism.

On Politico.ie Dec took issue with my focus on the "kids these days":
"There are plenty of really inspiring things going on in Ireland at the moment led by young people for young people. Off the top of my head and within a stones throw from the Dames Street protest: Icon Factory, Exchange, Little Green Street Gallery. The organisers of these initiatives are standing out, engaging with their locals and giving hope to other young people in ways that the Occupy movement couldn't because it lacked direction, structure and planning. Don't fall foul of the perennial obsession of the middle age, to project their failings on the youth and completely miss the positives."
This is a fair point, one I acknowledged in the original post. Some of the most committed folks at #OccupyDameStreet are between eighteen and twenty-one, and the projects Dec mentions are all fantastic initiatives. Community engagement and activism takes many forms, just because the barricades aren't teeming with twenty-somethings doesn't mean that they aren't off somewhere else doing something equally subversive/affirmative, but my main concern still remains, why all the outpouring of delight and jubilation at the eviction of Dame Street?

Some commentators like Dr_Faulk suggested the problem lies within our own national psyche:
"the conformity you discuss is compounded and encouraged by our Island mentality and lack of diverse cultural heritage"
another anonymous commentator added:
"Cynicism. Fear of commitment. Fear of failure. Class prejudices. Distrust of 'hippies'. Generational antagonisms. Failure to escape medias narrativemaking machine.Different traditions of resistance. Primarily maybe capitalist education/ zero sociological understandings of class, power relations."
while Barry on Broadsheet suggested that:
"Irish people tend to internalise a lot of the gloom going on right now... People tend to be suspicious of anyone who sticks their head above the parfait to protest. Seen as been sly and not to be trusted... People who try to make a stand are often ridiculed, and labelled as hippies, crusties, hobbos or sinners. Labels are dangerous and making broad assumptions are not helpful for civil society. Unfortunely this country is going to lose some passionate, creative and skilled citizens who want to make a positive change in society. Perhaps in no small part to the negative and conservative fear of change embedded in this society."
The spectre of emigration was also raised by an anonymous commentator on the original post here at BoomingBack:
"In my opinion, the real reason Irish youth aren't Occupying, or protesting or rioting like their brethren in Greece, Spain or the US is because huge numbers of them are in Australia, Canada or elsewhere.

If you're looking for the culprit in the case of the missing Irish radicals - don't blame the internet, blame emigration."
I have mentioned before (probably one too many times) Fintan O'Toole's thesis that the reason we haven't seen the same reaction in Ireland to our economic woes as we have in Greece is because the traditional release valve for social tension in Ireland has been emigration, that either through economic necessity, social mobility or actual deportation the best and the brightest, the most marginalized and the rabble rousers have generation after generation left our shores rather than taking a stand and trying to make things better, meaning that modern Ireland is a nation bred for passivity.

But I cannot simply pin the reactions to #OccupyDameStreet simply on a genetically-passive nation whose innate conservatism is simply reinforced by social networks, the fact is that much of what #OccupyDameStreet did, or rather the manner in which they did it, seems for many to have been a missed opportunity. On my blog Shane wrote:
"In conversations with peers over the last few days I've noticed that the attitude toward ODS was that it was not connected with the problems being faced by Irish people at present. Occupy Dame Street was not Occupy Wall Street - it did not show positivity in social reform by encouraging interaction in a less money-driven community. Rather, it was seen as having a negative, anti-establishment stance that is perhaps counter-productive to the overall idea of protesting against late capitalism. There is also a strong opposition in Irish youth to grand nationalistic movement - we can still (just about) remember the troubles in the north, and ODS's negativity certainly had a whiff of the militaristic, even if that went against their mantra.

The amount of intelligent debate about this subject, which my peers seem to be extremely well informed on, has been brilliant for me. I have seen the response to ODS's collapse as an extremely positive one, as now people who feel that they need to protest but were nervous about being bulked with a negative movement have begun to put new ideas in place, in the form of art and music events, social gatherings and just general debate and discussion.

I think ODS's major downfall was that it did not appear to represent the 99%. It only appeared to represent it's own 1% (as a friend cleverly said to me - now we can form our 98% movement and carry on in opposition to the current situation)"
On Politico.ie Dec suggested that:
"There are many reasons the Occupy DS movement failed to galvanise any of the initial support they recieved - online trolling might be in the mix somewhere, but their problems where far more fundamental. I would rank them as follows: 1) lack of any structured leadership and spokesperson to relay their message to media 2) those stupid hand signals - people wanted to protest, not be part of something cultish 3) becoming a catch-all for 'what ever you want to give out about yourself style' protesting. They needed to simplify the message - GM food and Natural Resource exploitation might good causes but people wanted to protest about the Bank bailout and the impositions Troika, not attend a whinge-fest. 4) Isolating and failing to engage with the local businesses - some of the graffiti that found it's way to the walls of Flip was pretty disgusting. 5) A small thing, but at pretty much every assembly I popped over to there was always people covering their faces with scarves - this sort of behaviour will alienate their base."
interesting points (apart from the hand signal one, I mean how could anyone hate Jazz Hands?), while on Broadsheet Pedanto, the Hilarity Man was even more direct:
"Problems with ODS:

1. That chanting. (That chanting.) Remember that? (Remember that?) it was embarrassing. (Embarrassing.)
2. No clearly defined objective.
3. No strategy to achieve anything.
4. Accommodating a grab-bag of different issues, each one alienating another tranche of potential supporters. So I have to be anti-fracking, pro-PLO, pro-Greece, anti-union, anti-EU, something about Shell, something about the Supreme Court, and on and on and on. Just pick one next time.
5. Writing in marker on the wood. Don’t vandalise my city and ask me to support you.
6. The huge arrogance of attributing every lack of support to laziness or sheeplehood or not understanding the issues.
7. Utter disorganisation, even about accepting help.
8. “There’s a media blackout!” “Well, there was!” There wasn’t. Grow up."
A good many other comments also touched on the themes of ODS having a lack of organisation, not engaging with other groups effectively, having no clear focus or becoming a confused catch-all for too many special interest campaigns, all of which are valid criticisms. What surprised me though is the number of people who took issue with the language of the Occupy Movement, particularly the phrase "The 99%".

I've touched on this phrase before, wondering if it masks the true nature of Class Warfare by being too inclusive, however a good few of the commentators were offended by the phrase because they did not believe that the Occupy Movement either spoke for the 99%, had the right to say that they spoke for the 99%, or more specifically objected to ODS speaking on their behalf as an individual, "Not in me name" was a frequent comment, an unusual use of the phrase given its normal appropriation by anti-war protesters objecting to actions carried out be their governments overseas.

It is clear that #OccupyDameStreet missed an opportunity to build on the groundswell of public opinion that accompanied its first few weeks, and my own commentary on this has always been that too quickly the Movement and the Camp became too inward looking, focusing on internal issues and housekeeping, on protesting for the sake of protesting without offering clear alternatives. The conversations that it sought to catalyze were happening around the country, but at some point it stopped listening to those conversations and became mired in its own intransigence.

The saddest part of this all is that within recent weeks a new energy had blossomed in the Camp, it had acknowledged its shortcomings and was actively working to overcome them, structures that had long been absent were restarted and an active re-engagement with the wider public was underway (thanks to a combination of the efforts of a few long-time members and an influx of dedicated activists from #OccupyGalway and #OccupyCork).

However for many this resurgence was too little, too late. On Politico.ie there were a number of comments from Gordon, who had been heavily involved in ODS at the very start, providing much of the early technical support, setting up the original ODS website and facilitating the initial Livestreams that broadcast those magical first days to the world beyond. Without his early support it is unlikely that ODS would have been as connected to the Global Occupy Movement as it was, however he left after a few weeks because he "saw it was going nowhere fast". He wrote:
"It has no direction, no specific purpose, no team of people doing anything. The only thing it appears to do is to occupy space. Why? To what end?... If ODS had worked in a more effective way - if the GAs & 'working groups' had come up with stuff, people would have supported it. There was a lot of public support at first, but most of those who supported it have left and ODS has let the country down."
This last point was also echoed by James van der Kamp on Broadsheet.ie:
"They achieved something. They created a degree of legitimacy for the government & troika because they served as a reminder that there was no realistic alternative. They provided an emotional outlet. They outstayed their welcome in the public realm so time to go home."
These last two points really intrigued me, suggesting that the fact that Dame Street failed to achieve its true potential was a worse act than if it had never tried at all, because by failing it gave the impression that perhaps there was no alternative after all, that the Government was right all along and that the citizenry had no real appetite for change. In other words that #OccupyDameStreet falls in to that broad category of folks that Jon Stewart likes to categorize as "You're not helping!", those who start a conversation about the perils of socialized private debt and end up saying the world is controlled by giant humanoid lizards and the Duke of Edinburgh.

This last point I reject completely. Failure is good, inactivity is bad, for me it really is as simple as that. Beckett's quote adorns the masthead of this blog, "Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better", should be the motto of every activist movement, particularly #OccupyDameStreet. After the eviction it should get up, dust itself off, open its ears and listen to the criticisms leveled against it, but not be paralyzed by them. It should then learn from its mistakes, evolve and move on.

Has #OccupyDameStreet made mistakes? Certainly, many and often. Should it be condemned for failing? Of course not. As the man said, "Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all".

Alice Walker once said that "The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any", for five months #OccupyDameStreet showed that people do have the power, and while they might not have made the best use of that power, the act of seizing it was a very potent symbol indeed.

I am certain that the last chapter of this book hasn't been written yet. Perhaps the first hasn't even been finished...

Note: All comments have been transcribed verbatim, any spelling mistakes are the responsibility of the original authors, not me (for once).

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