Alex Blaze

Fighting Alienation Is a Revolution

Filed By Alex Blaze | October 28, 2011 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics, The Movement
Tags: Occupy Wall Street, social status

We get a lot of visitors here at Chez Blaze because of the extra bedroom, through CouchSurfing.org and from family and friends who all have lots of reasons to visit the capital of their country/the awesome tourist city in Europe.

We had a couple of exurban Americans here earlier this year, and I was walking with one of them in a public garden outside the city where we came to a quasi-isolated corner where one can see a castle. There were two boys, outside-the-box.jpgmaybe 16 or 17, sitting on a bench and talking while looking at the castle. We kept on walking, and the American confided in me that he was afraid that those boys were looking for a fight.

Those boys? The ones sitting in a flower garden talking? They didn't seem that threatening. But I don't live in suburbia anymore.

As a suburban refugee myself, I had to get over the idea of people being in the same space as me and sometimes not doing anything in particular when moving to an urban area. My spidey sense used to go off all the time in this country.

It might sound stupid to people who haven't lived in suburbia all their lives, but you don't see people who you don't know too often in the burbs. You don't see people you know too often either, outside of work or school or church. Heck, you don't see people all that much if you don't have an actual reason to see them.

It's something I've been thinking more and more about lately, about how some social apes like us decided that it was a sign of status and safety to not interact with others. That if you're a dude and you want to hang out with another dude for no reason, well, that's kinda gay. If you're a woman raising children while working a full-time job, where's the time for friends? If a relationship between a man and a woman isn't sexual and neither person is queer... well, is such a relationship even possible?

As a politics blogger, my instinct is to blame this on someone with power. And the federal and local governments have encouraged the development of "everyone in their own box" neighborhoods. Keeping people far from each other - and wary of each other - means that they're less likely to organize.

The Nation has an interesting commentary of Occupy Wall Street up, talking about its relationship to sexuality. These two paragraphs about alienation stand out:

We just talked and talked. "You know, if you count it up," said a beautiful boy at Zuccotti Park, "the average college senior has spent two years of his life playing video games." David was his name and he had read a study, but the evidence was under his own dark-coffee skin. He was 21. It seemed entirely plausible to him that he had expended 10 percent of life-so-far in solitary electronic combat. He had merged into the mass at the renamed Liberty Square with a camera, but put it aside and sat talking with my friend Prerna and me for two hours. What had so much video gaming wrought? I asked. An abstraction from reality, he reckoned. An abstraction deepened, Prerna thought, by almost never having known a time when "reality" was not also coupled with "TV."

Now there was elation just to feel, talk, press against another shoulder, hear one's own voice with others echoing, "We are... we are... we are..." Maybe that is why the cold, the rain, the relative privation, have not mattered so much to the relatively privileged protesters. They have hungered for their moment of true feeling. A skinny blond boy rolling cigarettes had not slept in days but anchored Nick at Night [the cigarette-rolling station] --"more popular than the food table," he said--where others came for a loosey and talked the night away. In a far corner of the park, drums beat and girls whirled in thin silk shifts. They had done it for hours. They could do it all day if rules hadn't placed limits on noise. Check your cynicism, I told myself on my second visit to the park. These are people drunk with love, and feeling thus, are loving in return.

This is pretty much how I've tried to approach queer politics on this site: sex and conjugal relationships are good because of their ability to end alienation, but neither is the end of the story. Having one solid relationship and few to no other voluntary relationships is a poverty; having lots of sex without relationships is another poverty. What's important is the connection that can happen in all sorts of relationships, a connection that shouldn't be limited.

The image that's been used to deride the protests the most is that of drum circles. Apparently, no one would have a problem with drums being played by themselves, nor do commentators who are fans of some form music with percussion have a problem with drums played by musicians in an organized context.

The image that disturbs them is that of drums being played by people because people like playing drums with each other. People getting together in a messy context where everyone has a voice, even if it's in drum-form.

It's the anti-status symbol of these past few weeks, people coming together, because it doesn't build alienation. And, of course, anything that's really subversive (not the fake subversion that mass culture often offers up) is going to marginalized by the establishment by any means necessary.

Here, subverting alienation isn't cool. And sometimes it's labeled as dangerous - Premarital sex will kill you! Don't talk to strangers, they'll only mug you! Don't organize with your co-workers, they only want to take your money! Or frivolous, because the only important things in life involve church, money, one's biological family, and that one conjugal relationship you're allowed. Or connection gets gay-bashed. That's a popular tactic.

But it's a good in and of itself, and if people at these occupy protests are learning to get along better and forming relationships and talking and organizing, who cares if they don't have a list of demands that the media can sound-bite. What they're accomplishing by getting away from the TV screen is important enough.

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Rachel Bellum | October 29, 2011 1:20 AM

Beautiful article Alex.

Even more than suburbia what strikes me are the large apartment buildings where every unit can be seen seen as human storage facilities until it's time for those people to be productive again.

More and more I've been starting to believe that our society is not just alienating but based/dependent upon alienation. And yet I don't believe it was always that way, or even for a particularly long time.

In my midwestern town of 12K, people pride themselves on being neighborly. And yet, I find that vehicles end up keeping people insulated from each other. Attached garages are common, so it's too easy to go from the cocoon of the house to the bubble of the car to the destination free of random human contact, even when it's within a mile.

I'm a walker, driving rarely. The entire town is less than 3 miles from northern to southern points, plenty of businesses and services along the main road through town, so walking my errands is very doable. And yet, it's a surprisingly solitary activity.

It would be great if more folks saw the opportunity walking gives to be social, green and healthy. In my first year or so here, I was often offered rides because it was assumed to be a burden to walk 6-8 blocks carrying groceries or a few tools. Friends and family figured out over time that I walk by choice because it's a viable, great way to go, instead of a no-fun last result.

I walk too. It is a joy and like you I find folks giving me rides all the time. I try not to discourage them for winter is cold and my sweaters hold just enough water to let me get real cold. I do get a chance to listen to them concerning their day, their kin because I ask. So many people stop now, I have trouble getting in my 5 miles each day. I have started adding side trips just to have a chance to talk more.

I've often heard that the 1981 murder of Adam Walsh, the subsequent media attention, and his father's subsequent campaign against crime and creation of America's Most Wanted helped facilitate a culture shift where people were suddenly afraid to trust their neighbors and strangers in even the slightest.

Rachel Bellum | October 30, 2011 3:37 AM

I would expand it from the singular Adam Walsh event to a larger historical occurrence. There was a point in time when media outlets took to educating the public about the possible dangers their children faced. As fear spread, multiple literal "witch" hunts occurred across the US. I say that because these were characterized by growing from an accusation to mass accusations to accusations of large Satanic cults which even included human sacrifice.

Plenty of people weren't particularly aware of these events and probably fewer remember, but they do kind of symbolize the sudden fear and hysteria that developed. Things like trick and treating or playing outside seemed to disappear practically overnight. Added to that we have taught a couple of generations of children to be scared of strangers in an effort to protect them (I believed people are starting to develop a more nuanced approach to this).

I'm not saying it's not understandable but I've often wondered what the social ramifications are.

While the population has grown since I was a kid, I don't think the persentage of "bad people" has changed. The media sure has and news spreads quickly. Not only do we get the news once in the evening but we see and hear the same story many times in a day/week making it seem like it is a bigger problem than it was 50 years ago.
Computers and video games have replaced playing games with the neighbor kids. Keeping the kids busy with after school activities may give them skills but it is just an extention of school where the child is there to learn and not to socialize.
Social networks may put them in touch with friends but how much can you really learn about a person through one line of shorthand back and forth? The media feeds that too. It is cool to multi-task to the point that I have to ask some of our younger friends to turn off the phone/mp3 player when they come for a visit. It is hard to have a conversation with someone who is always on the phone or playing with something. You came to visit me, not play or talk to someone else.
There are times I wish we had a black out just so my family can gather for some real interaction.

I totally agree. Suburbanization is by far one of the greatest mistakes this country ever made, but I don't think it was designed to prevent political organizing. It was more about segregation.

The development of suburbia as we know it in the US goes back to the late 1940s and 1950s, when federal, state and local governments supported the creation of residential-only subdivisions that would allow the middle class to enjoy "the good life," with a car, backyard and no black people in sight. Movies and sitcoms at the time and well into the 1990s idolized suburban living while portraying the cities as filthy, dark and crime-ridden places.

In recent years, though, there's been a shift back to the cities, with young people increasingly looking to live and work in large cities instead of suburbs. In addition, movies and TV shows these days portray big cities as cool, fun places to live, while suburbs are shown as sterile, boring and, beneath their veneer of happiness and stability, deeply dysfunctional.

I think people are beginning to see the value of having large numbers of different kinds of people living close together. You'll notice that it's those cities that have the most diverse, densest populations that have the most to offer and also the most influence over the rest of the country in terms of culture -- New York, San Francisco, New Orleans and Miami, to name a tiny fraction -- while suburbs have always been utterly bereft of culture precisely because they're designed to keep people apart from each other.

Another major issue is environmental sustainability. Suburban living is the number-one reason why we're so dependent on automobiles and, as such, oil in this country. We used to have the best public transportation on earth, in the form of electric streetcars and interurban railroads, but suburbanization meant that the streetcar and interurban companies -- which were all privately owned -- lost money and went out of business while people chose to drive cars on newly built highways.