Southern Exposure

Ruminations of a Native Son


Greater Washington. DC., United States
February 06
Compulsive writer (mostly memoirs and sociopolitical rants), musicologist, hermeticst, fiscal conservative, radical centrist, agrarian socialist; Charter member, Factualist Party; born and raised in DC, healthcare professional, retired businessman, civic and political activist on two coasts, civil rights movement veteran. An empiricist's worst nightmare, I believe in everything but I don't believe everything, including many things I believe in. Turned down by US Army in 1966 for medical reasons, thrown out of Col. Hasan's Black Man's Army in 1967 for being "too militant." Scion of a family only Tennessee Williams could have dreamed up. There's more. There's always more.


JANUARY 6, 2012 10:40PM

Occupy Change: Imagine!

Rate: 5 Flag

The word "occupy" has been so overused of late that it's been included in Michigan's Lake Superior University's annual List of Overused Words. I am inclined to agree, because the more loosely a word is used, the faster it loses any concrete meaning. "Occupy" has now become virtually meaningless. However, before its ouvre has passed and it has turned into a mere sound (like "love") I think there may be a little more utility left in it. Herewith:

Three years ago we were all awash in the words "hope" and "change." "Change" was the biggie, of course, and it seems some of us haven't seen as much change as we'd have liked. Many believed electing a certain person President would automatically make the change happen. At last enough caught on to the fact that we actually are the change we've been waiting for, and we always are, always have been, that the Occupy movement was born.

Now Occupy stands at a crossroads, as people begin to look for an actual agenda, and some have been offered up, but they are confused and confusing. To a great extent this is good, because bullet-point change agendas are nothing more than manifestos, which historically have wound up turning into slogans, and finally wind up just like...well, we've all read Animal Farm.

And so, confounding person that I am, I offer a sort of non-manifesto here, now, instead of an anti-manifesto. Anti-anything is merely another side of the thing we are trying to refute, which means we doing the Old Thing in reverse, practicing black and white or what I like to call digital thinking. Anyone who knows me well knows I become livid in the presence of people who insist on debating dichotomies, nearly all of which, when you get down to it, are false, by their very nature. I am a fan of dissoi logoi, that is, looking at a thing - at things, really - from all angles, instead of trying to digitize issues into ones and zeros, instead of trying to slug out through attrition whether The Thing is either here or there.

"It is," in the words of Oliver Hardy, "neither here nor there."

It is now everywhere.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present...the space between.

We do fear it much.

This space, the term coined by William Heard, Ph.D., father of diological psychoanalysis, is not only the vast grey area between here and there. It is also the product of the relationship between here and there. It is, then, any one of countless Third Ways. That's right, there is not just one third way. There are infinite third ways. It is possibility itself that waits for us to beckon.

In 1877 a movement was born in the American South - and I will tell you right now, you need to get over your distaste for all things Southern, because we can point out plenty of things wrong with the North. We don't need to go down that path though, seize that false dichotomy, because we are bigger and smarter than that. We are grownups. We can accept that there is more than one culture in these loosely United States, and that they have their charms and they have their drawbacks. But if we could only learn to pick through the parts bin of history, to learn history truly, and find what had promise, what might have worked, and discard what clearly did not and could not, or at least figure out how to make failed but promising ideas work, then we might reconfigure the whole notion of The American Dream.

It is a modest proposal, really.

That movement that began in 1877 was the Populist movement, and it eventually came a cropper at the onset of the Great Depression, when it was summed up in brilliant fashion by a group of poet-philosophers from Vanderbilt, who called themselves the Agrarians, The Twelve Southerners, or sometimes The Fugitives. They were the purely Southern version of what would otherwise be seen as the Beats.

The Populist Movement died because people were afraid it could succeed.
Those people were the Populists themselves, and they were, in fact, crucified on Bryant's Cross of Gold. They stood there, like Jesus, and let it happen, because it is easier to fail and blame than to succeed and have to keep on going.

The vision of the Fugitives (a group which included some of the finest writers and thinkers of the time, including John Crow Ransome, Robert Penn Warren, Frank Lawrence Owsley, Stark Young, and John Gould Fletcher, among others) was presented in  the publication of a book titled "I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition."

Oh god, a bunch of Southerners. Rednecks. Conservatives. No time for this. Even the title is evil: "I'll Take My Stand" is lifted from the sinister Southern anthem "Dixie." Well fuck that.

Except no, don't fuck that. Read it. Open your minds, abandon the labeling of fellow humans, acknowlege that even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and bear in mind that "I'll Take My Stand" would shortly have a strong and respectable parallel in German humanistic psychoanalyst Erich Fromm  and his 1955 bombshell "The Sane Society." Both Fromm's book and the Agrarians' collection of essays describe very similar ideals, from very different perspectives, and they both have one thing firmly in common: abandoning the either/or approach to change and embracing the best of past, present and future ideas. One thing in particular they both embrace is cooperatives, communitarianism, sane, human scale places to live, what became The New Urbanism, and, perhaps, the Occupy movement.

What change, then, takes us backward while moving us forward? I'm known to be one who dreads the company of those who occupy the past, but I'm not averse to visiting once in a while, and even picking up the occasional forgotten dream that might have propelled us forward more smoothly had it been interpreted a little differently. Sane places to live were part of a past pattern abandoned wholesale during the post WWII boom (Find and read James Howard Kunstler's "The Geography of Nowhere" to help yourself understand better why suburbia has been such a bust for the most part, and why, when it hasn't, why it hasn't). What do we do with places that are unlivable? Look to Detroit, or even Chicago's Cabrini Green. Repurpose, remodel, or, sometimes, blow the sucker up. There are horrific and futureless townhouse developments I'd love to see vacated and carpet bombed, the land reused by New Urbanists like Duany and Platy-Zerbeck, who have helped design livable - and old-fashioned - planned communities including clustered living areas (including mixed-used real-esate, just like when I was small and we lived over a store in a commercial area in DC, but with Rock Creek National Forest mere blocks away). So geography and urban/suburban planning is part of it. The Agrarians had nothing against cities; they merely feared the destruction of sane living by the Southward spread of the Industrial Revolution - and they happened to be correct in their dread.

Industrialism is known to be responsible for many of the world's woes, from climate change to unbreathable air, from rampant materialism to the military-industrial complex, from unsustainable growth bubbles to wholesale abandonment of thriving city centers as the products of technocracy evolve and the means for manufacture lure the barons of industry to developing and third-world countries. So the agrarians, as conservative and reactionary and Southern and cranky as they are often perceived, were also godfathers of the Green Movement.

Industrialism is the evil, but we embrace it at the same time we curse it, because we are afraid of the change that might save us. We fear the knowlege that we don't need half the shit we consume, let alone ninety per cent of the shit we hide in the attic or garage and never even look at, much less use.

We fear the loss of sense of substance we might suffer by moving from a 3000 square foot house into even a 1000 square foot house - or 750 square foot apartment - even if it meant we gained thousands of acres of common green area where we could all congregate, where children could safely play and be watched, where trees could grow and shade us in our newfound leisure time.

Where we live and how we live, it should be clear by now, must be sustainable, healthy, peaceful, yet accessable to the arts, culture, quality education, all things to be found in cities. Low-rise, human-scale cities, in which the agrarian communities can purchase the equipment they need and sell the goods they produce.

Instead we barrel headlong down a mountain in a runaway train that is believed to be the only available mode of transportation, and there is no one at the controls. We are afraid to stay on the train, but afraid to jump off.

If we are to undergo a revolution, let it be soft, green, and, most of all, sane. To achieve this we may need to look backward as well as forward (and down at our own feet as well), to put together something new, with some old parts, some abandoned ones, some as yet unconceived. We will not correct our course by navigating the same enormous circle which we now know to be a spiral around a massive drain into a black hole. Oh, we can get there that way, but why invest in wasted time and human misery when we can take the best that technology has to offer and combine it with the best that fine arts, craftsmanship, populism, communitarian socialism, communities of work, mixed-use real estate, and small, independent businesses?

Too much? No center? No bullet points? No manifesto? Alright then, I'll give you this closer from Hakim-Bey's early 1990s essay "Transformation/Utopia":

Perhaps this world will never conform perfectly to our needs--people will always die before they are ready, perfect relationships will end in ruins, adventures will end in catastrophe and beautiful moments be forgotten. But what breaks my heart is the way we flee from those inevitable truths into the arms of more horrible things. It may be true that every man is lost in a universe that is fundamentally indifferent to him, locked forever in a terrifying solitude--but it doesn't have to be true that some people starve while others destroy food or leave fertile farms untilled. It doesn't have to be true that men and women waste their lives away working to serve the hollow greed of a few rich men, just to survive. It doesn't have to be the case that we never dare to tell each other what we really want, to share ourselves honestly, to use our talents and capabilities to make life more bearable, let alone more beautiful. That's unnecessary tragedy, stupid tragedy, pathetic and pointless. It's not even utopian to demand that we put an end to farces like these.

If we could bring ourselves to believe, to really feel, the possibility that we are invincible and can accomplish whatever we want in this world, it wouldn't seem out of our reach at all to correct such absurdities. What I am begging you to do here is not to put faith in the impossible, but have the courage to face that terrible possibility that our lives really are in our own hands, and to act accordingly: to not settle for every misery fate and humanity have heaped upon us, but to push back, to see which ones can be shaken off. Nothing could be more tragic, and more ridiculous, than to live out a whole life in reach of heaven without ever stretching out your arm

It's already started. Malls are falling, being replaced by mixed-use town centers. Farmers markets are springing up. Urbanites are growing vegetables and some even keeping chickens in their yards. Most new communities are products of the New Urbanism. It's already begun in the Occupy movements. We need not to jump off the train but merely to send someone to the front to operate the throttle and the brake.

All power to the imagination! 

Your tags:


Enter the amount, and click "Tip" to submit!
Recipient's email address:
Personal message (optional):

Your email address:


Type your comment below:
I never thought about the observations you mentioned in the last paragraph. That stuff is happening all over and I kept wondering why. Also, what did you mean by this, "They stood there, like Jesus, and let it happen, because it is easier to fail and blame than to succeed and have to keep on going." Jesus was certainly one person who DIDN'T stand by and let things happen. He brought change into his world even dying on the cross for it.
As usual, excellent post!
I love Life: Yes, it is already happening, in great part due to attrition. Also because it makes sense. It just needs a guiding philosophy, which has already been written.

The Jesus comparison was badly constructed, so that it falls down in the middle. Thanks for pointing that out. Jesus had a positive ulterior motive. The populists did not.
So much to say in response to this, I don't know how to begin -- let alone end. Having spent my dirt-poor childhood in backwoods Michigan and spent my formative summers on Grammaw 'Tucky's farm in the rural red hills around Gallopolis, Ohio -- and make no mistake, deep southern Ohio is the South, and having lived in the City -- if you want to count Orlando as a city -- for 25 years, and having lived for the last 12 years five miles outside a mountain town in deep south Tennessee -- a town so tiny it doesn't even have a traffic light, I think I can speak with some authority on the Great Divide.

Country life does teach valuable lessons about Nature and Neighborliness, but it does so at a price. The price? Provincialism, xenophobia, and limited prospects for earning, learning and loving. Not that love can't flourish in the country, but that there is a very limited pool of prospective lifemates -- just as there is a very limited pool of prospective jobs.

On the other hand, while the City offers those things -- often in dizzying, and thus confusing, abundance, it ironically can lead one to be to even more isolated and alienated. Furthermore, cities consume one's energy, physical and psychic, in the same way they consume every thing else -- wastefully. Thus, cities are, in my opinion, better suited to the young and the restless, the secure and striving, than they are the old and set in their ways. Generalizations, of course, do not apply to the exceptions to the rule.

With that, I suppose I've come the long way around the barn to say nothing new. My point is that the "one-size-fits-all" brand of conservatism so in vogue these days on the radical Right -- which more and more seems to be most, if not all, of the Right -- has no place or value in a complex, diverse, dispersed modern country. But reality holds no more sway with those who dream of a Golden Past than it does with those who dream of a Utopian Future.
I find it helpful to divide anti-corporate resistance into two main trends. The first, like the Occupy movement, directly confronts (mainly through public protest) corporate crimes and misdeeds. The 2nd involves collective withdrawal from the corporate economy by setting up alternative systems of food and energy production and in, in some places, alternatives to corporate banking and money systems. The 2nd type has a much longer list of accomplishments. Perhaps because it's much easier for the police to remove 5,000 protestors from a park than to shut down 5,000 organic gardens.
AJ, 'love' may have turned into 'a mere sound,' as you say, but it's still the sweetest sound on earth ... not like 'occupy' ...
I like the way you express the non-agenda as neither here nor there but everywhere ; 'digital thinking' vs dissoi logoi too. Those are new terms to me.
I like this whole essay, with a taste of Hakim-Bey ~ also new, to me.

If the centre of this is here : Where we live and how we live, it should be clear by now, must be sustainable, healthy, peaceful, yet accessable to the arts, culture, quality education, all things to be found in cities, there's some explaining to be done, particularly in regard to 'quality education,' which must precede all else.

When libraries are closed & schools shut down, literacy standards fall, and the notion of arts, culture, or any cohesive view for the future fall away as well. People are increasingly looking to film not just for entertainment, but information. To me that's the scary part.

I like the note of optimism throughout, summed up in the last paragraph ~ let's just hope whoever we send up front to operate the throttle & brake had a good education.
Those comprehension skills don't grow on trees ;-)

Thanks, AJ.
The Space Between, may it stay alive because we must have it succeed.
Call it whatever you want, as long as it isn't T-Party.
Nice analysis
rated with love
Been trying to get in here all day to respond to the comments. Weekends at know how it is.

Tom: Oh yes, you definitely have your Southern bona fides, no question, so you understand the problem of living in the past. The idea is to not do that, so provincialism, in the new model, would be a lot less likely to take root because of the the segue from human-scale city to what I'll have to call suburbs for lack of a better word, to the aggie outlyers. Also, it's been my observation that suburban areas (that is, people) can be every bit as provincial and narrow-minded, given the conditions we are still living in, as any small ag-flavored town. This does not have to be. It's part of the sanity thing.

Same thing, in reverse, about cities: The goal of human-scale, low-rise cities (DC comes right to mind, because it's never really lost its collection-of-villages feel) is to minimize losing the individual in the crowd. The new Detroit will look more like this in the coming years and decades. In many ways it's already starting to show.

The goal is not to dwell in a gilded past (which wasn't really gilded at all, just guilted), but to take from there the best lost ideas and forgotten dreams and move forward. As Mr. Wendell Berry put it, "When going back makes sense, you are going ahead." Put Berry alongside Bill Burroughs and his Technological Revolution (little black book of hell raising), and this does make sense. As for the utopian future, as Hakim Bey said, "perhaps this world will never conform to our needs..." but what a ridiculous tragedy it would be to never even try, because of the fear we might just succeed.

Thanks as always for your astute comments and for reading.

Dr. Stuart Jeanne Bramhall: Yes, exactly. And while politics is necessary to order society (sending someone to the front to operate the controls on this otherwise runaway train), the way we operate our collective lives (and I do mean collective) is a lot harder to disrupt. If we were all in it together, it would be impossible.

Kim Gamble: Love: Absolutely still the sweetest sound, even and maybe especially when it is a vibrating, soundless hum moving inside us.

I'm happy to have brought some new ideas and people into your process. That's probably a good thing. The "quality education" yes, definiely requires more explaining, in fact probably several books worth, but it could start with dissoi logoi, critical thinking, rhetoric and logic. Learning to think might well make the rest of the learning years a lot more productive and maybe even fun.

The closing of libraries and schools would have to be reversed, of course, and while in the best of all worlds these would be a given, in the nascent New Age we might well have to form cooperatives even to do this work - and there are examples that have worked quite well. I think that instead of looking at what has not worked and trying to fix it, we might try forging new paradigms.

Yes, the one - or ones - we send up front to push the levers and turn the tiller, those ones had best be well educated. Not just the nominal foreman, but all those involved in that part of the endeavor. We have now an example of the foreman being well-educated but the rest of the crew being idiots. Not part of the plan!

Thanks for your thoughtful observations and kind remarks!

RomanticPoetess: Thank you - for being trenchant and cogent and still passionate. That space between will not go away. It may go wanting for attention though, and that's probably the worst that could - and has happened. T parties wouldn't be able to survive in that atmosphere of logic, reason and critical thought, so that's not a problem. Getting them to cease blocking the myriad entrances shouldn't be too hard either. Like a vampire shown a crucifix, they wither in the light of logic and reason.

Thanks for your great comment.