Tag Archives: politics

Occupy Schrodinger’s Cat? Occupy Wall Street and the Media Blackout

Early this morning, the New York Police Department evicted Occupy Wall Street from its base at Zuccotti Park. This isn’t the surprising news – the weekend saw a number of arrests at Occupy camps across the US – but the significant issue this morning was the treatment of the press. Accredited reporters were stopped from getting near the park; those who managed to sneak in were threatened with arrest. News helicopters were told to clear air space. A media blackout, in short.

This is something to worry about. Regardless of what you think of the Occupy camps that have sprung up around the world, you can’t deny that they’re overwhelmingly non-violent. And yet the police response to them has involved tear gas, projectiles and, apparently, Long Range Acoustic Devices. Heck, according to tweets from the park, a counter terrorist unit was on sight. This seems overkill, especially in New York which, ten years ago, suffered at the hands of real terrorists.

And yet the media blackout is possibly the scariest aspect of all this – it implies that the police and politicians know that things are going to go bad, even an element of premeditation. Not only does the US Constitution guarantee freedom of expression and assembly, but also freedom of the press. When this is ignored, it’s immediately a significant cause for concern. What’s the motivation? If the media isn’t there, bad things don’t really happen? You can’t prove that bad things have happened?

The truth isn’t Schrodinger’s Cat, dependent on an observer to fix an event in spacetime. What happened in Zuccotti Park has happened, and the truth will out. I’ll be interested in hearing the excuses that come from the defenders of the Constitution; a part of me wishes the UK had a written, codified Constitution, but if it can be so easily ignored, well, what would be the point?

Of course, this raises issues for the mainstream media. They haven’t exactly been present at Occupy events in significant numbers before, and maybe this is taken as tacit complicity in a media blackout. Coming at it from a different angle, the phone hacking scandal that’s still causing tremors for News International and the UK media in general has shown that reporters, newspapers and wider media structures can be irredeemably corrupt. Are people going to respect freedom of the press when its excesses can be so damaging to public trust and decency? Of course the majority of journalists aren’t involved with this but mud sticks, and that causes serious problems when a genuinely newsworthy event kicks off.

And yet, does the concept of a media blackout have much in the way of validity anymore? After all, we’re in the age of the internet, and anyone with a smart phone can theoretically be a citizen journalist. Police excesses may not make it on to Fox News or the BBC, but they can make it on to Youtube and Facebook and any other social media platform you can name. The problem at the moment is reach – the mainstream media is called the mainstream media because it’s mainstream; meanwhile, the internet is geared towards self-selecting niche audiences – it’s actually pretty easier to avoid things you don’t want to see, and that’s the trick – getting a message out there to people who’d rather ignore it, but who need to hear it. But, and make no mistake, the message will get out there somehow. It may have to work its way through a lack of accountability and cries of ‘fake!’, but it will get out there. And the best way to avoid that? Don’t do anything dodgy in the first place. There is an argument for secrecy, but that’s about protecting people, not harming them.

It’s hard to know where Occupy Wall Street’s general assembly and the wider movement movement will go from here. But if nothing else, it’s raising questions – about inequality, about corporate corruption, about the complicity of police and politics in this and now the state of the media. If that’s all it achieves, then it will have been worth it – asking questions is vital to a free society, and stopping people from doing that will only prompt them to ask more.

Ironically, tomorrow is American Censorship Day.

 

PS. One probably unintended consequence of all this, but one that is supremely telling in context, is the destruction of Occupy Wall Street’s library

 

Frank Miller on the Occupy Movement

Comics over the last thirty or so years have produced quite a few superstars. Okay, maybe they’re not particularly well known outside the industry, with the exception of Neil Gaiman and possibly a couple of others, but if you’re a fan of comic books then chances are you have something by Grant Morrison on your shelves. Or Alan Moore. Or Frank Miller.

Frank Miller is probably the most influential Batman writer of recent decades, mainly down to two works – Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns. If you’re not a comic fan, then you may have seen the movies 300 or Sin City – same guy. Well, Frank kicked up a bit of a stir over the weekend with his blog post on the Occupy movement.

Now, it’s pretty clear that Frank doesn’t altogether have the strongest grasp on current affairs – heck, he gets World of Warcraft’s name wrong, and that’s before conflating Occupy’s protests against corporate corruption with, I guess, the anti-war movement (I’d imagine there’s a reasonable crossover, but they’re hardly the same thing).

It’d be easy to take the blog post apart, especially when he gets on to suggesting that the protestors join the military so they can fight ‘Islamicism’ (which is interesting because Miller has never been in the armed forces while injured Occupy protestor Scott Olsen served with the Marines in Iraq before getting his skull fractured by police in Oakland, California). There’s really no point, because it’s an uninformed screed. However, it comes on the back of recent attention given to the abuse suffered by female bloggers, as well as racist comments relating to the news that the new Spider-Man would be half-black, half-hispanic. The question somehow becomes why, in a medium where most of the characters would probably support Occupy, or at the very least respect their right to protest, and where treating people with respect and compassion is a pretty standard subject for speeches from the likes of Superman and Captain America, does the audience reaction get so ugly sometimes?

(Of course, the flipside of that question is why wouldn’t it – after all, comics are still pretty white, pretty violent and female characters are more sexualised than the men… Just playing devil’s advocate…!)

I guess it’s an issue all of us who engage in online community have to face – the internet can be a harsh, nasty and unforgiving place at times. Miller’s blog post proves that, so do countless comments threatening to rape female writers, and while the majority of us no doubt find this abhorrent, the fact is those attitudes vocally exist. And while maybe the question should be “How can we bring civility back to the internet?”, the darker question is why does such behaviour happen in the first place?

PS. 3.12.2011 – And now Alan Moore has responded to Frank’s comments. Needless to say, he disagrees.

St. Paul’s, The Protests And Occupy Taunton

The Occupy movement has really taken hold in the weeks since a group of protestors decided to draw attention to corporate corruption on Wall Street. One of the sister protests to this, Occupy London Stock Exchange, has made the news because of its complex relationship with St. Paul’s Cathedral, outside which the protestors have their camp. It has prompted questions about the role of the church and the interplay between religion and politics, and it’s clear that a lot of lessons need to be learned.

So maybe some of those lessons can be learned from another Occupy protest that’s set up in the grounds of a church. In contrast to Occupy LSX, this is the smallest protest movement.

Occupy Taunton is Steve Watkins, aged 56. Armed only with a large sign reading “Where’s it all gone, you idiots?” and a chair, Watkins has set up camp in the grounds of his local church. And yet he and St. Mary Magdelene Church seem to be avoiding some of the trickier problems seen by St. Paul’s.

 

For a start, the local vicar has flat out endorsed Mr. Watkins’ right to protest. This is something St. Paul’s has gone back and forth on, appearing woolly in the process (I’m not sure freedom of speech is endorsed if you’re involved in legal proceedings against protest at the same time). Notice that the vicar doesn’t automatically endorse the message itself, just its presence in the churchyard; there’s an argument, one I agree with, that the church should always be on the side of the poor. However, that means genuinely being on the side of the poor, not just saying the right things in interviews. Just say what you mean and get on with it – or, as the Bible says, “Let your yes be yes and your no be no”.

Then there’s how Mr. Watkins and the vicar sorted out any issues over him protesting on church grounds – they went to the pub and talked about it. Much of the St. Paul’s thing seems to have been carried out behind closed doors and, subsequently, in the media. But there’s something biblical about meeting over food and drink – it’s one of the things Jesus kept getting in trouble for, and yet it was key to building relationships. I’d much rather see the church’s response to Occupy be written on the back of a beermat over a drink with some of the protestors than be published in a sixty page strategy document. Sure, the size of things in London might make that impractical, but I think there’s something in it. Hire a room, get protestors, clergy and bankers talking over a curry. Who knows, it might work…

The third potential lesson is Remembrance Day. I’ve said before that this is the most sacred day in the UK’s secular calendar and I stand by that. Mr. Watkins has said he’ll move on before Sunday, so as not to take anything away from the act of remembrance, and while I don’t suggest Occupy LSX do that, the way in which the protestors engage with remembrance services this weekend will be important, not least because of media portrayal. I don’t know if something’s planned, but if so, I hope it’s something powerful and respectful.

When all is said and done, I’d like to thank Occupy Taunton for somehow being very British about it all. Sometimes London seems divorced from the rest of the nation so it’s interesting to see how this plays out against the backdrop of pubs and country churches. And I hope we never forget that the large, powerful and noisy never forget that something powerful can be learned from the small and quiet…

1% Superheroes (or, is Superman part of the 99%?)

This should have been a response to a nice post over at Tastes Like Comic, but my legendary IT skills meant that I couldn’t get comments to work on my iPhone. I’m sure there’s an app for that, but I figured I could turn my comment box ramblings into blog ramblings…

In case you’ve missed it (because I think the reach of some memes is still overstated), the recent Occupy movement(s) have drawn attention to the phrase “We are the 99%” (as opposed to the 1% who control the majority of the world’s finances, some of whom caused the current economic poopstorm).

It wasn’t long before fan art started appearing showing Bruce Wayne acknowledging he’s a billionaire member of the 1% and that he’d happily pay more taxes for the betterment of society. Fair enough – if he’s willing to do that and beat up criminal scum then who am I to argue?

It raises interesting questions about where some of our fictional icons fit into this whole debate. In one sense it’s fairly straightforward – they’re superheroes, and therefore they automatically side with us (Joe Public) against them (monsters, serial killers, Death Robots From Space). Beyond that, it gets complicated.

Take Batman, for instance. Bruce Wayne is old money, American aristocracy. He lives in a stately home; he has a butler, for goodness sake. He’s 1% up to his eyeballs, but crucially to this debate that doesn’t make him a bad person or the enemy – he’s probably the sole reason Gotham City hasn’t gone straight to hell. It’s probably also a little snarky, but maybe important, to note that his parents were murdered by one of the 99%. Bruce fits into a tradition of American philanthropy – he’s Gotham’s Andrew Carnegie, but would he be camping out on Wall Street? Probably not – he may support the 99%, but he’s not part of them. That’s part of the tension of Batman’s character – everyone says he’s more relatable than a character like Superman, but is he? Is Bruce the screwed up billionaire really more relatable than Clark the boyscout?

Superman’s another interesting character to look at, because he’s definitely one of the 99% – he grew up on a farm in Kansas and now he’s a journalist, so while he may make a comfortable living, he’s not exactly rich. Certainly I’d imagine that one bad harvest during his childhood means that he’s more familiar with economic difficulties than Bruce will ever be. It’s interesting that in the recent DC Comics reboot Grant Morrison has returned Superman to his 1930s roots as a social crusader, sorting out corrupt landlords and domestic abusers with vigilante glee. He’s far more likely to Occupy Wall Street, if only because he’s more willing to see himself as part of a wider community. The tension here is that he’s an outsider, protecting a life-altering secret, an alien trying to fit in even though he has his own Fortress. It’s interesting that his arch-nemesis Lex Luthor is completely and utterly 1%, and the dark side of the 1% at that, revelling in his power. However, I doubt Clark thinks in terms of percentages – he’d rather talk about the 100%.

(And I think this is fair, by the way, because while “We are the 99%” is a snappy slogan, the numbers are too big to be anywhere near meaningful. I’m a 99%er, technically, but I doubt I could say that to someone living on 1 dollar a day and then look at myself in the mirror later…)

Of the big three superheroes, it’s the third who probably best fits into the 99%. After all, Spider-Man was devised to be 99% at heart, rather than someone masquerading as such. Peter Parker is a hard-luck hero – his life isn’t great at the best of times, and even his alter-ego is traditionally castigated in the media. He was created as someone readers could relate to, rather than a patriarchal role model. He’s also more tied to the real world – he’s a New Yorker, and the Big Apple is the epicentre for the Occupy movement. He probably takes it personally.

All of this is just a thought exercise – there isn’t much that superheroes can add to decades old debates about inequality and corruption. And yet it ‘s interesting that Batman was co-opted into things fairly quickly; we know how we want things to be and we express that in a bunch of ways – through protest, through art, through superheroes. And while comics tend to shy away from specific politics, it’ll be interesting to see what impact, if any, the global wave of protests will have on an aristocratic Batman, a crusading Superman and a downtrodden Spider-Man. Maybe Occupy Metropolis isn’t that far away…