Friday, November 11, 2016

Booknote: The Beginning of the American Fall

Stephanie McMillan, The Beginning of the American Fall: a Comics Journalist Inside the Occupy Wall Street Movement. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2012.  ISBN: 978-1-60980-452-7.

Genre: graphic novels and comics
Subgenre: nonfiction, politics, current affairs, protest movements
Format: trade paperback
Source: Berea branch of the Madison County Public Library

This graphic novel is a brief history of the Occupy Wall Street Movement. The movement started in 2011, and by now it seems to be mostly a note in history. McMillan is a comics journalist who was involved in the movement. Her book came out in 2013; by then the movement was already in decline. Much  of it, as we learn from reading the comic, was due to lack of unity. Too many radicals with too many ideas, many of them dense, who could not agree on how to move forward and do something more than protests. I say that because at various points even the author questions if protests accomplish anything or not. On reading the book, I see its timeliness; it caught the movement as it rose and as it fizzled out. There have been other books on the topic, but for folks who may know little of the movement and its background, this book makes an accessible entry point.

The author works her way up from October 2010 to the time the movement fizzles out about a year later or so. McMillan combines her comics art with a good amount of theory. This theory is interspersed throughout the book at various points to illustrate or expand on events or to explain rationales. You also get theory in a series of appendices at the end of the book. These appendices include a list of groups discussed in the book, notes on the concept of organizing, and notes on how to organize. In the appendices, the author also discusses her method in creating the book:

"I participate in political activity. I also draw cartoons and write. This book is a mix of all those, which I would not be able to keep separate even if I wanted to. I don't claim that this account encompasses 'the whole truth,' but that it is my interpretation of events, one of many fragments of a broad spectrum of analysis and observations about the movement--all shaped by personal idiosyncrasy, experience, and outlook" (122). 

That is one detail that struck me. This movement was very fragmented. All sorts of leftists briefly came together, but their differences, some significant and some petty, kept them from doing nothing more than camp protests and some noise. One does have to ask where are they now? Mostly gone their separate ways and back to their small niches it seems. There in lies the problem: as long as they keep simply talking theory, not really agreeing on anything, any form of revolution, which is sorely needed, will not get anywhere.

McMillan emphasizes the need for analysis and understanding how movements work, goals, philosophies, so on. This is why  she includes so much material within the comic. But after a while, it's time to stop sitting around sipping lattes and whatever organic food while talking theory and doing something, something other than yet another bunch of signs and a protest within the oppressive structures.

As a snapshot of a historical yet brief moment, the book works. As inspiration, not so much. When one character in the comic says she is tired of all the consensus b.s., I admit part of me felt the same. It's all talk, and talk, and then talk some more, and no matter how democratic and inclusive they try to be, a lot of it is b.s. I have studied theory; I've had the privilege (at a high cost to myself in various ways I'll add), and after a while you get to the point where you ask, if you believe in action as well, is this all there is? This comic in the end, for all its strengths, just left me like that, asking if that is all there is.

Book won the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights 2016 Journalism Award.

3 out of 5 stars.

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Additional reading notes:

Possible book to read mentioned: Aric McBay,, Deep Green Resistance.

Arundhati Roy on protests as being allowed, which basically then disarms them. This I found honestly depressing even as I see it to be true:

"I don't think the whole protest is only about occupying physical territory, but about reigniting a new political imagination. I don't think the state will allow people to occupy a particular space unless it feels that allowing that will end up in a kind of complacency, and the effectiveness and urgency of the protest will be lost" (qtd. in 70). 

The author calls for anti-capitalist organizations, and she also points out how many activists lack knowledge of how capitalism functions. As I often say, you need to know your enemy:

"Many activists don't know how capitalism actually functions. We have to understand why the system is structurally impossible to reform, so that we can deal with the necessity-- and our responsibility-- not to fix it (because oppression is built into it from the start) but to do away with  it, and figure out all that will entail. We may in fact be the last generation with the opportunity to do this" (100). 

If she is hoping for today's generation, which is more interested in Pokemon GO! than politics, we may as well give it up now. As good as the above sounds, by now people are too brainwashed to not just support the selfish capitalist system but to actually like it and perhaps even worship it. Just look at the two choices the corporate parties in the United States are offering in the 2016 presidential election cycle. Do we need anti-capitalist organizations to bring down the current oppressive system? Yes. Is it going to happen any time soon? Not by a long shot. Americans more often than not are too stupid and docile for their own good. They fought a revolution (of privileged white men) to get rid of the British, but that spirit is long gone and given way to complacency, arrogance, and just plain idiocy.

So, you say let's have a protest. That's just fine with the powers that be, for the real owners. To them, that is just you letting off a little steam so you'll go back to work and worrying about the Kardashians:

"The system has many methods of dealing with dissent. One is open repression. But before they resort to that, they try everything else, including co-opting it. They draw it into dead ends it creates for this purpose: pressuring public officials, working with corporate and state funded non-profits, exercising formal civil rights such as free speech-- as long as we don't threaten the actual relationship of power, we have all these means of dissent that we're permitted to exercise. And because the system has ideological hegemony (in other words, brainwashing), most people can't conceptualize resistance outside of this framework allowed by the system itself. Spontaneously, they follow the paths that have been laid out for them" (100-101).

Sounds  pretty depressing  and hopeless,  but it's pretty accurate. Heck, the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. may  have been the last with enough will and clout to move the powers that be. Today, movements just come and go as the next shiny thing-- a new iPhone, Pokemon GO!, another celebrity-- comes along. This is the reason the creator of the film Idiocracy recently lamented his film had become a documentary. It's one serious  uphill struggle. And considering that even the few who might get it can't even agree on "the difference between bright green and deep green" (106), the powers that  be will just keep on oppressing. The real owners know they are perfectly safe from any revolutionaries who'd rather split hairs over theory and minutiae than make a unified front. It will stay  business as usual.

In  the end, the author tried to end on a positive note, but the writing is on the wall, and it is clear. It does not look good. That boot stomping on someone's face remains strong. However, the real owners simply exploiting any movements' weaknesses and constant bickering and internal contradictions then watching them fizzle out demoralized is more insidious and effective  for the real owners. And as long as people keep falling for it, it's just another day in paradise.

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This book qualifies for the following 2016 Reading Challenges:

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