Snapshots of India #4

This is part of a series of posts on the trip I took in India from February to April 2013. They are in no particular order, just moments that stand out from the greater backdrop. 

46 C. The hottest yet this summer, and only April. Pushkar swelters in the middle of the day.

I am crouching on the side of the main road, near the bus stand. In the terra cotta coloured dust that swirls a bit around my feet, caught in some unfelt breeze.A blue and gold sarong tied around my head, my four-continent hiking boots on my feet. I am staring into the eyes of a somewhat leperous-looking calf, telepathically willing it to stop trying to eat the t-shirt it’s chewing.

Even as I do this I wonder, What has India done to me?

Trying to mind read a cow, veiled and crouching, is not the strangest thing I saw a Westerner do in Pushkar these two days. The city is known for its sacred lake, as well as for its proximity to one of the most sacred Muslim sites in the Subcontinent. Only Snake Mountain (yes, that’s really its name) separates the two. This is the realm of the hippiest, earthiest, patchouliest travellers in India…second only to Rishikesh in the Himalayan foothills.

Surely, though…If Pushkar were a sacred place, if all those healing crystals actually held power, if all the metaphysical advice in the bookshops were put into practice…surely it would not look like this. The presence of a few well-placed money changers (in the Biblical sense) has sucked the sacred right out of the place. They attack passersby with flower petals, demanding that they visit “their” sacred lake. They know that post-colonial guilt about disrespecting cultures works as excellent leverage to squeeze a few extra rupees out of a tourist. They curse those who refuse, not just cussing but a real “may you suffer” sort of curse.

Yet so many Westerners flock to Pushkar, and attempt to integrate with the spirituality of the place. They bring their crystal balls to sunset. They smoke the local cannabis substitute. They dress in falsely Indian clothing, artfully torn to make it more “authentic.” They play with the babies of the Dalit family selling carved elephants on the corner, playing at being Dalit themselves. All of that is about as effective as my attempted telepathy.

At sunset on the eastern ghats I wondered aloud how many of the young people around us had ended up in India after Occupy Wall Street broke up. The sense of wanting desperately to be counterculture and to change the world and to reset Western culture was palpable. Even as someone who participated in OWS and who considers herself to be a bit of a hippy, it was too much. So much time spent focused on being authentic, thereby ignoring the really shitty nature of Pushkar. The sacred lake is full of crap both literal and figurative, and trying to adopt Hinduism (but only the parts you like) while pretending you can choose to be Untouchable. Maybe it’s authentic to them, but to me it seemed hokey at best and culturally imperialistic at worst.

And yet here I am, dressed as some incarnation of an Indian woman in a kurta and long pants, veiled. Trying to focus enough to tell the calf that he has to stop with the t-shirt or he might hurt his tummy. I am somehow part of the culture-counterculture of Pushkar. The night before I lit some sandalwood insence and stuck it in the ground of the eastern ghats.  A cow walked directly over it, through the sweet smoke. If I were spiritually inclined, that would have been a huge sign. A communication from the sacred cow.

After ten minutes crouching, my telepathy is clearly failing to produce a result. The calf has a hunger-dulled look in its eyes and continues to chew the torn tee. Time to act instead of just thinking. We buy some cookies for the journey on the bus ahead of us, the usual 24 hour bus fast. I take two cookies from the package and lay one on the ground before the calf. He drops the t-shirt and makes for the cookie, and I put one more farther along. Distracted by actual food, he moves away. I grab the sodden shirt and huck it into the ever-growing trash pile.

Our conversation over, the calf moves away.

I’m Breaking Up With You, Occupy

It’s not me, it’s you, Occupy.

You woke up the world and changed the political and rhetorical discourse. You brought people from all walks of life together in their commonalities instead of their differences. You woke up and mobilized a generation. You have the tools of connectivity around the world that your forebears in 1968 and 1848 would’ve died for. You had every potential to change the world forever.

But you’ve fallen off the bandwagon and wandered off into the woods. Not even you know what you want anymore. I don’t believe the rhetoric that those who never felt your pull have spouted since the beginning, that you are an aimless amalgamation of smelly hippies that never had a path anyway. I know better. I was there. I saw that you had real aims, reachable goals, motivated people.

So what’s your excuse for falling apart?

I’ve seen an ugly side of you in recent weeks, a side I never saw in November when I joined you in the streets. You’ll need concrete examples, and I’ll furnish them.

You’ve begun squashing dissent within your ranks, pushing out those you and your cliques decide “isn’t ______ (revolutionary, counterculture, whatever) enough.” Exclusion is contrary to every aim that occupy espouses. But you didn’t even stop there. Members of Occupy went so far as to shove a livestreamer, Tim Pool, because he may not have been enough on their side.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, dear Occupy. This moment has caused an open schism within the Occupy Wall Street movement, because it’s become the age-old debate of violent vs. nonviolent civil disobedience. Have you forgotten, Occupy? Have you never read your history about the Civil Rights Movement, about the French Revolution, about the Arab Spring? You’re kowtowing to those who believe that BlackBloc tactics are the next step. You’re afraid of those who believe violence is the only way, and you’ve allowed your fear to drive you into their arms.

You lack self-discipline. How many times have you marched against the abuses of the system, and then gone back to trying to exploit it in your favor? People have problems with drugs, alcohol, and mental health issues. But you give them a free pass, and fail to hold each accountable for her/his own actions. You willingly bring on negative stereotypes by smoking pot in the park, and then complaining of police brutality when an officer tickets you. 

You distract from the true police brutality, and discredit your brothers and sisters who suffer it. 

You’ve been swept up in the furor of the “Fuck the Police” marches. You’ve forgotten that the police are a part of the 99 Percent. You’ve made it Us vs. Them, in everything. You’ve forgotten that it was supposed to be about all those disenfranchised by the current economic system. You let the police violence intimidate you into losing your focus. Are you so blind that you truly believe that wasn’t the aim?

You hide behind your masks and proclaim that this is freedom. Instead of humanizing the movement with the faces of real people, and being courageous enough to own your rebellion with your real name, you hide. You espouse a global revolution, but you buy your masks to symbolize your commitment to liberty from factories in China that keep their employees in slave labour. You line the pockets of those you were sworn to oppose.

I waited my whole life for this movement. At five, I was telling my kindergarten teacher that when I grew up, I wanted to be an activist. My generation’s acquiescence and anesthetization through sugary sodas and constant stimulating enraged me. I thought, Occupy…I thought we really had a chance.

And so, my dear Occupy…I’m breaking up with you.

I’m not saying it’s over. We might be able to salvage this once we’ve both taken some time to decide whether we want to. In the meantime, I have only one request.

Stop. Just stop. Stop wandering into the woods and stand there a moment. I’m not asking you to come back to the path because I can’t make that decision for you, but at least to consider it. Drop the “Vs. Them” and make this simply about “Us.” All of Us. Consider the confusion and emotion and hypocrisy, and decide what to take.

I’m going to go back to changing the world in my quiet, no-tent-required ways. I can’t wait to see where you go from here.

Who Brought These Kids to Occupy?

Let's see, we've got the children, the masked anarchists, the marijuana activists, and the anti-capitalists all on the Capitol steps

The kids were yelling into the microphone. Incoherently. The crowd of Occupiers grew restless and detached under the cloudless sky in downtown Denver.

“Mic check!” “Mic check!” “This is Aaron…” “He is two years old…”

And that’s where I checked out. Seriously, who the hell brings a two year old to a protest? They are far below the age of awareness, much less the age at which we begin to be able to make our own opinions about the world. Later on, a father let his (admittedly awesomely-dressed) baby crawl through the crowd in front of the Fed and caused a minor traffic jam of shoppers trying to sidestep him.

Frankly, it was offensive. Children are important to the future, of course. They are also easily influenced, and even more easily exploited. What I saw on Saturday was not exploitation on par with recruiting child soldiers, but it didn’t feel right.

16th Street Mall Intersection

I’m an English teacher, and I worked with children from ages 4-17 when I was teaching in a high-risk Chilean public school. I had over 200 students, and observed them through several large political and social upheavals in their country, including the ongoing education protests. When I went on strike with the other teachers in solidarity, I spent a long time trying to explain in child-friendly terms. They didn’t get it. They were just happy to be out of school.

I question the fairness of bringing children into ANY political or social cause. They’re too young to be able to make an informed decision about supporting or repudiating a cause (need more support for this idea? Check out the kids of the Westboro Baptist Church), and they can easily get too riled up. I saw that in the march on Saturday, in the distressed face of a nine year old who had to be pulled aside by his parents to calm down after a little too much time on the People’s Mic.

I know that children are able to have strong opinions, even political ones. It can be a part of their very nature. How do I know this?

Yours Truly, circa 1991

Bam. I am four years old in this hippy-tastic picture. My true nature is that of an activist, hungering for justice. When I was a year older, I decided that I wanted to join Greenpeace instead of being a boring old mommy or fireman like all my classmates when we chose our future careers. While marching on Saturday, I realized that it was ten years ago that I began writing to Senators and pleading with them to stop the War on Terror from escalating. I predicted our current conundrums in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the rise of unaffiliated “lone-wolf” terrorism. I recall describing the invasion of Iraq as a hydra…cut one head off and three grown in its place. I know more than most that children can have opinions and that just because someone is young doesn’t make their voice inadequate.

United Corporations of America

I know that people wanted to include their children in the Occupy movement. I know that they just wanted to give them an outlet. I know that they just wanted to be original by having kids lead the march.

But it just didn’t work. It killed the energy of those assembled. It made the concerns voiced feel less legitimate. It made me uncomfortable that someone had told a seven year old that if she didn’t march, she might grow up to be a slave.

Occupy...Kibbles?

Occupy Denver needs a unified message and a variety of tactics

Occupy Denver, I love you. I just want you to be revolutionary. I want you to take action. I want you to vary your march route a little bit. I want you to change tactics. I want you to occupy the libraries, the colleges, the big box stores. The crumbling highways. The failing healthcare system. The culture of consumerism. The food industry. The big banks.

And yes. I want you to leave the kids and dogs out of it.

We need change now. We can’t wait ten or fifteen years for them to be the new lost generation. And we can’t legitimize our opinions by pushing them on children.

What’s Wrong With the United States? Part Two

Yesterday I started a series of blogs dedicated to the noticeable problems that I’ve observed since returning to the States. The complex underpinnings of our food culture and their encouragement through commercialization of food and the degradation of traditional eating patterns slowly leading us to collective suicide aside (mouthful!), there is a further extension of the glorification of quantity over quality. This extends to all areas of American consumer life.

The most influential and highest-grossing store in the United States is Wal-Mart. They blow other competitors away on Black Friday, which is later this week (in case you hadn’t been bombarded with ads since before Halloween). Last year on this most thinly-veiled of all commercial holidays, this megastore saw a 30% increase in traffic as compared to previous years. Part economic recession, part clever advertising, and part extremely low prices on everything from underwear to electronics. No matter that the prices are slashed so low that they seem impossible…those Homer Simpson slippers were made with indentured labor in China and so they cost nothing to make. Wal-Mart could probably sell some of their products for a dime and still make eight cents of profit.

Anyone who’s ever shopped at the great Wal knows that the quality of the low-priced products is shabby at best. It will probably fall apart in two months and then you’ll have to go buy a new one.

And that’s the key. People in the United States (and elsewhere) have been conditioned into a culture of extreme consumerism. If something breaks or is out of fashion or doesn’t fit anymore due to our expanding waistlines, we stash it and then go buy a new one. The poor quality of clothing and other products that we buy is offset by their replacement. And that’s how you end up with five of the same sweater in five shades of beige.

A snapshot of her two-layered, 4000 package paper towel stockpile from TLC.Discovery.com

But I already knew that before living abroad eight months out of the year. What’s struck me as the next step in the insanity is TLC’s new show in their parade of the bizzare, Extreme Couponing. Just one look at the stockpiles that these people have amassed is enough to reveal a serious fixation on overwhelming quantities of household and personal products. They routinely are worth over $30,000. It’s true, those in these stories are probably clinically off-balance. Plus, they now have to eat the same chemical-laced soup that has enough preservatives to make it edible in 1000 years for the rest of their lives. If the prospect is not enough to push them over the edge, I don’t know what would be.

These people need help. - From TLC.Discovery.com

Just the fact that we have a TV show dedicated to this phenomenon is evidence of a serious cultural failing in the US. We want more and more and more until we can’t even possibly eat or use all the products that we’ve stockpiled. This valuing of quantity over quality puts pressure on companies to produce beyond their means. Then customers must buy beyond theirs in order to have “enough.” Then we need more space for all of our junk, and so we have to buy a house with a mortgage beyond our means. And two cars at least, and smartphones, and 50 pairs of shoes, and five giant-screen TVs….And all of that leads to the third cultural failing in the United States.

We are a culture of debt.

It’s undeniable. Our national debt has surged to over $15 Trillion this year, increasing by an average of $3 Billion a day, and leaving each US Citizen with $48,000 of debt if we divided it equally. Add to that the average of $20,000 in debt upon graduating university, and the average of $10,700 of household credit card debt, and each American owes around $78,700 personally. Americans carried $886 Billion in credit card debt and had an average of nine credit cards per household in 2006. That number went up to nearly a trillion dollars before dipping in 2010.

The fact is that Americans have bought into an economic system that requires massive debt to function. The average American cannot buy a house, a car, or even a TV without putting themselves in debt, but more than that, they cannot even be considered for a mortgage or car payment plan unless they are able to prove that they have a history of it. Credit checks force each and every American to take out a credit card if they want to be able to someday buy a house. Almost all of the traditional American markers for adulthood revolve around indebting oneself to a ridiculous degree. 

It’s no mystery to me that the national debt would be so high when personal debt is not only accepted but unavoidable. Just across the Atlantic, a credit card is a rare luxury. True, the countries in the European Union also have their fair share of problems with debt. But in sheer numbers, Greece’s debt is $498.3 billion. That’s 30 times smaller than that of the United States. Dividing it equally to compare to our personal burdens in the States, each Greek owes $45,000 in national debt. And yet their debt crisis nearly brought the Eurozone down and caused international panic.

In the United States, individuals must take action to reduce their consumerism and to actively oppose a culture of debt. How? Abandon the traditions of the American Dream that do not serve this generation. Join an Occupy Wall Street movement. Pay off your credit card and live only within your means. Shop for fewer articles of better quality. Repair your broken clothes and recycle them into quilts or pillows. Take a  challenge (ahem…) and commit to changing one spending/shopping habit.

Better yet, take a stand this Black Friday by refusing to participate in the commercial feeding frenzy. Buy absolutely nothing that day. Spend the time you’ll save  volunteering, being with family, reading, or making your own holiday presents by hand. And then take the money you would have spent and support local, quality businesses on Shop Local Saturday.

Check out #BlackoutBlackFriday and #ShopLocalSaturday on Twitter for more information!