Talkin’ Occupy With Vanessa Veselka

Vanessa Veselka

One reason Vanessa Veselka is just about my favorite emerging novelist is that she studies anarchism and counterculture from the inside, allowing her stories to venture into the murky, manic, comic realms of intense political ideology — a dangerous territory that many novelists lack the courage or knowledge to enter.  But Veselka doesn’t write about the kind of politics that appears on TV or computer screens. She writes about the kind of politics that hits us hardest — the kind that’s personal.

Her novel Zazen, which was released a year ago, turned out to be well-timed for the tumultuous year of 2011. I recently had a chance to ask Vanessa Veselka for her perspective on all the political climate changes that have occurred since her novel hit the streets.

Levi: Vanessa, the timing of your novel Zazen was remarkable, in that the book’s narrator Delia is obsessed with acts of self-immolation as political protest, while Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia, which took place in early 2011, just before your book started hitting the streets, has turned out to be “the self-immolation heard round the world”. It kicked off the so-called Arab Spring protests in Egypt, Syria and Libya, and indirectly through this the Occupy Wall Street action in the USA. Time Magazine just announced “The Protester” as the Person of the Year, with a nod to Mohamed Bouazizi.

How have you been reacting to (and/or participating in) this wave of protest that has swept the world in the past year? Have you felt like a part of the Occupy movement? Do you feel hopeful about the nature of these protests?

Vanessa: I have a feeling you are going to regret asking me this. I’ll apologize to you and your readers in advance for wending on. Okay, here goes …

First and foremost, I am in support of every movement that inspires a comprehensive and inclusive discussion of unchecked capitalism. I think raising some real class-consciousness is essential to challenging the rich bastards that are eating through this world’s people and resources like Pac-Man. I swear to god they think it’s a video game. So in light of that, the movements and revolutions this year have been nothing but profoundly hopeful. So that’s the general universe of my reaction.

Within that, I have other thoughts. I am not an ideologue and don’t adhere to a particular analysis of conflict. I am a messed-up, conflicted, ambivalent human swinging wildly between radical frustration and moments of hopeful compassion. The problem is that one of those extremes fails on class and the other fails on humanity. I can’t accept how things are but I don’t want people as symbols—burning or otherwise. Which means my reaction to the upheavals this year is more tentative.

Regarding the Arab Spring, I don’t see how anybody could look at Tahrir Square or at what’s going on in Syria and not be blown away by the courage of those people. But as a human who is very afraid of the worldwide fundamentalism (and I include left-fundamentalism here too because I’ve met too many jack-booted, brown-shirted vegan anarchists that function just like aggressive cops) I am anxious about the volatility. The 1979 revolution in Iran was a coalition between the radical clerics, communists, and students. Once in power, the fundamentalists turned on the communists and students. While the US was deeply complicit in how things went down over there, I still think some reflection is good.

The knee-jerk lefty-stance that we shouldn’t criticize foreign revolutions that have strong anti-American sentiments is ridiculous. In fact, it’s colonialism in its most patronizing form. Basically it’s says that non-European nations aren’t developed enough to withstand real conversations about political culture, that they need to be nurtured into giving up the opiate of the masses and led to a stronger analysis of Capitalism. And guess who leads? How about not them. I prefer a direct counter. As in: Hey man! Don’t give me any bullshit about cultural autonomy, stop with the clitoridectomies. It’s fucking barbaric.

I realize I’m culture-hopping here, but I think there are standards we should be able to hold as a world people—equal rights and curtailing the rich’s ability to rule the planet chief amongst them. With that in mind, the fundamentalism that fuels some facets of the bottomless courage we see in the face of guns scares me.

I feel the same way about that in the United States of America, which is why I am deeply frustrated by movements that develop their critical thinking in a vacuum and require greater and greater degrees of ideological purity. It’s an endless litmus test that actually eradicates diversity in the name of championing it.

I want to go back on some of what I said. I got onto a very inside track there, responding to responses of responses. I don’t mean to imply that the revolutions in the Arab world are inherently fundamentalist. I think the way the US plays the “scary” Muslim Brotherhood card to try to get whatever it wants is sick. And I can’t imagine how any sane person can look at Syria and reduce their struggle to religious factionalism. It’s a heartbreaking fight for freedom and there’s no doubt about it.

Returning to your question about my participation in Occupy and whether I feel a part of it or not—I don’t know. I certainly haven’t participated at a real level.

have read at some camps, donated some things, tried to stay in touch with those working more actively around it and attempted to challenge some of my reservations. So is that participation? To a degree, sure, but maybe not the most useful kind. The most powerful part of it to me has been the way in which it has (at times) truly engaged the middle class on the question of rich privilege. I think that’s the most profound thing.

This same lefty convention between unions and anarchists and environmentalists happened at World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999 and at the G8 summit in Chicago. It got to where they couldn’t hold one of those meetings in any country without a 10,000 person police force and a couple of football fields around the meeting place. Occupy feels less global and smaller, but maybe that’s good. Maybe slower and smaller is better.

As someone who has been in riots and demonstrations since I was a child—from the 1984 democratic convention, to marches on Washington and from Tompkins Square Park to WTO as well as endless anti-war demos ranging in size from 5,000 to 250,000 people—my faith in demonstrating is qualified. I think there has to be something more powerful behind it and I don’t necessarily mean an armed revolutionary vanguard, but rather a deep political will. There is a palpable raw power in demonstrations that hold the will of the people in a broader sense. It’s unmistakable and it wins. Therefore I think anything that makes us more exclusive as a movement, anything that narrows our ability to talk to each other is a failure of strategy and humanity both.

If someone has to be an atheist, locavore, fully versed in the finer points of consensus sign language and in complete agreement with diversity of tactics, well, we’re done. May as well find a new planet that we can get to on a homemade raft fermented space food and sprouted seeds. And yet beautiful visions of new lifestyles are necessary. So like I said at the outset, within the universe of changing this world is good, I am still full of conflict and torn between visions that answer class crisis and more diverse ones that can see the human heart in everything and reach toward that.

My chief frustration lies in my own powerlessness. I have no answer for what I see. I have no solution. My fumbling connection to Occupy stems from that. I feel like I retreated into depression and confusion following the demise of the global WTO/G8/IMF movements. I mean how many times can you watch a bulldozer go through Rachael Corrie in your head and not wonder if she would have been better alive? I still want to scream “Step aside!” And yet, with one decision she became a symbol. I’m sick of symbols. I want the real Rachael Corrie. I don’t want an NPR piece on her life with some watered down commentary on Palestine. But maybe she is better as a symbol and maybe that’s what she wanted. Her courage still sends shivers through my body, but there will never be enough plaques, statues, or college poetry to fill that hole as far as I’m concerned.

I’m sick to death of symbols. I crave them. I’m not an atheist, but I don’t want to hear another thing about god. There’s just no rest for the soul or heart in any of this.

Levi: I’ve been struck by the creativity and stylization of the Occupy movement, which began with the original Adbusters team that launched it, and has been a constant part of the phenomenon, at least in New York City. Given New York City’s concentration of writers and performers, Occupy Wall Street sometimes veers between being a fierce and determined activist movement and being an open, unstructured workshop for expression and exploration into “how we feel” about revolution. Well, how *do* we feel about revolution? Do you think the world is ready to leap into something different? Putting aside the apparent unlikeliness of an actual revolution occurring in our current climate anytime soon, it’s also worth asking: *should* we want revolution? Do you want revolution? Does the idea of revolution scare you in any way?

Vanessa:Wow. Great question, right the heart of conflict. Revolution terrifies me. Continuing on as we are is not an acceptable option either. Hmmm. So here’s what I think about it right now…I remember the moment when, as a union organizer, I realized the thousands of one-on-one conversations we were having with people got rolled back nightly by 20 minutes of Fox News and American Idol. I had to have the same conversations over and over again, and the next night, the rollback. It was Sisyphean.

Yet I also saw that a film, or a song, or a media moment or poem could radicalize many people at once. I believe major cultural shifts create consensus in a way that makes revolutions more fluid and, perhaps, softer. There will still be the moment when people need to actually take the weapons away from The Man and that will not be bloodless, but maybe it can be 80% more bloodless. I’m willing to work toward that 80%. But just making art for politics doesn’t work either. If art has an agenda other than what is derived organically from its nature, it doesn’t work. It doesn’t shift people. It may get out there, but it rallies the choir.

I think the main thing is that we all have to be in the same cultural conversation to some extent. We have a shared discourse of some kind or it doesn’t work. And I’m not always sure I want to be in discourse with some of the folks I see. I left direct organizing for art because I was in a state of despair and heartbroken by what I saw and hopeless, not because I felt I was more powerful as an artist. Obi Wan, you are more powerful dead … Or as a symbol, which goes back to my earlier dilemmas of mind.

Still, being alive is more powerful than being dead. I am alive as an artist in a way that I couldn’t be as an organizer. My great hope is that cultural shifts will happen like small, consistent tremors along a slip fault so that when the bigger quake comes, it’s not so destructive. We really don’t need to burn it down. We need to figure it out. We need to turn the cops. We need to make CEOs question their lives.

Levi: So you’ve been to a lot of protests, and probably have some perspectives that could help newbies who are venturing out into Occupy camps as their first forays into public activism. Can you relate some high points and low points from your history with “the movement”, or any valuable lessons learned?

Vanessa: Warning: Skipping this whole paragraph will do you no harm.

Okay, my lefty CV … The first demonstration I attended on my own was the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco in 1984. Then I was around some of the No Business As Usual stuff that emerged from the Republican National Convention in Dallas that year. Then the vague universe of Rock Against Reagan. Then some of the anti-Star-Wars/SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative) demos in Washington D.C.

Then, the New York City/Lower East Side squatter’s movement of the ’80s and the Tompkins Square Park riot in 1988, of course. Those were the 15-19 years. Then … I was in Europe and tangentially involved some of the anti-fascist hooligan stuff and witness to the shifts in the Eastern Bloc. I was in Vienna living with Czechs when the Velvet Revolution happened and in Berlin when the wall was coming down, etc. Then I didn’t do anything for a few years other than punk rock benefits that raised no money, with the exception of Home Alive, which did have an effect on the community. Then I got caught up in WTO and the education around the issues, was at the demonstrations, the jail sit-in, the public hearings, which lead me circuitously into becoming a union organizer and also playing many more political benefits, some with the Democracy Tours put together by Jim Hightower and Molly Ivins.

Then, later, I attended multiple anti-war, don’t-fucking-invade-Iraq demonstrations from 5000 person candlelight vigils to 250,000 person permitted marches. But the democrats are still lackeys, Dallas still loves the Republican National Convention, Rock Against Reagan did not affect his legacy, the Strategic Defense Initiative exists, the cost of housing is insane, the Lower East Side is today a garden of million dollar coops, fascists rose out of the Eastern bloc, neo-liberalism has become status-quo, populism has been snatched by the Tea Party, and we invaded both Iraq and Afghanistan. So. Hmmm …

Ultimately, I think protests tend to be for the protester more than the oppressor. They let you know you’re not alone, which is really important. But they’re not that scary unless they are tactically capable of real applying pressure to money or power. Breaking some Nike windows doesn’t do as much as trained Civil Disobedience or strategic lockdowns.

Personally, I see demonstrations as a great excuse to educate and take up space. What I love about Occupy is that it is portable and fuid. No matter where you are on the planet, you can go to a public space and start talking about your rights and worldview. Now, you may get arrested, but the act itself is universally possible on some level and will naturally reflect the community it has come out of to some degree. So there’s a great autonomy to it. It reminds me of the Free Speech Movement that fired up the IWW stuff.

There’s a lot of creativity out there and we’re going to need it. I would love to see things like rent strikes come back. Maybe not even for housing. Turn that tactic on Student Loans. Or credit payment strikes. They can’t really throw you in jail; they just take you credit card. Credit is a goddamned demon. It has jumped into the gap between real wage dollars and cost of living. It seems like shifting capital in concerted and creative actions bothers capitalists. There are many people smarter than I am with brilliant ideas out there.

My final thought is this: When I travelled Europe I met Anarchists and Anarcho-Syndicalists and the like and what struck me was that they participated in the general society. They taught biology, they were doctors. They were graphic artists and engineers. They did not seem to think that radical beliefs and a longterm vision of a different world meant not participating in this one right now. As a result, their movements and their relationships were far more complex. I would like to see us move there. I would like our movements to be full of trained and talented people with social skills and a desire and ability to build the next world together.

This is also true: as a child I was obsessed with the story of The Snow Queen. The little boy gets a splinter of glass in her eye from a bracken, dark mirror. It changes everything he sees so that he can only focus on the negative aspects of things, the shadow aspects of people. I can be a little like that, I think. But it’s not all of what I see. I actually think we’re going to figure stuff out. I don’t believe in apocalypse. Ultimately, I’m betting on our creativity.

* * * * *

(Thanks to Vanessa Veselka, author of Zazen, for sharing her thoughts. “Talkin’ Occupy’ may become a recurring series … see also Talkin’ Occupy With Mickey Z.. Thanks to Heather Hawksford for the author photo. — Levi)

3 Responses

  1. Finally, someone who talks
    Finally, someone who talks like a normal person.

    I especially like “We don’t need to burn it down . . . We need to turn the cops. We need to make CEOs question their lives.”

    There have been several instances down through history where soldiers have refused orders to fire on their own people during protests. I love that.

  2. Wow, this is an awesome
    Wow, this is an awesome interview, MS. Vanessa, you are so articulate, experienced, maybe a little depressed yet hopeful. You are right about creativity is what we need most now. Hands across the water and cross-cutting alliances will change the world. We should kill the evil with kindness.

    Life is not a video game. You don’t get extra points to live unless you are careful. It is time for a change – from within all of us.

    Peace out,


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