American culture in the 1950s and 1960s was reflected in its television programming. Life was rendered in black and white, like our two-dimensional national consciousness.
Back then the American psychodrama fielded two enemies, the Nazis and the godless communists. The Nazis played the role of the smaller, focused threat; having already beaten them made us feel righteous and strong. The red menace was the looming, long-term evil. They were an existential threat not only to us, but to the entire world. As long as we stood steadfast against them, there wasn’t much else to fear. We were prospering. There were three TV channels, and that was plenty.
Like its TV shows, America was an idyllic place full of middle-class white people with first-world problems. When a woman married she gladly yielded not only her last name, but in polite society, her first name. She was proud to be Mrs. John Doe, it made her respectable. Blacks weren’t part of the discourse, nor were gays, the disabled, the poor, or any minority. Why should they be? We already had a two-dimensional model that worked just fine.
The police were your friends in those days. The bad people were easy to spot, and when they got what was coming to them, nobody minded. They were asking for it. If the police beat you up or arrested you, it was because you were a troublemaker. Reducing life to a simple yes-or-no question made law enforcement a breeze. We let the police do what they had to do, and in exchange they spared us the gory details. That’s how the system worked.
The protest movement of the 1960s infiltrated the country along with the new color television shows. People in tie-dyed clothing started doing things no one had ever heard of in Mayberry, and they did them right out in the open. They took drugs that changed their thinking and made them spout crazy talk. They claimed the Russians loved their children, too. They insisted the conversation shift to include non-white people in a country nobody had even heard of before we sent troops — Vietnam. It was just plain rude.
If we were fighting there they surely deserved to get their butts kicked, just like the Nazis did. The troublemakers in Vietnam were communists, case closed. And that brought us back to our comfortable Boolean query. Hippies, with their immorality and weird ideas, were communist sympathizers. If the police had to beat hippies up or arrest them, well, so be it. They were obviously un-American.
Naturally that model didn’t apply if you were a hippie. In that case the pigs were knuckle-dragging thugs, united in their desire to stifle your free expression and trample your rights. They just didn’t grasp the complexities of the human experience like you did. They were mindless, obedient tools of the man, oppression personified. Pigs were a life form even lower than the denial-addicted normals they served and protected.
After the government changed its policies, things quieted down. We pulled out of Southeast Asia and created new openings for the disenfranchised. We were still prospering. People found their places in the new modus vivendi.
Deep into the information age, we feel confident that we bear no cultural resemblance to our predecessors with their inane, plodding black and white TV shows.
The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement is a perfect snapshot of our national learning curve. While people from the full spectrum of demographics converge on every city in our nation to demand change, many Americans still frequent the intellectual ruts of our past.
Those who mourn the ethos of the 1950s complain that the protestors have no clear focus, no single demand. They want the movement reduced to dirty hippies who deserve to be beaten up. Their worldview cannot accommodate an enormous, multidimensional group who all want to be treated as human beings, even when it’s challenging or inconvenient.
The old-school two-dimensionists become increasingly obvious now as their numbers dwindle. Those who polarize for the status quo are the easiest to identify; they follow the same patterns that have failed in the past. Modern people with expansive ideas are compared to Hitler and Stalin. “Social justice” is a euphemism for “communism.”
Those who opposed the civil rights movement marginalized minorities by refusing to acknowledge their existence until they had no other choice. Their modern counterparts ignored OWS and hoped it would go away. Like any other body in motion, OWS stayed in motion when it met no unbalanced force.
“[W]e have to be careful not to allow this to get any legitimacy. I’m taking this seriously in that I’m old enough to remember what happened in the 1960s when the left-wing took to the streets and somehow the media glorified them and it ended up shaping policy. We can’t allow that to happen.” — Peter King, (R)-NY
Color TV was the logical response to black and white TV. However, color TV cannot express the kinetic reality of the internet. OWS is on an entirely new trajectory, and those who would carve out equal space for all in the future landscape must refine their calculus. Hippies laid the groundwork by taking mind-expanding drugs, creating a bigger box to include more people and allow them more mobility. It is important, however, to recognize that it is still a box.
Those of us who seek a more holistic and elastic world must remain aware of the rigidity that is our social, intellectual, and emotional heritage. This nascent moment must be nursed with due diligence to consciousness and fastidious attention to the sanctity of humankind. The more consciously we create this new paradigm the more magnificent its potential. After decades of thinking outside the box, we have arrived at a moment where we may choose to render boxes obsolete.
Literary characters can be flat or round. Flat characters are archetypes or stereotypes; they have no unique spirit and do not grow or change as human beings throughout the story. Their voices are interchangeable; they exist only to facilitate the process of the major characters. They are two-dimensional people, cardboard cutouts in the background.
Round characters are focal points; they learn, grow, and change. Round characters draw focus. Their process changes the world they inhabit. They have unique, identifiable voices, and the reader empathizes with them. They are three-dimensional people, the stars of the show.
As the 99% of Americans rewrite our future, we must be clear as to what sort of book we hope to end up with. We must ensure all human beings are written round. We must consciously cultivate the habit of seeing others as actual human beings at all times. More importantly, we must learn to catch ourselves thinking of other people as cartoon characters if they have different life experiences than our own.
Hubris convinced Columbus that the happy, peaceful Caribbean natives did not value gold because they were idiots. Similarly, we must challenge the idea of a monolithic military and police force composed of faceless villains. Those who campaign for a multicultural and multidimensional society must live up to their own ideals, and remember to treat all people as round characters, even when it is challenging or inconvenient.
For some OWS supporters, modern law enforcement is the Chicago police of the 1968 Democratic convention cross-pollinated with the Matrix. They see the skirmish line as having formed long before they arrived on the scene, and in no way recognize themselves or their attitudes as part of the problem. They are not the majority, however their antediluvian thinking is not confronted and is often compatible with reporting in even the most independent and progressive media.
For them, the flat pig has been copied onto the clipboard and pasted with however many right clicks. The pigs don’t wake up in family homes next to spouses of both genders and every race, shape and occupation. No, they live in large open barracks, their heavy boots all hitting the ground with one giant thud each morning as they embark on another glorious day of hippie stomping. They are an endless, homogenous horde of enforcers, unable to grasp the complexities of the human experience. If only there were some sentient beings among their ranks, they might be reasoned with.
Cameras caught NYPD’s Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna, unprovoked, pepper spraying cooperative women who had allowed themselves to be cordoned off. The blame for his behavior, like the pepper spray itself, tended to splatter on the younger, black-shirted officers all around him.
It is important to distinguish here between excusing bad behavior and analyzing it.
Most people, justifiably outraged by his abuse of honorable citizens, failed to consider the roundness of his character. Despite the many TV shows about the police — or perhaps because of them — civilians have an inaccurate and limited idea of police life. Like other flat characters, we ascribe to them whatever traits advance our narrative. The time has come to suggest that the police may love their children, too.
A first responder’s shirt color is a social cue that generally escapes the notice of those who have never broken bread with this tribe. It marks position within a hierarchy. DI Bologna’s white shirt announces that he is not a rank-and-file officer; this man, like the bling on his collar, is “brass.”
Within NYPD there are 13 ranks, with Chief at the top, and police officer at the bottom. Deputy Inspector is outranked only by Chief, Bureau Chief, Assistant Chief, Deputy Chief, and Inspector. That may sound like a lot, but there are seven ranks below him. Put it this way, the pyramid is a lot wider from DI Baloney down.
DI Baloney doesn’t supervise officers, he supervises their supervisors. In other words, he is the man police officers try to avoid. It is a safe bet that DI Tony Baloney has spent years administratively pepper spraying rank-and-file officers from the comfort of his climate-controlled office at One Police Plaza. As a practical matter, one does not become a deputy inspector without playing the game. This is a man who has both the knowledge and the power make a black shirt’s life unpleasant.
Did the people who enjoyed the Daily Show’s mockery of Tony Baloney consider how much greater that segment must have been for those who know him as a round villain? What about the officer who got oversprayed? His boss pepper sprayed him for no good reason. Apply that scenario to your own work environment for a moment. Would you just brush it off and keep working, as that officer surely did?
It’s easy to suspect that there are dozens of police officers with horror stories about their treatment at his hands. That may be one of the reasons they’re not allowed to communicate openly with the citizens. Curtailment of First Amendment rights among first responders keeps the system in place. This may all be news to you, but it’s not new.
Without even reviewing DI Baloney’s non-apology apology, you can rest assured no apology was offered to his subordinate. The non-punishment of forfeiting vacation days speaks volumes about the politics of the situation. Those who have played the game get to call the shots, rightness or wrongness be damned. Keep in mind, the people who respond to your 911 calls have to deal with whatever those people hand down on an ongoing basis.
Unfortunately the police are frequently painted with a broad brush, and like hippies and commies, their internal dynamics are not considered when drawing battle lines. Perhaps our new-millenium calculus can help us measure the ripple effect of the negativity that has passed from him to his subordinates to their subordinates to the streets of New York over the years.
First responders are considered essential personnel, and are subject to mandatory recall. When circumstances demand it, people can be forced to work on their days off.
Many white shirts and detectives are seen in videos of OWS crowd confrontations. They’re handling unpleasant work normally done by their subordinates, and they’re doing it on their days off. While it is easy to shrug it off as part of their job, ask yourself how many 12-hour days in a row you could spend doing something you didn’t want to do before it began to affect your mood. Depending on rank, white shirts may not be paid for overtime. Any black shirt can tell you crap rolls downhill.
What’s that you say? It’s your son’s birthday? No problem, you’re working. You scheduled and paid for a vacation six months ago? OK, you’re working. Your PTSD and drinking are so bad that your marriage is on the brink of collapse and you’ll have to miss couples counseling? Walk it off, you’re working every day until you hear otherwise. Be polite to the protestors who are jerking your chain, because you’re going to be on YouTube. Whatever you do, stay off the white shirts’ radar because they’re all ticked off about the mandatory recall.
Rising to these kinds of challenges is a part of the lifestyle first responders have chosen. However, it is only responsible to consider them as human beings while tallying up the sacrifices being made. A narrative in which only the protestors are round contaminates the ground we are breaking.
Consider the round lives of the black shirts as you watch every move they make while on mandatory recall. A 2008 study by Dr. John Violanti showed that the suicide rate for police officers (17/100,000) was right behind soldiers (20/100,000), and well above civilians (11/100,000). Suicide accounts for two to three times more officer deaths than felons. Average life expectancy for police officers is 66 years, adjusted for age and gender — 10 years less than the 76-year average for American males. Statistics on alcoholism, PTSD and retiree suicides are much harder to come by.
Police (and fire) departments are government agencies with a vested interest in limiting their financial liability. They are the inventors of plausible deniability, and their social infrastructure strongly discourages seeking help.
If a government agency used a mop on one nasty mess after another day in and day out for decades, its head would be placed on a regular schedule of cleaning, disinfection and maintenance. There is no such consideration for soldiers or first responders. It’s cheaper just to toss them out and get new ones.
In a best-case scenario, the world that emerges from OWS will not only end the military-industrial complex, but include a mechanism to address the burgeoning mental health crisis it has wrought.
When we stop using our soldiers and first responders as a convenient dumping ground for our societal ills and recognize them as our brothers and sisters, we will all be better off. If we want true change, we must recognize that they are an organic part of us, and open our minds and ears to them. Let us set a place for them at the table.
OWS is like a human’s birth; it is painful, traumatic, and inherently risky for both mother and child. The re-taking of America by the three-dimensional majority involves both stretching and pushing, and the process is simultaneously messy and joyful. Let us collectively take a deep breath, relax, and gently yield ourselves to the three-dimensional unity that is our true nature.
Teardrops on the fire,
Shake me and make me lighter
Fearless on my breath.
–Massive Attack (with liberties)