A few weeks ago I had the honor of presenting Joan Gussow, author of This Organic Life and her new book Growing, Older: A Chronicle of Death, Life and Vegetables, with the Lifetime Achievement Award at Prevention’s Integrative Medicine Awards lunch. Before the lunch, we were chatting and I made some offhand comment about how I couldn’t quite understand the Occupy Wall Street movement. I was stunned by Joan’s passionate defense and insight into what the Occupy movement stood for and for the first time, I felt I understood it. Hearing how she grew up in the McCarthy era and the impact that had on activism in general in America gave me the perspective and context I had been longing for. I asked her to blog about it. And I am thrilled to say she did. Thanks Joan! —Maria
by guest blogger Joan Gussow
“It isn’t working.” That’s the message. Bubbling up through the torrents of words that seek to “explain” the Occupy phenomenon is a message that has moved my 83-year-old heart: “It just isn’t working.”
It takes me back: I am 18 again, in college in Southern California, a good student at a good school, although it has taken parental sacrifice and a $2,000 scholarship (covering four-years of tuition!) to send me to Pomona College. It is 1946, just at the end of World War II, a time of great material optimism, and I am a freshman, a decidedly unworldly freshman.
My family has lost to the war no one who was close to us. We West Coasters had always worried a good deal more about the Japanese subverting, bombing, or invading California than we did about anything the Germans did (at least until the film footage from the concentration camps reached us). And though my parents subscribed to the Los Angeles Times and listened to the news every night (you couldn’t watch it then), news really didn’t interest me. As a young person anxious to please both grown-ups and boys, I worked hardest on my schoolwork and my tan. California was, after all, the Golden State, far from the centers of power
But even in California, and especially in Hollywood, where my family lived, it was impossible to avoid the “Red Scare” that followed the breakdown of our uneasy wartime alliance with the Soviet Union. In the year I began college, Richard Nixon’s red-baiting ascent to political power began in a run for Congress from the very district where Pomona was located.
And in California, you didn’t need to be news obsessed—or even particularly worldly—to know and fear committees devoted to Un-American Activities because we had one of our own, the California Senate Fact-finding Subcommittee on Un-American Activities (SUAC), California’s equivalent of Washington’s much more formidable HUAC, the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
The California committee was memorable only for what one observer has described as its “vigorous and ineffective investigations of Communists.” HUAC remains in public memory for the “blacklist” it began with what came to be called The Hollywood Ten. The Committee’s Chairman, J. Parnell Thomas, convinced that the Screen Writers’ Guild was rife with Communists planting pro-Soviet propaganda in our movies, called 11 screenwriters and one director to testify before his committee. Ten claimed their Fifth Amendment rights, refused to answer any questions, and denounced the investigation. They were sent to jail and suspended without pay by the major studios. This was the beginning of a much longer blacklist of unemployables, and the start of my sophomore year in college.
And if you weren’t planning to write for films and simply needed a job after graduation, there was an even more chilling threat: what we knew as “The Attorney General’s List.” Until I googled it for this essay, I didn’t know the document was actually called The United States Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations. It began to be compiled at the end of my freshman year, a list of organizations the government viewed as “subversive”—including the Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan—and, most chillingly for someone just starting out in life, groups of all sorts that were alleged (by someone) to be Communist fronts.
Here is what that felt like if you were young at that time: What I knew, what everyone in my college knew, was that all sorts of seemingly harmless organizations might be put on this list based on some anonymous accusation. And if you happened to have carelessly joined any of these, your name might suddenly appear in the paper as a “communist sympathizer,” and you might never get a job for the rest of your life.
For me, this meant avoiding not just Students for a Democratic Society (the “notorious” SDS), it meant avoiding even the Young Democrats. (I’m not sure whether I would have feared joining the Young Republicans, because, frankly, it never occurred to me.) I simply knew you should keep your head down because it was dangerous to belong to anything.
In the years since, I was surely moved by the courage of the 1960s’ young people battling for change. But I was too busy to participate, struggling as I was to survive on an artist’s income with a husband and two small children. And the “movement,” aimed in large measure at stopping an unjust war, seemed from my distance not to be insisting that the whole system was broken, only that it needed to allow for more pleasure. Which, of course, it did. But that’s a different story.
I learned, over the years, to speak out in my own profession. And, stimulated this February by news of Britain’s UK-Uncut movement rebelling against its government’s austerity measures in the teeth of the financial sector’s well-reimbursed misbehavior, I even delivered a call for revolution in the Midwest. Given that there was insufficient outrage, I told my listeners to provoke a revolt against the dangers of Business as Usual in the food and energy sectors; I felt they needed to start a revolution against something familiar to everyone—economic inequity.
And so, as I watched the Occupy Wall Street movement unfold, watched this disparate group of fed-up citizens resist articulating a specific set of “demands” despite the press’s demand that they do so, I recognized that something important was happening. Any specific demands the movement might make—remove the subsidies that allow big oil to make obscene profits, put a tax on stock trades, break up the companies too big to fail now that “reform” has made them even bigger, regulate air and soil and water pollution and biotech before they kill us—any or all would be branded left- or right-wing, overwhelmed by noisy arguments for and against. We have been poisoned by information pollution, with far too much of the pollution generated by the very people whose actions are taking us down.
To focus on specific demands would divert us from a fundamental fact: No single fix will work. The whole system is broken. We’ve been had. We are being steadily poisoned by industrial chemicals, seduced into participating in the dangerous alteration of our own weather, fattened by a food supply that bankrupts farmers while it subsidizes the wrong crops, and intentionally distracted from noticing all this and more by the circuses that the 1 percent provides to distract us. Not for nothing did Neil Postman warn us a quarter of a century ago that we were Amusing Ourselves to Death. Now we can even access distraction electronically as we sit impatiently in traffic jams that might be mitigated by rational transport systems that we are told we can’t afford. This is what those who hold most of our wealth and power have given us.
It isn’t working; it isn’t working; it isn’t working. Finally, it can be said without branding us red or pink or green—or Republican or Democrat. I hope the OWS folks keep making noise until they get the attention of everyone, even the Tea Party. I hope we end up with what one friend of mine proposed, a Green Tea Party. We’re all on the same side, after all. It’s our shared planet they’re killing. What’s going on isn’t good for any of us, or our children and grandchildren. It’s not even good for the 1 percent, although they behave as if they’ll have a planet of their own to retreat to. It all needs fixing, and no single fix will do. We are all part of the 99 percent; we are all the ones who need to fix it.
This was the message that came from the Occupy Wall Street team on the morning after its members were banished from Zucotti Park: “Our idea is that our political structures should serve us, the people—all of us, not just those who have amassed great wealth and power.” YESSSSS!
Joan Gussow is the matriarch of the local food movement and Professor emeritus and former chair of the Nutrition Education Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is the author of many books including The Feeding Web: Issues in Nutritional Ecology, This Organic Life and her newest book Growing, Older: A Chronicle of Death, Life and Vegetables.