“An Unimaginable Pit of Emptiness:” Emerson on Finance

In today’s popular imagination, New England Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller are known primarily as canonical literary figures, or in Thoreau’s case as a proto-hippie recluse who lived in the woods by Walden Pond and wrote a book about it. But these writers were engaged with some of the most pressing issues of their day, from abolition and anti-imperialism to civil disobedience.

It was Thoreau himself who coined the phrase “civil disobedience,” in an 1849 essay of the same name in which he argues for the morality of refusing to pay taxes to an unjust government. He spent a night in Concord’s jail for his refusal to pay the poll tax, which he felt was supporting slavery and the Mexican War, but was bailed out by a friend, and spent the next day leading a spirited “huckleberry party” through the woods around town, where “the State was nowhere to be seen.” [1] 

Although less inclined to direct action than his younger colleague, Emerson was a strident critic of contemporary society, exposing the many contradictions and injustices on which it was built. In his lecture “The Transcendentalist,” first delivered in January 1842 at the Masonic Temple in Boston (see image above), Emerson sets out a strong dichotomy between contemporary material culture and idealist thought, praising solitude, independence, and “thoughts and principles not marketable or perishable.” [2] 

In one passage particularly relevant to today’s financial crisis, Emerson chooses as his protagonist a banker building a mass of logic and buttoned-down reputation on a base of pure chaos:

“The sturdy capitalist, no matter how deep and square on blocks of Quincy granite he lays the foundations of his banking-house or Exchange, must set it, at last, not on a cube corresponding to the angles of his structure, but on a mass of unknown materials and solidity, red-hot or white-hot, perhaps at the core, which rounds off to an almost perfect sphericity, and lies floating in soft air, and goes spinning away, dragging bank and banker with it at a rate of thousands of miles the hour, he knows not whither, — a bit of bullet, now glimmering, now darkling through a small cubic space on the edge of an unimaginable pit of emptiness […] ask him why he believes that an uniform experience will continue uniform, or on what grounds he founds his faith in his figures, and he will perceive that his mental fabric is built up on just as strange and quaking foundations as his proud edifice of stone.” [3]

Americans of Emerson’s day were no strangers to crisis. In some ways, they were more prepared for the underlying uncertainty and risk behind financial markets than people today, accustomed to steadily rising stocks and home values, with minor blips along the way. 

In fact, only five years before, the Panic of 1837 ended a period of speculation and inflation with a devastating reckoning, in which banks in New York City refused to honor paper currency, leading to widespread bank failure and record high unemployment. Part of the cause lay in President Andrew Jackson’s decision to withdraw government funds from the Second Bank of the United States (a precursor to the Federal Reserve), but the public primarily blamed the Panic on incoming President Martin Van Buren, who came into office on the cusp of the disaster and was unable to reverse it during his four years in office. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

[1] From Thoreau’s “Resistance to Civil Government” or, “Civil Disobedience:”http://sniggle.net/Experiment/index5.php?entry=rtcg#p33

[2] From Emerson’s “The Transcendentalist,” quoted at: http://www.emersoncentral.com/transcendentalist.htm

[3] Ibid.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

 
 

nostrich:

One hundred years ago, an American pharmacist named Wilbur Scoville developed a scale to measure the intensity of a pepper’s burn. The scale – as you can see on the widely used chart to the left – puts sweet bell peppers at the zero mark and the blistering habenero at up to 350,000 Scoville Units.

I checked the Scoville Scale for something else yesterday. I was looking for a way to measure the intensity of pepper spray, the kind that police have been using on Occupy protestors including this week’s shocking incident involving peacefully protesting students at the University of California-Davis.

Deborah Blum wrote a great thing about pepper spray.

James Baldwin vs. John Pike

braiker:

Also, somewhat speciously, the Atlantic has this: Why I Feel Bad for the Pepper-Spraying Policeman, Lt. John Pike:

Here’s what [James Baldwin] had to say in the New York Times about Jim Clark, an Alabama sheriff and staunch civil rights opponent whose state troopers viciously attacked peaceful protesters. 

‘[Clark] cannot be dismissed as a total monster; I am sure he loves his wife and children and likes to get drunk. One has to assume that he is a man like me… Something awful must have happened to a human being to be able to put a cattle prod against a woman’s breasts. What happens to the woman is ghastly. What happens to the man who does it is in some ways much, much worse.’
 
 

On the left: Birmingham police hit children with a fire hose on May 3, 1963, during the civil rights "Children’s Crusade." Photograph by Charles Moore

On the right: Portland police use pepper spray on an Occupy Portland protester on November 17, 2011. Photograph by Randy Rasmussen.

 
 

There’s been a lot of hoo-ing and haw-ing in the press recently about how the leaderlessness of OWS (and even the Arab Spring) is turning into a both a political and practical liability. Without a Stokely Charmichael or Eugene Debs to speak truth to power, the argument goes, police in Oakland and Atlanta have been able to bust up peaceful protests with reckless abandon without the buck stopping anywhere. 

The first months of OWS were able to work without any set of leaders or agreed-upon demands because the main objective was one of riotous visibility, a sort of “we’re mad as hell, and we’re not gonna take it anymore,” kind of thing. But that was months ago, and while a sizable chunk of Americans support OWS, with winter coming on strong, protest fatigue and just plain fatigue are threatening to thin the ranks considerably. 

So perhaps it’s unsurprising that the very decentralization that has kept OWS from coming forth with either demands or a latter-day Debs, has encouraged at least one Occupy group to go it alone and form a political party, complete with candidates and Congressional aspirations.

Enter Occupy Cincinnati and the not-so-subtly-named Occupation Party, which party spokesman Tyrone Givens says is planning to run six candidates for local seats in three states. The party has a ten-point platform on their site, which includes everything from jailing those responsible for the recession to repealing the Citizens United Supreme Court case

Electoral politics, after all, are exactly how the late nineteenth-century Populists turned their ideas into enacted Progressive Era platforms, and more recently, how the rank & file hijinks of the Tea Party elected folks like Michele Bachmann to the US House of Representatives. While the Progressive era produced a president or two, the Tea Party has, mercifully, not gotten as far. But the point remains. America realizes there’s a 99 percent, but if OWS truly wants to enact change, shouldn’t it be petitioning Washington and Wall Street, the two entities who have ironically evaded it from the beginning?

 
 

Coxey’s Army heads toward the Capitol. (Illus. in: Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper, 1894 May 10, via the Library of Congress.)

Word spread around the country. Men left their homes, their farms and their cities, and headed toward Washington. The economic boom had mostly missed them; they bore the brunt of the bust. They didn’t have jobs. Unemployment surpassed 15 percent. Workers had been replaced by machines, dislocated by trains, were too aware of inequality. They felt disenfranchised, disempowered, and they were angry. They came to be called an army—the most famous of them Coxey’s Army.

Jacob Sechler Coxey was a businessman from Massillon, Ohio. He made his money from his sandstone quarry and spent it on racehorses. He was no robber baron though, and he spent a lot of time thinking about how the country should be improved. He was obsessed with fixing broken roads. In 1894 he could also see the crushing economic crisis that had followed the excesses of the Gilded Age, as banks crashed and businesses went broke, and the homeless wandered and became known as hoboes. Coxey pushed for massive public works program to give people jobs and fix the nation’s infrastructure.

Many of the men who marched to Washington made a more diffuse protest. They appealed to a vague sense of justice. They said they marched for the commonweal of Christ. But mostly they wanted jobs.

On May 1, 1894, a mass of men reached the Capitol. Coxey planned to take the steps to make his speech. But the local government, which had never seen a protest like this, decided things had gone too far. They had a few weapons at their disposal. A democracy allows for certain demonstrations: but not mussing up public spaces and greens. Coxey trampled the shrubs and lawn. And so the leaders were arrested, and the steps were clear.

 

Police forced Columbia University students out of Hamilton Hall on May 22, 1968, ending the students’ occupation in the building. (Photo: Larry C. Morris/The New York Times).

The year is 1968.

Communist Czechoslovakia has just elected the relatively liberal Alexander Dubcek, who seeks to establish ”socialism with a human face.” During what became known as Prague Spring, Dubcek starts to loosen restrictions on speech, media, and travel.

Meanwhile, the Northern Vietnamese’s Tet offensive stuns America. The My Lai Massacre follows in March. The next month, President Lyndon B. Johnson announces that he wouldn’t seek another term. Robert Kennedy puts in a bid as the Democratic nominee. On April 4th, Martin Luther King is shot

Riots erupted across the country — in Louisville, Kansas, Chicago, Baltimore, and DC. You know how computer speakers seize up several seconds before a cell phone rings? That’s what the air was like four months into 1968. The unrest was palpable. Nineteen days after the assassination of King, students united to protest Columbia University’s support of the Vietnam War and its [ongoing] colonization of Harlem. The students decided to occupy:

On April 23, 1968,  several hundred students gathered at the sundial on the Columbia campus to protest the war and the gym led by the Student Afro-American Society (SAS) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Some went to Morningside Park, where they tore down a fence around the gymnasium construction site and battled with police. Then they and other protesters marched into Hamilton Hall, Columbia’s main undergraduate classroom building, occupied its lobby, and prevented the dean of the college from leaving his office. By morning, African American students continued to occupy Hamilton, while other Columbia and Barnard students, mostly white, took over President Grayson Kirk’s office in Low Library. Soon student protesters took over three other buildings—Fayerweather, Mathematics, and Avery.

For six days, while demonstrations for and against the occupation roiled the campus, faculty members attempted to mediate. But to no avail. The stumbling block: a demand for amnesty for the protesters that the administration was unwilling to accept. In the early morning hours of April 30, Kirk summoned the New York City police, who entered the occupied buildings, beat many of the demonstrators, as well as bystanders and faculty members, and arrested more than 700. The building occupation was over, but the outrage was just starting to build. Thousands of students and faculty, many radicalized by the police action, went on strike, effectively shutting down the university for the rest of the semester.

The gym was never built in Morningside Park, and Columbia’s weapons research contract was terminated. But the implications of the 1968 occupation and strike went far beyond those two demands. In the wake of Columbia’s protest, campuses around the country exploded. And students took to the streets in cities around the world, from Paris and Prague to Tokyo and Mexico City. The social framework—institutions that excluded minorities, political parties that disenfranchised voters, a government that waged an unpopular war—seemed to be coming apart. Hopes were soon dashed. Before the year was out, Kennedy was assassinated, Prague Spring was crushed by Soviet tanks, the Chicago police violently beat protesters at the Democratic Convention, and Richard Nixon was elected President.

Let me just repeat one bit: Thousands of students and faculty, many radicalized by the police action, went on strike—

Thank you, Oakland Police Department.

Students outside of the occupation of Hamilton Hall in 1985 demanding that Columbia divest from apartheid South Africa.

The front page of the New York Times on May 4, 1970, reporting the killing of four students at Kent State by members of the Ohio National Guard.
Accusations of media bias are nothing new. Both sides of the political spectrum complain that mainstream journalists misrepresent them. Occupy Wall Street is no exception. The right says the media’s “liberal bias” makes its coverage too sympathetic; the left says the media undermines and underreports the protests.
Let’s look at the lede from the New York Times’ top national story on Thursday, "Cities Begin Cracking Down on ‘Occupy’ Protests." 
OAKLAND, Calif. — After weeks of cautiously accepting the teeming round-the-clock protests spawned by Occupy Wall Street, several cities have come to the end of their patience and others appear to be not far behind.
This is an excellent example of how journalists, in an effort to appear neutral, can dilute their reporting to the point of incoherence. Cities cannot “come to the end of their patience” because they’re not people. Mayors and local officials can come to the end of their patience. So can cops. But cities?
43% of Americans agree with the views of Occupy Wall Street, as reported by the latest CBS/New York Times poll. In Oakland, a progressive city, that percentage is likely higher. But the lede above suggests that a significant majority of Oakland residents are losing patience with the protest. 
This fake-neutral language pervades the article. The protests “resulted” in a “life-threatening injury,” “violence broke out.” Throughout are passive constructions, missing subjects. It reminds one of the purposely vague answers people give on exams they didn’t study for. 
The article’s biggest flaw is that it buries its most newsworthy fact. The “life-threatening injury” mentioned above was suffered by Scott Olsen, an Iraq war veteran. He doesn’t appear until the 24th paragraph:
In Oakland, where one protester — Scott Olsen, an Iraq war veteran — was in critical condition at a local hospital after being struck in the head with a projectile during the chaotic street battle on Tuesday, city officials defended their actions, saying that the police used tear gas after being pelted with rocks.
Apart from being some pretty gruesome prose, this paragraph is misleading. It doesn’t quote testimony from protesters who claim that a police projectile hit Olsen, or refer to video that appears to show that the police attacked first. Instead, the reader is left to assume that Olsen was the victim of “a chaotic street battle.” How the chaos began, and who its instigators were, isn’t discussed.
It’s worth noting that forty-one years ago, the New York Times held its reporters to a higher standard. In their front page coverage of the Kent State killings in 1970, the journalist provides a remarkably evenhanded account. After giving the National Guard’s side of the story—“the guardsmen had been forced to shoot after a sniper opened fire against the troops”—the article continues:
This reporter, who was with the group of students, did not see any indication of sniper fire, nor was the sound of any gunfire audible before the Guard volley. Students, conceding that rocks had been thrown, heatedly denied that there was any sniper.
In other words: it’s a journalist’s responsibility to verify official claims, not merely to repeat them. Imagine a reporter contradicting the Oakland police department’s version of events with his own testimony, and the testimony of the people he took the time to interview.
As Walter Lippmann put it, “There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and shame the devil.”
 
 

The front page of the New York Times on May 4, 1970, reporting the killing of four students at Kent State by members of the Ohio National Guard.

Accusations of media bias are nothing new. Both sides of the political spectrum complain that mainstream journalists misrepresent them. Occupy Wall Street is no exception. The right says the media’s “liberal bias” makes its coverage too sympathetic; the left says the media undermines and underreports the protests.

Let’s look at the lede from the New York Times’ top national story on Thursday, "Cities Begin Cracking Down on ‘Occupy’ Protests." 

OAKLAND, Calif. — After weeks of cautiously accepting the teeming round-the-clock protests spawned by Occupy Wall Street, several cities have come to the end of their patience and others appear to be not far behind.

This is an excellent example of how journalists, in an effort to appear neutral, can dilute their reporting to the point of incoherence. Cities cannot “come to the end of their patience” because they’re not people. Mayors and local officials can come to the end of their patience. So can cops. But cities?

43% of Americans agree with the views of Occupy Wall Street, as reported by the latest CBS/New York Times poll. In Oakland, a progressive city, that percentage is likely higher. But the lede above suggests that a significant majority of Oakland residents are losing patience with the protest. 

This fake-neutral language pervades the article. The protests “resulted” in a “life-threatening injury,” “violence broke out.” Throughout are passive constructions, missing subjects. It reminds one of the purposely vague answers people give on exams they didn’t study for. 

The article’s biggest flaw is that it buries its most newsworthy fact. The “life-threatening injury” mentioned above was suffered by Scott Olsen, an Iraq war veteran. He doesn’t appear until the 24th paragraph:

In Oakland, where one protester — Scott Olsen, an Iraq war veteran — was in critical condition at a local hospital after being struck in the head with a projectile during the chaotic street battle on Tuesday, city officials defended their actions, saying that the police used tear gas after being pelted with rocks.

Apart from being some pretty gruesome prose, this paragraph is misleading. It doesn’t quote testimony from protesters who claim that a police projectile hit Olsen, or refer to video that appears to show that the police attacked first. Instead, the reader is left to assume that Olsen was the victim of “a chaotic street battle.” How the chaos began, and who its instigators were, isn’t discussed.

It’s worth noting that forty-one years ago, the New York Times held its reporters to a higher standard. In their front page coverage of the Kent State killings in 1970, the journalist provides a remarkably evenhanded account. After giving the National Guard’s side of the story—“the guardsmen had been forced to shoot after a sniper opened fire against the troops”—the article continues:

This reporter, who was with the group of students, did not see any indication of sniper fire, nor was the sound of any gunfire audible before the Guard volley. Students, conceding that rocks had been thrown, heatedly denied that there was any sniper.

In other words: it’s a journalist’s responsibility to verify official claims, not merely to repeat them. Imagine a reporter contradicting the Oakland police department’s version of events with his own testimony, and the testimony of the people he took the time to interview.

As Walter Lippmann put it, “There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and shame the devil.”

 
 

Occupy and occupation first became part of the language of protest in September 1920, when factory workers in Italy held strikes against working conditions. About 600,000 workers took control of the factories, and the movement was known in Italian as l’occupazione delle fabbriche, or “the occupation of the factories.” The earliest evidence in the Oxford English Dictionary for the relevant senses of occupy (“to gain access to and remain in…without authority, as a form of protest”) and occupation (“the action of occupying a work place, public building, etc., as a form of protest”) come from reports of the 1920 Italy protests. Another term for protest-style occupation, the sit-in, has been in use since 1937, though it really took off in the ’60s, along with such spin-offs as the teach-in and the be-in.

Ben Zimmer, "Occupy Word Street" from the Visual Thesaurus. He brought ideas from the post to a recent interview with On the Media

 
 

Police versus protestors in downtown Oakland, during the anti-Vietnam “Stop the Draft Week.” October 20, 1967. Photograph by Bill Crouch. Courtesy of the Oakland Museum of California.

With police brutality at Occupy Oakland all over the news, it’s worth remembering that Oakland has a rich history of protest. On October 20, 1967, four thousand people marched through the streets, blocking Army buses, clashing with police. This was the biggest demonstration against the Vietnam War up to that point. At a sit-in at the Oakland Army Induction Center, even Joan Baez got arrested. Then, as now, police violence turned the streets into a warzone. In the 1960s, however, the Oakland mayor didn’t have a Facebook page where people could leave thousands of angry comments.

 Poster