Wall Street, Libya, and William Golding

Hello, Internet, it’s Friday, October 21st, and yesterday was a very strange day.

In the morning, I saw a glimmer of hope in the Occupy Wall Street movement for the first time.

As you might recall, my major concern was that there seemed to be no unifying voice, no manifesto or list of demands that could be met to satisfy the protesters.

This is not that (and intentionally so – the movement resists simplification. “We are our demands,” they say).

But it is a clarification of the problems that those protesters see in their country and in the world. And from the bottom of my heart, I am thankful to the General Assembly for finally creating a statement. It makes me think that something good might come from this.

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“No true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power.” Indeed.

(For a nice summary of where the protest stands one month later, go here. Also, a useful FAQ is available here.)

I am encouraged by the determination of the protesters, by the idea that there are so many of them that individuals can still go to work, can do the things that keep them alive so that they are not further impoverishing themselves in order to take this stand. Strength in numbers has never been so true.

Over the past month, the number of arrests has been incredibly low. The people involved understand that non-violence is the key to this protest. There are so many of them. They are so angry. And yet this recipe for destruction is contained by the focus on the individual. Each person’s voice is heard. There is no leader making decisions, and therefore no leadership to despise. This is, at the very least, a fascinating exercise in democracy – true democracy, as the Athenians envisioned it – where each person has a voice and is not filtered through a representative who, even with the best of intentions, cannot hope to properly convey the concerns of every person he or she represents.

It is a creative exercise in problem-solving. Do not jump on a solution and run. Think. Speak to each other. There are no demands in this statement, not because they do not strive to create them, but because determining the demand takes time. Things have to change, but a rash change is not better than no change. When a solution surfaces (and it will take a while, as anyone who’s worked on a collaborative project can attest), it may jut be the right one.

Have you read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies? If you haven’t, you really ought to. It’s an important book.

(Fast summary, so that, if you haven’t read it, you can still understand what I’m saying: a group of young boys (preteens and younger) are in a plane crash that strands them on an island with no surviving adults. Forced to create their own society in order to survive, they attempt to instate a democratic system, led by a 12-year-old boy named Ralph, who has a natural talent for politics. He is good-looking. He is well-intentioned. He tries to listen to everyone. When Ralph is elected leader, his only competition is Jack, who is more-or-less a pack leader, and after not very long, Jack and his followers, who have been tasked with hunting for food, engage in what is essentially guerrilla warfare against Ralph’s democratic community. As the boys recognize that violence is stronger than intellect, they abandon that community to join Jack’s tribe. In a horribly climactic scene that will stay with me forever, Ralph – who recognizes his fall from power – attempts to integrate himself into the tribe, but the boys have allowed their most primal instincts to take control, and when they are “threatened” by the approach of a “thing” in the jungle, the group of children pounce on the child who was innocently approaching them and mob him to death. And it’s all downhill from there.)

(Oh, there’s so much more to it than that. You just have to read it. Please, please read it. Ok, back to the point.)

I read Lord of the Flies in grade 12, and I am aware that Golding’s take on human nature is controversial, but to date I had seen nothing in world news to prove him wrong. Democracy is an artificial system. The justice system that comes with democracy is a (debatably) well-thought-out distillation of our instinctive need for revenge. The French Revolution (there it is again), which was nominally based on Enlightenment (though, in fact, it was based on hunger) descended into the Reign of Terror because fear is one of the strongest emotions we can feel, and people tend to act out of their emotions, no matter how well we rationalize it. Soccer riots, hockey riots, political protests run amok – all of these show us over and over that angry people in large numbers are prone to violence, and that violence spreads like wildfire.

So I’ve been holding my breath and keeping my fingers crossed that Occupy Wall Street continues to be a non-violent protest. I want something to come of it. And until yesterday morning, I couldn’t imagine that they could keep the protest non-violent for long enough to accomplish anything – especially because there seemed to be no end in sight.

The movement is, to be cliched about it, history in the making. OWS could change the way that western society operates. And I hope it does. What I find so heartening about it is that, for once, Golding’s version of human nature seems to have taken a back seat to thought, process, conversation and intellect. Democracy – the original, Athenian Democracy – might work, at least long enough to come up with some solutions to the pervasive problems that the 99% are bringing to light.

Then, in the afternoon, I went to the gym, and found about the death of Muammar Gaddafi.

When I came home, I read this article. It is one of the only ones I’ve seen that reports that Gaddafi was killed by the soldiers who captured him. Mostly, I have seen a lot of rejoicing in his death.

I am glad they found him. We did not need him to become the next Osama Bin Laden. I also believe that the world would be a better place without some people. I do not necessarily believe that that means we should kill those people. But I am not sad that Gaddafi is dead.

But the manner of his death, and the subsequent reports, were crushingly disappointing to me, especially yesterday, when I had just been filled with hope for the future of humanity. You want Golding? Here is Golding. Assuming that it is true that the National Transitional Council (the Libyan army that captured Gaddafi) did not issue a kill order, and in light of the video footage indicating that Gaddafi was alive and walking when he was captured, and that he somehow got a bullet wound in his head that had not been there when he was taken, it is hard to believe anything but that he was murdered by his captors.

The media are gloating. They are enjoying every morsel of the delicious poetic justice. And in a Greek-mythology kind of way, it’s perfect. A man who, for decades, murdered and tortured the people he was meant to be ruling, who he called “rats” as they drove him from power, is found in a drainpipe, dragged out, and then killed by a group of soldiers who have, for a few minutes, become a mob. It is, in its way, the perfect ending to this man’s life.

But something is missing from this story. It is this sentiment, expressed by someone – anyone – with any form of world leadership: “You cannot murder a person, no matter how much pain he has inflicted upon you. We have a process, and in this case, it would not have failed you. He would have been punished. He would have been killed. You would not, then, have been murderers.” Where is the voice that reminds us that we (the world) are trying to institute a healthy, democratic system in Libya, and that part of that system is due process in justice? What precedent does this killing set?

Gaddafi is dead. Good. But was his immediate death (as opposed to his death a bit later, after a trial) worth the abandonment of some of the major principles we are trying to reinstate in his broken country? Was it worth this exposure of human delight – and in people who were not affected by Gaddafi’s rule – at the violent destruction of another human life?

Again, Golding is right about people. What’s in our nature cannot be thought away. The best we can hope for is that our natural inclination towards community, towards love, and towards empathy, can be just as strong and just as powerful. And that sometimes, as it is right now on the streets of New York, our intellect can overcome the ugliest parts of ourselves. And keep us talking.