October 10, 2011


"Last American Who Knew What the F-- He Was Doing Dies," read The Onion's take on Steve Jobs's death this past week.  A fitting tribute because Jobs was a brilliant innovator and business leader, and because most great technological breakthroughs happen elsewhere these days.  Apple was the exception, and its products have had a profound impact on the way we connect to each other, for better or worse.

Jobs was not, however, quite the Zen visionary as captured in so many obituaries this week.  As Mike Daisey, whose off-Broadway play about Jobs opens this week, points out in his NY Times op-ed, Jobs exploited cheap labor in China, and by creating proprietary hurdles for most Apple products, he turned Apple's original open-source philosophy on its head in order to create his empire.  Steve Jobs was no more or less ruthless than most CEO's of major American corporations, but people loved him because they fell in love with the products he introduced, creating a brand loyalty, ruthlessly enforced or not, that most companies could only envy.

iPhone, iPod, iPad, iTunes, iMac: So many people this week credited Jobs with decentralizing the power institutions of the world and putting it in the hands of the individual.  The genius of embracing one's inner i.  The advertising campaigns exhorting us to be heroes, to think differently, to switch.  Ultimately, however, Jobs gave us products that homogenized our world, aggregated our preferences, and left us with more entertainment but no more empowerment than we had before.  There are exceptions of course.  iMovie, Garage Band and iPhoto became invaluable tools for some new artists.  Apple's promise, however, was that we would no longer be lemmings (to Microsoft).  We could have our own voice and make a difference in the world.

The day after Jobs's death, I attended a taping of the Colbert Show.  Before the taping began, Colbert came out to answer questions from the studio audience.  He was introduced as "the greatest living American."  Colbert answered questions out of character but was just as smart and funny as he is while performing.  One audience member asked Colbert if he planned on writing more segments about the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Colbert got very serious.  He said they had done one story about it but that he didn't want to do any further material because "I think they have a good thing going there, and I don't think my  talking about it on my show will be good for them."  Though he had answered the question in a personable manner, I got the sense that Colbert didn't want to joke around about Occupy Wall Street.

Colbert didn't want to joke about Steve Jobs either.  He created a funny but ultimately heartfelt tribute to Jobs that reflected Colbert's own love for Apple.

Colbert's guest that night was Jason Amerine, a Green Beret who served alongside Hamid Karzai in the early days of the Afghanistan war.  It was an unusually somber interview by Colbert's standards, and Amerine's humorless demeanor didn't help.  There was an unusual sincerity to the conversation.  Colbert: "When people say 'thank you for your service, is that the right thing to say? Is there something else?"  Amerine: "It's the right thing to say but for us it's difficult because we think of those who died, those who are still serving overseas, or who are recovering in hospitals from serious injury.  That's what makes it so hard to know what to say."

When the Colbert Show was over, my friend and I decided to head down to Occupy Wall Street.  As we approached Liberty and Broadway I heard the drum beats.  There was much more: A media center, a 24/7 political rally, an information table, a kitchen and mess hall, an area for displaying protest signs and, on the Church Street side of the park, a hippie drum session, longhairs dancing a multiculti boogie while people banged on drums, tambourines, railings, garbage cans, park benches.  My God, this is really happening.

I saw chaos, but also focus.  There was a nerve center organizing general assemblies, coordinating with local civil rights groups, labor unions and liberal orgs.  Yes, there were people high as a kite, there were love-ins, there was revelry.  But many more people were talking about the issues of the day, telling bystanders why they were there and what they hoped to accomplish.  This idea that the protesters do not have a coherent message is garbage.  They are more clear-eyed and informed than most of the people who would be happy to dismiss them.

On one railing someone had taped an American flag, the fifty stars replaced by the logos of 50 American corporations.  Apple was on the flag, alongside McDonald's and Coca-Cola.  I wondered what Steve Jobs would have said about the protesters.  Here was thinking differently.  Here was the elevated i.  All of the media center protesters were working on iMacs.  But would Jobs have approved?

We walked around for a long time Thursday night.  We talked to some of the organizers.  We donated money to the kitchen fund.  Finally we had to leave.  We stopped by the information table.  My friend found a flyer announcing that Yom Kippur services would be held at the protest site at 7 PM the next night.  I decided right away to return on Friday.


For seven years I worked on the 53rd floor of One Liberty Plaza.  The building is notable for having the best bird's eye view of the World Trade Center site.  I spent a lot of time facing west, looking over the slow-moving construction of the new WTC buildings.  Not once did I turn south and look down at Liberty Square/Zuccotti Park.  The square was just a place you walked through to get elsewhere.  Other than a weekly farmers market, I don't remember any event ever being held in the square.

Now, less than a year after I took a job in Midtown, this little, nothing park had become the epicenter of a political movement.  The irony of the location was all I could think of as I got off the train Friday night and walked across Broadway to Noguchi's red cube, where the Kol Nidre services had already begun.  I had expected a handful of Jews, maybe a singing of the Kol Nidre prayer and not much more.  Instead I came upon hundreds of people gathered in a large circle while 4-5 rabbis led from the middle of the circle.  

The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree.
They shall thrive like a cedar in Lebanon.

The spirit of the protesters, the spirituality of the voices in prayer, overwhelmed me.  This year I had gathered with others for more than my own reckoning.   

The circle continued to grow.  Across the street the drums continued to thump.  Organizers were leading a declaration of their demands as we started the Al Chet:

And for the sin which we have committed before You by hard-heartedness.
For the sin which we have committed before You by false denial and lying.
And for the sin which we have committed before You by a bribe-taking or a bribe-giving hand.
For the sin which we have committed before You in business  dealings. 
For the sin which we have committed before You by [taking or  giving] interest and by usury.
For the sin which we have committed before You by running to do evil.

It felt real.  It felt, period.

I hopped back on the train to Brooklyn in time for the deafening quiet of my synagogue's Kol Nidre service.  A congregant played the cello, fomenting a sense of gravitas.  We sat.  We stood.  We sat again.  The rabbi spoke well, explained the history of the synagogue and the hard times it had faced since the current building opened more than 100 years ago.  I went home that night wishing the synagogue had held services in Zuccotti Park.

The next night I broke the fast in New Jersey.  As I sat down for my first bites, someone across the table mentioned Occupy Wall Street.  "They're a bunch of Americans who live in a capitalist society and are anti-capitalism," he said.  "They don't have jobs so it's easy for them to sit around and do nothing."

I left the room rather than debate the point.  I thought of one of the signs I had seen at the protest site: WE'RE JUST A BUNCH OF DIRTY LAZY HIPPIES.  Two out of three, perhaps.  Lazy?  I don't know anyone personally who would be willing to sleep outside in a public park for weeks on end, motivated only by their political convictions.  It puts the Tea Party to shame.  It puts all of us limousine liberals to shame.  Occupy Wall Street is doing the heavy lifting.  Copycat protests are sprouting up across the country.  This is real.  This is what political change looks like.  Be part of the 99% and support the young leaders who are taking a stand against corporate greed and wealth consolidation.  Support Occupy Wall Street.  

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