Episode 15: Cameron Whitten
Cameron Whitten is, in his own words, a “shameless agitator” from Portland, Oregon. He became politically active during the Occupy Portland movement and, at twenty, made a bid to become the mayor of the Rose City with endorsements from the Green Party and Oregon Progressive Party. As of this posting, Whitten is on day 44 of a hunger strike designed to encourage the Portland City Council to address issues of housing inequality.
We spoke about Occupy, equality, and the idea of The Conversation. For Whitten, The Conversation is a first step to addressing issues of class inequality, which he considers the greatest crisis our era. This marks the first extended discussion of class in The Conversation, but it is worth juxtaposing Whitten’s view next to the belief in incremental improvement that pervaded my talks with Max More, Colin Camerer, Chris McKay, and Ariel Waldman.
Interestingly, Whitten also brushes aside the issue of population growth that has surfaced in conversations from Jan Lundberg to John Zerzan. There are abundant resources, Whitten claims, rather the question is one of distribution.
I also welcome the arrival of class into the discussion. It seems as though class is an issue that has gone largely unnoticed or ignored – and not just in the conversation here, but in the public discourse as well. Perhaps the conclusion of the Cold War and the arrival of the supposed Fukuyamian end to history have lulled us into a collective and dangerous sense of security and complacency. I say collective, but I suppose it is not collective at all, considering the disparity that exists the world over. What I do find interesting, though, is the fact that demonstrations like the Occupy Movement are to be almost exclusively found in the industrialized world, where the disparity is indeed present, but not nearly as pronounced as in the developing world. I wonder if this is evidence of the fact that our ninety-nine percent has the luxury to engage in such activities, whereas the much larger and much needier communities across the global south face more practical concerns on a daily basis. It could be that these populations would cast a skeptical light upon our dissatisfaction, and would someday hope to enjoy that which we take for granted and protest against.
Although I find it heartening that so many are trying to make their voices heard, I think that there is a fundamental flaw in the kind of broad-based activism advocated by Mr. Whitten. It seems to me that such a lack of organization and coordination is, in the end, going to be the doom of these movements. It is much easier to advocate for and to rally behind a cause, maybe even two, than to be the proponent of a smorgasbord of views and issues. It might seem contradictory, but too much democracy within such a democratic movement and process might turn out to be an unconquerable hurdle. Every good slave rebellion needs a Spartacus, a single leader or catalyst which focuses the desperation and energies of the masses.
I find it very interesting that Mr. Whitten describes himself as being a realist. Based on what was said in the interview, I would think that the title of optimist would fit him better. He spoke of everything being possible, as well as striving toward the unattainable as being a noble and worthwhile pursuit. These do not seem to be the views of a realist; rather they seem to be rooted in an optimism that can be traced back to the eighteenth century in Europe (Lessing et al.). This kind of optimism is often coupled with a traditional notion of progress, which is also reflected in Mr. Whitten’s comments regarding the unlimited potential of science and technology.
Finally, I would simply like to wish Mr. Whitten well. The protest he is currently engaged in is admirable, and quite dangerous. I would hope that he can achieve his stated goals without seriously endangering his health.
Good conversation. And I applaud Mr. Whitten’s efforts. I do agree with Howell, though, that many of these protests/movements are quite disorganized without a leader and clear goal. If you look at the signs at some of these protests, the complaints are all over the map (not just a focus on income distribution). Unfortunately, I do think it might take something more significant/violent like what we saw in Egypt for things to improve. Or another example is the shareholders in Britain starting to actually stop excessive corporate pay (Sir Martin Sorrell, for example). The freedom to make endless amounts of money in our society is too entrenched to be stopped by a simple protest or two (or movement that has fizzled out). And at least half our country votes for “trickle down economics” (which obviously isn’t working since those at the top continue to make more, while the rest of us are out of work or have been on a salary freeze for years). And the other half of the country thinks the people they are voting for aren’t actually being controlled by business (many of our laws are actually written by corporations now).
The feeling I had while eavesdropping on this conversation was much the same I had during the John Zerzan interview. I want to believe what he is saying, but somehow I just can’t. It’s not that I disagree with anything he said, nor that I lack his courage (I hope). I genuinely did agree with him, but there was just one little thing bugging me that I could not ignore, and it badgered and badgered until I grew uneasy.
I recall the exact moment the sensation fell in Mr. Whitten’s case. It was when he said, going forward, that they had to use marketing in order to bring new ideas to the forefront and to solve problems. This struck me as a weakness. Are their ideals so flimsy and insubstantial that they require the affiliation of an entire system of persuasive media just to survive going forward? Tell me it ain’t so, please.
It can’t possibly work in Occupy’s favour anyway. So much of the marketing and advertising in our world relies much less on mere rhetorical power and much more on the dynamics of power exercised between media and the media buyer.
Aengus, Micah, consider asking in future verses of the conversation for what the role and effect of marketing is upon the conversation, and if anything that comes from marketing could be considered part of the Good. (Though, I doubt it can.)
And here, I’d forgotten that marketing and branding popped up in Laura’s conversation, too. An odd parallel with Cameron. Laura mentions the necessity of using the same tools as other ideological players. Is resorting to marketing an admission of an idea’s weakness? Or an idea appearing before its time? Perhaps we have entered an era in which marketing is so pervasive that even the best ideas must resort to it?
I look forward to pursuing this idea more, especially with some interviewees who specialize in media. And Morroque, I think you raise a very good point: if better (or just non-mainstream) ideas need marketing, does the very structure of the media industry ensure that its marketing is going to be smothered by more powerful status quo marketing?
Yet, even as I write this, I am reminded that we need to work towards a definition of marketing. Cameron and Laura seem to both be thinking of traditional, ad-agency sort of marketing, but what if we broaden the definition to anything intended to persuade a mass audience? Where does a sermon or stump-speech end and marketing begin? We might instinctually write off modern ad agency marketing as being incapable of promoting the Good, but can we write off Tom Paine? And if Tom wasn’t a marketer for a brand of government, what was he?
Cameron redefined my view of of the occupy movement as less about specific ideas, even class, and more about starting the same conversation Aengus and Micah are discussing. He was really pushing to break the taboos of what what can be politely discussed: how much do you earn? how much do I have? Should I give up some so you can have more?
In my office, like probably most offices across the world, these things aren’t brought up. There’s no company policy, it’s implicit that comparing wealth or airing political views will strain the group. But that polite silence festers opinions into more extreme stances. The conversation is a straining but moderating force.
Metamodernism: optimistic pragmatist, intentional naivete.
This is a new term that I’ve been really excited about. I’ve been waiting for 6 years to find a replacement for postmodernism. Yeah!
I think Cameron is a perfect example of metamodernism… in fact, so is the premise of your whole project.
Anyway, take a look: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metamodernism