I just finished small scarf from some scrap cashmere for my husband’s doctor. While I was knitting it, I pondered the relationship between lace and politics, or at least the relationship that could exist.
When I speak of lace, I am not speaking of the trim you can buy at Wal-Mart, but of fine handmade lace, whether needle or bobbin, knitted or crocheted. And when we wear such things, we often stand straighter and behave with more dignity, imbued by the virtue needed to create or to appreciate such work. We also fear a great deal because we have given these pieces hostage to the clumsy, the careless, the genuine accident and the occasional act of malice. (Some are spurred to accomplishment by envy; others to destruction.) I suppose the same could be said of a good suit, whether one has ordered it made or bought it second hand and had it altered to fit. Clothes do not make us, but they do inform how others think of us—and how we think of ourselves.
In that sense, wearing lace (or a good suit) is something that the Occupy Wall Street movement needs to do. America is in the process of looking into the abyss. The old Cold War political compact has failed completely. It began to fail in the protest movement of the Vietnam era and has now been utterly shredded by corporate greed in a time of globalization. If on the one hand, Communists were seen lurking in every attempt to make America live up to its proclaimed ideals, whether by the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, or the gay rights movement, Communism was seen as the competition. Capitalism had to have something to offer the average worker, both theoretically and materially. When Soviet communism collapsed under its lunatic military spending, as well as the drinking that people used to cope with generations of very bad memories, American-style capitalism gradually ceased to believe it had to offer anything to American workers. We are now at the point that the average American has the same political worth that the average Soviet did during the Brezhnev era—and we are approaching the point that unemployed Americans will have far less human worth.
The true numbers will not be available until the 2020 census, but there is probably no one who does not know someone destitute. And when people have been destitute long enough, they die. They die by their own hand, or provoking someone else’s; they die of hunger and cold and untreated illness, of abusing drugs or alcohol. And there will be political violence: if there is one common theme in human history, it is when the gap between rich and poor is wide enough, the poor figure that if they’ve got nothing, they’ve got nothing to lose. Read Isaiah—after a lifetime of avoiding the Bible, I’m starting to read it—and you see that he is overwhelmingly concerned with what we call social justice. Sin as imagined impurity is really not on Isaiah’s radar screen.
America’s only hope is an organized, serious, cohesive third party that can target vulnerable seats, win them, and form a bloc of votes that the Democratic Party must take seriously. The time for protest movements that were about expressing yourself is long past—was long past during the run-up to the Iraq War. Four and a half years ago, I spoke atTulane University on (amongst other things) the need for a serious protest movement; the need is still there. The text of that speech does not reflect the fact that I was called a Nazi for saying that protest organizers should banish from their ranks those who did not dress and speak like serious adult citizens. (Sure, you can protest—but not with us. Get your own permits.)
The few photos I’ve seen of Occupy Wall Street protestors are disheartening depictions of self-indulgence. Self-expression is even more worthless as a form of political protest—which is to say, political participation leading to redress of grievances—than it was 10 years ago. Self-expression materially enabled the Bush Administration to go to war in Iraq, killed feminism, made the struggle for gay rights needlessly hard, and destroyed the armed wing of the civil rights movement. (Yes, leftist America, the civil rights movement survived because black men and a few black women armed themselves, and no, I’m not talking about the Blank Panthers—who were little better than criminals–I’m talking about the Deacons for Defense and Justice.)
We need people speaking with each other in words of meaning and dignity and reason about creating an economy that works for the bottom 99% of us, particularly the bottom 20%. And if dressing better than Americans are accustomed to—and by better, I do not mean more expensively, because there’s plenty of expensive shoddy clothing out there, but with more formality and dignity—helps us speak with and listen to each other as serious citizens, then we need to do so. You don’t have to make or wear lace to do so, any more than you have to wear a suit. But dressing like a mature, polished adult—rather than a slob or sexual meat—does help. And lace is actually an accurate symbol of civilization and citizenship: something made with infinite skill and patience, usually from material no more rare than silk (and usually linen, cotton or wool), often fragile, which until now has endured because of the care with which it has been treated. In that sense, lace is the antithesis of how we normally dress, and particularly adorn ourselves, which often degrades us.
The alternative to speaking and listening to each other as serious citizens trying to create a workable future is political violence, most likely serious violence. And it is always those with the least political power—on both sides of the divide—who suffer the most. It would be tragic for America and the world if yet another movement for absolutely necessary political, economic and social change in America disregarded the need for mature, dignified presentation to collapse into the indulgence of self-expression.