Colorless Tsukuru Review

I’m teaching a class right now on Haruki Murakami. It reminded me that I wrote this review of his last novel back in 2014. It originally ran on Full Stop.

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Dip your toes into a little philosophy and, before long, you’ll come across an introductory question about identity. It goes like this: you look at a picture of yourself at the age of two and you say, “That’s me.” But how could that be you? You’re not a toddler. That toddler doesn’t read essays about Haruki Murakami and identity on literary web sites. That kid lived in a different time and place than you’re living in now. You don’t share a single molecule with that kid. So you tell yourself stories. “That was me as an infant, before I went to school, fell in love, got a job . . .” Whatever story you tell, the question remains: what do you mean by “me”?

Well, names are an integral part of identity. You and that kid share a name. The rest is comprised of memories (fleeting and unreliable as those are), narratives (embellished and revised as those tend to be), and scars. When you get to this point in the thought exercise, the good questions come out. If what you are is mostly an amalgamation of memories and stories, does this mean you have agency in deciding who you are? Are cultural forces imposing themselves on these stories, forcing a race or gender or sexuality onto your “me”? Is there a core identity to “me”: a soul in the Judeo-Christian tradition, a kokoro in the Japanese one? How much of identity is genuinely individual? How much is cultural? How much is not contained within us and is part of a perpetual interchange with the universe around us? How does this all impact the most rewarding and meaningful parts of our lives: our familial relationships, our friendships, our romantic relationships, our ability to love?

It’s fun stuff to think about. It’s more fun if you don’t take it all too seriously.

Enter Haruki Murakami. Sure, he’s an international literary phenomenon, a global bestseller, and the writer most journalists mention first when the Nobel Prize announcement looms. But he’s also a guy who likes to play around with big philosophical and spiritual questions. He won’t answer them. He’ll take them seriously, but not too seriously. In a sense, he’s like my neighbor’s cat.

Indulge me for a few sentences.

My neighbor’s cat used to come by my front porch when I was out there reading. He’d sit under my chair and swat at the cuffs of my pants. He’d make whole games with my cuffs: stalking them, attacking them, biting them, nuzzling them, sleeping on them. Because I tend to wear a rugged type of pants, he’d never manage to get a thread loose. But that wasn’t his point. It’s too much to expect a cat to have a point. He’d get absorbed in the possibilities and run through the entire range of his capabilities to explore the cuff.

That’s how I envision Haruki Murakami approaching philosophy.

One cuff Murakami is swatting is this question of identity. It permeates his latest work, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. At the purest level, it’s a novel about a man who experiences deep emotional pain. This experience results in a fear of abandonment. He meets a woman with whom he is falling in love. In order to be part of that relationship, he has to deal with these memories of the past that have made him who he is and come out of it as who he wants to be. In other words, Colorless Tsukuru must explore his identity and come to know it well enough to rebuild it. The philosophical and the spiritual blend with a very practical question: how can I be a person in a healthy, loving relationship?

Murakami has been toying with love and identity since his earliest works. His very first protagonist — the narrator of Hear the Wind Sing, Pinball 1973, and A Wild Sheep Chase — is an enigma. He presents himself as ordinary and unremarkable. Most of his actions are quotidian. He eats omelets and sandwiches. He clips his fingernails. He drinks beer. He sits at his desk at work and doesn’t work. He plays records. He fails to finish that age-old writing workshop prompt, “You know Bob. He’s the kind of guy who . . . ” In the second two novels, he at least has a desire. In one, he’s looking for a lost pinball machine; in the other, he’s searching for a sheep with a star on its back. In Hear the Wind Sing, he doesn’t seem to want anything.

Most notably, he has no name. In Murakami’s first four books and five of his first six, his narrators are unnamed. In the Japanese, Murakami uses the first person pronoun boku instead of the more common pronouns watashi and watahashi. Boku is reserved for men and particularly young men. It doesn’t translate cleanly to English, but I wouldn’t be steering you too far off course to explain boku as the “dude” pronoun. Jay Rubin, in Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, explains this about the pronouns and thereafter refers to Murakami’s narrator as Boku. The Dude, so to speak (though not Jeff Bridges’ version). In this way, Rubin imposes the identity that Murakami and his narrator resist. It’s a natural reaction. If people don’t show us who they are, we make up names and stories to fill in the gaps.

At one point in A Wild Sheep Chase, the narrator and his girlfriend (both unnamed) debate with an unnamed limo driver about the significance of names. It’s fairly whimsical conversation that acknowledges how much of our identities are entwined with our names. If we don’t give ourselves names, people will assign them to us. Names like “the narrator,” “the girlfriend,” and “the limo driver.” Each of these names also assigns a role. Being a narrator, girlfriend, or limo driver all comes with a number of culturally designated tasks and responsibilities. Once we’re named as such, we’re expected to perform accordingly.

When, in his novels, Murakami finally got around to naming his protagonists, he named two of them Toru, a Japanese verb that means “to pass through.” Whether the story is passing through the narrator or the narrator is passing through the story or whether “passing through” is a more accurate way of describing our lives than the most common verb we apply to it — being — is not the issue. The issue is that Murakami is playing with us like that cat at my cuffs. No thread comes loose.

Names mean something in Colorless Tsukuru. When he is in high school, Tsukuru is in a group of five friends. The other four all have names with colors in them. These colors are meaningful. They guide the characters’ personalities. In a sense, the colors are the characters’ auras (though Murakami doesn’t use this word and carry all the New Age baggage attached to it). And Tsukuru, the ordinary one, the unremarkable one, becomes colorless.

His name is nonetheless meaningful. Tsukuru is the Japanese verb meaning “to make” or “to build.” His father, when choosing the character to spell Tsukuru, selected the character for “to make or build” instead of “to create.” So Tsukuru makes and build things. Specifically, he designs railroad stations. He doesn’t create new stations. He works on stations that are already built, retrofitting them to accommodate their changing needs. If a station is experiencing greater traffic than it was designed for, Tsukuru must expand the station. If it’s experiencing a different type of service — say fewer long-distance trains and more commuter cars — he must think about how to orchestrate the movements of the passengers.

This job becomes a helpful metaphor for how we deal with our changing sense of self. That two-year-old in the picture was experiencing growth in ways that we never will again. Now, we’re grown. When we think about the changes in our lives, they all have to be within the finite sphere of our selves. How do we retrofit our narratives and our memories to orchestrate the flow of our lives? When the city or our selves experience major shifts, we can’t simply create a whole new city or self. We have to find a way to expand certain stations to deal with the change. When we fall in love, we must build a new union station or grand junction in a finite space. This often means reconciling those remote outposts that are drawing too much energy or too many resources from the system. In a sense, this is Tsukuru’s challenge.

A reader unfamiliar with Murakami has a different challenge. Most of the love stories in Western culture end, famously, in death or marriage. We’ve been so saturated with these stories that their resolutions seem to be the only natural ones. Life, as we all know, doesn’t work like that. Well, it does probably end in death. That’s the case as far as I can tell. But nothing ends in marriage. Every day in a marriage is a decision to stay married and to do the things that make marriage possible and enriching (or miserable and destructive, or all the things in between). So if the characters are going to live at the end of your love story, life tells us it doesn’t have to end with the characters getting together, or reconciling, or getting married. We have a lot of choices regarding which spot of the relationship we call an ending. Murakami likes these choices.

In other Murakami stories, he has girlfriends vanish without a trace and a narrator who doesn’t bother to look for them, or does, but without clean resolutions. He has spouses reconcile in ways that don’t seem to be reconciliations at all, or marriages come back together with so many problems that we’d need another book to work them out. He has stories begin with the marriage. He has protagonists search for lost loves and not find them. In other words, he casts aside the typical story structure and, for all his flights of fantasy, he embraces more realistic resolutions.

Knowing this adds to the joy of Colorless Tsukuru. It’s a love story that hinges not on a marriage or a death, but on a character’s ability to retrofit his identity at this station in his life with the love he is on the verge of.

For all of Murakami’s forays into the “Who am I?” question, it’s ironic that nearly every reviewer of his work defines Murakami the same way. I could summarize nearly every review written about every Murakami book after Kafka on the Shore and into the foreseeable future. It goes like this:

This latest effort has all the characteristics we’ve come to expect from a Murakami novel. It features an isolated protagonist, diversions into the metaphysical (or magical realism or fantasy), cats, jazz, a classical musician, references to American pop culture, and a quest for something that has disappeared. Murakami moves at a pace that many view as painfully slow, but somehow the prose is engaging enough to keep us reading.

This work is not as good as my favorite Murakami novel.

Murakami fans will love it. Others will be befuddled. I’m a little pissed that Murakami has gotten so popular, so I’ll find something to nitpick. Here I go…

I don’t blame the reviewers for this. Once a novelist has reached a certain level, it’s almost futile to attempt to review his or her work. What both amuses and frustrates me about the template for the Murakami reviews is how rigidly reviewers impose an identity on Murakami, as if cats and jazz and pop culture references were the things that matter most about his novels. They’re not. They decorate the novels, make them pretty and festive and fun to be inside. But the real beauty of the books, Colorless Tsukuru and all the rest, comes from the intimate relationship Murakami has with his readers. He welcomes us into his world. We get to splash around in the deep end of philosophy and spirituality. He makes us do so much of the work to keep from drowning that we find our own way to swim in those waters. We come out stronger in the end.

The Mark and the Void Review

The Mark and the Void was one of my favorite novels of 2015. I wrote a review of it for Full Stop, but, for whatever reason, never posted that review here. Now I’m posting it. The full review is below.

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Paul has an idea for a novel. A banker decides to rob the bank he works for. Only it’s an investment bank, and investment banks have no cash, no safes to crack, nothing but numbers on computer screens, changing totals from one account to another. It’s all so ephemeral. He can’t stuff it in a sack and head for the border. On top of this, the banker is being observed by a mysterious stranger. The banker feels the stranger before he sees him, but pretty soon the stranger becomes more than a creepy feeling. He becomes a presence, now approaching the banker with an idea.

So begins Paul Murray’s latest novel The Mark and the Void. The story follows Claude, a French banker working in the financial district of Dublin. He is approached by a writer named Paul who claims to be working on a novel about the banking industry after the global economic collapse of 2008. He wants Claude to be his muse and his everyman character. Claude grants him access into the world of international banking. Claude’s coworkers are energized by Paul’s presence. They fantasize about their roles in Paul’s novel and feed personal narcissisms about being the subject of literature, all the while ignoring the facts that they don’t read novels, that Paul’s last book was a commercial and critical failure, and that Paul seems a whole lot more like a conman than any kind of writer.

And, as Paul’s prefatory idea for a novel suggests, the idea of robbing the investment bank emerges.

At the end of the preface, Paul the character (as opposed to Paul Murray, the author) asks the reader, “What do you think? Would people buy it?” This forces the reader, not yet four pages in, to decide whether or not she could accept the possibility of Claude as a literary protagonist and accept the possibility that Paul is running a con on us all. These are not insignificant questions. There’s a reason why we have very few investment bankers in literature. They’re boring. Even when great writers shape protagonists out of everymen with mundane jobs — think of Joseph Heller’s middle manager in Something Happened — the results are middling at best. When lesser writers, like Bret Easton Ellis in American Psycho, make an investment banker the protagonist, the banker has to be a serial killer to be even remotely interesting. But Paul isn’t promising to be a great writer like Joseph Heller, and he’s not offering gore and mayhem like Ellis. He’s instead giving you an impossible proposition: an investment banker robs his own bank, which has no actual money, rather than robbing the taxpayers and his investors, which is who investment bankers typically rob. In other words, Paul is telling you that you’re being conned. It’s up to you to decide whether or not to go along with it for another 450 pages.

Unlike Paul the character, Murray the author gives us good reason to go along with the con. His previous novel, Skippy Dies, is brilliant. It was short listed for the Costa and National Book Critics Circle Awards and longlisted for the Booker. It may well have set a record for the novel nominated for the most awards without actually winning one. Beyond the accolades and near misses, Skippy Dies is a stunning mixture of comedy and tragedy. It hints at a depth that Murray can mine for a few more books. Specifically, the elite Catholic boarding academy at the center of Skippy Dies has been taken over by a business teacher who seeks to exchange the religious focus of the academy for an ideology of the marketplace. Rather than producing graduates who embrace a Catholic morality, the children of Dublin’s economically elite families learn to view the private school as a pipeline into the financial industry. In this sense, neoliberalism replaces Catholicism as Ireland’s most influential religion.

From the start, The Mark and the Void promises to explore this theme with more depth. Murray introduces the notion that the marketplace is becoming the true religion of Ireland early in the novel. He describes the financial district of Dublin “as a private fiefdom, like Vatican City in Rome, only devoted to money instead of God.” And the financial industry of the novel operates like the medieval Catholic Church. Everyone tithes to it, whether they believe in it or not. It hoards the vast majority of the region’s wealth and turns that wealth into power. It holds sovereignty over the lives of the populous, dictating how society’s resources will be allocated, who will win and who will lose. It sometimes awards the most devout with small tokens of its overall hoard, but mostly keeps the earthly rewards to itself. And, like religion itself, the financial industry is based largely on faith. The only real value the paper in your wallet — or, more likely, the numbers on your computer screen when you check your bank account — has is symbolic. We have faith that these numbers mean something in exchange for real goods like food and clothing and transportation and housing. As long as we all agree to believe in that symbolic power, it does have value. And, like so many organized religions, those closest to the symbolic power tend to be the most corrupt.

Murray examines the intricacies of this neoliberal religion through Claude. Claude meditates on his role as a banker, and his willingness to sacrifice things like love, family, travel, and community — his “whole life,” as he puts it — for the job. He says that “every banker has in his head a number, or rather a Number. This Number represents the amount of accumulated wealth he has decided will be enough.” The second he reaches this number, he’ll get out of banking. But, as Claude observes, “the bigger problem is that as you approach it, the Number tends to change. It shifts upward.” In this sense, Claude’s Number fulfills the role of heaven for the neoliberal: it’s the reward for lifelong piety. Money is invested with a redemptive value. His whole life is worth trading for a certain amount of it. Forget even the symbolic power of money to buy real goods. He has gone beyond the need for anything real. His necessities are taken care of. Even his luxuries are attainable and attained. There’s nothing the money can buy him now. Further, Claude, unlike his higher ups in the financial industry, isn’t in a position to make enough money to buy real power. Nor does he seek the power that the global one percent have to bribe politicians to reshape public policy in their image. He instead seeks that spiritual place where a Number symbolically redeems all his sacrifices.

Claude wants to articulate this for Paul, but he says, “I don’t feel confident that I could explain this without making it seem like more greed.” Because, on the surface, it is greed. Members of the financial industry suffer from a similar emotional disorder as the people on Hoarders, only the financial industry’s hoards are neatly tucked away behind so many secured internet spaces instead of visibly represented in old pizza boxes and dirty diapers. For Claude, though, it’s more than greed; “it’s something more mysterious.” Because the Number only makes sense in a religious context: as the realm of spiritual redemption or as an absolution for his sins against humanity. Likewise, neoliberalism — the ideology that privileges the concerns of the marketplace over all other concerns—only makes sense as a religion. It demands that we put all our faith and social safety nets into the Invisible Hand of the Marketplace, trusting it to make everything all right, to bring about paradise and equality despite the fact that this trust in the past has led mostly to world wars and profound inequality.

Claude takes a typical path to the church of neoliberalism. He comes from a small village in France. His father was a blacksmith and a veteran of the 1968 revolution. He simultaneously pushed Claude into banking and resented Claude as he became a banker. Claude, for his part, honors his father’s revolutionary past by studying philosophy in college. He focuses on the works of François Texier, a fictional amalgamation of Jean Baudrillard and Guy DeBord. Texier has his own theory of neoliberal religion. He observes that, at its inception during the Middle Ages, “the corporation was almost identical to contemporary ideas of angels . . . immaterial, ageless, capable of acting like human beings but bound by neither substance nor time; the corporation, an entity which we imagine as a uniquely secular creation, a paragon of reason and common sense, in fact began its life as an offshoot of a Christian myth.” Texier goes on to argue, “Today, though we no longer believe in angels, we still regard the corporation as a higher order of being.”

French philosophy of the ’68 revolution doesn’t bond Claude with his father. Claude has great difficulty embracing relationships with anyone. Love, family, and community are all too much for him. He escapes from them all through the world of banking. In a moment of clarity, he says, “Perhaps after all that is the true purpose of Business: to replace the shifting, medieval labyrinths of love with the broad, sanitized avenues of materialism, the lightless, involuted city of the self with something gridlike and rational.” Claude goes all in, living a monk-like life inside a cubicle and a condominium, purified in the glow of his numbers on a screen.

It’s no wonder that Claude and his coworkers are so open to Paul, even if Paul seems like a conman. The bankers’ world is devoid of art, devoid of any questions of meaning that go deeper than materialism. Even as a largely failed novelist, Paul introduces them to subjunctive worlds, spaces where they can imagine alternatives to the dominant neoliberal narrative. The only problem: contemporary Ireland — and contemporary global society, by extension — has no room for a novelist among the clutter of a wireless world. Paul has love. He married a stripper. He has family, including his mostly neglected four-year-old son, Remington Steele. He is part of a community, albeit a community of hustlers and conmen. He’s been ensnared by the trappings of the global boom, and now he’s struggling to untangle himself during the bust. Unlike the banking system that Claude works for, no government funds exist to bail out Paul. As much as the bankers need Paul and his art, Paul needs money to keep his home and feed his son and keep his wife off the stripper pole.

This establishes the dramatic tension of the novel. The neoliberal religion is failing to provide any meaning deeper than materialism. The banker turns to the novelist to help him examine the depth of love and life, but the novelist has been reduced to a desperate state. His time is spent clawing for a handhold on a slick and rocky cliff. If Claude is going to get his whole life back from the sacrifices he’s made to banking, he needs to recuperate the damage his financial sector has waged on artists like Paul. Or just on Paul himself.

In line with Skippy Dies, these powerful themes are carried through the novel on the shoulders of humor. The Mark and the Void is funny on so many levels. There’s direct political satire, like the Forbes article on Claude’s boss, Porter Blankly, which relies on glowing hyperboles to portray Blankly as a slightly more sociopathic Kenneth Lay. There’s corporate satire, like when Blankly coins the term “Think Counterintuitive,” a thinly veiled allusion to Steve Jobs’s “Think Different.” Beyond both slogans needing the “ly” to make them grammatically correct, there’s all the employees at Claude’s investment bank who make ridiculous and dangerous mistakes in their attempts to think counterintuitively. There’s Paul’s con, which would be obviously bad if his marks weren’t so illiterate. At one point, Claude wants to know more about Paul. Paul counters that the protagonist never knows much about his author. After all, Paul says, “Do you think Billy Budd knew where Conrad lived?” The fact that Paul’s attribution of Billy Budd to Joseph Conrad doesn’t set off any red flags makes it even funnier. Later, Paul tells Claude that Winston Churchill (born 1874) wrote parts of War and Peace (1869). Claude is fascinated to learn this.

Other sections of the novel are slapstick. There’s a lot of language play. There’s a bit of bathroom humor to keep things from getting too serious. There are touches of romantic comedy. And, as the plot careens toward its climax, there’s a lot of good, old-fashioned absurdity.

Murray also recognizes that every story needs love. At one point, the bankers debate whether or not a great novel has ever failed to deliver on a love story. Claude offers 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. His colleague, Ish, retorts, “Every story needs love. Even at the bottom of the sea.” So there are love stories. Claude falls for a Greek waitress named Ariadne. Paul struggles in his relationship with his wife. Ish tries to write herself into a romantic narrative. And, perhaps most significantly, there is the homosocial love affair between Paul and Claude.

In the end, Murray pulls off the impossible. He writes a funny, poignant, human, and philosophical novel about an investment banker. It raises deep questions. It makes shallow jokes. It argues for the need of arts and philosophy in the face of global consumer capitalism. It unpacks ideologies that are so prevalent they seem natural. Throughout the reading, it feels like we’re being conned, not so much by Paul Murray as by the world outside the novel. Still, for all the weight the novel carries, Murray takes care to make the experience of reading the book a whole lot of fun.

Trump Supporters and Flannery O’Connor’s “The Artificial Nigger”

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Nobody talks much about Flannery O’Connor’s short story “The Artificial Nigger” anymore, which is a shame. I understand why a story with a title like has fallen from favor. It’s a difficult story to recommend. It’s awkward for an English teacher to say to her students, “Read ‘The Artificial Nigger’ for class tomorrow.” O’Connor surely knew when she titled “The Artificial Nigger” that she was taking risks and forcing readers to deal with the specter of racism. She couldn’t have known in 1955 that the title would evolve from confrontational to repulsive, and it would doom the story to obscurity while her lesser works rose to prominence.

The story itself is a brilliant investigation into the fears that create racism and the ways in which racism is learned. It demonstrates subtly and clearly how traditional racism—the belief that races are real biological constructs and that the white race is superior to the black one—is devastating for poor white people. These are ideas that have been relevant for about four hundred years, but our current political climate has made “The Artificial Nigger” particularly significant. Reading the story introduces a pathway to understanding Donald Trump’s supporters that hasn’t really been explored.

Read the rest of this article on Morpheus.

My Next Book

I’ve spent the past few years working on an academic study of Thomas Pynchon’s novels, the systems of power in those novels, and his depictions of resistance to that power. I started the project as my dissertation, which I finished in late July, 2011. As I was wrapping up the writing of it, global events like the Arab Spring, the revolution in Tunisia, and austerity protests in Greece and Spain started to occur. In September of 2011, a handful of activists set up camp in Zuccotti Park in NYC, and the Occupy Movement was born. Occupy’s ideas of participatory democracy, their strategy to forego protests and instead develop alternative societies (even if they were just a demonstration of a genuinely democratic society) matched a lot of what I’d read in Pynchon. At this point, one would think that I may have participated in the demonstrations. I didn’t. I’m the worst about attending rallies, even if I’m sympathetic to the cause.

What I did instead was look deeper into the political and economic theorists who provided the foundations for both Pynchon and Occupy, and I wrote a book about it. The book is called, appropriately enough, Occupy Pynchon.

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I index and proofed the typeset version of the book just as our nation descended into the madness which resulted in the one percent taking over every seat of power in the US and unapologetically working to make this a nation by, for, and of the 1% (to borrow Joseph Stiglitz characterization). I took a little comfort in knowing that I’d at least written a handbook for resistance to this takeover. It may be an academic text geared largely for literature scholars, marketed to university libraries, and costing $60, but at least it’s out there. Or it will be this coming May.

So that’s been my rabbit hole. If you want to see more about the book, here’s the page from my publisher’s web site.

Utopia after Trump

more-utopiaIn 1516, England was ruled by an authoritarian narcissist who was redistributing the wealth of England to himself and a handful of his obscenely wealthy friends. Thomas More responded by writing the philosophical tract Utopia. He made up a place that was no place—literally, the word “utopia” comes from the ancient Greek meaning “not a place”—and narrated the tale through a man whose last name means “nonsense.” The tract dared to imagine a world better than the one More lived in.

Exactly five hundred years later, the United States has a president-elect who is an authoritarian narcissist with plans to redistribute American wealth to himself and a handful of his obscenely wealthy friends. Perhaps it’s time to once again look at this story of No Place told by a man called Nonsense and imagine a better world for ourselves.

Read this article on Morpheus.

Love and Gravity’s Rainbow

Gravitys_rainbow_coverFor the past several years, I’ve been working on a book about politics in Thomas Pynchon novels. It’s been a hell of an undertaking. I’ve reread all of Pynchon’s works several times. I’ve read hundreds of books and academic articles about Pynchon’s novels. I’ve studied economic and political and literary theory. I’ve written several drafts of a book, published a few chapters in peer-reviewed journals, found a publisher, and finished one round of edits. The book is under contract right now with the University of Georgia Press. It should come out sometime next year.

In the meantime, I wanted to do something lighter, something that reminded me why I was first attracted to Pynchon’s novels a couple of decades ago. I wrote an essay about the love stories in Gravity’s Rainbow and how they helped shape my own real-life love story. The folks at The Millions were gracious enough to publish it. You can read it here.

Foot-Loose Rebels

Illustration from Razorcake #70 by Brad Beshaw

Illustration from Razorcake #70 by Brad Beshaw

The supervisors of San Luis Obispo County tried to attack free speech this week. I happened to be in town to witness it.

The crux of the problem, according to county supervisors, was the Occupy movement. The county’s chief administrative officer, Jim Grant, claimed that the Occupy encampment presented a hazard to public health and safety, though he didn’t clarify exactly how. He suggested an ordinance that required any group assembling on public or vacant lands to obtain a permit from the county before doing so.

As he should have expected, a shit storm followed.

I wasn’t involved in the shit storm. I just happened to be doing some work in San Luis Obispo County that day. I was in and out of my truck a lot, and my radio was tuned to the public station. I listened to meeting of county supervisors addressing the issue. This may sound like a dorky thing to do—listen to a county supervisors’ meeting on public radio—and maybe it is, but the meeting was exciting on this day. A couple dozen people came to the meeting to scold the supervisors and Jim Grant in particular. Each person had an opportunity to speak for a few minutes. The beauty of this came in numbers. As a citizen, we can all speak at public meetings like this. We’re all allowed somewhere between three and five minutes. When twenty-four people come to the meeting and use all five of their minutes, supervisors have to hear about this shit for over two hours. Suddenly, you have an effective protest on your hands.

The protestors struck me as interesting. Sure, there were a couple from the Occupy movement who spoke. They were the ones being targeted. They needed to be there. But also members of the Tea Party spoke against the ordinance. They realized, of course, that if Occupy has to get a permit, so does the Tea Party. One former Republican congresswoman from the area approached the podium to say that, sure, she knew what it was like to be protested. She wished everyone agreed with her all the time, but democracies are built on dissent. One incredibly nervous guy from a former Soviet bloc country stood up to say that, prior to immigrating to the US, he’d been imprisoned for ten years for speaking out against the government. “Free speech is the most beautiful thing in America,” he told the supervisors. His anxiety seemed to be stealing his breath, but he found enough air to add, “Don’t touch it, for God’s sake.”

Finally, after two dozen people from across the political spectrum castigated the supervisors, they voted to toss out the ordinance. Jim Grant apologized.

The whole debacle gave me the urge to write a column about one of the greatest moments in American history: the Wobblie free speech protests in Missoula, Montana.

 

In 1909, a team of organizers from the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies) traveled to Missoula, Montana in an attempt to organize the workers in the lumber and logging industries there. As part of their organizing strategy, the Wobblies set up soapboxes or other makeshift stages on corners in the business district of Missoula and just started talking. Passersby would sometimes stop and listen and sometimes not. From a contemporary perspective, the Wobblies may seem a bit crazy. At least, from my perspective, when someone is standing on the corner of the street speaking to no one in particular, I assume the person has a mental illness. In the early twentieth century, this type of soapbox preaching was common. Think of it as a direct action blog. The Wobblies weren’t the only ones preaching on corners. The Salvation Army had their own soapbox in downtown Missoula, as well as a couple of other organizations.   The speaking on the corner wasn’t exactly the problem. The listening was.

According to a few accounts, the first wave of Wobblie speakers didn’t generate much interest. That changed when a woman who called herself “Gurley” came to town.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was nineteen years old and six months pregnant when she hit Missoula. She’d been agitating for workers’ causes since she was a little kid and her parents took her to socialist meetings in Brooklyn. In her autobiography, The Rebel Girl, she traces her activism back to her four great-grandfathers, who’d all taken up arms to fight the British occupation of Ireland. Her presence in Missoula was one more incident in a long heritage of actions geared toward social justice.

Even at nineteen, Gurley was famous among the workers. She did two things differently than other speakers. First, she drew a crowd. This shouldn’t be ignored. People in power will always let you say whatever you want as long as no one is listening. When others gather around to hear what you have to say, those in power lend an ear to hear if their power is being threatened. And it was. In particular, Gurley attacked the local employment agencies. These agents were in cahoots with various lumber and logging companies to hire migrant workers for a week or so, charge them a finder’s fee for the job, split the fee between the agency and the company, fire the worker after a week, and hire a new sucker. Not only did Gurley criticize this, she set up her soapbox in front of the three most prominent employment agencies and criticized them to their faces. The migrant workers, hearing how the scam worked, hesitated at the doors of the employment agencies.

The second thing Gurley did was attack the soldiers from Fort Missoula. They walked past during one of her speeches. She accused them of being hired thugs for corporate interests. They went to city leaders and threatened to “clean out the whole bunch” of Wobblies. The sheriff intervened to keep the peace.

The peace didn’t last for long.

Under pressure from employment agencies and local industry leaders, the City Council passed an ordinance restricting free speech. Three Wobblies—including Gurley’s husband, Jack Jones—were arrested. A fourth man who wasn’t a Wobblie was also arrested. A guy named Herman Tucker was working in the U.S. Forestry Department office upstairs from the soapbox when one of the Wobblies was pinched for reading the Declaration of Independence. Tucker was so incensed at the Missoula police that he came downstairs, got on the stage, picked up the copy of the Declaration that the Wobblie had dropped, and started reading where the last guy left off. Tucker went to jail with the rest of them.

At this point, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and her fellow Wobblies developed a strategy that they would employ in free speech battles throughout the western US for the next decade. They put out word for all “foot-loose rebels to come at once” and aid in the fight for free speech. Loggers, miners, migrant workers, and other activists hopped on trains from all over the country (though mostly from Butte and Spokane) to join the orators in Missoula. Gurley picked several spots throughout the town’s business district and sent speakers to all of them. The sheriff and his men chased them all down and nabbed them. When one speaker got arrested, the next one took his place. The Wobblies were careful to give their speeches before dinner time at the jail so the City would be forced to foot the bill for feeding them. The City, for their part, made sure to release the Wobblies before breakfast time.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was arrested at this time. For some reason (perhaps because she was so young, famous, and pregnant), she wasn’t housed with the other inmates. She demanded a jury trial. Charges were dropped. This triggered the next step in the rebellion. When speakers were arrested, they started demanding jury trials. This meant that the City would have to foot the bill to prosecute dozens of “disturbing the peace” cases. They’d have to populate dozens of juries. The activists added to this problem by refusing to leave jail—even when the jailors tried to kick them out—until their trials. Suddenly, the City had to foot the bill for housing and feeding these protestors.

Meanwhile, the Wobblies kept up their speeches. Before long, the Missoula jail was overcrowded. Speakers were imprisoned in the basement of a downtown building. The Wobblies, never a quiet group, spent so much time in jail singing, arguing, yelling out the window, and generally raising a ruckus that local businesses started pressuring City officials to resolve the situation. The mayor first tried diplomacy. He sent the chief of police to meet with Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. He offered to stop harassing the speakers provided they just stay off a couple of downtown streets. The Wobblies refused. They had the City against the ropes. There was no reason to back off. The next day, city officials gave up. All of the charges were dropped. The orators were all released. The Wobblies were able to continue speaking and organizing.

This became the pattern for larger free-speech fights in a handful of cities from San Diego to Spokane. A whole host of anti-free-speech ordinances were defeated. Workers were able to organize to bring about social changes that built the American middle class: the eight-hour workday, the five-day work week, employer-sponsored health care, minimum wage, child labor laws, overtime compensation, Social Security, equal rights for women and minorities in the workplace, disability insurance, unemployment insurance, collective bargaining, employer-sponsored pension plans, etc.

Perhaps this is why, when we study American history in high school, we all spend so much time studying Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the Wobblies, and the freedoms that unions have earned for us. Perhaps this is why, when we talk about heroes who have fought for our freedom, we talk about activists like Gurley and the twenty-four San Luis Obispans who showed up at the county supervisors’ meeting. Perhaps this is why I always see bumper stickers that say, “If you value your freedom, thank a protestor.”

Okay, maybe I’m being a little facetious with that last paragraph.

I do want to take a few seconds, though, to recognize that sometimes activism does work. Sometimes, we do affect positive change in our lives. Sometimes it only takes twenty-four people to do it. Sometimes those twenty-four people couldn’t sit down and have a conversation about politics for three minutes without wanting to strangle each other, but if they can recognize when they do agree and focus on that one specific thing, they can get something done.

It’s easy to feel jaded about contemporary politics. It’s okay to feel that way. I look at my whole list of freedoms that American workers earned during the twentieth century, and I can’t ignore that most of those things are being threatened today. It bums me out. I also recognize when cynicism becomes a dead-end street. At those moments, it’s helpful to consider the paths people have blazed out of that cul de sac.

 

Author’s note: This is the twenty-fifth and final chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote.  It originally ran in Razorcake #70.  For more information about the collection, read this post. If you enjoy reading my Razorcake columns, please consider subscribing to the magazine.