Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypothesis. There are moments in history when the status quo fails. Political systems prove insufficient, religious ideas unsatisfactory, social structures intolerable. These are moments of crisis.
Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into conversation and torn apart inherited ideas, dethroning truths, combining old thoughts, and creating new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future generations.
Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours warrant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?
Anderson: We’ll be exploring these sorts of questions through conversations with a cross-section of American thinkers, people who are critiquing some aspect of normality and offering an alternative vision of the future. People who might be having The Conversation.
Saul: Like a real conversation, this project is going to be subjective. It will frequently change directions, connect unexpected ideas, and wander between the tangible and the abstract. It will leave us with far more questions than answers because after all, nobody has a monopoly on dreaming about the future.
Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re listening to The Conversation.
Micah Saul: How’s it going, sir?
Anderson: Doing all right. Just here in Portland, Oregon and ready to interview Cameron Whitten, who is a former mayoral candidate endorsed by the Green Party and the Oregon Progressive Party, currently on hunger strike outside of Portland City Hall on behalf of equal housing rights, and an active member of Occupy Portland.
Saul: Yes. I think it might be worth it just to talk about how we found him real quick. We were actually researching the Portland Plan, which is this big ten-year plan, twenty-year plan, that was actually really quite cool. It was how to turn Portland to a more sustainable, happy city. But then we found a blog post with a response to the Portland Plan from Cameron Whitten, which was, “This is all great, and let’s go farther.”
Anderson: We followed up a little more, read more of his policy and his platform when he was running for Mayor and thought, this guy’s really interesting. He questions more fundamental assumptions than the Portland Plan does about say, urban planning. Let’s see about talking to him. And well, by the time we got to him the mayoral race was over, and he didn’t win. But he was still very active and we thought he’d be a great guy to talk to. One to talk to about Occupy, and about the experience of a person who goes from being sort of apolitical to really galvanized. Cameron made that transition very quickly. He was a student in college, then next thing you know was running for mayor and is now out of school and kind of a full-time activist.
Anderson: You know, Occupy is something that you can’t really discuss in any sort of concrete way because it’s such a nebulous organization. But you can have different lenses on it. And for us, we thought Cameron would be a really cool guy to look at Occupy with.
Saul: Yeah, exactly. And this is the first time that Occupy’s coming in. I have a suspicion that we’ll have more Occupy-related conversations later on down the line. But I think Cameron’s going to give us an interesting lens on it. In some ways he does embody a lot of the spirit of it.
Anderson: So to talk to him about, what is it like to feel yourself really getting politically engaged. And then, to really talk about what are the ideas here? And what are his ideas that have sort of formed in the crucible of politicizing in Occupy?
Saul: Without having to talk too much more, let’s go to Cameron Whitten.
Anderson: This is Aengus. I have to break in again and say that when I recorded this interview, Cameron was on day twenty-six of a hunger strike. Currently as of this posting he’s on day forty-four.
Cameron Whitten: My background as a shameless agitator? In the beginning I was mostly a volunteer and a student. Do my own little worker role in society. And I remember when Occupy started here in Portland on October 6th, I kind of just gave up my entire past, and became a completely different person. And I really thought well, people are really pissed-off enough to talk about these issues, and it seems like it’s going to be sustainable, seeing how many people were actually involved. And I was like you know, this is my chance to finally change a word. I’ve been waiting for this for the past twenty years of my life.
I went on the very first march, October 6th. I didn’t plan on even camping. And then I was hanging out with a group people, and they just started passing out one by one and they’re like, “Well, it’s not rainy night. We have some tarp. You can come sleep with us.” And so I slept for the first day. And next day I borrowed a tent from a friend, I came back down, and I started camping there. And I went to school for like the first two weeks, and then I realized it was really hard to do that, considering that when I got to school all I could think about was getting back to Occupy. I didn’t even dropp the classes, I kind of just failed them. I got involved in marches and workshops and…
Anderson: It seems like you felt like you couldn’t do it before, or the time wasn’t right, or something like that?
Whitten: I definitely had an inkling that the time wasn’t right. My background, the reason why I care so much about social justice…I had a really bad childhood. I had a really abusive father. It was bad. So I remember that the Child Protective Services got called on him twice. But my mom kind of just watched it happen. When I turned eighteen, graduated from high school, I realized that my life wasn’t going anywhere if I was going to stay where my family was. So I came out here. But I came with the mentality that there has been so much injustice caused against me and so much harm that I would never one wish that upon anybody else. And so since then I’ve just been involved, volunteering for a dozen organizations such as Food Not Bombs, FreeGeek, Goose Hollow Family Shelter, a lot of things here in Portland.
I didn’t feel empowered. I didn’t see that the people around me really wanted to work toward something better. And so once I really saw that there was more collective opinion that I could work with and give my energy to, I thought there’s no way I can turn this up. Occupy really was the opportunity because before then yeah, there were some anti-war rallies, and there were some union marches and things like that, but they weren’t sustainable and they weren’t really about changing the conversation that we’re talking about. And Cccupy said you know, we can’t even start talking about how messed up this world is. All we know is that we have to assemble now, and then deal with these issues.
I believe that Occupy has the ability to be long-lasting because they can spill into any range of social justice. You can occupy public transportation, can occupy clean air, you can occupy corporate personhood. All these things. And it has done. That’s what makes it so special. More people care about a broad base of things, which really is the only chance of us actually having a more prosperous future, not just for one group but for all of us as a whole.
Anderson: What’s the most critical thing that we face as a society right now?
Whitten: The biggest thing we have to face itself is humanity. And now Occupy’s bring it out to the public, saying that we can’t continue being in our homes with our apathy thinking that our lives are concentrated little young nucleuses. It’s all together. Humanity really needs to have a look at itself in the mirror, and Occupy said, “We’re going to stand here in public space and we’re going to show you what humanity has created.” It’s created poverty and crime and violence and all these bad things that we don’t want to look at. And a lot of people, they were inspired to say yes, we want to join, we want to provide to this dialogue. And then other people were just like, this is too much for me to look at. I can’t bear it, and we have to shut it down. For once, humanity had a chance to look at itself.
Anderson: I’ve spoken to a lot of people who are not directly affected by things like crime and poverty, and when I ask them about the future, many of them are concerned about things that are maybe economic. But often they’re environmental. Many of them aren’t concerned about the future at all. Many of them think it’s going pretty well and it’s getting gradually better. It seems like you’re bringing up things that other people I’ve spoken to haven’t mentioned. Why do you think these things are a problem?
Whitten: Crime and poverty is a problem because it is a destructive feedback loop. And it’s hard when you do live in a society with such huge class divide, because so many people, to them it’s like another dimension. They don’t even see it. Yes, we do have some people who are succeeding, but look at how it’s going in any other location. Look at Africa, and Asia. China, they’re lying about that their economy. And everybody’s kind of just falling apart. Greece is having horrible problems and they’re thinking about going back to the drachma. They just recently got saved, but I’m just showing how close we were to seeing an entire depression rippling across this world. If we don’t start protecting the bottom tier of people, then send an earthquake. And classism is probably the biggest discussion that we need to have.
Anderson: How do we make the conversation happen, either across class lines, or if it’s among the upper class how do you make it happen in a way that is concerned about the lower class?
Whitten: It’s going to be through community organizing. I’ve been saying that word for a very long time. But the people who are the most depressed, they have to be able to organize to become a topic for the oppressors. We are the workers, we do control means of production, and we actually have more of a stakehold in this conversation than they do. And so, as soon as we realize that we are the 99%, and we are bigger and more important than individual prosperity, that can happen.
Anderson: There’s an assumption with a lot of the conversations I’ve had that things are incrementally getting better and the current system is going to incrementally fix things. Do you think that’s possible?
Whitten: I think that it is possible for it to incrementally get better, but at the same time it’s easy to regress. Look at Citizens United, look at the repeal of the Glass–Steagall Act. There’s so many different powers and we are in a tug of war. I believe that good can win, but also believe that evil can prevail. It’s good that people are optimists, but realistically you have to look at the pattern, times when we have kind of fallen short.
Anderson: Give me a vision of what the future looks like if we don’t address any of these problems. What’s your worst-case scenario?
Whitten: There’s going to be something that is going to destroy our access to natural, pure capital. But it’s going to be so grand that we don’t have the organization prepared to deal with it. At some point, our federal government is going to dissolve, and we are going to be left to our own devices. Seeing that we have kind of broken our ties with community, community organizing, a lot of people are going to die. I don’t know how soon it’s going to be. I think that we do have a long time before that happens.
But right now, the class divide that we are having is getting worse. A lot of people have jobs and are actually living on the streets because there’s no other option. The longer that happens, the more likely we might just have a violent revolution. I think that’s probably my biggest fear, actually. A violent revolution, where there’s enough people who feel oppressed and unheard, that the only way they can react is with violence. And a lot of people, they want to ignore the presence of anarchists and cynicalists. But they exist and they do organize every day. I know a lot of these people. I know that it’s going to take a small minority to be able to incite mass violence and hysteria.
Anderson: It’s funny you mention that, because the last guy I spoke to was John Zerzan. He’s an anarchist thinker. It’s intriguing to hear you talking about the idea of violence of a revolutionary sort, which in many ways some people, like in that community, see it as being the necessary thing to a better state. But it seems like for you, that is a bad state? Is that fair to say?
Whitten: Yeah. I believe that non-violent peaceful organizing is the most noble and most reciprocal and sustainable way to actually bring around real change. We’ve seen violent revolutions. We see what Syria’s like. We know about the French Revolution. There’s just been a pattern of things. I don’t see how we as a nation or as a world can come out of such a violent past and feel like we’ve become better because of it. It’s not going to be like an American Revolution or something like that. It’s just gonna be chaos in the streets. No matter how much you try to predict and control the outcome, it’s going to be horrible. And so I don’t want it to be a battle between two different ideologies, when it really needs to be these ideologies need to merge together.
Anderson: You’ve gotten to an idea which a lot of people have talked about when you mention your worst-case scenario, the idea of some sort of crisis and collapse. Are we more susceptible to crisis now than we would be at other times in history? The idea of population pops up a lot. Are we carrying too many people on the planet?
Whitten: I fail to see what is so special right now. I don’t think we have a population issue. It’s just the allocation of resources, as usual. We have the ability to live with alternative energy sources. That information’s there. But our structure of the free market and corporate unaccountability, it’s still about what makes the most profit and that’s what best for society.
Now, I do think that we are better equipped to deal with crises, considering there are so many people who are analysts, who are of such diverse backgrounds when it comes to organizing. We pretty much have every personality I think would be needed if we were to deal with hurricane, tornado, earthquake, violent revolution, energy crisis. And I believe that if we do work together, then we will survive it. That is how I am an optimist. I believe just through collective organizing, it’s our only chance of getting out of this alive.
Anderson: So, if population is less the issue and the question’s more an allocation of resources, does the current system, which generally seems to be based on expansion, can that go on forever? Some people have critiqued that idea in this project. I’m thinking of specifically John Zerzan and Jan Lundberg. And both of them put forward an idea that look, we live in a world of finite natural resources, but we have a market that is expected to continually grow otherwise it doesn’t work, and a population that is continually growing. And for them, they think there’s sort of a contradiction there. Do you think the issue is some fundamental contradiction in how we think about economics?
Whitten: Of course there’s a contradiction, and that’s a problem with civilization itself. It’s a fantasy in our culture, you know, exploring new lands, adventure, whatnot. We even talk about visiting Mars, colonizing the moon, things like that. So it’s up in the air, to be honest. You know, technology, I believe that to be infinite. And so it just depends on what technology gives us.
Anderson: I’ve talked about ideas of progress with a lot of people. Some people see progress as simply having more knowledge or more complicated technology or more complicated systems. Other people have seen progress in ways that are measured more in terms of quality of relationships, ability to access nature. How would you define progress?
Whitten: Any time that you lessen levels of disparity you’re going to have more progress. And you can’t look at it as an own individual term. Progress in your own life, progress in technology. But I believe that you have to look at progress through the connection of everything. That’s what sustainability is really about. It’s about the relationship of our economy, of social justice, the quality of life of people, and then the last part is the environment. And you can’t have progress if you ignore those things, look at them as isolated variables. Progress really is a holistic thing. And everything’s got its relationship and it’s all connected in some way.
Anderson: Where do we get that idea?
Whitten: I think about how many people it will impact, and whether it gives them more choices or less.
Anderson: There are two people who’ve brought up the idea of having more choices, so it’s interesting this theme is coming up again and again. We can have more choices, but what about fewer better choices?
Whitten: True freedom comes through diversity. And just looking at human nature itself, we are just a giant experiment happening to ourselves. How do you evaluate which choice is better than the other? I just believe through trial and error, we come out better.
Anderson: So there’s sort of a pragmatism? Just trying things and seeing what we like, rather than an objective moral good that we’re working towards?
Whitten: Our entire intention is subjective itself. And so it’s hard really trying to relate to the world in objective terms, because it’s always going to be flawed by human perception.
Anderson: So we’ve talked sort of about the present, and the crisis of the present, and some things that you would like to see changed about the present. And that kind of brings us to what you’re doing now. Can you tell me a little bit about the changes you’d actually like to make?
Whitten: Right now, our priorities in society [aren’t] really about collective survival. It is about individual prosperity and individual ego, which is dominant in American culture. All these people who say they care. But really they just want to see their system because they think their system works better. That’s been my frustration. That the dialogue and the conversation that I really think needs to happen. So, when I was out there with Occupy, when I did run for Mayor, I was all about how can we change the consciousness of society? We need to start saying how do we stop blaming this person or that system or this climate. And start saying we are all part of the problem, we are all part of the solution. Now what?
Anderson: Rather than advocating specific policies or fixes, you would like people to talk to each other.
Whitten: Exactly. I know, I’m asking for a lot.
Anderson: Well, you are asking for a lot. Because there’s a huge mindset change that seems like it would need to happen, in a lot of ways. How do we actually encourage people to start talking to each other? How do we bridge that divide?
Whitten: It all has to do with marketing, really. People are really susceptible to images they see, and things that they hear. It’s about taking over the airwaves and taking over media. It has to be available everywhere. Push that message of talking to each other as much as possible, because right now it’s really easy to look at something and dismiss it. But the more and more you’re exposed to it, eventually you’re going to sit down and be like, “I have nothing to think about. Oh wait, this image’s been in my head for a while. Let me talk about that.”
Anderson: I mean, it seems like the greater trends in our society are towards thinking about ourselves more as individuals than as a collective. Do you think that this is a real uphill battle? I mean, is it possible for you to actually sell this idea?
Whitten: It’s an uphill battle. But it is possible. I think anything’s possible. It’s going to be really hard to convince people to stop thinking theoretically and start looking realistically. And people need to stop looking so far in the future and stop looking at what might be the best system and being like, “We don’t even have ourselves educated about this system, we don’t have ourselves educated about the economy.” There’s such as a large amount of ignorance and focus on individuality. What if it was on education and collective organizing?
Anderson: Do you think that the kind of conversation you want can happen, with the sort of class divide that we have?
Whitten: Oh, it’s going to have to happen with the class divide, because the class divide is only going to be repaired once it becomes part of the conversation. And so that going to be really difficult because we don’t talk about class enough.
Anderson: It seems like there’s been no historical example of a truly equal society. Do you think we’re striving for some kind of unattainable perfection?
Whitten: I am striving for an unattainable perfection. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Anderson: Are you optimistic?
Whitten: No. No. I’m a realist.
Anderson: What does it mean to be a realist?
Whitten: Oh, to be a realist you have to look at subjectivity and look at objectivity and… Yeah, I want to see all these changes. I’m willing to dedicate my entire life to it. But knowing at the same time life will go on regardless of whether I’m successful or not. And so I’m a realist saying that I don’t have the answers, no one has the answers.
Anderson: Why do you try?
Whitten: I try because it creates fulfillment for me. It’s challenging and I also see the rewards of it. And you get to see such positive reactions from other people when they say thank you for standing up for things I believe in. And so I do believe in spirituality. I believe in the divinity of human beings, their secret within their souls. And I’m just about allowing other people to realize that, that you have something spiritual, divine, and beautiful in you. You should protect, and you should also protect others.
Anderson: So that is Cameron Whitten.
Micah Saul: Cool. I’m actually really happy with how that went. I think it did what we were hoping. It was a much more personal conversation than any previously, but I think that really works.
Anderson: It’s cool to see sort of his odyssey and hear some of his story, and then go into some of the bigger ideas. And I think it really touches on something that Occupy as a movement had at its core, and that’s sort of an agnosticism about specifics. And a real urge for a broad dialogue.
Saul: That word was key in your conversation with him. I don’t know that he ever said it, but I think there was a definite sense that conversation and dialogue are good.
Anderson: And in a way that may have been the biggest surprise for me, and maybe it was for you as well. But having just gone back and listened to this again, I was very surprised in that a lot of the things he seems to be interested in are very much like our definition of the Conversation.
Anderson: Which which we admit may or may not have ever existed historically.
Saul: It seemed to me that for him, Occupy, when it comes down to it, it’s a manifestation of that dialogue, across class, across race, across any societal boundaries. Except perhaps across the corporate boundary.
Anderson: Right. And like, whether or not it worked then, for him that was where the action was. That’s where the Conversation was in society, not in school. That white-hot sense of optimism that maybe we do see in these other historic conversations. The sense that this is where things are happening, and this is where things are changing.
Saul: And finally, class is now in the Conversation.
Anderson: Is it ever. You know, when I told him about some of our earlier conversations and people we’ve spoken to who think the future is getting steadily better, Chris McKay or Ariel Waldman or Max More, his notion was, that may be true for them. But for a lot of people that’s not true. And he identifies as one of those people and works on behalf of those people. And so for him, incremental improvement isn’t good enough. Like, he won’t step back and say in the long sweep of history we are getting incrementally better. He steps back and says look, things are unfair now, period. He really raises our awareness of the economic or class context of the people we’re talking to.
Saul: Yes. Yes. I agree. And that’s, you know…it’s one of the reasons that I think Cameron was such a good fit.
Anderson: Yeah. Though, I don’t feel our conversation really got into like, huge fundamental new ideas, he gave us a good punch in the stomach that’s a real reality check. That’s just like, “Look…”
Anderson: “Things are screwed up now. People are hungry. People are without homes.” That’s a voice we’ve got to have in this project, too. And I think we’re gonna get that more, actually, with with our next conversation, Laura at the Happiness Initiative in Seattle.
Saul: I hope that we’re going to get some more class stuff from her. I think that class and poverty definitely play into the idea of happiness.
Anderson: And I think it’s going to be a really interesting pairing, to sort of see how her conversation and how Cameron’s connect or how they diverge.
Anderson: He’s in the street hunger striking on behalf of a homeless camp right now. She has a background in law and an MBA and has worked inside of these bureaucratic mazes, trying to reform them from within. So they’re very different takes. Very similar goals. I think this’ll be a cool contrast. It’s nice to have these paired up like this. So yeah let the project continue.
That was Cameron Whitten, recorded June 26, 2012 in Chapman Square across from Portland City Hall.
Anderson: So thanks for listening. I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.
This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.