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Personal Essays

Richard Bram, Cold Night Soho, London, 2004. Copyright the artist, courtesy Umbrella Arts.

Along the Horizontal

The link between Occupy Wall Street, the environmental doom of Czech villages, and the noise of a wailing child on a freezing, black morning in Sweden is not obvious—but it does count for everything.

Libkovice, Czech Republic, August 1996

There was power in the circle, or maybe it is better to say there were powerful people around the circle. Ostensibly equals, we sat on the patchy grass in the Czech countryside in 1996, surrounded by teepees and with the hellish flames of coal plants flickering on the horizon.

Except I was new, had staggered in at midnight after a three-hour hike and a six-hour train trip and had slept under my jacket under a table my head against someone’s knee, and I was heartbroken, and I really did not care about Ecotopia, this tidy festival in what had been an 800-year-old village whose residents had been driven out in the early 1990s by rapacious coal companies.

The morning meeting was supposed to take half an hour. But we blew past 30 minutes before the first point was even defined, much less decided upon. This was pure consensus—the ultimate in horizontal decision making—so everyone had to agree, and it was a large circle, maybe 50 to 60 people, and you try getting even like-minded environmental activists to come to that kind of consensus quickly. I couldn’t pick up the anarchist-inspired hand signals, and I soon resented what I saw as the smugness of the almost guru-like organizers.

These were anarcho-activist power players, people who had founded Ecotopia years before, people who were preparing to stage a mock attack on a Czech nuclear power plant, people rumored to live in free-love communes where everyone discussed even the most intimate details of their relationships. These rock stars of the political underground were all mixed up intellectually and romantically, and how I was supposed to be their equal in the circle at the festival they had organized?

It is in the nature of groups to sift through personalities, and in consensus-run groups, for the persistent to outlast the fiery.

The minutes dragged, the first point never got made, and I checked out and went to eat my spare serving of vegan breakfast, sprouts or some such, listening to a screechingly bad Welsh folk singer on his guitar. They held a party that night in an empty shell of a church, and it remains the most otherworldly torch-swinging, drum-pounding, pot-infused get-together I have ever stood awkwardly at the edges of.

So I was amazed when I saw a video my friend Chris took of an Occupy Wall Street General Assembly in New York’s Washington Square Park in October, showing waves of people using these, to me, arcane, overly officious tools, hundreds of people doing exactly what I refused to do at Ecotopia: Engage.

It is in the nature of groups to sift through personalities, and in consensus-run groups, for the persistent to outlast the fiery. It is a different game, a long game, not so much about charisma, or even productivity, but mostly about a holy commitment to the group and to the process.

But still I resist. Because when I watch people using hardcore anarchist communication tools, and when I read in Bloomberg Businessweek or the New Yorker about the tortuous consensus-driven meetings that laid the foundation for the Occupy movement, I could think only one thing: Aren’t they all going to burn out in, like, three months?

Pakrac, Croatia, September to December 1996

You try sitting in meetings in a bombed-out house for interminable hours week after week, running through agenda items and cheerfully delegating tasks that everyone knows will only be done by you.

My fellow travelers in this consensus-run postwar peace project either had stayed in the war zone too long, were unused to responsibility or were just plain crazy. In Pakrac, a dusty market town at the edge of a great forest blown to hell in the nasty fight between Croats and Serbs, it was easy to be crazy.

But consensus is dependent on the very opposite; it is supposed to be the antidote to crazy. It is supposed to give everyone a voice, to stop crushing us all in the machinery of war or the big banks or, in the context of Pakrac, in the machinery of the United Nations and the war-mongering nationalist governments. This is why the drums and the dreadlocks at Zuccotti Park seemed deceiving to me. In my experience, true anarchists are more straight-edge serious. They have no time for the frills. They spend all their time in meetings.

In Pakrac that fall, we finally ran out of money—the war over and the funding slipping away to “sexier” Bosnia—­and we ran out of new volunteers, the necessary naïfs willing to pay to work and raise money in a repressed and depressed Balkan hinterland.

So consensus had to work with the haphazard crew that had coalesced after a long summer break. There were Polish and Slovak hippies/punks, a very tired Austrian computer genius, a Croatian dance therapist, a Scottish student, a Serb nurse and me, among others.

It did not. Work. At all.

The dance therapist, who was nominally a first among equals, pulled nasty power plays to isolate the Western volunteers and stopped speaking to me altogether. The Scottish guy knew he was leaving soon and did nothing. The Serb nurse, a local, was nervous about working with us, uninterested in consensus and actually getting paid by independent funding, which changed the whole dynamic. The Austrian slept most of the time, and the Poles and Slovaks were, I think, at the end of their rope after years of coming to and from the project, never in charge and now saddled with forming the core of the group in its most dreary hour.

I left in December, unable to do much more than play Minesweeper (ah, the irony in a mine-littered region) on the computer for hours at a stretch, seeing the flashing board in front of my eyes even as I slept.

The project imploded in February, the volunteers scattering to the wind and leaving behind a legacy we aren’t around to understand.

Stockholm, Sweden, January 2010

Flash forward 13 years, a straight shot for me away from grassroots into the maw of the technocracy, through an Ivy League grad school, mainstream journalism jobs, a move to Sweden and then into a consulting day job in Stockholm. I had come far from consensus, far from any outward trappings of my alternative days, though you know that in my head I was a long-haired hippie beating a bongo.

In this world, I created the illusion of engagement. I could justify not volunteering at a homeless shelter by telling myself that covering a county government was an equal public good. I could keep my distance from what I reported on and call it “objectivity” because my first priority was to climb the next rung in the newspaper ladder. I could distract myself with the TV, watching New York sports teams I despised, with my tragi-comic dating life, with my sputtering car, with my new MP3 player, with my latest failed book proposal.

I was simply following the American creed of our time. We’ve spent generations forgetting our communal responsibilities, honing that cockamamie message of boot straps and big money, of fame, glory, and the corner office. We’ve spent generations focusing on our identity as consumers, as the all-holy individuals beholden to no one, marketed to with ever-increasing accuracy, no sacrifices ever needed, just keep buying and achieving, baby.

The people who immersed themselves in those two months of intense protest and community gave themselves a gift, even if the Occupy movement now disintegrates in a shower of pepper spray and exhausted passions.

This takes me to the winter of 2010, which I spent alone at home with my 13-month-old son. This was not my first paternity leave—I had been home with his older sister for six months in 2008. But that had been almost too easy, too natural. Not that our life had been easy, for on the surface our life was much harder in 2008 than 2010, but the choices and priorities were easier then. And my daughter was a straightforward kid, and there was only one of her.

My daughter had not woken up between 3:30 and 4:30 each morning, and she had not screamed so often and so persistently that the room would spin. And now there were two kids, and now it was winter and not summer, and now I had no friends around, not like that first time.

But fatherhood, that’s the one place you don’t have to worry about consensus, right? You are the boss; the baby does not run the show. Maybe eventually you have to negotiate with your teenager, but not the baby. What could Occupy Wall Street and funny hand signals and doomed Czech mining villages have anything to do with a wailing toddler on a frigid, pitch-black morning in Sweden?


Much of this is because of Sweden, both the “socialism” you hear so much about that isn’t socialism at all, and a more subtle but more important sense of consensus and gentleness that’s present in Nordic societies. For centuries, Scandinavia has been a bleak, hard place of darkness, poverty, and famine. Yet somehow Swedes came to value play, childhood, a sense of balance. They came to hold wandering through the forest or swimming in the sea on a long summer holiday, not gold stars and plastic trophies, as the epitome of childhood.

Maybe this is new, a release that came with post-World War II prosperity. Maybe it is an ancient reaction to the winters, famine, and hard-hearted Lutheranism. For whatever reason, it is a place that has embraced the likes of Danish family therapist and author Jesper Juul. From the blurb to his 1995 book Your Competent Child:

The destructive values that governed traditional hierarchical, authoritarian families are being transformed. Instead we can choose to embrace a new set of values based on the assumption that families must be built not on authoritarian force or democratic tyranny but on dignity and reciprocity between parent and child. Children are emotionally competent—that is, they always tell the truth about how they are feeling. Parents must begin to listen to and learn from the honest feedback they receive from their children.

I have not read Juul’s book. He has spoken several times in our town but we have never had the space to go. Instead, his values are diffused into our family through articles and snippets of conversations. We read the blurb of the book, it seems intuitively right, and we go forward.

So when my son cried, again and again, I picked him up, and I listened. I listened for whether he was hungry or tired or frustrated. I listened to his body clock and did not fight the 4:30 wake-up call. I also did not always do what he wanted—we may not have read the book, but we know that that’s not the point—and I did not smother or coddle him. I saw him just like Juul says—as a competent human being.

Our days looked nothing like my days with his older sister—in those earlier days, we had wandered through playgrounds, splashed in pools, and taken big outings to the city. Instead, my boy and I stayed inside and ate two-hour lunches. We went to the same sandbox over and over again. It was a smaller life, but it was what my son needed.

A lot of this is simple nurturing. I know that—pretty simple stuff. Regardless, it has paid off. My son is still a joyous combination of rambunctious and considerate, focused and impossibly impulsive.

But when he pulls his sister’s hair, and I pick him up, my two-year-old tells me, with uncanny self-knowledge, why he did it.

“I’m frustrated.” “I want her to play.” “I’m mad at you.” “I’m tired.”

He actually says these things. Because he knows I will listen, even if I am still mad.

Inspired, I find myself stepping aside from power struggles that seem fated. I do not drag the kids out of the house if they say they are too tired, though we might cajole them like we did today when the sun broke through the wintry gloom, and we sensed a two-hour chance to be in any sort of bright light.

Yes, it is possible to ask your child for his or her opinion and base your weekend on that. I see the self-respect they gain from it, and the respect I build for them on their 2- and 5-year-old levels.

I see that, yes, it is possible to ask your child for his or her opinion and then base your weekend on that. I see the self-respect they gain from it, and the respect I build for them on their 2- and 5-year-old levels.

It was not inevitable that I would respond to these messages. Believe me. It’s been a journey, a horizontal one, and that journey started with consensus decision-making in Eastern Europe in the 1990s. It forced me to really see people, and not in a joking Sixth Sense kind of way. All those pointless hours talking about hopeless tasks that nobody dreamed of accomplishing, those got us past the surface differences to, well, more fundamental differences, as it turned out.

But that means everything. I learned more from the Poles and the brilliant Austrian than from any professor or student at my elite college or grad school. And I don’t mean they taught me mystical hitchhiking, living-in-squats, rolling-cheap-cigarettes kinds of lessons. These were not exotic sages expelled from a communist past into my naive capitalist present, and they did not open my bourgeois eyes to a magic alternative world.

I am not in touch with them now (aside from on Facebook, which doesn’t really count), and I am sure they have no idea they made such an impact on me then. No, these were just people living with me in a blown-up town, and we shared that, and I knew them like I knew the kids I went to grade school with.

How many people can we say that about?

In a society as diverse and as polarized as the one we live in today, we need the ability to see each other, to see past the anger and culture wars, and even if we still despise each other, at least to respect our humanity. Maybe the Occupy movement is our way there. Maybe what seems an accidental centrality of consensus will give this nascent left-wing anger a humanity that the right-wing anger of the Tea Party utterly lacks.

Zuccotti Park is apparently pretty quiet these days, surrounded by barricades, and the scene of only an occasional Jackson Browne concert or a fuss over an “Occupy”-themed episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. But that matters little. The people who immersed themselves in those two months of intense protest and community gave themselves a gift, even if the Occupy movement now disintegrates in a shower of pepper spray and exhausted passions. If they are paying attention, the lessons they learned sitting on cold concrete for hours at a time in 2011 will echo through their lives, and the lives of their families, whatever those decades bring.

Nathan Hegedus recently moved from Sweden to California, largely to escape the Swedish winter. His most recent essays have appeared in The Morning News. More by Nathan Hegedus