Occupied Territories

Political bumper stickers. Tucson, December 2013.

Three times each week, from August through December, I walked by this SUV on the way to teach my first class. My mind would sometimes be preoccupied with its bumper stickers as I hurried to the classroom. After a while, they started to seem like a political koan, a puzzle I wasn’t meant to solve.

All I had to do was stop and focus on them for a minute or two to dispel their power. But I never did. It was as if some part of me needed them to remain mysterious. I suppose it’s because I was teaching material about recent protest movements around the world. Within the context of The Coming Insurrection and Occupy Wall Street, the meaning of this de facto montage struck me quite differently than it otherwise would have.

Did the vehicle belong to that increasingly common breed, the Republican Buddhist, I wondered? The sort of person who buys overpriced produce at the alterna-haute cuisine Whole Foods, and then finds imaginary compensation in the alternative magazines on display at the checkout stand? Or was it the possession, rather, of a traditional post-1960s progressive, the kind I got to know all to well during my years living in the San Francisco Bay Area?

The key, I reasoned, with the faulty logic I’d deployed as a toddler, was to figure out whether the bumper stickers were intended to comment on each other. To what extent, in other words, did the commandment not to occupy refer, implicitly, to Tibet. Was this a pointed attack on postwar China’s imperialistic aggression? Or was the target closer to home?

The more I pondered these questions, the more I tied myself in knots. Memories of Occupy Wall Street and its many related actions are still fresh enough to make me want to suppress them, not wanting to confront the pain of their disintegration. Was their very premise fatally flawed? Maybe the goal should have been to renounce space instead of claiming it in the name of freedom and community.

Clearly, my mind was working hard to avoid the obvious, the equally painful subject of Israel-Palestine, which has helped break up the political groups I cared about most. After all, it takes only a simple internet search to trace the origin of the “Thou shalt not occupy” message, which proposes an “Eleventh Commandment” to counter Israel’s expansionist tendencies. But knowing that simple truth would have denied me a wealth of productive reflections.

During a week when my friends in the American Studies Association have courted controversy by voting to boycott Israel and other friends have savagely critiqued this gesture, misreading the relationship between these two bumper stickers seems especially attractive. The Occupation shows no sign of winding down. That’s why imagining a world in which it would no longer top the list of global problems is such an alluring fantasy.


Commentary by Charlie Bertsch. Photograph courtesy of the author.

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