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But first, you’ve got to get mad: Rethinking the occupy movement

<st thing I read about the Occupy Wall Street movement was a Mother Jones article, published about two weeks into the occupation, titled “Why #occupywallstreet Isn’t Working”, that enumerated the ways in which the movement was failing to make a difference. For the most part, Mother Jones writers are an extremely experienced bunch of people who have made a career out of agitation for labor rights, the anti-war movement, and serious, committed leftism in America, so I trusted them to know a good populist uprising from a bad one.

Their biggest complaint was that the movement consisted mostly of “the usual suspects” – scrawny college kids with Che t-shirts, aging hippies handing out flyers for the ISO, the odd NYU sociology professor stopping in for a few minutes between classes. They weren’t transforming the world, said Mother Jones, they were just transforming the park they had occupied into a dorm basement, complete with issues of Adbusters curling beneath discarded American Spirits.

So I sneered. For a few days I snidely looked down my nose at all my overenthusiastic friends, many of whom had “caught the bug” immediately. It wasn’t a legitimate popular movement, I insisted, just a bunch of the same old leftists arguing over the same old leftism while pretending they were the latest incarnation of the Arab Spring.

But soon, the protests had swelled to thousands in New York, and more across the country. Unions got involved, and so did veterans and professors and people who voted for Ron Paul. (Although, unfortunately, never Radiohead.) I quickly realized that it wasn’t just the average everyday leftist workhorse – it was, on the contrary, that elusive leftist unicorn, the legitimate, broad-base expression of popular rage. I switched sides; incidentally, so did Mother Jones.

But I’m not going to dwell on my personal reaction to the tenets of the movement’s philosophy, or lack thereof. I am not going to call you to arms to tear down the apparatus of capitalist power. I’m not printing agitprop in the Carletonian. Rather than focusing on message, I would like to focus on medium.

What’s universally important about Occupy Wall Street is not what it’s saying, but how it’s saying it. And I’m not talking about general assemblies or signs or non-hierarchical organization; I’m talking about volume. Occupy Wall Street is articulating a lot of things, but it’s articulating all of them too loudly to be ignored. It’s impossible not to pay attention to it, and it’s becoming impossible not to care about it.
That fact, the fact that it provokes a near-universal emotional response, is why it’s important, and especially why it’s important for Carleton, because Carleton is very good at ignoring.

For one reason or another – because we’ve got reading to do, because we have a frisbee tournament, or because Keith Olbermann is doing our activism for us, Carleton students rarely seem to poke their heads outside what we cutely refer to as the “bubble.” And while this is fine, albeit unfortunate, insofar as it means we don’t make it up to the cities to see LCD Soundsystem or hear the Dalai Lama speak, it becomes a serious problem when it amounts to voluntarily disconnection from our society.

Our inability to get ourselves out of the bubble means that we reduce our world to a few issues that are so small that in the grand scheme of things they might as well not even exist: classes, internships, parties, hookups, Schiller, and maybe the St. Olaf game. We live in a snow globe. Maybe an extremely stressful, intellectually demanding snow globe, but a snow globe nonetheless.

The world outside the snow globe is real, though, and it is often a very grim place. I don’t think it belies partisan bias to say that unemployment is rampant and will probably not have improved much by the time a lot of us graduate, that the global finance system is shaky, and that popular upheaval is quickly altering the world map. Things are happening.

Continuing to live in the bubble, continuing to privilege our classes and social lives so completely over genuine civic engagement, is a form of dangerous social irresponsibility. Passively accepting the bubble is a way of abdicating, or at least postponing, our responsibility to our society and our culture.

This has always been easy to ignore. Abstract morality has always been difficult to make concrete. Perhaps that makes it excusable that we’ve sat on our little hill above the Cannon River and talked about neuroscience and deconstruction for so long. There was, after all, no obvious way to affect our society.

Occupy Wall Street, however is an obvious way to affect our society. Engaging with the movement somehow – whether it’s with support or antipathy – is a clear path to affecting a society that all of us know is flawed.

Whether that involves throwing Molotov cocktails, participating in counter-protests, going to teach-ins, or criticizing the movement on the evening news is really not important. What is important, as before, is that we engage with it at all. We have the education, the cultural prestige to change our society. And now we have an obvious avenue to do so. We no longer have an excuse to be apathetic.

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