A Challenge to Occupiers
Yes, this is another piece about the Boy Scout tent fest in Harvard Yard.
Occupy Harvard is a brilliant concept. Whoever organized the camp out must have drooled over the potential photo-op: a laundry dump of shabby, canvas tents surrounded by the Versailles of higher education. No, the imagery would be grander: it would be little David thumbing his nose at the Goliath of elite universities. Harvard is so saturated with symbolism that this clambake-for-disenfranchised-leftists-passing-as-a-protest was inevitable from day one.
Which (I say this reluctantly) is not a completely terrible thing. All but the most cork-brained libertarian must confess that the general Occupy fever shines a light on ugly facts. Income inequality has skyrocketed in the last few decades. Between 1979 and 2007, virtually all increases in national income went to the top 20 percent of the population, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Even among that upper echelon, most of the income gains have ka-chinged their way into the obese wallets of the top one percent, who enjoyed a 275 percent growth in real, after tax household income. During the same period, the bottom 20 percent of the population saw only an 18 percent rise. So the last three decades of America’s economic growth have mostly brought more private jets to those already floating in the economic stratosphere, and done diddlely-squat for the rest of us.
If you’re concerned about our national health, then these numbers should scare you. In addition to perpetuating class warfare, a staggering income gap may, as Paul R. Krugman argues, chip away at our democratic ideals.
Democracy relies on each person having a more or less equal say in government. Yet the political process favors the rich, who can afford to wage wallet-sapping campaigns or, if not running for office, help along the candidate of their choice with lip-lickingly large campaign donations. Rather than being spread equally as democracy requires, political power in our country tends to be concentrated in the hands, or rather the pockets, of the wealthy.
Which brings us back to Occupy Harvard. The occupiers in the Yard are ringing the alarm on something profoundly troubling about our nation. They’ve got the diagnosis right: our country is buckling from unequal-itis. But they have the prescription wrong: pitching camp in slick, expensive looking tents is a rather thick way of protesting the rich-poor gap. So is, for that matter, walking out of the Ec 10 lecture on income inequality.
Thus, it is mildly rewarding to watch a nationwide movement come to a liberal institution like Harvard and then protest in puerile ways that cause it to die a thousand deaths, whether in the Crimson pieces calling the movement a “disgrace” or in the obscenities students utter when they are made late to class by a locked gate. Don’t you feel bad for the Yard Occupiers? It must be wrenching to spearhead a tent stunt only to see it check out, keel over, kick the bucket, bite the big one, meet its maker, and croak. And next imagine having to watch as your pet protest is drawn-and-quartered by classmates, occasionally kicked around by newspaper editorials, and constantly anvil-smashed over the head by a few Crimson opinion writers.
Occupy Harvard’s hollow thud of defeat provides a lesson for anyone looking to change the system. We, as restless and idealistic citizens, like to change the world quickly by staging symbolic protests. When it comes to venting our discontent at income inequality, it’s easy to think that running through the streets and pumping our fists at the wealth gap is all that is needed. The image of dank tents juxtaposed against big, bad Harvard is evocative precisely because we are moved by David-and-Goliath imagery. The Occupy movement is a specimen of this myopic yearning for symbolic protest that aims for sweeping change overnight.
But the change the Occupiers want is tectonic change— the gradual shifting of our economic values, the leveling of our income disparity—and it isn’t advanced by symbolism or by tents in Harvard Yard, and in any case it will take time. Restructuring our economic landscape will be a complex process with no quick fix. What we can do is redirect educational resources and be patient. It will be a slow war, fought by university students who, each week and each month, sacrifice part of their time to teach the underprivileged—not by kids camping out in Harvard Yard.
So, students, philosophers, bums, fellow classmates, and anyone else pitching tents in front of University Hall, get out of the Yard. Get back to your homes, take a shower, and, wait—did you say something about wanting to reduce the income gap? Then I challenge you to volunteer in South Boston to teach disadvantaged kids. I challenge you to change lives by working with organizations like Let’s Get Ready to provide poor students with the college guidance resources their rich counterparts already have. I challenge you to coach underprivileged Boston kids on the SAT, or work with them on their college application essays. I know these measures are not glamorous; they’re down and dirty. You probably won’t get coverage in the New York Times for doing these things, and they (at first) may feel less rewarding than sticking your chin out against Harvard Hall as the media cameras roll. But these measures work.
Occupiers, if you want to overhaul our economic state, then quit camping around and get busy.
Gregory D. Kristof ’15 lives in Hurlbut.