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This past Saturday, a crowd of chanting political activists and shrieking pre-pubescent girls gathered in front of Littauer. They gathered to demand a living wage for Harvard's workers--and, of course, to catch a glimpse of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. The television crews came also, and footage of Matt and Ben's local appearance dominated the evening news. Behind these two celebrities, in most camera shots at least, viewers could see a banner decrying Harvard's shameful employment practices.
I do not usually find myself at progressive protests, but I was drawn to this particular event by the clever publicity campaign staged by its organizers. It is not every day that the disembodied head of Howard Zinn appears on a poster along with two young movie stars. I decided that any event associated with such an unusual tableau--Andy Warhol's vision of Mt. Rushmore?--was worth a casual inspection.
My decision to attend the rally paid off handsomely. For one thing, Ben's on again-off again paramour, Gwyneth Paltrow, was in attendance. Yes, she looks as good in person. And even if their attention is not directed towards you, it is always exhilarating to find oneself in a crowd of shrieking girls. Most importantly, I rediscovered the reason why I don't usually find myself at such expressions of liberal discontent.
The primary reason is that chanting can be an extremely awkward exercise. I imagine that if a group of people is sufficiently passionate about something, then chanting might come naturally, and it might even sound good. But, when there's no emotional fire and when most of the people in a crowd are just trying to enjoy their cotton candy, organized chanting becomes a downright painful spectacle. There are few sights sadder than watching someone beg a crowd to chant.
Admittedly, the leaders of Saturday's rally did a respectable job of cajoling participation, but even when people do chant, the problem is that most chants sound silly.
"Hey-Hey, Ho-Ho, Poverty wages have got to go!" (Repeat)
"What do we want?" A Living Wage!
"When do we want it?" Now! (Repeat)
It's possible that I'm just uptight, but publicly shouting such refrains--especially when no one in particular is listening--just makes me embarrassed.
Rambling, incoherent speeches also give me a queasy, skittish feeling, and there were plenty of those on Saturday as well. I should acknowledge, though, that the crowd didn't seem to mind much. They sat patiently while speakers touched on themes including the Iraqi trade embargo, amnesty for illegal immigrants, and of course, the Left's soon-to-be-executed favorite son, Mumia Abu-Jamal.
When, at the rally's climax, Matt and Ben finally spoke, I was prepared for the worst. Hollywood boy-toys often do not fine orators make. However, I was pleasantly surprised by their presentations, both of which were extraordinarily eloquent and apparently sincere. There was some irony in listening to two twenty-somethings who each earn millions of dollars every year--largely due to the fact that they happen to be born handsome--extol the virtues of economic justice. But once you got past that, you couldn't help but be moved.
In fact, while I didn't especially enjoy the rally, I came away with a great deal of respect for the Living Wage Campaign and the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM). These groups have remained committed to their cause throughout the year, and they have repeatedly staged effective, yet respectful protests, which have reflected an impressive grasp of public relations warfare.
Even more to their credit, they have chosen a truly worthy cause. In fact, this issue should be a no-brainer for Harvard students on all ends of the political spectrum. It really isn't a political issue at all. There are no calls for government intervention here, no specter of increased economic regulation. All the Campaign is asking is that Harvard make the free choice to pay its employees enough money to live in Cambridge. Even those so dogmatically laissez-faire that they don't support a federally mandated minimum wage can support a living wage for Harvard workers.
Harvard is a non-profit, and its finances are sufficiently transparent that any rational person can see that a living wage will not cause intolerable financial strain. And, as was pointed out at Saturday's rally, it may be that Harvard can pay less than a living wage because the market will bear it. But that doesn't make it the right thing to do. Every student at this University should make it clear to the administration that while our custodians, cooks, and security guards may work for $6.50 an hour, we--the people who interact on a daily basis with these fine people--know that they deserve more than that. Their services are simply worth more to us than the market dictates.
On Saturday, thanks to the hard work of the Campaign and the PSLM, Harvard looked very, very bad. Hopefully, by the time students return to school next fall, the living wage will be a reality. If not, the next time I am on campus I might find myself drawn to another rally, and I wouldn't like that at all.
Noah D. Oppenheim '00 is a social studies concentrator in Adams House. His column appears regularly.
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