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Hullabaloo


Wednesday, October 05, 2011

 
Why Harvard should claim 1/5th of the blame for the mess we're in

by Jon Stokes

This is a guest post by writer and thinker Jon Stokes, author of Inside the Machine


From his perch at ThinkProgress, lefty uberblogger Matt Yglesias has a message for the #OccupyWallStreet crowd, and that message is this: get a real message, because you can't get real results without a real message. He then cites the 2001 Harvard living wage protests as an example of the right way to protest.

Well, as a historian who spent a few years studying Jewish and Christian apocalyptic movements as a grad student at Harvard, and who saw how that whole living wage thing went down, I have a message for any Very Serious Person from our elite institutions who's complaining that the Wall Street protests lack a certain focus... that there's an air of naivité about the whole affair: if a real grassroots protest movement actually comes along and turns this country upside down, VSPs will be the last to see it coming. Why? Because our elite institutions are a core part of the problem.

I have a good friend who worked as a Wall Street banker on the M&A side for over a decade at two of the top banks there. He once told me that the banks hire their people, almost without exception, from one of five elite schools, Harvard being one of them. I've since heard this fact corroborated from other sources. To my way of thinking, this makes Harvard—its culture, its history, the values that it instills in its students, and literally everything else about the place—at least one fifth to blame for how unbelievably screwed we all are. But I get various alumni mailings and magazines from the school, and I've yet to see a Harvard panel dedicated to examining how the university's students went forth from its mahogany-panelled halls and messed up the entire country so badly over the course of the past three decades.

No, Harvard is a school that considers itself to have been at the forefront of every progressive movement to fix what's wrong in America for the past four hundred years. In the Harvard mythology, the abolition, women's suffrage, and civil rights movements couldn't have happened without some Harvard-trained Unitarians out there leading the charge for justice and equality. (Every time I saw the school trying to retroactively insert itself into some transformative scene from history, I'd let out a "yeah whatever" under my breath. The pervasive self-congratulation rankles.)

But Harvard is also the institution that gave us Larry Summers, Bob Rubin, and a very sizable fraction of the other leaders in banking, finance, government, and the media who have mired the country in third-world levels of income inequality, perpetual war, record unemployment, failing infrastructure, rampant corporate corruption and greed, environmental catastrophe, and... hey, waitaminute... I'm starting to sound like one of those loopy #OccupyWallStreet kids who needs a Very Serious dose of pragmatism and message discipline (and maybe some Ritalin).

This brings me to Yglesias's living wage campaign, which was indeed a shining example of professional protest organizing... that ultimately didn't achieve much of anything but some tweaks to the salaries of a handful workers. Seriously, look at this page, and think about the fact that there were far more students involved in getting that dollar and change wage boost than there were workers getting a raise. The students didn't solve any sort of big problem because they didn't even try; all they hoped for and all they ultimately achieved was some very narrow, targeted fiddling around at the margins, and a promise from the school to convene a committee to look into maybe doing more. Oh, and the campaign also greatly burnished the resumes of its organizers, and let a bunch of otherwise very well-behaved undergrads get their 60's on, so there's that.

During my time at Harvard (I was at the Divinity School), I was fortunate to find a friend and mentor in fellow Div schooler Tom Conry. Tom is an old-school radical Catholic dissident from the 60's—a former priest, he worked the sound at Woodstock, and was deeply involved that era's anti-war and civil rights protests. Tom once shared with me his amazement at the savvy and discipline of the living wage campaign; they had talking points and media liaisons, and all sorts of strategy and tactics. In the 60's, Tom told me, they were a lot more clueless; they were just pissed off youth, and were out to Fight the Power over the generally sorry state of the world. It was just so raw then. Also, there were lots of drugs and way better music.

No, the hippies didn't manage to eliminate war and poverty and inequality, nor did they raise the global consciousness through the mass use of mind-altering drugs, or whatever else a Very Serious Person of that era might have taken to be the utopian vision of a disorganized mob of stoned, shaggy, jobless, angry, young people. But the protests at least tried and succeeded at shifting the cultural and political terrain on which a set of national debates was playing out. They set out to rock the boat in a serious way, and they absolutely succeeded, which is so much more than can be said for Harvard's elite little cadre of Very Serious but non-status-quo-threatening living wage campaigners.


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