Columns

Moffat ’13: Fighting the good fight

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Opinions Columnist

May 1 is May Day, International Workers’ Day. You might already know that there will be a march next Tuesday in Providence as well as a teach-in here at Brown this Friday in solidarity with workers, immigrants and the 99 percent. I hope to see an encouraging turnout, but realistically I expect that fewer Brown students will show up to these two events than the several thousand that showed up on the Main Green for the 4/20 smokefest.

Last semester, when the Occupy Wall Street movement was a trendy concept, most students were distantly supportive, watching with hopeful curiosity. I got the sense that most felt that public outcry and civil disobedience were not only understandable but imperative. Yet by January, about the time the mainstream media stopped talking about it, Brown students had moved on from the Occupy fad.

Many folks had problems with Occupy from the beginning, but, by now, we’ve all come up with rationalizations for our non-participation: “They’re approaching the problem the wrong way,” “They’re too disorganized” or “Why don’t they do something besides hold signs?” For one reason or another, the movement of the 99 percent apparently isn’t relevant or intelligent enough for the average Brown student.

Don’t get the wrong impression – I’m critical of the Occupy movement, too. For one, I completely disagree with its ostensible commitment to being leaderless. But supporting Occupy isn’t about agreeing on what’s right or how society ought to be restructured – it’s fundamentally about bringing attention to what’s wrong with the status quo. Homelessness, classism, sexism, student debt, bank bailouts, the prison population, racism, foreign wars, public education, environmental destruction, the drug war, veterans welfare, tax reform, the loss of civil liberties and the list goes on – these are massive issues that deserve vastly more attention than they currently receive, and they lie at the core of the Occupy movement.

Ethan Tobias ’12 (“Too busy to care?” April 23) tries to argue that Brown’s apparent apathy for the Occupy movement reflects the fact that many political issues are complex and ambiguous or are already on their way to being solved. As he points out with economic issues, “the top Democratic leadership has heard the call and is now pushing for the ‘Buffett Rule’ to increase taxes on the highest earners.”

Well that’s wonderful – the Democrats will save the day. I guess our work here is done then, right?

Tobias’ sentiment captures the sort of hand-waving we do to defend ourselves from our moral conscience. We all know that the “Buffett Tax” – as the Republicans call it – is essentially an empty gesture, since it will do virtually nothing to mitigate the horrifying levels of social and economic inequality in this country. It won’t stop the wealthy from moving their money into capital markets or offshore investments, where they can insulate their money from these pesky taxes. It won’t stop home evictions. It won’t stop public schools from closing.

The truth is that the “Buffett Tax” is nothing but a populist campaign ploy. That Tobias thinks this is a justification for turning our backs on the Occupy movement is evidence that we’re doing mental gymnastics to avoid the sting of guilt and responsibility. What we need and must demand is a serious – perhaps uncomfortable – conversation about the values and vision of this country. That’s why people are taking to the streets, to speak for the suffering and demand that we have this conversation.

For the most part, the Brown community does a terrific job of making us aware of our privilege in society. But I want to challenge us to think about our privilege a little differently. Most of the time, we acknowledge our privilege only in order to qualify our opinions and contextualize our point of view. When I reflect on how fortunate I am to have the opportunity to study here and to be of a privileged race, gender and economic status, I often feel undeserving – why is my life and my education more valuable than the billions of other people in the world?

I hope that we can move beyond feeling guilty and helpless. You will all remember that great line from Spider-Man: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Used virtuously, our privilege can inspire and generate hope. I say we celebrate and embrace our responsibility to make the world a better place.

Maybe camping outside in public spaces isn’t your scene – you can still support the essential revolutionary spirit. I challenge the Brown community – if you think the Occupy movement is inept and ill-equipped, when can we try out your solutions?

No doubt the grave problems facing our society are tough and complex. But Brown is a bastion of forward-thinking intellectuals, artists, leaders and scientists – who are we to back away from a challenge? I say we use our privilege and influence to put the future on a sustainable and dignified trajectory.

Come be a body in the march this Tuesday. Stand in solidarity with the oppressed and show the people of Providence, and the world, that Brown cares.

 

Jared Moffat ’13 is from Jackson, Miss. He can be reached at jared_moffat@brown.edu.