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Moffat '13: Gadflies, occupations and the marketplace of ideas

With the most sincerity I can summon, I admire and applaud the beautiful people of Occupy Providence, a community composed of the kindest hearts and most resilient spirits. When I see the leadership that has emerged from within Burnside Park, I laugh and I cry because I wonder how Congress can be filled with such halfwits while the true visionaries of our generation are shouting chants in the streets and serving soup to the homeless — yes, Garret Johnson '14, you can actually do both at the same time.

I must confess that I write this as someone who feels a bit ashamed of the fact that I have not sacrificed more of my time and energy to make Occupy Providence the robust force that it is. I suspect many onlookers feel this pang of conscience, too. Maybe it is people like me who will deserve blame if this movement does not ultimately achieve its lofty aims. But, at the risk of sounding presumptuous, I want to put these concerns aside for now because the tension between real Occupiers and supporters on the sidelines could be resolved if we part-time activists had something to do when we cannot take part in the occupation. Here is my proposal: Everyone, spread your wings and be a gadfly.

The gadfly is the image Socrates offered of himself in an attempt to defend his honor from charges of impiety and corruption of the youth in front of the Athenian assembly, the dimwitted horse in Socrates' metaphor. Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., too, are exemplars of the gadfly — someone who challenges social authority and exposes institutionalized hypocrisy.

Gadflies play a vital role in society. In practice, our social structures inevitably produce leaders who presume a sense of authority and influence how the followers talk, think and ultimately behave. Gadflies — armed only with skepticism and inquiry — challenge this hegemony and keep fascist tendencies at bay.

The founding fathers of the United States envisioned the independent media as a mechanism that would ensure a place for the gadfly. But for all their wisdom, they could not have anticipated that today, the lion's share of our national media — movies, newspapers, television, magazines, radio, etc. — would be consolidated in the hands of only six corporations. Almost without exception, the content produced by these media conglomerates lacks the bite of the gadfly that our sluggish political institutions so desperately need. And even worse, these mainstream media outlets inculcate a sense of passivity and fatalism that makes us suspicious toward those who decry social injustice and proclaim that a better world is possible. In short, the media brainwashes us. My contention is that becoming a thorn in the side of these media firms, calling out the hypocrisy of government and challenging the moral appropriations of corporate America — for instance, the claim that corporations are people — are all fundamentally crucial tactics that we can pursue even when we do not have time to help out the little village in Burnside Park.

But do not get me wrong. The occupation is the lifeblood of this movement. The expansive community of Occupy Providence is the crucial space in which we can, in the words of Gandhi, "Be the change you want to see in the world." Following the leads of Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Boston, Occupy Providence is becoming a public forum in which various members of the community can share their experiences and hammer out concrete ways to make their city, state and world more humane places to live. The occupations across the globe are becoming a manifest correction in the marketplace of ideas that corporate media have done much to undermine.

This idea of the gadfly is therefore meant to complement, not compete with, the occupation. The subservience and attachment of the corporate media to the powers that be have poisoned the legitimacy of political debate and present an insurmountable obstacle to meaningful social reform. Their idioms and habits of mind seep into every crevice of our world, stifling our political imaginations and turning us against one another.

Many critics of the Occupy movement sneer at protesters' apparent inability to articulate answers to the problems they identify. But the naysayer's smugness is misguided, because the absence of solutions to these crises reflects, more than anything else, a failure of leadership and a failure of our democracy. It is not our job as ordinary citizens to tell politicians how to run society — that is what they are elected and paid to do. It is our job to expect them to do their jobs justly and wisely, and when they do not, it is our job to get mad as hell until things improve.

Just as the human body increases its temperature to destroy infection, our collective agitation will suffocate the sycophants and hypocrites. So go forth, massive base of the Occupy movement, and leave comments on online stories, write letters to the editor, call the news station, support political watchdog groups and independent media, rebuke the mega-corporate mainstream media, question authority, expose the hypocrisy and weaknesses of our broken system, demand answers to the tough questions from those with power and those who seek it — and whenever you can, pay a visit to the People's Park.

Jared Moffat '13 is a philosophy concentrator from Jackson, Miss. He wants to ask President Obama how #OccupytheWhiteHouse is going.


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