Stanford Progressive

Perspective: Occupy Stanford, Occupy The Future, and Why Care?

By Chan Chi Ling, published December, 2011

(Sunset Parkerpix/Flickr Creative Commons)

For some three weeks now, Occupy Stanford has been staging walkouts and rallies as part of the broader Occupy Movement that has swept across United States since mid September. These have been poorly received by a largely lukewarm student population with whom the “We are the 99%” protestations hardly resonates, despite a very committed student-run General Assembly that is still camping 24/7 in Meyer library at the time of writing. Some have called it a hypocritical movement (“We are the 1%, for god’s sake!), others have criticized as being a reactive jumping on to the national bandwagon with no real direction, and many simply don’t really care or know what to make of it – the Stanford bubble does insulate students from the outside world to our detriment sometimes.

It is also not uncommon to overhear conversations about the movements at dining tables, which often end a dismal laugh-off, “Occupy Stanford is a joke!” And it’s in some sense true – there is no real protest in Stanford – Stanford certainly don’t share the enthusiasm of our neighbor UC Berkeley and Davis, whose student-led Occupy movements have gone so far as to ignite violent police crackdowns. But joke or no joke, protest or no protest, I think there are strong reasons for a school-wide conversation on a movement that is a symbolic expression of profound inequality that pervades American society today. Let me begin with a few observations on campus that has set me thinking over the past weeks:

“We are the 1% – why should we care?”

This is, to my mind, the most disturbingly snobbish statement I have heard around campus with reference to the Occupy movements. Sure, Stanford is a “billionaire university” and most graduates do go on to do very well, many even eventually becoming the “1%” in the economic hierarchy. But to say that this gives Stanford students a pass to ignore the problem of inequality, or that they are no in any position to make noise about it betrays a sense of arrogance and myopic indifference. In fact, I would argue that it is precisely because they are seen as the 1% that they should make a statement about the untenability of the status quo: that inequality on this works to society’s great detriment and should not be tolerated, that there are systemic flaws that has allowed corrupt corporate culture to take a strong foothold that needs to be corrected, that American government cannot yield itself to becoming a “Wall-Street government”.

The whole “percentage” metaphor that has captured public imagination has been the key way by which the movement has been framed, and if we look deeper one realizes that it is not mere rhetorical flourish. On some levels, it does capture the essence of the gross inequality that protestors are railing against today – the fact that the top 1% of the American populace possess wealth equivalent to 50% of Americans (that’s a whopping 55%) should trouble anyone with genuine concern about the health of our society and any care for the ideals on which this country was founded.

Yet ultimately, it should not matter which income percentile students come from. As much as this protest has been characterized as a class war in which the have-nots run up against the well to do, it is at its root a protest against broader, systemic failures of a system that has failed to deliver equitable outcomes to the people. Stanford students, whether they like it or not, are part of this system and there are more reasons than one to care about the future of this system.

Seen in this light, Occupy Stanford – despite largely failing to gain traction on campus – is not a mere show of solidarity of the “XX percent” of Americans; it is a movement that vocalizes and acknowledges that the economic inequality is a serious problem that cannot be underestimated. The General Assembly has not attracted a huge array of students, but it is also a reassuring sign that Stanford students are not completely enclosed within a bubble of indifference towards the tempestuous world outside.

“They don’t know what they’re protesting for!”

A common criticism about the Occupy movements – here in Stanford as in elsewhere – is the seeming lack of concrete objectives and focus. Some cities’ Occupy movements have tried to dispel the appearance of vagueness by proposing concrete lists of explicit demands – such as tax reforms for the wealthy, limits on contributions to political campaigns, abolishment of corporate personhood, while others – such as Occupy Wall Street – have no such concrete litanies. Occupy Stanford likewise seems to lack a list of specific reforms or demands.

My sense is that this “vagueness” and lack of clear direction of Occupy movements is to be expected. One reason is this: no one really knows how to fix the system. Embroiled within the protests is a complex panoply of problems, many of which are the same problems that caused the financial crisis in the first place: lax regulation of the financial industry, an amoral corporate culture that is not confined to Wall Street alone, the hijacking of public political discourses by corporate power and lobbyists. All of these are intricately intertwined so that it is almost impossible to proclaim that any litany of solutions can effectively fix such a thoroughly messed up system.

As a result, protests that have proffered specific goals often present “solutions” that create the false impression that the systemic problems plaguing America are easily solved by particular “silver bullets” (say, abolish corporate personhood!), some of which are not well-considered in the first place. The people can hardly be expected to hold the solutions to the myriad of exceedingly complex problems that continue to frustrate policymakers, puzzle academics and confuse politicians.

How, for instance, do you solve the problem of unbridled greed? It is naïve to expect that the solution can be easily summarized in a statement of demand, which I think explains why, unlike past civil rights movements where the people are rallying for clear demands such as universal suffrage and racial equality, the Occupy Movement is at best seen as one that vocalizes dissatisfaction, drawing national attention to a problem instead of a concrete demand. And that is just as important – the first step to solving a problem is acknowledging that it exists and merits attention.

“Occupy The Future”: the start of a meaningful and calibrated discourse in Stanford

Occupy Stanford, despite its feeble attempts at rallying the larger student body, has at the very least proven that some Stanford students are concerned about the glaring inequalities that characterize American society. Recently, Stanford saw the emergence of a new coalition of faculty, undergraduates and graduates under the name “Occupy The Future,” which kick-started a series of events with the film-screening of Charles’ Ferguson academy award-winning documentary Inside Job, one of the most incisive analyses of the events that precipitated the 2008 subprime crisis and its aftermath.

With student and faculty essays posted daily on the Boston Review and Stanford Daily, discussions and roundtables, Occupy The Future looks like a promising movement that can hopefully inspire a school-wide conversation on the Occupy movements that have transpired and the underlying issues concerning inequality, corporate power and government. It’s a movement that rings with a sense of pragmatism, one that reminds Stanford students about the common future that has to be shaped not tomorrow, but today.

I end with a quote from Noam Chomsky’s recent article:

“…if you want to change the world you’d better try to understand it. That doesn’t mean listening to a talk or reading a book, though that’s helpful sometimes. You learn from participating. You learn from others. You learn from the people you’re trying to organize. We all have to gain the understanding and the experience to formulate and implement ideas.”

The Occupy Movement is an unprecedented opportunity to overcome America’s current hopelessness, and – even for non-American Stanford students – a great live lesson on how people can change the world for the better. It seems vague because the problem is complex and far from easy to pin down, but give it time and something constructive might just come out of it – if people care enough.

1 Comment »

  1.  Michael Lewis, December 13, 2011 @ 5:10 pm

    The hush-hush of politics is controlling a segment of people without those people recognizing they are being managed.

    In 1789 The Constitution and Bill of Rights were established as the law of the land.

    For 97 years it was understood that 1st Amendment freedoms of speech, press and assembly were the sole rights of flesh and blood citizens. Corporations had no rights. Newspapers had the right to print because they employed people and not the other way around.

    “The 20th century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy; the growth of corporate power; and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.” -Alex Carey, Australian social scientist who pioneered the investigation of corporate propaganda (see Taking the Risk Out Of Democracy, Univ of New South Wales, 1995)

    In 1886 footnotes to the Santa Clara Railroad case, written by a Supreme Court Clerk who was previously a railroad executive, became the basis for corporations claiming the same rights as flesh and blood people.

    Following reports of serious financial abuses in the 1972 Presidential campaign, Congress amended the FECA in 1974 to set limits on contributions by individuals, political parties and PACs. But politicians exempted the commercial press, because the 1st Amendment prohibits abridging their freedom of speech and the press.

    2 USC 431 (9) (B) (i) The term “expenditure” does not include any news story, commentary, or editorial distributed through the facilities of any broadcasting station, newspaper, magazine, or other periodical publication, unless such facilities are owned or controlled by any political party, political committee, or candidate;

    But we cannot rely on the commercial press to be unbiased and provide the information we need to remain free. Both Republicans and Democrats agree the press is biased and only differ on which networks and newspapers are the culprits:

    A newspaper must at all times antagonize the selfish interests of that very class which furnishes the larger part of a newspaper’s income… The press in this country is dominated by the wealthy few…that it cannot be depended upon to give the great mass of the people that correct information concerning political, economical and social subjects which it is necessary that the mass of people Shall have in order that they vote…in the best way to protect themselves from the brutal force and chicanery of the ruling and employing classes. (E.W. Scripps).

    In my opinion the idea of media being objective was a marketing ploy to sell newspapers:

    “It was not until the 1920s that you really get the notion of professional journalists, the way we think about them today,” says Michael Delli Carpini, dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. “A lot of different schools of journalism started, codes of ethics were developed, the whole notion of the journalist as objective came into play …. of standing outside the story, telling both sides, of being factual rather than opinionated.”

    If the United States Supreme Court defined freedom of religion using the same logic that campaign laws use to define a free press only the church or synagogue “as an institution” would enjoy freedom of religion, not its parishioners!

    “Section 431(9)(B)(i) makes a distinction where there is no real difference: the media is extremely powerful by any measure, a “special interest” by any definition, and heavily engaged in the “issue advocacy” and “independent expenditure” realms of political persuasion that most editorial boards find so objectionable when anyone other than a media outlet engages in it. To illustrate the absurdity of this special exemption the media enjoys, I frequently cite as an example the fact that if the RNC bought NBC from GE the FEC would regulate the evening news and, under the McCain-Feingold “reform” bill, Tom Brokaw could not mention a candidate 60 days before an election. This is patently absurd.” – Senator McConnell

    It is normal for all large businesses to make serious efforts to influence the news, to avoid embarrassing publicity, and to maximize sympathetic public opinion and government policies. Now they own most of the news media that they wish to influence. – Excerpt from The Media Monopoly by Ben H. Bagdikian

    The press exemption divides participation in America’s political process into two categories: The regulated majority, every living U.S. Citizen, candidate for office, political party and political organization and the unregulated commercial media.

    To restore equal protection under law, the “press exemption”, 2 USC 431 (9) (B) (i), should be modified to read: “The term expenditure does not include any news story, commentary, or editorial distributed by any candidate, political party, citizen, citizens group, non-profit corporation, broadcasting station, newspaper, magazine, or other periodical publication.”

    Every man is equally entitled to protection by law; but when the laws undertake to add… artificial distinctions, to grant titles, gratuities, and exclusive privileges, to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society the farmers, mechanics, and laborers who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their government. President Andrew Jackson.

    The 1st Amendment does not guarantee our freedoms but it does prohibit Congress from writing laws that would abridge them. The 1st Amendment was added to the Constitution because some State representatives to the Constitutional Convention feared the power of an over reaching Central Government. State Constitutions are where protections of our freedoms of speech, press and assembly are found. The 14th Amendment attempts to extend Federal protection to the Bill of Rights and in this instance is misconstrued. Only Congress can violate the 1st Amendment and the Federal Campaign Act and the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act violate the prohibitions of the 1st Amendment. Federal Campaign laws abridge freedoms of speech, press by limiting how much money individual citizens and citizens groups can donate to their candidates and issues, and they abridge freedom of assembly by declaring it a crime for candidates, political parties and grass roots organizations to coordinate their advertising campaigns.

    The solution to limiting corporate influence and restoring flesh and blood citizen’s control of politics is not limiting how much individuals and grass roots organizations can spend communicating. There is no Constitutional basis for making political coordination a crime? Does a candidate for office have the responsibility or authority to tell a citizen or citizens group they cannot simultaneously put out campaign materials from the candidate and a grass roots organization that supports the candidate? Where in the Constitution does participating in politics require a candidate or citizen to give up 1st Amendment freedoms of assembly and association?

    UNITED STATES v. ASSOCIATED PRESS – Decided June 18, 1945
    It would be strange indeed however if the grave concern for freedom of the press which prompted adoption of the First Amendment should be read as a command that the government was without power to protect that freedom. That Amendment rests on the assumption that the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public, that a free press is a condition of a free society. Surely a command that the government itself shall not impede the free flow of ideas does not afford non-governmental combinations a refuge if they impose restraints upon that constitutionally guaranteed freedom. Freedom to publish means freedom for all and not for some. Freedom to publish is guaranteed by the Constitution, but freedom to combine to keep others from publishing is not. Freedom of the press from governmental interference under the First Amendment does not sanction repression of that freedom by private interests.

    But corporate media can be part of the solution if they walk their talk:

    The commercial press is the most well-known promoter of campaign reforms to get money out of politics. Among reasons given is the need to level the playing field for challengers.

    Since the only thing campaigns produce is information for public distribution and the cost of distribution is the origin of much of the need for money in politics, why don’t the commercial media offer to publish and broadcast candidate and issue ads for free?

    Not likely: there is speculation Obama may raise a billion dollars and Republicans 750 million. Campaign season is Christmas for media corporations.

    The corporate method of organization is not going to be banned any time soon. People work in corporations. They invest in them or own them (most are small). Interest groups, from the ACLU to the NRA to, are all corporations too. The persons in these groups have interests, and particularly in the non-profit sector, it’s a method for organizing the so-called 99% so they can pool their resources and be sure they are heard.

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