October 30, 2011

Chillin’ with the 99%

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In conceiving my column on Occupy Cornell, I had intended to compose an utterly scathing critique. Indeed, I walked up to their General Assembly on Ho Plaza in my Sabbath best, ready to document the chronic hypocrisy and silliness that follows the unfortunately titled “Occupy” movements. In short, I went in guns blazing; unfortunately, I can’t deliver.

The problem is this: They’re too nice. This is true both on a personal and general level.

On a personal level, they treated me with the utmost kindness. During a vote on whether I could observe the meeting (important note: they vote on everything), one student spoke on my behalf. He stated he wouldn’t let just any old columnist attend, but that the quality of my work was sufficient that he’d permit even a rabid conservative (my term) like myself to join the ranks. I was allowed to stay. Truth be told, I blushed.

On a general level, their goals are harmless, and are tempered by a genuine concern for not upsetting anyone too much. A good number of them want to create a space for discussion of political ideas and policy problems. Others merely wish to put democratic principles into action.

But all were wary of rocking the boat. One grad student argued against “occupying” Willard Straight Hall, since he was technically an employee of the University and was worried about the consequences of such a move. A community member asserted that there was no need to “put pressure” on Cornell to meet their demands. Perhaps most tellingly, when one student began chanting “WE-ARE-THE-99-PERCENT!” on our march from Ho Plaza to Goldwin Smith (it was too cold outside), only a few participants joined in, and all looked sheepish — not least because a crowd of students and their parents looked on with befuddlement.

In this sense Occupy Cornell is markedly different from its counterparts. We won’t see destruction of private property or livelihoods, as in New York City, or violent confrontation with the police, as in Oakland. I don’t think the movement here is capable of that. At most we should expect statements of solidarity, a few marches and, weather permitting, more General Assemblies in public spaces.

This is 21st century Ivy League activism, pure and simple. It’s small (18 people attended the meeting), maintains vaguely-defined goals and disavows action that might truly disrupt the workings of the University.

The “nice” character of Occupy Cornell is most evident in its emphasis on consensus. For any proposal to go into effect — say, whether the group should move indoors due to the cold — everyone must agree. If even one participant disagrees, proposals are revised until everyone consents. This is done so that Occupy Cornell creates, in the words of its organizers, “a space that is as egalitarian, democratic and welcoming as possible, a space where everyone feels their voice is heard.”

On the one hand, this position reflects an admirable sentiment. In demanding absolute consensus, however, Occupy Cornell — as well as its less nice counterparts — proposes a wholly unrealistic vision of political life.

Politics, in my conception, requires a competition of ideas, which leads us to a not so nice conclusion: Some ideas will lose out, and some individuals will not be heard. We must therefore advocate our positions through serious discussion and argument.

Our political positions, developed through individual experience, study and reflection, embody the highest values we hold. When expressed in a public political forum, they necessarily reflect different aspects of the human whole. Therefore, not only is a perfectly consensual system impossible — as we will always disagree on values of the utmost importance — but it is also undesirable, as it fails to reflect the deep and abiding differences amongst individuals.

So if there’s consensus at any of these Occupy assemblies, it’s likely for one of two reasons: either the proposals are so narrow and obvious that there’s no reason to disagree — say, “should we move inside in this 30 degree weather?” — or the participants are so ideologically similar that we can predict their consensus vote on any given proposal — say, “should we allow Pete Seeger to lead us in a stirring labor ballad?”

The Occupy movements therefore do not foreshadow a new form of politics. This “absolute consensus” cannot translate to a larger stage. The idea that it can reflects the “nice” assumption that politics may transcend self-interest and the foolish one that denies the importance of strong, persistent disagreement. Occupy Cornell, sharing both, deserves our vigorous disapproval. But certainly not our scorn. Indeed, this would fly in the face of the column advice offered by the General Assembly’s leader as I left: “Be nice, Judah.”

Judah Bellin is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be contacted at jbellin@cornellsun.com. For Whom the Bellin Tolls appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Judah Bellin