November 15, 2011

Occupying the Discussion

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It is difficult to know what to make of the “Occupy” movement at Cornell and across the country. It is true that the movement is still disorganized. Protesters lack defined goals, have generally been small in number and continue to emerge unpredictably in cities and campuses across the country. Nor have they done the best job at articulating exactly why they are protesting and what they want to see changed. Yet, despite these criticisms, none of which are entirely without merit, there is still something to the protests. There is a collective energy to the demonstrations, built from the country’s pent up frustration with the status quo in Washington, that has sustained the movement and caused others to join. It is reminiscent of the same calls for change that propelled President Barack Obama into the White House and not dissimilar in spirit to those heard from their Tea Party counterparts on the right. American citizens are still hungry for change, and it has yet to fully materialize.In an opinion piece in The New York Times, Columbia University Professor Jeffrey Sachs argues that the Occupy Wall Street movement marks the start of a third major progressive era of reform in American politics. Others have dismissed the protests as a fringe movement that will eventually lose its steam. But whether one believes that the Occupy movement will cause a major overhaul of American policy or will eventually fade into the abyss, it is important to appreciate the conversation it has produced. The movement has fostered debate over the merits of the country’s vast income gap and the influence businesses wield over policymakers. Critics can disagree with the tactics and organization of the present movement, but the ideas that it has brought forth are important perspectives to maintain within our democratic political discourse.At Cornell, the movement’s place on campus is not dissimilar. The Occupy Cornell movement has held three demonstrations here thus far. On Saturday, Occupy Cornell protested outside the Work on Wall Street Conference — a forum for students interested in finance careers. At the beginning of November, students gathered to show support for the Occupy Oakland activists and their clashes with police. Two weeks before that, the Cornell Democrats organized a rally for solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street protesters. Yet, three demonstrations later, the movement on campus continues to face many of the same problems as the one nationwide. It remains somewhat disorganized and its participants relatively small in number. Protesters have lacked a clear message, which has ranged from business regulation and income inequality to environmental protection and immigration reform, and most students on campus remain unclear about the movement’s message and goals.This has been compounded by the fact that Cornell remains a school with a dominant finance culture. Look for a job on Career Net and you’ll mainly find listings for banks and consulting firms. Ask a senior where he or she has applied to work next year and most will offer that same answer. We are an Ivy League school and our students are strong prospective employees for the nation’s top businesses that have the resources to offer them attractive job packages. Under this climate, Occupy Wall Street –– and Cornell’s own Occupy movement –– can feel distant.But that does not mean that there is not something worthwhile to the protests. There is a certain energy to them –– the same energy that has gripped other college campuses across the country, causing nearly 3,000 Berkeley students to camp out in their central plaza and compelling Harvard students to erect 30 tents in the center of their campus. At its best, the movement at Cornell can inform political discourse on campus. It provides a broader perspective to students who will one day go on to work on Wall Street and elsewhere, and who will have a stake and a say in our country’s political and economic future.It will likely take some time for the Occupy movement to make any long-lasting policy or cultural change in the United States or on campus, if it ever does. The protesters will need to define a clearer list of goals and formulate a coherent message that can appeal more to the mainstream, including a larger majority of media outlets, policymakers and, on campus, a greater number of students. Already, the Occupy Wall Street group is faced with reformulating its strategy after Mayor Bloomberg ordered an end to the encampment in Zuccotti Park. But, in the meantime, the movement should not be flatly dismissed. The ideas that it has brought to the forefront deserve, at the very least, to be considered and discussed.