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“I Wanted Something Productive to Do": Creating Space for Books and Learning at Occupy Wall Street

Education is at the heart of the Occupy Wall Street movement, from the student loan bubble to the library and teach-ins at the center of the park.

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As you know better than I, you got soaked by the educational equivalent of a subprime mortgage.  As a result, many of you were sent out of those gates and directly -- as they say of houses that are worth less than what’s owed on their mortgages -- underwater.

You essentially mortgaged your lives for an education and left college weighed down with so much debt -- a veritable trillion-dollar bubble of it -- that you may never straighten up, not if the 1% have their way.  Worse yet, you were sent into a world just then being stripped of its finery, where decent jobs were going the way of TVs with antennas and rotary telephones.

Lost Worlds and Utopia

Here’s a weakness of mine: graduation speeches.  I like their form, if not their everyday reality, and so from time to time give them unasked at TomDispatch.com, speeches for those of us already out in the world and seldom credited for never stopping learning.

In this case, though, don’t think of me as your graduation speaker.  Think of this as a self-graduation.  And this time, it’s positives all the way to the horizon.  After all, you haven’t incurred a cent of debt, because you and those around you in Zuccotti Park are giving the classes you took.  First, you began educating yourself in the realities of post-meltdown America, and then, miraculously enough, you went and educated many of the rest of us as well.

You really did change the conversation in this country in a heartbeat from, as Joshua Holland wrote at Alternet.org, “a relentless focus on the deficit to a discussion of the real issues facing Main Street: the lack of jobs... spiraling inequality, cash-strapped American families' debt-loads, and the pernicious influence of money in politics that led us to this point” -- and more amazingly yet, at no charge.

In other words, I’m not here, like the typical graduation speaker, to inspire you.  I’m here to tell you how you’ve inspired me.   In the four decades between the moment when I imagined I put everything on the line and the moment when you actually did, wealth and income inequalities exploded in ways unimaginable in the 1960s.  For ordinary Americans, the numbers that translated into daily troubles began heading downhill in the 1990s, the Clinton years, and only a fraudulent bubble in home values kept the good times rolling until 2008.

Then, of course, it burst big time.  But you know all this.  Who knows better than you the story of the financial and political flim-flam artists who brought this country to its knees, made out like bandits, and left the 99% in the dust?  Three years of stunned silence followed, as if Americans simply couldn’t believe it, couldn’t take it in -- if, that is, you leave aside the Tea Party movement.

But give those aging, angry whites credit.  They were the first to cry out for a lost world (while denouncing some of the same bank bailouts and financial shenanigans you have).  That was before, in a political nano-second, the phrase “Tea Party” was essentially trademarked, occupied, and made the property of long-time Republican operatives, corporate cronies, and various billionaires.

That won’t happen to you.  Among your many strengths, the lack of a list of demands that so many of your elders have complained about, your inclusiveness, and your utopian streak -- the urge to create a tiny, thoroughly democratic new society near the beating financial heart of the old one -- will make you far harder to co-opt.  Add in the fact that, while any movement taking on inequity and unfairness is political, you are also, in the usual sense of the term, a strikingly apolitical movement.  Again, this is, to my mind, part of your strength.  It ensures that neither the Democratic Party nor left sects will find it easy to get a toehold in your environs.  Yes, in the long run, if you last and grow (as I suspect you will), a more traditional kind of politics may form around you, but it’s unlikely to abscond with you as those Republican operatives did with the Tea Party.

 
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