Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Occupy Wall Street, Student Activists

Student Activists
Occupy Wall Street, Part Three

In Part Two I concluded the Occupy Wall Street folks in the Calgary city plaza were not students- they were NEETs: not in employment, education or training. As well, they were NEETs with hubris.

Hubris, to the Greeks, meant excessive pride, as in not heeding the Gods, and it led to a fall. Today, to me, hubris means not heeding the public or history or common sense. In the recent past, as noted in Part Two, hubris has led to operating with the toolbox half empty, by rejecting “the older generation,” or folks in suits, or the working class. Now I place no trust in NEETs. But what of students? Near the end of Part Two I wrote: It remains to be seen whether hubris will render some, most or all of our educated youth ineffectual…

…As teens a lot of our energy went into protecting our egos. As an adult in my 20’s, I found that if I wanted to get active results in the real world, I would need to leave my ego at the door. Forget hubris.

I’ve been a student. At my college, I’m pleased to say, we heeded the old activist principle—violated by the occupiers—of having our public activities with a “closed” time frame, often of less than a lunch hour, rather than have an “open ended” gathering where gradually people trickle away, reducing the number of bodies and reducing the power of the spectacle. To quote from the man in my footnote to Part Two, “Anything that drags on becomes a drag.” So at college we ended things with a bang.

At my university, as at college, students were varied in their spirit. I knew many students who were newly adult and keen to know their brave new world. They found it meaningful to follow the news, both in the greater world and right on campus. So bright eyed. I dimly knew of other students too, but them I never got to know. They wouldn't care for campus news or student media: I think they were trapped by family or peer expectations that they were “s’posed to” go to university. For them, any youthful excitement had to come from weekends and student cabarets, because every week they were in a passive mode, feeling unresponsible, uninvolved, like in some glorified high school. I’m thinking of a man I mentioned in a previous essay. He felt no sense of campus affiliation; he said he attended “for my professional information.” It sounds to me like he was too fearful to reach out.

A spirited student activist won’t be someone who gives in to fear. No claiming to be bored or superior to other students. No leaning back, heh-heh, and chewing gum. But perhaps fear is a two sided coin, with the other side embossed: Hubris.

Back in high school I had hubris, we all did. My school was full of snobs, and shy people mistaken for snobs, and no doubt some kids were both at once. I would have been glad when reading the young adult novels by Robert Heinlein, about teens like me, with their middle aged mentors. I was glad the novels were devoid of characters in their 20’s, because the contrast with us teens would have just been too much for me. (Say, maybe that’s why graduate students are expected to absent themselves from normal student (undergraduate) affairs)

So I ask, “Is hubris rendering some university students ineffectual?”

Well, yes. Sometimes. Before me is Fast Forward, a typical weekly entertainment-newspaper, of the sort found in every big city. The first few pages, activist friendly, are always a critical look at the Establishment/Government/The System. Then come write-ups on independent bands, entertainment reviews and regular syndicated columns, the latter illustrated with irreverent 1960’s style cartoons. No sports. The young audience, despite preferring Star Wars to sports, still see themselves as cool; the keen young writers, who surely all have day jobs, romantically see themselves as responsible "writers." 

Up in Edmonton last week I had gone to see the feature film Margin Call. The (VUEWEEKLY) weekly paper there, the equivalent of Fast Forward, gave the show a balanced, fair review. The writer is Josef Braun. (Headlines, of course, are generated by the editor when laying out the page, and not by the writer) The headline reads ECONOMIC HUBRIS Though strangely paced, Margin Call finds some truth in its exploration of big business back dealing. 3/5 stars. (Roger Ebert gave 4/5) The call out reads “What ultimately makes Margin Call worthwhile above all is the way it cumulatively builds up to something like a revelation, one that isn’t novel but feels very true.” Fine. I had assumed Fast Forward down here in Calgary would have a good review too. But I forgot about hubris. Boy, was I in for a surprise…

While it goes without saying that students who want to understand, and then reform Wall Street, would seek out the medium of print, that is to say, use their flipping library cards! ... I took it for granted that students would also access popular culture, the stuff of water cooler talk. After all, it’s hard for an activist to “activate social change” if he doesn’t know where his non-university fellow citizens are coming from, and let’s face it: most of them are coming not from books but movies. Unfortunately, there’s been precious few such films. It must be hard to make business movies. They may be socially necessary, but cinematically difficult: It’s hard to have violence or sex, special effects or explosions, and the characters are apt to be old enough to be a young movie-goer’s parents—in boring suits no less! But sometimes it can be done. (Also there are fine feature-length documentaries such as Inside Job) Now, at last, here is one specifically about Wall Street.

The characters are not at a bank but at a Wall Street financial company: The difference is critical. Banks, by federal regulation, must protect their customers by having deposit insurance so the bank won’t go broke. The cost of this insurance is passed on to customers by providing much lower interest rates. Many customers prefer to settle for such security. Other companies, outside of federal law, are theoretically allowed to fail, while taking bigger risks for bigger profits. The people working there are not "productive capitalists" but wheeler-dealer brokers of money: Certainly not your stereotypical timid bankers.

Margin Call begins as no one, not even top management, has any clue of the coming melt down. In the first scene some workers are downsized. Naturally the survivors, and especially the workers just terminated, now have a chance to question their fundamental values and priorities. (Questioning doesn’t have to stop when you leave college) And then a company numbers wizard becomes a harbinger: He predicts a melt down. What would you do? Crawl into a bottle? Cooperate as in a lifeboat? Claw madly as in a jungle? Margin Call is about choices that were made, and characters that were formed, long before the demon of melt down was ever summoned.

I liked Margin Call. I am neither a businessman nor a math person. In fact, I once joked, “If only I could do math, I would have been an engineer, and today my bridges would be world famous!” Furthermore, at the risk of sounding like I “fail to take a grown up interest in the news,” I must confess I seldom read the business section of the newspaper. But maybe that’s OK, as I’ve come to suspect even real businessmen don’t, I think they only read the articles that directly pertain to them. My point is this: Although I don’t know any business or financial math, I was able to easily follow the conversations in the movie. So how to explain the Fast Forward review?

The Calgary reviewer hated the movie. Hated the characters; hated the actors too. Writing like a whiny brat, and saying he had only a couple of dollars in his pocket, he said he couldn’t understand the business dialogue, even after the boss had said, “Explain it to me like I’m a golden retriever.” I sense alienation and isolation from the world of grown ups wearing suits.  I guess the writer had graduated, and was now going about his daily life, without ever picking enough knowledge of the world to converse at the level of a dog. How? And why make a virtue of his ignorance? The how and why is: Hubris.

When I saw the movie I was visiting Edmonton, and visiting a smart employee at the Princess Theatre, a guy so smart he had sounded crazy to a psychologist by predicting the melt down just months before it happened. After the 7:00 o’clock showing I stood by the man as he asked the people leaving if they liked it. Everyone was favorable. The house had been pretty full. I told him, “I sat at in the first row and before the house light went down I noticed something: Practically no one was under age thirty… All the guys who occupied Wall Street didn’t bother to show up!”

My conclusion, regretfully, is yes, some students are being rendered ineffectual by their hubris. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. The “activists” who organized the American Revolution had great self-confidence but not hubris. Benjamin Franklin, according to his autobiography, would say, “Perhaps… maybe… it appears to me…” My favorite US president (and Captain Kirk’s favorite too!) had the confidence to impressively stand up to all his generals, and to all his cabinet ministers, yet he was well known for being humble.

At work, recently, I was asked to “trouble shoot” by taking over a rowdy team. I had heard horror stories. No, I didn’t stride in with my “stern command presence.” Instead I was very polite and very humble. It all worked out. When I reported back, my boss responded, “Humble is good.” Perhaps being humble is an antidote to fear of others, or fear of self-judgment, because it disengages the ego. Maybe humble is healthier. It appears to me, in the face of this ever-changing world, “humble is realistic.” Being humble I can safely listen to others, and take a chance of being changed. And, willing to learn, I can even use my flipping library card!

And, finally… Humble means: Just because I can’t grandly change Wall Street overnight, that’s no reason to give up. There are many people out there working on small ways to change. And that’s OK. As for how to help them in large numbers to be focused and committed on Wall Street action, that would take a separate essay. (...And by now I’m just too tired to write a part four! Sorry. At least, not unless someone asks me.)

Here’s hoping for the humble path.

Sean Crawford
December 2011

~ I tacked on the prefix Wall Street to the title to, ahem!, patronize web-search laziness. That's 'cause I saw my first two essays were getting double the hits of this one. A pity, as my third one is the most constructive. (And then later added "Occupy")

 ~ For a longer look at the differences between students, between those with and without spirit, see my essay "Of Students, Alumni and Couches" from June 2010.

~I see that for the last month a lot of my essays have been at the intersection of citizenship and action. I won’t list them all here, (I presume you are bright eyed enough to view my home page archives) but I will note that Citizens, Jobs and the Liberal Arts is in October 2011 and I touched on Focus and Commitment way back in June of 2011.

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