Occupy Continues, Unfortunately

This post is about a recent panel at Dartmouth on Spirituality and the Occupy Dartmouth Movement, but before I talk about that I want to tell a story about a man named Wendell Berry. Wendell Berry is a man with faults, but he is also a man of principles.

Wendell Berry, like many of the participants in Occupy Dartmouth, is a man who has serious and fundamental worries about the present state of the American economy, the configuration of American politics, and the state of our culture. He was trained as a poet and got a job teaching creative writing at the University of Kentucky. At the age of 43, he decided to quit his job and move to a farm in his native town. He was convinced that he was participating in an economy and a way of life that was environmentally unsound and morally and culturally deficient. So he got out. 

He has refused to buy a computer because it requires more energy than he thinks he needs. In his mind, such unnecessary energy use is destroying our planet. In 2009, he pulled his personal papers from the University of Kentucky because they named a new dorm after a coal company who donated money to the school. 

I mention Berry because Berry is a man who has ruthlessly lived out his values. He became convinced that living normally in the modern economy is morally illicit and so he has decided to live in a radically different way. I wish I could say the same about the Occupiers.  

The panel, conducted a few days ago, was full of the usual Occupy silliness. It was incoherent from the start. It was meant to be a panel on the intersection of spirituality and the Occupy Movement, but hardly any mention of religion was made at all. At the beginning, all the students who were involved in the Occupy movement were asked to stand up to be applauded. They were praised for engaging the community in “meaningful dialogue” (what dialogue?) The fact that literally nothing has changed because they wanted to hang out in tents for a few weeks was passed over. 

They taught us their silly method of communicating by hand signals. There were threats and hints of violent revolution. We were told first that “this” could all have a very unhappy ending and that “politicians have to come into line. They will be faced with the prospect of real revolution if they don’t.” They celebrated the fact that they have no platform or practical proposals about how to actually change the country. One panelist claimed that trying to spend time crafting good arguments and learning data was “disabling” and it’s better to just jump into activism. They bemoaned how the movement was disrespected and persecuted, but it was clear that they really just enjoyed being righteous martyrs (as one panelist put, they have found “the great pleasure that is to had in resistance). The whole thing was self-indulgent.

 


 

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But besides all this, the main problem with the Occupy Dartmouth kids is that none of them have the integrity that Wendell Berry has. They have gotten all these ideas in their head from reading Marx in the pleasure of Ivy League surroundings (and not in the midst of any of Marxism’s bloody wars). Yet, they have done nothing about them. Yes, they lived in tents for two months. I know two Dartmouth students who a couple of years ago lived in tents for entire term because they enjoyed doing it. Those students, by the way, lived in tents on the Appalachian Trail, not right outside Collis Porch. Many times when I walked past the Occupy tent I saw someone using a MacBook, plugged into Collis porch behind them. I also know that one of the students on the panel is involved in corporate recruiting.

Yes, people are starving. Yes, the environment is being destroyed. Yes, our cultural values are messed up. Yes, some of the excesses of modern consumer capitalism should be curbed. And how did a bunch of affluent college students sitting in a tent for two months change any of that? Did they feed a single poor person? Did they make heroic efforts to reduce their energy dependence (think: MacBooks)? Did they try, like Berry, to withdraw themselves as much as possible from the normal operation of the American economy (think: corporate recruiting)? Have they by their protest improved the life of a single person in this world? And no, helping each other feel all giddy about “fighting the man” doesn’t count. 

One Occupy panelist mentioned that Dartmouth students, because of their busy schedules, don’t have time to think deeply about “what’s wrong with the world.” Perhaps he needs to be reminded of a G.K. Chesterton’s famous quote. A newspaper in Chesterton’s time put out a call for essays on the subject “what’s wrong with the world.” His response? “Dear Sirs, I am.” 

Message to the Dartmouth Occupiers: Leave Dartmouth and live life on a farm, and I’ll respect you. Spend two months working for a charitable organization instead of sleeping in a tent, and I’ll respect you. Spend two months crafting policy proposals instead of sleeping in a tent, and I’ll respect you. Until you stop using MacBooks and drinking corporately brewed coffee and trying to get jobs at consulting firms that consult for the very industries you claim to find so morally reprehensible, you deserve all the scorn you love to complain about. 

Raleigh T. Saddler