Charles’s hilarious post on the Occupy “university” perfectly expresses an insufficiently appreciated truth: The Left, being in part a creature of the therapeutic culture, is committed above all to talking. Think of all the lefty synonyms for jabber: “consciousness raising,” “raising awareness,” “consensus building,” etc., its fascination with terminology and catchphrases (the synecdochical use of “empire,” the ignorant use of “neocon”). But talking does not really change the world. (A funny thing for a sometime talking head to write, but it is true.)
For example, consider that 1985 saw one of the great embarrassments in human history, USA For Africa’s release of “We Are the World.” There was endless “raising awareness” about the Ethiopian famine, there was Hands Across America, endless media coverage of rock stars feeling good about themselves, the whole icky enchilada. But it did not solve the problem of famine in Africa, or even in the specific case of Ethiopia, which is right now experiencing yet another major food crisis. As it turns out, the transformative power of pop music and earnest talk is limited.
Something else happened in 1985: That least hip, most boring, squarest of square organizations, the Rotary Club, decided that it was going to help lead an effort to wipe out polio around the world. “We Are the World” raised $100 million; the Rotarians have raised nearly $1 billion. Famine remains horrifically ordinary; polio is nearly eradicated, the number of cases worldwide having been reduced by 99 percent. Lots of countries have hunger, but only three have polio: Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria, and it seems likely that it will be eradicated in those countries.
Similarly, 1941 was a big year for speeches — Roosevelt’s “live in infamy,” Hitler at the Reichstag, Churchill everywhere, Charles Lindbergh in Iowa prefiguring Ron Paul. Titanic speeches by some of history’s biggest players, and obviously not without consequence. It was also the year that Merck and its industry partners figured out how to mass produce penicillin, converting Fleming and Florey’s research into what is surely the most important pharmaceutical in history. Between 50 million and 70 million people died in World War II — a fraction of those who would have died since if not for penicillin. The hated, profit-seeking pharmaceutical companies have saved more lives in the past 70 years than war has taken.
Don’t expect Occupy to figure out the significance of that. It is difficult to impart knowledge to a movement that is, as Charles points out, opposed to learning per se. But if the occupiers really want to change the world, they should join the Rotary Club or the staff of Merck, or the Missionaries of Charity if they have the guts for it. Waving a placard in Union Square isn’t doing it.