Magazine | May 28, 2012, Issue

May Day with OWS

Madison Square Park, New York City, May 1, 2012
A report from the revolution

After a long winter’s absence, Occupy Wall Street came back to town for May Day and, along with the usual paraphernalia of progressive public protest, brought with it a new offering: college. Intrigued by the prospect of returning to school, but initially aiming only casually to observe, I sauntered onto the campus in midtown Manhattan’s Madison Square Park to take a closer look.

Ten minutes after it was supposed to have opened, the “Free University,” as it had been christened, was still in the process of setting up. It was a forlorn sight. Lonely red balloons flew at various points around the water fountains, and bored policemen sat on benches looking bemused and coordinating their patrols with the parks department. It was raining. In its infancy, the scene resembled a ramshackle village fête in a sleepy English village, of the sort that Bertie Wooster might have popped into in hopes of finding a Guess Your Weight competition and some free samples of strawberry jam.

Dotted around the park’s treelined four square blocks were “professors” without students, waiting expectantly under hand-drawn signs that read “Open-Access Teach-In,” “Self-altering Democratizing Space,” and “Free Yoga.” They were ready at a moment’s notice to teach subjects such as “Jacobinism and Black Jacobinism” and “The Fiction of Men and Women,” but the market wasn’t playing ball. Students, it appears, will be no earlier to the revolution than they are to their classes, and the commuters cutting through the area evidently had more pressing concerns than attending the “Protest Songwriting Workshop.”

On the park’s north side, next to the statue of David Glasgow Farragut and in the shadow of the gold-topped New York Life Building, a circle had formed. I wandered over and stood on its edge.

“Naomi Klein went to the Heartland Institute’s International Conference on Climate Change,” the speaker was saying, “which must have been an unpleasant experience.” (The assembled group laughed heartily at this.) “And what she discovered was that the conservatives get it. She wrote about it in The Nation.” He turned to his notes somewhat frantically, and read aloud. “Here’s what she said they think”:

Climate change is a Trojan horse designed to abolish capitalism and replace it with some kind of eco-socialism. As conference speaker Larry Bell succinctly puts it in his new book Climate of Corruption, climate change “has little to do with the state of the environment and much to do with shackling capitalism and transforming the American way of life in the interests of global wealth redistribution.”

This passage elicited some impressively vigorous nodding. “Yes!” affirmed the speaker, in a voice more preacher than professor, “the Right gets it. They spread misinformation about the science. . . . They know that it means the end of how we’ve been living. And they’ll do anything to keep the system as it is.” The group shared world-weary, knowing smiles that congratulated one another on their insight. “So,” he continued. “What can we do?”

#page#There followed a brief conversation about the vital importance of bequeathing “the scientific truth” to the recalcitrant American public and a hasty and unanimous agreement that everybody “needs to stop driving cars.”

“A lot of people live in the suburbs,” the speaker proposed. “They have a few cars and they live in houses that they probably bought in the 1980s. We need to morally exclude those who don’t recognize the problem, and let them know that they have no place in a future America.”

When the meeting adjourned, I waved down a friendly-looking girl and asked her if I could pose a few questions. She assented, in a string of jargon that included the words “interface,” “discourse,” and “growth” among sundry other terms in a combination that was very probably unique in the history of the English language.

“I understand that you think these people in the suburbs can’t continue their lifestyles. Where will they live if not there?” I asked.

“Where will they live? In a community!” she replied, flashing me a smile whose ingredients were delight and pity in equal measure.

“They do live in a community,” I said.

“A different community. One that we’d all design together.”

“Forgive me,” I said. “But you just described America. This is a community that we all designed together. How would yours differ?”

After a bit more back-and-forth and an awful lot more newspeak, we established that the community for Americans who don’t wish to be “morally excluded” would be of her own design. (For the “common good,” of course.) She was nice — more Tom Friedman than Mussolini — but she ultimately couldn’t help betraying that she considers her perspective to be more important than mine, and both traditional liberty and the rule of law to be outdated in these modern times.

By the time I left my friend and her cabal of Five Year Planners, a few of the other classes had hit their stride. I had a vague desire to attend the “Workers’ Rights and Civil Rights” class — I could have sworn that I’d heard someone at the registration desk arguing that the Thirteenth Amendment applied to electric can openers or automatic doors or something — but, while searching for it, I stumbled instead into a seminar concerned with the very nature of teaching.

The symposium — titled “Horizontal Pedagogy” — was absolutely buzzing with those evidently unhappy with the angle at which they were being taught. The class was primarily concerned with discussing “alternative power dynamics, sources of motivation, and the movements of knowledge,” and was hosted by two devastatingly earnest students in their early twenties whose commitment to ensuring that nobody took an “unfair” role in the conversation was sufficient to render them skeptical even of their own responsibilities as facilitators.

In fact, they were skeptical of the value of teaching anyone anything at all. They reminded me of something that hadn’t really occurred to me the last time I wandered into an Occupy franchise — namely that progressives of this stripe do not just wish to have others pay for their education, but wish in parallel essentially to reduce teaching to therapy.

#page#In retrospect, I’m not entirely sure how I’d expected the conversation to go. I’d perhaps anticipated hearing stories about brilliant-but-poor children who were unable to attend the universities of their choice, or being told that America was falling behind in the world because student debt was crippling its finest minds. But those taking part seemed captivated by a single, quite extraordinary question, best distilled as, “Is the fact that people possess differing levels of knowledge an unacceptable form of inequality?”

This was not, as I’d initially assumed, a means of arguing that the uneducated are effectively disenfranchised, but instead the overture to a truly asinine debate about whether the very act of one person’s imparting knowledge to another is inherently hierarchical — and, thus, undesirable. One attendee even described the “traditional” means of conveying information to another as “intellectual violence.” (In doing so, he took the old “all sex is rape” canard and dressed it in a gown and mortarboard.) The consensus, it seemed, was that education would work better if we just all shared our experiences with one another and valued each person’s contribution equally. A self-described “radical teacher” added that each person should be free to absorb the facts that best fit his or her “narrative,” without outside interference from anything like the truth. This approach would put us on the path not only to the establishment of 2+2=5 as a verity, but to the labeling of anyone as a bigot who had the temerity to disagree.

To her credit, one girl — a student in her early twenties — kept pushing back. “I want to go to college to learn things,” she said. “I want to be taught by people who know more than me. That’s the point!” But she was alone, at least among the vocal. “Who are you to decide who knows more than someone else? Who are you to decide what is right and wrong?” came the replies. “I’m a physics major,” she answered. “My teacher does know more than me.”

But the others weren’t interested in this fact — or any facts, really. To them, the truth was just a construct of the ruling class, to be kept or dispensed with by virtue of its utility. They would undoubtedly profit from this girl’s embrace of external reality; instead they rhetorically crucified her for her apostasy and changed the subject. This attitude was all the more strange, given that it was utterly at odds with the assured rhetoric at the climate-change roundtable — at which 15 or so students were convinced enough that they were in possession of the absolute “scientific truth” to advocate remaking the country according to their own design.

But perhaps such inconsistencies should not be surprising, because the Occupiers were on May Day what they have fundamentally always been: a diffuse, inchoate, and rag-tag bunch of progressives standing around in a park, each wondering out loud what America might look like if everyone else agreed with them.

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