What do former Goldman Sachs director Greg Smith, Senator Olympia Snowe and Occupy Wall Street have in common? All criticized an institution or political system while distancing themselves as much as possible from that institution or system. In a frustrated New York Times op-ed last week, Smith left Goldman; while Maine moderate Snowe chose not to run for re-election, citing impossible partisan pressure. Late last year, Occupiers put up tents and donned winter coats, demonstrating the stark contrast between their new, chosen lifestyle and the culture of the suits. The trend is one of objection followed by abandonment.
Exposing wrongs is well and good — the awareness Smith and Snowe’s actions generated is valuable — but abandonment is not the solution. When Smith and Snowe gave up their positions, they created vacancies to be filled by other, possibly less ethical, less capable candidates. Contrary to the current trend, the best way to Occupy may involve not a picket sign but a briefcase and a healthy dose of integrity.
Indeed, unless the goal is revolution, improvements must occur from within. Actually working on Wall Street may be the best way to change Wall Street. Pressure from the outside is important, but, ultimately, we need decent people for the job. Without these decent people in positions of power, our disapproval — scrawled all over editorials, sandwich boards and Facebook posts — does not translate into reform.
Instead, it stagnates. Our desire for change turns first to despair and then to apathy. In the end, there is nothing to do but go home. The Occupiers pack up, while Smith and Snowe wonder what’s on TV. Until good people learn to stick it out, we remain helpless to effect lasting change.
Currently, our culture is caught in a curious place between rage and apathy. We are angry at our failing systems, yet we feel that we cannot take direct action. In his book “Ill Fares the Land, “the historian Tony Judt wrote “The example of the ‘anti-politics’ of the 70s, together with the emphasis on human rights, has perhaps mislead a generation of young activists into believing that, conventional avenues of change being hopelessly clogged, they should forsake political organization for single-issue, non-governmental groups unsullied by compromise.”
But is joining organizations such as Greenpeace or Teach for America really the only way to effect change? While such organizations are certainly laudable, they do little to change the broken, underlying structures of our country. Simply put, it is time to occupy.
Unfortunately, the idea that people should occupy by working for problematic institutions is unpopular. We tend to feel cynical towards those going into finance or politics. As reported in the News (“Even artichokes have doubts,” Sept. 30) most finance-bound Yalies interviewed expressed embarrassment at selling out or considered finance merely a stepping stone to other, better achievements.
While the fact that finance attracts a sizeable percentage of undergraduates may be troubling to some, those students bound for the private sector need not feel so pessimistic. If, instead of protesting their choices, we instead encouraged them to implement change from the inside, then we might bring about reform. In a similar vein, future politicians ought not get too caught up in talk of selling their souls to lobbyists. Instead, they should adopt an attitude of defiance.
Obviously, it is difficult to work from within a corrupt system. After all, one must stay employed, so publishing scathing op-eds, as Smith and Snowe did, may be out of the question. Quiet integrity, fair leadership and an unwillingness to let go of one’s principles can, however, make a difference and set a strong counter-example.
It is my hope that our problematic financial and political institutions will one day be overrun by upstanding individuals willing to do the right thing. And we must support them. We have to make sure that those with the appropriate talents and moral grit are working inside the organizations we wish to change. Long live that Occupation!
Antonia Czinger is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.