With all the time I spend reading Marx with other graduate students and talking revolution with other activists, I occasionally forget that my world is largely populated by people who don’t share my particular line of leftist politics. I’ve been reminded of the political diversity of my friends during conversations about the open letter which a group of alumni wrote in support of Occupy Princeton. Caveats within the letter’s message that were clear in my activist brain are, understandably, not obvious to others.
I’ve written this post to respond to some criticisms—both voiced and unvoiced—that could be and have been made about the form of the open letter, in the hopes that it will allow us to talk more about its substance: the question of the appropriate role of finance on campus and Princeton’s response to growing economic inequlity.*
“Investment bankers are not bad people; why are you attacking them?” Princeton graduates working in finance—like Princeton graduates who go on to do more school, become fellows at Teach for America, or work in other industries—are not good or bad people; they’re just people. I know that Princetonians go into finance for all sorts of reasons: some like the challenge, others the money, and still others because they see the industry as playing a valuable role in our society. I have friends who work in finance, and I certainly don’t think I’m “better” than them: after all, reading social theory in graduate school isn’t exactly saving the world either. But institutions matter, and there is now ample evidence that the milieu of Wall Street has created cultures of excessive risk-taking and hyper-competitiveness which have proven themselves to be harmful both to society and the people taking part in them.
“What Occupy Princeton did was really rude!” As Michael Lewis pointed out in his recent column on Occupy Princeton, an easy way to ignore the substance of a message is to criticize the way it is delivered. I have some misgivings about the way Occupy groups are using “Mic Checks” to shut down events, but let’s keep some perspective: we live in a society where millions of dollars from anonymous donors can be poured into nasty attack ads and protesters are being beaten, gassed, and shot while peaceably assembling. The fact that Occupy Princeton’s three minute interruption in a recruiting event might have made some people uncomfortable is not a good reason to ignore it. Princeton students ought to be made of sterner stuff.
“Wouldn’t it have been better to hold a debate about finance?” No, it wouldn’t have. In my time at Princeton, I helped organize a number of debates and lectures on vegetarianism, nearly all of which were poorly attended. Why? Because people generally don’t seek out situations where they’re going to be told they’re doing something wrong. Certainly, I doubt that stressed Princeton seniors would be interested in hearing about how they should not take jobs in one of the few industries still hiring. But sometimes people do need to be shown the implications of their decisions, and at times the only way to do so is through confrontation.
“Why kick J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs off campus? Shouldn’t we be trying to engage with them more constructively?” Bankers are well aware that most Americans loathe their industry (although banks are still slightly more popular than Congress and Fidel Castro). Rather than make a public case for the value of finance, though, institutions like J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs have used backdoor influence to thwart overwhelmingly popular efforts at financial regulation. When Occupy Wall Street started, these same institutions engaged in ad hominem attacks on protesters—deriding them as unwashed, lazy hippies—rather than countering the substance of the protesters’ message. Given the unwillingness of these institutions to even entertain the idea that they need to reform, the best course of action is to challenge their bottom line—by pinching their top source of employees—and force them to get serious about their obligations to society.
“But Princeton students have a right to work where they want!” We throw around “rights” too much. In my time at Princeton, I was told that people have a “right” to eat meat every day of the week, a “right” to have a tray (not just a plate!) in the dining hall, and a “right” to make six figures straight after graduation. But what if I say I have a “right” to go to a school that does not offend my values by reinforcing income inequality? Throwing around the “r” word not only cheapens real rights—think, free speech or due process—but also shuts down the possibility of debate or compromise. All of us have rights, but we also have responsibilities: our conversation should be about what duties we have as Princeton graduates entering a world in which we are incredibly privileged and, as a result, poised to do much more than just make money.
“It’s not Princeton’s job to tell students what they should do after graduation.” Princeton offers its students a world-class education, which—even for students paying full tuition—is largely funded by others. In exchange, it imposes certain obligations on members of the community to behave in certain ways and to fulfill certain requirements. There would therefore be nothing drastic or new about telling grossly misbehaving financial companies to take recruiting off campus; it’d simply be an extension of existing standards that Princeton has about who gets access and support from Princeton. This isn’t about where graduates are “allowed” to work, but which organizations and institutions get to receive Princeton’s institutional blessing.
“You’re not going to change anything, so why are you wasting your time?” As I’ve written over and over again on this blog, cynicism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our conviction that things are unchangeable is a big part of what prevents change from happening, since it provides easy cover for those of us who don’t want to act even when we know we should. Princeton obviously does change, albeit slowly. I was recently contacted by an alumnus who mentioned how, in the 1980s, people demanding that the university divest from apartheid were derided as wasting their time on a fool’s errand. History proved them wrong. Princeton can either join a national movement to rethink the place of finance in society—or it can, once again, be a laggard, and make Harvard look positively dynamic by comparison.
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* I speak only for myself here, not for the 70+ other individuals who have signed the letter. Have you yet? Send me an e-mail!