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Got Student Debt? So Does Occupy Wall Street

As US student debt reaches $1 trillion and the unemployment rate holds steady at nine percent, OWS prepares for a long winter.

| Mon Oct. 31, 2011 2:53 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Once the Arab Spring broke loose, people began asking me why this country was still so quiet. I would always point out that no one ever expects or predicts such events. Nothing like this, I would say, happens until it happens, and only then do you try to make sense of it retrospectively.

Sounds smart enough, but here's the truth of it: whatever I said, I wasn't expecting you. After this endless grim decade of war and debacle in America, I had no idea you were coming, not even after Madison.

You took me by surprise. For all I know, you took yourself by surprise, the first of you who arrived at Zuccotti Park and, inspired by a bunch of Egyptian students, didn't go home again. And when the news of you penetrated my world, I didn't pay much attention. So I wasn't among the best and brightest when it came to you. But one thing's for sure: you've had my attention these last weeks. I already feel years younger thanks to you (even if my legs don't).

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Decades ago in the Neolithic age we now call "the Sixties," I was, like you: outraged. I was out in the streets (and in the library). I was part of the anti-Vietnam War movement. I turned in my draft card, joined a group called the Resistance, took part in the radical politics of the moment, researched the war, became a draft counselor, helped organize an anti-war Asian scholars group—I was at the time preparing to be a China scholar, before being swept away—began writing about (and against) the war, worked as an "underground" printer (there was nothing underground about us, but it sounded wonderful), and finally became an editor and journalist at an antiwar news service in San Francisco.

In that time of turmoil, I doubt I spent a moment pondering this irony: despite all those years in college and graduate school, the most crucial part of my education—learning about the nature of American power and how it was wielded—was largely self-taught in my off-hours. And I wasn't alone. In those days, most of us found ourselves in a frenzy of teaching (each other), reading, writing—and acting. That was how I first became an editor (without even knowing what an editor was): simply by having friends shove their essays at me and ask for help.

Those were heady years, as heady, I have no doubt, as this moment is for you. But that doesn't mean our moments were the same. Not by a long shot. Here's one major difference: like so many of the young of that distant era, I was surfing the crest of a wave of American wealth and wellbeing. We never thought about, but also never doubted, that if this moment ended, there would be perfectly normal jobs—good ones— awaiting us, should we want them. It never crossed our minds that we couldn't land on our feet in America, if we cared to.

In that sense, while we certainly talked about putting everything on the line, we didn't; in truth, economically speaking, we couldn't. Although you, the occupiers of Zuccotti Park and other encampments around the country, are a heterogeneous crew, many of you, I know, graduated from college in recent years.

Most of you were ushered off those leafy campuses (or their urban equivalents) with due pomp and ceremony, and plenty of what passes for inspiration. I'm ready to bet, though, that in those ceremonies no one bothered to mention that you (and your parents) had essentially been conned, snookered out of tens of thousands of dollars on the implicit promise that such an "education" would usher you into a profession or at least a world of decent jobs.

As you know better than I, you got soaked by the educational equivalent of a subprime mortgage. As a result, many of you were sent out of those gates and directly—as they say of houses that are worth less than what's owed on their mortgages—underwater.

You essentially mortgaged your lives for an education and left college weighed down with so much debt—a veritable trillion-dollar bubble of it—that you may never straighten up, not if the 1 percent have their way. Worse yet, you were sent into a world just then being stripped of its finery, where decent jobs were going the way of TVs with antennas and rotary telephones.


Lost Worlds and Utopia

Here's a weakness of mine: graduation speeches. I like their form, if not their everyday reality, and so from time to time give them unasked at, speeches for those of us already out in the world and seldom credited for never stopping learning.

In this case, though, don't think of me as your graduation speaker. Think of this as a self-graduation. And this time, it's positives all the way to the horizon. After all, you haven't incurred a cent of debt, because you and those around you in Zuccotti Park are giving the classes you took. First, you began educating yourself in the realities of post-meltdown America, and then, miraculously enough, you went and educated many of the rest of us as well.

You really did change the conversation in this country in a heartbeat from, as Joshua Holland wrote at, "a relentless focus on the deficit to a discussion of the real issues facing Main Street: the lack of jobs... spiraling inequality, cash-strapped American families' debt-loads, and the pernicious influence of money in politics that led us to this point"—and more amazingly yet, at no charge.

In other words, I'm not here, like the typical graduation speaker, to inspire you. I'm here to tell you how you've inspired me. In the four decades between the moment when I imagined I put everything on the line and the moment when you actually did, wealth and income inequalities exploded in ways unimaginable in the 1960s. For ordinary Americans, the numbers that translated into daily troubles began heading downhill in the 1990s, the Clinton years, and only a fraudulent bubble in home values kept the good times rolling until 2008.

Then, of course, it burst big time. But you know all this. Who knows better than you the story of the financial and political flim-flam artists who brought this country to its knees, made out like bandits, and left the 99 percent in the dust? Three years of stunned silence followed, as if Americans simply couldn't believe it, couldn't take it in—if, that is, you leave aside the Tea Party movement.

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