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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 3:53 PM EDT

But give those aging, angry whites credit. They were the first to cry out for a lost world (while denouncing some of the same bank bailouts and financial shenanigans you have). That was before, in a political nano-second, the phrase "Tea Party" was essentially trademarked, occupied, and made the property of long-time Republican operatives, corporate cronies, and various billionaires.

That won't happen to you. Among your many strengths, the lack of a list of demands that so many of your elders have complained about, your inclusiveness, and your utopian streak—the urge to create a tiny, thoroughly democratic new society near the beating financial heart of the old one—will make you far harder to co-opt. Add in the fact that, while any movement taking on inequity and unfairness is political, you are also, in the usual sense of the term, a strikingly apolitical movement. Again, this is, to my mind, part of your strength. It ensures that neither the Democratic Party nor left sects will find it easy to get a toehold in your environs. Yes, in the long run, if you last and grow (as I suspect you will), a more traditional kind of politics may form around you, but it's unlikely to abscond with you as those Republican operatives did with the Tea Party.

Actuarially, the Tea Party is a movement of the past in mourning for a lost world and the good life that went with it. All you have to do is look at the sudden, post-2008 burst of poverty in the suburbs, that golden beacon of the post-World War II American dream, to know that something unprecedented is underway.

Once upon a time, no one imagined that an American world of home ownership and good jobs, of cheap gas and cheaper steaks, would ever end. Nonetheless, it was kneecapped over the last few decades and it's not coming back. Not for you or your children, no matter what happens economically.

So don't kid yourself: whether you know it or not, young as you are, you're in mourning, too, or Occupy Wall Street wouldn't exist. Unlike the Tea Party, however, you are young, which means that you're also a movement of the unknown future, which is your strength.

 

Self-Education U.

Let me fess up here to my fondness for libraries (even though I find their silence unnerving). As a child, I lived in the golden age of your lost world, but as something of an outsider. The 1950s weren't a golden age for my family, and they weren't particularly happy years for me. I was an only child, and my escape was into books. Less than a block from where I lived was a local branch of the New York City public library and, in those days before adult problems had morphed into TV fare, I repaired there, like Harriet the Spy, to get the scoop on the mysterious world of grown-ups. (The only question then was whether the librarian would let you out of the children's section; mine did.)

I remembering hauling home piles of books, including John Toland's But Not in Shame, Isaac Asimov's space operas, and Désirée (a racy pop novel about a woman Napoleon loved), often with little idea what they were and no one to guide me. On the shelves in my small room were yet more books, including most of the Harvard Five Foot Shelf, a collection of 51 classic volumes. My set had been rescued from somebody's flooded basement, their spines slightly warped and signs of mildew on some of them. But I can still remember taking them off my shelf with a certain wonder: Dana's Two Years Before the Mast (thrilling!), Darwin's The Origins of the Species (impenetrable), Homer's The Odyssey (Cyclops!), and so on.

Books—Johannes Gutenberg's more than 500-year-old "technology"—were my companions, my siblings, and also my building blocks. To while away the hours, I would pile them up to create the landscape—valleys and mountains—within which my toy soldiers fought their battles. So libraries and self-education, that's a program in my comfort zone.

Though my route seemed happenstantial at the time, it's probably no accident that, 35 years ago, I ended up as a book editor on the periphery of mainstream publishing and stayed there. After all, it was a paid excuse to retreat to my room with books (to-be) and, if not turn them into mountains and valleys, then at least transform them into a kind of eternal play and self-education.

All of which is why, on arriving for the first time at your encampment in Zuccotti Park and taking that tiny set of steps down from Broadway, I was moved to find myself in, of all things, an informal open-air library. The People's Library no less, even if books sorted by category in plastic bins on tables isn't exactly the way I once imagined The Library.

Still, it couldn't be more appropriate for Occupy Wall Street, with its long, open-air meetings, its invited speakers and experts, its visiting authors, its constant debates and arguments, that feeling when you're there that you can talk to anyone.

Like the best of library systems, it's a Self-Education U., or perhaps a modern version of the Chautauqua adult education movement. Your goal, it seems, is to educate yourselves and then the rest of us in the realities and inequities of twenty-first century American life.

Still, for the advanced guard of your electronic generation to commit itself so publicly to actual books, ones you can pick up, leaf through, hand to someone else—that took me by surprise. Those books, all donations, are flowing in from publishers (including Metropolitan Books, where I work, and Haymarket Books, which publishes me), private bookstores, authors, and well, just about anyone. As I stood talking with some of you, the librarians of Zuccotti Park, I watched people arriving, unzipping backpacks, and handing over books.

Of the thousands of volumes you now have, some, as in any library, are indeed taken out and returned, but some not. As Bill Scott, a librarian sitting in front of a makeshift "reference table" in muffler and jacket told me, "The books are donated to us and we donate them to others."

A youthful-looking 42, Scott, an associate professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, is spending his sabbatical semester camped out in the park. His book, Troublemakers, is just about to be published and he's bubbling with enthusiasm. He's ordered a couple of copies to donate himself. "It's my first book ever. I've never even held it in my hands. To shelve the first copy in the People's Library, it's like all the strands of my life coming together!"

Think of it: Yes, your peers in the park were texting and tweeting and streaming up a video storm. They were social networking circles around the 1 percent, the mayor, the police, and whoever else got in their way. Still, there you all were pushing a technology already relegated by many to the trash bin of cultural history. You were betting your bottom dollar on the value to your movement of real books, the very things that kept me alive as a kid, that I've been editing, publishing, and even writing for more than three decades.

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