Wednesday, October 19, 2011

"I Would Prefer Not To"

There are several downsides to studying English in college that really only present themselves after graduation.

On the upside, while still in college, the beautiful thing about being an English major is two-fold: 1) you don’t always have to be right, and 2) you can always be right if you can defend your answer. Take for example the one question quiz I once took about Herman Melville’s wonderful novella Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street. The question was simple: “What do the walls symbolize?”

For those of you who need a refresher, Bartleby is the story of a lawyer and his four employees, Turkey, Nippers, Ginger Nut, and particularly Bartleby. Each time Bartleby is asked to do something he responds with “I would prefer not to” until the lawyer loses his patience and tries to get rid of him. More broadly the story is one of class struggles and the unfairness of the wage-labor system. The lawyer’s office is divided into two parts by a wall with a glass door – one side for the lawyer, one side for the employees – which he either opened or closed depending on his mood. Bartleby is given a desk in the same part of the office as the lawyer so as to be close by if he is needed.

So what do the walls symbolize then? You can make up your own answer, if you can defend it, but here’s my answer and subsequent defense: the walls symbolize the economic divide between the lawyer and his employees.

The lawyer does not understand his part in putting his employees where they are economically, he understands that they cannot afford the same things that he can but he does not understand their resultant behavior. His employee, Turkey, is the same age as he (~60) and yet he still works a minimum-wage job that he hates; combine this with the fact that he’s on the same level as 25 year-old Nippers and you’ve got one bitter, angry employee. As a result, Turkey gets drunk on his lunch break every day. The lawyer sees this and thinks that a gift of a nice winter coat might make Turkey appreciate his kindness and stop drinking so much. What actually happens is that Turkey is further reminded of his social status and becomes even more bitter. 

Likewise, each time the lawyer tries to get too close to Bartleby, he is met with the same response: “I would prefer not to.” This is Bartleby’s way of reminding the lawyer that they are not in the same position. That is, kindness is not going to make Bartleby richer. What Bartleby would prefer is a complete overhaul of the system – a way to put himself on the same level as the lawyer, or at least a way to climb up the social ladder. 

So what can we learn from this?

Rereading this story now, I can’t help but think about the Occupy Wall Street movement and what it means. 

So many times in the media, the movement has been trivialized as a senseless mob filled with misdirected anger. Republican presidential candidate hopeful Herman Cain even went so far as to say, “If you’re not rich, blame yourself." 

The movement is about so much more than that. 

As far as I know, none of these protestors is asking for a handout. What they want is a complete overhaul of the system, much like Bartleby they would prefer not to help the rich get richer at the sacrifice of their own well-being. 

There is no such thing as a good economy for an English major. I already knew it would be difficult to find a job when I graduated. If there was ever a time when I didn’t know that, I certainly have it figured out now. 

The problem I see is that every college degree (except for engineering and IT degrees) is being undervalued. College no longer guarantees you a better future and yet high school students are still being pushed to take out massive loans to go to college. I was lucky/smart in that I avoided the pressure to go to a private school and managed to come out with only $20K to pay off, but without a job, that’s still an impossibly high number. Many of my friends who did end up at private schools now have $100K+ with no job prospects in sight.

Five or six years ago, people were still under the impression that going to college would mean a bigger salary, so it didn’t matter how much money you needed to take out in student loans. Now, unemployment is at 9% and few of us are truly able to pay back those student loans, while the banks are doing alright. That’s at least part of why this movement is so big. 

According to the Center for American Progress, 71% of Americans believe that “Executives of financial institutions responsible for the financial meltdown in 2008 should be prosecuted.” But those executives have not been prosecuted, and the rest of us are suffering.

It’s time for an overhaul of the system and that’s what Occupy Wall Street is about. At the moment it’s complicated and doesn’t have a central focus but it’s big and it’s not going away. America is ready for the middle class to make their comeback.

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