Elders’ Dystopian Vision Hits Today’s Youth

The 1960s were filled with a dystopian vision for humanity’s future. Smart people invent a machine that becomes smarter and stronger than its inventors, enslaving the creators to serve the creature. Attempts to kill the machine fail. The machine is too strong, or too smart, or too networked to other machines. Computers and toasters unite against us.

The story seldom ended well. Humans adapt to a new hierarchy, accepting a place lower than the top. Or human progress is reversed and curtailed to preserve the old order. An apocalyptic event almost always joined the premise to the conclusion.

None of these science fiction writers mentioned there would be free pizza. But there was this week. So I have hope.

Tuesday afternoon, several hundred people gathered at the University of Oregon’s EMU amphitheater to pledge solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, a protest that began three weeks ago and has been growing and spreading since. We used to call these “sit-ins” and they grew from that dark vision of our future, where we lose control of our own destiny.

Students read a hand-written list of committees and subcommittees, pointing this group to gather “under that tree” and that group to follow the “lovely woman holding up that sign.” Groups moved indoors to begin organizing, then returned 30 minutes later to share their work. Rain did not dampen their enthusiasm.

If health care reform can be credited with Tea Party’s inception, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling has prompted this populist movement against Big Money — “banksters” is the new term — subverting our democracy. The Supreme Court affirmed that, in Mitt Romney’s words, “corporations are people, my friend.”

Corporations swear no allegiance to a country or its citizens. Corporations do not die. Corporations are, by definition, “too big to jail.” A corporation is not shiny. It doesn’t speak in a spooky synthesized voice. The ground doesn’t shake when it rumbles by. Toasters don’t jump off our counters to follow it. But the fears of one generation have been visited on the next. We have designed a machine that we cannot stop.

We’re toast.

Corporations steadfastly refuse to put Americans to work until those jobs serve every corporation’s singular purpose: to make and preserve money. We’ve watched helplessly as they mechanically gobble up tax incentives and trim payrolls to fulfill that purpose. Apple Computer Company currently holds more cash than every nation in the European Union combined.

European banks are forcing sovereign nations to accept austerity measures or face default, rather than accepting the consequences of the risks they took in lending to those nations. American banks and investment firms did the same thing here, three years ago.

Contrast that model of corporate greed with the credo that graces the editorial page of this newspaper every day. Written by Alton Baker around 1927, it speaks for Guard Publishing Company, a corporation that produces this newspaper: “A NEWSPAPER IS A CITIZEN OF ITS COMMUNITY.” (Copy editors hate, hate, HATE capitalization for emphasis, so you know it was meant to be noticed.)

While we sit transfixed by the right-versus-left political sideshow, capitalism is busily consuming democracies whole.

People in Eugene have begun rising up. Students not only led the local organizing effort, but they chastened their less disciplined elders who grandstanded, ranted, and veered off topic. References to specific politicians, parties, or television networks were immediately rebuked: “This is not about declaring war on the one percent; this is about gathering together the 99 percent.” It was a wonder to behold.

Soggy sign-up sheets circulated, T-shirts were modeled in the cold rain, and free food arrived to keep spirits up. A Facebook group has been joined by over 1,600, forums at occupyeugene.com are active, and and more meetings at the EMU are planned. Sign painters: this afternoon (Friday) at 2:00. Pamphleteers: Saturday at 4. The “Sexy Sanitation” committee: Monday at 5.

The movement has no declared leaders, no defined list of demands, no specific plans (yet) to occupy any specific place. The most important place for them to occupy is the hearts and minds of Lane County residents.

Once a protest destination has been decided, I know who will be told first: the pizza delivery guy.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs occasionally. Occupy Wall Street (www.occupywallst.org) protests nationwide can be followed at www.occupytogether.org and locally at www.occupyeugene.com.