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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Privilege, Power, and Responsibility

A future defendant’s pre-emptive testimony

Published: September 26, 2008
Section: Arts, Etc.

How can you start a revolution when you are “the man?”

The preceding line might sound like just a cute hook to catch the attention of the reader. But it encapsulates better than any other expression I know the dilemma I face in trying to spark a revolution.

One of my dear friends posed that question to me recently in a meeting of what I like to call the Pissed Off Youth of America (P.O.Y.A.) Brain Trust. (See the special supplemental section, p. 14-17 for some of their manifestos.) It came in response to a joke I like to make about being the “Rupert Murdoch” of Brandeis based on the power I enjoy as both the editor of the arts/culture section of the campus’s community newspaper, the Hoot, and as co-music director of the radio station, WBRS.

Of course I never had the slightest notion of attaining these positions to start a revolution. I came into these roles simply because I like writing and music. I won’t deny that my writing talent was partially responsible for landing me the role of editor of the disgustingly named Diverse City section (soon to be changed to Tabula Rasa), but my attainment of the music director post had more to do with a void in the department than any personal gifts.

What do my roles in these media outlets have to do with the central conundrum at hand? These two posts, as small and inconsequential as they might seem (the perennial question about WBRS: “Does anyone actually listen to it?”) represent power. I can print a scathing indictment of the school administration that might trigger a response simply because I have the resources to disseminate information on a broader scale than most students. My personal favorite band could end up playing at Chum’s coffeehouse because I have access to thousands of dollars that other students do not. It’s a funny situation: I write my name on a list, end up as co-music director, and suddenly find thousands of dollars at my fingertips courtesy of the university who I’m paying thousands of dollars to attend. Go figure.

But the friend who posed that weighty question to me at our revolutionary meeting had more than student-run university institutions in mind. She was talking about my gender, my race, and my social class among other commonly used social descriptors. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m part of the Brandeis majority: the white, middle class Jews.

I also happen to be a male. I also live in a brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn, which my parents own (we rent out the top three floors). I also have two proud lawyer parents. They have given me the opportunity to travel around the world, from France to Mexico to China. I go to concerts and plays in Manhattan. I eat in fine restaurants. So clearly, you can see why I’m “the man.”

So what right does my rich white Jewish ass have to start a revolution? What more could I want? Why am I not content? Who am I speaking for when I say “we, the pissed off youth of America?”

I could try to answer those questions, but they don’t deserve your time. Or mine.

I have a responsibility to start a revolution because I have access to resources that very few people even dare to dream about. I worked in Harlem this summer teaching theater and health to kids who are working like crazy to try to achieve the things I had at birth. Unfortunately, no matter how hard they try certain barriers in society prevent them from achieving those privileges. (I will not try to enumerate those privileges here, but Peggy McIntosh’s “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” offers a good start.) But you don’t even have to go to Harlem to see how racism affects our society. I had two friends from Boca Raton, Florida, my original hometown, who were falsely accused of and arrested for vandalism despite an utter lack of evidence (the arrest took place near our school in West Palm Beach, Florida). One is black (of mixed Haitian and Jewish descent) and the other is Colombian. The state dropped the charges on my best friend, Andrew, after his GPA convinced a DA that he was a “good kid.” Funny the way our society judges young people.

But I’ll never face that sort of discrimination simply because I am white and I wear nice, clean clothes from trendy stores like Urban Outfitters.

Nor will I ever face discrimination based on my gender. When my friend, Kate, rants to me about her struggles with femininity in the context of the University of Miami’s superficial South Beach culture, I can only shake my head and say, “that sucks,” without truly knowing how she feels.

I am also a practicing Jew, which puts me in an interesting place in American society. In Boca Raton I can walk the streets like a king, while several hours north I’d have to watch my back. At Brandeis I can feel secure that when I talk about Rosh Hashanah plans, but at the University of Texas, I’d probably have a very different experience during the High Holy Days.

But as we know from people like Carl and J. Ruth Shapiro, whose influence can be felt not only on a Brandeis campus but also in institutions like the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Jews can reach quite high socioeconomic levels in society. And Jewish philanthropist money seems incredibly fungible, whether it’s funding my internship to teach poor black kids art or building a new science center at Brandeis. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but it’s something we should consider.

I can write the above paragraph, because I don’t run an institution that relies on funding from the Shapiros. President Reinharz, on the other hand, has to write a puff piece response to a question about that family’s influence if he wants a new admissions center built (see the interview: p. 8). I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I’m more skeptical about the following answer: “I’m not sure I understand what you mean by, ‘How can Brandeis maintain a balance between tradition and cultural diversity?’ Can you explain what that means?”

I won’t explain it, because I don’t need to explain it. If you’ve ever checked out the fourth pillar of Brandeis or considered why Jimmy Carter chose our university as a forum to speak to the Jewish community you get it. If you’ve ever wondered why so much intellectual discussion remains tinged with Judaism (“Judaism through Chinese Eyes,” anyone?) you get it. When I tried to do research in the library on small town middle America for a report on Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and kept finding articles about Jews, I got it.

I’m a proud Jew. I like learning about Jewish things. I like having the option of attending several different types of services for Shabbat services. But I also listen to gangsta rap and speak Spanish. So what am I really? I’m a Brandeis student.

Brandeis has such incredible diversity programs that President Reinharz doesn’t have to pretend not to realize that they’re addressing the tension between our school’s dominant liberal Jewish middle class culture and those individuals who fall outside the paradigm. POSSE gave Daniel Acheampong ’11 (see p. 13) the opportunity to learn research and marketing skills in one of America’s largest media conglomerates based on demonstrated leadership and academic strengths, althrough he might not have otherwise has access to those resources. I was delighted to stumble into a Muslim Iftar meal funded by the university earlier this week. And I couldn’t help but smile when I received a message from President Reinharz about the first annual Joseph B. and Toby Gittler Prize, awarded for “…outstanding and lasting scholarly contributions to racial, ethnic and/or religious relations.”

I’m not starting a revolution against the Brandeis administration, because I believe they’re doing, on the whole, a fine job providing educational resources and opportunities for Brandeis students to become—to paraphrase the mission statement of the organization where I worked this summer, TRUCE/Harlem Children’s Zone—positive agents of personal and social change. I just think we shouldn’t be afraid to admit the challenges inherent in our school’s history and legacy.

The truth is, if America were more like Brandeis University—a place where the serious study of real problems takes center stage within an accepting cultural environment—I wouldn’t need to start a revolution. But America just gets scarier and uglier every day, and I’m not going to pass up an opportunity to try to change our nation’s course.

I’m not going to list the problems we face in this country, because I believe that the majority of Americans can rattle off a list of actions by our government, corporations, and media that piss them off. (If you can’t, see p. 14-17.) But many people aren’t in a position to question the dominant authorities lest they risk losing their jobs, health insurance, or, heaven forbid, the support of rich Jewish philanthropists.

The reason that I have a responsibility to start a revolution is because I don’t have to worry about those things. I’ll never wonder where my next meal is coming from. I’ll never have to worry about getting an excellent education and all the benefits it brings. I’ll never have to worry about having access to contraceptives and health care. So I can afford to take a risk and try something that hasn’t been tried.

Why bother? Perhaps I ought to just move to Canada or Western Europe and give up our country as a lost cause.

I can’t do that because I love America. When my great grandparents stepped off the boat from Russia at Ellis Island, they actually kissed the earth, because they knew that they’d escaped oppression to arrive at the land of opportunity. But the America of today is no land of opportunity. We divide ourselves according to how we were born rather than finding shared values that only come with unified action. That’s why America needs disillusioned conservatives and self-righteous liberals, Democrats and Republicans, poor and rich marching together in the streets side by side. That’s why America needs Pissed Off Youth of America (P.O.Y.A.).

Like many Brandeis students, I consider myself a liberal. And like many Brandeis students, I’ll be voting for Barack Obama in November, because I believe that extraordinary intelligence, the ability to inspire passion, and optimism are good qualities in a president. But he’s also a black man, and that’s means that a great deal of conversation goes on in my Park Slope brownstone about whether or not this country is ready for that leap. No matter what he does, he’ll still face resistance because of the way he was born.

I expect people to criticize me because of how I was born. Feel free to stereotype me as a Jewish socialist, rich liberal egotist, or a terrorist. As long as you understand that you’re wrong.

Who’s to say that a bunch of angry young people in the part of the country with the largest concentration of angry young people can’t start a revolution to change America? Whether Barack Obama or John McCain gets elected president, America needs P.O.Y.A., because our nation’s problems lie not just with a government administration but with the interconnected systems that shape our lives.

It’s no coincidence that angry young people tend to spell trouble for corrupt regimes. As I’ve already noted, we have less attachment to the systems that control the lives of most Americans. I don’t own a credit card. I don’t own a house. I’d like to own them both soon, but if all else fails I have a comfy pullout couch in the basement of my parents’ Park Slope brownstone.

I’ve been waiting for this revolution for years. The Bush administration has given us so many reasons to protest that it seems absurd that no cohesive resistance movement has yet formed. But I’m tired of waiting, and I have the resources, so why shouldn’t I try?

I’m not going to apologize for the person I am. And I’m not going to apologize for trying to use free speech and civil disobedience to change the country. I’m proud of myself and what I’m about to accomplish. And that’s revolutionary.

I don’t feel nostalgia for the sixties, because I know that our generation can be better than the sixties. We have the tools, we have the knowledge, we have the passion, and you’d better believe we have the anger. Now all we need is the spark.

When this issue of the Hoot comes out, I won’t be standing on the Great Lawn with a megaphone. I’ll be in a class called Political Economy of the Third World learning about development strategies to raise the living standard of some of the poorest people on earth. Then I’ll go to film class, where I’ll study how filmmakers use specific techniques to elicit an emotional or intellectual response via one of the most powerful forms of media. And before I finally have the opportunity to pick up my copy of the issue, I’ll be in Global Economy class, trying to understand how one country’s economic situation impacts the entire global system.

To prove that P.O.Y.A. is something new, exciting and different, I’ll answer the question that was asked of me, and I’ll answer it in a way that’s never been done before.

Liza Behrendt: How can you start a revolution when you are “the man?”

Maxwell Price: I don’t know.

Editor’s Note: In addition to this issue’s four-page spread, P.O.Y.A. will have a regular column in Diverse City.