October 12, 2011  ·  Lessig

Like a fever, revolutions come in waves. And if this is a revolution, then it broke first on November 4, 2008, with the election of Barack Obama, second, on February 19, 2009, with the explosion of anger by Rick Santelli, giving birth to the Tea Party, and third, on September 10, 2011 with the #Occupy movements that are now spreading across the United States.

The souls in these movements must now decide whether this third peak will have any meaningful effect — whether it will unite a radically divided America, and bring about real change, or whether it will be boxed up by a polarized media, labeled in predictable ways, and sent off to the dust bins of cultural history.

In the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., championed a strategy of non-violence: that in the face of state sponsored and tolerated aggression, the strongest response was a promise not to respond in kind.

In this movement, we need a similar strategy. Of course a commitment to non-violence. But also a commitment to non-contradiction: We need to build and define this movement not by contradicting the loudest and clearest anger on the Right, but instead, by finding the common ground in our demands for reform.

So when Ron Paul criticizes the “Wall Street bailouts,” and attacks government support for “special businesses” with special access, we should say, “that’s right, Congressman Paul.” Bailouts for the rich is not the American way.

And when Rick Santelli launches a Tea Party movement, by attacking the government’s subsidies “to the losers,” we should ask in reply, what about the subsidies “to the winners” — to the banks who engineered the dumbest form of socialism ever invented by man: socialized risk with privatized benefits. What, we should ask Mr. Santelli, about that subsidy?

Or when Republican Senator Richard Shelby tells NBC’s Meet the Press that the message in bank reform “should be, unambiguously, that nothing’s too big to fail,” we should say that’s right, Senator, and it’s about time our Congress recognized it.

Or when Sarah Palin calls GE the “poster child of crony capitalism,” we should say “Amen, Mamma Grisly”: For whether or not we are all believers in “capitalism,” we should all be opponents of “crony capitalism,” the form of capitalism that is increasingly dominating Washington, and that was partly responsible for the catastrophe on Wall Street in 2008, and hence the catastrophes throughout America since.

We should practice “non-contradiction,” not because we have no differences with the Right. We do. We on the Left, we Liberals, or as some prefer, we Progressives, have fundamental differences with people on the Right. Our vision of that “shining city on the hill” is different from theirs. Our hopes for “We, the People,” are more aspirational. More egalitarian. More ideal.

But even though our substantive views are different, we should recognize that we have not yet convinced a majority of America of at least some of our fundamental views. And that in a democracy, no faction has the right to hold a nation hostage to its extreme views, whether right or not. We should fight in the political system to win support for our Liberal views. But we should reject the idea that protest, or violence, or blackmail are legitimate political techniques for advancing views that have not yet prevailed in a democratic system.

Instead, we should use the energy and anger of this extraordinary movement to find the common ground that would justify this revolution for all Americans, and not just us. And when we find that common ground, we should scream it, and yell it, and chant it, again, and again, and again.

For there is a common ground between the anger of the Left and the anger of the Right: That common ground is a political system that does not work. A government that is not responsive, or — in the words of the Framers, the favorite source of insight for our brothers on the Right — a government that is not, as Federalist 52 puts it, “dependent upon the People alone.”

Because this government is not dependent upon “the People alone.” This government is dependent upon the Funders of campaigns. 1% of America funds almost 99% of the cost of political campaigns in America. Is it therefore any surprise that the government is responsive first to the needs of that 1%, and not to the 99%?

This government, we must chant, is corrupt. We can say that clearly and loudly from the Left. They can say that clearly and loudly from the Right. And we then must teach America that this corruption is the core problem — it is the root problem — that we as Americans must be fighting.

There could be no better place to name that root than on Wall Street, New York. For no place in America better symbolizes the sickness that is our government than Wall Street, New York. For it is there that the largest amount of campaign cash of any industry in America was collected; and it was there that that campaign cash was used to buy the policies that created “too big to fail”; and it was there that that campaign cash was used to buy the get-out-of-jail free card, which Obama and the Congress have now given to Wall Street in the form of a promise of no real regulatory change, and an assurance of “forgiveness.”

“Forgiveness” — not of the mortgages that are now underwater. The foreclosures against them continue. “Forgiveness” — not even of the sins now confessed by Wall Street bankers, for our President has instructed us, no crimes were committed. “Forgiveness” — just enough to allow candidates once again to race to Wall Street to beg for the funds they need to finance their campaigns. The dinner parties continue. The afternoons at the golf course are the same. It’s not personal. It’s just business. It is the business of government corrupted.

There is no liberal, or libertarian, or conservative who should defend these policies. There is no liberal, or libertarian, or conservative who should defend this corruption. The single problem we all should be able to agree about is a political system that has lost is moral foundation: For no American went to war to defend a democracy “dependent upon the Funders alone.” No mother sacrificed her son or daughter to the cause of a system that effectively allows the law to be sold to the highest bidder.

We are Americans, all of us, whether citizens or not. We are Americans, all of us, because we all believe in the ideal of a government responsive to “the People alone.” And we all, as Americans, regardless of the diversity of our views, need to stand on this common ground and shout as loudly as we can: End this corruption now. Get the money out of government. Or at least get the special interest money out of government. And put back in its place a government dependent upon, and responsive too, the people. Alone.

“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil” — Thoreau, 1846, On Walden — “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one striking at the root.”

If this fever is to have its effect, if this revolution is to have any meaning, if this struggle — and the carnival notwithstanding, it is an obvious struggle to sleep on the streets — is to have real consequence, then we all, Left and Right, must strike first at that root.

“It is the duty of youth,” they say Kurt Cobain said, “to challenge corruption.” He may have meant a different corruption, if indeed he uttered this poetry too. But whatever he meant, embrace his words. It is your duty to challenge this corruption. And once you have ended it — once we have restored a government that cares about what its people care about first, and not just its funders — then let us get back to the hard and important work of convincing our fellow citizens of the right in everything that is left.

  • http://info-commons.org/blog/ Frederick Emrich

    Welcome, Siva.

    A couple of years ago I was told by a colleague that Lessig’s name was brought up at a Congressional hearing and that whoever was speaking at the time (whether Congress critter or witness, I don’t know) made a dismissive offhand comment that he was some kind of kook. I made some attempts to see if the comment ever got into the record, but to no avail. If someone in Congress ever made such a comment about me, I’d wear it like a badge of honor. It’s a good sign if your arguments are solid enough to leave the opposition no recourse but to go into a tizzy.

  • AHG, Esq.

    A few weeks ago, Lessig went “into a tizzy” about the Manes review of his book, Free Culture. I guess that means Manes was right and Lessig was wrong; after all, “It�s a good sign if your arguments are solid enough to leave the opposition no recourse but to go into a tizzy.”

  • Karl

    Lessig was “into a tizzy” because Manes was using bogus statistics to set up arguments. At least that was one of the many complaints he pointed out.

  • three blind mice

    “I know this because the maximalists are sinking to ad hominem attacks.”

    /pot calling kettle black

    it is humourous to say the least to sit back and watch this name calling. one side is “maximalist,” “extremist” the other side is “radically rational, madly moderate.”

    professor lessig continually markets his views as balanced and moderate when to some reasonable people (such as ourselves) they appear anything but balanced and moderate.

    and now we’re doing it! what temerity to call ourselves reasonable when disagreeing with the majority sentiment in this blog.

    sir we are very much looking forward to reading your book and despite our sarcastic comments in an earlier thread about wanting to download it for free, we have no doubt that it will be well worth the money. anyone who takes the time to write thoughtfully about these things – regardless of the views they express – deserves support.

    while we hope to never see a day when professor’s lessig’s “free culture” vision become reality, he has a few (a very few in our humble opinion) valid points to make. it would be wrong to dismiss him entirely. similarly, it would be wrong for you to dismiss the “maximalists” because they also have valid points to make.

    in the clash of individual rights there is never one right answer. there will always be tension.

    the mice support original creators and inventors, and look with derision upon those who claim rights to that which they themsleves did not create or invent.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    Hi Siva

    Unfortunately, yes, I think you hang around too many people who actually read the books they criticize. You’re a professor. Academics are *supposed* to be polite. Not that they always are. But there is a strong cultural belief there, as evident in what you’re writing, that ad-hominem arguments are “wrong”. Again, it may be honored more in the breech than in the observance, it may be an ideal not always practiced, but it’s part of the formal codes of conduct.

    Hang out with lawyers and lobbyists and politicians more. To them, lying and smearing and ad-hominem attacks are *tactics*, debate *options*. Whether they use those approaches depends entirely on whether they think they can get away with it, that it’ll work with the audience. It’s a pure strategic calculation. They may decide they’ll look bad if they lie. They may decide it’s worth it. Situations vary. But the truth or intellectual strength of the argument bears a very tenuous relationship to the approaches employed.

    I certainly don’t see any change at all, in terms of Jack “Boston Strangler” Valenti style rhetoric.

    And remember, a mosquito is slammed hard, but that doesn’t mean it’s powerful and influential.

    So you can’t derive “panic” from any of it. It may be that you just happened to run into a few people who think meanness is the way to go.

    If the courts had been rebuffing the copyright extensions and the DMCA, then there might be panic. Otherwise, it’s simply tactics.

  • Anonymous

    One almost expects Manes to start ending his posts: UN-altered REPRODUCTION and DISSEMINATION of this IMPORTANT
    information is ENCOURAGED!

    Lessig, not so much.

  • Joseph Pietro Riolo

    To “three blind mice”,

    Regarding your last statement, in the U.S., the
    copyright law (Section 121) allows blind people
    or people with disabilities, through authorized
    entities, to convert the original format of the
    copyrighted works to a different format such
    as Braille that they can use. In all of these
    conversions, authors and artists get nothing – no
    royalty, no penny, no dime, no money. Do you look
    on them with derision who have the right to convert
    them to a different format?

    Do you also look on people (apparently excluding yourself)
    with derision that use works and inventions whose
    protection (copyright or patent) has expired?

    Do you also look on people with derision who go
    to libraries in the U.S. to borrow books instead
    of buying them while the authors and artists get
    no money from them? (In United Kingdom, libraries
    pay royalty to authors and artists based on the
    usage of their works in libraries.)

    And so on.

    Joseph Pietro Riolo

    Public domain notice: I put all of my expressions
    in this comment in the public domain.

  • Gremlin

    Now is the time for all good progressives, democrats, liberals, conservatives with open minds to call Disneyland, Disneyland stores, Disneyworld, boycott all Disney products and let these people know that this will not be tolerated! Also please write to AINTITCOOLNEWS:COM and let them know what is going on and that it must be stopped!

    Here’s the article:

    May 5, 2004
    Disney Forbidding Distribution of Film That Criticizes Bush

    ASHINGTON, May 4 ? The Walt Disney Company is blocking its Miramax division from distributing a new documentary by Michael Moore that harshly criticizes President Bush, executives at both Disney and Miramax said Tuesday.

    The film, “Fahrenheit 911,” links Mr. Bush and prominent Saudis ? including the family of Osama bin Laden ? and criticizes Mr. Bush’s actions before and after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

    Disney, which bought Miramax more than a decade ago, has a contractual agreement with the Miramax principals, Bob and Harvey Weinstein, allowing it to prevent the company from distributing films under certain circumstances, like an excessive budget or an NC-17 rating.

    Executives at Miramax, who became principal investors in Mr. Moore’s project last spring, do not believe that this is one of those cases, people involved in the production of the film said. If a compromise is not reached, these people said, the matter could go to mediation, though neither side is said to want to travel that route.

    In a statement, Matthew Hiltzik, a spokesman for Miramax, said: “We’re discussing the issue with Disney. We’re looking at all of our options and look forward to resolving this amicably.”

    But Disney executives indicated that they would not budge from their position forbidding Miramax to be the distributor of the film in North America. Overseas rights have been sold to a number of companies, executives said.

    “We advised both the agent and Miramax in May of 2003 that the film would not be distributed by Miramax,” said Zenia Mucha, a company spokeswoman, referring to Mr. Moore’s agent. “That decision stands.”

    Disney came under heavy criticism from conservatives last May after the disclosure that Miramax had agreed to finance the film when Icon Productions, Mel Gibson’s company, backed out.

    Mr. Moore’s agent, Ari Emanuel, said Michael D. Eisner, Disney’s chief executive, asked him last spring to pull out of the deal with Miramax. Mr. Emanuel said Mr. Eisner expressed particular concern that it would endanger tax breaks Disney receives for its theme park, hotels and other ventures in Florida, where Mr. Bush’s brother, Jeb, is governor.

    “Michael Eisner asked me not to sell this movie to Harvey Weinstein; that doesn’t mean I listened to him,” Mr. Emanuel said. “He definitely indicated there were tax incentives he was getting for the Disney corporation and that’s why he didn’t want me to sell it to Miramax. He didn’t want a Disney company involved.”

    Disney executives deny that accusation, though they said their displeasure over the deal was made clear to Miramax and Mr. Emanuel.

    A senior Disney executive elaborated that the company had the right to quash Miramax’s distribution of films if it deemed their distribution to be against the interests of the company. The executive said Mr. Moore’s film is deemed to be against Disney’s interests not because of the company’s business dealings with the government but because Disney caters to families of all political stripes and believes Mr. Moore’s film, which does not have a release date, could alienate many.

    “It’s not in the interest of any major corporation to be dragged into a highly charged partisan political battle,” this executive said.

    Miramax is free to seek another distributor in North America, but such a deal would force it to share profits and be a blow to Harvey Weinstein, a big donor to Democrats.

    Mr. Moore, who will present the film at the Cannes film festival this month, criticized Disney’s decision in an interview on Tuesday, saying, “At some point the question has to be asked, `Should this be happening in a free and open society where the monied interests essentially call the shots regarding the information that the public is allowed to see?’ “

    Mr. Moore’s films, like “Roger and Me” and “Bowling for Columbine,” are often a political lightning rod, as Mr. Moore sets out to skewer what he says are the misguided priorities of conservatives and big business. They have also often performed well at the box office. His most recent movie, “Bowling for Columbine,” took in about $22 million in North America for United Artists. His books, like “Stupid White Men,” a jeremiad against the Bush administration that has sold more than a million copies, have also been lucrative.

    Mr. Moore does not disagree that “Fahrenheit 911″ is highly charged, but he took issue with the description of it as partisan. “If this is partisan in any way it is partisan on the side of the poor and working people in this country who provide fodder for this war machine,” he said.

    Mr. Moore said the film describes financial connections between the Bush family and its associates and prominent Saudi Arabian families that go back three decades. He said it closely explores the government’s role in the evacuation of relatives of Mr. bin Laden from the United States immediately after the 2001 attacks. The film includes comments from American soldiers on the ground in Iraq expressing disillusionment with the war, he said.

    Mr. Moore once planned to produce the film with Mr. Gibson’s company, but “the project wasn’t right for Icon,” said Alan Nierob, an Icon spokesman, adding that the decision had nothing to do with politics.

    Miramax stepped in immediately. The company had distributed Mr. Moore’s 1997 film, “The Big One.” In return for providing most of the new film’s $6 million budget, Miramax was positioned to distribute it.

    While Disney’s objections were made clear early on, one executive said the Miramax leadership hoped it would be able to prevail upon Disney to sign off on distribution, which would ideally happen this summer, before the election and when political interest is high.

    Here’s the link:

    Posted by Gremlin at May 5, 2004 08:07 AM

  • John S.

    Mice: I did not write Shakespeare’s plays — would you think it wrong of me to publish copies of them?

  • Alison

    Lessig really needs to get out and speak to these people more. I attended the debate between Lessig and DeLong on the day of his book release. Leaving the debate, my colleagues were all astonished at how rational and well-spoken he was. They made comments about how they were embarresed to find themselves agreeing with him. They were surprised at how non-kooky he really was. They still live in the tainted world we in Washington live in, but that one appearance went a long way to changing the way people think about him and the free culture movement.

    The problem with the anonymity of the Internet is that no one knows who you are. People are comforted by seeing that a person looks and talks like a normal human being. The eloquence and grace of many of those I’ve met tend to exceed my expectations and far exceed those of my colleagues.

    Siva, Larry, and others need to come to Washington and meet face to face with those in our cold city more often. It may be the only way to get the point across.

  • Steve


    Let’s hope that the power of ideas will be persuasive enough to bring some positive changes to the copyright law eventually. I’d hate to think that the only way to counter the recent trend in copyright law would be to raise millions in lobbying and PAC money (like the film and recording industries do), to “outbid” them in their (successful) attempts to influence lawmakers. … But, maybe it will require that route also.

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