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.

  • S

    Welcome back!!!

  • three blind mice

    hello mr. vaidhyanathan,


    where can we download a copy of your book for free? the link professor lessig provided connects to amazon.com and those controlling fascists want money for a printed copy we can neither edit nor install on our linux box nor anonymously share with thousands of our “friends.”

    surely it cannot be a problem for you – digital copies cost nothing to make and distribute and you get to keep the original files. as you probably know professor lessig has done this with his latest book (but perhaps he trying to make a point instead of a profit.) but please no pdf files – they are so hard to edit and having to use acrobat reader is such an infringement of our rights. ASCII text files would be better.

    looking forward to your positive response,

    yours truly,

    the three blind mice

  • John S.

    T.B.Mice: very funny. Why don’t you just wait a few weeks until the non-rights-infringing, non-pdf version appears on p2p networks, from a new friend who is just waiting there to meet you? Or maybe borrow some commercial software that does optical character recognition? There are many options that don’t infringe on your rights to consume.

    I got through about 200 pages of Prof. Lessig’s book on my laptop screen, and then decided my eyes were sick of reading it that way and decided to wait until Amazon got my hard copy to me.

  • http://www.writingonyourpalm.net/column030217.htm Tim_Myth


    First off, PDF is a horrible format.

    While you may not agree with anything Dr. Lessig says, he does have at least one valid point: Copyright *is* hindering innovation. I’m a mobile DJ. Compressed audio technology has presented me with a fantastic opportunity to improve my service, and I’m not talking about piracy. You see, up until a few years ago, I was limited to carrying 800 of my most popular CDs to a gig where they would get scratched, lost, or stolen. Now thanks to MP3, I can carry ALL of my music on a PC and never have to worry about skips, scratches, or loss/theft. With a PC, I am no longer forced to stand in the dark with a flashlight in my mouth trying to find (and hoping I brought) that one CD with that one requested song. Now, I simply perform a search for the requested song and have it cued up in a matter of seconds. And if I don’t own the requested song, I can use my 3G cellular modem to conect to the internet and purchase the song from iTunes or Wal-Mart. This effectively gives me a music library of over 700,000 titles, which should please any customer.

    I’m not stealing anything. I am paying the proper groups. The only difference between me and John Q. Public is that I am John Q. Commercial-User. As a commercial user I do not have the right to convert my legally purchased CDs to MP3. iTunes, Wal-Mart, Napster, et al downloads are only for personal use. So even though I pay my dues, I am still a criminal.

    What’s that? Mechanical License you say? Sure, I could get a mechanical license and obtain a legal right to archive my CDs and only use the MP3s, but Harry Fox Agency does not license anything less than 500 copies. Even the largest DJ company in the world does not have 500 DJ systems, and I only have one. Why do I need 500 copies? Sure, I still have legal recourse. I can contact each and every publisher to obtain written permission to archive my CDs, but how long do you figure it will take for me to get written permission for the 5000+ CDs I own? Plus, that still won’t help me with iTunes, Wal-Mart, or Napster.

    In reality, the current copyright laws have hindered the growth of not just me, but the entire DJ industry.

    Sure, I may only make $50k a year, so (as a Harry Fox Agency rep told me) I am small potatoes. But let’s look at some numbers. With approximately 2,327,000 marriages in 2001 (http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/marriage.htm) and an assumed average cost of only $500 per wedding dance, even if only half of them hire a mobile DJ we are still talking about $581 Million per year. This doesn’t count the 500,000 high school dances every year, the untold number of company Christmas parties, nor any other special event that a DJ gets hired for. And these numbers only deal with mobile DJs! As you see, in a multi-billion dollar industry I am small potatoes.

    Oh, and did anyone mention that DJs in Canada have been paying a $250 fee to get this right for the last 6 years? Tell me again how perfect the US Copyright Law is? And while you’re at it, tell me about that ocean front property in Arizona and that bridge you have for sale…

  • Anonymous

    Tim, who are you responding to? Your post seems out of nowhere, other than the first line about pdf.

  • Tim_Myth

    I was responding to three blind mice. No one had responded when I first started posting. I just type slower than John S. TBM had nothing good to say (but his sarcasm is humorous), ergo the assumption that he doesn’t agree with anything Dr. Lessig says. I point out that Dr. Lessig does have at least one good point, and then I offer my situation as evidence of that point. I was perhaps a bit verbose and possibly went off tangent a bit, but I hope you’ll forgive me since it is my real-life situation. ;)

  • lessig

    hey, please, lessig is not a “Dr.” (though I think Siva is).

  • John S.

    oh please — I still type with just 4 or 5 fingers. You type *more* than me. That is more accurate.

    I think Dr. Vaidhyanathan is a professor of communication at NYU… that’s what my memory recalls from his jacket of his first book.

  • http://sivacracy.net Siva

    Give me an e-mail to send it to you. Do whatever you want with it. Any format you want. Whatever. The printed pages are better quality than any electronic version, of course. They have been fully edited. And the battery never runs out.

    If you want the best quality file and find $20 too much to pay for my book, your local public library should have it on the shelf in a few weeks. That’s my favorite free culture site.


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