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Thursday, December 9, 2021

Column: The System and I

I’m a hypocrite. For the past two years, various moments in my life have blurred the lines between working for The System, working to change The System and working against The System. You know which System I’m talking about; it’s the nameless, faceless, domineering council of historically privileged institutional powers set to keep the masses in their place.

If ever I felt like a double agent, this was the week. On Tuesday, I attended the rally on the Quad when my noon class was cancelled. Then I left the rally early to attend a class that wasn’t cancelled. Wednesday, I walked past students occupying Mrak Hall to a practice interview for a scholarship clad in a suit. Then I drove to the Capitol to join other UC students lobbying against spending cuts in education. Later that day I headed to Central Park to attend the general assembly of Occupy Davis. On Thursday, I crossed the picket line once more to make class while my peers were rallying on the Quad.

If location is any guide to my politics, being in spaces of protest marks my support for radical change, lobbying at the Capitol marks a willingness to work for change through the system, and attending classes while preparing for a fellowship interview marks my complicity with the status quo.

Then there was the scholarship interview this weekend. While students were facing police in riot gear on the Quad, I was schmoozing with other finalists and panelists at a cocktail party.

The last question I was asked during the interview was whether anything in the interview made me feel uncomfortable. It was an odd question to end an otherwise light-hearted conversation, so I said no. But perhaps an honest answer would have been that I was uncomfortable championing social justice in a conference room while those fighting for it on the front lines were getting pepper sprayed.

Finally, I woke up Sunday morning to a Facebook newsfeed of viral videos, petitions calling for Chancellor Katehi to resign, articles from the national press directed toward events on our campus this week and a private message from a high school friend now at UC Berkeley. He knew that I worked with the chancellor on a couple occasions and wondered if I was privy to her personal reaction. To his credit, he seemed to want more information about the behind-the-scenes before signing the petition. Though I wasn’t there to witness the scene, I get the sense that it was complicated.

I think I’m not alone on the blurry side of things. To some extent, we all have a relationship to change and the status quo marked by inconsistencies, hypocrisy, complicity and radicalism. If you’re in college, there’s a sense in which you have already passed one threshold to greater privilege in this country, a sense in which you’re playing “the game” right, whatever that means.

To speak from my own experience, what this means is that you fight for change because you can see social, economic and political inequalities around you. But there’s also a kind of anxiety to overthrowing a system that is, in some measure, working in your favor. If we’re successful in bringing radical change, some of us stand to lose the favorable standing we have with privilege.

Surprisingly, a cocktail conversation I had this weekend with a fellowship judge shed some light on the paradox here. The judge in question was Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor and current professor at UC Berkeley known for his campaign against massive inequality and support for progressive change. I asked him how he simultaneously negotiated being a successful part of the system and an opponent to it. Reich paused for a moment and said, in his characteristically axiomatic wisdom, that we’re all part of the system.

One reason why it’s so hard to clearly balance our allegiance to and antagonism of the system is because we assume there is a clean break between ourselves and the system. However, we don’t exist outside the system. If the system is indeed nameless and faceless, it’s because we’re all a part of it. If that sounds like an argument in favor of keeping things the way they are, it isn’t.

Read this way, our incoherent role within and against the system is the stage in which we sort out what we want to keep and what we want to change. It’s precisely because we are the system that we have the power to recreate it from the inside out.

RAJIV NARAYAN thinks having an opinion column doesn’t give you a valid opinion, so he wants to hear yours at rrnarayan@ucdavis.edu.

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