Letter from the Editor 02.04.2021
On GameStop, Albert Kligman's legacy, and the fall of activism
Buzzwords are sweet nothings.
I realized this after reading the word “adulting” a thousand too many times on BuzzFeed articles, listicles, and quippy Forever 21 T–shirts. When everything is adulting—paying taxes and having a savings account but also getting out of bed before noon and wearing jeans—nothing becomes adult. The bar moves lower and lower with each lukewarm accomplishment, which paradoxically makes doing things like dishes and laundry feel optional and Herculean.
The same can be said of activism, a word thrown around so much in the past year that it began to feel like water off a duck’s back, passing over us with no real meaning. When everything is activism, nothing really is. When everything is activism, activism becomes synonymous with doing the fundamentally right thing. And, paradoxically, when the bar is simply boycotting Goya or selling sweatshirts with pithy sayings for $100 a pop, it becomes harder to hit—and even harder to raise.
Is the University of Pennsylvania quietly removing the name of a doctor who conducted unethical experiments on majority Black prisoners activism? No. Is a bunch of Redditors shorting GameStop stock in the same way insider traders do activism? Hardly, but it gets closer to the definition. Is posting a black square to your Instagram grid while Black Americans are being brutalized for peaceful protest activism? No, but it does make some people feel like revolutionaries. Perhaps that’s the problem.
Activism is purposive. Activism is premeditated. Activism takes effort, and it sure as hell doesn’t include righting a wrong or saying sorry for systemic ills while still causing them. Demonstrations, boycotts, and protests don’t exist to ease the guilt of the white and rich. They exist to cause enough earth–shaking discomfort that systems eventually change, but change doesn’t happen if satisfaction starts and ends with black squares and canceling Robinhood.
Yes, we need to hold the line. But we also need to move it.
This issue of Street attempts to tackle the nebulous nature of activism and accountability, of what it takes to move the needle on American culture and who’s actually doing it. We investigate Penn’s response to its role in Albert Kligman’s Holmesburg prison experiments and if hiding his connection to our legacy is enough. We also examine Claudia Conway’s brand of internet shock value and the nature of trolling Wall Street.
But, if these things aren’t activism, then what is? For City Councilwoman Helen Gym and senior Skye Lucas, it’s something along the lines of civic engagement.
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