Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Authority, Credibility and the Audacity of Change

I just had what seems as an uniquely Internet experience of reading two different essays arriving to my attention from two very different writers -- both named David -- about very different topics only to discover that both seemed to be reflections of each other as they attempted to comment on the ambiguities and uncertainties of leadership roles in the new age of something bigger.

The first essay is from the very insightful and right-of-center New York Times columnist David Brooks who looks at Obama and wonders Where’s the Landslide?

David begins,

"Why isn’t Barack Obama doing better? Why, after all that has happened, does he have only a slim two- or three-point lead over John McCain, according to an average of the recent polls? Why is he basically tied with his opponent when his party is so far ahead?"

He goes on to speculate that Obama is of a new generation -- perhaps of global citizenship -- where leaders are "sojourners" passing through a variety of situations that they act in but somehow are not of. This is both a liberation from the stuckness of already staked-out and rigid positions and a confusion as to where they are coming from.

"This ability to stand apart accounts for his fantastic powers of observation, and his skills as a writer and thinker. It means that people on almost all sides of any issue can see parts of themselves reflected in Obama’s eyes. But it does make him hard to place."

David concludes:

"If Obama is fully a member of any club — and perhaps he isn’t — it is the club of smart post-boomer meritocrats. We now have a cohort of rising leaders, Obama’s age and younger, who climbed quickly through elite schools and now ascend from job to job. They are conscientious and idealistic while also being coldly clever and self-aware. It’s not clear what the rest of America makes of them.

"So, cautiously, the country watches. This should be a Democratic wipeout. But voters seem to be slow to trust a sojourner they cannot place."

My next read was from the equally insightful left-of-center editor of openDemocracy Dave Hayes who pondered his own role as a channeler of information that attempts to go beyond the stuckness of place and position. His full essay, Authority, credibility and openDemocracy is a beautifully written and inspiring essay.

He begins by describing the new task of word-smithing (here change-oriented editors and candidates have something in common):

"The task of meaning-making is an attempt to deliver something to the reader - some combination of words, voices, ideas, images - that does something other than add to its noise or than fuel its angers and troubles.

"Most important of all for openDemocracy, is the world itself in all its complexity: both the uncapturable prolificity of immediate events, and the longer-term trends and dynamics. ... The whole process - commissioning, writing, editing, publication - involves a filtering of the flux in a way that (in principle, and at its best) works to everyone's advantage: produces material that expresses the writer, engages and enlightens the reader, and extends openDemocracy's role as an agent of serious, trustworthy discourse.

"The larger context of this work is for all involved a now-familiar one: the swirling, boundless, techno-rich, always-on, 24/7 media landscape and cyberscape. This is also the world we live inside and that lives inside us. In the context of our particular professional experience and angle of vision, we are all living a "double life" - trying to discover what it means to be "ourselves" amid the constant awareness of the astonishing, ungraspable surplus that is permanently only an eyeball, ear-socket or finger-click away. (The inferno in the background - moronic or intelligent by turns, but in either case relentless - is always there.)

"For openDemocracy, this "double life" can be said to have three aspects. The first (it might be called definition) is that as a small organisation our work's value lies partly in the doing of what other, larger media companies don't or can't do. Part of this entails avoiding the temptation of trying to process the waterfall into formula or using it as a pretext to confirm to ourselves and our readers what we already think we know about it. Part of it entails refusing cynicism, contrarianism, orientalism, Chomskyianism, or other certain routes to intellectual closure and disempowerment. Part of it entails rejecting the imprisoning categories of "mainstream" and "alternative" as descriptions of our own or others' work - both in principle, and because "alternative" orthodoxies can be as conformist as the other kind.

"More positively, this aspect of the "double life" involves respecting the prolific, multi-centred character of the world "out there", and trying from the inside to make sense of as many parts of it as we can...."

At the conclusion of his long and brilliant essay, David says,

"If the world itself in all its complexity is the vital first reference-point for all we do, the answers to the huge questions it poses won't come from either a retreat into dogma or to an imaginary higher ground that holds the difficulty and irreducibility of the world at bay; nor a complete accommodation to the flux that outsources judgment to the remorseless 24/7 cycle. The role of a serious publication and of an editor is to maintain and nurture - but also where necessary to refresh - a consistent character, as part of a constant effort to make meaning and advance understanding. My own editorial guiding light here is a saying of Mahatma Gandhi:

"I want the winds of all the worlds to blow through my house, but I don't want to be blown off my feet".

As a presidential candidate, Obama, faces much greater pressures than an editor of an alternative online publication but as one who is attempting to lead with the power of words this seems like a perfect guiding light for him as well.

1 comment:

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