Wednesday, January 4, 2012

2011 as a Turning Point

Here is a bit from an interesting article by Rick Salutin in The Toronto Star:
Time magazine named The Protester its 2011 “Person of the Year” because, for decades till recently, most protests “seemed ineffectual and irrelevant.” That’s just silly. You can always find resistance and, depending on how you judge, it’s often relevant. ...

What may have been unique this past year was something else: a collapse of the conventional fountains of authority and respect. In the Arab world that meant governments. But in the West, it meant big business and finance. The brilliance of Occupy Wall Street was that it didn’t go to Washington. The Tea Party did; it directed its rage toward politicians and so it was eclipsed by the Occupiers, who targetted the bankers and financiers who control governments. That clearly resonated, but it wouldn’t have, 20 or 30 years ago.

Think back to the torrent of bestselling business bios and takeover epics like Iacocca or Barbarians at the Gate that began around 1980. Business was the hero; government was the “problem” because it impeded business’s freedom (even if business icons like Lee Iacocca demanded and relied on public money). Pro-business think-tanks proliferated; they disgorged “educational” series, often on public TV, by advocates like Milton Friedman. This accelerated through the Clinton-Bush years and beyond. Disdain for the über-rich was unthinkable until —

It wasn’t the crash of 2008 that led to their fall from grace, nor exposure of the greed and stupidity that required a massive public rescue. It was their graceless reaction to the bailouts: no apologies, remorse or gratitude — even faked; just more arrogance, bonuses, takeovers, foreclosures. Wall Street begged to be occupied. The Unrepentant Financier could have been Time’s Person.


Whose authority has also declined? How about Time magazine? The newsmag style used to sound authoritative and serenely confident. Now it sounds inane. “Everywhere, it seems, people said they’d had enough. . . . They dissented; they demanded —” Everywhere? Like out my window right now? And “it seems”? Seems to who(m)? Who makes these claims? What voice would you need to actually say words so pompous and vacuous? You can see Jon Stewart (if he did print) wincing as he reads it. Where did that invincible authority go?

The power of authority diminishes when you can hear credible, contesting voices. Print tends to be monotonal and univocal, unlike the oral tradition that preceded it. But the Internet, though it often lacks actual speech, is oral in the sense of interactive, like a Socratic dialogue. In oral mode, less is often more because speech is so laden with gesture, tone etc.; even something as short as a tweet can suffice. That too diminishes normal authority, which likes to rumble on.
Go read the whole article. It is very thought-provoking.

I personally like the analysis that says that our culture is moving from hierarchy where the "experts" dictate to a collective where everybody's voice gets a chance to contend for attention and authority. I understand the need for an organizing principle to reduce the cacophony, but I'm also aware that elitism tends to suffocate the voice of the dissenter and prevents the rise of the new. We need diversity. Life is a race and we need change and innovation to help us to get from here with all its problems to there with its promise of a better future.

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