Every year Foreign Policy magazine produces a list of the top 100 global thinkers. Not an easy task, I assume. Even in the age of twitter the world is pretty big place. Actually social media probably makes a task like picking the best thinkers even harder because there’s so much more intellectual detritus clouding out the real stars in the egghead universe.
The list does a pretty good job of being international and interdisciplinarian. But no list is without it’s problems. I, for example, would like to see a lot less ties with two, three, or four people sharing a single numbered slot. (Twitter and Facebook CEOs, for example tie for “Changing the way we do almost everything.”) And I’m not necessarily in favor of putting high-profile poor thinkers on the list just because their bad ideas were popular or influential. Why Dick Cheney and Condoleeza Rice make the list (in a tie) because they “made the world we live in today” is beyond me. The world we live in today, in many significant ways, well, #itblowsalot, to borrow and tweak a phrase. And I happen to know a couple of professors of mine that would roll their eyes at the inclusion of #94–author of an excellent novel, but a second-rate Chomsky in her political writing.
I first discovered the list myself a handful of years ago and used it to help me find books that would make me smarter or streamline my own thinking or, better still, improve my problem-solving skills by widening my creative horizons. I’d half-hoped that now, five years later, I would be able to recognize most of the names on the list because I’m so much more entrenched in the community of people who think or act globally. But alas, I know about as many people this time around as last time. The only difference now is that my exposure to the works of those I recognize is deeper. I’m not just familiar with the names this time around, sometimes I’ve read or even own their books. I’m not saying that to brag. Trust me, having read The World is Flat hasn’t made me any smarter.
Actually I bring it up, not as a criticism of the list, but as a criticism to myself today and especially the self I was five years ago. It’s poison to think that one day we will have read all the right things, or talked to all the right people and that we will then be able to churn out works so brilliant they escape damning critique. In one specific way, this year’s list drives that point home clearer than previous years’. The reason I don’t know who a lot of those people are is because they aren’t writers per se, or academics. They’re not really “thinkers” in the way we typically understand that term. They’re doers. The first several names on the list are the activists behind the Arab Spring revolts/revolutions. And that’s an important point.
Machiavelli (but Plato before him) distinguish men of action from men of thought. The “philosopher-king” is necessary, but unfortunately it is an impossible creation. Philosophers never act because better, more precise, more full knowledge–the kind of knowledge on which actions should be based–is just around the corner, up ahead, and out of reach. Politics demands action, but so does marketing, pharmaceuticals, and road-building.
And so does writing your thesis (slacker).
All of us have to balance these conflicting modes of thinking and doing. And it’s probably true that most of us tilt one way or the other. But so long as any thinker does at all, he should encourage himself to do more. And so long as any doer thinks, he should probably think more too. Not to wax to Aristotelian, but achieving a balance here would be better for everyone. That’s the goal of a true “technocracy,” right? To place in political power thinking men of action, the enlightened dictators, but elected this time around. Not Alexander the Great but some bespectacled graduate of the London School of Economics with a taste for spreading liberty to the masses along with roads, hospitals, and schools. But if that balance is ultimately unachievable in aggregate, it’s good that we have a world of thinkers to advise a world of doers. As long as we don’t consider the Dick Cheney’s of the world in a class with the former.
You may have already heard of 18-year old Emma Sullivan, the Kansas high school senior who attended a Youth in Government event and afterward tweeted the following to her 65 followers:
“Just made mean comments at gov. brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot,”
Governor Brownback’s staff informed the YiG program. No one is reporting what it was they said or asked for but the repurcussions of the communication have been reported. A lot.
Basically Sullivan was scolded at school and told to write an apology to the Governor. The prinicpal even gave her talking points to include in her letter. Sullivan has refused to submit the letter and in the meantime Sullivan’s twitter following has grown to 6000.
It’s hard to say how often posts here will just be admonishing lectures on how to properly handle politician’s PR in the social media age, but, it must be said, this is a gargantuan failure on the part of Brownback’s staff and I assume someone, maybe someone obscure, will lose their job over it–and they probably should.
What did Brownback’s staff hope to achieve by tattling on Sullivan’s immature tweet to 65 friends? Did they hope that YiG would be more vigilant in the future in preventing mouthy teenagers from attending events? Were they hoping for a written apology? An apologetic tweet?
Oh, did I mention that Sullivan didn’t actually make any offending remarks at the event? Because she didn’t. The tweet, she says, was just a joke to her friends who had been discussing what they would say to Brownback if given the chance.
All we really know about the staff’s intention is that Brownback’s spokesperson, Sherriene Jones-Sontag has said that it takes mutual respect “to really have a constructive dialog” and that Sullivan’s tweet wasn’t respectful.
Well, boohoo. It was a tweet.
It’s true that the tweet wasn’t respectful, but so what? Twitter, for all the things it is good for, is not the forum for any serious kind of “dialogue” respectful or otherwise. If Sullivan had wanted a respectful dialogue, maybe she would have said something in person. If Brownback had wanted to start one after the fact, he certainly could have located Sullivan in person and done so.
And what kind of level of respect was Sullivan accorded? Her tweet was immature and insulting, so maybe she was treated with the level of respect she deserved, but, as we all know, two wrongs don’t make a right. One does not mandate that an adult write a letter of apology and also complain about people not being “respected.” An apology, as Sullivan has noted, should be sincere or not done at all; to command an apology is to infantalize her, to disrespect her opinion, or simply to cast her as someone who could have their feelings, opinions, or actions dictated to. Jones-Sontag seems to have confused “respect” with “honor” and she feels that her employer wasn’t treated with the right amount of deference–a level of deference, by the way, that neither he nor any elected officials deserves. Brownback works for Sullivan and the other citizens of Kansas, not the other way around. And, as a public persona, and as a politician he has volunteered himself for ridicule. It’s part of his job and, however crude the ridicule, it is constitutionally protected. His staff has made it look like he is thin skinned whiner. That’s bad PR for anybody, but especially for a Republican in today’s GOP field which loves to don the artifacts of hyper-masculine professions like ranchers and fighter pilots.
Brownback got more than he deserved when Sullivan started paying enough attention to his policies to form an opinion about them. A good PR team, if they wanted to engage Sullivan for some reason, should have thanked her for paying attention and asked her what it was specifically that made her think “he blows a lot.” Such a move would have reminded Sullivan that her Twitter account was searchable and that it was a tool for potentially reaching out to her elected representatives. It would also have let Sullivan know that her voice mattered and that Brownback’s crew was listening…not in a creepy gestapo sense, but in a responsive elected official way.
There’s no telling how Sullivan would have responded to such an invitation to dialog but given her actual restraint during the YiG event, I suspect it would have gone better than what has since transpired.
Of course, Brownback’s PR staff could have just ignored her, which, all things considered would have been a second best option to what they chose to do. What they’ve done instead is highlight that Brownback is not particularly tech savvy, that he’s sensitive to the remarks of teenagers, that he’s paternailistic and perhaps authoritarian. It may play well among some of his conservative plainsland voters, but not all of them.
In baseball they call these unforced errors.
In this country PETA frequently makes headlines for putting naked to near-naked girls in cages pretending to be tigers or what have you as a means of protesting the circus and other forms of animal exploitation.
I have no problems with PETA as an awareness raising group and conversation starter, but let’s be honest, the nakedness used by the group is nothing more innovative as “sex sells,” a concept that stretches as far back in time as does sex.
But in some parts of the world that “the personal is political” is a concept that still carries a lot of heft. Not to disparage in anyway the feminists in the first world, the work remains yet unfinished here; but, there’s just no denying that some countries just aren’t as far along the path toward equality, let alone liberty.
Elmahdy used a simple digital camera, a blogspot-hosted website, and twitter to highlight the continuing injustices of a post-Arab Spring Egypt. Sure, Egypt, as one upset commenter has noted, is still discussing what a “civil society” really means, and so perhaps Elmahdy is premature in fighting for gender equality. But the old protest saying couldn’t be more apt for an Egypt with a blank slate to write their political future upon: If not now, when?
In any case, what can’t really be denied is that to create a protest that Americans are talking about in their hometowns, all Elmahdy needed was enough cash for a camera and a mountain of intestinal fortitude.
Erik Loomis and Matt Yglesias among others have noted that Twitter and the other social media tools shouldn’t be considered catalysts of the Arab Spring or OWS or other movements, and they are right to do so. It is easy to fall prey to the lure of novelty. But in folding social media up with other forms of communication, we shouldn’t overlook the unique characteristics that make social media powerful not just in terms of organizing protests but in other areas as well, like awareness raising. I think this was probably more true during the Green Wave when protesters in Iran had few other options to get their stories out than through Twitter. But it’s true here too. In the 50s, in order to use nudity to spark even a nationwide conversation, let alone an international one, Elmahdy would have had to connect with a like-minded publisher who was, despite his profit motive and fear of reprisal, willing to promote her and her cause.
Elmahdy’s is a particularly important move now, because so many in this country view our own revolution so positively that we tend to see all revolutions as binary. If Nasser was bad and is overthrown, things will definitely be better with him gone. This is just simply not necessarily the case. Political scientists and reporters have never been purely optimistic about Egypt’s outlook, and political observers of the upcoming elections there are even more pessimistic now.
It may well be that Elmahdy’s voice will be much quieter in the Egypt to come and so it’s important that we remember that beneath whatever sheen of civil order the next government manages to project, people like her will still be there hoping, and fighting for real change.