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September 2008
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November 2008

The Myth of Digital Democracy?

Yes, we're disappointed.  When the MLA Board of Directors held its fall meeting in Chicago a few weeks ago, one of the major agenda items was to begin the process of updating the associatioin's strategic plan.  We started talking about it, and about how to get member input, and somebody suggested that we put it up on the new Connections blog and let people react.  Excellent idea, we agreed.  Rather than a dozen people holed up in a meeting room deciding on the direction of the association, let's get the membership involved right from the very beginning.

So MLA President Mary Ryan put up the post a couple of weeks ago, asking for feedback by the end of the month.   Krafty picked up on it the next day and put up a post encouraging people to get involved.

Since then, nothing.  Not a comment.  I know that it can't be because people don't care about the priorities and goals of the association.  We have a pretty good level of involvement (as measured by the number of people on committees and task forces and serving as officers in sections) for a volunteer association.  And from time to time there's a flurry of comment on MEDLIB-L suggesting that MLA should do this or do that.  So here's an easy opportunity for people to provide their thoughts about the direction that the association should take and no one is taking advantage of it.  Why is that?

Personally, although I am disappointed, I'm not very surprised.  I've always been skeptical about the promise of online communication.  Many years ago, when the type of ubiquitous communication that we have now was still just a vision, the most optimistic futurists would write in glowing terms about the dawning of a new age of participative democracy, a leveling of the playing field, the ability for everyone to have their say on any issue of importance.   The elites would lose their grip on power and communities would come together to have more fruitful discussions and to make better decisions.  The reality, of course, particularly as demonstrated in this election year, has been pretty ugly.

When Mark Funk chose "Only Connect" as his presidential theme, it signaled a commitment on the part of the board of directors and headquarters staff to use the new communication tools to create a broader connection among the members, and to provide opportunities for involvement at a level that we haven't had before.  I think we've had some real successes, particularly among members of committees and task forces.  But we're not engaging the broader membership yet the way that we'd like to.  The intention of the Connections blog is to provide a forum where anybody can get their two or three cents worth in.

We're doing our part.  But if the members aren't willing to take the time to participate, then what's the point?  Are we just fooling ourselves?  What do we need to do to make the potential of those connections a reality?


It seems like a very long time ago, but it's only been three weeks since we went to Yellowstone.   We wouldn't get the call about Lynn's mom for several days yet, not until we got to Cody, but we knew it would be coming soon.  Lynn talked with her dad at length everyday, getting the latest update.

It was the very end of the season.  Most of the activities & tours had shut down a week or two before.  Our hotel would be closing at the end of the week.  The college kids who staffed the restaurants carried a weariness about them as they ran down the clock of the last few days of summer work, before they went back to wherever they'd come from.  Our waitress the first night would be going back to her home in Warsaw.  She'd graduated from the university there the previous spring (international relations) and it was the last summer she'd be able to get a student visa.  She didn't know when she might be able to come back.

I'd been to the park years ago, on one of my first long solitary driving trips, and didn't like it at all.  I'd been out about a week or so by the time I got to Yellowstone, and had been camping in remote spots across South Dakota and eastern Wyoming.  It was the middle of July and Yellowstone was a shock -- bumper to bumper traffic, paved paths, trimmed lawns.   I stopped near Old Faithful but can hardly remember anything but the crowds.  I left as quickly as I could, heading for Slide Lake in the shadow of the Tetons.  I didn't care if I ever got back to Yellowstone. 

But with no one around but the end of season stragglers, it was fine.  We loved the geysers and the sulphur pools.  We saw many bison and elk -- some quite up close.  And there was a loon in the lake that we could hear from our window.

The weather was perfect.  It was cold in the mornings -- something that I'd been looking forward to.  We'd sleep with the window open, bundled up against the chill.  But by afternoon I'd be strolling about in a t-shirt.  On our last morning I set an alarm for 6:50 and took a thermos of coffee out to watch the sunrise.  There were a handful of other folks out, many with cameras.  I'd noticed over the course of the previous days that people with cameras tended to focus on getting their shot -- they'd find a spot, set up the camera, click away with serious looks on their faces, and then hurry off to the next location.  People without cameras tended to sit longer, and look around more, particularly at the sky.  They were frequently smiling.

I sat on a rock, made some hapless notes in my journal.  It was a soft and gentle sunrise, with a line of clouds just above the horizon, creating an opening for the sun to come up and illuminate the hills on the other side of the lake, and then providing a gauzy cover for the sun to ascend into. 

I walked on a bit, past a little grizzled guy in a parka and stocking cap who looked to be about my age or a little younger. 

"And the amazing thing," he said.  "Is that it happens everyday."

I smiled and nodded.

"That's it for the season, though," he went on.  "The weather report says this is the end of my backpacking."

"Oh," I said.  "What did you hear?"

"Rain and snow coming in today."

"That's alright.  I like rain and snow, too."

"I've been backpacking 86 days this summer.  I'm greedy.  I was hoping for a few more."  He had a charmingly wild grin.

"That's more than most people get," I laughed.

"More than most people want!"

We nodded to each other and I walked on.

Later that morning we packed up and drove to Cody where we had a marvelous lunch at the Irma Hotel, where Tia, our charming young waitress, filled us in on the local gossip.  We strolled around town while we waited for our room at the hotel to be ready.  We ran into several people that we knew who were also there for the conference.  We had gotten unpacked and I was just finishing putting a new set of strings on my guitar when Lynn's phone rang.  She saw that it was her dad, and we knew what that meant.  She talked with him for a few minutes and told him we'd get to Little Rock the next day, and then we got on the phones to go through the tedious process of getting our flights rearranged. 

We spent the evening with good friends, slept for a few hours, and caught an early flight out of Cody, going through Salt Lake City and Dallas before finally getting to Little Rock late in the afternoon.  Lynn's dad was there to meet us, and her brother was at the house when we got there.  Marian and Josie would arrive the next day.

No one was in shock, it had been long enough in coming.  Grief showed up in various ways.  Preparations and planning kept the family busy.   Marian was a tremendous help to her mom, and I tended to Josephine (who behaved marvelously).  The eulogy was one of the best I've ever heard, and there were many longtime friends there to give comfort to her dad.

At night, back at our hotel, Lynn and I would have a drink before bed and talk a little bit about Yellowstone, and how grateful we were that we'd had that time.  We are walking in mystery.

Living In The Middle Of History

It took me nearly four months, but earlier this week I finished reading Europe: A History.  (The reading was not uninterrupted by other things -- it's too big of a doorstop to bring with me when I'm traveling).

It's a grim picture.  As gruesome as some of the barbarism and cruelty of earlier ages has been, there isn't much to rival the 20th century.   What the human race seems to have learned most in the previous centuries has been improved methods for destroying each other.

I'm not big on the concept of "progress".  While there have been undeniable advances in the overall level of material comfort (although one should keep in mind that the general living standard of a large portion of the planet is still far below the typical European peasant of the 14th century), it is hard to find any evidence that the human race as a whole has learned much of anything when it comes to kindness, empathy, or a capacity for increasing self-awareness.  We're still pretty much the same brutish, petty, jealous, paranoid and cruel stumblebums we've always been.  The glee with which people have seized upon the anonymity of the internet to exhibit their worst tendencies is a uniquely 21st century exemplar of that.

It's the exceptions that give one hope, of course.  And the exceptions are many.  There's an insurance agency that has a marvelous ad campaign on the theme that every day millions of people do the right thing -- it's little things, like the mother who picks up her kids at a ball game and looks back to see one lone little boy still waiting for his dad, and turns around and sits with him until the dad arrives, or the young woman in the wheel chair who goes out through the rain and pushes past the innumerable small indignities foisted on the disabled in order to be able to cast her vote.  Honest to god, I choke up when I see these ads.

Were I still a christian, perhaps I would see the deplorable lack of empathy as a manifestation of original sin, that what cripples us is our inability to put ourselves in the place of another.  As it is, I can only see it as part of the inexplicable nature of human beings.  And yet it seems to me that it would take so little effort for people to be just a little bit more patient and generous with each other.  Just a tiny bit less selfishness and a little bit more empathetic listening would make such a huge difference.

But looking at the vast and complex story laid out in Europe doesn't leave one with much hope that we're going to see any such changes.  It hasn't happened so far, so why would one think that things would be different from here?  It puts me at odds with traditional Western views of history that tend to be linear, and in their more optimistic versions, a continual ascent.  I lean towards the circular visions of the Lakota or the Taoists. 

I return many times to one of the lessons that my mother taught me.  As a reading specialist in the local small town high school for many years, she spent much of her time with the kids who were not going to make it.  They were the ones who were going to drop out, at best get a halfway decent job in the mill, and end up drinking too much, getting divorced, being alienated from their kids, and wondering what had happened to their lives.  Before she retired, she was working with some of those kids, who were clearly on the same track as their parents.  And yet she went at it with the same energy and outpouring of love and caring for each one of those kids right up until the day she retired.  I asked her one time how she managed to keep doing that, knowing that no matter what she did many of those kids were already lost.

She told me that she knew that she couldn't save anybody.  "But," she said, "it's as if in everybody's life there's a balance, on one side the good stuff comes in, and on the other the bad.  How that tips in the long run is out of my control.  But I can make sure that what I give them goes into the good side."

So I ask you, as you go out into the world today, ask yourself with everybody you run into, are you putting your stuff in the good side or the bad?

I don't believe in progress, and I don't believe in saving the world, but I do believe in the inexplicable magnificence of individual human beings, who are so often so much finer than they have any reason to be.