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Monday, February 01, 2016

Each revolution is conventional in all ways but one

Recently I came across an app that gives career advice by profiling prominent people in a given career.

I noted that one of the main ones mentioned had, in my opinion, failed a test of integrity. And yet there they were, an example of what to do, and how it's done.

This a little bit like learning about transforming philanthropy from Kiva or making government accessible to the citizenry from Bill de Blasio. In other words, perfectly normal, even impressive. It added cache to the product.

Kiva, as essentially no one recalls, turned out to be lying to all of its donor users about the basic details of their microloans.

De Blasio, when he was Public Advocate, didn't seem to know whether or not his staff was actually picking up the phone at their hotline, where the mailbox was often full.

Including leading figures like these is a decision based more on success in brand marketing then on the reality of the work.

I'm reminded that the natural tendency of established ideas, people, and power is to become further consolidated, because that norm gets recapitulated by default. whereas to articulate an alternative norm of what should or might be, rather than what is, requires a critique that must be delicately articulated and defended. Such a critique is inherently distracting from your core message, whereas echoing conventional wisdom requires no special justification and benefits from association with assumptions that are already accepted.

So you may depart from the norm by emphasizing the need for career contacts to be less obscure, or you may depart from the norm by emphasizing uncomfortable ambiguities conflicts of loyalty that many jobs involve, but you really can't do both at the same time or you're getting too many steps away from people's assumptions about what's valuable.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has one of the most fascinating soul-searches I've read, about why he didn't write more about Bill Cosby's rape accusations when he wrote a 2008 profile on Cosby.

At the time I wrote the piece, it was 13 peoples’ word—and I believed them. Put differently, I believed that Bill Cosby was a rapist.

...should I have decided to state what I believed about Cosby, I would have had to write a much different piece. It would not have been enough to say, "I believe he is a rapist." A significant portion of my reporting, perhaps the lion’s share of my reporting, would have had to be aimed to investigating the claims.

The Bill Cosby piece was my first shot writing for a big national magazine. I had been writing for 12 financially insecure years. By 2007, when I finished my first draft, I had lost three jobs in seven years. I had just been laid-off by Time magazine. My kid was getting older. I was subsisting off unemployment checks and someone else's salary.

I'm also reminded of the extreme misogyny within leftist movements in the 1960s, symbolized--though by some accounts unfairly--by Stokely Carmichael's joke that "The proper position of women in [SNCC/the movement] is prone." (Several women from SNCC maintain that the tone of the joke was meant to poke fun at his own, and SNCC's own, misogyny.) As they used to say, "Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM." Each revolution is conventional in all ways but one.

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