Thursday, June 14, 2007

don't be realistic

I got this video in my email inbox this morning. The basic message of the video is to stop being "realistic" and stick to your big, impossible dreams. I enjoy this.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

baby with the bath water

A lot of theorists have been writing about the declining influence of government. In fact, this was the subject of one of my major papers during law school ten years ago. The argument goes something like this:

  • Security is being taken up by private bodyguards and gated communities amongst those who can afford not to rely upon the police
  • Non-state militia groups wage war outside of the guidelines of the Geneva Convention and international law
  • Public policy decisions are increasingly taken by judges - whether on issues like gay marriage, abortion, or labour disputes...leaving elected officials off the hook
  • Professional lobbyists - whether lobbyists-for-hire or representatives of civil society organisations - effect more influence on government decisions than the civil servants on the inside
  • NGOs and community organisations deliver services, shape public debate, and collaborate with partners overseas - directly
  • Non-governmental organisations also deliver government-esque services directly overseas. For example, War Child contributes towards cleaning up after the devastation of military operations, Amnesty International shines light on government abuse, and Doctors Without Borders delivers healthcare instead of local health authorities overseas

Governments are obviously becoming less and less relevant - "A perfection of means, and confusion of aims, seems to be our main problem," Einstein said. And so why should we care about them?* me Pollyanna, but I still have faith. The infrastructure of government is still in place; here in Canada we generate $10 billion annual surpluses federally, and taxpayers don't seem to mind. So we have an opportunity to use the system and the funding that's already in place if we can figure out what to do with the networks we have.

We could be actively trying to create an economy of care - incentives to business to support civil society. Government as direction-setter instead of implementer, providing the overall guidance structures and funding for regional and local organisations to do their thing. Government as think tank to generate data about how certain programs are working and what international (or obscure, local) group is already doing it better.

I've mentioned experimental pilot projects like harm reduction drug clinics, daycare on site at business centres, investment in research & development, construction of community-focused public spaces and innovative public buildings, and reducing poverty overseas before.

But I'm sure there are lots of people saying this, and when pilot projects do sprout up, the average citizen is often unaware of the opportunities that exist.

So how to make a stronger connection between government and community...any ideas?

*Of note, last night I bought World Inc, which explores the question of whether now that companies are more powerful than governments, they have an opportunity - a responsibility? - to make social responsibility part of their mandates. Will report back with thoughts.

Monday, June 4, 2007

too cool for school

In his 1957 essay "The White Negro", Norman Mailer argued that:

"If the fate of 20th century man is to live with death from adolescence to premature senescence, why then the only life-giving answer is to accept the terms of death, to live with death as immediate danger, to divorce oneself from society, to live without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self. In short, the decision is to encourage the psychopath in oneself. One is Hip or one is Square, one is a rebel or one conforms."

So far, I've met one super over-achiever who also has that kind of crazy hipster cool. Usually, the "psychopath within" tends to overshadow the productive side of the crazy cool people I meet.

Just in April I'd been pitching to a group of people that the truly gifted and avant-garde - the innovators - are hardwired differently. And that, as a consequence, they are often a little crazy too. That was before I'd read the Mailer quote, and I know the people I was talking to thought I was strange.

I feel vindicated now, if at a loss, because the leap from crazy-productive to crazy-subpar may be all too short.

Take Montreal, for instance, the city of my undergrad youth. I've always admired its graceful seediness. The way its people continue to sneer in the midst of its decay. And I've always preferred it over the bigger, richer, more sanitised Toronto as well.

But despite its beautiful people, it's superior fashion, its local arts scene and quirky pockets of tight knit communities, Montreal never beats the Vancouvers and the Torontos for the "Top City to Live In" in the global awards. Perhaps the continuum from haunting beauty to just plain ghoulishness is too close a spectrum for the average citizen to bear.

Still, I remain optimistic that the balance can be made. I think that sometimes simply being innovative, alternative, or daring in one's thinking, is what is seen as crazy. As Einstein quipped:

"Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are even incapable of forming such opinions"


"A question that sometimes drives me hazy: am I or are the others crazy?"