Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Living with the Mess

The discussion over Chris Hedges' latest Truthdig column, "America the Illiterate," has become a very contentious affair, messy enough to remind me, in one of my own comments, of James Thurber's cowboy who jumped on his horse and ran off wildly in all directions. This apparently encouraged a comment from "FENWICK" to invoke a more recent metaphor:

Why do these threads seem to always become a textual re-enactment of the premier appearance of Jerry Lee Lewis on the Steve Allen show? With piano stools and other furniture flying back and forth on the stage, Jerry played on with his golden blonde ringlets flying back and forth and around his like a wet mop. You could hardly hear him amidt the din.

The answer to FENWICK's question is that the Truthdig forum for comments is what Joyce Rothschild-Whitt called a "collectivist organization." One of the organizations that Rothschild-Whitt studied was a town meeting in New England; and, among other things, she observed that participants in such meetings tended to experience a high level of stress. However, her observations apply to the behavior of any group of vastly disparate interests that is trying to deliberate some significant matter. What most business schools (particularly the ones with a strong faith based not in some Divine Power but in information technology) fail to teach is that serious deliberation is a messy process; and the level of the mess increases with the number of people doing the deliberating. As the mess increases, it takes its toll on the psychological well-being of the participants; but those who take such deliberation seriously soldier on, because they know the outcome will be more effective than the results of any number-crunching "decision support technology!"

My guess is that this nature of deliberation has been around since the early days of Athenian democracy and that both Plato and Socrates were well aware of the messiness of it all. This is probably why the "Republic" preferred the philosopher-king as a "preemptive strike" against such messiness. Writing with a broader temporal perspective, Hegel came to the same conclusion in his Philosophy of History. As to my own opinion, given the choice between messiness and a philosopher-king, I go for the messiness; it is part of our very humanity, which is what I felt Hedges was disregarding when this discussion was first building up steam.

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