Engaged and detached

David Brooks
David Brooks
Josh Haner photo/NY Times

In his fine April 29 column, “Engaged or Detached?,” David Brooks says that the person who writes about politics and policy has a choice: She can be an engaged activist supporting a cause, who “provides arguments for the party faithful and builds community by reminding everyone of the errors and villainy of the opposing side.” Or she can be detached, more a teacher than an activist, “shaping people’s perceptions of underlying reality and hoping that she can provide a context in which other people can think.” Or somewhere on the continuum between these two. He concludes,

The detached writer understands that, at the top level, politics is a bipolar struggle for turf. But the real fun is down below, sparking conversations about underlying concepts, underlying reality and the underlying frame of debate.

Not fair! — Brooks is giving the detached writer all the fun. Engaged activists deserve it, too. In my experience, the strategic advocate frequently does this sparking and reframing, morphing and broadening her coalition, open to questioning assumptions. I saw Mo Udall, congressional leader of the historic Alaska lands act conservation effort in the 1970’s, do that with his Lincolnesque humor.* Similar to the writer, the engaged activist works within a continuum between mobilizing the faithful and exploring curiously for ways to blend with others and move in new ways.

* “A Lincolnesque leader is confident enough to be humble — to not feel the need to bluster or dominate, but to be sufficiently sure of one’s own judgment and self-worth to really listen and not be threatened by contrary advice.”
Evan Thomas and Richard Wolffe; Lincoln’s Obama; Newsweek (New York); Nov 24, 2008. cited at http://wordsmith.org/words/lincolnesque.html

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