Sunday, March 4, 2007

A Logjam, not a Vacuum

This week's Forecaster features a column by Edgar Allen Beem, Our Leadership Vacuum. Beem's column, "The Universal Notebook," runs every week. Sometimes I agree with him, sometimes not. Like most (but not all) columnists, he's pretty lazy in his thinking. Even when I agree with his conclusions I'm often not altogether charmed by his logic or evidence. This week's column was particularly lazy, however.

As the title suggests, Beem feels there's no real leadership in Portland. He longs for the days when "things got done." Usually, things got done because the guys in charge not only had all the money, they owned all the real estate and basically ran the city. Things have changed. I agree. But what set me off was Beem's targeting of "Generation x" types and their assumed lack of big picture vision:
...all those progressive neighborhood activists who have assumed power can’t seem to get much accomplished.
...And the GenXers who have stepped into the leadership void just seem to lack the big picture, focusing on narrow, do-able, short-term goals with the best of intentions and mixed results.
Not to mention (and by that I mean, specifically to mention) the lazy equation of Barak Obama with George Bush:
I wish I could say I see hope on the horizon, but I don’t. Barak Obama? Come on, all the guy’s done so far is get elected. Like George W. Bush, he’s just a blank slate upon whom people project their desires.
So I dashed off a response to the Forecaster. I barely scratched the surface of what I could have hit on. Nevertheless, for your reading pleasure (with fun links added):

There are so many red-herrings, misleading assumptions and fuzzy thoughts in Edgar Allen Beem's notebook of 2/28 that I hardly know where to start. So, like Beem, I'll just wade right in.

Beem assumes there is no leadership because there are no leaders. Starting here leaves you nowhere to go but down and that, predictably, is where he heads. The trouble with this premise is that Beem's idea of a leader is really the definition of a philanthropist with a civic bent. Well what do you know? All those wealthy Boomers that have come to Maine over the past 30 years just don't want to give their money away. Beem nods cursorily in that direction, but his real shots he saves for the younger generation (of which I am proudly a part).

Contrary to Beem's assertion, we have a "big picture" vision that we deeply desire to implement: We see a city of reduced car traffic, with greater and more convenient public transportation. A city that is not just walk-able but actually walk-ing, with vibrant, mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhoods and an accessible city government. A picture of a new, greener future that is available to all citizens, regardless of their income or socio-economic status. A city better connected to the Mid-coast, Southern Maine and Boston with improved rail service. A sea-going city bound more closely with the Northeast's greatest trading partner: Canada and its maritime provinces. A city of immigrants, newcomers and native Mainers. A city with strong schools and the outstanding business opportunities that come with a ready, willing and educated workforce. A true 21st century model.

But the moment someone comes up with a sensible, albeit unorthodox idea, people of Beem's ilk and generation pop up to shoot it down. Witness the efforts of Marcos Miller and the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization to promote that vision with respect to the City's transportation plan. When people weren't actively denigrating their ideas, the City was burying the process and eliminating public participation.

This same ineffectual group of individuals (citizens and councilors alike) consistently stands in the way of the big picture vision of Portland's younger generation. The "narrow, do-able, short-term goals" Beem sees so fit to denigrate are not stand-alone initiatives. They are part and parcel of the bigger vision: incremental victories that we somehow manage to slip past the wall of muffle-headed, business-as-usual types like Mr. Beem. But more is coming. In the very paper that carries Beem's sad lament, we read of a new push for accountability in the Mayoral office and a drastic restructuring of city government put forward by these allegedly short-sighted enfants dans les bois.

"[A]ll those progressive neighborhood activists who have assumed power can't seem to get much accomplished." Let's look as one of the little things they've done: the revocation of the formula business ban and the formation of a committee to examine the issue. The ban, which Beem rightly labels "ill-conceived," was railroaded through before the last election by the retreating baby-boom old guard, which declined to study the issue at all, winged it completely and missed badly.

Sometimes you have to go backward before you can go forward. It has scarcely been three months since Donoghue and Marshall were inaugurated to the city council. That's barely enough time to come to grips with the mess of Portland government, much less reverse its course. Ask yourself, Mr. Beem, who is standing in the way of these "activists in power" (all two of them)? I have a generational mirror here if you need it.

Beem wants leaders with "vision and clout." Obviously, the vision is there. Apparently what Beem means by "clout" is "cash." The people with cash in this city are, paradoxically, the ones who lack vision. Well, "generation X" has the vision. As for the cash, all I can say is give us time. Lenny Nelson inherited a lot of money and made a lot more—but not by the age of 30. The same goes for the Paysons, Porteouses and Baxters of the world. In the meantime, I suggest that the Baby Boomers get out their checkbooks and get out of the way. "It's been decades," says Beem. Your generation has been in the driver's seat, Mr. Beem. Let someone else have a chance. Get your energy behind them and let them lead.

And while you're at it, you might want to leave comparing Obama with Bush for political smear campaigns. Neither Bush nor Obama is a "blank slate." Bush is the scion and torchbearer of a morally vacant political philosophy that has destroyed our army and bankrupted our nation. The truth was there to be seen from the beginning but the facile compliance of "journalists" like Beem (though perhaps not Beem) permitted the incurious to see what they wanted to see. Obama, although he exhibits a disturbing willingness to accommodate the once-loyal opposition, is an even more richly rendered page. His political record echoes JFK's, but without wealth and influence of the Kennedy political machine, with better grades and a traceable track-record of legislation in the public interest.

The real "root of our leadership problem" is not the lack of viable options. Rather it is the opaque fog of the lapdog press that cloaks all candidates in a veil of sameness. I suggest that rather than whining about a "lack of leadership" Beem might start by exhibiting a little of his own. If a "long leaderless decline" is to be averted, the press must play a far more active role. Find the truth and report it. Don't just take dictation. Or, in Beem's case, don't just whine. Do a little thinking before you put fingertip to keyboard.

No comments: