You do not become a ''dissident'' just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society. - Vaclav Havel
2011 will go down as the "Year of the Protester." For all the obvious reasons, the name fits. And for what should be similarly obvious reasons, that's a tragedy.
The world needs protesters now like a doomed airliner needs more stewardesses. What it really, desperately requires are dissidents.
Yes, there's a difference between the two, a crucial one. The dissident doesn't scream in the streets. He doesn't sit in drum circles. He doesn't dress like in a fashion contrived solely to alienate others. He isn't incoherent by design. Or a lost soul simply looking for some angry movement to belong to.
The dissident thinks. He's formulated an idea, a plan, that challenges consensus, conventional wisdom, and the power structures in industry, government, and society that support the status quo. He has an argument in favor of an alternative. He can debate. He offers a workable option that can rally millions of similarly thoughtful supporters - that silent majority we need to join the debate. Unlike the protester, who can spark what appears to be revolution, but is usually nothing more than replacement of his current oppressor with another, the dissident, by offering a formula for change, can radically upend the systems around him.
The dissident recognizes that screaming will always be cheap, and quickly forgotten. But that a well constructed idea is sticky.*
If the difference I'm highlighting is opaque, allow me to offer a few concrete examples of dissidents. It's a good time for it, as we lost three huge ones last year: Steve Jobs, Christopher Hitchens, and Vaclav Havel. Each of these men, through the power of well reasoned, well made affronts to the accepted narratives, caused more change in their spheres of influence than ten years of Occupy Wall Street would have in its.
Jobs revolutionized not only the personal computer, but the very nature of our relationship to digital devices and media. The Macintosh set a new standard in terms of design and functionality in desktop computing. The Next couldn't have been more aptly named - a personal supercomputer miles ahead of anything available at the time. The iPhone and iPad put the power of a laptop in the user's hand, with an interface so simple and efficient you were left wondering why you'd ever needed a keyboard. The iPod and iTunes single-handedly turned the music business on its ear, tearing the power from a parasitic cabal of recording industry professionals and gifting it to consumers. And every one of these products lasted longer, and performed better, than any of their competition. All because thirty years prior, a college dropout who didn't even have a degree in Computer Science followed through on the heresy, "I can do this better. I can build something superior to what the Establishment is offering."
Havel fit the definition of "dissident" so well, so literally in the classic sense of the word, it's hard to imagine any encyclopedia entry on the term lacking at least a passing reference to his name. A playwright who authored and produced works criticizing the Communist dictatorship running Czechoslovakia, Havel was quickly banned from the theater in his native land. A supporter of a brief attempted revolution in the late Sixties, he was exiled from all professions of influence, an intellectual sentenced by the Party to work for decades in menial factory labor. Unbowed, he continued to criticize the government, and in turn, it continued to alternatively jail and marginalize him. That is, until 1989, until the fall of the Soviet Union, and its annexed provinces. In the midst of that final, successful "Velvet Revolution," Havel emerged from exile as the face of the people - a uniting, eloquent figure who rose to the Presidency of a free and Democratic Czechoslovakia. No happenstance he was on the dais. It was his championing of ideas, of the argument that freedom and democracy were superior to central planning, cronyism, and subjugation of the individual, that elevated him there.
Then there's Hitchens - a Thomas Paine, or H.L. Mencken, of the modern age. And probably, in a "social media" obsessed society, where everyone's a marketer, and upsetting potential audiences is the only mortal sin, one of our last firebrand pamphleteers. Hitchens never met a sacred cow that wasn't worth grinding to sausage, searing over a white hot flame, and serving with a tumbler of blended scotch. In a world of comforting delusions, from the spin that Henry Kissinger was a principled statesman, as opposed to a murderous sociopath, that Mother Theresa was a living saint, rather than a craven opportunist who victimized the poor for self-aggrandizement, and that organized religion deserves reverence merely because it's so widely followed, Hitchens tore through the cognitive dissonance.
Hitchens dismantled and disabused, refusing to allow "belief" of any kind to escape the cross-examination of reason. He killed the fantasies, ripped the fraudulent unifying fables of the incurious to shreds, and in the process, couldn't have been funnier. To see him bludgeon the earnest and offended in debate was as amusing as it was intellectually satisfying. With the force of lucidity, the man probably caused several cities' worth of people to lose their faith, and in so doing, gain their lives. How many others would have thought, "Don't rock the boat. Most men need to believe in something... Leave them their saints, their political heroes, their deities..."? Thankfully, not Hitchens. He left nothing unquestioned, particularly the divine, to stay so. And we're all the better for it - even those who despised him for raising the challenge, a crowd I suspect privately, in the dark, left alone with their thoughts, admit to themselves, "The son of a bitch was right."
Of course, it isn't easy being a dissident. The histories of these three men were littered with failures, and years of toil and ostracization, preceding success. A great idea that flips an established proposition, industry, or order, is never embraced at the outset. The power structure guards its revenue stream to the last drop of blood. To succeed, a dissident has to craft a competing concept of such quality that its superiority to the entrenched thing it seeks to supplant is immediately recognizable. It needs to win in the marketplace, in the public square. The dissident has to make his case coherently, honestly, and forcefully. His thoughts, aims, and the answer to the essential question - Why is his idea better? - must be organized and broad enough to appeal to both the brilliant and the unsophisticated.
A protester cannot do this. He is a follower, a complainer, and by definition, intellectually lazy. He barks, bleats, and bitches. He's bitter, angry, envious. A creature of emotion - one who's rarely, if ever, thinking. He couldn't hope to offer an informed, competing solution. That would take discipline, tenacity, powers of analytical thinking, and cunning incompatible with the sort of mind that can fathom no better attack than taking to the street with a placard.
You might say, "Thank God the masses don't have a unifying voice. If they could ever be congealed behind a workable opposition platform, they might actually get their revolution!" You couldn't be further misguided, or more narrow-minded, in your thinking. This country isn't merely stagnant. It is beginning to rot. Sincerely, look around you. On a macro level, we struggle pathetically, futilely, to sustain with mountains of debt an untenable status quo. On a micro level, we're a nation of craven middle managers and opportunists, either biting our lips for fear of losing our jobs, or justifying our unethical business practices with an "I'll be gone, you'll be gone" ethos. The One Percent, the Fifty-Three Percent, the Ninety-Nine Percent - for the better of us all, the United States needs a monstrous political, intellectual, and financial enema.
No rhetorical hyperbole there. The policies and structures in place now - our crony-capitalism, entitlement addiction, and kick-the-can-down the road approach to every challenge - are the exact intellectual equivalent of what's flushed out in that gastroenterological procedure.
Protesters only prolong the constipation (I sense I'll regret this metaphor, but I'm married to it now, and I struggle to find one more fitting). If anything, their gaudiness, aimlessness, and naivete gives credibility to the status quo. If the only people fighting City Hall are the losers and misfits, the offal of Social Darwinism's winnowing process, it would appear City Hall is in the right.
This is a perception we can ill afford. It is beyond obvious, given unemployment, our groaning deficits, and our staggering unfunded entitlements, that the United States is on an unsustainable track. (Or perhaps a quite sustainable track, straight over the edge of a waterfall.) We all realize the days of comforting delusions, most notably that we can "extend and pretend" indefinitely, are coming to an end. And as these things tend to work, when the pain comes, it will lock in faster and run far deeper than anyone will have been able to predict.
Now, today, immediately, the nation, and the rest of the developed world for that matter, needs Havels, Hitchenses, and Jobses. It needs enlightened debate and new solutions, and the disruption of stagnant order only the arguments of such compelling dissidents can bring. It needs voices who can do better than standing in the street and screaming "Fix wealth distribution!", which is, distilled to its essential cry, "I want more, and I want the government to give it to me!" It needs captains of industry who'll tell Wall Street, and its drone armies of quarterlies-obsessed rodents, "Our first goal is making a quality product... You'll be served second." The nation needs a person who'll treat it like adults, and tell it, "God is not going to save us."
We live in a world of instability, and though we'd like this to change, and for things to become predictable, that isn't going to happen any time soon. The best hope we have of finding a way out of this ditch is to embrace clarity, honesty, and reason. Sadly, this task must fall to dissidents, as our current leaders in industry, finance, and government haven't the motivation, or in some cases, the intellect, to do so. We need arguments, and plans - well made, clear, and where necessary, pragmatically open to compromise. Not advocacy. Not sophistry. Not bland entreaties of "Hope." And certainly not chants, drum circles, or mass encampments of people so hopelessly inarticulate they can't even muster coherent demands, let alone a formula for how to achieve them.
Some would say we've run out of time to make the big fixes needed. I disagree. There is still a window of opportunity if serious people will step into the debate. And though I don't have "faith" or "belief" in anything, I do think inevitably, at least some of the coherent, thoughtful "change agents" we need will emerge, and marginalize the screamers we don't. If 2011 was the "Year of the Protester," let's hope 2012 is the Year of the Dissident. More so than at any other point in relevant history, the nation, the world, needs them.
* And by a well constructed idea, I don't mean merely picking a side - adopting the positions of Keynesians, or Tea Partiers, or any of the other convenient ideology that allows you to remain on the good side of at least fifty percent of the people you need to get along with everyday. I mean an original idea - one that, as all good compromises do, leaves both sides of an argument feeling somewhat cheated. ^