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You cannot act an idea...but an idea can motivate a great deal of action. Dr. Barber has shed light on a Big Idea - Interdependence - which he titled a yearly event founded by himself and others in the wake of 9/11: Interdependence Day.
Now he takes another step in asking an essential question in his new work, If Mayors Ruled The World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities, and that question is whether or not the nation/state is obsolete and therefore requiring our global society to pay attention to a new way of thinking, speaking and doing when it comes to global governance.
Barber argues that the nation/state paradigm IS obsolete. Not only are new ways of addressing its demise emerging in accordance within the "productive struggle" of democracy throughout the world but also as a result of city-based, "glocal", collaboration among mega cities.
Cities that, no matter your allegiance, bias or loyalties (all with distinct borders of one kind or another) have no time to be confused about the "rules" of nation/states because in cities sewers need to run, fires need to be put out, traffic jams need to be unclogged and people need to feel safe in an increasingly complex and insecure world and any number of problems need to be solved "on-the-spot" as they do present themselves in myriad ways that demand immediate resolution.
Nation/states can hem and haw; posture and pose, emit a lot of sound and fury signifying either nothing or a great deal of confusion...or most deadly...nurture a culture of fear, threat and attack throughout the land.
Cities have to DEAL with life on life's terms and their mayors do too. As a New Yorker I must admit that I cringed a bit when I read the book and saw Bloomberg's name and governing style being provided as an exemplar.
However, Barber points to Bloomberg as one of many examples - he's not really for or against Bloomberg...mayors are human beings, not figureheads, we see them up close in all their sizes, shapes, neurotic tendencies.
Barber points to Bloomberg to illustrate a dynamic that "King Mike" put into play as a mayor around reaching out to various cities, international agencies, etc. to take care of his city (arguably, among other things that he also wanted to take care of).
The jaded New Yorker is compelled to consider the ways in which Bloomberg (Barber has made it clear that Bloomberg's problem was not necessarily always what he wanted to do but HOW he wanted to do it) worked with mayors of other cities in numerous ways to address major issues that all cities face...domestic (gun control) and international terrorist attacks (overall security and safety) among them.
There are at least 11 other mayors that Barber focuses on in as much depth (if not more) as Bloomberg. These mayors are different, similar and ultimately inseparable insofar as they - and their cities - are living artifacts that provide concrete, low-inference data in support of Barber's argument.
Barber's argument is not about how much money a mayor needs to have, which party he needs to belong to...it is about how a mayor - especially a mayor of a cosmopolis - is going to find himself riding in a car down a city street and getting instant feedback whether he asks for it or not.
Bloomberg, once riding in a car asked his fellow rider, NYPD police commissioner Ray Kelly, (as noted in a recent Rolling Stone interview of Kelly) if he saw all the different people flipping him off once the citizens saw it was their mayor going by, to which Ray Kelly responded, "They're not giving you the finger, Mr. President. They're telling you that you're number one." (I paraphrase but you get the gist of it).
Barber makes it clear that mayors, unlike presidents/governors who can be somewhat aloof, monarchical and disconnected from their constituency, can't go down a street and not get a visceral sense of how their city feels about their performance. They can invite that kind of feedback (Koch: "How am I doing?") or they can be a magnet for it.
A mayor can't BE in the city he has been elected to lead, move on its streets and simply drive by a burning fire (Booker) and not feel compelled and connected enough to what's happening to not get out and pull a fellow citizen out of a burning building.
Some mayors roll down a street like Bloomberg rolls down a street and some roll down a street like Booker rolls down a street. Either way, there's no escaping the relationship they have to their city: good, bad, happy or sad...it's in their face 24/7.
Mayors are more connected to their cities than presidents are to their nations, governors are to their states when it comes to "the people".
Barber illustrates how mayors often find themselves reaching out to other mayors all over the world to solve common problems...often bypassing the state and federal resources that are too befuddled to be of service.
Reader beware - I'm a big Barber fan. I've read a lot of his books. You don't just read a Barber book to feel like you are informed.
You read a Barber book to have your "comfort zone" challenged and to actually be compelled to do some critical thinking. You read a Barber book to get some history, to actually get a sense of how "God is in the details" but he is most definitely in the Big Picture too. From Gihad vs. McWorld to Consumed to Strong Democracy to Fear's Empire and Truth to Power...and all the other books not mentioned...Barber lays out arguments that require one to reflect and that, in my own case, inspire one to take action. And Barber is in the streets too - he's in it - as his numerous activities imply. Not helter-skelter activities - all connected by a thread of continuity that radiates the enduring concept NOT of independence...but of interdependence.
How does he do this? Using If Mayors Rules the World as an example I would say his gift is rooted in his own long career as an educator, artist and citizen. He practices what he preaches in founding an Interdependence Movement, narrating a documentary film about the Berkshires' Music Inn, (founded by his father and step-mother) and it's "ahead of its times" impact on the worlds of musicology, jazz, blues, the arts and basic racial, cultural ignorance in America; in remaining in constant contact not only with the other leading theorists and power holders (either directly via working relationships as in his time with Bill Clinton, or indirectly, as in the impact his works have had on the young people in our world, some who wake up to discover that their own parents are quite misguided and find the only way to help an honored, loved one understand where their child is coming from is to introduce them to Barber's works) but also with young people from all walks of life through work to develop a curriculum on civic engagement for public schools and reaching out to engage younger people in the yearly Interdependence Day event.
Barber is a teacher. He's also an energizer. You can google him or youtube him and you will see that there is a thread of continuity in his presentations - from a Ted Talk to an interview with Charlie Rose to a civil discourse and debate on his book with Frances Fox Piven when he took up his current position at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York as a senior research scholar at the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. He understands the power of ideas to bring one to life and you sense the power of his own convictions, passion and curiosity that carries over from his presentation of self in every day life to the words on the page. He's not "in his head" about this stuff...he's in his life and in the world.
To the specialist who is very focused in one specific area of political science this may very well seem like a melodramatic and generalized work. Times are such that anybody who is not wholly defeated and disillusioned with talk of "governance" and "politics" and "politicians" can seem overly optimistic or way too general. Folks said that about Carl Sagan too.
I'm not a specialist, I'm an interdependent and I'm looking for voices like Edgar Morin and Benjamin Barber and Ethan Nichtern and Alfonso Montuori to make connections for me and to break down the walls of "specialists" who declare that a book has not been rooted in the same kind of "rigor"mortis as their ideas are locked up in.
Specialists in political science, who are "too deep into it" may not be able to raise their heads above the water line. Barber has written a book that is accessible and that is a starting point, a brilliant starting point, with some enthusiasm in it, that might seem affected to the cynically jaded but to the hungry and willing radiates a general sense of vibrant engagement.
Also, because he understands interdependence in the way that he does, because he knows that interdependence means one thing to Buddhists, one thing to the French polyglot/polymath intellectuals like Edgar Morin and another to the quantum physicists (all whom, by the way, are inter-connected in their own right) he exudes a very democratic sense about the very ideas that he presents.
There is sense that Barber is urging the reader not to "take my word for it" but to look at what he is pointing at. Via his life-long argument for citizenship and a more engaged citizenry in democratic discourse, discussion and debate, it's clear that he does not believe that his own entry point into the idea of a Parliament of Mayors - which is what he ultimately argues for in this work - or the idea of Interdependence is the ONLY entry point. One gets the sense that Barber is now in a place - or has been there for some time - where he himself realizes that wherever you are in your life or in the world or in your own desire to engage and participate...IS the place where you need to start seeing if what he's talking about makes any sense to you or not.
Also, and this may not matter to most, he has GREAT quotes at the beginning of his chapters in that "here's the landscape we are going to explore now" kind of way. Here's one from Chapter 7. "Planet of Slums" The Challenge of Urban Inequality (you listening Mr. de Blasio? Cuz this one connects directly to what's going to be on your plate when you assume office):
"Class remains a key feature of American life, sharing everything from our politics to our health and happiness. Overcoming these divides requires requires nothing less than a new set of institutions and a wholly new social compact."
That quote is from Richard Florida whose own work, The Rise of the Creative Class Revisited, is kin to Barber's work.
What can I say? This is another great contribution from a unique American person. Don't even get me started on how this book has many (if not all) stand alone chapters that would give some juice to a potentially Common Core Learning Standard dehumanized "non-fiction text ONLY please" high school or college class...that's because in the hands of a good teacher students would be exposed to the ways in which creative thinking can be applied in provocative and enlightening ways that root you more deeply in the relevant, the 21st Century and your own personal yearning for a democratic society...in ways that compel you to reach out to and connect with others...via the kinds of forums like the Interdependence Day event that is mentioned above.
Finally, the book delivers a structured argument around a Big Idea that will most certainly be a catalyst for more ideas. Energized, creative and engaged thinkers will find confirmation and affirmation in the very act of creative thinking about real problems in this work. It's not only the conservative-minded who might throw the book away...it's also those locked up in the womb-tomb-rooms of their isolated professions that no longer have the capacity to engage in a dialogic with other professions who will also throw it away. Which is fine - at this point - the disillusioned student in America may pick it up in an urban slum and begin to change the way he thinks when he - or she - thinks about her situation in the world.
Bravo Dr. Barber. Keep on keepin' on!!!