2011 and the decline of authority

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Time magazine named The Protester its 2011 "Person of the Year" because, for decades till recently, most protests "seemed ineffectual and irrelevant." That's just silly. You can always find resistance and, depending on how you judge, it's often relevant. The spirit of protest is indomitable and inspiring. Eruptions happen constantly, exactly when you don't expect them. That defines resistance: it shouldn't exist but it resists anyway. Often it's crushed but it didn't fail to happen because Time failed to deem it cover-worthy.

What may have been unique this past year was something else: a collapse of the conventional fountains of authority and respect. In the Arab world that meant governments. But in the West, it meant big business and finance. The brilliance of Occupy Wall Street was that it didn't go to Washington. The Tea Party did; it directed its rage toward politicians and so it was eclipsed by the Occupiers, who targeted the bankers and financiers who control governments. That clearly resonated, but it wouldn't have, 20 or 30 years ago.

Think back to the torrent of best-selling business bios and takeover epics like Iacocca or Barbarians at the Gate that began around 1980. Business was the hero; government was the "problem" because it impeded business's freedom (even if business icons like Lee Iacocca demanded and relied on public money). Pro-business think-tanks proliferated; they disgorged "educational" series, often on public TV, by advocates like Milton Friedman. This accelerated through the Clinton-Bush years and beyond.

It wasn't the crash of 2008 that led to their fall from grace, nor exposure of the greed and stupidity that required a massive public rescue. It was their graceless reaction to the bailouts: no apologies, remorse or gratitude -- even faked; just more arrogance, bonuses, takeovers, foreclosures. Wall Street begged to be occupied. The Unrepentant Financier could have been Time's Person.

But there were other factors in the decline of authority. I doubt it has ever shocked people to learn that their era's main deciders were incompetent. But someone had to do it and you hoped for the best. What's often been lacking is a sense that there are other plausible ways to reach decisions. That sense of an alternative way to run things is what the Internet may have implanted.

In its early years, flame wars and other epidemics of egomania obscured its potential for collective, lateral decision-making. But now there's Wikipedia and it works. You don't need the Encyclopaedia Britannica and its stable of authorities. Or at least: you needn't defer to them; they've become another resource. The discovery of new ways to decide leads to a diminished need for authority.

Take theatre critics. Seriously. They were once models of authority, the Great Dictators of culture. Have a look at Sheridan Whiteside in the 1942 film, The Man Who Came to Dinner. He rules. When I began writing for theatre I was stunned by their power. You'd work for months or years on a script, then they came one night, perhaps in a foul mood, and made or unmade all you'd done. They ruled. Even fellow playwrights, who felt unjustly maligned too, tended to accept the critics' judgments of everybody else. Everyone drank their Kool-aid.

But I recently attended a panel on Theatre and the Internet. The Globe and Mail critic, Kelly Nestruck, said a newspaper online is not that same paper in print. Online a critic's word isn't final; it can be the beginning of a discussion. That affects him too; sometimes he changes the "stars" he gives a show as a result. Artists can come on the site and dispute his judgments. In my theatre days, the most you could do was write a pathetic/angry/whiny letter that only the critic would see and probably ignore. Now it's public. The dynamic shifts. Sheridan Whiteside is dead. Everyone's a critic -- and not just in their own minds.

This also alters the nature of the product. The artists can make changes, perhaps based on the discussion. If you were a novelist and had a book online, wouldn't you be tempted to improve it, maybe years later? Now you can. What happens to a contemporary classic in this situation? It lacks the authority it once had as a definitive statement. Everything is up for grabs. What happens to academics who've made careers as experts on each detail of the text?

Whose authority has also declined? How about Time magazine? The newsmag style used to sound authoritative and serenely confident. Now it sounds inane. "Everywhere, it seems, people said they'd had enough.... They dissented; they demanded --" Everywhere? Like out my window right now? And "it seems"? Seems to who(m)? Who makes these claims? What voice would you need to actually say words so pompous and vacuous? You can see Jon Stewart (if he did print) wincing as he reads it. Where did that invincible authority go?

The power of authority diminishes when you can hear credible, contesting voices. Print tends to be monotonal and univocal, unlike the oral tradition that preceded it. But the Internet, though it often lacks actual speech, is oral in the sense of interactive, like a Socratic dialogue. In oral mode, less is often more because speech is so laden with gesture, tone etc.; even something as short as a tweet can suffice. That too diminishes normal authority, which likes to rumble on.

I recently noticed Emily Dickinson's brief lines about the force of the spoken: "Could mortal lip divine/The undeveloped Freight/Of a delivered syllable/'Twould crumble with the weight." That's 101 characters -- less than a full tweet and far less than a column or book but to my ear it sounds authoritative. What else is there to say regarding the power of spoken versus written? It certainly undermines the dominion of the latter, and makes you wonder if poetry's time may not soon come again. Lyric, not epic, poetry, to be sure. But all these things are relative, transitory and getting more so by the minute.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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