On Glenn Beck

September 20, 2009

If you ever wonder how much exposure matters in your ability to influence people, Glenn Beck is as pure an experiment as you’ll find on the public stage. Beck is all heart, no head.  As much as he’s attacked for his words, his critics don’t get that his words don’t much matter. What does matter is that by stripping down in front of his audience, with no armor to protect himself or the rest of us from his swirling emotions, he gives his viewers permission to feel things, too.  That’s good television.

It’s also good leadership, or at least the foundation for it.  Whatever you think of Beck’s politics, he’s been able to influence the behavior of a lot of people over the last six months.  The chattering class is confused and appalled.  How is it possible that a man who told us FEMA might be building concentration camps has a large and growing following?

I recall seeing him host an obscure cable access show three or four years ago. I was stuck in an anonymous airport hotel in Miami, desperate for distraction from my own circumstances, and I stumbled on his show.  I was riveted.  I couldn’t leave the room, even with the promise of a fruity, poolside umbrella drink, and I stared for a jaw-dropping hour while he and his guests wrestled openly with their demons.  I couldn’t believe what I was seeing or my own reaction to it.  Sure, here was a crazy man, talking crazy, but that part got old after a few minutes.  What kept me there was the strangely empowering part of the ride.  In Glenn Beck’s universe, it was ok to feel things intensely and to channel those emotions into action and progress. This was exciting for a good WASP from Ohio.

I rarely agree with Beck’s proposed actions or definition of progress, but I’m convinced that there are lessons in his ascent for anyone who aspires to leadership. Show up. Remove whatever mask you’re wearing to protect yourself from judgment, and give us regular access to the emotions that drive you.

That means you, too, Mr. President.

Katrina’s Environmental Subplot

August 11, 2009

I am a reluctant environmentalist.  I like people more than animals, animals more than plants.  I’ve come around to caring about our mismanagement of the environment because of the devastating effects of that mismanagement on human beings.

There is not a more vivid metaphor for the human costs of environmental incompetence than the direct links between the destruction of Gulf Coast wetlands and the horror show that unfolded in the Superdome on 8/29/05.  As Time’s Michael Grunwald wrote in 2007, in his scathing exploration of Katrina and her enablers:

….FEMA was the scapegoat, but the real culprit was the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which bungled the levees that formed the city’s man-made defenses and ravaged the wetlands that once formed its natural defenses. Americans were outraged by the government’s response, but they still haven’t come to grips with the government’s responsibility for the catastrophe.

Ravaged wetlands are not a central part of the narrative we’ve built around Katrina, at least not up North.  When we do acknowledge the human missteps leading to the not-so-natural disaster, we invoke Brownie’s “heckuva job” and W vacationing while whole neighborhoods drowned.  That’s the story we like to tell around Boston.  Sometimes we bring the Corps into it, usually for its engineering mistakes with the levees themselves.

But Grunwald and others have made a powerful case that the most tragic leadership failures can be traced to the “U.S’s cockamamie approach to water resources,” a decades-long, pork-filled drama that doles out responsibility across generations, sectors and Congressional aisles.  Everybody got it wrong by razing wetland barriers, and the most vulnerable among us paid the ultimate price.

One of the challenges of mainstreaming the environmental movement is its lingering sentimentality.  Another is its emphasis on valuing the future more than the present, a message that is often heavy with moral authority.  Katrina reminds us that smart, strategic stewardship of the environment matters right now.  I’m unlikely to ever hug a tree for the tree’s sake.  But when that tree starts teetering towards my fellow citizens, I find that my affection for it grows.