A little over 10 years ago, just after the explosive launch of the Internet information age, I wrote a feature-essay for Metro newspaper in San Jose called “W.W.W.—World Without Wisdom.” (The essay was all mine; the idea for turning the “world-wide-web” initials into “world without wisdom,” however, was the Metro editors’—I’d always wished I’d thought of that.)
In the essay, I wrote about a 1994 book called The Gutenberg Elegies by American essayist Sven Birkerts, which talked of the problems involving the blossoming revolution in electronic/digital communication—most especially, the loss of wisdom in all this clutter of information.
"Wisdom has nothing to do with the gathering or organizing of facts--this is basic," Mr. Birkerts wrote. "Wisdom is a seeing through facts, a penetration to the underlying laws and patterns. It relates the immediate to something larger… To see through data, one must have something to see through to. One must believe in the possibility of a comprehensible whole. ... And this assumption of ends is what we have lost. It is one thing to absorb a fact, to situate it alongside other facts in a configuration, and quite another to contemplate that fact at leisure, allowing it to declare its connection with other facts, its thematic destiny, its resonance."
What is missing in the modern information age, Mr. Birkerts lamented, was not information, but context within which to put it. In the avalanche of facts, understanding of those facts often gets buried, putting us at the mercy of the latest spin.
Thus, when Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez stands on the dais at the United States a day after United States President George Bush, crosses himself, and says, "the devil came here yesterday. He came here talking as if he were the owner of the world. It still smells of sulphur today," even the most vigorous of American Bush critics were left momentarily speechless, while our conservative brethren were quick to the attack Chavez’ words as unbecoming clownishness.
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John R. Bolton called it a "comic-strip approach to international affairs" and Fox News’ Neil Cavuto opened an interview with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe by asking "Do you think Hugo Chavez is a nut?"
But if calling George Bush the devil is nutty, then what must we think when George Bush informs us that he gets his political instructions from God, or invokes the identical diabolical imagery in describing countries he considers to be America’s enemies? (Where do you think the concept of evil—as in “the Axis of Evil”—is linked? If you can’t figure it out, just add a “d” to the beginning and that will be a nice clue.)
Putting it in this context, the only difference in what Mr. Chavez and Mr. Bush has said lies in which of them you believe has the best insight into the nature of the universe and the mind of God.
But at least on a national and international level, we have—thank God—commentators and analysts like Keith Olbermann and Noam Chomsky and Jon Stewart to give us a pot in which to stew this bewilderment of facts and events and information.
Closer to home, we often just get lost for lack of a guide.
In the California Progress Report, a daily online review which bills itself as “the water cooler around which progressive Californians gather daily for news, politics, policy, and progressive action,” blogger Frank D. Russo (an Oakland attorney and Democratic Party activist) writes recently about the California Attorney General’s race between Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown and Republican State Senator Chuck Poochigian.
“The state AG is an office touted as being the ‘top cop,’ for the state and [Mr. Poochigian] is trying to find a hook with the voters by playing one note: their fear of crime and the fact that his well known opponent, Jerry Brown, is from Oakland, a city that has crime problems,” Mr. Russo says. “It doesn’t matter that in the 8 years Brown has been Mayor, crime has been down from the level it was before he took office. Details get lost in campaigns.”
Details sometimes get lost in blogs and political columns, as well.
The “crime is down under Jerry Brown” note is a common theme in the Brown campaign, a way to convince voters that even though Oakland’s soaring murder rate seems horrendous and almost out of control, it is actually better than it has been.
Details of the Brown defense were spelled out in a September 11 USA Today article “Veteran Calif. Politician eyes ‘top cop’ post,” by reporter John Ritter, in which Mr. Ritter explains that “Brown says the average annual murder count since he took office in 1999 is down 30% from the eight years of his predecessor, Elihu Harris, the most violent period in the city's history. In 1992, a record 165 were killed.”
But to understand the significance of these numbers to Mr. Harris and Mr. Brown, you must first understand the difference between the Harris and Brown eras in Oakland. In 1992, we were operating under the weak-mayor/strong-city manager form of government. Mr. Harris, unlike Mr. Brown, was only the symbolic leader of Oakland, with little more power in the Council than any other councilmember, and with no independent control of the police department. One of the major difficulties of those years was that both the city manager and the police department responded to the needs and requests of individual councilmembers, leading to police action and policies in different parts of the city that often seemed at cross-purposes with itself. It was under this system that we institutionalized the idea that open air drug dealing would be unofficially tolerated in some areas of the city, while fiercely pursued and eradicated in others, a policy that left large, festering pockets out of which Oakland’s current violence is flowing, overspilling now into the rest of the city. If Mr. Harris is to blame for that, he shares the blame with eight other Council colleagues.
Mr. Brown has no such excuse. He came into office in January of 1999 with full control of the police department, and the power to set its citywide direction. Mr. Brown squandered that authority, appointing the personable, popular, but wholly ineffective Richard Word as chief of police, who meandered for several years before he was replaced, once, oddly and famously, seeing the banning of citizen street shrines for murder victims as a method for preventing more murders.
It’s only in the selection of Wayne Tucker to replace Mr. Word that we have begun to see some direction at the upper levels of the Oakland Police Department, and a sense that the department is beginning to understand the nature of Oakland, crime in Oakland, and its own abilities and inabilities. Mr. Brown’s choice of Mr. Tucker was a good one. The problem is, he took so long to do it.
Meanwhile, as if we needed confirmation, we learn from the USA Today article that Mr. Brown puts Oakland’s crime problem on Oakland itself, not on his lack of leadership and use of the strong mayor powers we entrusted him with eight years ago. Mr. Ritter writes that “violence is endemic in Oakland, Brown says, the product of a thriving illegal drug trade, lack of opportunities for poor black and Latino youth and the easy availability of guns.”
I didn’t go to all the various schools that Mr. Brown attended. But I learn through the Webster’s New World College Dictionary that something which is “endemic” is either “native to a particular country, nation, or region” or that it is “constantly present in a particular region.” Violence, Mr. Brown tells the world with a throwing up of his hands, is in Oakland’s blood. He has done the best he could. It’s now time for him to move on to other challenges, leaving Oaklanders with the job of cleaning up behind our own mess. And the world, not understanding the context, tends to believe him.
There is much to the administration of Jerry Brown in Oakland that is similar to the administration of George W. Bush in Washington. Both are highly secretive, guarding their activities jealously, even though the business they are conducting is actually the public’s business. Both tend to blame problems on nameless, faceless enemies who are easy targets with no public sympathy and little ability to come forward and defend themselves. In Mr. Bush’s case it is the “terrorists.” In Mr. Brown’s case, it’s the “poor black and Latino youth” in Oakland as he identifies them in the USA Today article. Mr. Brown knew enough not to use such direct phrases while speaking to media that would be printed or broadcast in Oakland; in those cases, he resorted to euphemisms, going after the sideshow participants, for example, in a series of crackdowns that have left portions of our city void of the normal Constitutional guarantees. In the absence of the drumbeat of context that tells us when Republicans attack Constitutional rights it is wrong, Oakland acquiesces, thinking that no-one will notice that the shine on our progressive mantle has been left soiled, and the mess left to be cleaned up is that much larger.