Aristotle and the Cyberpoke

cyberpoke 300x300 Aristotle and the Cyberpoke

photo: Willie Pipkin

I’m partial to the desert mountains of West Texas, but on my frequent visits out here I’m always surprised – and touched – by the strong spirit of friendship and community that marks the place.

“Friendship holds political communities together,” said Aristotle, and he was on to something. American political culture has deteriorated as the various perils of modernity weakened the role of friendship in our political life. It’s a weighty, complicated topic. I just don’t want to be friendly with Glenn Beck.

It seems appropriate to kick off the New Year with a reminder that “concord” – the word Aristotle used – is instrumental to a community’s pursuit of justice. The loss of some sense of reciprocity and mutual concern for others is a dangerous consequence of a political culture lost in myths of hyper-individuality and zero-sum thinking in which one’s gains seem to depend upon the losses of others.

Out here for a West Texas New Years with large groups of friends from all over America, I find a common understanding of our absolute dependence upon one another. And this is a place our myths tell is a veritable source of the independent rugged individualist.

There are some rugged folks, and they understand that concord doesn’t mean conformity. But by God if your truck breaks down, they’re there to help you, and they expect the same in return.

Every year some of my friends and I give a small, New Years Eve, country concert on the front porch of the old Stillwell Store not far from the Rio Grande and Big Bend National Park. Ranch folk come from all over. The Stillwell family puts out a nice spread of food. We hale from very different worlds, but those differences disappear on this day because we’re all here for one reason: a shared moment of concord.

Look at the picture above. This old cyberpoke is taking advantage of the wireless on the patio the Marathon Motel (you might have seen it Wim Wenders 1984 film, Paris, Texas). He was sittin’ there at his computer when we checked in early last week.

It’s a cool picture (taken by Austin guitarist Willie Pipkin), and it tells us something. The possibilities for connection among us are nearly infinite, even though it sometimes seems like the web adds a bit of fragmentation, isolation and loss of real-world community.

We tend to gather on the web with those we’re pretty sure will agree with us, and we lose (if it’s all we do) the wordless, emotional lessons of connections with strangers, with different others who, say, do work a mountain ranch while we race around our cities.

Aristotle said true friendship transcended simple utilitarian relations, making justice possible and the political community stronger. And that’s another danger of distant internet connections: it often seems to come with a utilitarian end in mind. We need to take this action, make this point, cause this political consequence.

But these downsides and dangers are outweighed, I think, by the magnified possibilities of authentic connection – and even concord. But it will take an effort, maybe a special effort, to bring such a spirit to the digital world.

By the way, the thin gruel of what’s called “bipartisanship” shouldn’t be mistaken for authentic friendship. Real friendship requires moral steadfastness and honesty. I may not win the given political argument, but if I’m to be a friend to others, the least they should expect is sincerity and moral courage.

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About Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith has spent the past 30 years in journalism and politics, where he’s made a name for himself as a writer, campaign manager, activist, think tank analyst and, as Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas says, a “legendary political consultant and all-around good guy.” “There’s no one like him,” says author George Lakoff. CNN commentator Paul Begala says, “He has unmatched experience, a graceful pen (or pixel nowadays) and deep insight into the best and worst of us.” Novelist Sarah Bird speaks of his “lucid and lyrical” prose. And, she says, he’s fun. Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington says Glenn writes with “grace and abundant humor” and “uses his colorful experiences in Texas to enlighten us all.”

Smith led Ann Richards’ successful 1990 campaign for Governor of Texas. He worked for former Texas Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby and U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen. Earlier, Smith was a political reporter for the Houston Chronicle and the Houston Post. He’s coordinated national campaigns for groups such as MoveOn.org. In 2004, he authored the highly acclaimed book, The Politics of Deceit: Saving Freedom and Democracy from Extinction. He also wrote Unfit Commander, a book that detailed George W. Bush’s mysterious disappearance from military service.

In 2004, Smith was featured in the film, Bush’s Brain, a documentary about Karl Rove. Smith provided commentary on Rove’s role as then-President Bush’s senior advisor. He has made numerous media appearances with Chris Mathews on Hardball, Joe Scarborough, Brit Hume, and many others. He writes a regularly for top national web sites, including FireDogLake and Huffington Post.

As a senior fellow at George Lakoff’s prestigious Rockridge Institute in Berkeley he studied, wrote and taught on the power of metaphor and narrative in political communications. He also lectured on religion and politics at the Starr King School for Ministry in Berkeley. As a sponsor and organizer, he has pulled together numerous national events with progressive religious leaders. He also organized a celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King at Riverside Church in New York City as well as “Freedom and Faith” bus tours, which was a nationwide campaign for social justice and progressive values.

Smith’s play, Double Play, which explored American Western myths and legends, was held over to sold-out audiences. He’s even written and performed songs in the Americana tradition, such as his best-known song, “Helping Marty Robbins,” a tribute to his hometown, Houston.

Most recently, Smith is the creator of DogCanyon, a political and cultural web site covering state, national and global issues from a Texas perspective. DogCanyon is an exhilarating and unique site that gets the connections between politics and culture and explores both the personal side of politics and the ups, down, craziness and beauty of “life its ownself,” as humorist Dan Jenkins would say. DogCanyon offers heartfelt personal essays, hard-hitting political analysis, and, most importantly, laughs.

As Paul Begala said, Smith writes in “the finest, firmest, fearless tradition of Texas essayists like Molly Ivins.”