Tag Archives: action

The Last Ask — A Look Back At Obama’s Parting Request, One Year Ago Today

It came as no surprise that an outgoing president would make the obligatory noises about “the peaceful transfer of power from one freely elected president to the next,” as President Obama did in his final speech, delivered in Chicago one year ago today. It was a theme used to quell fears and stifle protest, to give Trump “a chance to govern,” as both President Obama and Vice President Biden put it after the election, and it was offered as the reason former presidents and other politicians would overcome their appreciable dismay at the election’s outcome and attend the inauguration ceremony on the 20th.

Remember? You could not turn on a television, open a newspaper, or click on a mainstream news site in mid-January of 2017 without being told that on inauguration day we were going to witness power’s peaceful transfer. Very few people making these presentations went much further, at least publicly, to distinguish succession from transition, or talk in a serious way about power, how it is peacefully transferred, or to raise the questions of legitimacy and political authority that attend the transfer of power.

Those questions were, however, hanging in the air, like the dark clouds that would gather over the Mall on inauguration day, and over the past year, with the Mueller investigation and the current president’s daily demonstrations of unfitness for office, they have only grown more urgent and important. Considerations of power that were once the preserve of political theorists are now millions of people’s daily, top-of-mind concerns — as they should have been all along.

Obama’s Chicago speech did little to dispel the doubts and fears people had, and still have, about his successor; and it did not directly address the big question on nearly everyone’s mind that day, and every day since the 2016 election: what is to be done? After the abortive and misguided recount effort in November, the shameful but predictable acquiescence of the electoral college in December, and the first signs of trouble on the Russian front, the hope in early January was that the president would say or do something (what?) to change the course events had taken, or he would make some kind — any kind! — of intervention or call to action.

But this is precisely what Obama did not do. He talked about the forces threatening American democracy (income inequality, racial division, political polarization) which had brought us to this ugly juncture. He celebrated “the power of ordinary Americans” to bring about change, “to get involved, get engaged, and come together to demand it,” and the “power” (the word echoes throughout the speech) “our participation, and the choices we make” give to the Constitution. All this talk about the power of the people might have amounted to a kind of preemptive bid, made before the upcoming official ceremony transferred executive power to the loser of the popular vote. But the president never made that bid explicit, and turned deliberately away from asking people to take action.

In fact, when Obama presented the peaceful transfer of power as a “hallmark of our democracy,” and the remark elicited boos and shouts of “No!” — cries of resistance, threats of upheaval — he quieted them (“no, no, no, no, no”). By the fifth refusal, the crowd had backed down. What else could he have done? What would have happened had he assented, publicly, to that No!? Or if he had simply stepped back from the podium and let the tide of emotion roll over the crowd?

Over the past year I have often thought about how much hung in the balance at that moment, and how with a gentle reprimand the president took the crowd right back into the flow of his speech. He stumbled just a little after all those impromptu “nos,” but recovered balance by using his index finger to guide him through the phrase on the prompter: “the peaceful transfer of power.” Regaining his composure, he kept the crowd in check – and they applauded him. (We cannot imagine his successor doing the same, or even trying; it is much easier to imagine him inciting a riot.) He said he was stepping down to rejoin us as a citizen, but he had not yet let go of the reins. By the end of the speech, when the president issued his final charge or made what he called his “final ask,” the audience was roaring:

My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you. I won’t stop. In fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days.
But for now whether you are young or whether you are young at heart, I do have one final ask of you as your president — the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago.
I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.
I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written:
Yes, we can.

The delivery was a little flatter than it had been in previous years. But who could not have been impressed, at the very least, by the rhetorical consistency the president had managed to achieve over the course of two terms in office? History rarely allows anyone — let alone a president — this measure of consistency, and the election in November of 2016 had marked nothing less than a violent historical rupture. This final ask didn’t acknowledge the cataclysm. It returned, instead, to familiar themes, central to Obama’s own biography, and situated the eight years of Obama’s presidency on the arc, or what he called “the long sweep,” of history that bends toward justice. This last ask was also a tell — one last public demonstration of President Obama’s leadership style. It took the form of a soft directive.

One year on, however, it’s difficult to say where this parting request, and the end of Obama’s presidency, left us. Was this last ask anything more than a feel-good exhortation? The president asked us not to do something, but simply to believe in our ability to do something. That might have been as far as he could go, there on that public platform, with emotions still raw from the election; and of course there’s a decent argument to be made that taking ourselves seriously as historical actors, people with the “ability” to bring about change, might be essential to disposing us to do anything at all.

At the same time, “Yes, we can” does not necessarily mean we will, or we ought, or even that we are doing what we can. There is a good distance to travel from believing in oneself as a person capable of doing to the doing itself. Setting intentions, planning projects, coordinating with others, anticipating consequences — all that still only takes us to the edge of action, as the Community Organizer in Chief must know. The great risk of political action comes when we apply power, when we move from can to will. Asking people to believe they can act, but not asking them to do anything in particular, might keep them temporarily from incurring that risk and rushing into the breach, but it also makes action seem like a distant possibility, not an urgent necessity.

We should hardly have expected the president to call for resistance, even if he shared the sense that something — but what, exactly? — had to be done. What he promised instead was redemption. The two could not be less different. If redemption assures us that We Shall Overcome, Someday, resistance plants its feet firmly in the present and declares, We Shall Not Be Moved. Resistance is mounted out of necessity. Strikes, sit downs, shutdowns, blockades, riots, raids — these actions were not always or primarily animated by some great faith in just outcomes, though that faith may have arisen in the course of the fight or helped sustain the fighters. People have made many gains by refusing and resisting power’s encroachments, by saying No, You Cannot long before they were able to believe in Yes, We Can. In many cases, things just become so intolerable, the long train of abuses and usurpations, as the Declaration has it, become so unbearable, that ordinary people feel they must stand their ground and resist.

We are living in that kind of moment. The current political crisis demands more than faith. We have to get to work. We should do so with the understanding that resistance, as the very word suggests, will help us push back against the forces intent on destroying the American democratic order, but it is not the extent or end of our power. It is, rather, the limit of theirs. This distinction matters, even though we are still in the thick of the fray. It invites us to think about near- and long-term commitments, and the nature of our power.

Our power is not at all like the power of command that was transferred — I won’t say peacefully, given all the damage that has already been done  — from one office holder to the other last January. It’s another kind of power. It’s the power we confer upon each other, not through official ceremonies but through the rituals of everyday life; it’s power we hold together, not just as individual rights holders with claims and grievances, but in the first person plural, as a “we.”

We realize and renew our power when we gather or assemble publicly. We may not have the power to issue directives or orders, but as the president reminded us, we can make demands – of those who hold political power (by voting, marching, practicing civil disobedience, and so on) and, just as importantly, of each other. We can deliberate what to do, coordinate efforts, and hold each other mutually accountable. There’s power in all of that – some power, maybe not enough all by itself to get us to the other side of this crisis, but some; and we have not done nearly enough to develop it, test its limits or discover its possibilities. (Instead, we have built and continue to prop up organizations and institutions that require its surrender.) Ultimately, it’s the power we need to govern ourselves responsibly and vigilantly, after we have put an end to current abuses and usurpations.

What should we do? This wasn’t the question for the outgoing president to put to us, but one for us to put to ourselves, and in this form: in the first person plural, and with that modal verb should (or ought) to highlight obligations and responsibilities, or right action. There’s not one answer to this question, or an end to its deliberation; nor will there be one solution to the crisis, such as the Mueller investigation, a medical diagnosis, the emoluments clause, the 25th Amendment. None of those things alone will do it, because “it” goes (way) beyond removing an abusive and corrupt authoritarian and his cronies from power. “ It” is up to us, because ultimately it comes down to reclaiming and realizing self-governance.

Every refusal, however small, to yield to authoritarian attention-stealing, rule-breaking and administrative sabotage will help safeguard our authority to govern ourselves, just as every act of decency and respect, no matter how small, will count as a victory against the moral coarsening we have undergone over the past year. Obama himself made this last point a couple of weeks ago in an end-of-year, schmaltzy Twitter thread of “stories that remind us what’s best about America” and demonstrate that “each of us can make a difference, and all of us ought to try.” Yes, we ought.

Acts and Sets of Acts

This passage in Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons (1984) deserves calling out, not least because it sets the stage for the arguments against climate change despair I reviewed in a previous post.

In small communities, it is a plausible claim that we cannot have harmed others if there is no one with an obvious complaint, or ground for resenting what we have done.

Until this century, most of mankind lived in small communities. What each did could affect only a few others. But conditions have now changed. Each of us can now, in countless ways, affect countless other people. We can have real though small effects on thousands or millions of people. When these effects are widely dispersed, they may be either trivial, or imperceptible. It now makes a great difference whether we continue to believe that we cannot have greatly harmed or benefited others unless there are people with obvious grounds for resentment or gratitude. While we continue to believe this, even if we care about effects on others, we may fail to solve many serious Prisoner’s Dilemmas. For the sake of small benefits to ourselves, or our families, each of us may deny others much greater total benefits, or impose on others much greater total harms. We may think this permissible because the effects on the others will either be trivial or imperceptible. If this is what we think, what we do will often be much worse for all of us.

If we cared sufficiently about effects on others, and changed our moral view, we would solve such problems. It is not enough to ask, ‘Will my act harm other people?’ Even if the answer is No, my act may still be wrong, because of its effects. The effects that it will have when it is considered on its own may not be its only relevant effects. I should ask, ‘Will my act be one of a set of acts that will together harm other people?’ The answer may be Yes. And the harm to others may be great. If this is so, I may be acting very wrongly…. We must accept this view if our concern for others is to yield solutions to most of the many Prisoner’s Dilemmas that we face: most of the many cases where, if each of us rather than none of us does what will be better for himself — or for his family, or those he loves — this will be worse, and often much worse, for everyone.

Knotted Wrack

It was nearly high tide when I paddled out yesterday morning to the channel that lies just east of the cove. Harbor seals sometimes gather and sun on the big rocks that jut out of the water there. Golden brown beds of Knotted Wrack, or Ascophyllum nodosum, undulate and shimmy just beneath the surface. I glided straight into them, intending to skirt and circle the rocks, as I had done before, but instead — froomp! scrape! — my kayak ran aground on a big chunk of speckled granite just beneath the water’s surface (and partly hidden by the Knotted Wrack anchored to it). I was stuck, sitting atop a rock in the middle of the water, a good distance from shore. It felt a little absurd, or like something out of a cautionary tale.

After trying and failing to push off the rock with my paddle, I gained a better appreciation of my precarious situation. Apply too much force, and the kayak would tip; a roll would probably subject me to a beating against the rock. The wrong move and I would end up in the water, most likely cut and bruised, struggling to right the boat. The seaweed would make the rocks slippery.

No need to exaggerate the peril I was in: I was wearing a life vest, and though the water is cold here in Maine, it’s not so cold that if for some reason I failed to recover the boat I could not swim to shore, which I reckoned would take about twenty minutes. Losing my glasses (which, this time out, I had not fastened to my head with a cord) was among my concerns. I understood that I might have to struggle for a short while in the water. I didn’t want to struggle blind.

Keeping calm was essential, and it was also the most instructive part of the experience. Having formed a mental picture of my situation, I had to keep it clearly in view but I could not let it rattle me. The granite and the Knotted Wrack could be my undoing, or I could do something. Acting was less a matter of mastering than of working through my fear: not retreating into panic, but taking stock of risks and understanding what steps I could take to get my kayak unstuck.

When I ran aground, I had been running with the current, east and slightly north, into the channel. With a slow, deliberate reverse paddle, I managed to turn the boat on the rock, pivoting counter-clockwise, so that the bow now pointed west and faced the oncoming current. It was gentle, but enough to help create a little play between the kayak and the rock. Grasping the paddle as a tightrope walker holds his pole to balance, I thrust forward with my hips, as I sometimes do to inch my way into the water when I am launching the boat from shore. I was then able to paddle safely away.

I’ve written before about standing on quicksand. This Knotted Wrack adventure seems to pose another kind of dilemma: the problem wasn’t that I was sinking. I had run aground on an unexpected chunk of terra firma, and I had to struggle alone to get unstuck, right myself and push off. But as I’ve reflected on my experience, it has led to some of the same considerations as the quicksand problem. Take this relatively simple dilemma of getting the boat off the rock and scale it up: imagine a two-person canoe, or a ship with many hands on deck, or another perilous situation involving two, three, or even hundreds, thousands, billions of people. Then you start dealing with questions of cooperation and power.

The last people in the world who should be responding to a situation like this are those who cannot acknowledge its reality or remain calm in the face of it; and it occurs to me that those may amount to the same thing. Denial might be nothing more than a reactive token of fear, and widespread denial — like climate-change denial — might be a reactionary kind of moral panic, even though deniers are quick to call others alarmist.

A Compass for the Twenty-First Century

“In the technocratic version of environmental politics,” writes Ulrich Beck in a critical passage of The Metamorphosis of the World, “carbon emissions become the measure of all things.” But for Beck this is inadequate. “Climate change risk is far more than a problem of measures of carbon dioxide and production of pollution”:

Nor does it signal only a crisis of human self understanding. More than that, global climate risk signals new ways of being, looking, hearing and acting in the world — highly ambivalent, open-ended, without any foreseeable outcome.

…the past is reproblematized through the imagination of a threatening future. Norms and imperatives that guided decisions in the past are re-evaluated through the imagination of a threatening future. From that follow alternative ideas for capitalism, law, consumerism, science…etc.

Alternative ideas, or at least a new set of expectations and beliefs. Global climate risk

creates the expectation (sometimes even the conviction) that a reformation of institutions (law, politics, economy, technological practices, consumption and lifestyles) is now urgent, morally imperative and politically possible, even if it fails at conferences and in politics.

“The global risk of climate change”, he concludes, provides a “compass for the twenty-first century. Yet…it is an open question where this compass leads us. There is an enormous discrepancy between normative expectations and political action.”

The enormous discrepancy between expectation and action also describes an enormous field of political possibility. This is where our responsibility comes into play.

Leadership Mantras

The power of asking will always be greater than the power of command.

There is power in letting go of power.
Let go. Listen. Learn.

The power of asking is nothing more — and nothing less — than the capacity for serious conversation.

Listening means hearing and heeding the other.

Before you say someone is in your way, ask where she is going.

Conversation will cure certainty.

To act is to try. To try is to begin. We are all beginners.

If you think people are waiting for your leadership, you need to do some catching up.

Respect is always the first, and sometimes the only thing people ask of us.

…to be continued.

Margaret Thatcher and the Power of Asking

Margaret Thatcher, whose passing is not just in the news but almost all the news today, famously said: “in politics if you want anything said ask a man. If you want anything done ask a woman.” The occasion was a speech to National Union of Townswomen’s Guilds Conference, in 1965. The remark was almost prescient: for the next twenty five years, Thatcher would make a career of doing things in politics.

While she was a gifted speaker, she often expressed impatience with the speechifying politicians who served with her: “she developed abrasiveness into an art form. She despised, above all, consensus,” wrote Hugo Young in The Guardian a day after her resignation as Prime Minister, in 1990. Eventually, of course, that inability to compromise would be her undoing: “Just as her triumphs were often rooted in her zest for combat, her refusal to listen to advice and her unwillingness to admit that she could be wrong, so were these the sources of her last predicament.”

Young applies the word “hubris”:

she saw too little value in the art of compromise. Leadership, for her, was equated too often with the satisfaction of her will. How often, when challenged with being overmighty, did she deride the notion of a leader who gave precedence to other virtues than strength. She was a conviction politician, but too often scorned the reasoned statement of different convictions, sometimes by her closest colleagues. Argument she relished, as long as she won, but persuasion she neglected. Give-and-take and the other techniques of sweet reason were alien to her nature. This made for abrasive and often decisive government, but it was fatally disabling for any kind of collective leadership.

Sometimes the exercise of soft power is the hardest thing of all, especially for an Iron Lady. Thatcher knew how to do what she thought politics or history required of her, and rarely yielded to others. Maybe, as Young would have it, this was some kind of tragic flaw. In any case, in the coming days we can expect more talk about her virtues as a leader; but let’s also pay attention to Thatcher’s shortcomings, her failure to appreciate the power of “give-and-take.” I would say that kind of power — the power we achieve, and share, when we ask, listen and yield to others — matters as much, if not more, than the power to command.

A Follow-Up to Hitchings’ Follow-Up Post on “The Ask”

Shortly after I posted my thoughts on his Times opinionator blog, Henry Hitchings promised me  a “follow-up blog” on “the dark side of nominalization.” Yesterday that follow-up blog (wait – isn’t “follow-up” a nominalization?) appeared. There, Hitchings echoes what I’ve said about asking:

I touched previously on “What is the ask?” As an alternative to “What are they asking?” or “What are we being asked to do?” this can seem crisp. It takes an aerial view of an issue. But it calculatedly omits reference to the people doing the asking, as a way of keeping their authority and power out of the question.

At the same time, by turning the act of asking into something narrow and impersonal, “What is the ask?” repositions a question as a command. It leaves little or no room for the “ask” to be refused. As a noun, “ask” is pretty much a synonym for “order.” Even when we retain details of agency — as in “What is their ask of us?” – the noun ossifies what could and should be a more dynamic process.

It’s good to see that Hitchings has relented and come around to the view that “the ask” is an insidious and sinister piece of jargon — a view I’ve been developing since my first post on “the ask” just a little over a year ago (and in subsequent posts, here and here, for example).  The other day Hitchings seemed to admire the “distancing” effect the nominative ask creates, and I feared he was advocating doing unpleasant things in order to achieve “polemical or diplomatic” ends. Now he is on the side of “a more dynamic process” in which, I gather, the “authority and power”of the person doing the asking will be openly acknowledged.

I’m all for transparency, attributions of agency and the give and take of dynamic process, but the real power of asking lies elsewhere. Asking transforms power itself; it involves the exercise of a non-coercive power. We tend not even to think of this as power, as Pierre Clastres pointed out in Society Against the State. Instead, we are used to associating power with force (which subjects others to labor, or worse) or commands (which prompt others to do our bidding). But when it comes to asking, nobody’s really in charge — at least as long as someone is making or responding to the request. It’s a moment when things are up for grabs.

The authority and power vested in a person, their title, position, influence over our lives — if any of that is being brought to bear on a request, then we are simply being ordered about with commands disguised as questions. Asking marks a different point of departure — a place where you and I are on equal footing, and we start something, together. It creates “middle ground” between the petitioner and the respondent: not just an area of compromise, but an area that is open, shared, and which nobody can claim entirely as his own.

Maddening Jargon, Jargon Madness: Another Note on “The Ask”

I recently had a brief exchange with Deborah Mills-Scofield about a blog post she’d written on HBR.org entitled “The Power of Your Network Is the Ask.” I didn’t take issue with her argument in that post. I focused, instead, on her use of the phrase “the ask,” an insidious piece of corporate jargon I’ve written about before.

Mills-Scofield was gracious and good-humored about the whole thing. Our exchange on HBR.org and on Twitter sent me back to some of the ideas I’d entertained in my original post – about asking, taking initiative and action – and I decided it would be a good idea to find some more examples of business people using “the ask.” I thought some new attestations might help me think a little more about this locution: What does it express? What does it keep from being expressed? How does it change the request? The relationship? The results?

Forbes.com seemed like a good place to start looking for examples. I expected to find CEOs and managers quoted by the magazine’s writers, and my plan, such as it was, was to start skewering and lambasting and mocking them and calling them barbarians – or something along those lines, I wasn’t exactly sure. Instead, I found something puzzling: Forbes writers themselves were pushing the word.

For instance, a contributing writer offers this advice on seeking a promotion: “The most important part of asking for a promotion is preparing ahead of time. When you make the ask, you’ll need to prove (with specifics) that you’re ready for the next step” [italics mine].

Seeing the word used in this way, I wonder if this nominative use of “ask” has roots in Wall Street jargon, which sometimes designates the lowest price of a stock offer as “the ask price,” and if the person asking for the promotion here would be surprised to discover that she had represented herself in these dehumanizing terms. In any case, it appears that the editors at Forbes are not too worried about these ugly metaphors, and not very scrupulous when it comes to what’s a noun and what’s a verb.

Examples abound. Here’s Meghan Casserly, a Forbes staff writer, in an article that promises to disclose “The Five Secrets of Successful Silicon Valley Women.” Watch what happens to the verb “ask” in the space of two short paragraphs (emphasis mine):

“We know too surely that women ask for too little money when seeking funding for their businesses,” says [Deborah] Perry Piscione, but she’s seen the women of Silicon Valley start to self-correct when they approach the investors of Sand Hill Road. “The strategy is asking for twice as much as you believe you’ll need.”
But it isn’t just in fundraising that Perry Piscione says Silicon Valley women excel in the “ask.” Several years ago friend and venture capitalist Heidi Roizen mentioned she was having trouble adding another corporate board seat to her resume. “I sort of shyly asked her if she’d be okay admitting this to the women at an Alley to the Valley event,” she says, thinking Roizen might be embarrassed to share that she was struggling. Roizen’s response was the opposite. “She said ‘Of course I want to talk about it!’”

Maybe one of the things that makes “serial entrepreneur” Deborah Perry Piscione so successful is that she uses verbs as verbs. Hard to say, but it’s clear who’s doing the reifying here: it’s Casserly, not Perry Piscione. I suppose it counts for something that Casserly puts “the ask” in quotation marks: she’s quoting, or thinks she’s quoting, the lingua franca of the Valley. Maybe so, or maybe the only people who talk that way in the Valley are those who see human interactions as mere transactions.

That’s really the point. It’s worse than annoying: this kind of jargon grates on the ear because it offends the soul. Words matter – in magazine articles, in negotiations, in every day relationships; people are not indifferent to the words you use. “Language most shows a man: speak that I may see thee,” wrote Ben Jonson. And “the ask,” as I suggested in my first post on the topic, shows among other things that you don’t have much interest in asking, or in the true power of asking, at all.

Sure, we slip and we are lazy, or we try to talk like we belong to the club, but it’s important to to catch ourselves. To their credit, the editors of Forbes themselves nominated “the ask” for the magazine’s Jargon Madness 2013, a bracket elimination of “head-splitting corporate speak”. “Ask (n.)” was eliminated in the first round, losing out to “Rock Star.” I guess some things are more annoying and more offensive than others.