Monday, July 03, 2006

Lying Down with Lydon?

Egalitarians and cosmopolitans need not apply. However, Christopher Lydon is looking for a provincial ideal, something he calls New England Common. Holding court as best as a wispy aging preppy can, he spoke to a few dozen journalists and bloggers at the Media Giraffe conference last week.

Lydon believes that we live in the smartest, most innovative part of the country. He is astonished that both the D.C. and California areas are far ahead of us in Internet-based communities reflecting the ideas and ideals of the region.

What Chris Wants

He laments that the Boston Globe "is not the community institution that it was when I grew up." He addressed the 30 some of us ringed in stacking chairs like a UU discussion group with a call that "The moment is hot right now," and that the governor's race is the best in years.

He wants an online community focused on his glorious region, filled with junior Harvard professors and other superior sorts. He wants to feel like when he opens the Website that he's in effect walked into a great bar and is astounded by the mental power and salon wit in one place. He wants the smart gossip, to know what is happening in centers like MIT and Harvard Divinity School and the like, and even to get personal commentary on the previous night's symphony performance.

He firmly believes that the Boston area is the only place you get the best and brightest. We on the other hand wonder how long it has been since that was true.

Reality Touch: You can get a sense of how stacked the regional progressive communities are by hitting LeftyBlogs. This aggregate of state-by-state politics and ideas does not include the leading Net communities, but does show who's getting read in these areas. Click on the top 50 of the day and week by readership. You'll see D.C. and California dominating, with Ohio, Pennsylvania, Georgia and other states everywhere. Massachusetts has a few on the lists and otherwise New England is not in the mix.

Goal Clarity

A couple of decades ago, when I worked for Inc. magazine, the brilliant -- far brighter than Mr. Lydon -- publisher Bernie Goldhirsh inadvertently showed that intelligence in some areas does not translate to all. He fired several editors-in-chief quickly because of his inability to define what he wanted from them.

Probably Meaningless Coincidence: Lydon and Goldhirsh were both born in 1940.

He would have regular staff meetings in his top level loft on Commercial Wharf. Those always started well. He created an employee friendly house in many ways. We could sail at lunch, bring our dogs or kids, and conduct our meetings in local bars with gins and tonic in hand.

Invariably though, the meeting would be a macrocosm of what must have occurred before he fired yet another editor. He'd say he wanted Inc. to be an MBA in the cover of a magazine. Over the course of a year, he wanted his target entrepreneurial readers to get smarter through exposure to the key subjects. He'd sketch 3D cubes on a chalkboard, acting like the MIT math teacher he used to be, and plugging in broad and then narrow topics across various edges.

Also invariably, the editor or a senior editor would ask him to specify what he wanted. Bernie would end up saying something like, "I can't tell you, but I'll know it when I see it."

That was his intellectual failure and cowardice. As we learn in real MBA programs and even time-management classes, "If you can't define it, I can't deliver it."

Lydon's effort suffers similarly as Bernie's did. At Inc. we knew that he expected us to buy into the ideals of small, entrepreneurial businesses. That is, they are the only innovators around and they drive job growth here and elsewhere. Those presumptions are moot.

The New England Common concept seems to rely strongly on provincial pride, particularly in the twin towns on each side of the Chuck (the river and I are on intimate terms). Boston and Cambridge are, in Lydon's mind, the intellectual center of the country and world. To him, this is not shallow boosterism, but obvious reality.

From Scratch?

From another angle, the personal, BlueMassGroup's Charley Blandy asked likely the most pointed question early on. After getting booted a few years ago from his long-running WBUR radio show, The Connection, in a contract fight, Lydon has been sidling his way back into public radio and the limited fame that can come with that. Charley asked whether his Common proposal might be an effort to gain, "institutional respectability of your own?"

Lydon seemed taken aback by that and made a weak joke about being nailed. Yet, others in the room danced around the same idea. Some compared his effort to a magazine or to the HuffingtonPost. Another mentioned that in their disparate ways, both UniversalHub and BlueMassGroup already addressed many of Lydon's aims.

He actively and strongly denied that these approached his vague Goldhirsh-like goals. Yet after the session, many said that he clearly wanted a Huffington thingummy with his imprimatur and a Boston slant instead of a West Coast one. Quite a few of us also would rather that he had not been so coy about his ego tripping. There's no shame in that kind of proposal. Say it, Chris.

We actually could take only an hour of this. Several who lasted the whole thing expressed their jealousy of those who left earlier. They heard more of the same repeatedly.

Lydon admits that his vision for a Lydon-serving Web community would require buy-in from contributors. As he put it, his best and brightest would have to know that "you don't have to feel like you need to feed the beast every day." His free-thinking, let's call it again, salon-type community would provide him with intellectual food, plus the proof that this region is still that essential center of the universe.

Lydon made it easy to spoof his puffiness. Most of us seemed to find him as stuffy as ever, but it also seems clear that he thinks, he knows, he is a fun guy as well as smart.

His ideal is certainly egocentric and likely working against such great starts as the BlueMassGroup. Yet, he does recall to us knowing such pre-Net brains as James Luther Adams, the theologian. I happened to go to church with him for years and because of my positions there, spoke with him more than some others did.

Hearing Lydon hold forth, I suddenly remembered the intellectual pleasure he could bring even to a coffee hour in the submarine-drab basement of the Arlington Street Church. Dr. Adams, or Jim as he preferred, was both a charmer and scholar. He openly leered in very non-UU ways at attractive women attending to his words. Yet, even when was discomforted by his back braces and pains, he was quick to debate and develop ideas on and beyond religion. A Website populated by the James Luther Adamses of their fields would be a delight indeed.

I don't have a lot of faith that Lydon can do this. I certainly don't believe that Boston and Cambridge are uniquely prepared to provide the right content. However, I think we have sufficient stuff here to expand a BlueMassGroup to do this more and better. We can thank Lydon for acting as catalyst perhaps, and maybe we could put up a brass plaque.

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massmarrier said...

True enough and fair enough -- there are many accomplished and intellectually curious folk here. Then again, there are too in Manhattan, San Francisco, and Arlington (the Virginia one).

What we have to be cautious of is the Athenian syndrome, which I just made up for this. Speak with virtually any adult in that city or in much of Greece and you'd likely get the same prideful provincialism. They'd all have you believe they were direct physical and intellectual descendants of Socrates, Aristotle, Sophocles and such. They are all thus brilliant thinkers, politicians, orators, scientists and writers by association and locale.

There and here, a little skepticism and questioning, in the Socratic tradition, serve much better than head nodding and blind civic pride.

Peter Porcupine said...

Mr. Lydon's discontent with the Globe may be due in part to their begrudging committment to intellectual diversity - for instance, they have ME as one of their Decision '08 blogs - clearly, NOT out of the top shelf!

As yourself this, Mass - HOW did the invitations to the Twee Twenty get sent out? How did you wind up in that Sharing Circle? The problem with a genuine Common of Ideas is that so many of the people are, well, common.

It sounds like Mr. Lydon, like many a liberal fisher king before him, would like a lot of prominent people to do a lot of work that he can then take credit for, and use as a reference point on his own resume. Nice work if you can get it.

As I said on BMG, I shall continue to agitate for the post of Town Drunk. Or Village Idiot.