November/December 2005

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A Fellowship of Amateurs

Once upon a time, I believed that reason governed the world. I believed there were masters of this hidden logic, and that it was my job to seek them out and become an acolyte, to apprentice myself to the experts and learn from them the forces that make the world tick.

In the course of my work for MoveOn.org, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to many people who were supposed to know what’s going on: hip-hop impresarios, top pollsters and strategists, presidential candidates and CEOs. In these circumstances, I heard a lot of formal ideas about the right way to do things, and it fell to me as the young guy in the room to ask why we were doing things the way we were. I usually figured that I was just missing something, but often my question was met with silence, and then maybe a grin — and sometimes with a “Gee, I don’t know.”

Frankly, I was shocked.

Some things people do used to make sense but don’t anymore. And sometimes, people have so much invested in the path they are pursuing that imagining a better way is painful. To admit to a flawed framework is too much to handle.

Why does this matter? It matters because if someone competent is in the driver’s seat, then we can sit back and enjoy the ride. But if the world we’re given is flawed, if we’re in a car that’s headed over a precipice and there’s no one driving, someone better grab the steering wheel.

One might conclude that the problem is just that the wrong people are in charge. Someone needs to make sure the trains run on time; we need to find that person and tell them to step up. But that person ain’t coming. The complete set of rules is forever elusive, and we are constricted by systems of thought that are themselves incomplete. In other words, there can be no experts. It’s just us chickens.

I have come to believe that none of us knows exactly what we’re doing. It’s a relief. And, in an absurd way, it’s a great equalizer. We are united in our relative cluelessness. It is a little unnerving to realize that the people who make the big decisions, the politicians who scramble the fighter jets and send out the Medicare checks, the industry titans who swallow economies like they were breakfast — that all these people are just normal.

But it is this somewhat unnerving idea that democracy and liberty are all about. Our founders theorized a government of, by, and for the people because they recognized that no greater authority exists than all of us, together. People who are in power seek to minimize this critical point. In an effort to magnify their importance, they paint the present as an outstanding victory, the happy ending to a long and harrowing story. These are folks who benefit from stasis, who have found a nest for themselves in the machinery of the clock tower and don’t wish to be jostled by the turning of the gears.

We need to ask the questions that we feel too sheepish to ask, the questions to which no one knows the right answers. We need to examine the gears that are grinding, which over time most of us have come to rationalize and accept. With a fellowship of amateurs leading the way, we can depend in the end only on our responsibility to each other. That is all we have. But it is enough.

You see, if the game’s wide open, if none of us really knows what we’re doing, then it might be you who jumps in to save the day. If it’s just us chickens, you may be the chicken you’ve been waiting for.

Eli Pariser is executive director of MoveOn.org, one of the largest political action committees in the country.