Lincoln Steffens: How to transform society

Monday, March 13, 2006.

I remind myself, I told Michael Langevin I would see if Lincoln Steffens had any advice for him.

Mr. Steffens, if you are here, I want to say explicitly what I gather you know anyway – having access to the content of my mind, it seems – that I found your book the single most enlightening book I ever read. Plus, I love your ideals. Do you have any words for Michael on how to transform society and make a living at the same time?

The only way I could ever figure out was to do what was important to me and figure there would be a market for it sometime, some way, or I wouldn’t be led to do it. You do remember that I was blacklisted for the decade of the twenties after I came back from Russia and told what I saw. If I had not had independent means during that time it would have gone hard for me.

There would have been no use, at any time, in my trying to provide magazine editors with what everybody else could provide. At the same time, there would have been no use giving them the right piece at the wrong time. To a large extent this never became a problem, because rather than my writing a story and then looking for an audience for it, the magazines sent me. That is why I investigated Pittsburgh. It wasn’t my idea! I didn’t know where to begin. But the magazine paid my way and I wrote.

Later when I was one of the owners of a crusading magazine I learned of the pressure on editors and businessmen that had caused them to pressure us writers. That’s in my book; he will not learn as much as you did but he will find ideas in it.

Here is my suggestion, but he may not find it practical. It may be time in “your time” to begin to fuse spiritual transformation and social transformation. The only way to do that will seem strange to you, perhaps repugnant at first glance, and that is to cease to endorse only left-wing or liberal or “progressive” politics, and become a meeting place for people from many formerly antagonistic strands of political and ideological thought. The old “isms” are going to be homeless; those still desperately clinging to their “ism” – which may be their last shred of idealism – are going to be homeless. Give them a home.

How? By redefining the ground they stand on. By making explicit the links between how you see the world and how you see possibility. You say you believe in the future: Believe in it! But you do not have to create it yourself, nor could you – nor could anyone. It will be a common creation as always. What you can do is offer a forum for your readers to struggle with their viewpoints until they see daylight and common ground.

As a suggestion – what if the authors of the book about the cultural creatives are looking for a new forum and new possibilities? You might be able to create a totally new kind of magazine, of which you would be perhaps only a minority owner because serious capital would attract serious talent while you helped set the vision. But left-wing politics is not a way forward for your time, but backward. You don’t need to divide comfortable from afflicted, you need to provide a way forward for the desperate and disconsolate of all mentalities and temperaments and (therefore) ideologies.

Let me rephrase this to sound as businesslike and practical as possible: you need new challenges, new visions, new forms to pour the vision into and through.

Left wing politics is passé.

Politics is passé.

Practical vision-pursuits is your particular specialty. Make it more practical. Be the weird guy who brings unusual thinkers and doers together, in conferences, courses, whatever you wish. You admired Buckminster Fuller, well and good. But his forte is not yours. Instead of thinking of Bucky Fuller, think of yourself more as a Marshall McLuhan, often cryptic, not always clear, but leading into a certain type of future.

Hone the vision, gather your co-workers (in your mind, I mean) and then know where to seek the capital, the organizers, and the workers to begin this new enterprise – and you do not run it or sell for it – you go around giving the vision, which attracts business for your company, as you go.

I know you wanted what you might call a quick fix. I offer something better: stop fixing and buy another car. That is, create a new vehicle.

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