Editing as Community Organizing
My job puts me in touch with a lot of crazy people--crazy enough to try to change entrenched patterns of behavior and societal standards. Likewise publishes a lot of activists; in fact some of the most notable books in our history have been the sustained reflections of people who spend most of their days pushing hard for more justice, more mercy, more shalom in their given contexts. I get a little envious sometimes, I can admit: while they're saving people, I'm condemning commas.
When I'm feeling particularly inadequate--usually after a phone conversation with one of these people (I should add that not once has one of my authors told me anything like "Why don't you get off your butt and do something significant for a change?"--even the ones who are well aware of the enormous amounts of free time I spend on my butt doing something insignificant)--I try to console myself by imagining the role of publishing in the greater effort of what I suppose we could call "cultural discipleship": how does what I do join with what they do to better represent the kingdom of God throughout the earth?
Or something like that. It's a self-serving exercise, to be sure, but I think generally it's helpful to me and to our authors; and really, what's wrong with imagining yourself in the kingdom of God?
The bible of most activists at a grass-roots level (apart from the actual Bible, for the folks I work with) is Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals, published in 1971 as an attempt to channel the chaotic rage of 1960s revolutionaries into more effective, sustainable social change. In this book Alinsky lays out some of the essential qualities of a community organizer, the things he needs to see in a person before he will trust them with the real needs of a community. You can train on tactics, but these are temperamental values that can only be acknowledged and encouraged. I'd say we look for them in authors too, as well as in publishing professionals such as myself. Ahem.
- Curiosity. "Life is for him [always "him"; the 1970s were still a wee bit unenlightened] a search for a pattern, for similarities in seeming differences, for differences in seeming similarities, for an order in the chaos about us, for a meaning to the life around him and its relationship to his own life--and the search never ends."
- Irreverence. "He . . . rebels against any repression of a free, open search for ideas no matter where they may lead. He is challenging, insulting, agitating, discrediting. He stirs unrest. As with all life, this is a paradox, for his irreverence is rooted in a deep reverence for the enigma of life."
- Imagination. "There was a time when I believed that the basic quality that an organizer needed was a deep sense of anger against injustice. . . . I now know that it is something else: this abnormal imagination that sweeps him into a close identification with mankind and projects him into its plight."
- A sense of humor. "Knowing that contradictions are the signposts of progress he is ever on the alert for contradictions. A sense of humor helps him identify and make sense out of them. . . . The organizer has a personal identity of his own that cannot be lost by absorption or acceptance of any kind of group discipline or organization. I now begin to understand what I stated somewhat intuitively in Reveille for Radicals almost twenty years ago, that 'the organizer in order to be part of all can be part of none.'"
- A bit of a blurred vision of a better world. "Sooner or later he will react with 'What am I doing? . . . I quit.' What keeps him going is a blurred vision of a great mural where other artists--organizers--are painting their bits, and each piece is essential to the whole."
- An organized personality. "It is vital that he be able to accept and work with irrationalities for the purpose of change. . . . He should be able, with skill and calculation, to use irrationality to progress toward a rational world. . . . He is always learning, and every incident teaches him something."
- A well-integrated political schizoid. "Men will act when they are convinced that their cause is 100 per cent on the side of the angels and that the opposition are 100 per cent on the side of the devil . . . and yet both parts have to live comfortably with each other. Only a well-organized person can split and yet stay together."
- Ego--"clearly differentiated from egotism." "Ego is unreserved confidence in one's ability to do what he believes must be done. . . . The thought of copping out never stays with him for more than a fleeting moment; life is action."
- A free and open mind, and political relativity. "Because of these qualities he is unlikely to disintegrate into cynicism and disillusionment, for he does not depend on illusion. . . . He conceives of creation as the very essence of the meaning of life. . . . The organizer finds his goal in the creation of power for others to use."
That strikes me as a pretty good description of a good book: "power for others to use." A book--particularly the type of book we publish--is an author's proxy, a way for the author's insights to be present when the author herself (see what I did there?) can't be present. It's a distillation of a person's embodied ideas and ideals, to be considered and adapted for another context. Maybe it's my ego talking, but that makes publishing a creative process--which makes me, as a publishing professional, a creative person.
Ahem. How you like me now, activists?
Posted by Dave Zimmerman
at November 15, 2010 8:10 AM