Monday, August 24, 2009

Visibility

Brooding over prize holders and fame this morning as I brewed my early cup, it occurred to me that the actual experience even of very minor fame is rarely pleasing. In tracing this reflection back, I discovered that it began because Paul Krugman is the columnist for the New York Times today; he is the winner of a Nobel Prize in economics. When that prize came to be announced just shy of a year ago, it occasioned the kind of reflection that the Nobel committee often triggers: at the time the thought I had was, Would Krugman have received the prize for economics if he hadn’t been a columnist? Or if he’d been the columnist for, say, the Kansas City Star?

A sour thought, I grant you, but then the Nobel Prize reflects much more on the erratic character of Nobel’s clusters of committees than on the individuals who are their beneficiaries. The recipients are best judged ignoring the honor, a dubious blessing in these latter days: the money is no doubt welcome; the honor may actually be an embarrassment. It may be given for secondary or even accidental aspects of a person’s work.

But my thought this morning, as it meandered on, forgetting its triggering impulse, was that visibility produces unwelcome attentions. The person who has it becomes a reflector in which many others see themselves writ large. They project their own ideals and their own projects on a person who may share neither their views nor aims at all. The only commonality may be a mere label that roughly covers both. I had this kind of visibility for a while as an EPA official administering the Resource Recovery Act, and in the shining eyes of eco-activists I became the focus of an attention I found entirely inappropriate, indeed misplaced. And for those opposed to any kind of governmental intervention into the sacred market, I became the target of negative attention, the personification of a danger. Experiencing such celebrity, however minor, teaches you that “we the people” has quite another meaning in experience than in the lofty national rhetoric. Direct democracy? Please keep it on a leash. And please collect its waste in a plastic sack before you leave my yard.

When a finger points at the moon, please look at the moon and not the finger.

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