Sunday, December 06, 2009

Nonconformist of the Decade

Even though I started awarding "The Nonconformist of the Year" in 1992, I also decided that I needed an even higher distinction by including one for the entire decade. I had created this award in the aftermath of Time Magazine's Man of the Year selection in 1991. They awarded CNN's Ted Turner the distinction, when I believed that it should have gone to General Norman Schwarzkopf for his excellent execution of the Gulf War. I haven't agreed with many of Time Magazine's selections over the years, so rather than be mad about their decision process, I decided that I would make my own award to honour the people I admire and draw inspiration from.

At least the Nobel Peace Prize selection committee has a much better track record. I agree with their choices. Then again, the criteria is different. The Nobel Committee is tasked with recognizing people who have a positive impact on our world or those who need the prestige of the award to help their cause (such as Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma). Time Magazine picks the person they feel had the biggest impact on the world for a given year, though that presents its own problems (Osama Bin Laden had the largest impact in 2001, but they understandably selected Mayor Rudy Giuliani that year, even though he had little impact outside of New York City).

For my selection of Nonconformist of the Decade 1980s, only one person fit that criteria for me: Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. When I was in the first grade, I used to fantasize about marrying a Russian woman someday and liberating the Soviet Union. It was unrealistic dream of mine, but I had spent a lot of time just thinking about how I might go about undermining the communist government of the USSR. Thus, when Gorbachev introduced Glasnost and Perestroika, he began a process that ultimately led to the demise of the Soviet Union. Time Magazine had named him as their Person of the Decade for the 1980s (offending conservative readers who believed that it belonged to their beloved President Ronald Reagan).

Gorbachev's liberation of the USSR freed me from my childhood dream of liberating them, so for that I'm especially grateful. :)


When the 1990s came to a close, once again, I was thinking about my selectee for "Nonconformist of the Decade." In retrospect, I should have chosen Nelson Mandela for this honour, because he was the giant international figure of inspiration in the 1990s. The decade began when he was finally released from prison in February 1990. The apartheid laws were soon dismantled in the years leading up to the first non-racial elections of April 1994. He was inaugurated as the first black president of South Africa in May 1994. He and the previous president, F.W. deKlerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. His role in the national rugby team during a world championship helped unify the country in the spirit of goodwill (next week, a movie about this event will be released, which I'm excited to see). In 1999, Mandela's term expired and a new ANC-party member was elected as his successor.

No question. 1990 was the decade of Mandela. I had awarded him my "Nonconformist of the Year" for 1994. The other world leader whom I admired greatly in the 1990s was Czech president Vaclav Havel (pictured above). I had neglected to award him a "Nonconformist of the Year" in 1993, when he was faced with a difficult decision. That was the year that Slovakia sought a "divorce" from Czechoslovakia. Rather than fight to keep the country unified as one, Vaclav Havel allowed the voters to have their say in the matter. If the Slovaks wanted their independence, they could have it democratically. This was a major test of his leadership in the early days of Eastern Europe's freedom from Soviet oppression.

Vaclav Havel was a playwright who spend many years in prison during the Communist era for his involvement with the Charter 77. He, among many other artists and dissidents, became a hero to the oppressed people of Czechoslovakia. Some of his plays were veiled critiques of life under communist rule. Earlier in this decade, I was thrilled when the all-girls college of Agnes Scott in Decatur, Georgia performed his play, "The Memoranda" (if I remember the title correctly). It revealed the absurdities of bureaucracy, which could easily apply in our corporate culture as well.

When the communist regimes of Eastern Europe fell in the fall of 1989, Czechoslovakia's democracy movement was dubbed "The Velvet Revolution." I'm not sure if that was because of how smoothly the transition happened in that country from communism to democracy or if it was a tribute to the band Velvet Underground, which Vaclav Havel was a fan of. Once the old regime was swept away, Havel was the natural person to lead the way in a new democracy. He was such a celebrity leader, raising the profile of his country because so many people around the world admired him and his writings. I was particularly struck by his excellent essay called "The Power of the Powerless." It truly is a remarkable document to read and should be required reading to every high school junior or senior.

Vaclav Havel was known as "the Dissident President" and I believe he served the role well. There is often the argument that dissidents should not be politicians, because the purpose of a dissident is to criticize the power structure, not join it. Once you're in power, compromises are inevitable. Besides, creative-types like writers and playwrights don't belong in government. Part of being a writer is creating stories that may serve as a metaphor for people about their lives under oppressive government. Despite this sort of background, Havel served as president and seems to have done a fine job as he moved the Czech Republic towards membership in NATO and the European Union. I feel priviledged that I had the opportunity to visit Prague, Czech Republic in October 1993, when it was still quite inexpensive and enjoying its newfound freedoms under democratic rule.

So if the 1990s belonged to Nelson Mandela, it also belonged to Vaclav Havel. Both were famous political prisoners-to-presidents. Since I honoured Mandela in the year 1994, I felt that I should honour Vaclav Havel as the "Nonconformist of the Decade (1990s)."

That brings me to this current decade, the 2000s. I thought much about who I wanted to honour the most and what that person did during this decade. There were a few people I had in mind, but the more I thought about it, the more it became obvious that only one person made the most sense for me. Thus, it is my proud duty to announce that my selection for the "Nonconformist of the Decade (2000s)" is...

AL GORE

He is an alumni of my Nonconformist heroes, having been awarded in 1993 for being the most active Vice President we had ever had (until Dick Cheney proved that the VP could actually have more power than the president). I awarded Gore the distinction again in 2006 when his documentary An Inconvenient Truth was released in theaters. It seems as though I have honoured him enough, so why give him the entire decade?

Well...the other day, I was in the grocery store and saw the latest issue of Time Magazine which had a picture of a crying baby with a caption that said "Decade from Hell." I laughed when I saw the cover because it described my decade perfectly! It has been a decade from hell for me, as nothing I wanted for myself in terms of career, publishing, and relationship goals came true. I was glad to see that I wasn't the only one who saw this decade as horrible. It is comforting to know that others feel the same way...that something has gone horribly wrong. We are living in a nightmare, all because we fell asleep at the wheel of democracy when the whole decade began.

Going back to 2000, we can see that Gore made quite a few mistakes: he should have opened his campaign headquarters in Nashville from the very beginning instead of the expensive set of suites on K Street in Washington, D.C. where all the high paid lobbyists worked in their various firms, organizations, and think tanks. He should have picked Senator Evan Bayh as a running mate. He should have spoken out more on his passions, rejecting the advice of his poll-driven campaign managers that talking about his signature issue (the environment) was a political non-starter. He should have allowed Clinton to campaign more, particularly in Arkansas, Tennessee, and West Virginia. He should not have sighed in the first debate with Bush. He should not have made the comment he did about the Internet. He should have pressed for a state-wide recount in Florida, rather than four counties.

All of those factors contributed to a mess of an election in 2000. I'm certain that had Clinton been able to run for a third term, Bush would have had his ass handed to him in all three debates. Gore is naturally cautious, though, and didn't have Bush's frat boy extroversion. He played it safe and the whole country lost as a result.

What makes Gore a notable nonconformist, though, is that he ignored his supporters pleas to run for president again in 2004 and in 2008. This is a man who had dreamed about being president since he was a young boy. There's a famous quote that says "the only cure for a politician's presidential aspirations is embalming fluid." John McCain obviously didn't give up his presidential dreams after a bitter defeat against Bush in 2000. But Gore declined to run in 2004, claiming that he did not want to be subjected to the media's rematch of 2000. He also declined to run in 2008, though the nomination would most likely have been his even though he would have faced more competition than he did in 2000 when former Senator Bill Bradley was his only opponent.

Somewhere between 2000's devastating loss and 2009's lecture tour for his latest environmental book Our Choice, Gore had found his calling in life. His lifelong passion for environmental issues have made him an international statesman, highly respected around the world. He truly belongs among the select group of world leaders like Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Vaclav Havel.

As the Climate Change Conference gets underway in Copenhagen this week, we are reminded of the passion that Gore brings to this debate. He may have been denied the presidency by five individuals on the U.S. Supreme Court, but he has transcended a personal defeat in a way that would make Jimmy Carter proud. For this reason, his life example serves as an inspiration for what true nonconformatism is all about. He defies expectations and followed his own passion, giving up a political life and his childhood dreams for something far closer to his heart. His not being president has created a ripple effect, in that more people are politically aware as they have seen exactly what apathy and disengagement got us (a disasterous presidency).

I feel confident in saying that because we did not have a President Al Gore for eight years of this decade, we ended up with 9/11, tax cuts, a squandered surplus, two expensive wars in the Middle East, a wrecked economy by the greed of deregulated Wall Street, incompetent government, torture and rendition, the USA PATRIOT Act, a major embarrassment before the entire world when we allowed American citizens to fend for themselves in the aftermath of a natural disaster in New Orleans, and most of all...the surprising election of our first African American president. We can't change our past or the outcome of the 2000 election, but we can change our future. If this decade is about anything, it represents a "teachable moment." In 2000, too many Americans were suckered into to believing that a folksy good ol' boy talking about moral values and "compassionate conservativism" would make an effective president despite an extremely thin resume, lack of intellectual depth and curiosity, and no foreign policy or much travel experience.

It was hard to beat a man with Gore's experience: Vietnam; journalist; eight years as a Congressman; eight years as a Senator; eight years as a Vice President who was actively involved in the Clinton Administration and had extensive foreign policy experiences as well as a network of foreign leaders he had worked with on major issues involving the environment, foreign policy, and even religion (Gore was supposedly instrumental in convincing the Russian government to allow the LDS Church to send missionaries there).

Considering the amount of critique that Sarah Palin has gotten for her lack of intellect and experience, I think many Americans have truly awakened from the slumber of the Clinton years. Bush got a cakewalk, essentially, but after proving himself disasterous as a leader, it is doubtful that Americans will forget anytime soon what happens when you put a true ignoramus in a powerful leadership position. If we thought Bush was bad, Palin is a thousand times worse.

One of the critiques Gore received was when the press reported that he had taken the advice of Naomi Wolfe about wearing "earth tones." It was a reminder to Americans about Clinton's preference for polling before making a decision, simply because polling revealed that Gore does look better in "earth tones" than the traditional political uniform of the blue suit. The above picture represents the truth that Gore looks better in earth tones. There's nothing wrong with a politician following common sense fashion advice. Who made the blue suit (or the pantsuit) the uniform of a politician? Why not allow them to wear whatever they look the best in?

The above picture of Bono having Gore's ear is interesting and makes me envious. I'd love to meet Bono and have a conversation with him. In fact, Bono was the only other person I considered honouring with the "Nonconformist of the Decade (2000s)" award. He also made a huge impact on this decade. Since the latest album of U2 is rather a dud, though, I blame his extra-curricular activities as a global superstar activist for distracting him from creating another genius album as the one that started this decade on the right note. He may have Gore's ear on global affairs, but his latest album doesn't have the fans ear. He gets a runner-up distinction, though. Or perhaps a special category of "Nonconformist Rock Star."

I have created special categories to honour other nonconformists when I don't name them in a given year and they fail to make the appropriate headlines in another year to merit such an honour. Thus, the following are people who have been awarded a special distinction:

Pat Tillman -- Nonconformist Athlete


Aung San Suu Kyi -- Nonconformist Woman

The Dalai Lama -- Nonconformist Spiritual Leader

Albert Einstein -- Nonconformist Scientist

The Osbournes -- Nonconformist Family

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