Power to the People and the Beats: Protest in Song (Part Two)

Last week, I posted a listing of my 40 favorite protest songs. We’ve been spinning those choice cuts around the apartment since then, appreciating their timeless topicality. As the contents and concerns expressed in those songs continue to churn, at home and on the streets, several other great protest songs popped to my mind or were suggested by others. I’ve been adding them to a core list of a dozen or so that I’d kept off the original post in the interest of (relative) brevity. This morning, that growing list of protest songs reached the “Top 40” level again, and so I share a second collection with you, for your thought, reflection, action, and/or inspiration. The links below will take you to each of the songs online, and Marcia again made a full Spotify playlist that’s embedded at the bottom of this post for those of you who stream your music. Spin the songs in power. Good in your ear holes, good for your motivated souls!

  1. Revolution,” Arrested Development
  2. Full Metal Jackoff,” Jello Biafra and D.O.A.
  3. Rebel Girl,” Bikini Kill
  4. Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud),” James Brown
  5. For What It’s Worth,” Buffalo Springfield
  6. Beat Down Babylon,” Junior Byles
  7. Be Free,” J. Cole
  8. We Come in Peace,” Bobby Conn and the Glass Gypsies
  9. A Change Is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke
  10. They’ll Never Keep Us Down,” Hazel Dickens
  11. Kill for Peace,” The Fugs
  12. Biko,” Peter Gabriel
  13. Mannenberg,” Abdullah Ibrahim
  14. Soweto Blues,” Miriam Makeba
  15. (Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go,” Curtis Mayfield
  16. 16 Shots,” Vic Mensa
  17. The Big Stick,” The Minutemen
  18. Americans,” Janelle Monáe
  19. Lift Every Voice and Sing,” Melba Moore
  20. Mathematics,” Mos Def
  21. There But For Fortune,” Phil Ochs
  22. Like Really,” Oddisee
  23. Young Girls,” Princess Nokia
  24. By the Time I Get to Arizona,” Public Enemy
  25. U.N.I.T.Y.,” Queen Latifah
  26. My Country ’tis of Thy People You’re Dying,” Buffy Sainte-Marie
  27. Asimbonanga,” Savuka
  28. Where Have All The Flowers Gone?,” Pete Seeger
  29. Bristol and Miami,” The Selecter
  30. God Save The Queen,” Sex Pistols
  31. Swimsuit Issue,” Sonic Youth
  32. Free Nelson Mandela,” The Special AKA
  33. Apartheid,” Peter Tosh
  34. Sunday Bloody Sunday,” U2
  35. Hombre Gris,” Vakeró
  36. Trouble,” Josh White
  37. Better Must Come,” Delroy Wilson
  38. Shipbuilding,” Robert Wyatt
  39. Oh Bondage! Up Yours!,” X-Ray Spex
  40. Trouble Every Day,” Frank Zappa and the Mother of Invention

If someone came for you one night and dragged you away, do you really think your neighbors would even care? (See track two for the answer).

Update: The Full Grassley Reimagined

Iowans love a lot of weird things. Food on a stick, for example. Or bacon, Maytag Blue Cheese, de Burgo sauce, and/or La Quercia prosciutto being included in staple dishes that absolutely do not warrant or require them. Iowans love humble-bragging about how modest and friendly they are. The most modest and friendly, in fact. And by golly, they’ve got the stats to prove it. Though they’re too modest and friendly to rub your noses in them. Much. Daytime drinking is also quite well-loved in Iowa, as are unique regional wines and cocktails. The fetishes about the two major state universities’ sports teams are mind-boggling and absurd in their intensity and frequency of expression, and I say that as someone raised in the sports-mad Cocks vs Tigers and Heels vs Pack parts of the country. (There are some other unique sporting events hereabouts too). Pork tenderloin sandwiches, Federal subsidies, caucus miscounts, and biking while blasting boomboxes (grrrr!) on the way to daytime drinking are also well-loved by Iowans.

Perhaps particularly odd among Iowa’s greatest loves are its array of tiny counties (99 of them!), and the widely-held expectation that Presidential wannabes and State-wide politicians must visit them all. Completing that circuit is known as “The Full Grassley,” after our senior citizen senior Senator’s oft-stated annual habit. I completed my own Full Grassley in 2011-2012, just because. Following that grueling exercise in road trippery, I had written a piece noting that the sizes and populations of Iowa’s counties were well out-of-line with national norms, and I made a modest proposal regarding a possible fix for that situation. In short, I deemed 17 counties to be “keepers” for a variety of reasons, and then suggested combining the other 82 into 41 to reduce governmental expense and redundancy in parts of the state where the interests and concerns of neighboring counties are virtually indistinguishable one from the other.

I re-ran that article a couple of weeks back to mark the occasion of COVID-19 completing its own Full Grassley. I ended it with this open appeal: “I would love to see someone with mad map skills take a crack at demonstrating how to best double up those 82 box counties, so if you think like I do, how about getting out your colored pencils and sharing what a new and improved Iowa County Map can and should look like in the 21st Century and beyond?”

I’m pleased to report today that I’ve had a taker for that request, and I love the outcome she sent me. Long-time reader Liz Cruz is also a long-time cartographer, and is married to a native Iowan, so she clearly possesses the chops and perspective to tackle the job. Here’s what she came up with (click the image for a larger PDF version of the map):

It’s an elegant and aesthetically pleasing solution to the exercise. The counties in red are the 17 that I deemed worthy of preservation as they currently stand. The other county combos are built around a mix of vertical, horizontal and diagonal pairings that effectively break up the monotonous box culture of the current map. The merged populations of the counties are also very helpful to see, as none of the newly configured counties would break into the Top Ten by population, affirming my sense that there’s a fundamental difference in that current most-populous roster (all included in the red counties) and the rest of the state. Also noteworthy: the smallest new county would have just a hair under 10,000 residents; right now there are 25 counties below that threshold.

I do note that Iowa is not completely homogeneous, and that there are subtle cultural, industrial, religious, and agricultural differences in various regions of the State, but (again) having visited all 99 of the current counties, I see none of the proposed pairings that would dramatically cross any of those regional barriers in ways that would make such pairings ineffective or inefficient. The options for new county seats are also interesting: in many of the paired counties, there’s clearly one of the two current seats of government that’s larger than the other and could effectively continue to serve its leadership role, while its sister former-seat’s municipal facilities could be used for other value-added community purposes.

Good stuff, on all levels! Thanks to Liz for taking a stab at it! I guess now I just need to convince the Governor and the State Legislature to get this done. (Iowa’s State and Federal legislative districts are not tied to county lines, meaning their own seats would not necessarily change in any ways beyond normal ten-year redistricting). So who knows a good lobbyist who doubles as a map nerd and is a fan of tilting at windmills? (The metaphorical ones, I mean. Not the ubiquitous Iowa wind turbines, that harvest the never-ending breezes hereabouts, and generate nice rental income for farmers). We’ve got a concept, we’ve got a map, we’ve got a cause, now we just need to get a political patron. I can state with certainty that this undertaking is less absurd than countless others that lobbying interests represent, in Iowa and elsewhere!

Fight The Power: Protest in Song

As I sit alone at home working at my computer tonight, public protests against institutional racism across the country continue to swell, in both size and number. It’s extremely powerful to see that energy unleashed, yet tragic to consider what motivates it. I understand and appreciate the empowerment that comes from taking to the streets on behalf of social justice causes held dear. Marcia and I marched numerous times when we lived in Chicago, in some immense gatherings of people, and it did heart and mind and soul good to know that we were not alone in our outrage at public policy and pronouncements that were hateful and loathsome to us both.

There have been recurring rallies and marches (and, alas, attendant violence likely perpetrated by those seeking to undermine the credibility of the cause) in our Des Moines neighborhood over the past week-plus, although we have largely steered clear of the crowds out of COVID-19 concerns. But that doesn’t mean that we’re not supportive of the causes in question, and willing to apply resources, thought, encouragement, time and the power of our votes on behalf of social justice and equity, here and elsewhere. Change is necessary, both structurally and politically. Hopefully the magnitude of the national gatherings communicates that clearly, convincing those in power to accede that “we’ve always done it that way” is not a viable long-term response, or forcing them from office if they’re unwilling to respond, adapt and lead.

Given who I am and what I do, I will note that one thing that I miss from being a part of that large crowd energy in person, up close and personal, is hearing the ways in which music can be deployed to educate, inspire, motivate, rally and energize. Having recently posted articles about my jazz, gospel and international listening during these our diseased days of late, Marcia suggested that I also share a playlist of my favorite protest music as a small statement of solidarity with those out on the streets today, and those cheering them on from home. Great idea! Always happy to make a list, especially a musical one!

As per my normal practice in such little projects, I did some research to frame my argument on what, exactly, defines the genre of “protest songs.” One surprising thing that emerged from my reading was that the way in which we use the word “protest” is a surprisingly modern one, per this definition from the wonderful Online Etymology Dictionary (italics are mine for emphasis):

protest (n.)

c. 1400, “avowal, pledge, solemn declaration,” from Old French protest (Modern French prôtet), from preotester, and directly from Latin protestari “declare publicly, testify, protest,” from pro- “forth, before” (from PIE root *per- (1) “forward,” hence “in front of, before”) + testari “testify,” from testis “witness” (see testament). Meaning “statement of disapproval” first recorded 1751; adjectival sense of “expressing of dissent from, or rejection of, prevailing mores” is from 1953, in reference to U.S. civil rights movement. First record of “protest march” is from 1959.

Using that modern civil rights definition as a guide, I started jotting down obvious favorites, and the list quickly swelled well beyond the normal 10-12 song videos that I would share for such an article. But having developed the long list, I didn’t feel like cutting it. They’re all important songs. Well worth spinning, well worth hearing, well worth considering and well worth acting upon. Every song I included does indeed express “dissent from, or rejection of, prevailing mores,” with varying degrees of explicitness. Many offer alternative courses of action, while others simply seek to frame thought and discussion via a documentary approach to explaining the nature of the injustices in question. Some work well as simple singalongs in the moment of rally, some are definitely too dense for that, but instead seek to motivate and inspire when we’re not all together, chanting as one.

While our current national convulsion hinges on issues of racial injustice, there are also obviously a collection of tremendous protest songs decrying the plights of workers, women, immigrants, the poor, victims of colonialism, and many other socially and economically oppressed communities, while also overtly challenging the societal and political conventions that foster that oppression. I’ve included a fair number of those as well. There’s lot of power in these types of songs, at bottom line. They can, have and hopefully will help to continue moving the needle.

That preamble complete, below I present 40 of my favorite protest songs (one song per artist, alphabetical by artist name), in loose recognition of the “American Top 40” trope, even though few of these songs ever appeared on those weekly lists of the Nation’s most popular tunes. We might be a better, more functional society in 2020 if they had. Not from a cause-effect standpoint, mind, but rather just because if more people were more actively interested in hearing about social injustice and how other people react and respond to it, that would be indicative of a deeper sense of acceptance of the rightness of these messages, and a deeper respect for the artists who created them.

The links will allow you to hear any and all of the songs individually, should you wish to do so. Marcia also made a Spotify playlist, which I include at the bottom of the page below the photos for those who stream your music. I figure these are better approaches than embedding 40 videos and dragging site loading time to a complete crawl. As always, I’m happy to hear from readers with your own suggestions and/or reactions to the list. I’ll certainly not complain about having some good new anthems to rock my mind and body in the days ahead of us.

  1. Know Your Rights,” The Clash
  2. Orange Man Bad,” Crisis Actor
  3. Ohio,” Crosby, Still, Nash & Young
  4. Opiate the Masses,” dälek
  5. This Could Be Anywhere,” Dead Kennedys
  6. America The Beautiful,” D.O.A.
  7. Haus der Lüge,” Einstürzende Neubauten
  8. A Change Is Gonna Come,” Aretha Franklin
  9. Inner City Boundaries,” Freestyle Fellowship
  10. Biological Speculation,” Funkadelic
  11. This Is America,” Childish Gambino
  12. What’s Going On,” Marvin Gaye
  13. You Don’t Own Me,” Leslie Gore
  14. The Message,” Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
  15. This Land Is Your Land,” Woody Guthrie
  16. Who’ll Apologize for This Disaster of a Life,” Hanslick Rebellion
  17. Strange Fruit,” Billie Holliday
  18. Volunteers,” Jefferson Airplane
  19. Work for All,” Juluka
  20. Original Sufferhead,” Fela Kuti
  21. Brother Did You Weep,” Ewan MacColl
  22. Beds Are Burning,” Midnight Oil
  23. Original Faubus Fables,” Charles Mingus
  24. Dear Slum Landlord,” Napalm Death
  25. Fight the Power,” Public Enemy
  26. Killing in the Name,” Rage Against the Machine
  27. Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace,” Max Roach
  28. Universal Soldier,” Buffy Sainte-Marie
  29. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” Gil Scott-Heron
  30. We Shall Overcome,” Pete Seeger
  31. Mississippi Goddam,” Nina Simone
  32. Typical Girls,” The Slits
  33. B.L.M.,” The Specials
  34. Long Walk to D.C.,” The Staple Singers
  35. Monster/Suicide/America,” Steppenwolf
  36. Equal Rights,” Peter Tosh
  37. List of Demands (Reparations),” Saul Williams
  38. Living for the City,” Stevie Wonder
  39. Pigs,” Robert Wyatt
  40. Melt the Guns,” XTC

Scene from an evening walk in our neighborhood, just below the Iowa State Capitol.

Side view of the same crowd. People care. Lots of ’em.

A Modest Proposal: Halve the Full Grassley

Introduction: Iowa’s Decatur County recorded its first confirmed COVID-19 case yesterday. With this report, the novel coronavirus has now officially completed its “Full Grassley,” having visited (and made itself at home in) all 99 of the Hawkeye State’s counties.

I have also personally completed a Full Grassley. I did so in 2011-2012, along with various GOP Presidential aspirants doing so at the same time as a way of currying electoral favor across the State in advance of the quadrennial Iowa Dumpster Fire Caucus. One day soon after we moved here, I was sitting in a traffic jam caused by one of those GOP candidates’ tour buses blocking traffic in downtown Des Moines. As I stewed in place, it occurred to me that the Full Grassley wasn’t really as much of a chore for the candidates riding about in relative comfort in the back of the R.V. (or flying into various regional hubs from Des Moines) as it was for the unfortunate drivers who had to zig-zag back and forth across often featureless sectors of the state just to hit a series of tiny county seats. 

So I decided I wanted to see what a Full Grassley felt like for those folks, behind the wheel, at road level. I got it done (Benton County completed my collection), but it was a chore, at bottom line. I suspect I’ve actually seen more of Iowa than 95%+ of the folks who have actually lived here all their lives. But did I mention that I got it done? I did. So there.

On the occasion of COVID-19 checking off all of its Full Grassley boxes, I re-run a piece I wrote in 2015 discussing why Iowa’s 99 counties represent an absurd anachronism that feeds into an even more absurd political practice. I’ve updated the data cited to the most current information. I’m cautiously optimistic that this year’s particularly embarrassing Caucus performance ends Iowa’s reign as the distracting and non-representative first-in-Nation player in our Presidential electoral process. But beyond that, I still think the State could still benefit from implementing some form of the modest proposal described below.


Iowa has an absurd number of counties for its size and population — and I say this as a person who has visited all 99 of them by car, completing what political candidates here know as a “Full Grassley”.

Iowa is the 26th largest State in the country by land area, and the 32nd largest State in the country by population. Our 99 counties, however, rank us ninth in the United States in number of county and county equivalents — and we would actually be eighth if Virginia didn’t uniquely count its 38 independent cities as county-equivalent governmental entities.IowaCounty

Iowa also has fewer counties defined by natural boundaries (rivers, coastlines, mountain ranges, etc.) than any other State, giving us the greatest percentage of “box counties” — formed only by surveyors’ lines — in the Nation. And we don’t even follow our own law when it comes to tiny counties: the Iowa State Constitution says no county should be smaller than 432 square miles, but ten counties are below that threshold today.

The super-abundance of neat little map boxes puts Iowa in the Nation’s bottom 20% in both average county land area and average county population. This needless plethora of counties then feeds into the “Full Grassley” phenomena, where it is viewed as a brag-worthy achievement of note to visit all 99 Iowa counties in a single year or campaign, per our senior citizen senior Senator’s loudly-proclaimed proclivity.

But really now: is that how we want our elected officials (and our visiting Presidential candidates) spending their time and money? And do we really need to financially support 100 county seats (Lee County has two) with all of the attendant layers of bureaucracy and all of the physical infrastructure associated with our profligate love of mid-level governmental institutions?

I respectfully and emphatically vote “No!”

I would rather see our citizens supported by meaningful regional governance, rather than antiquated political structures. I also find it mildly insulting that a “check off the county box” approach passes as proof that our State’s residents are being equitably seen and heard.

So consolidation makes obvious sense, but how to go about reducing Iowa’s over-abundance of counties? With apologies to Mister Swift, I offer the following modest proposal.

First, it would not make sense to eradicate county administrations that are already effectively serving sizable population centers, since that would be needlessly reinventing the wheel and/or throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

As it turns out, when you rank Iowa counties by population, there is a significant natural gap (about 35,000 people!) between number 10 (Dallas County) and number 11 (Warren County), with all of the top ten counties having over 80,000 citizens — a good functional benchmark for a State with about 3,000,000 people, based on national county averages. I would, therefore, keep the following ten counties intact, based on their current populations:

  1. Polk County
  2. Linn County
  3. Scott County
  4. Johnson County
  5. Black Hawk County
  6. Woodbury County
  7. Story County
  8. Dubuque County
  9. Pottawattamie County
  10. Dallas County

Next, there are also some existing counties that should remain intact because they are “double wides” (e.g. they break the usual grid pattern), or because they have already done their part historically to eliminate county glut, or because they are uniquely formed by geography or culture. I would keep the following counties intact under these special provisions:

  1. Kossuth County (largest in State geographically today, and incorporated former Bancroft and Crocker Counties historically)
  2. Pottawattamie County (second largest in State geographically today, already preserved due to population)
  3. Plymouth County (third largest in State geographically today)
  4. Clayton County (fourth largest in State geographically today)
  5. Sioux County (fifth largest in State geographically today)
  6. Webster County (incorporated former Risley and Yell Counties historically)
  7. Muscatine County (incorporated Cook County historically, and geographically unique)
  8. Lee County (geographically and culturally unique former “Half Breed Tract“)

So there are 17 counties that would remain as they exist today under this model: ten for population plus eight for geography, with one (Pottawattamie) on both lists. Subtract those from the current 99 and that leaves 82 counties that should be consolidated, most sensibly by doubling up the “box counties” in grids across the State.

Mills County, meet your new partner: Fremont County. Montgomery County, say hello to Page County. Please decide which of your current county seats will represent you both, and develop a plan to eliminate overlaps in your respective administrations. And so on and so on, back and forth across the State.

Take these resulting 41 new “double wide” counties, add the 17 that remain from the current map, and you’ve got a manageable 58 Iowa Counties — very commensurate with Iowa’s standing as a below-middle-of-the-pack State, size-wise and people-wise.

Senator Grassley would still have enough counties to visit to keep him out of trouble every year, and we could nearly halve county infrastructure and bureaucracy expenses. In a world of high speed road travel, cell phones, and the internet, it seems inconceivable that citizens would experience any loss of service, and municipal spaces formerly dedicated to housing county governments could be reallocated to meet real community needs: education, healthcare, libraries, whatever the region’s residents needed.

What do you think? I would love to see someone with mad map skills take a crack at demonstrating how to best double up those 82 box counties, so if you think like I do, how about getting out your colored pencils and sharing what a new and improved Iowa County Map can and should look like in the 21st Century and beyond?

My battered 2011-2015 Iowa travel map, documenting all of my Full Grassley drives, and then some.

Freedom and Liberty, Rights and Privileges

One of the many things that bothers me about today’s shrill and histrionic political discourse is the never-ending series of claims by some of our fellow citizens that a vague and shifting set of “freedoms” and “liberties” are being or will be taken from us, methodically and intentionally.

I refuse to use those words as plural nouns myself, but prefer to think of specific rights and privileges (plural) that engender the more ephemeral concepts of Liberty (singular) and Freedom (singular). Pluralizing and de-capitalizing “freedoms” and “liberties” creates a sense that they are just long laundry lists of specific things we do or have, so that any time any item on that list is blocked or amended, Liberty (singular) and Freedom (singular) are compromised. I think that’s a dangerously reductive postulate. Words matter.

I’m a political scientist by training, so I tend to take long, macro views in understanding the ways in which people organize and govern themselves. When I look at the rights and privileges available today to every citizen of our nation, compared to the rights and privileges available at the time of the Constitution’s adoption, I see lurching progress toward the enhancement and expansion of rights and privileges granted by Constitutional amendment, legislative action, and/or various court rulings. We certainly still have a long way to go in many areas and for many citizens, and sometimes we (sadly) move backward on such fronts in the short- to medium-term, but the overall, long-term trend is a positive one. As it should be. As it must be.

In an article written around the time of the 2008 market collapse, I asked people to tell me, personally, specifically, what extant “freedoms” and “liberties” of theirs had been denied or abridged to them by Federal action under either major party’s leadership. The answers tended to come in one of two forms: (a) scary things that could, hypothetically, occur, but hadn’t ever actually happened to any of my respondents, or (b) piddly-to-churlish things like “I have to wear a seat belt when I drive” or “I can’t smoke in a restaurant anymore” or “I have to take my shoes off at the airport.” Me? I don’t mind ceding such rights and privileges to the greater good and safety of my fellow citizens.

That’s the fundamental rub I have with much of the “freedoms” and “liberties” talk: it comes across as knee-jerk selfish reactions from people who just want to be able to do whatever they want, whenever they want, to whomever they want, regardless of how it might or might not impact their fellow citizens. The current politicization of mask-wearing and social distancing in the time of pandemic is about as classically idiotic a case of that as I could possibly conceive. Asserting a self-proclaimed right or privilege to infect one’s neighbors with a potentially fatal disease does not seem like the good-faith act of a person living under the rule of law, or being party to a social contract. In fact, it’s hard to see it as much beyond an unrealistic, petulant, foot-stomping “me Me ME” view of the real world around us.

Seeing how widely such sentiments are felt and expressed these days, by governing and governed alike, makes me feel like many of us are functioning collectively as a sub-national League of Whiners, unwilling to work selflessly for the common good, concerned only about our personal wants and wishes. This trend is routinely reinforced as we elect politicians who are pathologically terrified of asking us to sacrifice anything, ever. “Just keep on shopping,” President George W. Bush told us after the 9/11 attacks, “Or else the terrorists will have won.” What a missed opportunity for productive national commitment and engagement that was. You can pick your own example(s) there if you’d like. They’re not hard to find.

These days, many of our elected officials prioritize getting the Dow Jones Industrial Average back up to the bloated point where corporate profits flow most freely, even if doing so directly correlates to increased infection and mortality rates. To achieve this end, they stoke a sense of grievance in response to communal restrictions that foster the greater public good. And so ever more of us refuse to be inconvenienced in any way by the virus, because we’re regularly informed that we’re supposed to be mad as hell about being told that we can’t do just what we want to. And at the same time, increasingly few of us are willing to work hard to improve our nation, if doing so involves something more than shouting ad hominem insults at each other in social media space. It’s a swirling pool of petulance, and it’s sucking us downward, day by day by day.

All of that being said, I am still generally glad, for now, to live in a country that provides me and many of my fellow citizens with a rich tapestry of rights and privileges, despite the attacks upon them, despite the ways in which they can be and are being abused. I am also very grateful for those who fight to defend us from enemies foreign and domestic, and those who work to support and nourish the rule of law, the common good, and the social contract that binds us as a nation. They’re worthy of admiration and adulation.

I’m ever so cautiously hopeful that extreme times may result in extreme changes that will relieve some of the forces rending our increasingly ragged social contract, allowing it to be mended and strengthened again. While the anti-mask, in-your-face crowd sucks up much media attention right now, I have been moderately surprised and pleased to see how many of us actually are taking the current restrictions seriously, and hewing to evolving best practices as they’re promulgated. We’ve not risen to World War II levels of national self-sacrifice, not by a long shot, but we’re certainly doing better on a broader basis than we’ve done in any other period of national crisis in my lifetime. There’s hope for us yet, if we manage to corral that communal energy and commitment and put it toward something other than the resumption of conspicuous consumption, and the production of shareholder dividends for our wealthiest citizens.

At bottom line, and on a personal basis, I still respect the Freedom and Liberty that I possess, for which, sometimes, I must sacrifice “freedoms” and “liberties.” I’d be happy to have you join me in that pursuit.

We could all use a visit from the better angels of our nature . . . though you’re going to have to take that cigar outside, sir.

Credidero #10: Authority

Back in the mid-’90s, when I was writing for an alternative newsweekly, the features team was occasionally given a summer gang project called “How To.” Each of us were tasked with writing a piece explaining, somewhat obviously enough, how to do something at which we were (nominally) experienced and knowledgeable. Being a quirky and contrarian crew, most of us chose to explain how to do things that were of a marginal degree of usefulness to our readers, producing articles that were probably intended to be entertaining (to the authors, anyway, if not the readers) more than they were educational.

Over the course of a few years, I explained How To Write A Record Review, How To Get a Grant, How To Keep a Secret, How To Talk To a Sleeping Rock Star, and How To Be An Expert. The grant-writing one was nominally useful, objectively speaking, if you were a fundraising professional, and the record review one has long been used by a journalism professor in Texas as part of her syllabus, so I suppose that one was legitimately of some value, too. The Sleeping Rock Star one was me making lemonade out of lemons after I was given a “phoner” appointment to interview then-trending singer-songwriter Abra Moore (who was asleep when I called her), and the secrets one was a result of me leading a weird double life where I was a music critic by night and a contracting officer for a highly classified military program by day.

Of those five pieces, How To Be An Expert was the one that hewed most meaningfully to my own real experiences and beliefs, and I have returned to or referenced it regularly over the past 25+ years as a basic operating tenet in my professional life. It stems from some of the best professional advice I was ever given, very early in my post-college career, after a simple conversation with a supervisor/mentor that went like this:

“If you want to succeed here, or in any other job,” he said, “then you have to become an expert.”

I asked the obvious question: “An expert in what, sir?”

“It doesn’t matter. Just make yourself an expert in something, and when you’ve done that, you’ll be indispensable.”


I used the word “expert” in that article, because that’s what my boss said, but I just as easily could have used the word “authority,” because that’s the gist of what he was communicating to me: if people perceive you as an authority on any particular subject, then you are useful to them, and you’ll always have a place in the organization, so long as you maintain your position as the organization’s authority of record on that particular topic, or maybe on a variety of topics, if you’re really good at exploiting this concept.

When I first started contemplating this month’s Credidero article, this “be an expert” narrative sat the center of my reflections on “authority.” I’ve spent most of my professional career in positions where I’ve been held up as an (or even the) authority on an evolving and branching stream of topics, as my work has taken me through a somewhat dizzying array of professional disciplines. I am self-aware enough, though, to know that in each and every case where I’ve been accepted as an authority on a particular topic, it was very much an act of me claiming that role, more than it was an act of others bestowing it on me — because if you say something long enough, often enough, and confidently enough, then it becomes reality, or at least is perceived as reality, and there’s really no difference between those outcomes.

My skills at self-marketing have always played into this paradigm, on top of the cultural cues and biases that benefit me by virtue of who I am and what I look like: a tall, white, older male with a degree from a “big name” college, who’s a glib speaker and solid writer, and with the ability to quickly process, retain and regurgitate a dazzling stream of facts and opinions. As such, most people are culturally conditioned to accept whatever I write, say, or do, if I offer my words of expertise confidently and with, yes, authority. There have been many times in my career when I have not been the most-trained, or most-knowledgeable, or most-experienced person in a given room or sphere on a specific topic, but people have still turned to me as “the authority,” simply because I’ve carried and presented myself as such more effectively than those around me, using the cultural privileges that are bestowed upon people like me as part and parcel of our society.

Is that fair? No, not really. But I have used it to my advantage anyway, and (more importantly, I think) to the advantage of my employers and their causes. I do not believe that I have ever used perceptions of my own authority for negative or negligent purposes, or to advance a crooked or conflicted agenda, or to denigrate, demean or disempower others who might, in fact, have more expertise than I do. I’m good at sharing credit when it’s due and when I can. That ability to advance the causes of my organizations in an authoritative way that makes people feel like they are invested in and connected to those causes is high among the traits that I believe have most contributed to my professional success over the years.

While I may claim to be an authority or an expert earlier and more forcefully than others might under similar circumstances, I also believe that I have managed those positions in ways where most people are willing to accept and reflect that authority back at me, confident that I will use it wisely, even if it is still nascent. And I say “most people” most purposefully, because I know that there are certainly a subset of my work colleagues over the years who just thought that I was a really good bullshit artist. That’s okay, I guess. I probably was. And probably still am. It’s hard to tell the difference between being a doctor and playing the role of a doctor on television sometimes, as long as you’re not performing brain surgery. I know my limits.

The word “authority” has several subtle definitional aspects to it, and I’ve only been focusing thus far on one of them: “the power to influence others, especially because of one’s commanding manner or one’s recognized knowledge about something.” This form involves being an authority (where I am the subject noun) on a given subject, which is somewhat different from having authority, where the subject noun is a standalone external right, and not me personally. That form of authority is defined as: “the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.” When it comes to that form, there’s no “be an expert” bullshit or cultural bias at play, because you either have it, or you do not, typically as a result of your position within an organization.

As the CEO of a variety of nonprofits over the years, I’ve had all sorts of authority when it comes to this second definition of the term. I have had the ability to negotiate and sign contracts, take out loans, pay bills, sign checks, hire people, fire people, award grants, buy things, sell things, and a myriad of other rights that are integral and essential to the positions I’ve held. In the nonprofit sector, the ultimate fiduciary responsibility for the corporation resides in the board of directors, who are also tasked with governance and with hiring and supervising their chief executive. After that, it falls on the chief executive to manage the organization within the mission and vision established by the board of directors and ideally embodied in a strategic plan. That means I’ve had a lot of latitude to do what I thought was the right thing to do for each of my organizations, and I had the authority to implement whatever ethical and legal tactics I deemed best to getting the job done effectively and efficiently.

My understanding and living of this form of authority is also highly influenced by some of my early professional training, in this case while still at the Naval Academy, where we learned the differences and distinctions between authority, responsibility, and accountability as part of the Leadership and Management Education and Training (LMET) curriculum. At the simplest level, authority is the ability to make a decision, responsibility is the  job we are tasked to do, and accountability is the way in which we answer for the work we’ve done. The balance between these three factors has an immense impact on how effectively one can function in the work environment.

For example, if an employee has a high level of responsibility, but little authority, then he or she will likely be heavily frustrated by having to seek continual approvals elsewhere while trying to achieve necessary tasks. If an employee has both high authority and high responsibility, but no accountability, then it becomes easy for him or her to just coast, knowing that there are no likely repercussions for not fulfilling expectations, and the organization will suffer as a result. On the flip side, if the accountability function is ratcheted up too high, then it becomes difficult for an employee to achieve his or her responsibilities, even with clear authority, because of the constant micro-managing attention to activities that should be free from continual oversight and evaluation. I’ve always used my LMET training in evaluating potential work situations, and then once engaged, I’ve done my best to create the proper balance between those three facets of management, for myself and for those entrusted to my supervision.

I’ve been fortunate in most of my professional roles to have identified or developed nonprofit boards that allowed me to build and maintain appropriate balance between professional authority, responsibility and accountability. But with my pending retirement from the salaried work world in a few weeks, this will change for me, as I will no longer possess authority (nor responsibility, nor accountability) as a function of the position that I hold within an organization, for the first time in well over 35 years. In most typical freelance or consulting roles, I’ll likely have defined responsibilities and accountability, sure, but not much positional authority. Which means that I will have to fall back more heavily on that first form of authority, which I can claim for myself as a function of what I know, what I can do, and how well I can communicate it. I’m okay with that, I think. I’ve proven over the years that I’m pretty good at positioning myself as an expert, and I’m also fairly adept at being accountable to myself when I need to be. (Pro tip: I’ve found that it’s helpful to publicly state intentions on this front, e.g. telling all of my readers here that I was going to write a 12-part series called “Credidero” last January made me more likely to actually do it this year. Ten down, two to go!)

A few other facets of meaning and belief emerged for me as I considered the concept of authority over the past month. The first came when I did my usual research into the etymology and history of the word to be studied for the month. “Authority” has its roots in the Latin auctor, meaning “originator” or “promoter,” and that root also produced the modern English word “author.” I like the concept that developing and claiming authority is an act undertaken by an author, in that we write our own narratives, and then (using another element of the ancient word), we must promote those narratives in order to bring them to meaningful fruition. I do this continually, in so many places and so many ways, here on this website and in my “real world” personal and professional lives. All we are is all we’ve been, so in theory, I should get ever better at this as I age, so long as I don’t ever lose the rampant curiosity that’s often the motive force and lubricant of my learning and communicating processes. We’ll see how that goes.

There was another interesting intermediate evolutionary meaning in the etymological history of this month’s Credidero word. In 13th/14th Century Old French, between the Latin auctor and the English authority, we find autorite, which was an “authoritative passage or statement, book or quotation that settles an argument, passage from Scripture; authoritative book; authoritative doctrine.” In this usage, authority wasn’t a particular person, nor a power held by said person, but rather an inhuman physical artifact that was deemed to embody decisive decision-making power. This reminds me of the most beautiful of the Gospels, which John the Evangelist opened by simply explaining that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” While we read this metaphorically, obviously, the idea that written and spoken words may carry the purest essence of the divine within them has always been highly appealing to me.

A self-professed and self-proclaimed right of authority has more heft if the very words that anchor it are right, and true, and inspired as outward manifestations of inner truths, or local observations of universal realities. In this sense, standing as a personal authority, even without positional authority, may be a path along which or a vehicle through which legitimate and pure societal good may be promulgated and promoted. Words have immense power to foster change, if you use them wisely. I like to think this is what I’ve done in my work over the past three-plus decades, and I am hopeful that I will be able to continue to do so in the years that remain ahead of me.

But the dark flip side of this paradigm is embodied by another modern English word that derives from the Latin auctor: Authoritarian. It’s tragic and troubling to consider how relevant this word has become again in modern political practice and parlance, as weak and insecure national leaders at home and abroad expect unquestioned obedience, and act tyrannically when they do not receive it. I read an interesting interpretation of the etymology of this word, which likened it less to “authority” and more to “author,” as authoritarian leaders seek to be the masters of the fictional worlds that they create. Unfortunately, almost all of them also have positional authority, which allows them to leverage vast monetary, legislative and military machines toward their own nefarious ends. That way evil lies. And madness.

This tendency toward authoritarianism becomes all the more dismaying and tragic when leaders are propped up by corporate propaganda machines and other weak and insecure legislators who use their own positional authority to propagate their leaders’ hateful messages and paper over their childish and/or criminal behaviors, lest they rock the status quo that’s elevated them, Peter Principle style, to positions well above their apparent capabilities and capacities. I think most folks my age in the United States grew up perceiving authoritarianism as a dead or dying political system. I doubt that many of us would have imagined that we’d be close to living in it as we eyeballed our retirement years, and that the centuries-old system of checks and balances designed to protect us from it would fail for nakedly partisan political reasons. Here’s hoping that enough of us wake up and exercise the authority constitutionally bestowed upon us as voters in 2020 to turn this tide, before it sweeps us away into the type of future that dystopian science fiction writers favor.

While there’s no question that authoritarianism is a bad thing, and must be resisted by sane citizens of any state, I find it interesting how often people look through that same lens when considering any form of authority. If you go search Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations or any other similar online quote banks for the word “authority,” the vast majority of the quotes that search returns will be focused on questioning, disobeying, challenging, or dismantling authority. Now, this may be a function of the fact that the types of writers and thinkers whose quotes end up in Bartlett’s are more apt to be anti-establishment types than the average citizen, or it may just be that these sorts of “Fight the Power” epigrams are more memorable and inspirational than the “He loved Big Brother” ones are, hence their appearances in such anthologies and encyclopedias.

But I have mixed feelings about blindly conflating authoritarianism with authority, as I loathe the former, but am more than willing to accept the latter, if it’s properly earned or bestowed. To some extent, that may be a function of the fact that I’ve counted on my own authority time and time again in my professional life as a key tool to achieve the things I want to achieve, and I don’t feel that every act and every decision I’ve taken with the authority vested in, or claimed by, me should be subject to scrutiny, question or rebuttal. I give other authorities the same benefit of the doubt that I expect from other people in considering my own actions and activities. I hope that as I move into a phase of my life where my authority stems from who I am and what I do, rather than from what position I hold, that I’ll be able to still leverage such authority to achieve my desired ends. Which, hopefully, will not be authoritarian in tone or tactics.

As I read back over what I’ve written this month, I note that there are more subtle semantic dances than usual, as I seek to shoehorn “authority” into the “what I will have believed” rubric behind this Credidero series of articles. But I think that was a necessary approach to wrestling with a concept that has so many significant variables operating within closely-aligned, but not exact, definitional distinctions. When I look at the authorities around me, I value those who bring earned or acquired expertise more than I value those who are granted authority by their positions, but I still value those positional authorities, so long as they don’t become authoritarian. I believe we need to be constantly vigilant as we evaluate the various authorities that govern and shape our lives, but when all is said and done, I also believe that there’s also a need for such authorities, and I hope that I am able to continue authoring my own life story in a fashion that encourages others to look my way and say “Now there’s an expert. Let’s see where he’s going to take us . . . ”

When an eagle explains stuff to you, you listen . . .

Note: This article is part of an ongoing twelve-part writing project. I’m using a random online dice roller to select a monthly topic from a series of twelve pre-selected themes. With this tenth article complete, I roll the die again . . .

. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number Three: “Mortality.” Since there’s only one topic left after that, I also know that December will be dedicated to Topic Number Two: “Possibility.” I guess those are two heady concepts with which to wrap the project! 

All Articles In This Series:

Credidero: A Writing Project

Credidero #1: Hostility

Credidero #2: Curiosity

Credidero #3: Security

Credidero #4: Absurdity

Credidero #5: Inhumanity

Credidero #6: Creativity

Credidero #7: Community

Credidero #8: Complexity

Credidero #9: Eternity

Credidero #10: Authority

Credidero #11: Mortality

Credidero #12: Possibility

Credidero: An Epilogue