An homage to Benjamin Barber — and a woefully belated note of gratitude

An homage to Benjamin Barber — and a woefully belated note of gratitude

Never put things off.

That was drilled into my noggin at a young age, and I’ve practiced it as best I can ever since.

Usually.

But on one occasion, I dropped the ball terribly, and I’ll always regret it.

I had given a presentation in a while back about our Declaration Project at a ‘Civic Collaboratory’ organized by civic visionary Eric Liu, who was most receptive to this latest initiative of mine and keen to have me share it with the other civic movers and shakers who’d convened in New York at the 92nd St Y from around the U.S.

One of those on hand told me afterwards that she thought the incomparable political theorist and believer in a genuinely participatory democracy Benjamin Barber would be intrigued by the Declaration Project, and she connected us.  Dr. Barber, author of the transcendent Jihad Vs. McWorld, and of Consumed, among other notable works, had enjoyed the same editor at W.W. Norton, but he was in a league way way higher than yours truly.  But he was by all accounts, despite his stellar accomplishments, extremely unpretentious, and he shared my abiding faith in the capacity of ordinary people to lead the way in bringing about extraordinary progress in our experiment with democracy.

Dr. Barber and I also shared similar views of academia, though he bravely (and perhaps also pragmatically) decided to remain to some degree inside the cloister while fighting the good fight. Here’s what he had to say in one interview with the Washington Post about this:

“I went into the academic world under the illusion that it was a place where people cared passionately about ideas, about teaching, about discourse and about reflecting critically,” he told The Post. “What I discovered was a world of small-minded, partisan professionals, many of whom were there because they couldn’t figure out what else to do. So I created a life inside the academy that reflected the life I wanted to lead.”

I heard from Dr. Barber himself shortly thereafter, and was bowled over by his generous reply.  He submitted for posting on our My Declaration site two brilliant declarations — one a multilingual Declaration of Interdependence, the other, a Declaration of the Rights of the City and the Citizen — that he’d crafted. About these declarations, he said in his email to me:

The Declaration of Interdependence mimics the language of the Declaration of Independence, but argues that in our globalized, interconnected, borderless world, declarations of independence announcing new boundaries, new sovereignties and new insular nations are absurd. In world where every challenge from climate change and terrorism to markets and pandemic diseases are absurd. Seventeenth century sovereign independent states are wholly inadequate to the problems of a 21st century interdependence world. Hence the need for a “declaration of interdependence.” Following this logic, I suggest in both IF MAYORS RULED THE WORLD and in the concrete proposal for convening a Global Parliament of Mayors that cities have not only a need and obligation to convene beyond the borders of the sovereign nations to which they belong, but a profound RIGHT to do so.  That the legitimacy of a mayors parliament rests on rights make palpable by the failure of sovereign nations to be able to assure the sustainability of their citizens. That is the gist of the attached document of the Declaration of the Rights of Cities and Citizens.

He closed by saying with humbleness, “I would hope that your archive and Democracy Cafe  might include not only the Declaration of Interdependence, but also recognize the rights argument as it applies to cities and their global convening in a parliament of mayors in 2016.”  

And he added: “Lots to talk about to be sure. I am in the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts for the summer, in case you get out this way to Tanglewood or Jacobs Pillow or Shakespeare and Company.  Or we can perhaps schedule a Skype call.”

Both of his declarations were ideal for our “My Declaration” component, and I posted them, thrilled by his enthused participation and perfect contribution.

But what I did not do was follow up and schedule a time to speak with him, a true kindred spirit. I would love to make excuses — I certainly have plenty of legitimate ones — but they still don’t add up. I simply blew it.

I made myself reminder after reminder, but did not fulfill the simple task of setting up a time to talk with Dr. Barber. When I finally did, it was too late: He  had died in late April of this year of pancreatic cancer, just four months after it was diagnosed.

His work lives on, vibrant and dynamic and in some respects timeless.  I only hope that I can do my own modest bit, in my kindred way, to also further it, as I also grapple with my lasting regret for failing to talk in person with this most special soul.

 

 

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