Those who have knowledge don’t predict. Those who predict don’t have knowledge.
— Lao Tzu
Prognostication is a dicey affair. For the armchair clairvoyant, it’s really a no-win situation: Generally speaking, if you turn out to be right, nobody cares (at least not for long), and if you turn out to be wrong, people will take every opportunity to remind you of it for the rest of your life.
This is especially true for people who, by dint of their respective choices of occupational fields in which to toil, have been presumed to possess certain admixtures of knowledge, experience, and perspective that make them reliable sources of both information and informed conjecture. Ideally, they also possess both the ability and the inclination to keep clear the difference between those two things, for themselves as well as others.
Broadly speaking, those with this particular bent of mind tend toward a hard-earned and highly-developed sense of both How Things Have Worked Up to Now and — based in large part on close analysis of trends and behaviors, allowing for consideration of scenarios arising from both positive and negative variables in historical norms — How Things Might Reasonably Be Expected to Work in the Foreseeable Future. A brief and by no means comprehensive list of occupations in which such people engage might include academicians, applied scientists, high-level business consultants, professional politicos, and media commentators.
For those few who might be wondering at this point: Yes, that last category of experts — to use a term that is becoming quainter by the day — includes those who, in the face of the accelerating multiplicity of media and the willful blurring of the line between news and “content,” continue to think of themselves as newspaper columnists. In other words, it includes me, a presumption that I both apologize for and insist upon.
In my defense, such as it is, I will stipulate that my claim to expertise is limited largely to the trifling corner of the known universe that is occupied by Birmingham and Alabama. Which, come to think of it, is kind of depressing, especially right here at the beginning of a New Year that promises to be so full of peace, goodwill, and fellowship. Or, as almost certainly will be the case, not.
Somehow, the “not” is a prospect that lightens, rather than increasing, the potential load of my prospective melancholy over the strange new day that will dawn in earnest at noon on the 20th of this month — and over my misgivings regarding the present and future of Birmingham. This is a phenomenon that I can explain in brief by borrowing from Walker Percy, who spent a good deal of time brooding over why it is that, as he put it in one essay, “people often feel bad in good environments and good in bad environments.”
Probing at this “upside-down and perverse behavior,” Percy struck a chord that, as is the case with a good deal of his writing, seems prophetic in light of the current state of politics and political discourse in Birmingham, Alabama, and the nation as a whole. Whether or not you choose to buy it as prophecy — and even quite regardless of your own politics and social status — it’s difficult to read Percy laboring to diagnose the spiritual state of America in the late 20th century without seeing something of why we are where we are a decade-and-a-half into the 21st.
What does a man do, Percy posed, when he finds himself living after an age has ended and he can no longer understand himself because the theories of man of the former age no longer work and the theories of the new age are not yet known…?
All of which brings me back to where I started: Prognostication is a dicey affair, and it’s getting dicier by the day.
Besides, if the result of our recent presidential election and the ensuing transition period demonstrate nothing else, it that great swaths of the American public (including our incoming CEO) have come to view knowledge and experience — the integral components of expertise — as unmitigated liabilities. In a world where fact and opinion are given equivalent value, putting in the time and effort necessary to develop informed perspectives on issues of public interest has become widely viewed as a fool’s errand, if not grounds for suspicion of elitism. In such a world, predictions are meaningless.
With that in mind, it’s only partly because I’m intent on weaseling my way out of an obligation, made in this space two weeks ago, to offer some predictions about what’s going to happen in Birmingham in 2017 that I tell you that I’m not going to offer any predictions. I have developed a growing disinterest in forecasting the future. Not when there is so much to tend to in the here and now. Not when the present is so demanding of our presence.
What does the present hold for us here in Birmingham? First and foremost, every elective position in city government — mayor, city council, board of education — will be on the ballot this August.
Mayor William Bell has indicated that he wants another term in the office he has held for the past seven years, with a formal announcement presumably to come in the early months of this year. Bell already has two declared challengers, attorney Randall Woodfin — currently the District 5 representative on the Birmingham Board of Education — and businessman Philemon Hill. A number of others are, with varying degrees of public effort, considering a bid for the mayor’s seat; most prominent among those is current Birmingham City Council President Johnathan Austin.
Should Austin run for mayor, his council seat will be up for grabs. That would add drama to what at this point appears to be an election that, notwithstanding the indisputable unpopularity of the council as a whole, will see a majority of councilors returned to City Hall.
Regardless of the outcomes of individual races — or the consensus outcome of the battle of incumbents versus challengers — the 2017 campaign will say a great deal about how Birmingham perceives itself and what it wants to become. For one thing, it comes at an interesting time in the history and development of the city, a time when unprecedented economic activity — and the undeniable surge of civic pride that comes with it — is coming into increasing conflict with the persistence of longstanding deficiencies in meeting community needs (the areas of poverty, education, transportation, and public health come to mind).
More than usually, the 2017 election shapes up as a referendum on the goals and priorities of Birmingham’s city government and the manner in which it utilizes the resources placed at its disposal at the expense of the public. It may also turn out to be a statement on the role that citizens — and various constituent groups — want to play in determining the ways in which municipal resources are utilized, and how efficiently and equitably municipal services are delivered.
At such a critical point in Birmingham’s present, these are issues and ideas that are worthy of debate. They are — our city is — worthy of all of the attention that we can give. We owe it to ourselves to participate in this process, to do our part to hold both officeholders and those who would hold office accountable for their views, statements, and actions.
That’s where my selfish motivation comes back into the picture. Part of the obligation I’ve just described — the paying of attention, the facilitation of constructive discussion and debate, the formulation of effective public policy, the holding accountable of those invested with the public trust — can only be carried out by me and people like me.
I’m talking about journalists. I’m talking about journalism that comes from sources that are independent, trustworthy, and community-oriented.
Regardless of which candidate you supported in the presidential election — or of whether you bothered to vote at all — one of the consensus views that has emerged in its aftermath is that the national newsmedia failed to fulfill its basic obligation to the public at large: Providing accurate, reliable, and useful information on events and issues that impact our everyday lives as Americans. As a result, the very purpose of journalism is being called into question.
At Weld, we believe in the value and the necessity of journalism — most especially at the local level, where the availability of accurate, reliable news and information impacts people’s lives most directly. Weld is dedicated to providing that value and filling that need. We’re also dedicated to the idea that good journalism is a positive, constructive, and progressive force in the community we serve.
So as we enter what promises to be an eventful new year, I hope you’ll consider not only the role that Weld — along with other independent, locally owned sources of news and information — plays in the life of Birmingham. I hope you’ll also consider where Birmingham would be in the absence of such journalistic outlets.
My own sense is that we’d be much worse off. And that’s not a prediction. It’s a fact.