How Ignite Baltimore Turned Me Into a Hate-Filled Bastard for a Night

Last Thursday, I attended the fifth installment of Ignite Baltimore, an event designed to get people excited about creating positive change in Baltimore.

And yet, somehow, the experience had the exact opposite effect on me… and this got me thinking about HOW we talk about the things we most care about, and why we might want to change our approach.

How an Allegedly Inspirational Event Turned Me Into a Loathsome Beast

Ignite is billed as a rapid-fire salon of ideas, in which a dozen speakers talk for 5 minutes (and 20 Power Point slides) about a subject they’re passionate about.  For the most part, the presentations on this night were somewhat insightful, occasionally incoherent, but mostly harmless.

And then something happened that I’m still trying to process, because it altered my perception of reality.

15-year old environmental activist Hannah Freedman took the stage and delivered an eloquent, well-rehearsed, mildly convincing argument for the importance of youth activism.  I was impressed by her chutzpah, and I was clapping at all the times when I was supposed to be clapping.

And then I noticed the body language of the couple in front of me.

Slumped.  Stoic.  Slightly pained.  They looked as though they wanted to be anywhere but here, and they projected a stark resentment of everything Hannah — and, by extension, Ignite itself — stood for.

This momentarily irritated me, and I thought about reveling in my ethical superiority for being able to appreciate something as fundamentally galvanizing as youth activism.

But then I tried something different: I adopted (what I presumed was) this couple’s point of view.

I sat there, slumped and indifferent, to see how it would feel to resent a teenager for having the temerity to care about her own future.

I found it alarmingly easy to do.

In fact, the only more alarming part was how hard it was to shake that point of view.

When Hannah concluded her speech with something like, “Because we are the future, and you can either complain about it or you can help us,” I almost shouted something at the stage, Joe Wilson style.  That’s when my girlfriend realized she’d have to psychologically restrain me for the rest of the event.

All night long, I found myself unable to resume my traditional worldview.  Anytime someone took the stage, I implicitly rejected their claims as false because they didn’t jibe with my newly-adopted values of capitalism and protectionism.

I started to hate the arts, the government and people in general.

I refused to smile or applaud.  My girlfriend Ann and our friend Maya, seated on either side of me, went from being annoyed at my behavior to being angry at my obviously negative judgment of the event, concerned that I might ruin it for someone else.

Even Dave Troy, who’s well-known as a tireless cheerleader for Baltimore’s future (and who was sitting directly in front of me) moved a few seats away.  Granted, that could have been due to any reason, but I can’t help but feel that my aural negativity drove him to seek shelter.

My Newfound Hatred, in a Nutshell

My visceral reaction to the night can be summed up by a recap of the presentations.

Of the 13 talks delivered:

  • 4 of them either directly or indirectly urged attendees to fund the arts
  • 2 of them urged adults to take children seriously
  • 1 of them urged attendees to donate to Haiti
  • 1 of them urged attendees to donate used cell phones to Africa
  • 1 of them urged the creation of a federal Department of Peace
  • and 1 of them explained how Wolverine embodies the American ideal

As a social liberal and fiscal conservative, I would normally have appreciated the pluck of the presentations, even if I would have doubted their ability to make a damn bit of difference.

But on this particular night, thanks to my newly aggravated and seat-slumped soul mates, I left the auditorium irate at the audacity of the speakers.  Namely:

  • If the arts are so important, why can’t they MAKE MONEY without begging me for it?
  • If MORE government is the solution to anything, I’ll eat my hat.
  • If dying Haitians and Africans need help, why don’t they just GET JOBS?
  • If kids are our future, why can’t they prove their merit without COMPLAINING?

In short: stop telling me why I should care about your problems; SHOW ME WHY IT’S RELEVANT TO ME.

BE RESPONSIBLE.

PROVE THAT YOU’RE DOING YOUR BEST, and maybe I’ll feel like your cause is worth my time / effort / resources.  (But, honestly, probably not, because I work hard for my money and I’ll never warm to the idea of you begging me for a handout.)

Nonetheless, MEAN SOMETHING to me, and maybe I’ll care.

(And for fuck’s sake, Wolverine is Canadian.)

So… About Last Night…

Needless to say, I woke up feeling “normal” again on Friday, but it still took me a few more days to wrap my head around why I was so upset on Thursday.  And I think it boils down to the following:

  • I cannot believe how easily I adopted a POV I normally reject as inhumanely self-centered.
  • That kind of ingrained resistance to change is addictive.
  • Hating everything didn’t make me feel better about myself, but the alternative didn’t make any sense either.  Thus, I was trapped in an illogical whirlpool of loathing.

All of which made me realize that liberals will never be able to convince the conservatives of the world that liberal ideas are valid because conservatives and liberals don’t even see the same reality.

If two sides can’t agree on the facts, their shared needs and the benefits of the most likely outcomes, there’s no hope for “bipartisanship,” much less a civil discussion of what we as a country (or a city) need in order to prosper (or even survive).

So, as a way to make up for the karma I likely burned during my Thursday night shitstorm, here’s my morning-after pitch on how we (usual) liberals can better bridge the gap between what we think matters and what everyone else thinks is important.

3 Ways to Keep the Haters From Dismissing Your Worthless Ideas

1.  Stop treating the arts like a helpless, valueless charity. The arts have been around for as long as we’ve been civilized.  But to hear modern arts professionals explain it, the arts will shrivel and die unless bleeding heart patrons (and our own tax dollars) can keep them on life support.

If the arts aren’t at least partially self-sufficient, no amount of hand-wringing will convince the people holding the purse strings that they’re worth supporting.

Here’s a secret: no one wants to invest in something that doesn’t believe it can survive under its own power.  People are funny; once a charity or an artist proves it can keep itself alive no matter what, we’re more inclined to support it with our own donations because it respects itself.

Begging?  Never sexy.  And if you believe that opera, theatre, live music and visual arts are sexy and life-affirming, you need to start by affirming your own will to live.

2.  Kids: Stop Talking Down to Your Parents.

Listen, I know we live in a fucked-up culture where the opinions of 14 year-olds are more highly-prized than the opinions of 65 year-olds because those 14 year-olds have access to more disposable income than the Medicare generation does.  But just because we who market products to children tell kids that we value their opinions, that doesn’t mean we really do.  At least, not beyond the ways in which their opinions can be exploited to make us rich.

If you’re under the age of 22 and you want to change the world, be my guest.  The world could use a good sprucing-up.  But you won’t get there by admonishing the adults for ignoring you, because the fact is, adults ignore everything, including their own consciences and common sense.

Revel in your youth.  Then do something.  We like to say “actions speak louder than words” because, like most cliches, this one is always true.

3.  Lead by example.

One of the best presentations of the night, even despite my hate-induced stupor, was delivered by Ellen Worthing.  It was about “bushwacking,” the art of (literally) going off the beaten path to discover something all your own.  In Worthing’s case, she detailed her frequent excursions into the bowels of Maryland, aided by her GPS unit and a suspicion that something more interesting was “out there.”  And she was usually right.

Ellen’s presentation filled the audience with admiration for her rugged individualism.  She tacked on an obligatory “follow your own path” generalism in her last slide, as a way of making her presentation about “us” instead of just her, but it was unnecessary; by showing us what she was capable of, she ignited more inspiration in her 500 listeners than anyone else did all night.

And, best of all, she didn’t ask anyone for money.

In Conclusion…

I’m sure Ignite Baltimore got a lot of people talking, which is the whole point.  (Technically, the whole point should be getting people to take action, but that’s a little too optimistic for a $5 event with a cash bar.)

And maybe the ideas people absorbed that night will get them moving.  Maybe some old cell phones will get donated to medical workers in Africa.  Maybe a few more people will pay for a night at the opera, or will venture out to an art event they might otherwise have ignored.

But if we really want to ignite Baltimore and get people moving in a positive direction, what we need are more people who lead by example and fewer people trying to guilt the public into a handout.

Because the only thing more addictive than doubting the relevance of everything is being inspired by seeing someone else exceed our own pessimistic expectations.

* If you’ve ever seen an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, you know what I’m talking about: anytime Will Smith’s friend (and real-life DJ) Jazzy Jeff says or does something inappropriate, Uncle Phil bum-rushes him out of the house, limbs flailing.

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  • http://www.handsonblog.org/ JKatPOLI

    So clearly you don't turn into a werewolf, you turn into Ayn Rand.

  • TomRoyce

    Justin

    A great post. It is going to ruffle a great deal of feathers, but at the end it makes people think.

    Our culture has turned the Arts into a bifurcated world. There are the high achievers who earn amazing amounts of money on one side. They are typically lauded in public and resented in private by other artists. The other artists feel that they should be subsidized to create their art by the population at large.

    I would love to see a survey of those in the audience on this topic.

  • davetroy

    When I was 16, I made an appointment with my parish priest to tell him how much I hated his Sunday sermon, one begging for money.

    “Tell me what you're going to *do* with it. Inspire me. Make me care. Instead it's the same damn thing month after month, and it's annoying and ineffective,” I ranted.

    He responded by suggesting that I'd make a good priest some day. While that was an unlikely path for me, I took his overall advice to heart.

    Instead of bitching, lead. Instead of complaining, do something.

    For what it's worth, Thursday left me pissed off as well, and I also didn't recover til Friday (though I didn't consciously move away from you). We can do better. We can do more than celebrate each others' endearing shortcomings in a mutual mediocrity society.

    Agreed, the bushwhacking talk was the best one, and it was because it was about something internal, not just an attempt at external manipulation or self promotion.

    And to you, Justin, I challenge you to join in. Say something that matters. Change the tone. I am going to take an active role in the next round of Ignite talk selections. You should do the same and submit a talk about something that matters to you. And no, I won't give you any fucking money or support your charity. ;)

  • http://justinkownacki.blogspot.com Justin Kownacki

    ME, get involved?….

    … perhaps.

    When I lived in Pittsburgh, I felt very involved and invested in its
    future. I'm still early in my Baltimore experience, so I'm exploring
    what I might care about enough to take action to improve. That may
    manifest itself as a group, or an event, or a creative outlet, or
    (egad) an Ignite talk. But it's good to know the channels for
    communication are open.

    Thanks for your comment, Dave. I'm sure future Baltimoreans will be
    collectively thankful that you decided against the priesthood.

  • http://uptownuncorked.com geechee_girl

    I don't comment here as often as I'd like because really, how many times can one type “I love this post” before saying it loses meaning?

    But hey, I love this post. ;)

  • http://justinkownacki.blogspot.com Justin Kownacki

    And how often can I say “aw, shucks” and gaze at the floor before I
    have to become a rhythm guitarist for Bright Eyes?

  • http://uptownuncorked.com geechee_girl

    HA. Hey, when you're on a roll…

  • maya

    while i agree with you that the event seemed mostly like one big pitch to separate me from my (meager artist's) wages, i find your view in point #1 (that 'artists should quit whining and work harder to earn more') to be myopic at best. the fact is that this country consistently and increasingly sends the message that the arts don't matter, and that science and technology are the keys to our Delorean into the future. while it may be true that people feel more inclined to financially support those who can self-sustain, how exactly do you propose that artists (living in the States, anyway) do that in the current environment and its values?

  • http://justinkownacki.blogspot.com Justin Kownacki

    It's not just the arts that make me feel this way; it's *every*
    American institution whose first recourse for survival is to beg for
    handouts. I'd like to think that General Motors, your favorite
    theatre and your least-favorite homeless panhandler have nothing
    common, but alas, they do: a willingness to expect other people to
    support their illogical career choices.

    It's a chicken-and-egg argument: does America receive the message that
    the arts don't matter because they're always begging for money, or are
    the arts always begging for money because people are led to believe
    they don't matter?

    If I had a solution, I'd be happy to implement it. In the meantime,
    I'd just like to point out that the artists' habit of whining and
    begging others to validate their craft isn't nearly as enticing a
    clarion call as they must think it is.

  • maya

    illogical career choices? seriously?

    also, i don't believe it's a chicken-and-egg argument. arts organizations didn't have to beg for money quite as much before the Reagan administration.

    and is this blog post really 'leading by example?'

  • http://justinkownacki.blogspot.com Justin Kownacki

    No, but my next blog posts will. ;)

    I know, I know: I'm a lover of the arts, so it's hard for me to rail
    against them from a financial point of view. But the simple truth is,
    the more reliant anyone's future is on the generosity of others, the
    less freedom and potential s/he has to make use of.

    On the other hand, I don't believe all art is supposed to
    automatically be “product” or “commodity,” either. There's room for a
    wide variety of artists and their approaches to survival. But
    realistically, there are only so many donations to go around. It's
    like unemployment benefits; eventually, people have to find other ways
    to fund their dreams.

  • maya

    there is a difference between funding individual artists and funding arts organizations.

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  • http://subelsky.com Mike Subelsky

    Obviously this was not a lot of fun for me to read as I have invested a large amount of energy, time, and a little money into Ignite. I'm sorry to hear you had such a bad experience. I thought it was a really fun night with a lot of cool ideas tossed around.

    We have a panel of 20 judges who vote on what proposals get selected, but we never really know what kind of a night we're going to have until the day of, because the actual talks often take a different shape than what we imagined reading the proposals. In this case, 3 of the speakers who were not covering artistic subjects canceled at the last minute, which I can see might have unbalanced the night in some way for you. By the tone of this post, I imagine you would have really enjoyed the counterpoint of “Why I Don't Want Children (or, How My Uterus Became a Shriveled Walnut)”. If you'd like to be on that panel feel free to email me at mike@ignitebaltimore.com.

    Also, I dare you to propose a talk for Ignite #6 where you “lead by example”.

  • http://justinkownacki.blogspot.com Justin Kownacki

    Mike: I understand your frustrations. I've organized events where
    200-300 people had a wonderful time, but it was the comments from a
    handful of naysayers that stuck in my head for weeks.

    I'd also like to clarify that I, too, was having a decent time until I
    tried on a new value system. At that point, you could have handed me
    a free ice cream cone that was the size of my head and I still would
    have complained about something — probably Ignite's lack of options
    for the lactose-intolerant.

    My concerns have less to do with Ignite itself than they do with the
    ways individuals strain incoming information through their own
    prejudices, and whether there's a way to improve upon the expected
    results.

    So don't worry about me; worry about Ignite. You've obviously done a
    great job at getting people interested in the format, the material and
    the camaraderie that it offers. If the bulk of your attendees are
    pleased, then you're doing a good job. If YOU'RE not pleased, that's
    when you might want to reconsider the material or the approach.

    As for you daring me to lead by example, wouldn't I therefore need to
    dare you to accept my proposal? ;)

  • http://DoPeace.ning.com/ tednunn

    Damn. I knew I should have gone before Hannah.

  • http://justinkownacki.blogspot.com Justin Kownacki

    Don't worry, Ted. The liberal me would normally believe a Department
    of Peace is a noble idea. And the Libertarian me would concede that
    it's at least as logical as a Department of Defense. But the
    curmudgeonly me was a poorly-mixed gimlet away from attending the
    nearest tea party; don't take it personally.

  • davetroy

    Just wanted to pipe in and say that Mike and the rest of the Ignite team have done a tremendous job in shepherding Ignite to the place where it is, and my comments here were intended as constructive criticism.

    I believe things can always be improved, and I'm probably a harsher critic about things I myself am involved in and care about a lot. Ignite is one of those things, and I reiterate my challenge to you Justin to get involved and help us all keep raising the bar!

  • Anonymous

    Just wanted to pipe in and say that Mike and the rest of the Ignite team have done a tremendous job in shepherding Ignite to the place where it is, and my comments here were intended as constructive criticism.nnI believe things can always be improved, and I’m probably a harsher critic about things I myself am involved in and care about a lot. Ignite is one of those things, and I reiterate my challenge to you Justin to get involved and help us all keep raising the bar!

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