On a meet-the-parents trip to Cleveland, in his would-be mother-in-law’s kitchen, Jackson Brown’s ex-girlfriend’s mom popped the question as earnestly as is possible over a plate eggs and beanie-weenies: Are you a leader or a follower? In the moment, he weaseled out of responding, but this facile formulation, to be honest, still nags him to this day.
The question presents, of course, a false binary. No one posits that Christmas parades consist of a color guard out front and then everyone else bringing up the rear—Kris Kringle, it’s fair to say, is no follower. And nearly a decade now into his life as an administrator, he recognizes that leadership is just as much about hiring the right people and empowering them to succeed as it is about directing traffic.
Still, as an artist, Jackson quibbles over the idea of “thought leaders,” a term with an uneasy rhetorical proximity to “mind controllers,” and which, along with its sister term “influencers,” bears the euphemistic ring of commercial exploitation. Perhaps he’s in the minority, but in the cartography of his writer’s mind, there’s no direct or dotted line between artistic concept and dollar signs. Just as thought is inseparable from thinkers, ideas, for Jackson, are inseparable from stories, and stories, in turn, inseparable from voices, those voices inextricably bound to the cacophony of others yelling, crying, praying around them.
That’s why his work—that which Jackson does for money and otherwise—is dialogic, that is, performed with a commitment to pluralism and an awareness of the work’s debt to, engagement with, and impact on the voices of others. This work is not easy and has consequences, but he learns from it immensely, about his self, about relationships, about the whirling galactic slurry we’re all swimming in. He likens the process to falling asleep at the wheel each night and awakening safe, sound, but in a different city than the one he’d set out for—neither turning the wheel nor following directions but serving as a conduit through which different agents act, other voices speak.
So, yeah, he’s a conduit. Perhaps had Jackson summoned that answer in Cleveland things would have turned out differently. He can see his would-be mother-in-law’s eyes widen gravely with that reply, see her reach for his shoulders to jostle him awake with the realization of where things are headed. Perhaps then he would have followed directions. Perhaps then he would have taken the wheel.
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