By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Together we walk across a small patch of lawn to the guesthouse, which is where Boyd and Blades have their office. Boyd is solidly built and balding, with blue eyes, a high forehead and reddish-blond hair that’s turning gray. The first time I laid eyes on him, at the Take Back America conference in Washington, D.C., in June, he reminded me oddly of Dick Cheney. He has that same technocratic aura. And now, sitting in his office, across from a bookcase weighed down with titles such as General Relativity, The Dawning of Gauge Theoryand The Life of the Cosmos, I feel as if I’m talking to a younger and, of course, much more liberal version of the vice president. He calls himself a “process person,” talks about “global capital bulges,” refers to democracy as an engineering problem, and in general comes across as a policy wonk without portfolio. What annoys him is that the wrong politicians are in power, rigid ideologues who, he believes, launch wars for no good reason and can’t strategize their way out of a paper bag.
Even in jeans, a T-shirt and sneakers, with a day’s growth of ginger stubble on his chin, Boyd manages to look like a CEO. On his desk a laptop computer emits a series of bizarre beeps and burps and chirrups whenever something lands in his e-mail box, which seems to be about every 10 seconds. He sits in a swivel chair and drums his fingers impatiently.
“The guy’s a natural,” says Lawrence Comras, president and CEO of Greenhome.com. “He was always ahead of his time, and just really understood what computers could do. After Darkwas really Zen-like, when everything else was very frenetic. You Don’t Know Jackwas the first game show on a computer, and it presaged a whole slew of gaming apps like it. And MoveOn is again showing us what it means to harness the power of computing, this time for social change. It’s about time.”
Boyd says that what he really likes to do is build systems and companies from the ground up and get them to the point where they can be turned over to someone else. That’s what happened with Berkeley Systems, and MoveOn is approaching that stage now. The staff still numbers only 10 people. But thanks to the magic of the Internet, a single MoveOn staffer, using a laptop, can rally half a million protesters worldwide from a small room on West 57th Street in New York, as Eli Pariser did in the fateful winter of 2003. In a couple of years, Boyd and Blades plan to re-enter the business world and start a new software company. But for now, politics remains their focus, and in a larger sense, the need for strategic thinking about the problems that face America and the world. “The system in this country has really become all about fund-raising,” he says. “It has become about leaders spending the majority of their time not on policy or figuring out the big issues that affect us all, because they have to spend that time on the telephone talking to rich people to bring in the money so that they can mount the next campaign. And it’s just a disaster. It’s a disaster for them personally, and it’s a disaster for the country, and because this country’s so powerful, for the world. We can’t be strategic.”
It seems, then, that the problem is fundamental. But can the answer be simple? Boyd believes it can. Most political issues, he argues, can be stripped down to an ethical core. Without an undue amount of work, the average citizen can study them and find a coherent position on them. Specialists, on the other hand, are often mired in their various political subcultures, with the result that their thinking becomes distorted and their conclusions almost outrageously wrong-headed. As an example of the latter, he cites the Iraq war, which he claims was “clearlynot the most strategic move” America could have made in its war on terror. Even calling it a “war on terror,” he believes, was a mistake; what was needed was international police action. Cops and robbers on an epic, global scale.
“I actually think that one of the most dangerous phenomena is the bowing to expertise, whether it’s in international relations or how to use technologies,” he says.
Like his wife, Boyd laments the divisiveness of Washington politics — but then, so does everyone else. It has become a ritual gesture of self-exoneration, as when Fox News reporters bemoan partisanship. Love it or hate it, the success of MoveOn is clearly contributing to the country’s polarization. And it is precisely because it is polarizing that so many people love it. This isn’t a wishy-washy election season.
Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican pollster, argues that MoveOn and organizations like it are the left-wing equivalent of talk radio. “What the Internet has done is, it has organized the hate-Bush crowd and allowed them to communicate with each other,” he says, giving MoveOn its due. It has allowed liberals to organize, get out a consistent message, apply political pressure and raise millions of dollars. But the impact, he says, is only on “the true believers”: Republicans and swing voters pay no more attention to their message than liberals do to Rush Limbaugh.