A NEW KIND OF POLITICAL FIGURE

~ Posted by Tim de Lisle, April 12th 2013

In this issue we come as near as we ever have to putting a politician on the cover. If you are in charge of a country, you can be on the cover of dozens of magazines, but not this one. On the whole, we leave politics to our learned friends on The Economist, who cover it every week with unbeatable assurance. But we have made a half-exception for Ricken Patel.

Half, because he is not quite a politician. He is a political figure of a kind that didn’t exist a decade ago: an online campaigner, using the internet to drum up support for causes that he feels most people believe in. The organisation he heads, Avaaz, has just reached a big milestone—20m members, as it calls them. We prefer "followers", as there is no membership fee, no club colours; all the 20m have to show is a willingness to receive e-mails highlighting injustices. But a striking number of them, often running to seven figures, join in the action that the e-mail advocates. "Don’t just sit there, do something," goes the old saying. The web allows us to sit there and do something. After signing a petition to save a species or protest at a regime that fires on its own people, you feel a little less powerless.

We sent our online editor, Robert Butler, to New York, to hang around Avaaz's office. He saw Patel and his colleagues putting a lot of thought into working out what would press the public’s buttons—much like orthodox politicians. Patel emerges as an intriguing mixture of thinker and doer, demagogue and idealist.

What he does is hard to quantify and easy to scoff at. We were more interested in discovering where his drive to change the world came from. Long ago Butler worked at the National Theatre, so he is used to having to establish where a character’s motivation lies. He spent enough time with Patel to find an illuminating answer to that question.

Tim de Lisle is editor of Intelligent Life