Thursday, February 23, 2012 4:01 PM
Back in January, Will Oremus of Slate posted a “horse-race” animated video based on the Republican nominating contest so far. Complete with a checkered-flag delegate count and a news ticker with headlines like “Romney and Perry Are Neck and Neck,” the cartoon is a surprisingly good overview of the past twenty-three months of indecision. It’s also a vivid symbol of the current state of electoral politics. As Oremus concludes, “If people want a horse race, why not give them a horse race?”
True enough. But which people are we talking about? From the media blitz of biweekly debates, daily front page stories, and ubiquitous attack ads, you’d think prospective voters would be turning out in record numbers. But participation in caucuses and primaries has so far been dismal, begging the question of whether this election cycle is more about entertainment than participation.
Compared with 2008, turnout has been down in almost every state nominating contest, from a 7 percent drop in Colorado, to almost 25 percent in Nevada, Minnesota, and Florida, to more than half in Missouri. And even in states where numbers were more or less the same as in 2008, the share of registered Republicans among participants has dropped off. In New Hampshire, this group made up 17 percent less than during the previous cycle. South Carolina is the only state to see a substantial increase from 2008, despite the fact that overall spending and media attention was higher in other states like Florida. As Barry Sussman of Nieman Watchdogpoints out, this downward trend is occurring despite the fact that there is no Democratic contest to siphon off moderates and independents.
But what is really surprising about the current election cycle is the level of spectacle it is assuming. Voter interest may be down across the board, but viewer interest is way up. Ratings for the almost biweekly Republican debates have dwarfed 2008-cycle numbers, and have gone up since the beginning of the year. Millions have tuned in to watch the slick pageantry—which for some reason usually includes studio audiences—and comparisons to reality TV are not hard to find.
Some observers say that the unending debates this year have had a positive impact, perhaps making spending on ads less attractive if candidates can get their message out in a kind of public forum. This may be a valuable tool in the immediate aftermath of the Citizens United decision, goes the argument. Fair point. But with such low turnout in the political process itself, does it really matter where the media blitz is coming from? If candidates are just going over rehearsed sound bites and attacking each other, how valuable is it?
The real danger is an election cycle in which people are more interested in passive entertainment than active participation—and a media system that enables this turnover. The overwhelming media circus is what Tom Engelhardt of The Nation calls a “too-big-to-fail juggernaut,” divorced from voters as well as reality.
Slate’s horse race video is a good metaphor, taking us through the nearly two years of PR campaigns, personal attacks, and candidacy announcements that we’ve seen so far. The actual general election—the part where a group of people who are definitely on the ballot compete for actual votes—lasts just under ten weeks. But in order to get to that point, we need to endure another six months of increasingly nasty debates, slick attack ads, and endless dispatches from the Derby infield. Don’t forget the popcorn.
On The Media (NPR)
Sam Ross-Brown is an assistant editor at Utne Reader.
Image by Howcheng, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, January 05, 2012 1:52 PM
This post originally appeared at
My resolution for 2012 is to be naïve—dangerously naïve.
I’m aware that the usual recipe for political effectiveness is just the opposite: to be cynical, calculating, an insider. But if you think, as I do, that we need deep change in this country, then cynicism is a sucker’s bet. Try as hard as you can, you’re never going to be as cynical as the corporations and the harem of politicians they pay for. It’s like trying to outchant a Buddhist monastery.
Here’s my case in point, one of a thousand stories people working for social change could tell: All last fall, most of the environmental movement, including 350.org, the group I helped found, waged a fight against the planned Keystone XL pipeline that would bring some of the dirtiest energy on the planet from Canada through the U.S. to the Gulf Coast. We waged our struggle against building it out in the open, presenting scientific argument, holding demonstrations, and attending hearings. We sent 1,253 people to jailin the largest civil disobedience action in a generation. Meanwhile, more than half a million Americans offered public comments against the pipeline, the most on any energy project in the nation’s history.
And what do you know? We won a small victory in November, when President Obama agreed that, before he could give the project a thumbs-up or -down, it needed another year of careful review. (The previous version of that review, as overseen by the State Department, had been little short of a crony capitalist farce.) Given that James Hansen, the government’s premier climate scientist, had said that tapping Canada’s tar sands for that pipeline would, in the end, essentially mean “game over for the climate,” that seemed an eminently reasonable course to follow, even if it was also eminently political.
A few weeks later, however, Congress decided it wanted to take up the question. In the process, the issue went from out in the open to behind closed doors in money-filled rooms. Within days, and after only a couple of hours of hearings that barely mentioned the key scientific questions or the dangers involved, the House of Representatives voted 234-194 to force a quicker review of the pipeline. Later, the House attached its demand to the must-pass payroll tax cut.
That was an obvious pre-election year attempt to put the president on the spot. Environmentalists are at least hopeful that the White House will now reject the permit. After all, its communications director said that the rider, by hurrying the decision, “virtually guarantees that the pipeline will not be approved.”
As important as the vote total in the House, however, was another number: within minutes of the vote, Oil Change International had calculated that the 234 Congressional representatives who voted aye had received $42 million in campaign contributions from the fossil-fuel industry; the 193 nays, $8 million.
I know that cynics—call them realists, if you prefer—will be completely unsurprised by that. Which is precisely the problem.
We’ve reached the point where we’re unfazed by things that should shake us to the core. So, just for a moment, be naïve and consider what really happened in that vote: the people’s representatives who happen to have taken the bulk of the money from those energy companies promptly voted on behalf of their interests.
They weren’t weighing science or the national interest; they weren’t balancing present benefits against future costs. Instead of doing the work of legislators, that is, they were acting like employees. Forget the idea that they’re public servants; the truth is that, in every way that matters, they work for Exxon and its kin. They should, by rights, wear logos on their lapels like NASCAR drivers.
If you find this too harsh, think about how obligated you feel when someone gives you something. Did you get a Christmas present last month from someone you hadn’t remembered to buy one for? Are you going to send them an extra-special one next year?
And that’s for a pair of socks. Speaker of the House John Boehner, who insisted that the Keystone approval decision be speeded up, has gotten $1,111,080 from the fossil-fuel industry during his tenure. His Senate counterpart Mitch McConnell, who shepherded the bill through his chamber, has raked in $1,277,208 in the course of his tenure in Washington.
If someone had helped your career to the tune of a million dollars, wouldn’t you feel in their debt? I would. I get somewhat less than that from my employer, Middlebury College, and yet I bleed Panther blue. Don’t ask me to compare my school with, say, Dartmouth unless you want a biased answer, because that’s what you’ll get. Which is fine—I am an employee.
But you’d be a fool to let me referee the homecoming football game. In fact, in any other walk of life we wouldn’t think twice before concluding that paying off the referees is wrong. If the Patriots make the Super Bowl, everyone in America would be outraged to see owner Robert Kraft trot out to midfield before the game and hand a $1,000 bill to each of the linesmen and field judges.
If he did it secretly, the newspaper reporter who uncovered the scandal would win a Pulitzer. But a political reporter who bothered to point out Boehner’s and McConnell’s payoffs would be upbraided by her editor for simpleminded journalism. That’s how the game is played and we’ve all bought into it, even if only to sputter in hopeless outrage.
Far from showing any shame, the big players boast about it: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, front outfit for a consortium of corporations, has bragged on its website about outspending everyone in Washington, which is easy to do when Chevron, Goldman Sachs, and News Corp are writing you seven-figure checks. This really matters. The Chamber of Commerce spent more money on the 2010 elections than the Republican and Democratic National Committees combined, and 94% of those dollars went to climate-change deniers. That helps explain why the House voted last year to say that global warming isn’t real.
It also explains why “our” representatives vote, year in and year out, for billions of dollars worth of subsidies for fossil-fuel companies. If there was ever an industry that didn’t need subsidies, it would be this one: they make more moneyeach year than any enterprise in the history of money. Not only that, but we’ve known how to burn coal for 300 years and oil for 200.
Those subsidies are simply payoffs. Companies give small gifts to legislators, and in return get large ones back, and we’re the ones who are actually paying.
Whose Money? Whose Washington?
I don’t want to be hopelessly naïve. I want to be hopefully naïve. It would be relatively easy to change this: you could provide public financing for campaigns instead of letting corporations pay. It’s the equivalent of having the National Football League hire referees instead of asking the teams to provide them.
Public financing of campaigns would cost a little money, but endlessly less than paying for the presents these guys give their masters. And it would let you watch what was happening in Washington without feeling as disgusted. Even legislators, once they got the hang of it, might enjoy neither raising money nor having to pretend it doesn’t affect them.
To make this happen, however, we may have to change the Constitution, as we’ve done 27 times before. This time, we’d need to specify that corporations aren’t people, that money isn’t speech, and that it doesn’t abridge the First Amendment to tell people they can’t spend whatever they want getting elected. Winning a change like that would require hard political organizing, since big banks and big oil companies and big drug-makers will surely rally to protect their privilege.
Still, there’s a chance. The Occupy movement opened the door to this sort of change by reminding us all that the system is rigged, that its outcomes are unfair, that there’s reason to think people from across the political spectrum are tired of what we’ve got, and that getting angry and acting on that anger in the political arena is what being a citizen is all about.
It’s fertile ground for action. After all, Congress’s approval rating is now at 9%, which is another way of saying that everyone who’s not a lobbyist hates them and what they’re doing. The big boys are, of course, counting on us simmering down; they’re counting on us being cynical, on figuring there’s no hope or benefit in fighting city hall. But if we’re naïve enough to demand a country more like the one we were promised in high school civics class, then we have a shot.
A good time to take an initial stand comes later this month, when rallies outside every federal courthouse will mark the second anniversary of the Citizens United decision. That’s the one where the Supreme Court ruled that corporations had the right to spend whatever they wanted on campaigns.
To me, that decision was, in essence, corporate America saying, “We’re not going to bother pretending any more. This country belongs to us.”
We need to say, loud and clear: “Sorry. Time to give it back.”
Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of the global climate campaign
, and the author, most recently, of
Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
. To catch Timothy MacBain’s first Tomcast audio interview of the new year in which McKibben discusses how the rest of us can compete with a system in which money talks, click here, or download it to your iPod here.
Copyright 2012 Bill McKibben
Image by Fort Wainwright Public Affairs Office, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, October 19, 2011 11:34 AM
The comedian Rob Delaney has a an interesting piece on Vice’s Tumblr about his voting track record and what that means in the larger picture of American politics. That is, voting specifically, and more generally, having your voice heard.
People on the Internet tell me every day to “stick to the jokes, pal” and I wanted to outline why I will do no such thing, and why you shouldn’t either. If in fact I should “stick to the jokes” since I’m a comedian, that would suggest that politics should be left to politicians. And we know that many politicians (like large numbers of those who make up the United States Congress, for example) are very, very bad at politics. They quite literally NEED my help. And your help. And since we live in a Democratic republic, I will continue to share my opinion whenever I feel like it. And please feel free to disagree with me. Jesus, I hope you do, because there are many things I don’t know and many things I’m surely wrong about. I am a comedian. But a comedian’s opinion matters in the United States of America, as does a pipefitter’s, a truck driver’s, and a heart surgeon’s.
Delaney explains why he’s voted, in the last four presidential elections, for Bob Dole (1996), Ralph Nader (2000), John Kerry (2004), and Nader again (2008). His goal in telling readers this is laudable:
I told you who I’ve voted for over the years because I wanted to lay bare my thought process and show some things that I would change if I had a time machine. I wanted to show evidence of a person who believed one thing, gathered evidence, and then changed his mind. I wanted to do something that most politicians refuse to do, i.e. show some humility/teachability.
Again, he’s not claiming his voice is any more or less important than anyone else’s. And that’s exactly why it’s as important to hear from him as it would be to hear from anyone else. As I wrote yesterday, though, because of voter suppression laws sweeping this nation, we’re likely to hear fewer and fewer voices at the ballot box next year.
Image by April Sikorski, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, October 18, 2011 4:49 PM
From new photo ID requirements to permanently disenfranchising citizens with past felony convictions to ending same-day registration, many states have introduced bills and passed legislation this year that will put in place obstacles that make it significantly harder for millions of people to vote in 2012. Five million, in fact, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, an institute that focuses on issues such as voting rights and campaign reform.
In a report on the voting law changes the authors, Wendy R. Weiser and Lawrence Norden, write:
Ahead of the 2012 elections, a wave of legislation tightening restrictions on voting has suddenly swept across the country. More than five million Americans could be affected by the new rules already put in place this year—a number larger than the margin of victory in two of the last three presidential elections.
As writer Ari Berman points out in this video, these changes are coming “just in time for Barack Obama’s reelection campaign.” While those leading the charge for voter suppression laws cry foul on charges of intentional disenfranchisement, claiming the moral high ground as warriors against voter fraud, Berman points out in a recent Rolling Stone article, “A major probe by the Justice Department between 2002 and 2007 failed to prosecute a single person for going to the polls and impersonating an eligible voter, which the anti-fraud laws are supposedly designed to stop.” He continues:
Out of the 300 million votes cast in that period, federal prosecutors convicted only 86 people for voter fraud – and many of the cases involved immigrants and former felons who were simply unaware of their ineligibility. A much-hyped investigation in Wisconsin, meanwhile, led to the prosecution of only .0007 percent of the local electorate for alleged voter fraud. "Our democracy is under siege from an enemy so small it could be hiding anywhere," joked Stephen Colbert.
Writing for Al Jazeera, Heather Digby Parton gives some historical context to this current state of affairs, arguing that, against the interests of the wealthy and privileged, voting rights for all Americans “was one of the great American democratic accomplishments of the 20th century.”
In the United States, there has always been tension about the franchise, going all the way back to the beginning of the Republic. Aristocrats were afraid of it for the simple reason that it would mean the government might have to represent and defend people whose interests interfere with their own interests: to maintain their wealth and pass it down to their heirs.
Whenever you give the vote to poor people and others who need government's protections against the predations of privilege, you are endangering that arrangement - and the privileged fight back. Conservatives are traditionally their soldiers in that battle….[Today] conservatives have been able to leverage racial resentment and a sort of perverted populism to help their wealthy benefactors keep their money.
The Brennan Center for Justice report looks to be “the first full accounting and analysis of this year's voting cutbacks” and seeing them all together—along with their possible consequences on future elections—is sobering, to say the least. It begs us to keep in mind what Utne Reader associate editor Danielle Magnuson wrote in an earlier post on this topic: “voting for our leaders is not a privilege but a sacred right. A disenfranchised person’s vote has the same weight as that of a wealthy and powerful person—and that’s the way it should remain.” Unfortunately, many in charge around the country seem to disagree.
Source: Brennan Center for Justice, Rolling Stone, Al Jazeera
Image by robertpalmer, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, February 25, 2011 2:36 PM
This is a global moment unlike any in memory, perhaps in history. Yes, comparisons can be made to the wave of people power that swept Eastern Europe as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989-91. For those with longer memories, perhaps 1968 might come to mind, that abortive moment when, in the United States, France, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Brazil, and elsewhere, including Eastern Europe, masses of people mysteriously inspired by each other took to the streets of global cities to proclaim that change was on the way.
For those searching the history books, perhaps you’ve focused on the year 1848 when, in a time that also mixed economic gloom with novel means of disseminating the news, the winds of freedom seemed briefly to sweep across Europe. And, of course, if enough regimes fall and the turmoil goes deep enough, there’s always 1776, the American Revolution, or 1789, the French one, to consider. Both shook up the world for decades after.
But here’s the truth of it: you have to strain to fit this Middle Eastern moment into any previous paradigm, even as—from Wisconsin to China—it already threatens to break out of the Arab world and spread like a fever across the planet. Never in memory have so many unjust or simply despicable rulers felt quite so nervous—or possibly quite so helpless (despite being armed to the teeth)—in the presence of unarmed humanity. And there has to be joy and hope in that alone.
Even now, without understanding what it is we face, watching staggering numbers of people, many young and dissatisfied, take to the streets in Morocco, Mauritania, Djibouti, Oman, Algeria, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Yemen, and Libya, not to mention Bahrain, Tunisia, and Egypt, would be inspirational. Watching them face security forces using batons, tear gas, rubber bullets, and in all too many cases, real bullets (in Libya, even helicopters and planes) and somehow grow stronger is little short of unbelievable. Seeing Arabs demanding something we were convinced was the birthright and property of the West, of the United States in particular, has to send a shiver down anyone’s spine.
The nature of this potentially world-shaking phenomenon remains unknown and probably, at this point, unknowable. Are freedom and democracy about to break out all over? And if so, what will that turn out to mean? If not, what exactly are we seeing? What light bulb was it that so unexpectedly turned on in millions of Twittered and Facebooked brains—and why now? I doubt those who are protesting, and in some cases dying, know themselves. And that’s good news. That the future remains—always—the land of the unknown should offer us hope, not least because that’s the bane of ruling elites who want to, but never can, take possession of it.
Nonetheless, you would expect that a ruling elite, observing such earth-shaking developments, might rethink its situation, as should the rest of us. After all, if humanity can suddenly rouse itself this way in the face of the armed power of state after state, then what's really possible on this planet of ours?
Seeing such scenes repeatedly, who wouldn’t rethink the basics? Who wouldn’t feel the urge to reimagine our world?
Read the rest of Tom Engelhardt's essay at TomDispatch>>
Thursday, February 17, 2011 12:22 PM
This post originally appeared on Guernica.
A report from the Pew Research Center says that over 50% of the American public doesn’t know about what has happened in Egypt. Or if they do know about the revolution that occurred over there, they don’t really care all that much about it.
We’re looking at this thing from a tired old script.
Some Americans, feel the Egyptian protesters were looking for a U.S.-style democracy. Basically, they wanted American nylons and Hershey bars, and whatever else liberated people want in those old movies. It seems these people were also inspired by George W. Bush and his belief in the one-size-fits-all exportability of democracy.
Of course, the shiny people (they’re the ones who believe that America is a shining inspiration to all, since World War II) forget that there are many strains of democracy, and that it doesn’t always lead to the same kind of corporate one that we have here. They forget that democratic governments emanate from national identities. And these governments operate out of national interest, and nothing else. What’s in the national interest of some country elsewhere may not match what’s in ours.
Meanwhile on the far left, they’re running with the unicorns, predicting that these changes will mean a new, more peaceful world. Or revolution here (I went to a rally for Egypt that was hijacked by Maoists who said that, with our pathetic little posters, we were going to rise up and take over New York City and then the country). Many on the left attack Obama for not having urged revolution, right away. Of course, they forget that the United States serves its corporations first, and that it has long-been entangled in a variety of foreign alliances. We’ve hardly ever (have we ever?) supported a people’s revolution. Yet, Obama is supposed to be a superman. He isn’t. America hasn’t elected a revolutionary into office in some 200 years.
As Americans, we have inherited a stacked deck. We’re in a headlock with our corporate masters and in exchange we’re kept numb by entertainment and assurances that we’re the strongest country on the face of the earth. We serve our corporations and what they want. What these corporations want from Egypt is a territory kept cooperative enough for America to pick clean of its resources.
The Egyptian revolution is inspiring, even more so because it occurred at the edge of U.S. power. We can’t control what’s happened. No one can, not even the lords at GM GE Exxon Mobil—and that’s what a revolution is. It’s, well, revolutionary. what happened in Tahrir Square happened without us, and we weren’t even invited. It was the result of what Steven Berlin Johnson calls emergence: it was leaderless, and all the more powerful because of that.
For over 30 years, we gave Egypt the shaft, because it was in our national interest to do so. Now it’s time for Egypt to find out where its own interests are, without a strongman leading the way. The country has a difficult and terrible road to walk. I hope they’ll have enough of a jaundiced sensibility to look to themselves for guidance, because the United States and its allies will first be interested in keeping the world safe for 9 to 5, not in engendering equality and economic parity. One can only hope their revolution succeeds—and that it spreads.
Image by mshamma, licensed under Creative Commons.
Copyright 2011 Meakin Armstrong
Meakin Armstrong is a freelance writer and fiction editor at
. His nonfiction has been featured in Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, TheAtlantic.com, TheAlanticWire.com, Time Out New York, USAir Magazine, and in the books, New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg and Museyon Guides Film + Travel North America. In 2007, he received a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference scholarship for fiction.
Tuesday, January 18, 2011 12:48 PM
Have more than thou showest,
Speak less than thou knowest,
Lend less than thou owest,
Ride more than thou goest,
Learn more than thou trowest,
Set less than thou throwest;
Leave thy drink and thy whore,
And keep in-a-door,
And thou shalt have more
Than two tens to a score.
No, these aren’t the sage words of David Axelrod, spoken in confidence to President Obama before he hashed out the details of his 2012 budget proposal. Sharp and cryptic, the passage is the utterance of a fool to Lear, the tragic old man of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Traditionally, fools occupied a privileged and important place in a royal court. With well-honed humor, a king’s fool could entertain, advise, criticize, and even ridicule His Majesty without (much) fear of violent backlash. “Laughter was the oil a jester used to slip inconvenient truths into the royal presence without offending it,” writes Jake Page for Notre Dame Magazine. Page argues that the trusted, irreverent wisdom of fools would just as well temper the whims of a modern ruler—like, say, the American president.
Many will likely interject, “But Obama already has a fool . . . that chucklehead at his right hand . . . that Joe Biden fella.” Those same people may be surprised to hear that Biden already has an official title, something nitpickers call a “vice president.” What disqualifies Biden as the Oval Office Fool is his career, his stake in American politics; unlike the vice president, fools are intrinsically outsiders. “Many court jesters did come from the ranks of the physically disabled and many were dwarfs,” writes Page. “Some were ‘naturals,’ people who were what we would call mentally challenged.”
But perhaps Obama already does have his own fool. Could the half-baked ramblings of Kanye West or the penetrating satire of Stephen Colbert count as modern day foolery? Probably not, as neither the rapper nor the comedian have unrestricted access to Obama. Page speculates that Reggie Love, the president’s “bodyman,” fulfills many of the criteria of a contemporary court jester: Love entertains Obama with daily basketball practice, prevents him from enacting some poor decisions (Page recounts a story in which “Love thought that Obama had eaten enough brownies, he snatched the rest away from the president”), and works outside of the political machine.
Hosting an unofficial fool is a good first step for any president, but Page calls for something more drastic: a minor restructuring of our democracy. He suggests,
there be an official position in the executive branch: the Presidential Court Jester. To insulate this office holder from being excluded just when he or she is most needed, the office should perhaps be considered a separate, fourth branch of the government, with rights of attendance to all presidential affairs guaranteed.
As laughable as this proposition may sound—just like the trenchant wit of a fool—there is a dark seriousness to it.
Source: Notre Dame Magazine
, licensed under
Wednesday, August 11, 2010 9:18 AM
Media technologist and consultant Deanna Zandt’s new book is called Share This! How You Will Change the World with Social Networking. In an essay adapted from it for In These Times, Zandt reminds us that “for all the horn-tootin’ over the disruptive and democratizing potential of the Internet, we’re still seeing the Big Important Conversations dominated by the same old, same old.” Behold:
Despite the fact that women, for example, make up more than half of the active users on most social networking sites, we still usually see men served up as the expert voices on social networks, on blogs and in mainstream media. Or, even though African Americans are more likely to use Twitter than white people, white people are given the role of experts, speaking at conferences, on top 10 lists and more.
The Internet is deceptively equal. We don’t know, or we’re not willing to recognize, that we have transposed to the Internet the same social structures we’ve been living with for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years. We’re painting our understanding of the offline world—with all our prejudices, biases and hierarchies—onto the canvas of the Internet.
Source: In These Times
Image by kodomut, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, June 24, 2009 2:07 PM
Will the death of journalism mean the end of democracy? The newest issue of Mother Jones provides us with a rundown of depressing statistics about the state of media:
- 43% of Americans say it would hurt civil life “a lot” if their local newspapers closed. Yet when asked if they’d miss their paper, 42% say “not much” or “not at all.”
- By one estimate, an entirely Web-based New York Times could generate only enough money to support about 20% of the paper’s current staff.
- The editor of the New York Times Magazine says a typical cover story costs more than $40,000 to produce—and that excludes editing, art, and fact-checking. That’s more than Mother Jones’ story budget for freelance writers for an entire issue.
- The top 10% of bloggers earn an average of $19,000 a year. For all bloggers, the median is $200 for men, $100 for women.
Source: Mother Jones (article not yet available online)
Wednesday, March 25, 2009 2:58 PM
The internet spreads information around the world, but freedom is more difficult. Believers in a coming tech-utopia have plenty of evidence to show the web’s democratizing force: The Orange Revolution in Ukraine was facilitated in part by new-media technologies, and blogging platforms have given a voice to dissenters in Burma, Iran, China, and many other places. The problem is, Evgeny Morozov writes for the Boston Review, “no dictators have been toppled via Second Life, and no real elections have been won there either; otherwise, Ron Paul would be President.”
Reports of China’s growing internet dissent can make for compelling reads in mainstream media outlets, but Morozov writes that they’re often overblown. YouTube users recently tweaked censors with videos about a “grass-mud horse,” the name of which, in Chinese, sounds a lot like a dirty sex pun. The New York Times said the videos “raised real questions about China’s ability to stanch the flow of information over the Internet.”
More recently, when China blocked access to YouTube, allegedly over videos showing Chinese police beating Tibetan protestors, many assumed this would backfire on the government. Writing for Time, Austin Ramzy said that blocking YouTube gives the impression that the Chinese government is afraid of the internet and that a “ shift in how people cover the Internet in China may be lost on the government.”
In fact, draconian blocking of websites is just one part of a two-pronged strategy for Chinese information control. The Chinese government is also trying to use the internet as a tool to forward their agenda. The government has trained an estimated 280,000 people to “neutralize undesirable public opinion by pushing pro-Party views” David Bandurski reports for the Far Eastern Economic Review. This group—known as the 50 Cent Party, because of the money they are rumored to be paid for each pro-government message—posts to chat rooms and web forums, and also reports dissident content.
“The goal of the government is to crank up the ‘noise’ and drown out progressive and diverse voices on China’s internet,” Chinese web entrepreneur Isaac Mao told Bandurski.
Even if political information is allowed to flow, assuming that information will lead to democracy and freedom is not necessarily true. Western journalists often focus on the blogs written in English, which tend to be more progressive and pro-Western. In other languages, the political landscape is much different. Morozov writes that “investing in new media infrastructure might also embolden the conservatives, nationalists, and extremists, posing an even greater challenge to democratization.”
Another threat may lie in the structure of the internet itself. The web may actually serve in polarizing political atmospheres, according to Cass Sunstein, both in the United States and abroad. A recent article for Harvard Magazine explores Sunstein’s idea that personalized news services like Google News, and Time Magazine’s new “Mine” service are blocking out ideas diverse opinions, allowing people to read about what they want and filter out the rest. Without an “architecture of serendipity,” where people can happen upon diverse opinions and news, the internet could lead to extremism.
None of this disregards the web’s potential for good. Sunstein calls new technologies “more opportunity than threat,” but serious work will need to be done to promote progressive voices and politics. It also means acknowledging that the techno-utopia envisioned in a free internet may not be worth the paper its printed on.
Image adapted from photo by
, licensed under
Sources: Boston Review, Time, New York Times, Far Eastern Economic Review, Harvard Magazine
Monday, November 24, 2008 11:24 AM
The sectarian violence in Iraq has many people wondering, what is wrong with Islam? A better question may be, what is wrong with secularism? International politics professor Vali Nasr pointed out on NPR’s Speaking of Faith that religion is resurgent in Iraq, Israel, India, and the United States. People throughout the world are turning to religion and challenging the separation between church and state. Nasr asks, “Why is secularism sick?”
Part of the problem may lie in the style of democracy that the U.S. tries to export in places like Iraq. “We have a very good system of government,” said Nasr, “but whenever we go abroad we promote and implement a French one.” In U.S. history, there were strong bridges between religion and commerce in organizations like the YMCA or the Rotary Club. The style of democracy the U.S. has tried to export is more centralized and secularized, according to Nasr, more French than American. Ideally, the government would promote a more federalist system, less centralized, encouraging commerce and religion to work together for stability in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Wednesday, July 02, 2008 12:36 PM
As online technology becomes increasingly prevalent and sophisticated, a common meme has emerged that the Internet is a democratizing force, spreading knowledge to previously under-informed segments of the global population, and giving a voice to the disenfranchised. Meanwhile, hysterical television personalities warn us that the Internet is a debauched hellscape rife with sex offenders and invasions of privacy.
Writing for AlterNet, Annalee Newitz says, nuts to all that.
Three Internet falsehoods that refuse to die, according to Newitz, are 1) it’s free; 2) it knows no boundaries; and 3) it’s dangerous. Her refutations of the first two myths are particularly important because they address problems of limited online access by low-income populations and those living under censorship.
Read the piece to learn why these myths are untrue but so very persistent. Then, perhaps Newitz can determine once and for all whether the Internet is actually rotting our brains.
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