Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Our Political Discourse

Oh woe is me. Someone let the teeming masses into the ivory tower and it's the end of the world as we know it.

At least, that's my take on's interview with law professor/author Cass Sunstein, author of 2.0, the follow-up to The article is titled "The Internet is making us stupid," which should give you an idea where Sunstein stands on the whole blogging/internet phenomenon.

In a nutshell, he thinks the “echo-chamber” aspect of political blogs is killing democracy. It’s bad for America, he says, because it further entrenches people in their political views, and makes them more extreme -- be they on the right or the left.

For example:
There's a book, "The Long Tail," by Chris Anderson, which celebrates the "niche-ification" of the world. I like the book -- I should say, I think it's a very good book -- but what's amazing to me is the extent to which Anderson and the Internet enthusiasts really can't even see a problem and can't see the individual and social benefits of being exposed to stuff you didn't choose.

Well, I’m going to challenge Sunstein’s premise here. Internet blogs do not exist in a void, they’re almost always responding to a news story or cultural phenomenon or something else from the traditional media or the outside world. Some blogs do original reporting, it’s true, but most do not. This is why I get annoyed when someone complains about my “reporting” or says I’m a lousy journalist. On Southern Beale, I am not a reporter and I’m not a journalist. I may commit the occasional act of reporting, but 90% of the time I’m just a blogger expressing an opinion; here’s the link to the story, go read it and come up with your own opinion.

I think what Sunstein is really complaining about is the partisan nature of blogs. He’s saying blogs are not objective. But who said they’re supposed to be? Traditional newspapers and journals have offered partisan editorial opinions since forever. A Rasumussen survey from this July shows conservatives overwhelmingly believe the media has a liberal bias, and liberals believe the media has a conservative bias. I really don’t think this is the fault of blogs; I think this is the fault of a lazy, profit-oriented media that keeps getting the big stories wrong, which frustrates engaged citizens on both the right and left.

All of this sounds suspiciously like traditional media complaining about a busload of riffraff who crashed their country club party, overturned the Chivari and spiked the fruit punch with a shot of Chateau Tuesday.

Sunstein is ringing the alarm bells about “self isolation breeding polarization,” and yet I really don’t think we’re all that isolated. What we do have on the internet is a lot more people representing a broad slice of America engaged in the conversation in a very public way. I guess that’s threatening to some people, but it should be embraced. "Regular" Americans have always had an opinion about these issues, we just never had a chance to throw 'em back in the face of the opinion-makers before. Well, genie's out, folks, and it ain't going back in that bottle.

America’s been through a tough decade. These are polarizing times, and I don't think the internet made us this way. I think we're being shaped by the events themselves, not the technology we have at our disposal. We had a president impeached for a blow job, an election decided by the Supreme Court, attacks on our homeland, and a foreign war sold to us on faulty evidence. Our communities are fraying and our Constitution is being redefined--some might say torn apart--as we watch. It’s laudable that the nation would want to digest these things, discuss them, hash them out, instead of blindly accepting the opinions of some self-appointed "elite." We're part of the conversation now; get used to it.

Viva la internet.