Saturday, September 10, 2011

"The vocabulary of machines": a coda on politics

True, I hadn't considered this as a possibility, either . . . (Image found here)

In my earlier posts on Arendt's The Human Condition and the apparent goal of interconnectivity for its own sake, the topic of politics--which is to say, how best to govern--never came up (except for the fact that Arendt is clearly interested in those questions). We've all run across commentary on how the 'Nets are affecting our politics for good or for ill, but my experience with those kinds of pieces has been that they are often more interested in the short term: that is, with electoral politics (though over the past few months there have been some good posts (by Republicans as well as Democrats) on our nation's shifting demographics toward a minority-majority population and the need for Republicans to respond to those realities with something other than fear and/or loathing).

But of course, that fact itself begs a question that my colleagues and I have asked with regard to academic work: whether these various media and our new ways of accessing and engaging with information interfere with (or perhaps are by their nature antithetical to) long-term, extended, "deep" thinking--the kinds of thinking we say we value in college and seek to encourage in our students. (In my own classes this semester, I've come up with some research projects that, I hope, will get students to use all this technology against its (and students') tendency to want to Cuisinart information; I'll let you know how it goes.) If at the realm of the political, our elected officials cannot (or, I suspect sometimes, don't care much to) see much beyond the next election, then good public policy (whatever form that may take) and, well, the Good of the Nation will inevitably suffer. In the early days of his administration, as he was giving a pep talk to the Democratic Caucus during the stimulus package debates, President Obama told them, in an oh-by-the-way manner, as if it were (still) common knowledge, "Good policy is good politics." Sorry I don't have a link--I saw it on some YouTube somewhere (yeah, yeah, Mr. Tech-critic, I hear you say: Pot, meet Kettle)--but that line has always stuck with me as being not only the encapsulation of what I take to be Obama's approach to governance but also being about as incontrovertible a statement about governance in a democratic society as there is, no matter one's politics--assuming, of course, one accepts the premise that government in its essence is necessary and, it follows, might as well do some actual good (whether through its actions or choosing not to take certain actions) since we have to have it. Would that more of the politically-engaged among us take that to heart, no matter their allegiances. Some stuff might actually get through the Senate, more people would be happier with a half-a-loaf health care bill, etc., etc., etc.

Anyway. I'm posting all this because of my friend Russell Arben Fox's most recent post at his most excellent blog, In Medias Res. Russell teaches political science at Friends University here in town, and so he has much to say on those sorts of issues, but his interests also range toward popular culture and various issues regarding the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (of which Russell is a member). His starting point in the present post is a new videogame of the kill-all-the-zombies sort, but the zombies in question are Tea-Party zombies: various not-undead conservative politicians and their benefactors. Russell was called up by one of the local TV stations to comment on this because, I assume, this being Wichita, a reporter was pursuing the Local Angle: one of the zombies is a two-headed representation of the Koch brothers. Russell's post addresses that immediate matter, of course, but also engages in some reflection, some of it directed at himself, on the more general question of violence-inflected rhetoric in our politics (which people all across the political spectrum engage in, as we all know) and some worrying over its longer-term consequences for governance. The complicating factor in all this, Russell notes below, is that whereas in the past (that is, before about 20 years ago) this kind of nastiness tended to stay out of the public eye, relatively speaking, our new interconnectedness makes that, sooner or later, impossible. The links and italics, by the way, are Russell's; I've added the cartoon (image found here).

The best thing I said to the reporter--which, of course, also didn't make it into the piece--was a few thoughts drawing on things which Cass Sunstein and Jay Rosen have both argued at length: that the internet has mostly resulted in our ways of sharing and receiving information being broken apart, atomized, sealed off into separate bubbles. We live, too many of us anyway, in various blog-anchored echo chambers, chatting endlessly on Facebook with our selectively chosen friends. Of course everyone has always created in-groups and out-groups; that's nothing new. But the internet has really ramped it up...and if you combine that with all the stresses and breakdowns our democracy is currently experiencing (an almost wholly dysfunction[al] Senate, major parties that no longer share much of any kind of incentive to actually govern responsibly, etc.), then it's not hard to suspect that there has been an increasing in violent rhetoric in American politics, because it's just so easy for everyone in all their little bubbles to continually egg each other on, say the same jokes ever more loudly and ever more fervently, develop a shorthand of humor and rhetoric that is perhaps completely innocent but nonetheless, in retrospect, perhaps is also thorough dehumanizing, angry, and contemptible.

[snip]

ask yourself this question--is anything on the internet capable of remaining private for long? Also a negative answer, except in that case I don't think there's any "perhaps" to it.

Some liberals, at least, are trying to get ahead of the usual cycle of blame (which, I confess again, I've been part of before!), and calling for boycotts of the game. Good for them, though I wonder what difference it will make. The genie--a genie of anger and contempt, fed by a technology that simultaneously encourages people to act out within their little boundaries as well as makes certain no boundaries truly last--is out of the bottle, and fear that, absent a profound political change which leads people to accept that our democracy can function, that government can listen, and that the rules and procedures and methods of elections and parties can be taken seriously, there's nothing that will get it back in. I'm as much at fault as anyone, I suppose. But I can at least refuse to play the game. We could all do that much, at least.

Amen. As always, you should go and read the whole thing.

Something that struck me as I read this--and I'll just say right now that I'm not smart enough to pursue it further--is that since, in an electronic sense at least there is no longer any truly private communication--all is public, potentially, and sooner or later--I wonder if this fact will be ultimately a good or bad thing for our politics, if this fact will a) cause all of us to be more self-policing and, thus, more civil in ALL our discourse, no matter our audiences; or b) cause more and more of us to despair as the rhetorical, um, misstatements and errant keystrokes of even our very best politicians reveal all of us to be flawed human beings (a persistent myth being that those in politics are, or should be, "better" than the rest of us). And, further, no matter whether a) and b) come to pass, what will be the fate of impassioned, well-intentioned political discourse meant not to demean but to strenuously insist on the rightness of some policies and the wrongness of others. Will such rhetoric become bland, uninspiring talk that reveals as little as possible (out of fear that the speaker is in some sense assaulting his/her opposition or lose his/her base or an election), or will it lead to more genuinely-healthy debate? Well: none of us--especially in this brave new world of interconnectivity--is a passive bystander in these issues; we vote with our eyeballs, we can choose to repeat what we say we value, and we can choose to decry what we say is destructive rhetoric.

Language matters more than ever now, there being so much more of it that we have access to. The old horse-led-to-water aphorism no longer quite works: we have almost no choice but to drink. But we do have choices in what we drink, not to mention choices in what to say about it. That--that capacity enabled by this instantaneous interconnectivity--certainly is a good.

* * *

OT from this post, but of a piece with things we've been discussing here of late: I don't know much about Cathy N. Davidson's new book, Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn, except that it's getting a fair amount of attention and that, judging from the blurbs, seems to be something like the rebuttal to Nicholas Carr's famous 2008 essay, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" I'll be on the lookout for it.

2 comments:

Russell Arben Fox said...

Thanks for the link, John, particularly in such an excellent post. I'm afraid that my Luddite tendencies often come out in spades when questions of public space and democratic delibertation come up, and this leads me to even more despairing towards our current moment than I probably should be. Perhaps I should read Davidson's book; I read and found myself almost totally persuaded by Carr's The Shallows, so maybe I owe to my own rapidly depleting hope for our country to look at a counter-argument.

R. Sherman said...

The question it seems to me is not that we have access to too much information or too many opinions or even that we all tend to gravitate to those sources of information/opinion which confirm what we believe. The real problem in my view, is that most of the general public is incapable separating the wheat from the chaff.

I've often bemoaned the disappearance of classical Aristotelian logic as a component of Rhetoric classes in this country. The reasons are unclear, but that was a part of every English, History and Philosophy class I ever took. These days, it seems, unless one embraces whatever the current metanarrative is in toto, one is dismissed with an ad hominem benediction without further ado.

I can point any number of examples as evidence of the above, but I'll just note, I've been called a "neocon" and a progressive--by the same person at the same social function within the space of two hours.

Suffice it to say, such interaction is not good for our body politic or our republic.

Cheers.