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December 1, 2008 - November 24, 2008

Monday, December 01, 2008

What to Do:
The Folly of Internet Armies

The ghost in the machine? Yes and no.

THE BOOK OF WHO. I decided to wait till after the Thanksgiving holiday before addressing a couple of provocative comments on the Bill Quick post, which you can read here if you're not familiar with it. I'd have let the whole matter end there if it hadn't been for some interesting reader responses.

For example, Fred D. asked a very good question:

Stumbled here quite awhile ago but this is my first comment - I echo what Lake said: ". . . it would require so much of that, what do you call it, consciousness and thought." And that's the challenge, as I kept encountering at work during this election, discussing politics even though it's not allowed.

But, I think you're spot on - I've decided that simply marking a presidential ballot every fours years isn't enough participation any longer - so how to get started?

And JTD also posed a challenge:

As for your ideas for a new party IP, perhaps we could have a new post just dedicated to that? I do not want to mix my comments on a positive, creative, endeavor with a post dealing with the smallest of people.

The larger question is, of course, "What to Do?" Given that we know we're somehow losing a vital contest for the heart and soul of our nation, what can and should those of us who care deeply about the outcome be doing? The good news is that there are many right answers and a few very wrong ones. My intention is to explore the right answers in a series of future posts and refute the wrong ones right here and now. But not even this post will be entirely negative. If I do it right, it should point in the direction of all the positive things we can do.

Starting a new party ain't it. Not even the party I idealistically described in my two brief attempts to participate in Quick's American Conservative Party project. As a philosophical exercise, it can be therapeutic for those involved, but that's all. I enjoyed writing down some of my ideas, but the only benefit accrued to me. I got the chance to remind myself about the things I regarded as most important. If some of you agree, fine, but that doesn't buy us a single cent's worth of poilitical clout. It only identifies us as kindred spirits in the vast body politic. Most of us are not politicians, which is what it takes to build effective political organizations. In real terms, the ambition to build a new party and use it to achieve an electoral majority is akin to turning your local model airplane club into a corporation that can beat out Boeing for commercial airline and military contracts. It's just not going to happen.

The delusion that such a rank absurdity is a possible and worthwhile goal betrays the fundamental misconception about the internet which carries so many people into egotistical folly. They believe the chief attribute of the worldwide web is as an instrument for centrally controlled, purpose-driven, broadcast communications, the unification of mass distributed resources, the recruitment of gigantic armies who can change the world. This is completely false.

The internet is not a pipeline of any kind. It's a bulletin board. The biggest one ever conceived and maintained, but a bulletin board nonetheless. And no one has ever been converted to anything by a bulletin board. Even more dauntingly, this is a bulletin board whose scope encompasses every aspect of the mind of the whole world. It's not the whole mind of the world, just a layer or two -- a topic list, an events calendar, an almanac, an encyclopedia, a sexy tease, an analog, an invitation to experience rather than an actual experience of life as it is lived in its infinite variety around the globe. At its best, it's a compelling and attractive trailer, but it's never the complete movie, good or bad. However big it gets, it can never reach out and grab the heart of anyone in a viselike grip and compel them to think, do, or be anything they don't want to. Which is good. Its most successful mechanisms are those of attraction, not intimidation, compulsion, extortion, or control.

To put it in the simplest possible terms, it's the audience that's in charge. To be influenced by you, they must be looking for you first. They must seek you out and make their own decisions about whether you are to be part of their lives or a rapidly discarded irrelevancy.

Sometimes this process of attracting interest can appear to be an active rather than passive phenomenon. Glenn Reynolds's "Army of Davids" conception is a good illustration of the fallacy at work here. "RatherGate" and the blogger rebuttal of his idiotic reporting superficially resembled an attack that succeeded in bringing down its quarry. But that's not what really happened, meaning that's not the best analogy for what transpired on the internet during the Rather-Bush TANG fiasco. The precipitating event occurred outside the internet, on television, when a corrupt news organization perpetrated an obvious fraud on the American public. Everything which happened after that was a kind of physiological reaction, an autonomic response from the virtual body the internet represents. The swarms of subject matter experts who surfaced to identify and shoot down all the falsities in the story were not an army of any kind, but a flood of antibodies fighting a sudden infection. No one recruited them personally, organized them, aimed them, or directed them. They were individuals, each reacting independently to an easily perceived outrage. The only organization lay in the reporting. A few internet sources became the funnel -- or hypodermic needle -- by which the cure was administered to those who believed there was an infection in the first place. That's not an "Army of Davids"; it's the normal functioning of a healthy immune system.

But metaphors carry their own momentum until they prove insuffiicient, and there's been a tendency ever since among conservatives to believe that the internet can be some kind of unifying, organizing route to power in the way that so many people believe, Democratic Underground, and other vicious lefty sites have been.

The right analogy for the internet activities of the left is not military, either; it's infection. There's no effective, conscious, organizing principle at work other than destruction. Have they generated storms of angry, obscene abuse? Yes. Have they managed to focus obsessive attention on a handful of endlessly repeated charges? Yes. Have they raised money? Yes. These are all nothing but the signposts of disease -- the fever, pus, and swelling that bring doctors running. Have they articulated anything like a coherent vision of the liberal utopia they seek? No. Have they succeeded in altering the course of what Democrat politicians will do now that they are safely in office? No. Are they a true political power? No. They are merely a dramatic symptom of the fact that some ideas, if left untreated, can become chronic and ultimately fatal.

It's frightening indeed to think that some conservatives believe they should organize their presence on the internet along the lines of disastrous models of this sort. Moveon, DU, and Markos Moulitsas may see themselves as the storm troopers of the new left. What they are is the AIDS of the internet.

America is a two-party system. It's a system that has its weaknesses, but it's better than everyone else's. We don't have weak coalition governments that fall apart every time there's a major crisis or a tantrum about that one pivotal issue. If you want to capture or remake a party, you can't do it by amassing umpty-thousand identically vituperative comments about the bete-noire of the moment. You do it by an accumulation of concentrated local efforts.

T'was ever so. The internet doesn't change that. But it can be used to facilitate and magnify the impact of local efforts. If you care enough.

Friday, November 28, 2008

A Thanksgiving Dream

HAZARD TIME. Just a dream I had. I wouldn't call it a hope or even a prayer. It wasn't a thought-out thing like those. Simply a feeling made visual, the way we all do evey night, whether we remember or not. I suppose it was prompted by the odd juxtaposition of a day of friendly family warmth pierced by strobes of gunfire and murder half a world away. That and a half-conscious awareness of how it must feel to be Obama right now, the unbelievable, impossible new reality slowly being nailed to the inescapable ten-penny reality of deciding, choosing, acting, taking real responsibility, counting costs, and coming to terms with a million brand new potential points of pain.

Doors are opening and doors are closing, too. The impossibly long, dark corridor is just an anteroom one stride long. Everything must look so different, so suddenly. Everything. When the lights come on, there is an acre of hats to wear, and every one of them feels completely different. You are no longer the projectile devouring the hallway en route to the target. The speed of the journey is amputated, and the past with it, by the black hole gravity of the destination. You are there. The path to there is suddenly an unremarkable ray in an infiinity that radiates from and to one head. You are the head and eyes and ears under the hats, at the center, looking, listening, thinking in all directions.

How it feels. The lustful lover become a father in a moment. All the knife-edged spurs of desire dulled by the sharper scream of birth. Anger, vengeance, the need to prove, to bleed resentment, bled white by a brighter light.

Just a dream. I can feel Cain suspending his blow at Abel, Jacob embracing Esau. The frightening and liberating humility of realizing I am merely human, loving everything that made me, forgiving the strop that keened the razor. Hat, hat, hat, hat, hat, hat. The proliferating oath that binds everyone, them to me and me to them. All of them. Because we are but one body coursing with the same blood. Their hands and feet and guts are not mine to command but to comprehend. Not mine to punish but to protect. My soul is now striped with white as well as red, and I feel our shared field growing with stars. I love them. All of them. And I am afraid, suddenly and jaggedly, of failing my oath. The fear is new. The love is new. I am new. New made and newly resolved to wear all the hats, every one, at once, forever, for all my countrymen. No matter how much it costs me.

As I said. Just a dream I had.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


Today, what's old is new again, every year.

A MOMENT OF YOUR TIME. This is to wish you all a beautiful Thanksgiving Day. And to offer one modest suggestion. Whatever you're thankful for, take just one moment to ask yourself whom or what you're thankful to. Everyone's allowed his own answer, of course,  but thinking your way to that answer can be a fruitful experience.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Fail Noir

The Good German. If they hadn't put the word 'good' in the title,
no one would ever associate that adjective with this awful movie.

CLOONEY AND SODERBERGH. Apologies. This post was going to be about three good movies you probably haven't seen, plus one that's so bad it's hilarious. Unfortunately, I managed to scrape my right eye with the corner of a pillowcase last night, and so I'm not able to look at the screen very long without shrieking suddenly and falling down.  Which means our loyal Bad Penny should really like the brevity of today's entry about the worst film noir ever made. (I'll be back with the good movies in a day or so.)

Imagine that all the cameramen and lighting directors who know how to shoot a movie in black and white are dead. Imagine that you have enough Hollywood clout to make a 1940s film noir anyway. Imagine that you have a huge enough ego to think you're up to doing an homage to B&W classics like The Third Man, Casablanca, Touch of Evil, and Citizen Kane. Imagine that somehow you can convince George Clooney, Cate Blanchette, Toby Maguire and other legitimate talents to participate. Got it?

Now imagine that you make a movie so bad that you spend $30 million to take in $1.25 million at the box office. Trust me. You won't know which of the many unforgivable movie crimes committed by Steven Soderbergh is funnier: the incompetent mix of overexposed outside shots and too dim to see interior shots; the reduction of Cate Blanchette to a clown mask femme fatale; the sore thumb anachronisms of gratuitous nudity and ubiquitous F-words; or the repeated explicit visual references to all the real movie masterpieces named above.

Scratch that. If you make it all the way to the end (which is hard but oh so rewarding), you will know which is the worst. Try to imagine a final scene that quotes both Casablanca and Citizen Kane in the most laughably obvious way possible. Okay? Guess what. However falling down funny your imagined scene is, it can't hold a candle to the end of The Good German. You've just got to see this movie. Your ribs will hurt for a month from the guffawing you'll do. You'll feel better about all the bad news of the past month. I promise.

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