Saturday, November 15, 2008

A little goes a long way

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, blogging, politics, polemics

We need our fanatics. The extremes of any distribution have more to do with defining what is "average" or "normal" than the mass in the middle. The power of the American experiment is the diversity of its peoples, which is a diversity of cultures, backgrounds, and especially ways of thinking.

Much is made of the "polarization" of modern society, and I sometimes also indulge in nostalgia for a more "homogeneous" America. But what I remember never was. The America I lived in all those decades ago was only locally homogeneous…and I was a not a part of it! My formative years were spent in Utah, a member of a "gentile" family among Mormons, at a time (1950s) that few non-Mormons lived in suburban Salt Lake City. Had I grown up in Tokyo instead, I'd have distinctly different ideas about what is "normal".

Anyway, America is not more polarized than ever. Think of the Civil War / War Between the States, the bloodiest war, in proportion to population, in American history. The country was really polarized then! But today, better means of spreading information tend to bring diverse views to larger numbers, making people less comfortable in their locally homogeneous niche. It reminds me of the opening scene in an old silent movie: A woman brings some poor children to the playground of the rich, which leads one rich young man to question his good fortune (Wish I could remember the movie's title).

Political blogging, and other opinion blogging, has sped up the spread of news and information a thousand-fold, compared to just one lifetime ago, and a million-fold compared to the 1860s. Traditional TV and Radio news are sufficiently rapid to get more news to us than we can possibly digest, and they are now the slowest media! But they don't carry all the news. They couldn't anyway. Nobody could carry in a newspaper with all the news, nor afford to buy one, nor read it before the next edition arrived. There are more than twenty news-only Cable channels, and they don't cover it all, and nobody can listen/watch more than one at at time anyway.

Amid this flood of news, opinion, discussion, and backlash, lots of hot issues get aired. The seeming polarization we see, on so many topics, is a phenomenon of greater coverage: now we can see the whole breadth of an issue, where before, we only knew a small part, and heard faint rumors of less-well-known opinions.

I have observed that there are typically about seven way-stations along any spectrum of point-of-view. For example, consider "global warming" AKA "climate change" AKA "greenhouse effect" AKA "CO2 pollution". Looking at the "moderate" positions first, we have the largest "station", the people who say, "I don't know if the science is right or not, but I worry a little…only a little." To one side are those who say, "It's probably mainly natural cycles", and to the other, those who say, "It's probably our doing, but how bad can it be? I'm not too worried". Note that I haven't labeled either of these as politically Right or Left, though the political wings have claimed territory, but mainly further along this spectrum in one direction or another.

So, you have the "Probably not" group followed by those who say, "There is no 'scientific consensus'. It is mostly or totally natural cycles. We might just as easily have an ice age soon," followed by "There is no such thing. Those people who say differently ought to just shut up."

And you have the "Probably so" group followed by those who say, "There is a strong scientific consensus. Natural cycles are being swamped by our activities," followed by "We're destroying the planet. Those people who say differently ought to just shut up."

It is clear that people at the two ends of this spectrum simply can't communicate. Neither wants the other to have the right to voice an opinion. It is less clear, but true in my experience, that any two people whose positions differ by more than two "stations" can't communicate. So the middle three stations consist of people who cover about a third of the spectrum, who may differ a little but can still get along. But the people who are way out in the wings just can't.

So let me throw around a few labels. The middle three stations are Centrists or Moderates. The next station in one direction is the Deniers, and the next in the other is the Promoters. These two stations are also the ones I call Fanatics. They tend to be much more vocal, and they battle over influencing the Centrists. Then the outermost two stations? They are the nut jobs, the Insanely Committed. I do not argue that they ought to be committed. But they are fortunately few in number, with positions sufficiently extreme that they interest few if any of the Centrist persuasion. The fringiest edge of either IC group are those most likely to take up arms or become a Unabomber.

Having just read Taking on the System: Rules for Radical Change in a Digital Era, by Markos Moulitsas ZĂșniga, I am considering how I'd classify him and his blog, The Daily Kos? He began blogging six years ago with the words, "I am progressive. I am liberal. I make no apologies." So his politics are unabashedly Left wing. I am myself Center-Right. Thus I found it hard to read his book all the way through. We differ just enough, on almost everything, that it is uncomfortable reading. I suspect, were we to meet, we'd wind up talking past each other on many points. I classify him in the Fanatic category on most of his opinions. But I do not think him Insanely Committed…he isn't that scary.

The book is a survey and instruction manual for Web activism. Through examples and explanations he shows the power of the new democratization the Internet has thrust upon us. The cat is really out of the bag, and no government has been able to get even a few cat hairs back into the bag.

An aside: it is common knowledge among police that if you get less than 85% compliance with a law, it becomes unenforceable. That is why, though the speed limit is 65 mph on most of highway 95 between Philadelphia and Baltimore, the average speed of traffic, is upwards of 75. You have to go at least 70 to avoid a tailgate accident. Same thing on the New Jersey Turnpike and most other highways in the US. Few patrollers will stop a car until it is going more than 80, because that is the 85% compliance point.

By the same reasoning, there is little likelihood that any "Digital Framework" or other law will make much change in how the Internet is used. Too many people will ignore it, and too many have the expertise to get around it. The Chinese have temporarily cowed Yahoo and Google into submitting to a few censorship provisions, but people are finding ways to operate that make the restrictions meaningless.

In this climate, Web-driven political action is becoming most effective. Trent Lott found out you can't apologize your way out of a corner if you have touched the Racism button. If it were based on a single incident, his gaffe at Strom Thurmond's birthday party, he could have ridden it out. But it didn't take much digging for bloggers, the new investigative reporters, to expose a pattern of racism that spanned his life, and he was a goner. Others found you cannot ignore your way out either. President Bush got away with ignoring Cindy Sheehan. There just wasn't the same kind of 'handle' there. Others, like James Webb's political opponents in 2006, found themselves losing elections they were expected to win, when he organized right around them…or rather, his fans on the Internet organized right around the entire political establishment of Virginia.

Moulitsas covers the territory of political battles, however waged, in the following steps: Mobilize, Set the Narrative, Reinvent the Protest, Feed the Backlash, Ignore the Hype, and Fight Small/Win Big. A particularly cogent point: Don't forget to be entertaining. People can't remain committed to a cause that bores them. No matter how much the Left hates Rush Limbaugh, he is unstoppable as long as he remembers—and he says this himself—he is an entertainer, and his job is to entice more and more people to listen to his show. Similarly, no matter how much the Right may hate Markos Moulitsas, he is also a consummate entertainer. Read The Daily Kos and see for yourself. Whether you agree with him or not, he'll pique your interest.

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