May 05, 2007

A Sense of Grievance

Everyone seems to have been talking about Jonathan Chait's article on the liberal netroots movement. Long and thoughtful criticisms of the article as a whole have been offered. I'll be satisfied with responding to one sentence and its relevant preamble. Emphasis mine:

... Their newness makes them outsiders to the game. They are, by their way of thinking, self-made men and women who pulled themselves up from obscurity by dint of pure merit. They see the Washington establishment, by contrast, as a kind of clique, filled with mediocrities who attended the best schools or know the right people. The netroots shorthand for this phenomenon is "Washington cocktail parties"--where, it is believed, the elite share their wrong-headed ideas, inoculated from accountability. "They still have their columns and TV gigs," Moulitsas wrote on his blog last December, describing the Beltway elite. "They still get treated with reverence by the D.C. cocktail party circuit."

In point of fact, the most successful bloggers have been pulled into the warm embrace of the political establishment. Moulitsas consults regularly with influential Democrats in Washington. Presidential candidates hire popular bloggers or court them with private dinners. Last year, numerous top Democrats trekked to Las Vegas to attend YearlyKos, the liberal blog convention, where they sucked up to the attendees as relentlessly as if they were software executives. The climax of the proceedings was a party for bloggers thrown by thenpresidential hopeful Mark Warner, costing more than $50,000 and featuring chocolate fountains. None of these things, however, have softened the netroots' sense of grievance and exclusion. ...

I went to that Warner party. It was nice. The food looked so good that I immediately regretted having had dinner and not being hungry. The ice sculptures ranged from fetching to smarmy to amusing. Warner got up on stage with the musicians, and I don't remember exactly what he sang or played, but it was all right. Everybody was duly entertained, we laughed and clapped. I got a chance to meet Warner briefly, I leaned in towards his ear (it was very loud, you understand) and told him that I'd like to hear more about his policies. He told me that he'd say a lot more about them tomorrow.

So the next day, during Warner's keynote, I took notes. I liked what he was saying about domestic policy but not so much what I heard from him about Iran and Venezuela; which seemed to be the convenient, throwaway whipping boys for liberals to sharpen their teeth on when they wanted insulation from criticizing Bush's blatant screw ups in Iraq. And that always ticks me off, because you never know when some Republican whack-job who's been living in Grover Norquist's bathtub is going to suggest going to war with some country that it was always safe to launch unhinged criticisms of because we were never going to invade them.

And I hoofed it out of that keynote the moment he headed off the stage to ask him questions. I didn't like what I heard in his speech, and I liked his answers to my followups even less. A lot of the other people who read that diary when I posted it on dKos didn't like them, either. And earlier this year when the Democratic field started cracking wise and talking tough about Iran again, like it wasn't a big deal to amp up the rhetoric when the administration sounded like it was pushing for an invasion, the policy blogs jumped all over them for it.

I don't think our main concern was our chances of getting more cocktail parties thrown for us at the next Yearly Kos.

This is what the 'netroots' wants: No more ill-conceived wars of choice. Also on our list ... reproductive justice, something serious done about climate disruption, universal health care, better public transportation, food safety, labor protections, education policies that really lift people up, family-friendly workplace policies, good international relations based on diplomacy and principle, respect for the Constitution and the rule of law, an end to the sanctioning of bigoted and xenophobic rhetoric as part of the mainstream dialogue, etc.

Is it even remotely possible for people who want these things to be without a sense of grievance in today's America? Can this be papered over with a few good parties?

I'll quit being aggrieved when somebody does something meaningful to redress these issues. I'll quit being aggrieved when Democratic candidates don't have to be convinced over their wails of protest to unashamedly support more of these goals and positions. I'll quit thumping the media for undermining these goals when they decide they've had enough of pretending like they're tape recorders with feet, like they're machines instead of stakeholders.

On that note, let me tell you something about objectivity: It. Doesn't. Exist.

It's sometimes a worthy goal and we can certainly try for it in cases when it is, but it isn't possible. There's no one alive who has an objective perspective regarding the availability of breathable oxygen. Or of potable water. Or of food. Or of shelter when winter temperatures drop below freezing. There is no objectivity possible regarding whether or not you'd like a 1,000 ton bomb dropped smack in the middle of your own house during a family breakfast.

Get this: You shouldn't be objective about these things, because it would just be stupid. It runs counter to the survival instincts carefully passed on through the generations that allowed all of us to be here today to participate in this tedious argument about whether or not we should, for example, care if our planet's life support functions are critically impaired. Under the normal circumstances of human life, someone who's disinterested in whether or not they can or should continue to live is properly regarded as a bit broken. Even people who themselves are in the throes of suicidal despair tend to recognize that they're not in their right frame of mind and usually seek help.

But here we are, having a national debate about whether or not we should help our entire species and civilization as we know it commit mass suicide by doing nothing about global warming. Or, just as stupidly, putting resources that could be used to prevent this prospective planet-wide Jonestown event towards yet another unwinnable war, or the sustenance of the unwinnable war we're already in. The choice is every bit as stark as the one Al Gore laid out in "An Inconvenient Truth:" Money or The Entire Planet, pick one.

How much dumber does it get? How in god's name, if these things make me toweringly enraged, and if I and many other people all over the blogosphere continue to say very clearly that this is our concern, dude, does someone get the message that what we secretly crave is appetizers to tide us over through this prelude to apocalypse?

Every reporter, shocking as this may be, is also a member of the human species and is related to other humans. They are citizens of some particular country, members of one ethnic group or another, have some kind of faith or very decidedly don't, eat food, drink water, have preferences. It's blatantly impossible for such a being to be objective. Neither the law nor science, two social edifices that are supposed to be bastions of objective reasoning, rely on the existence of hypothetical human beings who are objective in themselves. At their best, they are supposed to have a bias towards provable facts and reliance on processes specifically designed to overcome the failings of their participants. Science has gone so far as to prove that even the act of observing something is a type of participation that affects what's observed.

A bias towards provable facts can't be taken for granted, but must rather be cultivated. Because we're all rather inclined to have a bias towards what we believe, instead. It's more fun. And all of us, every last one, believes a lot of things. Things that aren't so. Like that all of our own, personal beliefs are founded on fact, or that we can be disinterested in matters that pertain to our own survival.

And so we have reporters who don't write as though they were citizens of anywhere in particular. As though lives are not affected by the policies or elections they cover. As though they don't have the friends they have, or employers to mollify. They pretend that they're objective, and independent, and therefore they look like idiots to people who haven't forgotten these things and know that to say otherwise is conceit and pretense. And then they look at those of us who remember and think that we're jealous of their parties.

You know what? If I want to go to a party and really have a good time, David Broder isn't going to have ever even heard of a single other person there.

And when I recover from having a good time with my friends, it'll still tick me off that plenty of them don't have access to a healthy diet. Or are getting jerked around by the VA. Or face religious discrimination because they're just not WASPy enough. Or have sacrificed their dreams and ambitions for the only job they could find with good health care, if they have it at all. Or are worried about people they know who are serving in Iraq. I'll remember the next day that the society I'm participating and help to create is their society, too, and that their well-being affects me.

While I remember that, I can't be objective, nor can I fail to be aggreived. To say otherwise would be a lie, and the thing you learn when studying science is that lies about matters of import have unpleasant consequences. And they should, because sometimes those consequences are lost lives.

Christopher Hayes of In These Times wonders why the big name bloggers care more about what gets written in TNR than in the lefty ITT, and I don't know for sure, but I can hazard a guess, and it could be summed up like this ...

In These Times didn't get us into Iraq.

Even if the folks at ITT had wanted to get us into Iraq, they haven't got the pull. The people who make decisions don't read them for cues about what to do next. And so Hayes seems to make the same fundamental mistake in assessing the motivations of bloggers that Chait does; to miss that the goal is to effect change in the policies of the United States government.

I won't say that there aren't many aspects of the ongoing blogosphere-media dialogue that look exactly like a popularity contest, that would get me deservedly laughed at. It's just that Hayes isn't part of what bloggers see as being fundamentally wrong with this country. He isn't part of the Beltway cult of Lieberman-worship, putting some ideal about bipartisanship ahead of supporting 'extremist' policies that make measurable improvements in people's lives. And I can promise you, no member of Congress wakes up in the morning in breathless anticipation of finding out what Hayes (or myself, for that matter) thought of their latest policy initiative. So wherein does it profit a blogger to go stepping on his feet, as his complaint seems to be that we don't argue with him or his colleagues enough?

There are valid criticisms of the blogosphere to be made from, at the smallest count, the feminist and racial justice points of view. And I hope that these criticisms continue to be made, because they make a difference. It wasn't so long ago that reliably, every six months, there was a 'where are all the women bloggers?' conversation started by one of the big name male bloggers. Often, they would follow up this blinkered comment with speculation that women weren't as interested in politics, or didn't like to argue. Ha! The comments to those posts would inevitably turn into a long list of recommendations that the author go look at some of the very many female bloggers out there talking politics and mixing it up. Today, the answer to that question is, 'Women bloggers are frontpaging at the DailyKos and providing the best damn coverage anywhere of Plamegate, of course.'

But that's how change happens. With people working towards the goal of a more just society refusing to shut up about how they'd rather things work until the people who have the power to fix those things decide to do so. And then maybe keeping at it, because they won't be put off with half measures and table scraps. Because they have a sense of grievance that won't be satisfied until it's fed with results.

Miss that point, and beyond providing an historical briefing, your opinions about the blogosphere aren't worth the time it takes to download them.

Posted by natasha at May 5, 2007 11:06 AM | Blogging | TrackBack(1) | Technorati links |