I recently wrote a political rant entitled A Message to My Ultra-Conservative Friends. It can be found at DailyKOS.
Archive for the ‘ Politics ’ Category
What is democracy in America today? What role can and does the internet play in the democracy of the twenty-first century? I think in order to understand the answers or potential answers to either of these questions, we must first take a step back in time to discover the roots of American democracy.
Liberal Democracy: The Roots of American Democracy
Democracy as a political concept can be traced back to Athens in ancient Greece, but when people speak of democracy in America, they are usually referring to what is called a liberal democracy, also sometimes referred to as a constitutional democracy. The idea of a liberal democracy can be dated to the 17th century European movement known as the Enlightenment (Bourke, 1).
While the breadth and scope of liberal democracies as a whole is far beyond the capacity of this paper, the four basic tenants generally accepted as belonging to the movement are individualism, liberty, equality, and fraternity (“Liberal Democracy”). For the sake of this paper, we shall look at only one of these elements: that being equality.
John Locke, a seventeenth century philosopher, played a very significant role in laying out the framework for our concepts of democracy and equality. Richard Hooker of Washington State University wrote:
“Locke believed that natural law dictated that all human beings were fundamentally equal; he derived this argument from his theories of human development. Since every human being walked into the world with the same capacities as every other human being, that meant that inequality was an unnatural result of the environments that individuals are forced to live in, a belief that still underlies the Western notion of human development. Human beings have a natural inclination to preserve their equality and independence, since these are natural aspects of humanness. For Locke, humans enter into social contracts only to help adjudicate disputes between individuals or groups. Absolute power, then, is an unnatural development in human history” (Hooker).
Locke’s views were taken up by the American thinkers of the the 18th century, where his influence can clearly be seen in the founding documents of our country. The ideals of equality can be clearly seen in the Declaration of Independence when is says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (“The Declaration of Independence”).
Oftentimes modern critics will argue that the founding fathers did not take their views of equality far enough, for example the constitutional acceptance of slavery and the exclusion of blacks and women from the political process, and this is a fair assessment. As time went on, however, and the desire for equality spread, changes were made to expand the idea of equality further, making things truly more equal.
The first big step for equality came when the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights, were written. The first of these amendments read, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” (“The United States Bill of Rights”). With these 45 words, Americans were guaranteed, at least in writing, that no religion would be put above another, that no opinions would be censored, and that everyone had a right to gather and to petition their government, regardless of where they stood ideologically.
In 1865, the U.S. Congress passed the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery in America (“13th Amendment”), thereby closing one of the big holes in equal treatment of all peoples which had been written into the Constitution.
The next big step for American equality came in 1868 when Congress passed the 14th Amendment. This amendment read, in part:
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws” (“14th Amendment”).
With this bill, Congress gave American citizens a higher level of equality than they had ever known before, but there was still a long way to go. The next step came just two years later, in 1870, when Congress again passed a constitutional amendment. This, the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave every man the right to vote, regardless of race or skin color by stating, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” (“15th Amendment”).
Women were not yet allowed to vote, however. This didn’t change for quite some time, but in 1920, the 19th Amendment was passed. By saying that, “[t]he right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex” (“19th Amendment”), Congress gave nearly half of the population, who had previously been unable to vote, the right to do so.
There have been many other pieces of legislation passed over the years targeted at ending inequalities where they exist; there have been quite a few civil rights acts, most notably the Civil Rights Act of 1964, aimed at ending racial inequalities; and there have been other bills intended to level the playing fields between sex, sexual orientation, religion, etc. But one area where that great principle of liberal democracy – equality – has been expanded without directly intending to do so has been the growth of the internet.
The Influence of the Internet on American Democracy
In 1970, a team of 40 people from UCLA created a government-sponsored data network known as ARPANET (“Timeline”). As ARPANET spread from university to university, government organization to government organization, the technology continued to evolve creating an archaic network of interconnected computers. By the early 1990s, the framework created by ARPANET had given birth to a new technology that would change the world: they called it the World Wide Web, and with it the internet became a household word.
For the first time, the internet removed many of the barriers between common people and their ability to express themselves in a public forum; with the internet, another ideal held in high esteem in liberal democracies – the freedom of speech – became a something that also needed to be available to everyone, making it an issue of equality. An article written for The SAIS Review entitled, “Political Change in the Digital Age: The Fragility and Promise of Online Organizing” points out:
“The Internet also allows new voices to enter the debate by reducing the influence of gatekeepers and by permitting the rise of citizen journalists to engage in previously expensive journalistic, transparency, or fact-checking endeavors… bloggers, online forums and other forms of new media provide alternative sources of news and information. This has reduced government control over information” (Bruce Etling, Robert Faris and John Palfrey)…
As use of the internet expands, the potential for the impact of the internet on the American democratic process is immensely increased. The influence of the internet on the American political process could already seen as early as 1997, when the GOP created an internet forum for conservatives called FreeRepublic (Davey).
In 2003, Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean shifted the way American politics worked forever when his campaign very successfully used the internet to organize (ibid). Although Dean was ultimately unsuccessful in his race, the way that he used the internet then seems to have been embraced by nearly every major politician today, and has been largely credited with contributing to the success of Barack Obama in the 2008 elections.
With the massive shift toward a digital world, we know have concepts like “digital rights” that one would never have imagined 20 years ago. With this shift toward the internet, concepts have been born like e-democracy. E-democracy activist Steven Clift explains that:
“E-democracy represents the use of information and communication technologies and strategies by democratic actors within political and governance processes of local communities, nations and on the international stage. Democratic actors/sectors include governments, elected officials, the media, political organizations, and citizen/voters.
“To many, e-democracy suggests greater and more active citizen participation enabled by the Internet, mobile communications, and other technologies in today’s representative democracy as well as through more participatory or direct forms of citizen involvement in addressing public challenges” (Clift).
In 2006, internet activists wishing to use the internet as a method of furthering democratic principles of openness, transparency and accountability in governments and corporations around the world started a website called WikiLeaks. Before WikiLeaks, if somebody had information they felt needed to be leaked for the public good, the ability to do so could range from simple to nearly impossible; with WikiLeaks the playing field was leveled and anybody with a secure internet connection was now able to blow the whistle on corruption. While the fallout of the now well known “Cablegate” incident in late November of 2010, where WikiLeaks began releasing a cache of around 250,000 leaked U.S. Embassy cables, has made leaking things to WikiLeaks much harder, the idea is now a permanent part of our society.
WikiLeaks has given rise to an entire culture of radical transparency. Arab media outlet, Al-Jazeera reported as early as December 17, 2010 that spin-off sites like OpenLeaks, Brussels Leaks, TradeLeaks, Balkan Leaks, and Indoleaks were up and ready for action (Piven). In January of 2011, Al Jazeera started their own WikiLeaks spin-off called the Al Jazeera Transparency Unit which was responsible for bringing to light controversial information about the Israel/Palestine conflicts which was dubbed “The Palestine Papers” (“The Palestine Papers”).
The internet has also helped to make the democratic process in parts of America easier to participate in. In 2003, Arizona began to allow their citizens to register to vote online (Davey). Online voter registration is now available for citizens of Arizona, Washington, Kansas, Louisiana, Colorado, Oregon, Indiana and Utah (Miller).
Over the last four centuries, the idea of the liberal democracy has gone from a concept in the minds of enlightenment era thinkers to a growing movement around the world. As time has gone on, equality, along with individualism, liberty, and fraternity and all of the other ideals and rights associated with liberalism have all progressed; there have been roadblocks along the way, and not every step along they way has been a step forward, but forward always seems to be the ultimate direction in the long run. As people continue to work to bring about further levels of equality, I think it is safe to say that the internet will be there to play an important role in the process, and possibly bring about many more equality than we could have ever before imagined.
Bourke, Richard. “Enlightenment, Revolution and Democracy.” Constellations 15.1 (2008). Web. 11 Mar. 2011. <http://www.history.qmul.ac.uk/docs/bourke/2652.pdf>.
Bruce Etling, Robert Faris and John Palfrey, Political Change in the Digital Age: The Fragility and Promise of Online Organizing , SAIS Review, Summer-Fall 2010, at 37. Web. 16 Mar. 2011. <http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:4609956>.
Clift, Steven. Steven Clift’s E-Democracy Resource Links. 23 Mar. 2006. Web. 17 Mar. 2011. <http://publicus.net/articles/edemresources.html>.
Davy, Steven. “MediaShift . How Technology Changed American Politics in the Internet Age | PBS.” PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. 6 Apr. 2010. Web. 16 Mar. 2011. <http://www.pbs.org/mediashift/2010/04/how-technology-changed-american-politics-in-the-internet-age096.html>.
Hooker, Richard. “Seventeenth Century Enlightenment Thought.” Washington State University – Pullman, Washington. Web. 11 Mar. 2011. <https://www.wsu.edu/~dee/ENLIGHT/PREPHIL.HTM>.
Miller, Jim. “State Online Voter Registration Still Years off | Local News.” PE.com | Southern California News | News for Inland Southern California. 20 Sept. 2010. Web. 18 Mar. 2011 <http://www.pe.com/localnews/stories/PE_News_Local_D_voterreg20.2fabe64.html>.
Piven, Ben. “Copycat WikiLeaks Sites Make Waves – Features – Al Jazeera English.” AJE – Al Jazeera English. 17 Dec. 2010. Web. 17 Mar. 2011. <http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/features/2010/12/20101216194828514847.html>.
“13th Amendment.” LII | LII / Legal Information Institute. Web. 11 Mar. 2011. <http://topics.law.cornell.edu/constitution/amendmentxiii>.
“14th Amendment.” LII | LII / Legal Information Institute. Web. 11 Mar. 2011. <http://topics.law.cornell.edu/constitution/amendmentxiv>.
“15h Amendment.” LII | LII / Legal Information Institute. Web. 11 Mar. 2011. <http://topics.law.cornell.edu/constitution/amendmentxiv>.
“19th Amendment.” LII | LII / Legal Information Institute. Web. 11 Mar. 2011. <http://topics.law.cornell.edu/constitution/amendmentxiv>.
“Liberal Democracy.” History Learning Site. Web. 11 Mar. 2011. <http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/liberal_democracy.htm>.
“The Declaration of Independence.” Ushistory.org. Web. 11 Mar. 2011. <http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/document>
“The Palestine Papers.” AJE – Al Jazeera English. Web. 17 Mar. 2011. <http://english.aljazeera.net/palestinepapers/>.
“Timeline.” Greatest Engineering Achievements of the Twentieth Century. Web. 16 Mar. 2011. <http://www.greatachievements.org/Default.aspx?id=2984>.
“The United States Bill of Rights.” Project Gutenburg. Web. 11 Mar. 2011. <http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext90/bill11h.htm>.
Oftentimes people view the news media as offering, as Joe Friday from Dragnet would put it, “just the facts.” Through the use of things like selection, slanting, and charged language, the reporter is often able to get you to view the story through the same lenses they are, possibly without you even being aware it’s happening. An example of this can be found if you look at two articles claiming to be about the same story, in this case two articles about the book deal signed by the controversial founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, in late December of 2010. On December 27, The New York Post – a notable conservative American newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. – ran an article by David K. Li entitled, “Wiki boss is one for the books.” Just the day before, On December 26, The Guardian – a major center-left British newspaper run by the Scott Trust through the Guardian Media Group and who had previously worked with Assange to publish part of the 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables leaked to Wikileaks – ran an article by Paul Lewis called, “Julian Assange to use £1m book deals for legal fight.”
One way that our understanding of the events around us can be manipulated is through a process called selection. Selection has less to do with how a story is presented to us and more to do with what facts the writer chooses to put into the story and which he chooses to leave out. Li’s article is pretty short at only 151-words whereas Lewis’ article comes in over twice the length and just about as much on content at 404-words. There is nothing in Li’s article that is missing from Lewis’, but the opposite cannot be said to be true. Lewis’ article discusses the quickly rising legal costs for Wikileaks and Assange and the financial impact the decisions of American companies like Visa, MasterCard, and Paypal in stopping the processing of payments to WikiLeaks has had, while Li wrote nothing more on that topic than a single quote from Assange taken from the Sunday Times of London, “I have already spent [more than $300,000] for legal costs, and I need to defend myself and keep WikiLeaks afloat.” (The variant of this same quote from the Sunday Times of London article found in Lewis’ article reads, “I have already spent £200,000 for legal costs and I need to defend myself and to keep WikiLeaks afloat.”) Other details found in Lewis’ article but missing from Li’s article include some additional background information on Assange and the ongoing Wikileaks story, and details of Assange’s fears of being extradited to the United States for prosecution over information leaked to and made available by WikiLeaks.
The second way in which media outlets may attempt to control the way we view a story is through slanting. Slanting can include the facts that are chosen in the selection process, and also includes things like the overall tone of the writing, words and phrases selected. Slanting a story one way or another is perhaps even more inevitable than showing bias through the selection process.
One common method of slanting, and the third way that media biases may be found, is through charged language. Ki states in his article that Assange is being accused of sexual assault in Sweden; Lewis (in an example that also exemplifies selection) writes, “The 39-year-old is fighting extradition to Sweden, where two women have accused him of sexual misconduct. He denies the allegations.” It seems to me that the term “sexual assault” sounds a lot more extreme than “sexual misconduct” and including the fact that the allegations are denied sounds a bit less condemning as well.
For some, the idea that a single, unified version of a story may sound appealing as a way of countering the contradictions often found as a result of bias in reporting, but nothing is more vital to democracy than a free, open, and diverse media. For the last 30 years, despite a widening amount of information being made available with previously existing mediums like newspapers, radio and network television in addition to technologies that have become popular more recently – things like cable TV and most notably the internet – the viewpoints and the voices have become narrower and the ownership has mostly been given over to a few very powerful corporations.
The article by Lewis mentions Paypal, Visa, and MasterCard – three major players in the world of online funds transfers – cutting off the flow of money to Assange and Wikileaks; this illustrates beautifully a great reason why media consolidation is so dangerous. If someone were to go to one of a handful of available media outlets with a ground-breaking story that would be damaging to the power structure or their financial interests, the story could have a hard time finding its way to the ears of the unknowing public the same way the money has a hard time finding its way to Assange and WikiLeaks.
In order to have a democracy, you must have an informed public. So long as the information is allowed to be controlled by a small posse of multinational corporations without the best interests of the public wellbeing in mind, the idea of a well informed public is gravely threatened. While the differences between Lewis’ article and Li’s article point out that complete homogenization has not yet occurred, it also makes it strikingly clear why it never should be. Bias is human nature and is inevitable; bias toward the best interests of a few without alternative and opposing biases or room for a voice of dissent is the squelching of the flame of liberty and is stoppable, but increasingly less so with each year.
In a finals week filled with some of the strangest and most unexpected twists and turns, I have missed finals, filed for and now withdrawn from two political campaigns, and plunged into the depths of internal crisis. Having been unhappy with the Board of Education at my school, and having written a letter, organizing a rally, having an article in the school paper written about it, and still feeling unheard, I got this crazy hair on Monday (the Monday of finals week no less!) to join fellow student Jenni Simonis to run myself with the idea that if the board won’t listen to the students, the students should join the board.
Meanwhile as I was working on a research paper for my writing class on, of all things, democracy, I was also participating in the process. I collected signatures around campus and the community to get my name on the ballot so I could help make a positive impact on my school and on Thursday morning I filed as a candidate before driving back out to school to finish up a take-home math test before going into my math final (which incidentally was scheduled for Tuesday and not Thursday contrary to what I had on my calendar, but that’s a whole different story).
When I got home, I looked up the list of candidates running and noticed that the incumbent I wanted ousted had already decided not to seek reelection, and more than this, one of the candidates running seemed to me to be hands down a far better candidate than myself (and I hope I don’t end up eating my words on that). The step from here seemed simple: I should withdraw from the race; so I did. But I also had been informed as I was making this decision that there was an individual on my local school district’s board who was running unopposed and who I had recalled having been appointed and never elected to begin with, and then his profession is a banker on top of that.
My love of democracy was offended by the prospect of not at least giving the citizens a choice to choose between two people, and with very little time before the filing deadline, I decided to run for that race instead. This seemed to me at the time to be something I had no choice in, but it was honestly not something I really wanted. This caused me immense stress: on the one hand I really have no political aspirations, I just want to go to school and learn and become a teacher so I can continue the cycle by teaching students all the great stuff I learned as a student; on the other hand I have an immense love of my community and a strong belief that good people with good intentions and a strong moral fiber are needed in our democratic process and the belief that, if the community chose me to represent them on the school board, my decisions would be focused on what would be the best for the students, the faculty, and the community; so I felt I had to run.
Friday, while other students where relaxing on spring break, I spent the day building a campaign website, setting up endorsement meetings, speaking to the chair of the school board, and other campaign tasks while battling with what I had gotten myself into. Here I was — a poor student with no desire to be involved in politics if I can help it, with nothing but a love for education and a ideal of a better community — realizing how far over my head things had become. And the meetings would be two Wednesdays a month, something that would require me to fail to meet other commitments I have on Wednesday nights.
I was torturing myself about what I should do, because I did not want to be where I had found myself, but didn’t want to let the community down. Perhaps this seems overly idealistic to some, or maybe like I’m giving myself too much importance to others, but I again had to let my community down. My love in life is school and this term I spent far too much time getting caught up in far too much external stuff and I felt the term was not as great as it could have been as a result. My time needs to be devoted to my studies, and a position on the school board would mean at times either my studies or the school board would have to take a back seat; the commitment to the community would have to come first, so my studies would have to come second. I cannot let this happen. So Saturday afternoon I ultimately decided to withdraw from the race. As a good friend of mine told me, “well you don’t have to save the world that way you know.”