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May 31

No blog is an island

I read the recent entries of in FilipinoVoices.com on the possibility Jun Lozada and Governor Panlilio might embark on blogging, with interest. I disagree with many of the assumptions Rom makes in Too Much. To wit: that there is anything particularly different between Philippine political blogs and those overseas; that the public tired of NBN-ZTE (my understanding is that when those Shenzen photos surfaced, Internet traffic spiked for Inquirer.net, and back to pre-Holy Week levels where they’d remained in the doldrums until then); that Ed Panlilio won by force of charisma (he has little of that; it was a revolt on the part of the traditional upper and middle classes of Pampanga, and a victory was barely eked out in the face of the mobilization of the poor, who, despite decades of Panlilio’s involvement with them, still gravitated to the Pineda machine); though I agree Lozada’s run of out anything new to say

I think Benj is wildly off the mark in The Worst-Case Scenario: The Cyber Crackdown. The infrastructure simply isn’t in place, either for regulating or monitoring content a la China (see the analysis of Chinese methods in my conference notes), or simply pulling the plug, a la Burma. Though China does provide the key to understanding how governments will tackle the Internet, not because domestic public opinion matters, but rather, in an effort to damage foreign public opinion. The Chinese government supposedly prefers to apply influence on potential critics to get them to engage in self-censorship, rather than provide ammunition to critical foreign observers by actually throwing bloggers in jail (though it’s done that, but perhaps more to make an initial point).

I’d think that in pragmatically allocating resources to neutralize critics, our government would make the Internet the least of its priorities, not because its an inconsequential field of battle, but rather, because it’s easier to neutralize. The way the government latched on to Bong Austero is a case in point. Whatever he meant or intended became irrelevant: his e-mail, having been produced by a private person helped give the impression that a middle-class constituency was mobilizing, spontaneously, to defend the administration. It was broadcast and repurposed and the buzz his e-mail created gained him a column.

The Internet is a wide field and blogs are just part of the landscape: there’s YouTube, where political messages are broadcast; there’s message boards and groups, where many of the older generation and even a significant chunk of the younger but politically-inclined citizenry is active (a couple of weeks ago I had a round table with some student leaders and the ones from UP told me about how the Peyups message board played a significant role in raising issues that affected the recent student council elections); there’s the passing-on of e-mail, too from person to person; there’s the online news sites, and then blogs; there’s even online broadcast of radio content, particularly effective for Filipinos overseas who tune in to keep tabs on what’s going on at home.

Here, the advantages of incumbency and of managing media scientifically have been magnified, and not reduced. The principle at work, as far as neutralizing critics is concerned, is similar to using chaff to discombobulate the radar signals of the enemy in warfare. If the enemy latches on an issue, simply scramble it by drowning it out in a flood of competing messages; and if that fails, you’re better off launching, say, a denial-of-service attack on an offending website. On the other hand, for the purposes of an offensive or counteroffensive, the Internet is simply yet another platform for amplifying the Message Of The Day -and it can be done relatively cheaply, and efficiently. The message of the day will be seized upon by the genuinely convinced, too. A paid propagandist has an advantage over the committed, but amateur, partisan: there are no ethical concerns to worry about, no effort required to demonstrate respect or even tolerance for contesting claims.

Still, Marocharim brings up the point that interests me the most in Back to Basics. The question of the future of political writing on the newfangled Interweb -particularly for those holding political office. One dominant view of online communication is that it is a conversation; and that a conversation is highly personal, and is less effective when institutional; that it must be characterized by authenticity: which is why the disciplining and clarifying benefits of rhetoric are hotly contested, too. Perhaps, on a person-to-person basis, rhetoric is counter-productive; but in dealing with entire populations, or even segments of those populations, it is essential. Political leaders, particularly in national positions must now balance communicating with segments while those segments, at least for now, continue to believe they constitute a whole: one whose component parts, the citizenry, shares basic values (recall my past reference to Joseph Lane’s reference to Pericles to understand the ongoing American primaries campaign).

The question of authenticity -that bloggers possess it, politicians by their very nature are incapable of it- and the counter-culture self-identification of bloggers as somehow superior even when engaged in political partisanship, is at the heart of whether politician-bloggers should be welcome to, or resisted, when it comes to planting their flags in the blogosphere. Will the politician post manufactured content, in contrast to, say, the more authentic content of even politically-committed bloggers?

James Fallows, journalist-blogger, and incidentally, also a former speechwriter, in tackling criticisms of Barak Obama’s rhetorical gifts, dissects this question:

Several people have written back to say: Well, maybe he just has better speechwriters! And: Since you (me) used to work as a speechwriter (for Jimmy Carter), shouldn’t you be particularly sensitive to this point?

Answer, to the second question: No. And it’s precisely because I have worked is this field that my answer to the first question is: I don’t care who originally came up with these phrases or drafted the speech.

If a public figure’s basic quality of mind or ability to express himself is in question, as frankly is the case with President George W. Bush, then it might be worth investigating whether the words he is uttering actually reflect his underlying outlook and comprehension.

No sane person wonders this about Obama. By himself, long before he had a staff for such help, he wrote one very good book, Dreams from My Father. By all accounts he has written other crucial speeches, including the one about Rev. Jeremiah Wright, all on his own.

So once we have this indication of his basic abilities and outlook, it really shouldn’t matter whether he applies them in every speech he makes. Indeed it would be a misuse of his time and talents to do so. No important political leader can personally perform a lot of the tasks that are carried out in his or her name. The test is whether he can motivate, lead, and manage teams of people to perform in the way, and at the level, he would do himself — if he had a million hours in each day rather than 24. (This is the leadership version of “give someone a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach someone to fish… and soon the oceans will be empty.” Oops, that’s a different point.)

If Obama personally wrote both the 2006 and the 2008 commencement speeches, great. To me it suggests that he’s getting better. If he wrote the old one and an assistant wrote the new one, great too. It shows that he is able to have even better work produced in his name. In a way, the second would be more reassuring, as a guide to possible performance in office.

I’ve said before that politics is primarily about communication: a politician either has the ability to communicate, or doesn’t; rhetorical gifts are a definite plus but their absence isn’t a fatal liabilty; but as I pointed out above, the politician’s dilemma is to communicate in general and particular with limited time and resources, and widely-varying expectations and even assumptions on the part of the various audiences. As with so many other activities, the benefits of highly-focused communications has to be balanced with its costs when it comes to equally necessary wide-scale or wholesale communications.

The only member of Congress I can think of who has a genuinely readable blog is Congressman Ruffy Biazon. From what I’ve heard, the entries are actually his: but is the time and thought he puts into it, worth it, politically?

The only national candidates seriously attempting blogging are Adel Tamano and Danton Remoto (with the up-to-now token participation of Gilbert Remulla, JV Ejercito, and TG Guingona) in The Opposite of Apathy, an interesting experiment that still has to gain its sea-legs. Previously, Mong Palatino experienced the shortcomings of online campaigning in 2004, but it isn’t clear if those shortcomings were due to flawed assumptions (that there is a youth vote, for one), flawed messages (can his ideology compete when it comes to the kind of audiences plugged into the world wide web?) or other handicaps (the efforts of the administration to neutralize the Left by hook or by crook, whether by outright liquidation or institutional subversion through the Comelec, etc.).

My own suspicion is that the blogosphere is politically valuable if -and only if- politicians recognize that it’s an effective venue for courting the Middle Class, with an eye to engaging then mobilizing its members. It is not the venue for mass, or wholesale politics, where TV and radio reign supreme; it is the place for retail politics, and for providing access to a limited portion of the electorate -citizens interested in policy debates, regardless of economic status.

The problem, of course, is that the Middle Class has little to offer the politicians, and particularly so, come 2010: the middle class proved itself as manageable as the masses from 2005 onwards, and having neutralized itself with 2010 as its consuelo de bobo, it will truly have proven itself bobo at least as having an impact in 2010 is concerned; but potentially very significant in 2013 and then 2016, because other factors will then start having an impact (but more on that some other time).

Numbers-wise, they (the middle) are inconsequential and would only matter if they donated generously to campaigns, but they don’t. Not being invested, either in terms of time or money, in the candidacies competing for the mass vote, and the mass vote proving itself susceptible to being marshaled by old veterans (the churches, the labor and other movements, the local machines) or managed by institutional intervention (at the Comelec and in the counting), the candidates have no reason to take middle class advocacy into consideration. Not because politicians don’t care, per se, but in a fight that requires the most efficient allocation of resources, there’s little reason to allocate them to cultivating the middle class.

Case in point: if stuart-santiago says, don’t vote for politicians who do product endorsements, what will it achieve? It will validate the assumptions of the politicians when they undertook those endorsements. They won’t lose or win on the basis of a boycott on the basis of their endorsements. And those who do win despite such a boycott will only serve to entrench the practice. An advocacy of a boycott would only be effective if done -now, prior to elections- by boycotting the products they endorse. A mass-based approach to an issue raised and ventilated (and most effectively wielded) by the middle and upper classes is self-defeating. It’s not that it’s the wrong fight -just the wrong target, considering those expected to do the fighting.

So, let me suggest that the middle class’s salvation, politically, is if campaigning for its heart and mind is done on line: because the middle is actually so broad (what, A to C? but only on line do A to C actually meld together, effectively). That is because appealing to Middle Class values (not very different, for now, to those of the upper class in whose image they have been raised and trained) in the mass media immediately alienates the masses; but online it can be done consistently and with less of a chance it will lose mass votes. The politician who devotes energy and resources to cultivating the middle online just might discover getting real bang for the buck -because, if the middle is properly courted online, it might actually mobilize; then the kind of middle and upper class revolt seen in Pampanga might actually have a chance to be replicated in national politics.

But failing that, what the blogosphere is trying to work out, is a larger conflict, one History Unfolding discussed recently:

The most fundamental conflict in western civilization, in my opinion, is probably between reason and emotion. A year or two ago I purchased a most interesting-looking book, The Closing of the Western Mind by Charles Freeman, dealing with the gradual erosion of reason and the triumph of Christian faith between the fourth century B. C. and the seventh century A. D. ,,, the very title raises the issue of whether this could happen again – not a frivolous question in an era in which faith is rivaling reason in struggles to establish an orthodox view of how and when the human race came into being. In fact, surveying the last few centuries, I suspect that the empire of reason has passed its peak. On the other hand, that may not be altogether a bad thing either. Human beings may have some capacity for rational thought, but they cannot rid themselves of their feelings, and attempts to proclaim the supremacy of reason in human affairs have repeatedly led to disaster. What we need is that precious and most elusive of modern outcomes, an equilibrium – and it must be found fairly soon.

Though David Kaiser in his entry has a different time frame, his concerns, to my mind, can be connected with a belief earlier brought up by one of my favorite historians, John Lukacs. In At the End of an Age he says that our present age, the Modern Age (which began in the 1500’s and superseded the previous Middle Ages) is passing:

To list the evidences of the ending of the Modern Age would fill an enormous book. Here I must try to sum up -or better, to suggest- some of them.

 

The progressive spreading of democracy has marked the history of mankind, certainly during the past two hundred years but in many ways throughout the entire Modern Age. This progress was usually gradual, at times revolutionary, and not always clearly visible on the surface of world events. How long this democratic age will last no one can tell. What “democracy” really means is another difficult question. But there is a larger consideration. We are living through one of the greatest changes in the entire history of mankind, because until relatively recently history was largely (though never exclusively) “made” by minorities, while increasingly it is “made” by majorities. (In reality it is not so much made by majorities as it is made in the name of majorities.) At any rate, this has become the age of popular sovereignty (at least for a while). History has moved from the aristocratic to the democratic era -a passage occurring mostly during the Modern Age, and one that may transcend even the great accepted (Western) scheme of Ancient and Middle and Modern times.

 

This spread of democracy was the vision of Alexis de Tocqueville; it is present throughout his writings, most clearly in the second volume of Democracy in America, where his very method of description was to summarily juxtapose and contrast how society, politics, arts, and even more, mores and manners, formed differently in aristocratic ages before the developing democratic times. And within this very large vision there was a historically more limited one: Tocqueville’s recognition, more than a century ago, that this had been and still was a gradual process: with aristocracy declining and democracy rising, the existence of some kind of aristocratic order was still necessary to maintain some of the freedoms of otherwise increasingly democratic societies… Nearly 175 years later, at the end of the Modern Age, much of this is past. Still the Modern Age was marked by the coexistence of aristocracy and democracy, something which has now come to an end.

 

“Aristocracy” ought not be categorically defined as the rule of kings and/or noblemen. “Democracy” also means something more than the rule of “the people,” more, indeed, than mere popular sovereignty. Bust especially in Europe, between the highest and the lowest classes (or between the rulers and the ruled) there was another, rather particular, class in the middle: the so-called bourgeois class or classes…

And he says that as the Modern Age now undergoes its terminal decline, it should more accurately be known as the Bourgeois Age. In a most lyrical passage, he distills what that Age has been all about:

The Bourgeois Age was the Age of the State; the Age of Money; the Age of Industry; the Age of the Cities; the Age of Privacy; the Age of the Family; the Age of Schooling; the Age of the Book; the Age of Representation; the Age of Science; and the age of an evolving historical consciousness. Except for the last two, all of these primacies are now fading and declining fast.

Indeed! The challenges to, crumbling of, and increasing certainty that all these Ages of have passed -of the state, of money, of industry, the city, of privacy, of family, of schooling, the book, and representation- are played out in this blog nearly day-to-day; just as the debate over which should be exalted, reason or emotion, periodically re-erupts here…
But this clash between Reason and Emotion, as Kaiser sees it, or the passing of the Modern Age, as Lukacs put it, in either case is being played out in blogosphere, too, between those whose references are to a longer framework of time (the Internet Age being the latest evolution of the Modern Age, for example, a view I subscribe to in my attitude to blogging being the latest reincarnation of the Era of the Pamphleteers: see the latter part of my May 7, 2008 blog entry) and those for whom the present Age has vanquished all that’s come before (the Internet as the successor to the Modern Age, though not necessarily a Postmodern Age, as expressed by big mango in Are You a Member of Generation V (for Virtual)? ).
To return where I started: it’s folly (and fallacious) to think a present or future tyranny would be a carbon copy of past tyrannies; tyrants and tyrannies evolve and they thrive when their victims think that so long as the old ways aren’t repeated, exactly, then they are free.

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  1. KG

    You are very welcome,Bencard

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