Thursday, August 9, 2007

This Thing of Ours

I recently finished reading Al Gore’s new book, ‘The Assault on Reason’. In addition to being a comprehensive and devastating critique of the Bush administration, the book has some fascinating things to say about the media’s role in American democracy throughout its history.

As Canadians, we tend to tune out when Americans start going on and on about their vaunted democracy. Most of them talk like they invented the thing, or at least perfected it, and treat their Constitution like holy writ brought down from the mountain by the Founding Fathers - intact, eternal, and inviolate.

Gore has a somewhat firmer grasp of his country’s constitutional history. He quotes extensively from essays, letters and pamphlets written by Jefferson, Madison, Paine and others as they went through the lengthy, contentious, and public process of building a nation. Perhaps most importantly, he talks about why this process of political discussion and debate by ordinary people was considered so vital to a healthy democracy that the founding fathers went to great lengths to ensure that it continued:

"Our Founders knew all about the Roman forum, and the agora in ancient Athens. They also understood quite well that in America, our public forum would be an ongoing conversation about democracy in which individual citizens would participate most commonly by communicating with their fellow citizens over great distances by means of the printed word. The Founders placed particular emphasis on ensuring that the public could be well informed, and took great care to protect the openness of the marketplace of ideas so that knowledge could flow freely."

The marketplace of ideas. I like that a lot. He goes on to define it:
"1. It was open to every individual, with no barriers to entry save the necessity of literacy. This access, it is crucial to add, applied not only to the receipt of information but also to the ability to contribute information directly into the flow of ideas that was available to all.

2. The fate of ideas contributed by individuals depended, for the most part, on an emergent meritocracy of ideas. Those judged by the market to be good rose to the top, regardless of the wealth or class of the individual responsible for them.

3. The accepted rules of discourse presumed that the participants were all governed by an unspoken duty to search for general agreement. That is what a "conversation of democracy" is all about."

Gore then discusses the transition from print to television as our primary source of news over the past 50 years. He makes the same point that McLuhan and many others have made - that television is a one-way medium that is practically and financially inaccessible to most people - but then goes on to detail the devastating effect this shift has had on democracy and public political dialogue.

This thing of ours is supposed to change all that. Assuming the powers that be don't mainstream it to death first.

You can tell that blogging, YouTube and other tools of this brave new world have finally come of age by the number of politicians and mainstream media outlets who are now clamouring to co-opt them for their own purposes. In doing so they are, of course, missing the whole point.

The U.S. Democratic candidates seem particularly anxious to jump on the ‘netroots’ bandwagon, while the Republicans seem to be mainly concerned with hiding so they can avoid more ‘Macaca’ moments. Candidates everywhere are hiring ‘official bloggers’, which is an oxymoron if I ever heard one. CNN’s recent ‘YouTube Debate’ was hailed as a triumph for digital democracy, although the whole thing looked more like a demonstration sport than a legitimate public forum. In fact, it kinda reminded me of those tour buses they used to run through the Haight-Ashbury.

Still, it got people interested.

The problem with all of these attempts to mainstream the phenomena, and why almost all fail to live up to the ideals described by Gore, is that there is always great effort expended by the politicians and mainstream media to control the message. CNN carefully combed through the hundreds of YouTube questions submitted, selecting only those deemed sufficiently ‘serious’ - and presumably not too embarrassing to the candidates. Candidates set up websites with ‘blogs’ that are nothing more than recycled press releases, often written by staffers, and rarely allowing comments lest some crazy person say something negative.

The real revolution is still being played out through grassroots political blogging sites like The Galloping Beaver, Progressive Bloggers, and Daily Kos. The trouble there is that, unfortunately, we are still largely talking amongst ourselves. Comments on liberal blogs are made almost exclusively by other liberal bloggers, and the reverse is even more true on the conservative side. The politicians are starting to listen for at least the duration of their election campaigns, but a meaningful, ongoing dialogue with one's political representative is still a rare thing. Especially when the only place for that dialogue is the politician's own website.

Peterborough MP Dean Del Mastro‘s site is a prime example. It's one of only a very few politician-run blogs in this country, but let's face it - calling this a blog is an insult to bloggers everywhere. John Tory’s new site is marginally better in that it allows comments, but it still reads like a collection of talking points from his campaign office.

Compare these sites with Garth Turner’s blog and you’ll see what I mean. Regardless of what you may think of Turner’s personality or politics (before or after), the guy knows how to run a website. He should. He’s been doing this for three years now - long before most politicians had ever heard of ‘blogging’.

He also might be the first politician ever kicked out of his own party because of his blog.

Yes, he posts a lot of attacks on Harper and Flaherty (can you blame him?), but he also writes extensively on issues like taxation, education, SPP, native land claims, the environment, and whatever else sparks his interest - often inspired by news of the day and occasionally in response to comments from his readers. He also gives some fascinating glimpses into Life on the Hill. At one point he did a series of MPTV interviews with the Parliament Hill historian, including one explaining why the lion at the foot of the Victoria statue is missing his junk. Another post answers the burning question, "How do the pages know when the Speaker stands since they have their backs to him?"

The most interesting, and often maddening, aspect of Turner’s blog is the comments. Peruse if you dare the 50 to 100+ comments attached to each and every post he makes and you will see exactly why most politician’s blogs don’t allow comments.

The debate here is even more vigorous than on most political blogs because there is more or less equal representation from the left, right and centre. This is probably due to Turner’s transformation from lifelong PC to independent to reluctant Liberal this year, leaving a lot of his original Conservative readers spitting mad and yet unwilling to just walk away. Some are simply CPC trolls and are generally ignored, but others have genuinely intelligent arguments to make and keep the rest of us from becoming too smug.

To me, this is what digital democracy can be and should be. It’s messy. It’s loud. There’s a lot of shouting and petulance and "Yeah, well, you’re an asshole!" arguments. But in between all that there is some surprisingly sophisticated political and social debate going on. Take for example this recent discussion about public funding of religious schools. Or the debate on consumption-based vs. income-based taxation (I'd say Garth lost that one).

I'm not claiming that Garth Turner is going to save democracy. At least not until he gets off of that stupid flat tax idea. But his blog is the best example (really, the only example) I can find of an open, largely unmoderated political forum that a) has active participation by a large number of ordinary people from across the political spectrum and across the country, and b) is facilitated by, but not controlled by, an elected representative who actively participates in the discussion.

This is what Gore is talking about. This is the ‘conversation of democracy’.

In the end, the importance of Garth Turner’s blog has less to do with Garth Turner and more to do with access, ideas, and engaging ordinary Canadians in the political process.

I’m certainly engaged.


  1. I'm almost finished the Gore book, and have found it to be fairly good. It kind of bothers me that he doesn't cite the information that he includes, and it seems fairly clear that he is looking at the past through rose-coloured glasses.

  2. "It kind of bothers me that he doesn't cite the information that he includes"

    Actually, he does. He just does it rather badly. He's got all of his sources and citations listed in the back, referenced by page number.