Birthers and the democratization of media

“I’ve just recently realized the degree to which the Net and Web represents a victory for counter and subculturalism in one sense: The generation currently in their teens won’t even be able to recognize a consensus reality or know what the mainline politics of the moment allegedly is, because they won’t even look at centralized media.” – R.U. Sirius, Mondo 2000 issue 16, winter 1996

“Today’s cutting-edge youth demands free access to uncensored information over the Internet with universal encryption to guarantee secure, unmediated communications. Once again, through a technological backdoor, we are witnessing a social movement that threatens to pull the plug on the powers-that-be. As it loses its traditional control over information, government becomes irrelevant. After all the loudmouthed posturing and wishful thinking, all the manifestos and ephemera, will it really be the ones and zeros of the computer’s binary code that render authority obsolete and redefine human relations?” – Peter Stansill, Preface to the 1999 edition of BAMN: Outlaw Manifestos & Ephemera 1965 – 1970.

“It’s a total cacophony of disparate voices and ideologies. For every Noam Chomsky Archive or Mother Jones web site, there’s an Aryan Dating Service or a Holohoax site or a It doesn’t favor one school of thought over another. But that’s a good thing! More chaos! More ideological Balkanization, please! Push the pedal to the metal of the Hegelian dialectic as hard and as fast as possible!

At root level, these competing voices all have certain things in common – a deep mistrust of the government and the capitalist elite, death-sucking powers that be. The Left hates something like NAFTA, but so does the Buchanan Brigade. I prsonally find myself in agreement with the Archie Bunker types when it comes to despising the New World Order of corporate greedheads who are reducing the working class of this country to renting their lives out like fucking slaves to Walmart and McDonalds for five bucks an hour.” – Richard Metzger, 21C, 1997.

In the 90s, the advent of the Internet age, many people, including myself, thought the Internet’s democratization of media would be vehicle for social progress. R.U. Sirius was correct that “consensus reality” would be demolished. But instead of a new enlightenment, we have a new dark age in which disinformation flows at will and even educated people can’t be bothered to check Snopes before hitting forward on the latest right wing chain e-mail.

The thinking seemed to go: access to information outside the mainstream media would in itself cause the media establishment’s authority to crumble and foster a new age of critical thinking. “The people” would get a better sense of what was really going on in the world, and demand change. People, awash in unverified sources, would also become more critical thinkers.

By 2002, in the wake of 9/11, and the rise of the “Warbloggers” it should have been clear that this simply wasn’t happening.

“Blogging” first entered mainstream consciousness with the rise of the “warblog” – pro-war often nominally libertarian blogs that launched after 9/11. Back before liberal sites like Daily Kos and the Huffington Post stole the show, Glenn Reynold’s Instapundit was the best known political blog. Reynolds was actually one of the most civil warblogs – others had a “most blood thirsty warblogger contest” (results, and no, it wasn’t a joke). Example post from Cato the Youngest:

Who calls for the destruction of an entire city in every post, and most comments and e-mails? Who has wished, in the pages of his blog, that he could be the bombadier-navigator on a B-1B, loaded with 38 200-kT AGM-69 missiles, with orders to scour the Middle East with thermonuclear fire? Who has suggested that the Israelis could annihilate Egypt by breaking the Aswan dams, in order to drive people to high ground, then nuking them? Cato the Youngest.

That is what the radical democratization of media wrought.

Maybe it should have been predictable. Ever since the death of Alan Berg at the hands of Nazis in 1984, the right has dominated talk radio – starting with Rush Limbaugh’s issue talk in 1984. And since the fairness doctrine was repealed in 1987, we’ve seen a lot more Limbaughs than Amy Goodmans.

“I think that the apparatus that we have, in terms of democracy and free speech, is probably as good as it’s going to get — we just have to find a way back to real power within the democratic apparatus that’s been captured by money and so forth.” – R.U. Sirius, Shift , July 2002.

“The base is not reality based.” – Jay Rosen, February 2009.

Which brings us to the “birthers.” Although the birthers are often compared to truthers, these people are even more deranged. At their best truthers raise valid questions about the government’s response to 9/11. At their worst, they extrapolate wild claims based on thin shreds of evidence.

Birthers don’t even have these sorts of thin shreds from which to spin their stories. They stand steadfast in the resolve to disbelieve Obama’s citizenship in the face of all contrary evidence, while offering not one bit of evidence themselves. (I wish they would apply the same standard of evidence to the existence of god as they do to the citizenship of Obama). If you show these people Snopes, they’ll dismiss it as conspiracy. They are allergic to the truth.

Meanwhile, the lack of centralized control has done little to rattle the powers that be. There are web sites dedicated to supporting any fringe belief you can think of. Everyone from StormFront to IndyMedia is routinely ignored by the establishment.

Not that the mainstream media is any better than the Internet. The Birthers have been given ample coverage, in a “he said, she said” treatment that legitimizes their lunacy. As much as the right loves to rail against relativism and post-modernism, their maniacal insistence that they be given “equal treatment,” and the media’s compliance with those demands, does more to create a postmodern, truth-less world than any French academic ever did.

Sadly, even as bloggers explain in detail how Goldman Sachs screwed America and provide factual analysis of Sotomayor’s record, lies and propaganda are able to shout them down. And our “watchdogs” choose to go after Matt Taibi instead of Goldman Sachs and to treat the “debate” over Sotomayor’s record like an actual controversy instead of a bunch of a nonsense. There seems to be no point in speaking truth to power. Power does not care what is spoken to it.

This should not be read as a reactionary rant. The yearning for a “golden age” of investigative journalism is a case of rosy retrospection.

What to do then when the watchmen are evil, and the populace is mad? I have no answers. My only solace at this point is that every outbreak of insanity seems to die down eventually, even if society writ large learns nothing from them.


  1. Yes, this is an unwelcome development. Instead of the flowering of back channel communication resulting in a new discussion of everything, we’ve ended up with something that allow, even encourages, an unparalleled insularity, tunnel-vision, and ignorance. Those growing up in this environment won’t *just* be ignorant of the supposed mainline politics, they’ll also be ignorant of the science and history needed to evaulate that politics. …of course, to be fair, my generation has proved that we can be amazingly ignorant with traditional tools.

  2. I think that as dire as this sounds, there are some mitigating factors. I think for example, that a lot of these fringe causes that are really not in almost anyone’s best interests are the hobbies of devoted minorities. I don’t know that they are really interested in cooperation or compromise needed to be as effective as they would like. A larger group follows along, but isn’t really interested in putting in the effort to actually do things. At least that is my impression.

    Also, I think for a lot of people, many political and social issues exist in a kind of reality free zone that begins with everything beyond their proponents backdoors and experiences, and extends on indefinitely. In this zone, only principle matters because the pragmatic effects will never be seen to occur, except through second and third hand sources, which are easily believed or disbelieved according to tastes.

    On another level, it points out the fact that human nature doesn’t really favor order or life or anything like that. We are like the animals and plants, and any kind of values we might try to advance are just a matter of aesthetics. Which makes me happy on a certain level. I mean, it might not be awesome, but it’s not like we are disturbing the proper order of the universe. It’s unlikely that our politics will cause the sky to break and the soul of the macrocosm to ooze out and dissolve everything.

  3. Trevor Blake wrote to inquire as to my source for the claim “‘Blogging’ first entered mainstream consciousness with the rise of the ‘warblog’ – pro-war often nominally libertarian blogs that launched after 9/11.”

    My source is mostly my own memory of the time. But here’s some outside verification:

    I’m about to update the main text with a link to the first article.

  4. Bill – it’s not even so much that people insular – like Cass Sunstein worried. A look at troll comments, across the political spectrum, indicates that people are reading “outside their tribes” so to speak. But they’re not thinking critically about what they’re reading, and more often than not, have already made up their minds. (Maybe I’m misinterpreting both you and Sunstein though – FWIW I haven’t read his book).

    It’s also worth noting that one of the other non-utopian views of the Internet from the late 90s – Robert McChensney’s fear that the same megacorporations that dominate print and broadcast media would dominate the Internet – hasn’t turned out to be correct. Because they don’t need to control the Internet.

  5. Lestamore – most of these fringe groups are mostly harmless. But in the case of the tea baggers and the birthers, they don’t need to be particularly cooperative and pragmatic to accomplish their goals – which are: derail all sensible debate over government reforms and stop any sort of health care reform from being passed.

    Sometimes absurd fringe beliefs can seep into the mainstream and can have severe consequences, like the “Satanic Panic” that landed many innocent people in prison.

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