Defending Markos And Discourse

Defending Markos
And the Discourse Revolution

I’ve been doing a lot of traveling recently, some of it abroad, and have barely been able to keep up with Iraq, much less with the blogosphere. I was sorry, as a result to have missed yearly Kos and to have been unable to return Markos Moulitsas’s kindnesses (i.e. favorable comments and links) at that point. The internet community he fostered at Daily Kos has been absolutely central to progressive politics in the US in recent years.

I was therefore so sorry to hear that Martin Peretz at The New Republic, which he occasionally hijacks from its seasoned professional journalists for petty vendettas and cranky editorials underwritten by his wife’s Singer Sewing Machine money has presided over an attempt to smear Markos, as Billmon details. Likewise, Kos was attacked, very unfairly, by David Brooks of the NYT, who comes off sounding like a conspiracy theorist from the McCarthy period.

That this smear campaign involved a forged email published without contacting its putative author at TNR is all the more egregious.

Smear campaigns, underpinned by just making things up about people, are the viruses of blogosphere politics. Memes in cyberspace are easy to get started and hard to knock down. The rich and determined can just buy the destruction of a reputation, and our watered-down libel laws offer no avenue of self-defense to the smeared where the person is a public figure. (The rich and determined can also buy and ruin major formerly liberal magazines like The New Republic).

Like Billmon, even after looking into it a bit, I can’t figure out what wrong Markos is actually alleged to have committed. It is falling down funny to imagine that anyone “controls” bloggers, especially progessive bloggers. And as for money, for the most part a blogad goes for less than a 3-line classified ad in a small town newspaper does. And, blogads.com allows anyone to form a network on any basis, so Markos’s just is not and cannot be the only game in town, quite apart from which lots of bloggers on blogads have the authority to “sponsor” other weblogs.

Billmon thinks that the attacks on Kos and his cyber-community may in part be coming from the section of the Democratic Party that leans toward Neoconservative philosophy and policies, and who, for instance, are disturbed by the prospect that Lieberman will be unseated by a Democratic challenger.

This point makes sense. But I think that the struggle is larger. For all the talk about freedom of speech and individual freedom in the United States, ours is actually a hierarchical society in which most people cannot afford to speak out unless they are themselves independently wealthy. A lot of Americans work for corporations, which would just fire anyone who became so outspoken in public as to begin to affect their company’s image. Look at how many bloggers are anonymous! Purveyors of opinion in the mass media, who use their real names, are employed by, or in some way backed by, media moguls. It is fairly easy to depart from the spectrum of acceptable opinion (i.e. acceptable to the three million or so people who have disproprotionate weight in how America is run), and if one does, after a while one is not heard from so much any more. Thus, those attacking Kos work for Martin Peretz and Arthur Shulzberger, Jr., and if they didn’t they would not have their current influential perches.

The very wealthy are used to getting their way in US politics and to dominating public discourse, since so much can be controlled at choke points. Journalists can just be fired, editors and other movers and shakers bought or intimidated. Look what happened to MSNBC reporter Ashleigh Banfield, who dared complain about the propaganda in the US new media around the Iraq War. Phil Donohue, who presided over MSNBC’s most popular talk show, was apparently fired before the war because General Electric and Microsoft knew he would be critical of it, and did not want to take the heat. Politicians who step out of line can just be unseated by giving their opponents funding (the Supreme Court just made it harder to restrict this sort of thing).

A grassroots communication system such as cyberspace poses a profound challenge to the forces of hierarchy and hegemony in American society. Now anyone with an internet connection and some interesting ideas can potentially get a hearing from the public.

Kos and his community, in short, are at the center of a discourse revolution. Now persons making a few tens of thousands of dollars a year can be read by hundreds of thousands of readers with no mediation from media moguls. The old joke had been that anyone can own a newspaper, it only takes a million dollars (a really old joke, since it would take much more).

The lack of choke points in cyberspace means that people like Kos can’t just be fired. How then to shut them up? Why, you attempt to ruin their reputation, as a way of scaring off readers and supporters. This technique, as Billmon points out, does not usually work very well in cyberspace itself, though it can be effective if the blogger moves into a bricks and mortar institutional environment where big money and chokeholds work again. A political party is such an environment.

Cyberspace itself, though, is a distributed system, not a centralized one. That is why the charges against Kos are so silly. In essence, creatures of the old choke-point hegemonies are projecting their own hierarchical system inaccurately on Kos. Of course you wouldn’t expect people like Peretz or David Brooks to understand what a distributed information system is, dinosaurs as they are, of both politics and media.