Friday, March 2, 2007

Remembering Schlesinger

I think that the best way to honor the memory of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who died Wednesday from a heart attack at the age of 89, is to read what he wrote. Since this can keep us busy for quite some time, in this post I would like to focus on an article that appeared in the September/October 1997 issue of Foreign Affairs with the provocative title "Has Democracy a Future?" (The essay was later included as Chapter 6 of War and the American Presidency.) What has particularly stuck with me about this essay is that, even in 1997, Schlesinger was cultivating a highly perceptive sense of the world that the Internet was making; and he felt obliged to write about this.

Let me begin with a passage that picks up on my comments yesterday about the concept of "contributing to the economy:"

The computerized world poses problems for democracy. Where the Industrial Revolution created more jobs than it destroyed, the Computer Revolution threatens to destroy more jobs than it creates. It also threatens to erect new and rigid class barriers, especially between the well-educated and the ill-educated. Economy inequality has already grown in the United States to the point where disparities are greater in egalitarian America than in the class-ridden societies of Europe. Felix Rohatyn [I tried to track down the source for the quotation and found that it may have been by Richard Sennett], the investment banker and rescuer of a bankrupt New York City, speaks of the "huge transfers of wealth from lower-skilled middle-class workers to the owners of capital assets and to a new technological aristocracy."

Then there is a passage that reflects my own skepticism about the ability of the Internet to cultivate the "wisdom of crowds:"

Interactivity encourages instant responses, discourages second thoughts, and offers outlets for demagoguery, egomania, insult, and hate. Listen to talk radio! In too interactive a polity, a "common passion," as Madison thought, could sweep through a people and lead to emotional and ill-judged actions. Remembering the explosion of popular indignation when President Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur, one is grateful that the electronic town hall was not running the country in 1951. The Internet has done little thus far to foster the reasoned exchanges that in Madison’s words [The Federalist, Number 10] "refine and enlarge the public views."

Finally, let me include a passage that reflects on the key question of the essay, whether or not the concept of democracy has a future, in light of the world that the Internet has been making:

The Computer Revolution offers wondrous new possibilities for creative destruction [my hyperlink]. One goal of capitalist creativity is the globalized economy. One—unplanned—candidate for capitalist destruction is the nation-state, the traditional site of democracy. The computer turns the untrammeled market into a global juggernaut crashing across frontiers, enfeebling national powers of taxation and regulation, undercutting national management of interest rates and exchange rates, widening disparities of wealth both within and between nations, dragging down labor standards, degrading the environment, denying nations the shaping of their own economic destiny, accountable to no one, creating a world economy without a world polity. Cyberspace is beyond national control. No authorities exist to provide international control. Where is democracy now?

There is a school of thought that reflects on the current administration and asks whether the United States is on the cusp of a transition from republic to empire. This proposition certainly merits reflection, but the causality may not reside in the White House. The prevailing Internet culture may be a far more significant factor than any element of any country's current approach to governance.

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