Monday, August 6, 2007

Is there Strength in Union?

AP Business Writer Ashley M. Heher just filed a story from Chicago based on a panel discussion at this week's YearlyKos Convention. The title of the panel was "A Union for Bloggers: It's Time to Organize." Since most of the attendees at this convention were left-wing political bloggers, the AP coverage took some effort to give voice to other points of view, reinforcing the general opinion that the blogosphere, as a whole, embraces anarchy and wants to keep things that way, thus reminding me of my favorite button from the Summer of Love days, which had only the two words "Anarchists Unite!" Heher also used the lead to the story to try to identify why unionization was up for discussion in the first place:

In a move that might make some people scratch their heads, a loosely formed coalition of left-leaning bloggers are trying to band together to form a labor union they hope will help them receive health insurance, conduct collective bargaining or even set professional standards.

These motives are worth examining, and I would like to take them in reverse order.

  • Professional standards. This seems to presume that blogging is a profession, an assertion I read as a call for professional identity, a topic I addressed back in May. In that post I invoked a lecture by Jacques Derrida, who engaged is skills in text analysis to demonstrate how sloppy we are in invoking the noun "profession;" and I take this motive to be just another instance of such sloppy thinking. I suspect that what the YearlyKos bloggers were actually concerned with was a need for legitimation, perhaps best understood in terms of a deliberate lampoon: "I know I'm not as dumb as Bill O'Reilly, so why can't I be taken as seriously as he is?" This is a deliberate exaggeration, but it still exposes an underlying attitude that is fundamentally fatuous. Yes, legitimation can be achieved through union; but, since union has, in the past, legitimized not only dock workers but also the Nazi Party, we have to fall back on the cliché that "there is legitimation and there is legitimation." Just as the death threats against blogger Kathy Sierra engendered a lot of sloppy language about governance (from a lot of bloggers whose understanding of the concept was, as Andrew Keen would put it, "amateur"), we are now facing sloppy language about professionalism that cannot even grasp the subtle reasons why the underling noun is inappropriate.
  • Collective bargaining. Here again we have sloppy language revealing sloppy thinking, since, in the general context of the blogosphere, it is unclear who is bargaining with whom over what! I know that several of the Democratic candidates who faced the YearlyKos audience promised that, if elected, there would be an official White House blogger; but this is just following a path that the corporate world has already begun to explore. This is neither more nor less than experimenting with a new strategy for public relations, which is in direct opposition to the view of the blogger as a "citizen journalist," which is probably the sort of identity label favored by most YearlyKos attendees. Ostensibly, however, the power of the citizen journalist lies in not being beholden to any employer who might have to juggle the priorities of the needs of customers, workers, and shareholders. Accepting that power, however, entails opting out of a scene in which bargaining over any form of compensation (salary, benefits, etc.) can take place. Being a citizen journalist with the power of collective bargaining brings to mind the old James Thurber quip about the young woman who wanted to be a femme fatale without getting mixed up with men!
  • Health insurance. I wanted to save this one for last because it is the one that hits closest to my own home. While I do my own blogging from what can be fairly described as a "position of comfortable retirement," I also live under the shadow of what a catastrophic health emergency could do to the resources I have that support such comfort. This is one reason why I follow the news about the health care mess so closely and why my own votes in the coming primary and general elections will be driven heavily by whether or not I think a candidate can do something about that mess. One would think that the YearlyKos bloggers would share my concern and exert the weight of their words towards achieving a fair and equitable universal health care system that cares more about patients and their doctors than about shareholders in the "health care industry" (a phrase this captures just how corrupt things have begun). Instead, they seem to have chosen the I'm-alright-Jack strategy of solving their own health care problems through unionization, thus ignoring the extent of those problems for the rest of the American population! This, then, takes us back to that identity label that they have embraced. As Russell Baker recently observed in The New York Review, the idea of a newspaper being a "public trust" has been annihilated by holding companies that care only about their shareholders. On the surface one might think that "citizen journalism" would be well-positions to assume this responsibility of "public trust;" but this certainly would not be the case if the citizen journalists but their own needs above those of the public for an issue as critical as health care.

The point of this rather cynical analysis is that the discussion about unionization that Heher reported is actually the tip of an iceberg. The real lesson from the YearlyKos panel is a lesson about power: Attending the YearlyKos convention invoked a sense of empowerment among the attendees, which is only good to the extent that they can remain aware of the tendency of power to corrupt, not only among the people they blog about but among themselves as well. Unfortunately, it sometimes takes a painful question about a blogger's financial resources in the face of a health care crisis to reveal that blogging can be just as hypocritical as some of the more "professional" opportunities for writing, such as public relations!

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