Friday, January 4, 2008

Of, By, and For WHAT People?

The last time I "took on" Eugene Robinson was this past spring, when Truthdig reprinted his Washington Post column, "America Likes an Idiot, but It Needs Al Gore." The thesis of that column was a simple one:

We need a brainiac president, a regular Mister or Miss Smarty-Pants president. We need to elect the kid you hated in high school, the teacher’s pet with perfect grades.

I found it necessary to take issue with this position, basing my own opposition on Isaiah Berlin's "Political Judgement" essay, whose own thesis could be reduced to the proposition that the keen mind of the "brainiac" is not always the mind best equipped to make effective political decisions.

Berlin's essay was included in a book entitled The Sense of Reality, and that is the best phrase to capture the mindset of this morning's Robinson column in The Washington Post. This is immediately evident from his lead:

I've said it before, but it bears repeating: People in Washington really should get out more.

By "Washington," I mean not just the city but the state of mind, and by "get out," I mean spend time surrounded not just by a different geography but by a different demography as well. If we did, the high-blown debates we have here -- and by "we," I mean politicians, lobbyists, advocates, bureaucrats, scholars, journalists and all the rest trapped in the Washington echo chamber -- might bear more relation to what people who live outside our bubble think of as reality.

This column was, of course, written in the wake of the Iowa caucus, which means that, for the purposes of his argument, by "people who live outside our bubble" he means our general electorate as represented by the participants in the Iowa caucus. He supports his position with two examples: the reaction to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and the current gridlock in Washington based on "irreconcilable differences" between the Executive and Legislative branches of the government.

There are a variety of ways in which to approach this text, but the best place to begin is probably with its central metaphor of the echo chamber. The Washington Post is one of the few newspapers remaining that offers some really interesting diversity on its editorial page. This could make for seriously interesting and informative communicative actions among the columnists, at least if there was ever any evidence that they communicated with each other! This may have been the perfect day to recognize that, for all that diversity, the editorial page of The Washington Post is, itself, an echo chamber, particularly if we get beyond the boundaries of the printed page and consider the current content on the Web site.

Consider, for example, that we can already read the column that Bryan Caplan has prepared for the Sunday edition under the title, "5 Myths About How Americans Vote." My morning reading habits endowed me with the good fortune of reading this more analytic piece before getting to Robinson's column, leaving me wondering whether or not Robinson had taken those assertions classified by Caplan as myths into account. If he was aware of them, did he agree with Caplan that they were myths; or did he disagree? Either way, would that not have influenced they way in which he constructed sentences that purported to make assertions about what Iowans ("or residents of most states, for that matter") think? For better or worse (mostly worse in my own humble opinion), The Washington Post is as much of an echo chamber as is what Robinson calls "the state of mind" of the District of Columbia; and the abundance of content in response to the Iowa caucus demonstrates how large and resonant that echo chamber is.

There are other ways in which Robinson's text has demonstrated the echo chamber effect rather than transcending it. Most important is probably that assumption that the participants in the Iowa caucus constitute a representation of our nation's electorate. There are any number of arguments against this proposition, many of which were already in print before the caucus took place. Indeed, the only useful point of Robinson's column may be that the "government echo chamber" does exist, even if that assertion was poorly argued. This is why I chose the Title I did: Abraham Lincoln's shining ideal of a government "of the people, by the people, for the people" is yet another myth of our national culture (and, of course, it was a myth in Lincoln's time, as we know from the stories of how Lincoln eventually won the nomination to represent the Republican's in the 1860 election).

The myth, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing (not, at least, if we are willing to recognize it as myth). The greater problem for me resides in those technology evangelists who (these days in the name Web 2.0) try to argue that the Internet will bring the government back to the people. From my point of view, this is an even greater, and therefore more pernicious, myth. If Huey Long rose to power on the vision of "every man a king;" the Internet promises every man (and woman) his (her) own echo chamber. This is no more democratic or representative of the populace than the current normative behavior for the exercise of "political judgment" within that Washington bubble. What is missing, once again, is that "sense of reality."

It is the provision of such a sense of reality that used to be part of the "public trust" of the practice of journalism. That is certainly the way Mr. Dooley saw it; and there is no good reason for us to discount his perspective, even if he assumed it in another century. The real virtue of Mr. Dooley, though, was the way in which he demonstrated that you did not have to be a "brainiac" to have that sense of reality. If Mr. Dooley could do it, we owe it to his memory to follow in his footsteps, no matter what noises happen to be resonating in the echo chamber of Washington or, for that matter, the many echo chambers of media institutions that purport to be providing us with news.

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