Tuesday, February 21, 2017


 "And in your dreams you can see yourself...."
Democracy has a more compelling justification and requires a more realistic vindication than is given it by the liberal culture with which it has been associated in modern history. The excessively optimistic estimates of human nature and history with which the democratic credo is linked are a source of peril to democratic society, for our contemporary experience refutes this optimism and there is danger that it will seem to refute the democratic ideal as well. Modern democracy requires a more realistic philosophical and religious basis.--Reihnold Niebuhr

I learned in seminary that the basiliea tou theou required a race to the bottom, and so a constant churning.  But not quite this kind of churning:

Just because social media isn’t as utopian a force as Friedman believed doesn’t mean that it must be a dystopian danger. Nor is social media, as some people like to say, merely a neutral means—one that can be directed, with equal ease, toward any number of ends. Instead, social media has a very specific impact: It weakens the power of insiders and strengthens the power of outsiders. As a result, it favors change over stability—and constitutes a big, new threat to political systems that have long seemed immutable.

So were my seminary professors wrong, and hopelessly idealistic?  Is the proper Christian society modeled along Pauline lines of trusting the powers that be (the basis of the European "divine right of kings")?  Or should it be a place where the first of all is last of all, and servant of all?  Is that model simply "a big, new threat to political systems that have long seemed immutable"?  And even if it isn't, is that kind of threat a bad thing?

The first issue here, not the last one, is the question of power.  Social media, the argument goes at Slate, "weakens the power of insiders and strengthens the power of outsiders."  The constant race to the bottom of the empire of God weakens the power of everyone.  Only the powerless have any power, and that power is the power of powerlessness.  So we aren't describing similar things at all, to note the fruit-basket turnover social media has created.  And what it hasn't; as Slate point out:

The mullahs still rule in Iran, and Syria lies in tatters. Social media may have helped to give rise to movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter that aspire to “more liberty.” But it has also spawned countermovements that seek to disenfranchise minorities—including the one that propelled Donald Trump into the White House. 
So social media doesn't really weaken insiders so much as give outsiders a sense they have a voice, maybe even some power.  Oddly, that sense of power is fleeting, as Trump himself seems constantly concerned with asserting that he really did win the Presidency:

“Why should Americans trust you?” asked [NBC reporter Peter] Alexander.

“I was given that information,” Trump said, cutting Alexander off. “I don’t know. I was just given it. We had a very, very big margin.”

“Why should Americans trust you when you accuse the information they receive of being fake, when you provide information that’s not accurate?” Alexander asked.

“I was given that information,” said Trump. “Actually, I’ve seen that information around. But it was a very substantial victory. Do you agree with that?”

“You’re the president,” Alexander replied. 

It doesn't even matter that Trumps margin of victory places him in 46th position out of 56 Presidential elections; he's the President.  But he isn't satisfied with that, anymore than his supporters seem to be satisfied with the fact their guy won:

“They’re stonewalling everything that he’s doing because they’re just being babies about it,” Patricia Melani, a 56-year-old New Jersey transplant who attended Trump’s campaign rally in Florida on Saturday, told The Washington Post. “All the loudmouths? They need to let it go. Let it go. Shut their mouths and let the man do what he’s got to do. We all shut our mouths when Obama got in the second time around, okay? So that’s what really needs to be done.”

It isn't enough to win; there must be no opposition at all.

“We’re backed into a corner,” a 46-year-old small business owner told The Times. “There are at least some things about Trump I find to be defensible. But they are saying: ‘Agree with us 100 percent or you are morally bankrupt. You’re an idiot if you support any part of Trump.’”

As he summited up, “I didn’t choose a side. They put me on one.”
Do these formerly powerless people feel empowered?  Apparently not.  If anything, social media feeds the illusion that power equals absolute control.  But that plays on both sides:  how many articles have I read lamenting the fact the GOP isn't yet ready to impeach Trump and remove him from office?  The Congress that can't put a bill on Trump's desk in his first month, is supposed to have finished impeachment proceedings by now?  As for social media being disruptive, the favorite buzz-word of Silicon Valley, it clearly isn't; otherwise the mullahs wouldn't still rule Iran and Syria wouldn't be in tatters, and the "Arab Spring" overall would be much more, well:  spring-like.

Social media hasn't changed the centrality of power, else Donald Trump wouldn't have won the Presidency.  It has simply changed the perception of who has access to power.  And therein lies the promise, and the danger, of democracy; especially to democracy itself.

Perhaps this is the moment to recall an example that would appear particularly symptomatic of the current situation we have been discussing regarding Islam and democracy, namely, what happened in postcololnial Algeria in 1992 when the state and the leading party interrupted a democratic electoral process. Try to imagine what the interruption of an election between the so-called rounds of balloting might mean for a democracy. Imagine that, in France, with the National Front threatening to pull off an electoral victory, the election was suspended after the first round, that is, between the two rounds. A question always of the turn or the round, of the two turns or two rounds, of the by turns, democracy hesitates always in the alternative between two sorts of alernation: the so-called normal and democratic alternation (where of one party, said to be republican, replaces that of another be equally republican) and the alternation that risks giving power, modo democratico, to the force of a party elected by the people (and so is democratic) and yet is assumed to be nondemocratic.... The great question of modern parliamentary and representative democracy, perhaps of all democracy, in this logic of the turn or round, of the other turn or round, of the other time and thus of the other, of the alter in general, is that the alternative to democracy can always be represented as a democratic alternation. The electoral process under way in Algeria in effect risked giving power, in accordance with perfectly legal means, to a likely majority that presented itself as essentially Islamic and Islamist and to which one attributed the intention, doubt with good reason, of wanting to change the constitution and abolish the normal functioning of democracy or the very democratization assumed to be in progress.
The Algerian government and a large part, though not a majority, of the Algerian people (as well as people outside Algeria) thought that the electoral process under way would lead democratically to the end of democracy. Thus they preferred to put an end to it themselves. They decided in a sovereign fashion to suspend, at least provisionally, democracy for its own good, so as to take care of it, so as to immunize it against a much worse and very likely assault....[T]he hypothesis here is that of a taking of power or, rather, a transferring of power to a people who, in its electoral majority and following democratic procedures, could not have been able to avoid the destruction of democracy itself."
And that question of destroying democracy in order to save it, can be applied to that most central of democratic practices, the vote:

...one will never actually be able to "prove" that there is more democracy in granting or in refusing the right to vote to immigrants, notably those who live and work in the national territory, nor that there is more or less democracy in a straight majority vote as opposed to proportional voting; both forms of voting are democratic, and yet both also protect their democratic character through exclusion, through some renvoi; for the force of the demos, the force of democrary, commits it, in the name of universal equality, to representing not only the greatest force of the greatest number, the majority of citizens considered of age, but also the weakness of the weak, minors, minorities, the poor, and all those throughout the world who callout in suffering for a legitimately infinite extension of what are called human rights. One electoral law is thus always at the same time more and less democratic than another; it is the force of force, a weakness of force and the force of a weakness; which means that democracy protects itself and maintains itself precisely by limiting and threatening itself.  
Jacques Derrida, Rogues, tr. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2005), pp. 30-36.

We can examine the challenging question of allowing immigrants and non-citizens the vote, but that's too abstract a concept.  What about people without driver's licenses, or birth certificates?  What about people who didn't vote for Donald Trump?  "They need to let it go. Let it go. Shut their mouths and let the man do what he’s got to do."  And he can do that a lot better if those people who didn't vote for him, don't have a voice:

We've begun preparing to repeal and replace Obamacare. Obamacare is a disaster, folks. It it's disaster. I know you can say, oh, Obamacare. I mean, they fill up our [rallies] with people that you wonder how they get there, but they are not the Republican people that our representatives are representing.

Because really, who needs voting when we can just confine Republicans in office to representing the people they think put them in office, and ignore all those other 'citizens'?  Representative democracy is so much easier when you only have to represent people whom you think are thinking like you.

Interestingly, we need not just a Derrida to deconstruct our democratic ideals (which are neither so ideal nor so democratic), but also a Niebuhr to make us look at fundamental issues of human nature:

The same phenomenon is in the middle of transforming the media landscape. Until a few years ago, a small elite of writers, editors, producers, and news anchors effectively decided what views were mainstream enough to be given a hearing. This may sound sinister, but it served an important purpose. It allowed the journalistic class to contain false claims and to refuse to publish racist articles. It also meant that critics who rejected polite political discourse had trouble breaking in. Building a distribution network was expensive, so they couldn’t do much beyond writing angry letters to the editor (which those newspapers could decline to print). 
It is quite clear the internet (i.e., social media) hasn't contained racism in America; it has empowered it.  And that's not really a surprise:

Niebuhr was a critic of national innocence, which he regarded as a delusion. After all, whites coming to these shores were reared in the Calvinist doctrine of sinful humanity, and they killed red men, enslaved black men and later on imported yellow men for peon labor - not much of a background for national innocence. "Nations, as individuals, who are completely innocent in their own esteem," Niebuhr wrote, "are insufferable in their human contacts." The self-righteous delusion of innocence encouraged a kind of Manichaeism dividing the world between good (us) and evil (our critics).
That quote from Niebuhr could explain Donald Trump in a nutshell.  That last sentence could be applied to the critics of Trump on the internet as easily as it is applied to the supporters of Trump who cheer him on as he attacks those they would see attacked.   And something Niebuhr wrote in The Irony of American History applies directly to our concern here:

Obviously the idea of the abolition of the institution of monarchy as the most important strategy for the redemption of mankind was characteristic of the peculiar prejudices of middle-class life as the idea of the abolition of the institution of property was of the unique viewpoint of the propertyless proletariat. In each case they identified all evil with the type of power from which they suffered and which they did not control; and they regarded particular sources of particular social evils as the final source of all evil in history. Neither Condorcet, nor Comte in his subsequent elaborations of similar hopes, placed all their trust in this single strategy. The liberal world has always oscillated between the hope of creating perfect men by eliminating the sources of social evil and the hope of so purifying human "reason" by educational techniques that all social institutions would gradually become the bearers of a universal human will, informed by a universal human mind. These ambiguities, which have saved the Messianic dreams of the liberal culture from breeding the cruelties of communism, must be considered more fully presently. At the moment it is worth recording that the Frenchman, Condorcet, envisaged the French and the "Anglo-Americans" as the Messianic nations. Here we have in embryo what has become the ironic situation of our own day. The French Enlightenment consistently saw the American Revolution and the founding of the new American nation as a harbinger of the perfect world which was in the making. Though Comte, almost a century later, rigorously clung to the idea of French hegemony in the coming utopia and fondly hoped that French would be its universal language, France has fallen by the wayside as a nation with a Messianic consciousness, its present mood being characterized by extreme skepticism rather than apocalyptic hopes. (emphasis added)

--Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons 1952), pp. 66-68.

We still hope for the apocalypse, when all foes are vanquished, and all truth is undeniably revealed.  In the meantime, we identify evil with what we think we suffer from and don't control, and particular sources of particular social evils as the final source of all evil in history.  Once that is eliminated, we will finally be free.  We will be free because we suffer form the power we don't control; once we control that, all our trials will be over; and once we eliminate particular social evils, like liberals or "identity politics," to name two examples, we will eliminate the final sources of all evil in history; or as good as, anyway.

But evil, and my evil?

Is social media good, or bad?  Depends on your point of view.  If you are a rural American who can finally get their opinion heard (read) beyond winning the lottery of getting on talk radio, then it's probably good.  But if your opinions are racist and retrograde and as ignorant as the President's on any subject (say, economics, for example), then social media is bad.  We didn't have unanimity of purpose when Walter Cronkite told us the way it is, but we didn't elect Presidents on a rising tide of white supremacy, either.  Was social media ever going to save us?  Reinhold Niebuhr could have disabused us of that notion in a heartbeat.  He still can; but Niebuhr is not our savior, either.  There is no savior:  not in the sense of an uber-Daddy who will make everything all right (and I stop again to point out the concept of "savior" was not a Jewish one, but a Roman one; it was an office claimed by the Caesars once they became divine, because they alone could save Rome from barbarity and keep civilization from collapse.  An idea that haunts Western civilization to this day.).

But if we are to respond to the effects of social media on our political system, we must start by understanding its nature: Neither wholly good nor wholly bad, social media favors the outsider over the insider, and the forces of instability over the defenders of the status quo.

Which is funny, because there's nothing more status quo than Facebook and Twitter, and the people who get the most attention on either platform are the most inside of insiders:  celebrities and politicians famous enough to be recognizable (quick, name a Senator from Idaho.  Or Arkansas.  Wyoming; Delaware.  I'll wait....) and the moment somebody like Stephen Barron is inside the White House, there's some group like Black Lives Matter that feels even more outside than ever.  And nobody's gonna confuse this situation with the kingdom of God, because the moment those who perceive themselves as last become first. they are busy sticking it to everyone else.  And that kind of political upheaval just seems to be the pendulum swing of American politics (from Kennedy/Johnson to Nixon, from Carter to Reagan, from Clinton to W., Obama to Trump).  So I'm not sure social media favors stability or instability, or inside over outside.  I'm not sure it really does anything but serve as a megaphone and the only question is:  who has the bullhorn now? (and, almost separately, there's always blowback.  Just ask Milo Yiannopolous).  Maybe it is the new printing press; but where's the power of the written word, now?  Donald Trump gets all his information from basic cable channels, and newspapers are dinosaurs.  And besides, Trump has an approval rating hovering between -14 and -18%.  So being on the inside is no guarantee of success; and social media is no conduit to upsetting the status quo.  Donald Trump still raves on Twitter, but in one month he's spent 6 days playing golf, and despite having a fully GOP Congress, not one bill has passed through that august body in 6 weeks to wind up on his desk for signature.  His only executive order to have immediate effect in the world created chaos and was slapped down by almost every court that reviewed it.

It seems to me the status quo is winning.  Or, at least, it isn't all that disrupted by a President who thinks tweets are Presidential decisions.

No comments:

Post a Comment