Monday, June 29, 2009

Twits should back-pedal

A few weeks ago I made a post to this blog concerning the usefulness of Twitter. Essentially, I had argued that Twitter was a useless, narcissistically driven media outlet, but with the recent news in Iran, I felt it appropriate to swallow my pride a bit. I'm not a humble person, but I may have been a little overzealous in my condemnation of Twitter and I happily admit that fact.

So now I'm really confused. Is Twitter a beacon of democratic hope or a cesspool of idiots? The answer, I feel, is neither. The obsession over the medium has led journalists, bloggers, Twitter users, and society en mass to oversimplify this thing into a black and white dichotomy. I fear we are missing the point.

Twitter is a micro-blog, just one of many subcategories of various social networking sites (SNS). What distinguishes SNS from traditional media is user-generated content. Yes, it's incredibly easy to make fun of Twitter just as it is easy to blame the media for a host of problems for which, at best, they are indirectly responsible. Perhaps our handling discontent concerning traditional media has unduly spread over into the SNS realm.

We treat SNS, and all new media for that matter, as a category of its own in some respects, but in many others our framework of approaching new media is constrained by our old approaches to traditional media. The point is this: blaming the media still works, but who are we ultimately blaming? For traditional media, it typically means throwing charges at faceless of despised corporate bigwigs, but what about new media?

For media that relies on user-generated content, we can only blame the users: us. I'm not sure we realize that. Maher is right that Iran could save Twitter by lending it some credibility, but Americans in coffee shops aren't twittering about Iranian protests; Iranians are doing that. We twitter about how sad it is that Michael Jackson died and that we'll miss him -- though we did't know him; about the poor sexual decisions we made when we were blackout drunk the night before; about our dogs; about nothing.

I can no longer condemn this use though. It has its place. Media serve an escapist function too, and we can't be expected to intellectually attend to every world political event at all times; it is too straining. But escapism only works to a point, and sooner or later we need to embrace the fact that an informed citizenry is a good thing, much like the Iranians seem to be doing.

The bottom line is that SNS, and new media in general, are really only as timely and relevant as their users make it. Twitter isn't all bad, but it certainly isn't the democratic beacon we have made it out to be because we haven't made it that.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Prescription for America Proves Sour Medicine

"Prescription for America" was billed as a debate by ABC, and its airing proved to be a television event -- if for nothing else its uniqueness -- however, I could smell the bullshit in D.C. from my Georgia apartment.

I just reread Harry Frankfut's "On Bullshit" this week, and here is a brief extract that might make advance my point:

What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs. Those are what lies misrepresent, by virtue of being false. Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.

Bullshitting means misrepresenting what it is you aim to do. ABC bullshitted us, and so did Obama. "Prescription" was not a debate. The other side of the healthcare debate -- namely, alternative plans -- was not represented, and indeed was misrepresented. Most people agree that the current healthcare system is broken, but rather than debating the merits of Obama's plan against alternatives like single-payer healthcare, what we saw was Obama's plan vs. the broken system. We were inundated by it and rhetoric from Obama reinforcing that dyad:

In terms of cost, understand that the system is already out of whack in terms of costs as it is. So if we do nothing, costs are going to keep on going up 6 percent, 7 percent, 8 percent per year, and government, businesses and families are all going to find themselves either losing their health care or paying a lot more out of pocket. That's going to happen if we do nothing.

I don't think the issue of unsustainability is under much dispute, but simply because the current system is terrible doesn't make Obama's plan the best plan, only a better one. Instead, ABC's format framed Obama's plan as the only alternative, closing the door on what would be a genuine debate.

Gibson and Sawyer appeared to play devil's advocate, but in reality they lobbed Obama a series of softball opposition questions which he either hit out of the park or completely sidestepped -- in true political form he was. But to the credit of Gibson and Sawyer, and I can't believe I said that, they had to navigate tough journalistic waters (though I do not consider Sawyer, a fellow Louisvillian and former Nixon aid, to be a journalist or even a hack for that mater). They had to "report" a story in which they were intimately involved, and without the proper distance it's difficult to maintain objectivity. Moreover, forcing them to act as opposition moves them from moderators to some strange opponent/moderator hybrid that was just awkward and inappropriate.

No, not a debate, but rather a speech with interruption -- some, ironically, paid for by McDonald's. Obama had a chance to pitch his argument against a straw man whom he burned to the ground, all while ABC tried desperately to grasp for journalistic integrity, misrepresenting what amounted to a persuasive speech as a deliberative debate. All this mess gives Obama more weight with the public and, I fear, undue credibility to the viability of his plan as compared to alternatives.

My purpose here, as media student and a bit of a junky, has been to critique the presentation of Obama's plan, not the plan itself. Though I recognize some major problems that could arise -- particularly in terms of cost, implementation, and adequate primary care coverage -- I feel like his plan is workable, and uniquely American, which is not a bad thing. Each country deals with healthcare differently, and though I like the single-payer plan, the competitive platitudes of American business would never allow it. I guess I feel his plan is not the best, but it might be the best we can do. Unfortunately, that is not the sense last night's viewers got.

I will say this in closing. It was nice to witness a few bright spots from Obama, who I feel has been timid about many issues lately (gay marriage, bank regulation, the handling of Guantanamo, etc.). For better of for worse, I feel like he's really going to go to bat for us over healthcare, and it's about time he lived up to his promises and we got something done. Here's and example of what I'm talking about:

GIBSON: "Your critics on the Republican side of the Senate Finance Committee wrote you a letter and said: 'At a time when major government programs like Medicare and Medicaid are already on a path to fiscal insolvency, creating a brand new program will not only worsen our long-term financial outlook, but also negatively impact American families who enjoy private coverage for their insurance. What do you say to them?"
OBAMA: "They're wrong."

He's finally sacking up and taking command of this wayward bipartisan ship, and it's long overdue. Also, I was impressed with the way he addressed the socialism fear surrounding the public option of his plan:

So we would have -- I think there are some legitimate questions in terms of how the public option is designed. One thing I have to say, though, is, it's not an entirely bad thing if, as long as they're reimbursing doctors in an adequate way, and -- and -- and so not being oppressive on -- on health care providers, and as long as there are not a whole bunch of taxpayer subsidies going into a public plan, if the public plan can do it cheaper and provides good quality care, that's the competition that we talked about.

Though he didn't say it outright, the implication is that if government, in a competitive market can provide a better option, then why shouldn't it? That, I think, is a valid argument. I do wish, though, that in my lifetime a president would out and out say that we already employ several socialist policies (USPS, public schools, social security, medicare, etc.) that have worked well for us in the past and that we also hold dear. Who's to say similar programs would be different, or somehow more socialist?

Still, overall I was incredibly disappointed with this healthcare "debate" and I am fearful of the misinformed discourse it will produce. Obama finally appeared to take a bold stand, and that's an important thing, but I'm not sure it will be worth the potential damaging influence the program could have on even more misinformed public opinion.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Twitter is Useful

Typing the title for this blog was among the most painful experiences in my life, at least to my pride. I am openly opposed to Twitter's existence because I believe the site serves little practical use -- despite promises to connect people in meaningful ways. Though I still feel Twitter is largely a narcissistic medium, it is crucial for the select few who have found a way to put the medium to good use.

According to The Washington Post, Iranians are using the site to organize protests against their recently reelected president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who many Iranians believe stole the election illegally.

Twitter co-founder Biz Stone delayed scheduled maintenance to the site to allow protesters more time to communicate with one another and to provide sources outside Iran with information about the uprising. I have to give Stone credit on this one. Whether you think it is a publicity ploy or not, he's allowing his site to fulfill its democratic communicative promise, which, oddly enough, is realizing itself in Iran.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Rise and Fall of the American Empire?

"All for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind. As soon, therefore, as they could find a method of consuming the whole value of their rents themselves, they had no disposition to share them with any other persons. For a pair of diamond buckles perhaps, or for something as frivolous and useless, they exchanged...the price of the maintenance of a thousand men for a year, and with it the whole weight and authority which it could give them. The buckles, however, were to be all their own, and no other human creature was to have any share of them; whereas in the more ancient method of expense they must have shared with at least a thousand people...and thus, for the gratification of the most childish, the meanest and the most sordid of all vanities , they gradually bartered their whole power and authority."

- Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

The above quotation is Smith's account of how it is feudal lords came to lose their power and influence and the expense of the growing middle class. To me, this reads like a metaphor for the America's seemingly continual decline in stature worldwide, and I'm not sure how I feel about this. The tension of globalism and nationalism may be the largest political elephant in the room of our generation; maybe one day we'll realize that and come to grips with it - myself included.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

A Man without a Party

Classes started up again here at UGA. During day one of my public opinion course, our professor asked if we considered ourselves either Democrats or Republicans, and I, along with two others, allied with neither. In my estimation, at least in the current political climate - and perhaps always - to consider oneself a Democrat or a Republican is roughly equivalent to a declaring oneself a lunatic.

Personally, I hate to think of living in a country ruled by either. The Bush years gave us the nearest approximation of what an evangelically-backed, self-righteous, and idiot-prone Republican party. Obama-philes seem to await the coming pendulum swing that would provide a Democratic counterpart, but his time in office will be over before the Democrats can develop a workable fiscal policy or locate the backbone to implement it.

That said, I'm not sure bipartisanship is the answer either. Swallowing two shit sandwiches is hardly preferable to eating one.

For, the most frustrating part of following politics isn't the game-like nature by which are lives are dictated; as much as I disapprove, I understand. What I can't grasp is why it is we do much of we do and why we fail in doing so much of what we should. For example, why would we hold GITMO prisoners without trial? I understand the argument that details about torture could result in a mistrial and thus the release of dangerous prisoners, but the answer is simple: so be it. Is it more dangerous to release a potentially dangerous man or to tread the most certainly dangerous waters that come in protecting our principles at the very expense of those principles? The answer seems most obviously the latter, but we pussied out for fear of political suicide.

In contemplating the ongoing policy dilemmas we face as a nation, particularly the balance we attempt to strike between security and freedom, I came across this passage from P.J. O'Rourke's "On The Wealth of Nations:"

Freedom cannot exist without limitation. Adam Smith was not a man to flinch at thin conundrum. In his consideration of banking Smith stated his most fundamental free market principle: "If any branch of trade, or any division of labour, be advantageous to the public, the freer and more general the competition, it will always be the more so." However, in his consideration of banking, Smith also stated his most fundamental caveat to that principle: "But those exertions of natural liberty of a few individuals, which might endanger the security of the whole society, are, and out to be, restrained by the laws of all governments."

I've always liked O'Rourke because I think he's a sensible and intelligent guy with a pretty good read on our national bullshit. I also like his fervent defense of individual freedom and liberty and people's natural tendency that we want to be left the hell alone. This passage was particularly striking for me because it seemed like an approach to economics that transcended party bullshit.

By this I do not mean it was bipartisan, at least in the sense of parties working together, but perhaps in the sense that party differences are and should be irrelevant when considering what is in the people's best interest. The best political label I can find for Smith is that of a Libertarian who isn't retarded. It's a zero-based approach in which he begins with a proposition of absolute freedom and then restrains that freedom only insofar as it assures stability without strangling the freedom government policies are meant to protect.

I'm not sure if 18th-century thinkers are more intelligent that we are or if they only seem that way in retrospect. Increasingly, I am of the opinion that we aren't nearly as smart as we think we are, but my hope is that we only appear stupid now because the idiot voices of the past have faded into obscurity. Hopefully history's judgment and recollection - or lack thereof - of the Bush administration will renew my faith in the populous and in myself.