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June 04, 2005

Blogging Killed The EU Star?

I derided a BBC report naming bloggers as the villains in the French EU Treaty debacle a couple of days ago. I had to. I had a silly headline about the BBC being idiots I wanted to use.

An interesting column by Chris Caldwell (interesting in a lot of ways, not just this one) shows me to be a moron:

The proceedings smacked to most voters of politicians trying to pull a fast one on them. On the site etienne.chouard.free.fr, a Marseilles secondary-school teacher with a gift for crystalline prose and a weakness for silly pictographs--particularly :o)--convinced his countrymen almost single-handed that this was the case. (One of the revolutionary developments of the past campaign, largely thanks to Etienne Chouard, has been the rise of blogging in France.) "I haven't read the text and I simply don't have the time--too much work," Chouard wrote late in the campaign. But he warned that the mainstream media were ignoring the main stakes of the constitution. He laid out five of them:
1. A constitution has to be readable to permit a popular vote; this text is unreadable.

2. A constitution doesn't impose a political ideology; this text is partisan.

3. A constitution is revisable; this text is locked in . . .

4. A constitution protects people from tyranny through separation of powers; this one doesn't have real checks and balances and separation of powers.

5. A constitution is not handed down by the powerful; it is established by the people themselves, to protect them from arbitrary power, through an independent constitutional assembly elected for the purpose and disbanded afterwards; this text entrenches European institutions designed 50 years ago by the men in power.

In this light, the answer to the question of why the French and Dutch voted down the European constitution is simple: because they were asked. In the Netherlands, the metaphor on everyone's lips was that of a runaway train. The young PvdA (Labor) party chairman Wouter Bos--who was placed in an awkward position when his party voted resoundingly against the treaty that he had crisscrossed the country urging them to vote for--said: "People had the feeling that they were sitting on a runaway train. For the first time they had the chance to jump off. They had no idea how fast the train was going, or where it was headed."

Damn. Quite a feather in that guy's cap.

The medium really is the message here. It's not that bloggers are terribly gifted polemicists. Some are, most aren't. It's just that technology has reduced costs for the dissemination of information and opinion to zero. Which wouldn't be a big deal if the media (in all nations) were diverse. Then you'd just have further, amateurish opinions and news-hypers to choose from.

But because media institutions tend to be monolithically partisan (always tending to the left, though what the "left" is varies country by country), suddenly having a zero-cost-of-entry Shadow Media can actually make a difference.

Not because bloggers are saying things that no one else is, but for the exact opposite reason: because we're saying things that millions of other people are, only those people never get to register their voices in the establishment media. Or at least those opinions are given short shrift.

A while ago I wrote:

Europeans have a terrific system for managing politically-sensitive disputes: They ignore them. And, better still, they ignore the desires of those on one side of the issue entirely.

When it comes to tough political decisions that emotionally animate a sizable minority -- or even majority -- of voters, Europeans have "evolved" a system whereby they simply deem those who are on the "wrong," meaning "right," side of an issue as "politically extreme," "racist," etc.

This system has the great advantage of suppressing all politics on sensitive issues. Those who want to restrict immigration from Muslim countries are "racist;" therefore, there's no need to consider them. Even though such persons constitute a majority in many European countries.

Branding such persons "racist" and "extreme" helps to suppress actual serious advocacy for certain positions. A large number of people might actually support such measures, but if their politicians are too cowed by, say, the BBC's branding of them as "rightwing extremists," they will soft-sell their program and meekly acquiesce in the status quo.

The system works great-- except, of course, for the small problem that it results in an unresponsive politics which ignores the actual wishes of many people. It's a great way to solve the difficulties of democracy, if you don't mind abandoning actua democracy along the way.

As has been frequently noted, the death penalty is actually politically popular in the UK and much of Europe; but European politicians and their support institutions (i.e., the media) have deemed the death penalty beyond the pale.

And thus, we have the odd situation of nominal democracies existing under a regime of laws they actually don't like, and would change, if given the chance. The laws aren't ever changed because, well, because it's just something that's not done, Old Man.

...

The current European situation mirrors, as usual, American politics of the 1970's. (As we've noted, Europe is always 20-30 years behind America in most categories, including politics.) In the 1970's, most politicians were liberal-- even the Republicans. The American people disagreed strongly with the liberal program, but they found no outlet for their dissent; even Nixon was a liberal.

This resulted in a "surprising" change: Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, and then re-elected by a historic landslide in 1984. And then, in 1994, the liberals' 50 year old strangehold on the House was ended.

What blogging -- the technology, really, not the actual bloggers -- offers is a massive speed-up of that cycle of elite dismissiveness, popular frustration, popular anger, and ultimately popular uprising and political change.

This dovetails nicely with (appropriately enough) Instapundit's discussion of "preference cascades," and how tyrants fall:

Such regimes have little legitimacy, but they spend a lot of effort making sure that citizens don't realize the extent to which their fellow-citizens dislike the regime. If the secret police and the censors are doing their job, 99% of the populace can hate the regime and be ready to revolt against it - but no revolt will occur because no one realizes that everyone else feels the same way.

"This works until something breaks the spell, and the discontented realize that their feelings are widely shared, at which point the collapse of the regime may seem very sudden to outside observers - or even to the citizens themselves. Claims after the fact that many people who seemed like loyal apparatchiks really loathed the regime are often self-serving, of course. But they're also often true: Even if one loathes the regime, few people have the force of will to stage one-man revolutions, and when preferences are sufficiently falsified, each dissident may feel that he or she is the only one, or at least part of a minority too small to make any difference.

An elite can rule against the wishes of the majority of the popuation only so long as the majority of the population doesn't realize it's actually the majority.

So long as those who actually represent the true national consensus falsely believe they hold a minority or even "extremist" view -- a belief imposed on them by a monolithically partisan media -- they will not agitate for change nor express their true political wishes, for belief that such an effort would be futile.

And possibly "extremist."

An elite ruling against the wishes of a voting population is an inherently unsustainable situation. At some point --as with the Reagan Revolution of 1980 -- the house of cards must fall. But sometimes it may take quite a while indeed.

Zero-entry-cost media -- blogging -- doesn't allow that false belief to persist as long as it once could. Again, not because bloggers are saying what the public doesn't already know; but because we're saying what the public damn well knows, but just isn't really sure enough other people know too.

A zero-cost amateur blog in France helped fell a five-hundred page document that took millions of pounds/francs/marks and years to produce. Had easy and rapid connections between like-minded people not been possible, the "constitution" might have passed, simply for lack of public belief that they could actually successfully oppose it.

Millions of people share similar beliefs but incorrectly believe, sometimes, they don't have the power to change things, because the national conversation, moderated by the establishment media, won't admit the possibility of change.

But they're not moderating that conversation anymore. Or, rather, they're partly moderating it, but there are now some boorish voices catcalling from the cheap seats.

And if France can be woken up partly due to a single blog run by a school teacher, who knows what country may be next?

I had meant to ask Daniel Pipes when he was on the show with Karol and I: A lot of Muslims seem to subscribe to the anti-American, jihadist worldview. But to what extent is that a deeply-held actual belief, and to what extent is it parroted because Muslims believe it's the "Islamically correct" sort of thing to say? Could it be that many Muslims are actually not quite as fervent believers in Islamism as it sometimes seems, but are going along with what they think is the bandwagon?

Would the Salem Witch Trials had happened had there been an underground media stating in no uncertain terms that all this "I saw Goodwife Smith dancing with the devil" was pure ass? Would a majority of the Salemites have realized it wasn't quite as dangerous as they imagined to stand up to the religious crazies burning people at the stakes, because they did in fact constitute a majority?

So: what if there are actually quite a few Egyptians or Syrians or Yemenis who "support" Islamism largely because they believe most of their fellow Muslims do? What if free -- in both senses of the word -- communication technology begins letting Muslims know that they're not the only ones fed up with tyrants and constant hectoring and hate from self-styled holy warriors?

Obligatory Natan Sharansky Mention Update: Strange Women Lying in Ponds comments:

In his book, "The Case for Democracy," Natan Sharansky writes that there are three types of people in any "fear society" -- what he calls "true believers," "dissidents," and "double-thinkers." It is always reasonably simple to discern who the dissidents are, but it is nigh impossible, especially for an outsider, to discern the difference between the true believers and the double-thinkers. But his theory is that the vast majority of people in a fear society are double-thinkers, and will openly express their preference once they feel it's safe to do so.

Without doubt most Muslim nations are "fear societies." We can't know yet the ratio of true believers to double-thinkers, but maybe an underground media can encourage the double-thinkers to stop double-thinking.


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posted by Ace at 02:33 AM

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