Observations on Life, Faith, Media & Technology

Radical Democracy

The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.”Thomas Jefferson, 1823

Jefferson Among our Founding Fathers, no one was a more steadfast advocate for the freedom of the press than Thomas Jefferson. His belief in this fundamental tenet of democracy was totally unshaken by the horrible mistreatment he suffered at the hands of the newspapers during his political career and especially during his presidency.  In 1798 he wrote to Washington aide Peregrine Fitzhugh, “I have been for some time used as the property of the newspapers, a fair mark for every man’s dirt.”

Jefferson knew that the “agitation” produced by the unrestrained flow of information and opinion was a necessary evil.  Plus, he saw the truth as his best and only defense. “The man who fears no truths has nothing to fear from lies,” he said.

The most famous Jefferson quote about the press was written to Edward Carrington in 1787:

The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.

One must remember that when he was speaking about newspapers, Jefferson was dealing with the latest in communication technology of the day. There were many who wanted to see restrictions on the flow of information via newspapers.  The only qualification to become a newspaper publisher was to have a printing press and an opinion! Newspapers made it difficult for those in positions of power and influence to control the flow of information.  How easily we forget that the lack of control over the flow of information is the single most important distinction between a free nation and totalitarianism.

I doubt that even with his brilliant, forward thinking, inventive mind Thomas Jefferson could ever have envisioned the flow of information via the Internet and personal publishing.  But I have no doubt whatsoever his opinion about the need for unrestrained access to information would be the same.

Since the advent of the Blogosphere, many in positions of power and influence have been heard to cry foul.  Some of them would like to see restrictions on the free flow of information via blogs. After all, the only qualification to become a blogger is to have a PC and an opinion! Blogs, like newspapers, radio and television before them, can make it difficult if not impossible for those in positions of power and influence to control the flow of information.  And that was exactly Mr. Jefferson’s point.

Cbs60mrather Doubt the power of blogs?  Ask Dan Rather about it.  He still can’t believe that a bunch of online nerds caught him and his cohorts at the once-upon-a-time “Tiffany Network” manipulating a story and knowingly utilizing forged documents.  They are professionals, and they know, after all, what is best for us.  We should have just trusted them that the “essence” of the story was real even if the facts and the “evidence” were false.  Rather is still incredulous that it ultimately cost him his job.

Within moments of the 60 Minutes broadcast on September 8, 2004, bloggers were pointing out errors in the documents and displaying evidence they were forged.  With all of the righteous indignation he could muster, Rather went on the defensive, portraying his critics as the latest incarnation of McCarthyism:

“Powerful and extremely well-financed forces are concentrating on questions about the documents because they can’t deny the fundamental truth of the story. If you can’t deny the information, then attack and seek to destroy the credibility of the messenger….I think over the long haul, this will be consistent with our history and our traditions and reputation. We took heat during the McCarthy time, during Vietnam, during civil rights, during Watergate. We haven’t always been right, but our record is good.”

As it turned out the “fundamental truth of the story” was that it was not true, and the supporting documents were complete fakes.  Furthermore, Rather got the analogy backwards – he and the 60 Minutes staff were the ones who were being McCarthy-like by misusing their power and influence and distorting the truth for their own ends.

The title of this post is derived from the stated goal of Web 2.0 technology – “Radical Democratization.”  The problem sometimes with democracy is that it is so, well, democratic.  Democracy, especially the radical variety, can be problematic if you believe the unwashed masses that are setting the agenda are wrong, or just plain stupid.  The experience of history would seem to dictate that in that case, you adopt an elitist stance and decry the unfairness of a system that allows the untrained, unlearned, or undeserving to have or exert influence. (“We are professionals… Don’t try this at home!”)

This scenario continues to play out in areas where the advent of personal publishing is shaking up the status quo, including the church.  Recently in Southern Baptist circles, a cadre of passionate pastoral bloggers (with a few dedicated laypersons in the mix) was largely responsible for the surprise election in 2005 of Dr. Frank Page to the SBC Presidency and with growing sentiment to stop narrowing the definition of what constitutes a “true” Southern Baptist.  Some in denominational leadership and in positions of informational gatekeeping have cried foul as these bloggers have gained an larger and larger audience and as a result, more influence.  (Sound familiar?) Here are some recent harsh words for the Baptist Bloggers:

Rather than blogs being primarily used for new content written by pastors for the edification of their own congregations, too many SBC bloggers take their cue from the legacy of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, except that the latter were actually professional journalists who could be sued for libel or fired for incompetence. Neither of these actions are likely to take place in the wild west atmosphere that has become Baptist blogging. No matter how amateur and uneducated an opinion-giver may be, harsh words and sensationalism will always garner a lot of attention… within the world of blogging, the life experience, education, and countless hours of study of someone like Dr. Al Mohler can be shouted down by a 2nd year seminary student with access to a keyboard. 

(Rev. Scott Lamb, ostensibly reviewing Keen’s “Cult of the Amateur” in the latest issue of MBC Pathway.)

It is ironic that those words come from a pastor who apparently is in possession of both two years of seminary and a keyboard.  His words reflect the same sense of entitlement and superiority espoused by Dan Rather and countless others since the time of Jefferson whose position and influence (or those of his mentors) was being threatened or undermined by some form of populist media.  When taken to extremes, this sense of entitlement and superiority results in calls for controls, limits or some other method of censorship of the populist media in question. 

At this point, no one with any amount of credibility is calling for the censorship of the Blogosphere (although I’m sure Dan Rather would vote for that in a heartbeat!)  But we are hearing rumblings along those lines in recent days with regard to talk radio.  For whatever reason, moderate and progressive (liberal, if you please) talk radio seems to always result in commercial failure, as in the case of the ill-fated Air America.  The result, for better or worse, is the market has clearly spoken in support of right wing talk radio.  Now those who don’t see eye to eye with conservative hosts are crying “Unfair!” and musing that the government should silence these voices or require them by law to present both sides of every issue by reviving the Fairness Doctrine.

For what it’s worth, bloggers and radio hosts should be flattered. If they were not being effective, if they were not having an impact, no one would be trying to silence or discredit them.

I’m with our Third President on this.  The unrestricted flow of information via the latest and most efficient technology at our disposal is our best hope to insure our freedom. 

Memo to elitists:  We aren’t stupid.  We aren’t easily manipulated.  We can discern truth from hyperbole.  We don’t need you to filter our information for us.  And as Mr. Jefferson so aptly said, if you have nothing to fear from truth, you have nothing to fear from lies. 

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