While Jeff Jarvis has been attending Davos and noticing that while the big shots have got it that the Internet can empower individuals they haven’t understood that the Internet’s real power is that it empowers groups. I discussed that in my last post, and like suddenly similar model cars that seem everywhere after you buy one, an example of the Internet empowering groups immediately showed up in the form of a call by Arnold Kling for comments and participation in what he rather dauntingly calls an Ideological Affirmation Task Force.
I invite readers to participate in an Ideological Affirmation Task Force (IATF). The first Request for Comment (RFC) is given below. It is a draft document that attempts to articulate a set of principles for contemporary libertarian conservatives. To comment on these principles on your blog, write a post that includes the phrase “IATF RFC.” I will use that phrase to search for comments. Please elaborate on the wording that most appeals to you and the wording that needs the most improvement. There are certain to be revisions, and comments themselves are an important part of the conversation.
Since 9/11, we have become aware that we are in an ideological war. We seem to lack tools to fight that war. Anti-Americanism is reportedly high and rising, and we are puzzled, because in our hearts we know that we stand for what is good. To the extent that a set of principles serves to clarify who we are, it can be a tool in the ideological war.
What interests me here is not the particular politics, but the initiating event – 9/11 – and the form of the political response – an ideologically focused statement of principle with the intent of creating through the Internet a more self aware and effective political community or movement. Something remarkably similar happened in England last year on the left side of politics. The Euston Manifesto. A key member of the founding group is blogger Norm Geras of Normblog who, along with others, found himself at odds with the much of the left in the UK in his reaction to the events following 9/11. While using very old fashioned means of forming a new political movement initially – meeting in the Euston pub – the resulting political movement has spread around the world – as it was consciously intended to – because of the Internet. Kling has chosen to meet not in a Pub, but by including that key sequence of letters in related posts and relying on search engines to find all the responses to his post. But both statements of principle arise from the Internet and the events following 9/11 and both are intended to create a more organized and focused political group that will largely be connected by a computer network. From the preamble to the Euston Manifesto:
We are democrats and progressives. We propose here a fresh political alignment. Many of us belong to the Left, but the principles that we set out are not exclusive. We reach out, rather, beyond the socialist Left towards egalitarian liberals and others of unambiguous democratic commitment. Indeed, the reconfiguration of progressive opinion that we aim for involves drawing a line between the forces of the Left that remain true to its authentic values, and currents that have lately shown themselves rather too flexible about these values. It involves making common cause with genuine democrats, whether socialist or not.
The present initiative has its roots in and has found a constituency through the Internet, especially the “blogosphere”. It is our perception, however, that this constituency is under-represented elsewhere — in much of the media and the other forums of contemporary political life.
Now it needs to be said that there is nothing wrong with beer and non virtual interaction and I hereby formally suggest that Mr. Kling consider the possibility of assembling like minded individuals at one of Washington DC’s many watering holes and having at it – like they did at the Euston Pub. Seriously, I think I can contribute to the document at an expatriate American – a Yankeewombat no less – by saying that the surprise expressed at the anti Americanism that has manifested since 9/11 has not surprised me all that much. There is a general consensus among much of the left outside America that America is the main problem in the world. It is not difficult to trace a lot of this conviction to the Marxist belief that capitalism is an unjust system and must inevitably collapse and that America, as capitalism’s most prominent practitioner, is deemed to be on the wrong side of History and needs to be thwarted at every turn. As an Australian academic of my acquaintance said in 2001 “When I saw the Twin Towers fall, I said Yes, America must fall!” Mr. Kling is familiar with this kind of thinking domestically and has even written an insightful essay on the subject called Folk Marxism. The reason for Mr. Kling’s surprise at the anti Americanism abroad is because unlike Americans of that general view, there is nothing to prevent their dislike of what America stands for and does turning into openly expressed dislike and even hatred. So powerful is this sentiment in certain segments of the left that the authors of the Euston Manefesto devoted an entire separate statement of principle to this issue:
6) Opposing anti-Americanism.
We reject without qualification the anti-Americanism now infecting so much left-liberal (and some conservative) thinking. This is not a case of seeing the US as a model society. We are aware of its problems and failings. But these are shared in some degree with all of the developed world. The United States of America is a great country and nation. It is the home of a strong democracy with a noble tradition behind it and lasting constitutional and social achievements to its name. Its peoples have produced a vibrant culture that is the pleasure, the source-book and the envy of millions. That US foreign policy has often opposed progressive movements and governments and supported regressive and authoritarian ones does not justify generalized prejudice against either the country or it’s people.
What Folk Marxism does not explain can be attributed to the cultural relativism of many who dislike America. They regard anyone who says “in our hearts we know that we stand for what is good” as hopelessly naive and unsophisticated because they know in thier heads that all cultures are equal and that no one can know in their hearts that they stand for what is good. It is one of the great ironies of the current political scene that cultural relativists believe in their hearts that they are the ones upholding the good. Some, quite few in my experience, swallow their own medicine and genuinely allow that their view is only one among many and mean it. The rest are pretty unaware of the irony and reveal it in a smug superiority to the apparently naive and open self belief of many Americans.
I actually think that Arnold Kling is not naive and quite aware of these two issues – the influence of Folk Marxism and cultural relativism – but like many Americans, including myself, chooses to state what he believes in his heart openly and then attempts to act on it. His 7th principle demonstrates this and is my favorite because it acknowledges that proposed new moral ideals can be both constructive and destructive.
7. Like new businesses, new moral ideals can revitalize our society, even though many of them fail. For example, we recognize that we are a better people without racial segregation or barriers to the education and career opportunities for women. However, we judge some social experiments to be failures, including eugenics, Communism, and nihilistic cultural relativism.
The larger political opportunity I see emerging from the existence of these two statements of principle is that they may prefigure some new political alignments between parts of the left and parts of the right. In short, I think there is overlap between the two that is worth exploring. I believe Eustonians and libertarian conservatives have the opportunity to delineate common ground and where they must agree to disagree.
There are almost certainly other declarations of political principle that bring focus to certain political viewpoints in this style on the Internet although I am not aware of them. As Jeff Jarvis put it:
The internet is more about collective action. It is about connections. It gives us the power to find each other, to join together, to coalesce around issues, ideas, products, desires, and activities as never before, leaping over all borders, real and cultural.
How effective these kind of political movements will be I don’t know – they are experiments after all. However, as we use the Internet more I think we will discover that one of its characteristics is that it allows us to more quickly and precisely focus group endeavor such that we are able to act more like a pack as opposed to a herd. Glenn Reynolds expounds this idea in his essay A Pack, Not a Herd. But that’s another story.