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Erik Ringmar Headshot

Guerrilla Bloggers and the Old Elite

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Last Tuesday, CNN fired Chez Pazienza, a producer for American Morning, for maintaining a blog. Yes, that's right. CNN, a leading news channel, sacked one of its journalists for exercising his First Amendment rights. Catch the CNN bosses in the daylight and you know what they'll say. "Of course we believe in freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is a pillar of modern society."

Yeah, right. There was never such a thing as freedom of speech. In order to speak freely you had to have access to a printing press, a newspaper, a radio or a TV station. And everywhere you had to get past the editors. Only an elite ever did -- the articulate and well-behaved representatives of ordinary people. But ordinary people themselves never had a chance to speak publicly.

Until now. Today the internet revolution -- led by a ragtag army of bloggers -- has given us all a chance to be irreverent, blasphemous and ungrammatical in public. For the first time ever, there are no editorial filters in place. We can all speak freely and to a larger audience than ever before. We can reveal secrets, blow whistles, spill beans, or just make stuff up.

The reactions of the CNN bosses, and other members of the old elite, reveal their hypocrisy. The people who used to control the editorial filters can't accept that their monopoly now is gone. They saw themselves as the custodians of the public sphere, yet their position rested on nothing more than the existence of a particular kind of technology -- printing presses, radio and TV. Now that there is new technology, the nature of the public sphere is changing and their position of power is undermined. "We were always prepared to die for people's right to disagree with us in public, but you are disagreeing in the wrong way. I'm not dying for you."

Let me give you another example: my old employer, the London School of Economics. I worked there for 12 years, as a professor in the political science department, but I don't work there anymore. I started a blog, you see, -- "Forget the Footnotes" -- where I among other things discussed the LSE's Director ("an anti-intellectual businessman"), its professors ("a varied bunch, some tipplers, some thinkers, some away on permanent research leave") and the students ("great kids, smart, witty, full of loudmouthed confidence").

Like Chez, I made few friends among my bosses. The head of my department ordered me to "take down and destroy" my blog and to apologize to a whole slew of people. The statements I made were "enormously damaging to myself and to reputation of the School," he insisted. And the LSE's Director himself - Sir Howard Davies -- concurred. "What about academic freedom?" I protested. "What about that long statement on freedom of speech in the School's handbook?" "Well, that's different," I was told. "Surely, you understand."

No, I didn't understand and I didn't listen to the head of my department or to the Director, and I didn't destroy my blog. Instead the student newspaper started writing about me and then the British press. The LSE students gave me strong support. Finally, they collectively agreed, there is a professor who calls things the way we see them. Someone who isn't so freakin' self-important. In a matter of days there were 380 signatures on a Facebook group "In Support of Erik Ringmar" started by one of the students, and emails of support poured in from around the globe.

Why does a leading news channel, and a university famous for its defense of liberal values, start censoring people who use their right to free speech? Partly it's surely vanity. Bosses everywhere hate to have their authority undermined and they hate to be made fun of. They resent the fact that their underlings now have independent means of communicating with each other and with the world.

But more than anything censorship is driven by a concern for profits. All over the net people are reprimanded, terrorized and sacked for the potential impact our words can have on share-prices, sales figures and quarterly earnings. An undergrad education in Britain used to be free, but in the year I started blogging (2006) a three thousand pound yearly student fee was about to be introduced for the first time. Clearly my LSE bosses were afraid that my freewheeling blogging style was going to be detrimental to student recruitment.

In this way the imperatives of the market reveal themselves to be our last taboo. The bottom line is today the only thing which is beyond criticism. In a democracy you can offend all you like as long as you don't say anything that has an impact on corporate profits. The market has become a threat to freedom. The market is today the only authority that never needs to justify its power over us.

We expected this kind of treatment from repressive regimes. But repressive regimes are the easy cases. Repressive regimes make no secret of their secretiveness and their repression. Democracies are supposed to be different, but in practice it is not at always clear where the differences lie. Modern liberal society has revealed a face which very few of us previously have seen.

Should we be cowered? Should we back down? Hell no! Let's instead call them on their bluff. Let's remind the members of the establishment of the promises they once made us. Let's insist that our societies live up to the principles they profess to embrace.

Instead of taking down and destroying our blogs we should blog more sneakily, employing well-established guerrilla tactics. We should duck, dive and dodge. Blog dirty, blog anonymously, change items around or claim they never existed; write in code, write in Bahasa Indonesia. Kick your boss once again on the shins, harder this time, and then run like hell. If they come looking for you, hide inconspicuously among ordinary internet users.

Blogging is the best chance we have had in a while to overturn old hierarchies, giving voices to the voiceless and empowering the powerless. Individual blogs will come and go but the internet revolution will continue apace. Working men of all countries, blog! And working women too, and unemployed bastards, CNN journalists, and disgruntled students and angry wives, and everyone else with a grudge, a bean to spill and a story to tell. You have nothing to lose but your gags.