"If you waste your time a talkin'
to the people who don't listen
to the things that you are sayin'
who do you think's gonna hear?
And if you should die explainin' how
the things that they complain about
are things they could be changin'
who do you think's gonna care?"
It was May Day 1971 and the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial was polished by sunlight. Tens of thousands of people moved across the mall and through make shift campgrounds at Potomac Park. People were angry. Their country was involved in a war without resolution and they wanted it stopped. The grass we trampled over on our way to assemble on Pennsylvania Avenue was to eventually be the location of the low black wall to remember the American citizens who served and were lost in the Vietnam War. The president did not see the marchers, though. He had left town for Camp David. But he could not ignore us.
In almost every discussion about our country's current political predicament, the most compelling question always centers on our collective lack of anger or why it is not seen or why it has no great political force. There are countless reasons. Regardless of the number of dissenters, neither the White House nor the controlling political infrastructure seems to think their behavior will have consequences when they are in charge of the total process. And we are all busy worrying about health care and car payments and mortgages and taking care of our children. Who has time to squeeze in a political protest? Let me check my Outlook.
We do what we can, and, unfortunately, that means we go to the Internet. The Internet is as much of a political problem as it is a solution. I realize there is great irony that what I am about to say is being written on a blog, but the Net is not the answer to political change. In fact, I think it slows down the process. We find ourselves in like-minded communities agreeing with each other and venting. While this is good for our blood pressure, I don't think there is any great evidence it is getting our senator's or our congress member's attention. We might feel good and think we have exercised our responsibilities of citizenship by posting a comment or writing a blog, but my impression is that we have taken a sedative that makes us feel good and accomplishes little.
The Net, of course, has great value. This blog and others like DailyKos and AmericaBlogs and TalkingPoints bring voices to the mainstream that were previously unheard, which is no small matter. The political discourse has clearly been enlivened and illuminating points of view have been added by sites like Raw Story. Candidates have been organized and inspired and money has been raised for them using the Internet. And, that too, is a good thing. But there is something decidedly masturbatory about using the Internet for political purposes. It offers a false form of gratification. And it cloaks our discontent from the people who most need to see it and hear it.
If there were no Net and we needed to express our political views, we almost certainly would not be placated by writing letters to our local newspapers. I suspect we would be doing what we did before the Net; we would be crowding into cars and trucks, renting buses, and hitch-hiking to Washington to let the people we elected see our great numbers and hear the chorus of our angry voices. Take all of the people from all of the political sites on the Web, put them in front of the White House, and see what kind of reaction that gets.
I am sure George W. Bush and Karl Rove love the Internet. It gathers all of their opposition into one location and makes them easy to monitor. They learn in advance the thinking of grass roots movements and can develop tactics to counter political momentum. In fact, on Raw Story yesterday, critical comments were posted on an interview conducted by Larisa Alexandrova with neo-con Michael Ledeen. The commenter, who had a brief exchange with the author, signed his post as "boy genius." I prefer to call him "Bush's Brain," but there's little doubt Rove was checking on the kind of treatment Ledeen, one of his key advisors on Middle East policy, was getting from Raw Story. He ain't my big brother. But he's watching.
The Internet is, obviously, a critical part of the contemporary political process. But it is just one tool. It is not the only answer. There is more to our citizenship than writing blogs and posting comments. If that is all it takes to satisfy our political urges, then our democracy has a much more virulent disease than we had all feared.
Maybe it is time to get off line. And get back in the streets.