Arianna Huffington recently appeared at a Yale Political Union debate centered around whether blogs are good for democracy. Several Yale students gave speeches at the debate, and we have highlighted some of them on the Huffington Post. Read all of the published speeches by clicking here.
First, I'd like to wish the Union a Happy Constitution Day. Particularly as we debate blogs which fall under a combination of press and just plain speech, it seems appropriate to reflect on the rights guaranteed to us by the Constitution, today and every day. Plus, in a minute it will be relevant to my speech.
It's funny, although I'm speaking on the aff, I've agreed most with the speakers on the neg. Ms. Karras and Ms. Malthby have made a persuasive case that, for the most part, blogs empower only the well-off, well-connected, well-informed elite. Although I absolutely agree with Ms. Huffington that blogs do a good job uncovering stories that the conventional media ignore (I, too, was furious when the New York Times dropped the story about the Pentagon using retired generals to disseminate White House talking points after a day of coverage), those stories are targeted to the wonkiest among us, who have the time and resources to follow stories across multiple newspapers. This kind of blog post is directed at the stereotypical men making decisions in a smoke-filled room, not the average citizen. If blogs just give the elite a new forum to refine ideas, is that really an improvement to democracy?
No. But I believe blogs do improve democracy, not by giving the authors a forum to express their ideas, but by giving ordinary citizens access to the ideas they care most about.
Before I go on, I have a confession to make. This morning, I skipped out on half on my classes. I was participating in a teach-in for Constitution Day sponsored by the ACLU. I was teaching a senior civics just a few blocks away at Hillhouse High School.
The teacher asked the students to get ready for the discussion by listing, in order, the five amendments from the Bill of Rights that they thought were most important. Every group but one chose to First Amendment as the most important. The last group chose the Second Amendment.
Laurent,* the group leader, defended his group's choice saying that "it was about protecting your family," but when a girl in one of the other groups asked him why he needed a gun, he readily admitted that words were just as powerful, and often more so, than guns. I asked him, then, why he didn't pick the First Amendment as most important.
"Because no one cares what I have to say, and no one's listening to me if I say it."
I wish I could say that Laurent was wrong, but he's an African-American teenaged boy in a troubled school district that puts signs on every door reminding students of the ban on all gang regalia. His is not the kind of voice we're used to hearing in the media or on blogs.
And that's a shame, because these kids knew their stuff. As I went over the standard Fourth Amendment test cases, the students all knew that a police officer who pulled them over couldn't search their car without probable cause, couldn't enter their house without a warrant. Many of the students had lived the examples in my lesson plan, so I went off-script.
"What about FISA, wiretapping?" I asked. They had heard of neither, and when I gave a brief précis, the reaction I got was basically "Are you kidding?" At least you can see a police officer walking up to your car or bringing a warrant to your door, but electronic surveillance leaves no defense for even the well-informed target.
The Fourth Amendment interested these students and was directly applicable to their lives, but the mainstream media didn't make it easy for them to stay informed. Following any newspaper requires a substantial commitment of time (and frequently, funds). Because stories are covered only once, missing a day may mean missing the article that matters. Additionally, traditional media lacks one of the best features of the blogosphere: links. Hyperlinks allow any one story to serve as a gateway to many related stories and perspectives. If Laurent and his friends were following the Fourth Amendment online, they would have ended up on specialty sites covering everything from privacy bulletins from the Electronic Frontiers Foundation to entries from collegiate Con Law bloggers.
Even if Laurent never wrote a blog entry, blogs can make a big difference to how he fulfills his responsibility as a citizen. Blogs inform and empower ordinary citizens by allowing related data to be synthesized quickly and comprehensively and by making it easier for citizens to share their new opinions with friends or elected officials. In the blogosphere, you're only a hop, skip, and a link away from sending form letters to send congresspeople or joining a meetup for a protest.
Democracy depends on lowering the barriers to becoming informed. Although blogs are a great resource for the wonky, policy-making elite, their real power lies in their ability to provide broad overviews of the issues at stake and quick links for citizen activists. I'd like to hope that I personally made a difference in that Hillhouse classroom, but in the best-case scenario, my most powerful contribution to the students wasn't anything I said. Before the students filed out, they all wrote down the url for www.aclu.org/standup, a resource for young activists.
Making change happen requires two things, getting data and getting angry. Online resources can help students at Hillhouse and citizens across the United States get relevant data quickly and find productive ways to channel their anger into activism. And that couldn't be better for democracy.