Saturday, April 15, 2006

Despite All Their Rage . . .

The WaPo's David Finkel has a front-page (on the Web, anyway) profile of liberal blogger Maryscott O'Connor in today's edition that also attempts to take the pulse of the American online left. Finkel frames his piece around the liberal blogosphere's strident tone and hyperbolic anti-administration rhetoric, which is unsurprising given that the paper itself has been a frequent target of its members' rancor. O'Connor comes off in the text as concerned if a little frustrated, but the unfortunate photo that runs alongside the piece (which includes a true-to-stereotype glass of red wine sitting next to the computer monitor) portrays her as out-of-touch and irrational. Then again, I doubt anyone who describes herself as "insane with rage and grief" cares much about the appearance of uncivility.

But does all the vehemence and vitriol to be found all over Daily Kos, Eschaton, and My Left Wing serve a higher purpose, or does it amount to little more than national group therapy for a disenfranchised political minority? Finkel raises the question, but the only potential answer comes from O'Connor herself, who has the following to say in a piece about the need for action in Darfur:

"You don't think you can do anything? ANYTHING? You're right. YOU can't do anything. But WE can. WE CAN," she writes.

"MAKE SOME [expletive] NOISE ABOUT DARFUR and you WILL be heard, and it WILL be addressed. Keep silent . . . and none of your future 'How could we let it happen' elegies will mean a good goddamn."

So she says, but I'm not convinced. Bloggers and their commenters love to talk about the medium's potential for change in unjustifiably buoyant terms that usually fail to distinguish its strengths from its shortcomings. Blogs have proven very effective at reclaiming some of the mass media's agenda-setting power, both by acting as filters that offer customized news feeds to partisan constituencies and by forcing major news organizations to focus attention on stories they initially missed or marginalized (i.e. Americablog's exposé of James Guckert). However, political blog readers still comprise a small, unrepresentative minority of the electorate, and thus wield little sway in national policymaking. The problem is even more pronounced on the left, whose inferno of impotent rage is continuously stoked by its lack of representation in Washington.

The blogosphere, or some other permutation of the political Web, may eventually prove itself a practical conduit for real political change; it is young yet. But here in America today, its main function is to allow disaffected parties from all across the political spectrum the opportunity to vent their frustration in congenial virtual milieux. Chinese citizens use the Internet (or their heavily censored version of it) to express grievances as well, but the network's decentralized nature exerts a far more significant political impact there by directly challenging the government's aggressive desire to stamp out dissent. Without such a transparently repressive regime to amass widespread ire against, American liberals must discover for themselves the best ways to leverage the digital tools at their disposal to effect change. All that profane prattle may feel cathartic, but it's not nearly enough.

EDIT: O'Connor's reaction to the article and description of Finkel's info-gathering process are available here.