Never has so much been written about so little that’s been read by so few

January 18, 2008

Most people would say that shitting on your own doorstep is a bad idea…but here goes anyway…

Steven Stark of the not-particularly-reputable Boston Phoenix has written a piece that (mostly) hits the target on something that’s been concerning me for a while now: internet punditry in relation to the 2008 US presidential elections. Frankly, many of Stark’s points could apply equally to the print and broadcast media (particularly in the UK, where coverage is for the most part just plain offensive to anyone with even a little in-depth knowledge of the candidates, issues and processes), but Stark is right – the sheer volume, novelty and speed of internet commentators makes them worthy of special comment.

The problem seems to be two-fold. Firstly, there simply isn’t enough ‘news’ going on (and there aren’t enough astute commentators either). Secondly, the constant need to report something drives the pundits to fixate about deeply unimportant events in an effort to sustain public interest. They may commission a new poll or sponsor a debate just so as to be able to report it. In the worst cases they simply make things up.

(a typical online pundit at work)

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Why changing reading habits could spell the end of empathy

December 5, 2007

The way we read is changing. Could this affect our ability to empathise?

Reading used to be something done with care and dedication, and over long periods. Now, if it happens at all, it is more likely to happen briefly, and with a ruthless eye for relevance.

We used to get married to the things we read; now, we have one night stands.

So what?, I hear you saying. Yes, some people lament the decline of old-style reading: hence the chorus of disapproval greeting the report of the International Literacy Study, released last week. Saner voices see that “youth literacy isn’t actually decreasing; it’s just moving into arenas that the fogeys don’t know about or understand”.

But what if the changing reading habits also changed the way we thought about liberty, equality and fraternity: our most fundamental mental concepts?

Reading historian Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights, such a possibility doesn’t seem that remote.

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The Ron Paul Phenomenon

November 14, 2007

Ron Paul is a 72 year old ten-term Texan Congressman who’s running for President.

He hails from the libertarian wing of the Republican party – and indeed, in 1988, contested the presidential election for the Libertarian party. He finished a distant third.

This time round, as a straight up Republican, he barely figures in state or national polling, but consistently places there or thereabouts in local straw polls and caucuses. And the other day, on Guy Fawkes night, he broke the single-day GOP fundraising record.

Ron Paul Money

The fact that most of the $4.2 million that poured in came from individual online donors won’t surprise those who have been following the Paul campaign. But, astonishingly, neither the candidate nor his official campaign had anything to do with it. The fundraising was organised by a couple of Paul supporters who set up a website feauturing a video of Paul highlights with a stirring soundtrack (Aerosmith’s ‘Sweet Emotion’ followed by Coldplay’s ‘Fix You’ – Ron’s going to fix America geddit…) in the background. This (frankly, pretty amateur) effort raised $4.2 million for a candidate who (no offence Ron) doesn’t have a chance next November.

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China: not so different after all?

November 4, 2007

The internet is changing society. Will it do the same to politics? The case of China suggests it will not.

In 2004, the Pulitzer Prize-winning political scientist Nicholas D. Kristof wrote an op-ed column in the New York Times under the headline Death by a Thousand Blogs. “The collision between the internet and Chinese authorities is one of the grand wrestling matches of history”, Kristof wrote. “The Chinese leadership itself is digging the Communist Party’s grave, by giving the Chinese people broadband”.

Kristof is hardly the first person to credit the internet with the power to transform political life, nor will he be the last. The idea that freedom of expression will lead to political freedom is an immensely attractive one, and it has exercised considerable influence ever since its canonical statement, in German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment” (1784).

The argument, however, is fundamentally flawed. It is as naive, in its way, as the assertion that capitalism inevitably brings democracy in its wake. That may have been the case in Taiwan and South Korea, but they developed under the umbrella of US patronage and ideology. China will prove the exception to all these rules.

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