The commercial for the Saturn Vue offers a pithy indictment of our culture of bling in its slogan: "Rethink American. Rethink Excess." Ironic, perhaps, in an ad touting the virtues of a hybrid SUV, but it reflects a growing unease among us about how runaway consumption threatens to devour us whole.
Nowhere is this culture of greed run amok more conspicuously on display than on MTV's hit reality show My Super Sweet Sixteen. The series showcases all that is grotesque in status-obsessed parents today, but it also offers fair warning of the worse that is to come when their self-indulged progeny come of age. Consider 15-year-old Ava, who infamously threw a tantrum because her parents initially refused to buy her a Range Rover. If these children are our future, then the end of days is surely right around the corner.
The conspicuous displays on television are but extreme examples of a booming "coming of age" market that has marketing analysts salivating. Be it school proms, bar and bat mitzvahs or sweet sixteens, celebrating your child's (most often, your daughter's) entrance into adulthood has become big business. What was once a solemn rite of passage -- or at least a sweet moment of parental nostalgia and teenage excitement -- has turned into a spending extravaganza.
In such times, a book critiquing the commercialization of the quinceaÃƒÂ±era, a Latino tradition similar to the sweet sixteen, feels mandatory and inevitable. With a self-described mission to chronicle "how our traditions are remade in the USA, repackaged and sold back to us at a higher price," Julia Alvarez's Once Upon a QuinceaÃƒÂ±era offers the expected critique of commercialization, but she also points to the complex, contradictory and often bewildering relationships among tradition, materialism and identity.
The quinceaÃƒÂ±era is a lavish fiesta that marks a Latina girl's entry into womanhood, usually held on her fifteenth birthday. As with other such celebrations, these too have been supersized to epic proportions, with the average price tag running at $5,000 for a night of limousines, stylists, caterers and, of course, the overpriced, outsized princess dress.
The dollar amounts spent on the quinceaÃƒÂ±era are comparable to other sweet sixteen parties, but that kind of expense can represent a staggering financial burden for the average Latino family. Parents often save for years for this special night, sometimes dooming themselves to a lifetime of debt for one night of overindulgence. What can be dismissed as the cupidity of upper-middle-class wannabes on MTV looks like financial suicide for a typical working-class family in Queens.
But the extravagant quinceaÃƒÂ±era is about a lot more than keeping up with the Rodriguezes. "It's just something that comes to us from the past, that we want to give our children because it's something we never had," says unemployed carpenter Manuel Ramos in Alvarez's book, explaining his decision to spend $3,000-plus on his daughter Monica's quinceaÃƒÂ±era.
Yet there is little that is traditional or authentic about this re-created fragment of the past. The rites that mark Monica Ramos's passage into adulthood are a pastiche of elements borrowed from various traditions, old and new, a little bit Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican and even Walt Disney.
The fiesta is less about preserving an ancestral tradition than celebrating and affirming a Latino identity that simply didn't exist in the old country. The American version of the ritual was born of the quintessential immigrant desire to give the children what the parents were denied back in the home country -- in this case, an out-of-reach fantasy reserved for the daughters of the wealthy.
Much as we like to think of Mammon as a symbol of the rich, Alvarez reminds us that he "is the angel who before the fall is forever looking down on Heaven's golden pavement. He sounds familiar, like my papi, like so many immigrants who flee to el Norte in search of that country whose streets are paved with gold." The desire to climb the social ladder is sewn into the very fabric of the immigrant dream.
It's comforting to think that the hunger for upward mobility is reserved for the deluded, contemptible or pathetic, but materialism wears many faces. In Iran, for example, the Islamic revolution and its strict enforcement of the veil has fueled an enormous boom in cosmetic surgery. "It was an investment in feeling modern, in the midst of the seventh-century atmosphere the mullahs were trying to create. It assuaged so many urges at once -- to look better, to self-express, to show off that you could afford it, to appear Westernized," writes Azadeh Moaveni in Lipstick Jihad.
Materialism makes a poor antidote to fundamentalists, who seem just as eager to sample its delights. Once the ideological sword of the regime, the infamous Revolutionary Guard commanders now live in mansions, driving the very latest models of BMW or Mercedes Benz. The nose jobs, on the other hand, have done little to improve the rights of Iranian women.
Tradition can neither be preserved nor contested with the credit card. And spending lots of money for all the right reasons doesn't lead to the best of outcomes. As Alvarez points out, with nearly 22 percent of the Hispanic population living below poverty, working- class Latino parents are, in essence, throwing away money better spent on their daughter's future, which looks bleaker than ever for many young Latina girls, who have the highest teenage pregnancy and dropout rates (one in six are likely to attempt suicide). Surely one night of playing princess is poor compensation for a lifetime of despair.
And yet simply abandoning the quinceaÃƒÂ±era as a wasteful, retrograde fantasy is hardly an answer. At their core, underneath the layers of tawdry glitz and cheap symbolism, all coming-of-age rituals tap into a universal human need to mark an important moment for a teenager, her family and her community. "[It's] a desire to empower our young women, a need to ritually mark their passage into adulthood, remind them of their community and its past, and by doing so to give them and ourselves hope," writes Alvarez. We surely need more such rituals in a culture that increasingly values young women almost solely for their sexualized bodies.
What the commercialization of these rituals should force us to pay attention to is the steady colonization of our lives by market forces. The bratty suburban kids on MTV are no less lost than a young Latina girl in a world where the commodification of traditions coincides with the disintegration of the familial and communal relationships they are meant to evoke.
Corporate America loses no opportunity to transform traditions into selling opportunities, and communities into market segments, but we have also colluded in our own enslavement. Be it in Tehran, New York City or Beijing, consumerism has become our antidote of choice to alienation and displacement. In conflating value with a price tag, we've allowed every meaningful aspect of our twenty-first-century life -- identity, love, faith, even resistance to tyranny -- to be transformed into an empty imperative to spend, our most sacred rites performed at the cash register.
It is indeed time to rethink excess.
"I love [Hillary Clinton] so completely that, honestly, she would have to burn down the White House before I would say anything bad about her!" exclaimed Nora Ephron in a 1993 Newsday interview. Three years later, she told the Wellesley class of 1996, "Understand: Every attack on Hillary Clinton for not knowing her place is an attack on you." Come late 2006, however, Ephron was the one on the attack as one of the self-described "Hillary resisters" -- those who believe that "she will do anything to win, who believe she doesn't really take a position unless it's completely safe," as she wrote on her Huffington Post blog, "who believe she has taken the concept of triangulation and pushed it to a geometric level never achieved by anyone including her own husband, who can't stand her position on the war, who don't trust her as far as you can spit."
This rather dramatic change of heart encapsulates one of the great ironies of Hillary Clinton's bid for the presidency. Many of the very same feminists who were her most ardent supporters as First Lady are now fiercely opposed to her historic bid to become the first female President of the United States. The woman once described by Susan Faludi as a symbol of "the joy of female independence" now evokes ambivalence, disdain and, sometimes, outright vitriol. The right wing's favorite "femi-nazi" now has to contend with Jane Fonda comparing her to "a ventriloquist for the patriarchy with a skirt and a vagina."
So what's up with the Hillary-bashing? "Women don't trust Hillary. They see her as an opportunist; many feel betrayed by her," wrote Susan Douglas in a May In These Times article titled "Why Women Hate Hillary." A month later, in her Newsweek column, Anna Quindlen declared, "The truth is that Senator Clinton has a woman problem."
Not exactly true, as it turns out. Hillary Clinton was the number-one choice of 42 percent of likely Democratic primary women voters in a recent Zogby survey, compared with 19 percent for Barack Obama and 15 percent for John Edwards. And her favorable rating among independent women is a whopping twenty-one points higher than among independent men.
Let's be clear: Hillary has a "feminist problem," and more so with those who lean left.
At first glance, the fault line dividing feminists in their view of Hillary Clinton is merely a matter of ideology. On one side are the mainstream moderate women's organizations such as NOW and EMILY's List, facing off against more radical progressive feminists, especially those opposed to the Iraq War. Some of her supporters claim that much of the anger is inspired by her now-infamous 2002 Congressional vote. "It's about this one vote, which was not to invade Iraq but to authorize the President to wage war. I can't understand how this can be held up against a lifetime of important political work," says NOW president Kim Gandy.
Antiwar sentiments run high indeed, but when it comes to feminism and feminists, the "Hillary divide" also mirrors a deeper debate over the relationship between gender and political power. The ambivalence over Hillary's candidacy has just as much to do with increasing skepticism about the value of making it to the top.
"Having a woman in the White House won't necessarily do a damn thing for progressive feminism," writes Bitch magazine founder Lisa Jervis in LiP magazine. "Though the dearth of women in electoral politics is so dire as to make supporting a woman -- any woman -- an attractive proposition, even if it's just so she can serve as a role model for others who'll do the job better eventually, it's ultimately a trap. Women who do nothing to enact feminist policies will be elected and backlash will flourish. I can hear the refrain now: 'They've finally gotten a woman in the White House, so why are feminists still whining about equal pay?'"
Jervis's views were echoed by her peers on the blog Feministing, where Jen Moseley wrote, "As women sign up to work with anyone but Senator Clinton, of course, they're being asked why. That's the bad news. The good news is they're all giving the same answer. Being a woman does not get you the automatic support of women. There's no vagina litmus test, people."
Simply breaking the glass ceiling, once a cherished goal of all feminists, has lost much of its appeal, especially after seven years of the Bush Administration. Over the course of his presidency, George W. Bush has appointed women to some of the most prominent positions in his Administration -- all the while working to undermine women's rights across the board. So it is that we witnessed a fierce assault on women's reproductive rights even as Condoleezza Rice became the first African-American woman to make Secretary of State.
Opting for Edwards or Obama -- who are often perceived as more liberal -- becomes an attractive proposition for feminists who believe "gender is not the only thing, not even the most important thing in feminism," as Center For New Words program director Jaclyn Friedman puts it. "Hillary's not my friend. She's not actually progressive. The fact that she's a woman is an unfortunate red herring." Feminist principles may be better served, she claims, by electing a truly liberal candidate who will move us further toward a more progressive and therefore more equitable future -- an imperative that feels all the more urgent after eight years of Bush. "Things are so bad in this country, and the person we elect is going to be so important," she says. "The whole put-a-woman-in-the-White House seems too abstract and theoretical, a middle-class luxury."
To be fair, the women and the organizations supporting Hillary are hardly advocating a "vagina litmus test." As Gandy points out, NOW has supported male candidates in the past and is now backing Clinton because of "a demonstrated history" of her commitment to feminist ideals. Even Laura Liswood, co-founder of the White House Project, which is dedicated to putting women in office, fully embraces the idea that women should vote their politics rather than their gender, "if the choice is between a woman who doesn't represent you at all and a man who does."
But Liswood cautions against undervaluing what she calls "the power of the mirror, of knowing who it is we can be by who it is that we see." By becoming the first female President of the United States, Liswood says, Hillary would "change the whole memory scan of young people, in terms of ... what leaders look like." Even Condoleezza Rice, reviled as she may be for her conservative views, has done her bit for gender equality simply by virtue of the position she occupies. "It's an important social progression. You can't write these women off just because we highly disagree with them," says former Planned Parenthood president Faye Wattleton, who now heads the Center for the Advancement of Women. "It moves us toward a time when we can attack someone like her because of what she stands for and not because she is black or a woman, because we already know that the country won't go up in smoke because we had an African-American woman from Alabama as Secretary of State."
Clinton's supporters also argue that women candidates are unfairly subjected to higher standards, especially by women themselves. It's why antiwar feminist organizations like CodePink are less likely to give her a pass for her Iraq vote than they would, say, John Edwards. Explaining the reasoning behind their "bird-dog Hillary" campaign to The Nation, founder Medea Benjamin wore her double standard on her sleeve: "You expect more of a woman."
When it comes to presidential politics, this double standard also works in subtler ways. "There's not one man of either party who is at the top of the race right now who, if he were a woman, would be taken seriously," says White House Project's Marie Wilson. "We wouldn't tolerate the lack of experience or the marital history [of Rudy Giuliani]. If Obama were a woman, and I don't care how articulate or wonderful, we'd be telling her that she didn't have enough experience." Or, as Susan Estrich wrote in her 2005 book, The Case for Hillary Clinton: "Imagine if Hillary weren't a woman. She'd simply be the best-qualified candidate, with absolutely everything going for her ... . If she were a he -- Harry Rodham, let's say -- the Democratic Party would be thrilled." Of course, come 2007, the party establishment is suitably enthused about Clinton. And for their part, progressive feminists would say that their problem with Hillary Clinton is not that she is a woman but that she has turned out to be no better than Harry Rodham.
Still, there's no question that Clinton bears an extra burden, not least because her victory would represent such a historic breakthrough. "The fantasy was that the first woman President would be someone who would turn the whole lousy system inside out and upside down. Instead the first significant woman contender is someone who seems to have the system down to a fine art," wrote Quindlen in her column.
Yet most feminists recognize that the chance of a true-blue lefty becoming the first female President is about as likely as that proverbial snowball's. Much as we like to bemoan our nation's backward ways in matters of female leadership, the kind of women who actually make it to the top in other parts of the world -- leaving aside Chile's Michelle Bachelet -- are cut from the same cloth as their male counterparts. Susan Douglas may accuse her of epitomizing "the Genghis Khan principle of American politics," but Hillary Clinton is not a patch on dear old Maggie Thatcher or Indira Gandhi, and she's definitely left of Germany's Angela Merkel.
At least part of the problem with Hillary is Hillary, as in her outsized and often caricatured public persona, which makes it hard to figure out just who she is. Is she a misunderstood moderate, accused of selling out positions she never held? Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, certainly thinks so: "She is a centrist. She is a political pragmatist in the most solid American tradition."
Or is she a much-maligned liberal, whose Senate voting record on critical issues places her even with Obama and solidly to the left of progressive favorite John Edwards? So say the ratings of Americans for Democratic Action. Then there are those who label her the ultimate political operator, ever eager to trade principle for poll numbers. Her many critics certainly have no shortage of evidence to muster toward their cause. Claims made on either side of the "Hillary divide" are varied, confusing, often contradictory and sometimes compelling -- perhaps because the debate over Hillary is very often not about Hillary at all.
In a 1993 Time magazine cover story, Margaret Carlson described the then-First Lady as "the medium through which the remaining anxieties over feminism are being played out." In 2007, however, Hillary Clinton's presidential bid is becoming a lightning rod for a debate within feminism, and over its goals. What do we liberated women want: to join the clubhouse or burn it down?
Forty years after the launch of the modern women's movement, there are still no easy answers to that question. And it is why, once you get past the rhetoric, the emotion Hillary Clinton most often evokes is painful ambivalence, even among her harshest feminist critics. "Women are especially hard on Hillary because she's such a Rorschach and we all want her to be exactly like us, whoever we are," said Ephron in a recent Salon article. But feminists will also just as readily acknowledge the high price of playing with the big boys, even when they don't like her one bit. "She tried to be something different [as a First Lady], and she was ultimately beaten into submission -- by the media, the voters, the politicos," says Friedman. "I don't know what I would expect her to do. I couldn't expect myself to do better in the same place. I really don't."
For all her skepticism about the value of electing minorities to high office and her personal affinity for Edwards, Jervis says she balks at the idea of voting for a white male in the Democratic primary when she has the historic opportunity to choose otherwise. "I'm not sure what will happen when I actually step into the voting booth and have to pull that lever," she says. But she has no doubt that if Hillary Clinton does make it past the primaries, "I know I'll have an emotional reaction to a Hillary candidacy. It is going to be meaningful to me."
Whether or not Hillary wins the nomination, makes it to the big white house or falls by the wayside, her admirers and critics alike understand that she has done far more than any of her predecessors for women in national politics simply by running. She is the first woman to be the frontrunner for her party's presidential nomination -- with the blessing of the old boys' club, i.e., the Democratic Leadership Council, no less.
But equally important, as Faye Wattleton points out, whatever her failings, Hillary Clinton is no Pat Schroeder, whose 1988 presidential bid ended early and ignominiously in a flood of tears. "This is not a candidate who is going to dissolve in the enormous heat of presidential politics," she says. Over the past fifteen years, every aspect of Hillary's life has been subjected to the kind of scrutiny -- and many times abuse -- that would make male politicians cry. As the latest crop of biographies demonstrate, the media's appetite for Hillary "exposÃƒÂ©s" shows no signs of waning. Carl Bernstein's A Woman in Charge and Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton, by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr., spend 1,000-plus pages between them re-examining every personal, political, romantic and sartorial decision she's ever made, often with unflattering results. And there will be plenty more of the same over the next year. "Someone who can conduct herself with credibility under that kind of scrutiny and hold up to it is definitely opening the door for a future woman in the White House. She must be given credit for that," says Wattleton.
Hillary Clinton is the first female candidate -- love her or hate her -- who is impossible to dismiss simply because she is a woman, even by Republican strategists like Frank Luntz, who offered this caution: "Put gender aside. Just treat her like you would any other candidate." It's not exactly the end of patriarchy, but it's surely reason enough for all feminists -- left, right or center -- to cheer.
"Religion fucking blows!" declares comedian Roseanne Barr in her latest HBO special. Her pronouncement, both in its declarative certainty and self-congratulatory defiance, could easily serve as the succinct moral of Richard Dawkins' documentary, The Root of All Evil.
The big-screen version of a two-part British television series follows the noted biologist as he embarks on a global road-trip to the veritable bastions of theological conviction -- the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, a Christian conservative stronghold in Colorado Springs, a Hassidic community in the heart of London -- bullying, berating and heckling the devoutly faithful he encounters along his way.
Confronting cancer patients who have traveled to Lourdes in hopes of a cure, Dawkins tells the viewer in the first scene, "It may seem tough to question the beliefs of these poor, desperate people's faith." By the end of the documentary, Dawkins' bravado is not in doubt. When talking to Ted Haggard, a New Life Church pastor (more recently infamous for his predilection for crystal meth and gay prostitutes), after witnessing one of his sermons, Dawkins tells him, "I was almost reminded of the Nuremberg rallies ... Dr. Goebbels would have been proud." To a hapless guide at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, he taunts, "Do you really believe that Jesus' body lay here?" And then there's his remark -- "I'm really worried for the well-being of your children" -- to a Hassidic school teacher, Rabbi Herschel Gluck, whom Dawkins accuses of brainwashing innocent kids.
As he storms his way around the world in the state of high dudgeon, Dawkins' attitude can be best described as apocalyptic outrage. The effect is in turns bewildering, embarrassing, grating and even unintentionally comic, as we watch the distinguished Oxford University Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science channel his inner Borat. When the astonished rabbi exclaims, "You are a fundamentalist believer," even a sympathetic, true-blue San Francisco audience cannot help but chuckle in assent.
As his rabbinical nemesis rightly suspects, Dawkins' fondness for sweeping generalizations reflects his own deep-seated fundamentalism, a virulent form of atheism that mirrors the polarized worldview of the religious extremists it claims to oppose. "They condemn not just belief in God, but respect for belief in God. Religion is not just wrong; it's evil," writes Gary Wolf in his Wired Magazine cover story, "The New Atheism," whose leading exponents include -- in addition to Dawkins -- Daniel Dennett, a philosophy professor at Yale, punk rocker Greg Graffin and Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. These are the self-styled "Brights," the moniker of choice for Dawkins to describe "a person whose worldview is free of supernatural and mystical elements."
The "bright" worldview is also remarkably free of complexity. Dawkins' view of faith can be summed up thus: Religion is dangerous because it requires that we suspend our powers of reason to place our faith in the shared delusion that is God. This, he asserts, is the first step on that "slippery slope" to hatred and violence.
When we cede our "critical faculties" to believe in the idea of a higher power, Dawkins claims, we are immediately invested in a panoply of increasingly ludicrous propositions: that the Virgin Mary ascended directly to heaven, Moses parted the seas, God created the world in seven days, or beautiful virgins await good Muslims in heaven. Why not, he asks, believe in fairies or hobgoblins?
Faith, in his universe, is interchangeable with superstition, eccentricity, madness, and, at its most benign, infantilism. Religious conviction is a marker of human backwardness, both in a historical and psychological sense. According to Dawkins, human beings invented religion as a "crutch" for ignorance. Without science to help us understand the world around us, we turned to gods/faith/superstition to cope with our sense of helplessness. Today, religion remains a source of succor to those unable to outgrow their childish desire to see the world in terms of "black and white, as a battle between good and evil" -- unlike atheists who are "responsible adults and accept that life is complex."
"We're brought from cradle to believe that there is something good about faith," says Dawkins, as he compares this belief to "a virus that infects the young, for generation after generation." Fortunate are the "responsible adults" who grow up to shake off these beliefs, unlike the rest of humanity who remain trapped in their infantile desire to be taken care of by an all-powerful deity.
Unlike fairytales, however, our religious beliefs are not harmless, says Dawkins, they instead lay the foundation for the murder and mayhem inevitably wreaked by true believers. His evidence: the Inquisition, the Holocaust, the Crusades, the 9/11 attacks, and less spectacular crimes against humanity like suicide bombers, anti-abortion killers, and so on.
This broad-stroked caricature of faith is delivered with a breathtaking disregard for historical context, in which social, political or economic conditions are simply ignored or discounted. "[Dawkins] has a simple-as-that, plain-as-day approach to the grandest questions, unencumbered by doubt, consistency, or countervailing information," writes Marilynne Robinson in the November Harpers', while reviewing his bestselling book, The God Delusion. And on screen he is no different. Of course, there are sound political causes for the Palestinian conflict, Dawkins hurriedly acknowledges -- only to assert in the same breath that the real culprit is religion, which teaches its adherents to think, "I'm right and you're wrong."
Not unlike the religious simpletons he claims to disdain, Dawkins sees the world in terms of a battle of Good vs. Evil, cloaked here as Science vs. Religion. Where Religion is corrupt, tyrannical and false, Science offers intellectual integrity, freedom and truth. As Robinson notes, Dawkins fails to acknowledge Science's less admirable achievements, be they eugenics, Hiroshima, or the more mundane travesties committed by unethical doctors or fat-cat researchers in service of corporate funding.
"Dawkins implicitly defines science as a clear-eyed quest for truth, chaste as an algorithm, while religion is atavistic, mad, and mired in crime," Robinson writes.
In this version of atheist theology, Science attains the same status as Dawkins' loathed "alpha male in sky," whose laws rule all things known and unknown. If we do not quite understand how the universe was created or the human brain works -- or the competing, contradictory claims about the virtues of, say, table salt -- all we need to do is wait and keep faith in the scientific method, which will reveal all in good time. The ways of Science are no less sacred or mysterious than that of God.
Like his fellow fundamentalists, Dawkins has no use for moderation or its practitioners. The people of faith featured in his documentary are strict, true believers, who adhere to the most rigid interpretations of their respective faiths. There are no Muslim doctors, church-going geneticists or Catholics who support abortion rights. Anyone who believes in evolution and God is just as deluded or in denial, and, as he tells Wired, "really on the side of the fundamentalists."
Nothing less than a complete renunciation of all things spiritual will suffice. "As long as we accept the principle that religious faith must be respected simply because it is religious faith, it is hard to withhold respect from the faith of Osama bin Laden and the suicide bombers," he writes in The God Delusion, in an eerie echo of President Bush's post-9/11 point of view: "You're either with us or against us."
It would be silly to argue that the new atheists' crusade is as dangerous as the so-called war on terror, but that crusade does give aid and comfort to fundamentalists everywhere by affirming their view of faith: one, science and religion are mutually opposed and exclusive worldviews; two, religion is immutable and outside history; and therefore, three, the Bible (or the Quran, for that matter) must be taken literally, and is not open to interpretation. For both camps, ignoring one law or moderating a single injunction is the first step toward rejecting the faith in its entirety.
This great war of ontologies, seductive though it may be in our beleaguered times, becomes immediately absurd if we remind ourselves of one simple fact: Science and Religion are historical in the richest sense of the word. They both inform and reflect our changing ideas about ourselves and the world around us. From the practice of throwing a woman on her husband's funeral pyre in India to determining intelligence by the shape of person's skull in Europe -- both of which seem hateful today -- religious and scientific beliefs ebb, rise and transmute themselves over time. To pretend otherwise is to ignore the vast bulk of what we call History, which the Brights seem just as willing to rewrite as their theological adversaries.
As innately human endeavors, religion and science are therefore as unreasonable, noble, immoral, kind, tyrannical, odious, compassionate -- in other words, irredeemably human -- as the people who literally embody them. Yes, the laws of nature and those of God might still exist without human beings, but there would be no one to name or know them as such, or act on that knowledge. Taken together, they express our need to both submit and to control, to know and to believe, to be in the visible world and to transcend it.
That the vast majority of us would find it difficult to choose between the two should be hardly surprising. The antidote to fanaticism is not a new puritanism of reason, but the contradictory, ambiguous, compromised reality of ordinary human experience.
Everyone knows fashion is pain, but on television it also involves a generous dose of emotional abuse. Not content with tormenting women with double-zero-sized clothing, arthritis-inducing stilettos, and the self-inflicted wedgie that is the thong, fashion experts have found a way to increase the level of violence: The makeover show.
On cable, shows that transform the average ugly duckling into a well-coiffed swan have become ubiquitous: "How Do I Look?" and "Look for Less" on Style Network, "Style by Jury" on Women's Entertainment Network, and the over-hyped metrosexual sensation, "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" on Bravo. And that doesn't even include the innumerable makeover segments on talk shows hosted by the likes of Tyra or Oprah. With the exception of "Queer Eye," these shows are aimed entirely at a female audience, and their promise is that anyone can be beautiful, irrespective of age, shape or size. There's only one little catch: total public humiliation of the "lucky" fashion victim.
The reigning queen of the genre is BBC's "What Not to Wear," the enormous success of which in Britain has spawned numerous imitators across the pond, including its very own American edition on TLC. The show's original hosts (who recently defected to ITV), Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine, struck gold by marrying the self-help narrative of personal empowerment to the dictatorial ethos of the fashion industry.
The show is based on the premise that women's wardrobes reflect how they feel about themselves. Put simply, a woman who dresses bad is one who feels bad, so "What Not To Wear" is not just about changing how you look, but who you are. But the path to self-transformation bears an uncanny resemblance to the military boot camp. As one of the participants puts it, "They had to break me down in order to build me up again." Becoming a strong, self-confident woman requires complete submission; the woman has to surrender her mind and soul along with her entire wardrobe.
The "breaking down" process entails ritual debasement in various forms, beginning with the painfully embarrassing "secret footage" taken by the unsuspecting woman's family and friends, who have nominated her for the show. (Think shots of her ass stuffed into too-tight plaid trousers interspersed with those of her eight-year old telling the camera that she dresses like "a tramp.")
The American version ups the ante by forcing the target to watch the "secret footage" in the company of their kith and kin, who join in the good, clean fun of comparing the chosen target to a "bobblehead," traffic cone or stripper. The hosts, Clinton Kelly and Stacey London, deliver more of the same in-studio as the woman stands in front of a 360-degree mirror designed to reveal her body's every flaw ("Why is your tummy hanging out?"), and as they throw her clothes into a giant trash can ("Is there a fashion jail? Because I'm horrified!"). More abuse comes later, as she stumbles through shops trying to find clothes that meet the proscribed list of "The Rules" ("You're making me really angry," says Kelly to a woman foolish enough to buy yet another piece of clothing in her favorite color, pink.)
While public humiliation is de rigeur for reality programming, what makes "What Not to Wear" painful to watch is that none of its participants resemble the attention-hungry contestants on "Survivor" or "Real World." These are, for the most part, really nice women, many of whom are working moms with low-level white-collar jobs who simply don't have the money or time to preen in front of the mirror.
As the 19th-century sociologist Thorstein Veblen observed in his book, "The Theory Of The Leisure Class," "[O]ur apparel is always in evidence and affords an indication of our pecuniary standing to all observers at first glance. ... [D]ress, therefore, in order to serve its purpose effectively should not only be expensive, but it should also make plain to all observers that the wearer is not engaged in any kind of productive labour."
So it isn't surprising that a number of the tips doled out by the experts have little connection to the real lives of the women they're making over. When one woman refuses to buy "dry-clean only" clothes, Kelly and London are dismissive and impatient. Fashion has always been about class in the literal sense, and aesthetics aside, the women's greatest fashion crime seems to be that they aren't rich.
Worse, the show pretends that the women's emotional debasement is "for their own good"--just like the tough love meted out by a Marine drill sergeant. "What Not to Wear's" distinctly military approach is all the more striking when compared to the maternal attitude of its male counterpart, "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," where male participants are instead coaxed, teased and gently jollied into changing their wicked sartorial ways.
While "Queer Eye" does offer a message of self-improvement -- "it's you, only better" -- it does not make the same connection between self-esteem and attire. When men dress badly, it's because they're clueless, lazy or just plain incompetent. Not only is their sense of self not invested in how they look, but the so-called "Fab Five" are careful to handle their male participants' egos with appropriate care and respect.
Interestingly, the hosts of "What Not to Wear" also take a kinder, gentler approach in their rare shows featuring a man. The critique is far milder, and tempered by fulsome compliments: "You're a well-formed young man;" "You're a prime piece of beef."
When it comes to women, however, the hosts assume that they have nothing to lose, especially their pride. After all, what self-respecting woman would match pink polka-dotted boots with an ill-fitting candy stripe dress? More importantly, the show reveals how so-called fashion gurus constantly reiterate the most retrograde ideas about femininity in the name of style. Women are continually derided for looking "slutty," "cheap and nasty," or "trashy," and cautioned against "sending the wrong message"--even as the frumpy ones are urged to show more flesh. Host Jessica London's favorite word is "appropriate," because women need to look, and--by the show's logic--be proper at all times.
What's sad is just how eager the women are to be transformed even at the expense of their dignity. Each episode ends with the participant beaming in delight and gratitude at how wonderful they look and feel. This reveals the depressing reality that women are no strangers to shame, which is a constant presence lurking on the edges of our daily lives. All it takes is an incautious look in the mirror in the morning; a dress that won't fit at the mall; a careless remark from a boyfriend. Being a feminist just redoubles the sense of failure, since the very experience of shame points to our inability to escape the binds of socialization.
All of us do a pretty good job of beating up on ourselves already; the mean, bullying voice of the makeover host is no more than an external manifestation of our inner critic. "What Not to Wear" offers its female audience a potent mixture of aspiration and schadenfreude. It makes us feel better about ourselves--"God, she looks like crap!"--even as it promises to free us from the pain of not meeting our culture's punitive standards of beauty--"I could look hot too!" All we have to cede in return for this faux version of empowerment is our respect for our innermost selves.
The day after the 2006 Oscars, Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan penned a scathing critique of the academyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s choice of best film, Crash, which he described as "a feel-good film about racism." The film, he wrote, "could make you believe that you had done your moral duty and examined your soul when in fact you were just getting your buttons pushed and your preconceptions reconfirmed." But that is an accurate description of almost every major Hollywood movie that deals with race; they are designed to appease the white-centric biases of studio executives and the mainstream audience they entertain.
Like its predecessors, Crash offers up a self-serving thesis of race that consists of two propositions: One, racism is a matter of individual prejudice; two, the antidote to racism is, therefore, personal redemption. In other words, we -- not just whites but also blacks, Asians, Arabs, etc. -- are equally guilty of racism, and we each need to move past our bigotry to recognize the common humanity that binds us all. At the heart of this individualist perspective on race is the assertion of sameness: We are all racists; we are all human. Difference is an artificial cultural construct that disguises and distorts our true universal essence.
As various critics have pointed out over and over again, this kind of liberal humanism effectively lets white Americans off the hook and denies the need for radical social change. The failure of movies like Crash to articulate racial inequality, however, points to the more difficult challenge of talking about race, period. We do not know how to see the other as both different and equal, or how to recognize difference without resorting to essentialism. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s one of the reasons why progressives are more comfortable talking about race in terms of how people are treated than who they are. And that means we end up defining racial identity entirely in terms of power relations: for example, whiteness equals privilege.
Many leading scholars on race have repeatedly argued against the liberal tendency to treat race -- and therefore racial difference -- as a social problem. They instead draw attention to the performative aspect of race, wherein racial identity is not a fixed unchanging essence but a set of mutable and contingent cultural behaviors. As Sarah Susannah Willie writes in her book Acting Black, "By treating race as acquired, like a skill or a behavior, we can begin to see it as something over which individuals have differing degrees of control and varying options for agency, as an aspect of identity that is at least partly performed, continuous, and contingent."
As a woman of color, I find that theorizing race as a performance offers several benefits. One, it helps us recognize the fact that we all "act" our racial and ethnic identities, be it black, white, Chinese, Native American or, in my case, Indian. Two, it also reveals how people of color are forced to perform their identities in particular ways to meet the requirements of a racist culture -- and in doing so, points to the way that racism shapes the most intimate parts of our selves.
Acting black, white
One of the most compelling examples of race-as-performance is currently playing itself out on television. The FX reality show "Black. White." physically transforms an African-American and Caucasian family to look like the other race, and follows them around as they interact with the world in racially charged situations. On the surface, "Black. White." offers a fairly standard view of racism as discrimination -- i.e., how people are treated because of how they look. According to its producers, the aim of the show is to ask: "What is it like to live in someone elseÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s skin?" But "Black. White." -- intentionally or not -- also raises a far more important question: What does it mean to "act" black or white?
The answer is revealed early in the series, when the two families gather to exchange tips about behavior that will help each other "pass." For Carmen Wurgel, a white location scout in Santa Monica, the conversation reveals a "secret society with shared experiences and language and customs." But when itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s their turn to solicit advice, the African-American Sparks family politely declines. "I already know how to adapt and get along with white peopleÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ Black culture has to conform to white society," says Brian, a contractor from Atlanta. Acting "white" is not an option, but an essential survival skill for any person of color in America.
Author Kenji Yoshino calls this behavior "covering," which is also the title of his recent book exposing the shortcomings of civil rights legislation. He defines covering in the context of race as the pressure to "act white" by eliminating or playing down non-white aspects of oneÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s identity along four axes: appearance (DonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t wear a sari, turban, veil, corn-rows.); affiliation (Speak excellent, unaccented English.); activism (Avoid ethnic or race-based organizations.); and association (Cultivate predominantly white social networks.) Yoshino argues that people of color -- consciously or otherwise -- perform this whiter version of their identity to satisfy an unspoken "social contract, in which racial minorities are told we will be rewarded for assimilating to white norms."
Acting white not only determines how you are rewarded, but also acts as a marker of what you deserve. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s why African Americans, as comedian David Chappelle observed in a recent television interview, are "bilingual," adept at eliminating "black-associated" patterns of speech in a job interview or at the workplace. "When I am sitting at the table [in Hollywood], I want that white guy to know that my parents are better-educated than he is," said Chappelle. Speaking white is speaking privilege.
Yoshino, however, brushes past the fact that the ability to "cover" is in itself a class marker within communities of color. It is only the relatively affluent who have the opportunity to learn the skills of acting white. A Latino housemaid or an Indian taxi-driver has no such option. Their inability to "cover" instead becomes the grist for cruel ethnic jokes that their better-disguised brothers and sisters are required to laugh at to prove their "whiteness."
At first glance, "covering" seems only about negating non-white norms of behavior. But at the heart of this imperative to "act white" lies a deeply racist and essentialist view of people of color. Yoshino points to Lawrence Mungin, a high-powered Harvard-educated attorney who spent his entire life "negating every possible stereotype about African-Americans in his behavior" because, in his words, "I wanted to show that I was like white people: 'DonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t be afraid. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m one of the good blacks.'" But as Yoshino notes, "In so carefully reversing every term of the racial stereotype, Mungin was defined by it as surely as a photograph is defined by its negative."
Covering, however, doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t mention the ironic antithesis to Mungin represented by rap stars like 50 Cent, who assiduously perform every negative black stereotype in order to satisfy the fantasies of a white, middle-class audience, who then characterize such behavior as authentically "black." And so when a naive and clueless Carmen Wurgel -- who self-confessedly hasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t "been around a lot of black people" -- tries to "talk black," she makes the mistake of playfully saying "Yo, bitch!" to her African-American counterpart, Renee Sparks.
Sadder still is when some people of color internalize this racist connection between performance and identity. In 1999, when psychologist Angela Neal-Barnett asked focus-group students to define "white" behavior, their list included enrolling in Advanced Placement or honors classes. It exemplified what Barack Obama described in his Democratic National Convention speech as "the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.": This isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t to say that anti-intellectualism is the sole preserve of African Americans, but to acknowledge that people of color are under pressure to perform different versions of their identity for different audiences, which includes acting more "authentic" to avoid being tagged variously as a "Banana," "Coconut," or "Oreo" by members of their own community.
Speaking of race-as-performance entails its own hazards. In "Black. White.," Rose Wurgel, BrunoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s smart and sensitive 18-year old daughter, is repulsed by what she calls the "language of stereotype" that becomes inevitable in conversations about "acting" black or white. "I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t want to be putting out this bullshit," she says. In his book, Yoshino describes being challenged by a female colleague who levels a similar charge: But the covering idea could perpetuate the stereotypes that you want to eliminate. One way minorities break stereotypes is by acting against them. If every time they do so, people assume they are 'covering' some essential stereotypical identity, the stereotypes will never go away.
YoshinoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s answer is to express his "commitment to autonomy as a means of achieving authenticity," but does not explain what he means by an "authentic" self. But when understood in the context of the race-as-performance thesis, however, his critique suggests that we should each be free to "act" our race according to our own needs and desires -- rather than to confirm or subvert social expectations. And so BrianÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s 17-year-old son, Nick, could become a mathematician who speaks unaccented English, wears his hair in corn-rows, and enjoys playing golf with his African-American wife -- and be entirely, authentically "black."
The freedom to perform our identity gives us the power to define its meaning. But that freedom cannot be achieved by simply changing individual behavior or attitudes, which are merely symptoms of a greater social disease that afflicts our culture, its traditions and structures. Resisting this institutional pressure to perform distorted versions of ourselves has to be a collective struggle waged in courtrooms, schools, workplaces and in the media. It is only then that we can be both equal and different, together.
We have no interest in being anti-establishment," says Matt Stoller, a blogger at the popular Web site MyDD.com. "We're going to be the establishment."
That kind of flamboyant confidence has become the hallmark of blog evangelists who believe that blogs promise nothing less than a populist revolution in American politics. In 2006, at least some of that rhetoric is becoming reality. Blogs may not have replaced the Democratic Party establishment, but they are certainly becoming an integral part of it. In the wake of John Kerry's defeat in the 2004 presidential elections, many within the Democratic leadership have embraced blog advocates' plan for political success, which can be summed up in one word: netroots.
This all-encompassing term loosely describes an online grassroots constituency that can be targeted through Internet technologies, including e-mail, message boards, RSS feeds and, of course, blogs, which serve as organizing hubs. In turn, these blogs employ a range of features -- discussion boards, Internet donations, live e-chat, social networking tools like MeetUp, online voting -- that allow ordinary citizens to participate in politics, be it supporting a candidate or organizing around a policy issue. Compared to traditional media, blogs are faster, cheaper, and most importantly, interactive, enabling a level of voter involvement impossible with television or newspapers.
No wonder, then, that many in Washington are looking to blogs and bloggers to counter the overwhelming financial and ideological muscle of the right -- especially in an election year. Just 18 months ago, the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story depicting progressive bloggers as a band of unkempt outsiders, thumbing their nose at party leadership. But now, it's the party leaders themselves who are blogging. Not only has Senate Minority leader Harry Reid started his own blog -- Give 'em Hell Harry -- and a media "war room" to "aggressively pioneer Internet outreach," he's also signed up to be the keynote speaker at the annual conference of the top political blog, Daily Kos.
Stoller predicts that as an organizing tool, "blogs are going to play the role that talk radio did in 1994, and that church networks did in 2002."
An Internet-fueled victory at the polls would certainly be impressive -- no candidate backed by the most popular progressive blogs has yet won an election. But electoral success may merely confirm the value of blogs as an effective organizing tool to conduct politics as usual, cementing the influence of a select group of bloggers who will likely be crowned by the media as the new kingmakers.
Winning an election does not, however, guarantee a radical change in the relations of power. Technology is only as revolutionary as the people who use it, and the progressive blogosphere has thus far remained the realm of the privileged -- a weakness that may well prove fatal in the long run.
In 2006, the biggest question facing blogs and bloggers is: Will their ascendancy empower the American people -- in the broadest sense of the word -- or merely add to the clout of an elite online constituency?
The birth of a revolution
Alienation may not have been the mother of blogging technology, but it most certainly birthed the "political blogosphere." The galvanizing cause for the rapid proliferation of political blogs and their mushrooming audience was a deep disillusionment across the political spectrum with traditional media -- a disillusionment accentuated by a polarized political landscape.
In the recent book Blog! How the Newest Media Revolution Is Changing Politics, Business and Culture, Web guru Craig Shirky links the rise of political blogs to the sharpening Red/Blue State divide. Both 9/11 and the Iraq war reminded people that "politics was vitally important," and marked the "moment people were looking for some kind of expression outside the bounds of network television," or, for that matter, cable news or the nation's leading newspapers.
Progressives were angry not just with the media but also with Democratic Party leaders for their unwillingness to challenge the Bush administration's case for war. That much-touted liberal rage found its expression on blogs like Eschaton, Daily Kos and Talking Points Memo, and continues to fuel the phenomenal growth of the progressive blogosphere. Like the rise of right-wing talk radio, this growth is directly linked to an institutional failure of representation. Finding no mirror for their views in the media, a large segment of the American public turned to the Internet to speak for themselves -- often with brutal, uncensored candor.
As blogs have grown in popularity -- at the rate of more than one new blog per second -- they've begun to lose their vanguard edge. The very institutions that political bloggers often criticize have begun to adopt the platform, with corporate executives, media personalities, porn stars, lawyers and PR strategists all jumping into the fray. That may be why Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, the founder and primary voice of Daily Kos, thinks the word "blog" is beginning to outlive its usefulness. "A blog is merely a publishing tool, and like a tool, it can be used in any number of ways," he says.
But for many, to rephrase director Jean Renoir, a blogs are still a state of mind. To their most ardent advocates, blogs are standard-bearers of a core set of democratic values: participation, egalitarianism and transparency. Books like Dan Gillmor's We the Media, Howard Rheingold's Smart Mobs, James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds, and Joe Trippi's The Revolution Will Not Be Televised have become the bibles of progressive politics. Taken together, they express the dream of Internet salvation: harnessing an inherently democratic, interactive and communal medium, with the potential to instantaneously tap into the collective intellectual, political and financial resourcesof tens of millions of fellow Americans to create a juggernaut for social change.
According to Moulitsas, "The word 'blog' still implies a certain level of citizen involvement, of giving power to someone who is not empowered" -- especially to progressives who, according to a study released last year by the New Politics Institute, have overtaken conservatives as the heavyweights of the political blogosphere.
Political blogs have often been most effective as populist fact-checkers, challenging, refuting and correcting perceived errors in news coverage.
"Independent bloggers have challenged the mainstream media and held them accountable, whether it's with Judy Miller or Bob Woodward," says Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington. The most significant effect of this "we can fact-check your ass" credo has not been merely to put journalists on notice, but to change the way public knowledge is produced on a daily basis. "It's hard now for an important story to hit the front page of the New York Times and just die there," says Huffington. A news article is now merely the beginning of a public conversation in the blogosphere, where experts, amateurs and posers alike dissect its merits and add to its information, often keeping it alive long after journalists have moved on.
Popular understanding of what blogs are and what they can do has been muddled by an inevitably hostile relationship between political bloggers and traditional media. Writing in the Dec. 26 issue of The New Republic, Franklin Foer took bloggers to task for nursing "an ideological disdain for 'Mainstream Media' -- or MSM, as it has derisively (and somewhat adolescently) come to be known." But Foer, like so many traditional journalists who criticize blogs, failed to grasp the very nature of his intended target.
Blogs are literally vox populi -- or at the least the voice of the people who post entries and comments, and, to a lesser extent, of their devoted readers. Telling bloggers that they're wrong or to shut up is somewhat like telling respondents to an opinion survey to simply change their mind. When journalists reject bloggers as cranks or wingnuts, they also do the same to a large segment of the American public who seeblogs as an expression of their views. Such dismissals feed the very alienation that makes blogs and bloggers popular.
The irony is that bloggers are most powerful when they work in tandem with the very media establishment they despise. "Bloggers alone cannot create conventional wisdom, cannot make a story break, cannot directly reach the vast population that isn't directly activist and involved in politics," says Peter Daou, who coordinated the Kerry campaign's blog outreach operations. Blogs instead exert an indirect form of power, amplifying and channeling the pressure of netroots opinion upwards to pressure politicians and journalists. "It's really a rising up," says Daou.
Can this online rebellion lead to real political change? The prognosis thus far is encouraging, but far from definitive.
Can the netroots grow the grassroots?
If television made politics more elitist and less substantive, blogs -- and more broadly, netroots tools -- have the potential to become engines of truly democratic, bottom-up, issue-rich political participation.
Blogs allow rank-and-file voters to pick the candidate to support in any given electoral race, influence his or her platform, and volunteer their time, money and expertise in more targeted and substantive ways. Democratic candidates in the midterm elections are already busy trying to position themselves as the next Howard Dean, vying for a digital stamp of approval that will bring with it free publicity, big money and, just maybe, a whole lot of voters.
When Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) decided to take on Iraq veteran Paul Hackett in the Democratic primary for the Senate race in Ohio, he moved quickly to neutralize his opponent's advantage as the unquestioned hero of the progressive bloggers. The ace up Brown's sleeve: Jerome Armstrong, founder of the influential MyDD.com and veteran of Howard Dean's online campaign. Brown's next move was a blog entry on The Huffington Post titled, "Why I am a Progressive."
But not everyone is convinced that blogs can be as influential in a midterm election, when there are a large number of electoral contests spread across the country. "Raising money at a nationwide level for a special election is one thing," Pew scholar Michael Cornfield says, "but raising it and developing a core of activists and all the ready-to-respond messages when you have to run hundreds of races simultaneously -- which is what will happen in 2006 -- is another thing." Moreover, the ability of the Internet to erase geographical distances can become a structural weakness in elections where district lines and eligibility are key.
An effective netroots strategy in 2006 will also have to master the shortcomings of the Dean's campaign, which stalled mainly because it failed to grow his support base beyond his online constituency -- antiwar, white and high-income voters. In contrast, the Bush/Cheney operation used the Internet to coordinate on-the-ground events such as house parties, and rallies involving church congregations.
Cornfield describes the Republican model as, "one person who is online and is plugged into the blogosphere. That person becomes an e-precinct captain, and is responsible for reaching out offline or any means necessary for ten people."
This time around, Armstrong is determined to match the GOP's success. GrowOhio.org, which he describes as "a community blog for Democratic Party activists," will coordinate field operations for not just Brown but all Democratic candidates in each of Ohio's 88 counties. Its primary goal is to reach rural voters in areas where the campaign cannot field organizers on the ground.
"This isn't just about using the net for communications and fundraising, but for field organizing," Armstrong says.
What is also new in 2006 is the effort to redirect attention from the national to the local. "It's not just about focusing the national blogosphere on Ohio, but about building from the ground up in Ohio," Armstrong says. "Over 90 percent of our signups on GrowOhio.org are Ohio activists, and we will soon have Internet outreach coordinators in all 88 counties."
But many like Daou remain skeptical about the power of blogs to directly impact politics at the grassroots level. "You're not going to go out there and mobilize a million people and have them all come to the polls and donate money. Blogs will never do that," he says
And they may be even less effective in areas that are traditionally not as internet-savvy as the rest of the country, be it the rural red states or impoverished inner cities. Creating a virtual "community center" is unlikely to compensate for the Democrats' disadvantage on the ground. Due to the eroding presence of unions, Democrats no longer possess a physical meeting place where they can target and mobilize voters -- unlike Republicans, who rely on a well-organized network of churches, gun clubs and chambers of commerce.
What is clear is that the 2006 elections will test the claim of blog evangelists that online activism can radically transform offline politics -- a claim that is central to their far more ambitious vision for the future. In their book Crashing the Gate (to be released in April), Moulitsas and Armstrong envision blogs as the centerpiece of a netroots movement to engineer an imminent and sweeping transformation of the Democratic Party:
We are at the beginning of a comprehensive reformation of the Democratic Party -- driven by committed progressive outsiders. Online activism on a nationwide level, coupled with offline activists at the local level Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ can provide the formula for a quiet, bloodless coup that can take control of the party. Money and mobilization are the two key elements of all political activity, and if the netroots have their way, the financial backbone of the Democratic Party will be regular people.Whether a truly decentralized and "leaderless" netroots can function like a political party is debatable, but the latest wave of technological innovation does offer unprecedented opportunities for constructing a progressive movement for the digital age. Such an outreach effort would use the Internet very much like conservatives such as Richard Viguerie used direct mail to build a powerful political force. But in order to craft a genuinely democratic form of politics, the progressive blogosphere will have to overcome its greatest weakness: lack of diversity.
The rise of the blogerati
In Newsweek, Simon Rosenberg, a beltway insider who lost the DNC chair to Dean, described the progressive blogosphere as the new "Resistance" within the Democratic Party, engaged in a civil war to wrest power from a craven and compromised beltway leadership. According to Rosenberg, the leaders of this "resistance" are the top progressive bloggers, more specifically the most popular and increasingly influential Moulitsas. Rosenberg told the Washington Monthly, "Frankly I don't think there's anyone who's had the potential to revolutionize the Democratic Party that Markos does."
Yet both the progressive blogosphere and the "revolutionaries" who dominate its ranks look a lot like the establishment they seek to overthrow.
The report by the New Politics Institute -- which was launched by Rosenberg's New Democracy Network -- notes: "Clearly, blogging is a world with a handful of haves, and a nearly uncountable number of have-nots. There are likely a few hundred thousand blogs in this country that talk about politics, but less than one-tenth of one percent of them account for more than 99 percent of all political blogging traffic."
For better or worse, traffic numbers have become an endorsement of the political agenda of specific individuals. While A-list bloggers repeatedly deny receiving any special treatment, the reality is that both the media and political establishment pay disproportionate attention to their views, often treating them as representative of the entire progressive blogosphere.
In a Foreign Policy article, political scientists Daniel Drezner and Henry Farrell cheerfully note, "The skewed network of the blogosphere makes it less time-consuming for outside observers to acquire information. The media only need to look at elite blogs to obtain a summary of the distribution of opinions on a given political issue." Why? Because the "elite blogs" serve as a filtering mechanism, deciding which information offered up by smaller blogs is useful or noteworthy. In effect, A-list blogs get to decide what issues deserve the attention of journalists and politicians, i.e., the establishment.
The past two years have also marked the emergence of a close relationship between top bloggers and politicians in Washington. A number of them -- for example, Jesse Taylor at Pandagon, Tim Tagaris of SwingStateProject, Stoller and Armstrong -- have been hired as campaign consultants. Others act as unofficial advisers to top politicos like Rep. Rahm Emmanuel (D-Ill.), who holds conference calls with preeminent bloggers to talk strategy. When the Senate Democrats invite Moulitsas to offer his personal views on netroots strategy -- treating him, as a Washington Monthly profile describes, "a kind of part-time sage, an affiliate member" -- the perks of success become difficult to deny.
Armstrong sees the rise of the blogger-guru -- or "strategic adviser," as he puts it -- as a positive development. Better to hire a blogger who is personally committed to the Democratic cause than a D.C.-based mercenary who makes money irrespective of who wins.
But the fact that nearly all these "advisers" are drawn from a close-knit and mostly homogenous group can make them appear as just a new boys' club, albeit one with better intentions and more engaged politics. Aside from notable exceptions like Moulitsas, who is part-Salvadoran, and a handful of lesser-known women who belong to group blogs, top progressive bloggers tend to be young, well-educated, middle class, male and white.
Reach, representation and credibility
The lack of diversity is partly a function of the roots of blogging in an equally homogenous tech-geek community. Nevertheless, women and people of color constitute the fastest rising segment of those joining the blogosphere. Feminist and female-authored political blogs like Feministing, Bitch Ph.D, Echidne of the Snakes, and Salon's Broadsheet made considerable gains in traffic and visibility in 2005, as did Latino Pundit, Culture Kitchen, and Afro-Netizen. Better yet, they're forging networks and alliances to help each other grow. There is no doubt the membership of the blogosphere is changing, and will look very different five years from now. "We're just a step behind, just like any other area," says Pandagon's Amanda Marcotte.
But while the growth of the blogosphere may increase the actual traffic to a greater number of blogs, it also makes visibility far more scarce and precious for each new blogger. As one of the top women bloggers, Chris Nolan, noted on the PressThink blog, "The barrier to entry in this new business isn't getting published; anyone can do that. The barrier to entry is finding an audience."
Elite bloggers can play a key role in generating that audience. As Marcotte points out, "A lot more women are moving up in the Technorati rankings" (Technorati is a search engine for the blogosphere) because A-listers like Duncan Black and Kevin Drum in 2005 made it a priority to promote female bloggers. But when someone like Moulitsas decides to stop linking to other blogs -- as he has recently done because he doesn't want to play "gatekeeper" -- or when top bloggers repeatedly cite their fellow A-listers, it has enormous consequences. "It's pretty darn hard today to break in to the A-list if the other A-listers aren't linking to you," says Global Voices co-founder Rebecca MacKinnon.
If blogs derive their credibility from being the "voice of the people," surely we should be concerned about which opinions get attention over others. The question of representation affects not just who is blogging -- and with great success -- but also the audience of these blogs. What kind of democratic consensus does the blogosphere reflect when the people participating in it are most likely to be white, well-educated men?
Yet when it comes to issues of diversity, A-list bloggers like Moulitsas and Stoller can get defensive, and at times, dismissive. "Take a look at what you have today. Take a look at the folks who're leading the party, dominating the media, or even within corporations. Do you think the top ranks of any of those institutions is any more representative?" responds Stoller, his voice rising in indignation.
Where Stoller openly acknowledges the problem -- describing blogs in one of his posts as "a new national town square for the white progressive base of the Democratic party" -- and the need to take steps to tackle the disparity, Moulitsas is less generous. In his view, it's simply absurd to demand what he sarcastically describes as an "affirmative action of ideas" within an inherently meritocratic medium such as the blogosphere: "I don't see how you can say, 'Well, let's give more voice to African American lesbians.' Create a blog. If there's an audience, great. If there isn't, not so great." Besides, he suggests, if a Salvadoran war refugee -- in his words, a "political nobody" -- like him can make it on the Internet, there's nothing stopping anyone else from doing the same.
As for the relative paucity of top female progressive bloggers, Moulitsas is indifferent: "I haven't given it a lot of thought. I find it totally uninteresting. What I'm interested in is winning elections, and I don't give a shit what you look like." It's an odd and somewhat disingenuous response from an advocate of blogging as the ultimate tool of democratic participation.
Keith Jenkins, who authors Good Reputation Sleeping and works a day job as the picture editor at the Washington Post, says the low barriers to entry do not in themselves offer a sufficient guarantee of equal participation. "It's less about actively stopping and standing in the way and more about affirmatively enabling access, which was the underlying argument of civil rights movements and freedom movements across the board," he says. "It's about affirmatively making it possible for everybody to have a seat at the table, which benefits not only the people who are sitting down, but also the people who are already seated."
"We need to be encouraging a more diverse group of people to blog," agrees Global Voices' MacKinnon. "But we also need to be linking to them and giving them traffic so that they have a chance to make it to the A-list."
While the organic growth of the blogosphere may resolve issues of race and gender over time, it will do little to address its overwhelming bias toward urban professionals. And that can't be good news for a party that is already being punished at the polls for its weak connection to working-class Americans.
"For me the greatest problem is low-income people," Cornfield says. "The irony is that it's not because they don't have money to get a laptop -- especially with the $100 laptop now. It's that people who are poor don't have the civic skill sets and motivation to go online and do these sorts of things. That will take a concerted effort."
At a time when the visible digital divide may be shrinking as increasing numbers of Americans come online, it may be replaced by an invisible version that benefits those who are well-educated, well-connected and organized.
Stoller does not think that it's important for blogs to reach a less-affluent audience: "Not everybody has to be part of that conversation. If someone wants to have access to those discussions, they should be able to do that. But for the most part, people -- like that person working two shifts -- will go on with their lives knowing that good people are making good decisions and policies on their behalf." Bloggers like Moulitsas -- who is equally unconcerned that his blog will never reach "someone working at the DMV" -- are likely betting that the cadre of activists they reach will be able to form connections across those differences within their community.
Perhaps sites like GrowOhio.org will prove them to be right if it manages to mobilize a constituency -- e.g. rural voters -- that is least likely to be wired, and in a region where the party's on-the-ground resources are weak. But any such strategy is unlikely to work if those in charge of crafting it -- be they bloggers, politicians or so-called netizens -- show little interest in expanding the reach of the progressive blogosphere to include the largest, most diverse audience possible. If the blogs are unable to bridge the class divide online, there is no reason to think they can create a grassroots movement that can do so in the real world.
"If you do make an active effort, it is easier to accomplish through the Internet than through pretty much any other medium including direct mail," Cornfield says. "But it will not happen on its own. It has to be a concerted effort." Social movements are built by people not ghosts in some virtual machine.
The Washington Monthly profile of Moulitsas included a revealing quote, in which he expressed disappointment at not being able to fulfill his dream of making it big in the tech industry back in 1998: "Maybe at some time, Silicon Valley really was this democratic ideal where the guy with the best idea made a billion dollars, but by the time I got there at least, it was just like anything else -- a bunch of rich kids who knew each other running around and it all depended on who you knew."
The danger is that many may come to feel the same way about the blogosphere in the coming years.
I really did want to blog more today, but ended spending hours on the phone doing interviews for an article on blogs instead. Ah, the irony -- not really.
This is my last entry for 2005. I'm going to spend much of next week wrapping up my writing commitments so that I can treat myself to a real, computer-free holiday this year.
So in the spirit of this season, I leave you this image sent in by Stephen O'Melveny of the famous baby hippo who was adopted by a 100-plus year old tortoise in the wake of the tsunami on the Kenyan coast [Details and more pictures here]. Yes, one last chance to be sappy before the steady flow of political vitriol resumes in the new year.
I love Jimmy Carter, but think he needs to stop strolling down memory lane quite so much:
"We had a plane go down in the Central African Republic. A twin-engine plane. Small plane. And we couldn't find it," the 81-year-old 39th President reveals to GQ magazine's Wil S. Hylton. "So we oriented satellites that were going around the Earth every 90 minutes to fly over that spot where we thought it might be and take photographs. We couldn't find it."
Carter continues: "The director of the CIA came and told me that he had contacted a woman in California who claimed to have supernatural capabilities. And she went into a trance and she wrote down latitudes and longitudes, and we sent our satellite over that latitude and longitude, and there was the plane." [NYDN via Gawker]There's more about spotting a UFO that I'll leave you to investigate.
Iraqi security forces caught the most wanted man in the country last year, but released him because they didn't know who he was, the Iraqi deputy minister of interior said Thursday.
Hussain Kamal confirmed that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi -- the al Qaeda in Iraq leader who has a $25 million bounty on his head -- was in custody at some point last year, but he wouldn't provide further details.
Daniel Solove, a George Washington U professor, points to a potential threat to the future of blogs: copyright laws:
I think that it is a fair generalization to say that the use of copyrighted material is much more liberal in the blogosphere than in regular print publications. If I were writing something in print, for example, I would be much more cautious about the extent to which IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m quoting and using images. But I feel more emboldened on the Internet. Why?
The reason is that the blogosphere has developed a set of copyright norms in an area where there is very little enforcement. These norms about the use of copyrighted material are probably at odds with existing copyright law. The mainstream media and other websites have not been going after bloggers for copyright violations all that much. Although the music and movie industries have been on the copyright offensive, beyond them, the enforcement of copyright on the Internet has been rather laid back. [Concurring Opinions via Boing Boing]Solove points out that this rather liberal interpretation of "fair use" is not borne out by past court rulings. And stock photography companies like Getty Images Inc. and Corbis Corp are already planning to crack down on offenders who 'borrow' their images.
So is a wave of lawsuits looming on the horizon? His conclusion: Yes, if blogging becomes too powerful and more importantly highly profitable.