Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Internet & Politics

We don't know whether our president can't do what he said, or he never wanted to at all. But there is a sense in which the two possibilities are identical. Certain kinds of people can only really want to do what they can do.

Let's look at the internet. You would like what you write to reach a large number of people, and you post your ideas on a web site. You tell everyone you think might be interested to go there. Many of them will tell their friends to go there. But very quickly the friends of friends stop referring to the site. Your site will be on search engines key word lists, but at the bottom, so not much is to be hoped for there.

The reason for this is that the interest in what you write is tied to knowing you personally. This is not because affection for you makes more palatable what you write. But for the simple reason that being in regular discussion with you makes a reader ready for reading what is discussed in what you write.

Regular discussion now in our country occurs only in isolated islands of friends. We have law professor theorists like Posner at the University of Chicago writing that people with different ways of life cannot understand or even converse with each other, therefore politicians without ideas must impartially weigh different interests in accord with their own incommensurate interest. We have Yale philosophy professor Appiah write the same, under the label Cosmopolitanism.

Politicians like our president live in the world of communication in which it is assumed individuals cannot truly reach agreement with each other. They learn how to speak so as to get elected. And then what do they do and what can they do?

No matter how sincerely they have spoken their words, they are not of the kind that a lone individual uses writing his web log. They are of the kind that once written can be sent on to friends who send on to friends endlessly. That is to say, they are words that do not depends on a history of personal and continuous discussion of what is best to do in life.

The president sits in his office, and then what? He has infinite means of communication with the people of the country and other politicians, but he is limited in what he can say. Limited by habit, by his own experience of what succeeds and what fails. He finds that speaking in his usual way the other politicians do not let him do what he wants. There are good reasons for this, having to do with the nearly overpowering influence special interests have on legislators. Nevertheless if our president could speak in a different way, he would start thinking in a different way. And see ways around the influence of factions and money for election campaigns. Other presidents have done it. The problem is he cannot do it. He does not live with people who think that way. And we cannot expect more.

We must wait for a return to real life and real communication between individuals. We go back to our web logs with their limited readership, and wait for the time the spheres of influence meet.