by Barry Edelson


The Lost Message

Hyper-Communication Makes
Democracy a Danger to Itself


There is an historical image in most of our heads, usually in the form of a black and white photograph or videotaped footage, in which men in grey suits emerge from lengthy negotiations to announce that they have made a deal. These talks were between nations in conflict, or corporate and labor bosses at impasse, or government officials at odds with a group of citizens. The men were invariably powerful and serious, and the issues were often matters of life and death. Think of Stalin with Churchill and Roosevelt, Gandhi with Nehru, Nixon with Mao, Reagan with Gorbachev. Regardless of the particulars, these men all had one characteristic in common: if they intended to deliver on their commitments, they had the will and the ability to do so. There wasn't the slightest doubt that the handshake captured on film would have major repercussions for the countries or people they represented.

Are we capable of producing such agreements today? Do the words of our leaders still resonate when contradictory arguments are constantly being shouted into our ears?

These images came to mind as we watched the initiation of talks between Israelis and Palestinians last week, the latest in a seemingly endless series of attempts to resolve the world's most intractable conflict. In 1993, at a moment when the prospects for peace seemed unusually high, Yitzhak Rabin could barely bring himself to shake the hand of Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn. The Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers of the present day, when hopes and expectations could hardly be lower, showed no such reluctance and greeted one another at their latest meeting in Washington with no outward display of distrust or animosity. This in itself might be seen as progress, in the normalization of protocol, however insincere. But what matters is that neither handshake has made much difference in the lives of their respective peoples, whose hatred for one another remains as palpable and violent as ever. Does anyone truly believe, even if the two sides were able to come to a meaningful agreement, that their populations would accept the outcome and support its implementation?

The possibility of an agreement is made even more unlikely by the general fragmentation of society, a phenomenon with implications in many aspects of life. When Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David accords in 1978 — another of those indelible images [see above] — there was little doubt that both governments, if they chose to, could live up to the terms of the agreement. As in fact they have to this day, despite the continuing extremism and violence that grips the region, and the unending personal disgust that many, if not most, Egyptians and Israelis feel towards one another. Egypt, of course, is not a democracy, and it is much easier for a dictator to deliver on his part of a bargain than the leader of a fractious body politic. Nonetheless, the agreement has held on both sides because of the will of the leadership and the willingness of the populations of both countries to see the bigger picture, to recognize the mutual benefits of pretending to get along.

Could this happen today? The Palestinians are not even represented by a single entity right now, with Hamas controlling Gaza and Fatah in charge of the West Bank. Divisions of this sort within militant movements are hardly new or uncommon, but this one is taking place against the backdrop of a very different historical era. The widespread availability of information and the tools of instantaneous communication have made it easier than ever for dissenters in any sphere to find like-minded brethren and to organize against authority. The word of the leader — any leader — is no longer as powerful or as persuasive, in part, because it can no longer monopolize the message. The fragmentation of the channels of communication is being exploited, for good and ill, by everyone from human rights campaigners and environmental activists to nationalist revolutionaries and extreme religious zealots. The heyday of Palestinian terrorism in the 1970s seems almost quaint in comparison with the worldwide reach of Islamic terrorists today. Anyone with an idea and a computer can potentially reach large numbers of people with ideas ranging from the profound to the insane. Neophytes and fanatics who would otherwise attract no attention are able to hold sway over small but noisy groups of followers and funnel their worthless ideas into the mainstream media. Thus, a preacher of apparently limited mental faculties and hardly any actual following garners worldwide attention by threatening to burn the Koran, while a television host, whose ratings in decades past would have gotten him cancelled in a matter of weeks, attracts a very large crowd at the Lincoln Memorial.

The painful irony of this change is that it is thoroughly democratic. Let us not forget that Hamas, even though it fought a bloody insurrection against its brothers in Fatah, originally came to power in the Palestinian territories through popular mandate. The erosion of the power of the Palestinian Authority is symbolic of a general diminution of central authority throughout the world. Only in a few isolated pockets of severe social and political deprivation, like North Korea, is the flow of information still the exclusive province of the government. Even there, the information fortress has been breached to some extent, as evidenced by the awareness of a better life in the outside world among that country's citizen-prisoners who have managed to escape. China, still the world's largest dictatorship, tries hard to keep the lid on its ever-prosperous and restive billions but is a shadow of its former totalitarian self, no longer able to contain public opinion in the face of natural disasters, ethnic uprisings and labor unrest. Iran's government was able to suppress demonstrations against its fraudulent presidential election in 2009, but contrarian messages are still widely circulated among its opponents, and the regime must surely realize that its control of the country is at constant risk from the free flow of information.

When the dissipation of centralized authority occurs in a dictatorial regime, we view it as a positive development. A less prickly and confrontational China or Iran would certainly be in the interests not only of America but much of the rest of the world, as well. In the case of these two despotic regimes, we have a pretty good idea of what the alternative to the existing political order might look like. But when the disintegration happens within one of the model democracies that we wish China or Iran would emulate, we are in uncharted territory. Americans who are currently clamoring for a smaller and less intrusive federal government speak a lot about the past, of lost 18th- and 19th-century values. But even if they were right about the erosion of values, there's no going back. You can call your movement a "restoration" or "revival" but the past can no more be revived than the dead. We hear a lot about what our country used to be like, some of it real and some pure myth, but no one has yet formulated a vision of what going forward would be like.

With so many voices competing for attention, anyone who does come up with a compelling vision will have a harder time than ever selling it. Barack Obama has been both the beneficiary and victim of the information age, brilliantly exploiting the available technology to get himself into office, but now being undercut at every turn by people who learned from his example and are equally savvy at turning tiny points of difference into major motivational messages for their own supporters, transmitted in an instant. Controlling the message has turned into an utterly futile task, and looks to get even more hopeless with the sale of every smart phone. The protesters who yearn for a simpler time are organizing over the Internet, just like everyone else, and are no more likely to give up their mobile phones and pagers than the medieval madmen of al-Qaeda.

What we need to ask ourselves at this juncture is how much longer the constructs of Western democracy can work effectively in the modern world. Can 18th-century institutions, formulated in a pre-industrial era, serve the needs of the electronic age? Have those who exalt the "original intent" of the framers of the Constitution considered that the original constraints of time and movement, which were a built-in check against the rapid transmission of ideas and sudden changes in public sentiment, no longer exist? Among the qualities we have lost over time are those of patience and circumspection. We expect wars to be over in weeks. We expect a financial crisis, decades in the making, to be resolved in a year. We expect political leaders to come up with answers on the spot and grade them poorly for any problem that persists for more than one news cycle. Our unrealistic expectations are driven in large measure by a proliferation of messages, whose astonishing speed and variety creates the illusion that everything we desire can be acquired or accomplished without waiting.

Nativist and reactionary views have reared their ugly heads periodically throughout our history, and those of the current day will recede into the surge of events as surely as in the past. Our democracy has adapted well, if not always smoothly, to the extraordinary changes wrought by the industrial revolution, mass immigration and the nuclear age. But what is most troubling now is that we no longer seem to be as forward-looking as we once were. Our slowness to embrace change stands in stark contrast to the lightning speed at which we conduct our daily business. A people that is constantly looking backwards to a mythological Golden Age, searching for lost values and ideas, grasping at theories and examples only from our forebears, is doomed to a slow and inexorable decline. No great civilization of the past continued to thrive once it began wallowing in nostalgia and playing defense against its rivals. We will no doubt continue for a long time to consider ourselves exceptional and supreme, even as waves of new citizens re-color our nation's face, just as the loathsome hordes of the 19th- and early 20th century once did, even as the forces of dissolution break us into more irreconcilable parts. But without forward movement predicated on a common vision, we will be a lesser people and a lesser power than we could have been, and the handshake of the president will have less and less value even to our own citizens.

September 10, 2010


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