Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Politics of Me, ME, MEME...

Hat tip once more to the ALDaily crowd for this one (linked in the header).

It is quite satisfying to find, just once in a while, another of those instances where “someone important” is saying almost exactly what you have been trying to express for so long. OK, OK, that is nothing more than an expression of the good ol’ confirmation bias once again I have to agree. The sentiments that Keith Kahn-Harris and David Haye express could as easily be applied to the likes of neo-neocon, or Right Wing-nut or to me or anyone from the really truly left.

“The Politics of Me, Me, Me…”

This is not just a question of people with too much time on their hands beavering away at the keyboard on controversies that affect nothing – if it were “only” this, there would be little to worry about. The problem goes deeper. It is partly that so much of this activity is harmful and wasteful, in a context where intelligent citizens working in a spirit of constructive dialogue could in principle perform a useful role in clarifying issues and arguments and offering usable ideas to those seeking solutions to the conflicts concerned.

Even worse, this kind of internet politics is also engaged in by opinion-formers, major institutions and “the brightest and best” more generally. In the Jewish community - a world with which one of us is very familiar - those who are most committed and influential in what they view as the defence of Israel have, over the last few years, increasingly come to adopt the same style of politics and mode of address. They include (in the United States) high-profile intellectuals such as Alan Dershowitz and lobbying organisations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) and (in Britain) organisations such as Britain Israel Communications & Research Centre (Bicom). Pro-Palestinian activists, while usually less organised, also engage in these struggles with just as much fervid and driven commitment.

Both sides, all sides, have become tied up in intricate micropolitical struggles. At the moment these include: who exactly broke the ceasefire first; what the word “civilian” means; whether civilian casualties are simply “human shields”; what a “humanitarian crisis” consists of. In the recent past they have included long-running sagas such as whether Jimmy Carter is an anti-semite; whether settlements are illegal under international law; whether a particular BBC report is biased.
At root, these struggles can involve vital issues, but in the hothouse of the internet, they so often disintegrate into thousands of fragments - from the interpretation of an ambiguous phrase to the reliability of a single news item. The result of an internet war of attrition that produces an impenetrable fog of confusion - and must reinforce the indifference and alienation of the non-involved.

The latter point is vital, even though it may be of sublime indifference to the super-motivated partisans. The ultimate puerility of internet combat over the middle east means that the larger and most important issues - and the possibility of keeping in sight the big picture, a vision of a better future for the region - fade from view.
(Emphasis mine)
Now, you just gotta sit down think about this for a while. It is not a case (as I see it) of who is “right” or who is “left” or who is “right” and who is “wrong”. The point being made (and the reason for my agreement) is that it is not what is believed so much as why we believe it. And at that point you should now see the (none too subtle) rationale for my minor amendment to the original authors’ headline. It is a case of “The Politics of Meme…” as much as it is “The Politics of Me, Me…” and as much as it is about “The Politics of ME, ME…”.

How so?

Staying away entirely from the vexed topics of the Levant, we can see very similar “debates” in every corner of the blogiverse. To pick on individual blogs would be a travesty. The level of debate (and I know I am as guilty of this as the next) is truly little above the primordial slime. There is no objectivity, there is no reason, simply because for each individual participant the “answer” is self-evident, requires no reasoning, nor rational evidence of any kind. I know, I am as guilty as the next.

The cause is what comes back to my rehash of the original headline. It is all to do with memes,

...a unit or element of cultural ideas, symbols or practices; such units or elements transmit from one mind to another through speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena. … Memes act as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate and respond to selective pressures.

Again, how so?

Well, take as a simple example the Hannity “dittoheads”; not the people so described but the term and its useage. Think too how widespread the use of the term has become, and the general consistency of its use. It has become “an element of cultural ideas, symbols…”.

Another prevalent example is the modification of "liberal" (small 'l') in meaning from "generous, tolerant, abundant" or when applied to politics "favouring democratic reforms or favouring individual freedom". It has become - in the 'Net lexicon - a term of abuse and denigration with strong and intended implication of "Socialist" or "Communist" or "Collectivist".

It occurs to me as I write that the term “meme” itself is equally valid as an example. Remember the “meme” quizes and other little amusements. There would not a one blog that has not at some point linked to one of these. Yep, including this one.

The images and language are viral. They are picked up, carried along, swept through those parts of the blogiverse where they are regarded as “friendly”, die where the environment is hostile, and can become universal as well. Memes have become the lingua franca of internet debates. The concern expressed by Kahn-Harris and Haye centres on the debate where conflicting “political cultures” meet; the language, the symbology, the ideas change depending upon the political stance of the speaker.

The biggest pity of all is that the people, the bloggers who broadcast, distribute, promote these political memes are in very large part the ones who are unable to continue a debate with logic and reason. The memes and lingua franca surface when the ideas run out.

I will finish here (and concur) with the conclusion reached by Kahn-Harris and Haye -
The tools for a different kind of politics exist. What is needed is the will to turn away from self-obsessed and point-scoring politics to a politics that is actually about something. What is needed is a politics that reconnects individuals with each other, a politics that looks outwards as well as inwards, a politics that is not all about "ME".

That will require the dismantling of a powerful set of cultures, each as destructive as the rest.


T. F. Stern said...

You mean a statement like, "My way or the highway" isn't conducive to pure dialogue? Man, you take all the fun out of partisan politics.

The probligo said...

Sorry, TF. It is not a case of "pure" dialogue. Far more importantly, it is a matter of constructive dialogue.

Dave Justus said...

That is an interesting meme you are trying to spread :)

I don't know that I agree with that. Certainly I think that politeness and civility go a long way, but very often when it comes to finding solutions to complex, real world problems the devil is in the details. Just looking 'at the big picture' seldom solves the very real conflicts and oppossing interests that are present.

It seems to me that this is just an expression of 'why can't we all just get along' and while a very nice idea, real differences do exist, and hashing them out usually can't be done by bumper sticker.

The probligo said...

Dave, you are right in part. Certainly the right-hand-drive side of American politics might interpret it as "why can't we just get along". Certainly that would lead then to the "liberal" label... What is equally certain is that the left-hand-drive side has their own "lingua franca", equally as hostile.

But that is exactly what it is all about.

The point, more than anything, is in both your and TF's comments.

It is the fact that most (99.999999%)people including the ol' probligo I will admit, can not get past "the politics of me".

The "politics of rational solutions" is still away off in the future.

Dave Justus said...

Politics is for people. I wouldn't expect a politics of rational solutions to be very useful in dealing with people who are often not rational.

And not being rational, while often negative, is also very often positive.