Crimes of the Country: is Obama more like Jefferson or Lincoln?
This post from Jay Rosen is getting a lot of attention around town and it’s easy to see why. Among other important things, this indirectly explains why the netroots absolutely mattered in the election, and more directly explains why they absolutely matter going forward.
Now we can see why blogging and the Net matter so greatly in political journalism. In the age of mass media, the press was able to define the sphere of legitimate debate with relative ease because the people on the receiving end were atomized— meaning they were connected “up” to Big Media but not across to each other.
But today one of the biggest factors changing our world is the falling cost for like-minded people to locate each other, share information, trade impressions and realize their number. Among the first things they may do is establish that the “sphere of legitimate debate” as defined by journalists doesn’t match up with their own definition.
In the past there was nowhere for this kind of sentiment to go. Now it collects, solidifies and expresses itself online. Bloggers tap into it to gain a following and serve demand. Journalists call this the “echo chamber,” which is their way of downgrading it as a reliable source. But what’s really happening is that the authority of the press to assume consensus, define deviance and set the terms for legitimate debate is weaker when people can connect horizontally around and about the news.
Check the link to the see the simple diagram that depicts this relationship between consensus, legitimacy, and deviancy. As Rosen explains above, bloggers are breaking down these barriers, and to the extent there are connections between bloggers and some in traditional media, the movement of issues across these boundaries is more fluid than in the past.
Having just read an amazing book about the lives of a very large and favored slave family, it’s interesting to use the diagram to plot Thomas Jefferson’s actions with regard to the condition of slaves. It was much easier for him, as one who indulged heavily in slavery, to operate in the sphere of consensus, and to allow any challenge to the institution of slavery to languish far away in the realm of deviancy, where only a deviant would make a challenge to it.
In the short run, procrastinating cost Jefferson little or nothing. Even when Jefferson became president, with all those powers of influence, he took a pass on mounting any opposition to slavery, and even to bringing the debate into the sphere of legitimacy. Perhaps this explains why we think of Lincoln, who took on that task six-plus decades later, as the great one, while we remember Jefferson for his writing skills, and for his obsessive tinkering with mechanical objects and processes.
There is a parallel today with regard to Barack Obama and whether he keeps a very specific campaign promise he made:
“I don’t want to just end the war, I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place. That’s the kind of leadership I’m going to provide as president of the United States.”
Anyone following closely today knows that an Obama administration is very unlikely to pursue prosecution of the worldly manifestations of that mindset, which are otherwise known as the war crimes, now confirmed, that were perpetrated by America. Just as Jefferson, both as president and in his personal life, ignored the inhumanity and injustice of slavery, and rationalized its existence through his own benevolence toward slaves, Obama, and now apparently Holder, want the prosecution of war crimes to stay far off radar. Doing so ignores the victims of these American crimes, but allows Obama, in his own mind, to work on a goal of consensus politics. It’s as if Obama believes that by not committing like crimes, it will actually change the war-driven paranoid mindset of others who commit them.
But, of course, Obama doesn’t really believe that.
The real answer is that Obama believes that procrastinating on the issue of prosecution will yield more immediate returns in the form of enhanced dealmaking with the political opposition. But herein lies the corruption or malignancy of our political system. A careful read of Rosen’s article shows why consensus politics means operating on a village-centric, impure model of what’s important, the exact opposite of the new bottom-up processing that Obama has promised. If the village insiders aren’t careful, they’ll always operate with far too much self-interest. Perhaps it’s better explained by a watching a deviant emphatically try to move war crimes prosecution across the boundary lines noted above:
And a Krugman quote reinforces that the movement from deviancy to legitimacy meets much resistance when it puts the village apple cart at risk:
Seems to me the accomplishments of Obama, and whether he’s remembered as Lincolnesque, or Jeffersonesque, will be seen when he can put right and wrong in its proper place within this simple diagram without worrying about how dirty his political hands get. It’s his job to do the heavy lifting, and the netroots has an on-going role to play in never letting him forget it.