The Language of Elitism vs Democracy

Occasionally one encounters a naked distrust of the commoner that is anti-democratic in its effect.  Take this article in Business Week for example (via slashdot, emphasis mine):

The venom of crowds isn’t new. Ancient Rome was smothered in graffiti. But today the mad scrawls of everyday punters can coalesce into a sprawling, menacing mob, with its own international distribution system, zero barriers to entry, and the ability to ransack brands and reputations. No question, legitimate criticism about companies should get out. The wrinkle now is how often the threats, increasingly posted anonymously, turn savage. Even some A-list bloggers are wondering if the cranks are too often prevailing over cooler heads.

First of all, nowhere in the article does the author bother to qualify his statement about those “A-list bloggers”.  Greenwald has noted this kind of behavior from the media before (via Kos, emphasis mine):

My principal criticism of the ABC story was that it was exclusively predicated on what ABC vaguely described only as “sources familiar with the dramatic upgrade.” It did not include a single other piece of information about the identity of the “sources” who were making such dramatic, consequential, and potentially war-inflaming claims — not even whether they were government or private sources, American or Iranian (or some other nationality), or whether they have any history that evinces a desire for regime change in or war against Iran. For that reason, the story seemed worthless, given that it was impossible for the reader to assess the credibility of the assertions.

The “A-list bloggers” quote is nothing less than an attempt to lend credibility to the article’s assertion by tacking people from “that internet crowd” onto the criticism of the excesses of online free speech.  Michelle Conlin ought to have specified which bloggers she was talking about, and what their specific concerns were.

Back to the language, the article might as well be titled “Mob Rule!  Plebians Speech Published on the Internet!”.  She is digging deep into a common attack on the notion of Democracy, namely that the “common people” are stupid, violent and otherwise uncivilized.  In addition to legitimate concerns about massive amounts of libel (which is where many of the commentators on the slashdot post direct the discussion), it seems she is discussing the very legitimate criticism she thinks “should get out”:

Trashing brands online can also be high theater. Rats cruising around a Greenwich Village KFC/Taco Bell (YUM ) on YouTube (GOOG ). MySpacers (NWS ) busting their employers’ chops. Faux ads bashing the Chevy (GM ) Tahoe as a gas-guzzling, global-warming monster. Millions of people watch this stuff—then join in and pile on. Is it any wonder companies lose control of the conversation?

How were the faux ads on youtube anything other than clever criticism of GM?  The focus on companies losing control of the conversation is a very telling part of the article.  For companies interested in the bottom line over social responsibility, legitimate concerns are every bit the threat of truly hateful speech.  Naturally, there is business to be found:

For executives there’s a new, $10,000 premium service from ReputationDefender.com that can promote the info you want and suppress the news you don’t.

How handy.

The fact is that it is the democratization of communication that some companies (media conglomerates included) view as a real threat.  An article like this may discuss legitimate concerns with anonymous libel and trolls, but it functions as a hit piece on the ideals of free speech and the townhall (emphasis mine):

The venom of crowds isn’t new. Ancient Rome was smothered in graffiti. But today the mad scrawls of everyday punters can coalesce into a sprawling, menacing mob, with its own international distribution system, zero barriers to entry, and the ability to ransack brands and reputations.

That “zero barriers to entry” bit is really worrying to anyone who has grown accustomed to living in a bubble protected from the world and its opinions by “barriers to entry”.  The removal of these barriers is one of the most hopeful and promising aspects of the web.  It is one realization of the promise of Democracy.

We can call out the anti-democratic language of elitism whenever we encounter it.  We can support efforts to keep the Internet open.  Above all we can hold the practical ideals of Democracy high in our own words and actions.

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Theocracy, Censorship and Authoritarianism

The Blog against Theocracy blogswarm roars onward.

Frank over at we are all giant nuclear fireball now party has some thoughts on Bill Donohue:

Donohue, if nothing else, is consistent, having once said, that bringing back the Inquisition “… is awfully tempting.”

“Give me their names. ”

These are chilling words that have echoed throughout history. It is the demand of agents of authoritarianism. Embedded within its use is the pernicious offer of “perhaps I’ll go easier on you if you give me someone more important for me to destroy.”

This is quite chilling. It is the language of authoritarianism coming from a self styled religious authority. Frank gets to the heart of the matter:

Sadly, Donohue has more and more friends in the Vatican who think like him; men who will stifle anything that threatens their narrow interpretation of faith. The truth is that their Catholicism lacks confidence. They fear new ideas and different forms of expression. And because of its own self-constricting nature, their Catholicism demands the need to control the freedom of thought that exists within the surrounding secular society. What the Catholic League and its ultra-orthodox Pharisees offer is not spiritual hope, but a faith of anxiety.

When it comes down to it, calling for censorship is an expression of essential weakness. I cannot even begin to imagine the anger the people Donohue pretends to represent must feel when he goes on one of his rampages.

His whole approach brings to mind of the attacks on Amanda of Pandagon and Shakespeare’s Sister. The vitriol that poured out in response to Donohues attacks was telling. Religious authorities named their targets, the media was uncritical in their reporting, and two voices were punished for nothing more than having “objectionable” opinions. It brings the mind the idea of punishing people religiously for political positions. Remember when Catholic leaders threatened to deny Presidential candidate John Kerry communion for his position on a women’s right to choose?

It would be wise of us to remember that these attacks come from weakness, and that when bullies like Donohue attempt to tear down individuals of principle and opinion, the proper response is to stand up and hit back.

Bullies and intellectual cowards cannot withstand the reasoned criticism of the brave and the logical.

Eventually, even their traditional supporters will find a new path to walk.

In the end, theocracy is just another cover for authoritarianism. It is the refuge of the violent and the cowardly, and it will crumble under the light of reason and the power of democracy.