Friday, October 21, 2005

Opendemocracy on Democracy

Isabel Hilton and Anthony Barnett, two editors at the newsmagazine-like website Opendemocracy have published an article on Opendemocracy about the state of democracy and the role in fostering democracy Opendemocracy sees for itself.

Unfortunately, it reads very much like an endorsement of advocacy journalism as the way to go. I wrote a response which I published in Opendemocracy's forums after Opendemocracy chose other responses. Hilton and Barnett's article embodies the worst of what is often a very interesting website on world politics, globalization, and the internet: an article that mixes confuses the march of democracy with the left-wing politics of the website's editors. Thus, they hold, seemingly as an article of faith, that the anti-war protests against the Iraq War were great exercises in democracy.

Here is my response:
I have no doubt that OpenDemocracy fancies itself as a positive force for democratic change and evolution. The web offers the greatest chance for a truly open press, by which I mean an outlet for all possible views. Point, click, publish.

I offer a response to Hinton and Barnett on two grounds: First, particular political positions are not in and of themselves democratic, and second, that the concept of an independent media empowering the powerless is a concept that is based on a faulty premise and often results in the opposite of what is intended.

Democracy is first and foremost a system of government, and in all nation-state cases, a representative system of government. To the extent that it fosters values which permeate civil society, such as dialogue, openness for dissenting viewpoints, and so on, civil society might be termed democratic.

Unfortunately, what often happens is that the political partisans of civil society substitute ideas for institutions. The web, an institution, is a democratic place which offers a laissez-faire marketplace of ideas. But the ideas on my blog or someone else's are not themselves democracy.

Similarly, the idea that people may be allowed to march in the street for a cause is a democratic idea; in a democratic society, the marketplace of ideas should be open. But that does not make the anti-war movement in and of itself democratic, and it is out of place for Hinton and Barnett to argue that it is any less or more democratic than a protest in support of Iraqi freedom. Both are expressions of freedom in democratic society. Neither is intrinsically democratic. (As far as the promotion of democracy goes, one could argue, and argue easily, that the anti-war protests were fundamentally anti-democracy, because they opposed, and continue to oppose, the democracy in Iraq today.)

Neither are the positions taken by the mostly white anti-globalization movement, which often favors a brand of Eurocentric protectionism that will, if anything, hurt the developing world. The favoring of a policy of using international force in a legal and accountable framework, particularly when that framework is not the result of democratic processes and when such legality is highly politicized, is not a democratic position and does not in and of itself constitute the promotion of democracy.

Expressions of democratic freedom should not be conflated with democracy itself.

Hinton and Barnett loftily intone: "[W]ithin nations and globally, democracy calls for regular people having a say over how they are governed: which means empowering the powerless and checking the powerful. This is a great ambition. The calling of openDemocracy is to give it every support we can with our modest means – with truthful reporting, honest, lively argument and full use of the creativity of the web. For you can't have democracy without an independent media."

Democracy does call for people having a say; that is a truism. But it has nothing to do with empowering the powerless. There are no powerless people in a democracy, because the people have the vote. If the anti-war movement was supposed to check the powerful, it abjectly failed; Tony Blair is still the Prime Minister, George W. Bush is still the President of the United States. Majorities in both countries believe, in opposition to the anti-war movement, that pulling out of Iraq at this juncture would be a mistake and would ill-serve the nascent democracy that is the new Iraq.

The call to empower those that have little power is a lofty aim, but it does not congeal with truthful reporting. Neither does self-congratulatory terms like "independent media", which appears, like calls to empower the powerless, to be little more than a left-wing catchphrase. On the contrary, most of the time it leads to deeply biased political analyses which are short on the truth and long on demonization of whatever the en vogue target is. That's not to say that OpenDemocracy fails at telling the truth most of the time, but it has had its share of pieces which have nothing to do with truth and everything to do with partisan politics, suggesting that OpenDemocracy's "independence" bears a startling resemblence to political viewpoints of its editors. There is the token dissenting viewpoint from time to time, of course, but any good "corporate" media newspaper has that.

True independence involves the transcending of the personal political viewpoints of the editors. The independent media movement would do themselves a great service if they merely committed to doing the job of representing all relevant viewpoints better than their corporate counterparts instead of constantly proclaiming their independence. Perhaps it is time these forces sit down and ask themselves what they are independent from. If it is rancorous partisanship, they have failed. If it is a narrowness, they have failed. If it is "mendacity" (a major charge for anyone to level), they have not fared better than their corporate counterparts, and in their political zeal, may well be worse than they are.

The web offers that great opportunity for important voices with little power to get through. Opendemocracy's job is not necessarily to help them or promote them. It is to keep them to a high standard of truthfulness, accuracy, and relevancy, the values of any good publication.

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