The Price of Passionless Conventions

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Mr. Briley is Assistant Headmaster, Sandia Preparatory School.

Young people today often complain that politics are boring and do not matter. The age group between eighteen and twenty-four has the lowest participation rate for any voting age bloc. It is easy to blame this sad state of affairs upon the youth for a lack of interest in the democratic process. But on the eve of the national Democratic and Republican conventions, the blame for political apathy should be placed upon the professional politicians where it belongs.

There was a time when the political conventions represented reality television. There was suspense regarding the nature of protest demonstrations, the nomination of candidates, the credentials and seating of some delegations, and the wording of party platforms. The gavel-to-gavel coverage of network television provided object lessons in the lively and contentious nature of a vibrant democracy. Would Lyndon Johnson in 1960 accept the second spot on the Democratic ticket with John Kennedy? In 1964, Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller battled for the soul of the Republican Party. Ronald Reagan challenged incumbent Gerald Ford in 1976, and in 1980 Ted Kennedy contested the nomination of President Jimmy Carter.

On the other hand, today we have political coronations in which managers seek to control and manipulate the democratic process. Citing security fears regarding terrorism, protesters are kept far away from the convention halls and parade permits are denied. The greatest controversy surrounding the tightly-controlled nomination of John Kerry in Boston appears to be the allotment of prime-time speaking spots which are at a premium with the networks limiting their programming to only three hours per evening. The junior Democratic Senator from New York, Hillary Clinton, was initially denied one of these valuable slots, but her voice will now be heard in prime time. The keynote address is noteworthy, however, in that it will be given by Barack Obama, the Democratic African-American Senate nominee in Illinois who seems assured of election following the withdrawal of his Republican opponent. The Hispanic slot at the Democratic convention belongs to New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson.

This desire to micromanage convention scheduling owes much of its origins to the 1972 Democratic convention in which floor fights over the platform and spontaneous demonstrations postponed George McGovern’s acceptance speech into the wee hours of the morning. But these efforts to control the convention thwart participatory democracy.

The 1968 Democratic national convention offered a vigorous floor fight over a plank denouncing the Vietnam War and Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of that conflict. Yet, in 2004, when the Democrats confront a Republican candidate who has lied to the American people in order to gain support for a war of aggression in Iraq, there is apparently going to be no platform provision opposing the war. The party is prepared to nominate two Senators who voted in favor of authorizing President Bush to engage in the Iraqi adventure. Dennis Kucinich, the Democratic Congressman who ran as an antiwar candidate, evidently believes that his forces lack the support to bring this issue to the convention floor. As we continue to send young people to fight and die in Iraq, antiwar Democrats are being effectively shut out of the convention.

In 1964, many young activists were disillusioned when leading liberals in the Democratic Party failed to seat the Freedom Democratic Party delegation from Mississippi Most of the state’s regular Democratic Party organization consisted of segregationists whom the national party did not want to offend. Four years later many young people continued to work within the political system; campaigning for Eugene McCarthy or Robert Kennedy and lobbying for an antiwar plank in the party platform. Others felt betrayed by the 1964 Atlantic City convention as well as the party establishment’s endorsement of Vice President Hubert Humphrey in 1968.

The alienated youth came to Chicago to mock and protest Humphrey’s nomination. They were met with what the Walker Commission later termed a “police riot.” The Chicago 1968 Democratic national convention featured plenty of action in the streets of Chicago and on the convention floor. Television cameras captured Chicago Mayor Richard Dailey giving an obscene gesture to Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff, who denounced the mayor for employing Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago. Meanwhile, television provided us with gruesome images of the violence taking place outside the convention. It wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t civil. But it was passionate, and politics mattered.

I don’t want us or the Democratic Party to return to 1968. But the dull events planned for Boston offer little hope for the return of a vibrant democracy. If we want young people to believe that politics matter, then the democratic process needs to encourage the voicing of dissident opinions. One expects no such open discourse from the Republican Party of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. But if the Democrats really want to be the party of the people and attract young voters, then they must endeavor to restore the historic passion of the political process so missing from our increasingly-staged political conventions.

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Andrew D. Todd - 7/31/2004

Note that I stipulated the business about absence of persecution. A lot of these groups you cited have a highly evolved "victimology," which is alien to the hacker mind. The essential core of hacker identity is fierce pride in one's own programming skills. To call someone a nonprogrammer is a pejorative. The chosen leaders display a fairly high standard of technical skill, because no one would listen to them if they did not. Political hackerism is, I suppose, as much as anything, a frustration that essentially personal technical mastery does not always, or immediately, translate into mastery in the impersonal political-economic arena.

This is of course somewhat similar to the attitude of the skilled 1930's trade-unionist, someone like Walter Reuther, but the skilled trade unionist worked with tools he could not afford to buy. Hackerism, as it emerged in the 1980's and 1990's was premised around the idea that the hacker owned his own means of production, his computer. The hackers managed to go an extraordinary distance before they came up against impersonal political and economic forces, much further than the old trade unionists could have gone. The result was that when the hackers came up for air, after their first round of major successes, they collided head-on with a number of vested interests-- to the surprise of both parties. Neither had realized the other was there, and the reaction was correspondingly violent.

The danger lies mostly in the suddenness, and the fact that the vested interests are huge organizations whose leadership is professionally ignorant of what one might call "tactical reality." Their whole experience is of giving orders and being obeyed, and a giant organization has a propensity to hide failure from the leader for as long as possible. The leaders have a long list of things they believe the man in the street either must do, or cannot do. Since these organizations are heavily involved in manipulating political power in courtier mode, their reflex response is to obtain draconian laws in their favor.

For example, something like sixty million people have downloaded bootleg music, and these represent an overwhelming share of the age range likely to be interested. The logic of the recording and movie industries' legislative program ultimately calls for breaking into every single house in the country, and seizing all computers, VCR's, etc. This would of course be political suicide, even if it did not precipitate actual civil war as householders shot intruders. However, by distribution of campaign contributions, the industry has secured the backing of legislators who are simply incapable of understanding the issues. Political hackers are not so much in opposition to the society and its customary folkways, as they are in opposition to the government.

Here is an illustration of the recording industry's excesses:

Jonathan Dresner - 7/30/2004

Sounds like Zionism would be a better analogy, or perhaps some of the utopian (Amana, socialist, etc) or separatist (Black, Feminist, etc.) movements. Mormons fit that description reasonably well, at least in their earlier settler period.

Andrew D. Todd - 7/30/2004

Well, I will withdraw the analogy if you think it inept. What I meant to convey was the sense of emigration or withdrawal, not out of a fear of persecution as that is ordinarily understood, nor with the intention of assimilating into a foreign society at destination, but rather with the intention of "ingathering" an existing community, in order to make it more perfect, and to enable the carrying out of a providential and covenantal mission, the logical conclusion of which involves the eventual reclamation of the origin country and its population.

Derek Charles Catsam - 7/29/2004

Just for pickiness' sake: The word is actually "voortrek" ("pioneer") and refers to the trekboers/voortrekkers who in the 1930s and 1940s began the "Great Trek" from the Cape Colony to inland regions, including what would become Natal, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. It is from the trek, the subsequent battles with the Zulus and the settlement of a great swath of South Africa that much of the old, tired, traditional Afrikaner historiography, legend, and self-image drew its strength.
I'd be rather wary of drawing historical analogies between the 19th century trekkers and much, if any of what is going on today. Even under the right conditions, historical analogies are tough. This one does not really work in any meaninful way.

Andrew D. Todd - 7/27/2004

Well, "vortrek" properly refers to the mass emigration of Dutch settlers from British South Africa in the 1820's and 1830's. Britain had taken over the Dutch Cape Colony twenty years before, and had come in conflict with settlers who were accustomed to an ineffectual colonial administration. The British Empire was many things, but it was not ineffectual. The settlers' response was to move out into the wilderness, and, in order to carve out a new homeland, they had to fight the Zulus under Dingaan, brother of Shaka.

Significant numbers of top-grade biochemists and microbiologists are actually leaving the United States, in response to the administration's restrictions on research ("stem cells"). People are looking at this as a possible example to follow. There have been a series of articles in Wired (a paper magazine, but catering to the netheads, and with a circulation of about two million). Of course, computer hackers differ importantly from lab scientists. They are much less dependent on institutional support, and they are typically a lot younger.

Totalitarianism? I would very strongly advise against trying to impose totalitarianism on this particular crowd of individualists. Never threaten someone who knows how to construct a guided missile in his back yard. By comparison, the Iraqis are amateurs.

I don't know how much you know about SCO. It is a burning issue to the hacker community, rather like King George's tea (or perhaps the Stamp Act would be a better analogy), but the outside world mostly doesn't seem to have ever heard of it. They know about SCO at Business Week, but in some key respects, Business Week is light-years ahead of prevailing political discourse. SCO might be described as the Benedict Arnold of the hacker movement. It is a small software firm which was once a progressive element, but was superseded by the movement to greater individualism. SCO's reaction was to commence a program of meritless lawsuits against all and sundry as a technique of harassment. The general consensus is that SCO is covertly funded by that convicted monopolist, Microsoft.

Ben H. Severance - 7/27/2004

Interesting comments that reflect a strong grasp of a significant aspect of today's youth culture. It reinforces a fear I've heard bandied about that once government bureaucracies become as computer/internet savy as the hackers, then the American totalitarian state will emerge (one more in line with Huxley than Orwell, mind you). It also makes me feel antiquated to a certain extent; that I am destined to become the eccentric professor shuffling down the corridors of academia, unless cyberspace replaces the lecture hall altogether with on-line courses exclusively. When that happens, perhaps I'll stop voting for seemingly out-of-touch politicos and launch my own pathetic little revolution.

By the way, could you elaborate on the "vortrek" phenomenon?

Andrew D. Todd - 7/26/2004

One of the biggest reasons that eighteen-year-olds are not very interested in conventional politics is that technology has become radically more participatory in the last twenty years, with the resulting rise of a hacker class, a new kind of revolutionary vanguard. The science fiction writer Robert Heinlein foresaw this of course, long before it happened. Government and corporate funding is becoming progressively less important. There are vast numbers of young people who are passionately interested in the potentialities of things they can make with their own hands. Compared to that, what can some second-rate politician's "cult of personality" offer?

Out of this passionate experience has grown an equally passionate politics. This politics simply does not appear at national level. The issues the hackers care most about mostly have to do with the law of intellectual property, telecommunications, and the more technical aspects of freedom of the press. These are the laws which impinge upon them. On these subjects, both parties are approximately equally venal. Venal and stupid, at the level of the British ministry between 1763 and 1775.

I doubt if John Kerry even grasps why the Patent Office is a Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organization and should be abolished. George W. Bush, naturally, is even worse. "When in the course of human events..." There is ominous talk going around about mass emigration, a "Vortrek" in the Afrikaner manner.

If eighteen-year olds were allowed to conduct their own election, from scratch, complete with caucuses to define their own issues, one of the most formidable candidates would be Richard M. Stallman of GNU and the Free Software Foundation. Another would be John Perry Barlow, the Electronic Frontier Foundation man, and also the author of a "declaration of independence of the internet." Linus Torvalds is of course not a native-born American citizen... come to that, while he has lived in California for years, and recently moved to Oregon, I don't know if he still possess Finnish nationality. The question is practically irrelevant.

That raises another point. A new kind of nationality is evolving in certain parts of the internet, eg. Slashdot, approximately corresponding to Winston Churchill's "English-Speaking Peoples," together with significant numbers of German and French cyber-immigrants. There is a certain amount of jubilation at the moment, because a couple of days ago, a court in Munich, in Bavaria, in Germany, upheld the General Public License. Not an appeals court, either, just a court of the first instance, albeit a specialized one. Can you imagine the degree of transformation required for young men in Iowa to care so passionately about the finer technicalities of Continental law?

I doubt these young people will ever march in the streets. Liberal arts majors march in the streets, but these guys aren't liberal arts majors. When they reach a sufficient level of exasperation, they will simply begin conducting electronic warfare.

The war in Iraq hasn't produced very much agitation among 18-year-olds because the Army has been meeting its manpower requirements through things like stop-loss orders and recalling reservists. Instead of spreading the risk out, they pitch on one young man who is already in the Army, and tell him in effect that he's got to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan for twenty years, as a foreign legionary instead of a citizen-soldier. That doesn't produce generational politics; it produces local politics. Even within the military, the same thing is happening. The Navy and Air Force are actually discharging sailors and airmen early, because their automation programs are going better than expected, and refusing to organize their superfluous manpower as infantry formations.