A difference in kind

That picture of the soldiers in Iraq was hilarious, but think about how
it happened.

Technological change always has unforseen side effects, cultural and
political. The invention of movable type printing was one of the great advances
of all time, but most people don’t really understand just how much political and
cultural change resulted because of it. Protestantism happened because of the
printing press. Two centuries of war between Catholic and Protestant countries
happened because of it. The printing press is responsible for the rise of what
we now think of as "nationalism" in Europe. And the printing press was
responsible for converting Latin from the international language of Europe into
a dead language. The printing press was the proximate cause of a drastic
increase in the rate of change of, well, damned near everything.

We’re on the cusp of a comparable change, being brought about by a comparable
advance in communications technology. We just had a really remarkable example of
that come by today.

On Monday at a rally in California, John Kerry stuck his foot in it with a
lame joke that he loused up (he now says). Today

this picture
is all over the Internet, and the resulting horse-laugh at
Kerry’s expense has caused him to abjectly retreat. Yesterday he pugnaciously
declared that he would never apologize. Today he
did apologize, or
in his name.

It would seem that he was against apologies before he was for them.

The picture is hilarious, but think about the process: a handful of smartass
soldiers currently serving in Iraq (from the Minnesota National Guard) created
that poster, and someone used a digital camera to take a picture of 8 others
holding it up with (deservedly) big grins on their faces.

Then the picture was downloaded into a computer and, I assume, emailed to
someone in the US. I haven’t got the slightest idea where it first appeared, but
it spread like wildfire and at this point I’ve seen various versions of it on at
least five sites, and many others have linked to one or more of
those. Within just a few hours of when that photograph was taken in Iraq, at
least a million people in the US, halfway around the world, had seen the
picture and laughed at it. Probably by now it’s many millions. And that’s
without any participation by TV or magazines or the newspapers who, considering
the prevailing political bias in such organizations, probably wouldn’t have
given it any exposure if they could possibly manage not to.

One of the reasons that the
invention of printing press was such a seismic event was that among
the earliest things to be printed in quantity were translations of the Bible
in the local vernacular. Instead of listening to the local Priest read
Biblical passages in Latin (which you didn’t understand) and then having him explain to you
what they meant, and what you had to do because the Bible Said So — in Latin,
which you didn’t understand — you could now read it
in your own language. And you could come to your own conclusion about what it
really meant and what you needed to do. You didn’t need the Catholic Church any
longer for that, and that meant you didn’t have to follow the priest’s orders.
That’s a big part of how and why Protestantism happened.

Something like that is happening now. We no longer need Television and Radio
and Magazines and Newspapers to tell us whether something that’s happened is important. We
uneducated ignorant peasants can do it for ourselves. And we can do it faster than the
MSM can. They
fancy themselves to be gatekeepers, but we’re kicking holes in the fence and
going around the gates now. In fact, there isn’t any fence any longer; the gates
stand lonely and alone, and the gatekeepers are

going out of business

A huge number of unrelated technological lines all coalesced at the same time
to make the printing press possible: advances in metallurgy, paper making, ink
making, jewelry, glue, and many others. The printing press
itself, for example, was an adaptation of a wine press.

And a huge number of only distantly related technological lines coalesced to
make it possible for you to see that picture today. Most of these are in
electronics, of course, but it included development of the CCD, advances in
storage battery technology, modern CMOS-based microcircuits, wide area networks,
communication satellites, and the rockets which put them into orbit, and on and on.

Arrogant patrician John Kerry was humbled today by a squad of Minnesota
smartasses, a digital camera, a notebook computer, a military communications
network, many huge civilian communications networks, and hundreds of bloggers.
And it happened at breakneck speed. (Kerry’s neck.)

We no longer need the priests of the Main Stream Media to tell us what the
news means, and to tell us what we should do.

10 thoughts on “A difference in kind”

  1. OSB: One Step Beyond Kerry’s Halloween Gaffe. . .

    There’s another lesson here as well — a lesson in why one might choose to refrain from ‘going negative’ in politics (and other areas of life as well). It’s the risk of exactly what happened: screwing up the delivery of a snide, nasty, mean put-down so that it hits the wrong targets.

    If one has a reputation for not going negative, for not repeatedly aiming for the lowest common denominator of human behavior; if one has a reputation for being nice and behavingly maturely, it makes it much, much easier to turn around and say, “Oops, I misspoke; I didn’t mean that the way it came out,” and have that accepted.

    Likewise, it also makes redeeming oneself when one has criticized on the basis of false information easier. And so on.

    It’s a simple rule of life, even in politics, that the nicer, more pleasant, more courteous, more respectful, more, basically, *adult* one is. . .

    . . .the more inclined people are to take you at face value, to cut you some slack when you humanly err, to give you the benefit of the doubt, and, perhaps most importantly, take you, your points, your proposals, and of course your *candidacy*, more seriously.

  2. Sadly Acksiom, the times when a politician is rewarded for decency seem to be dwarfed by the benefits of unpunished meanness.

    After all, Kerry still became Senator of an important state.

    But then, that’s why many sane people avoid politics altogether.

  3. A paradox here, or maybe it’s merely the appearance of a paradox, is how the MSM could succeed in strongly influencing voters’ opinions before the current elections, as it seems to me they have, at a time when MSM power appears to be waning. Is it that the MSM are pulling out all the stops this time? Is it that Republicans would be doing poorly in public opinion no matter what the MSM did? Is it that MSM power isn’t waning so much as moving to the Internet? (Of course I am assuming that Republicans overall will do poorly in the elections. If they do well my questions become moot. But I think it’s unlikely that they will do well.)

  4. A lot of good questions, Jonathan. I’ll give you my take on some of them.

    “Is it that the MSM are pulling out all the stops this time?”

    Well, yes they are pulling out all the stops, but they started moving quickly in that direction right after the election of 2000. By 2004, they had already gotten to the point where they had pulled out all the stops. RatherGate was the most obvious example, and also recall the media continuously promulgated the idea that Kerry was ahead or the race was dead even. The phenomenon was even admitted by Newsweeks’ Evan Thomas So 2006 is nothing special in that respect.

    “Is it that Republicans would be doing poorly in public opinion no matter what the MSM did?”

    The Republicans have betrayed their base on many issues. They have gone soft and fuzzy on Iraq, failed to do anything about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, failed to take illegal immigration seriously, and passed welfare state programs comparable to anything the Democrats have done. Non-military spending has gone up faster than under Clinton.

    I think the straw that broke the camel’s back was the Miers nomination. It was a completely unforced error, and the base for the first time really let it be known that they felt betrayed. (I think their reaction honestly confused Bush, who just thought the base would be behind him no matter what he did because they hated those dastardly Democrats so much.)

    So, yes, the Republicans would certainly be suffering in public opinion, no matter what kind of press they were getting. In fact, they actually benefit from a biased media on a couple of those issues. The press agrees with the Republicans on illegal immigration, for example, so they don’t slam Bush and company on that issue even when the Republican base is upset.

    “Is it that MSM power isn’t waning so much as moving to the Internet?”

    One of implications of Stephen’s points about technology change is that just “moving to the Internet” won’t preserve MSM power. They are on a radically different playing field, and cannot block smaller players from gaining significant influence. Nor can they get away with the sloppiness and bias that have become endemic in the MSM. It’s too easy for others to point it out and make them look silly.

    I don’t think any of us know what the long-term structure of an Internet-based media will look like, but it’s almost a sure bet that today’s dominant players will no longer be the dominant players in that world. They have too much baggage and their temperament and experience are not suited for the new world. They may survive (and I think most of them will, at least for a time), but they won’t be able to dominate the news cycle the way they do today.

    “(Of course I am assuming that Republicans overall will do poorly in the elections. If they do well my questions become moot. But I think it’s unlikely that they will do well.)”

    I’ve thought about that one a long time, and concluded that we don’t know enough to predict what’s going to happen. I believe elections in which a substantial portion of voters dislike both sides are inherently volatile. And we can’t really count on current polling, because of a number of flaws that it’s very tough for them to overcome. Did you know, for example, that the number of land lines in the US is decreasing 3-4% per year while mobile phone usage is going up by more than that? Now mix in the fact that the distribution of land line vs. mobile usage is not uniform. According to the AARP, at the end of 2003, cell phone penetration in the over-65 population was 38%, compared to 65% for 18-49 year olds and 58% for those aged 50-64.

    The bottom line on polling is that it’s becoming harder and more expensive for the pollsters to get unbiased and representative samples, or to even know when they have managed to get such a sample. They were off something like 2% in 2004 on the presidential election, and I see no indication that they will be any better this time around.

  5. Sorry, Steven, I misspelled your name, and not for the first time I think. My own middle name is “Stephen”, so that’s what tends to come off my fingertips.

  6. Thanks. I don’t trust the polls either, but in my experience Intrade is usually reliable, and it has been showing a consistently high probability that Democrats will achieve a majority in the House. (Note, however, that Intrade does not predict the size of the Democrats’ majority.)

  7. Another striking thing about the banner picture is that it broke the rather strong military taboo against partisan messages from active-duty troops — especially from active-duty troops in a hot zone.

    Apparently none of the soldiers responsible for the picture is going to get in trouble. If that doesn’t show the institutional animus the military bears towards Senator Kerry, then nothing ever will.

    The junior U.S. senator from Massachusetts has been leaning on the military code of political/partisan silence for a long time now. He passed himself off as a portrait in courage, and the general reluctance of soldiers to say anything against him on the record allowed him to get away with it.

    One picture of eight merry dissenters yanked that crutch out from under him, and now we all laugh, “The emperor has no clothes!”

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