Posts Tagged ‘Barack Obama’

Game Change, 2012

THE RISE OF SARAH PALIN AND THE FALL OF JOHN MCCAIN

GAME CHANGE

HBO Spring 2012

Political cynicism is rarely rebuked.  Seasoned operatives play the game to win by fair means or foul and apparently never consider the long-term consequences.  When their glory days are long over, some, like Lee Atwater and Robert McNamara, recant their tactics and their lies. Game Change, an HBO special movie based on the well-received book of the same name, is a cautionary tale of the unintended consequences of a half-baked political strategy that revealed the “dark side” of populism.  Four long years have come and gone since the memorable and frightening 2008 Republican primary which revealed the fecklessness of a Presidential candidate, John McCain, who selected as a running mate, Sarah Palin, a neophyte governor utterly unfit for public office.

Sadly, the movie is slack and soggy, as half-baked as the plan to make Sarah Palin into viable vice-presidential material.  This is a compelling true story that we all saw unfold in real time.  Those of us wedded to the notion that a politician should be at least competent felt alarm and consternation at the rise of Sarah Palin.  It would be hard to say which was more frightening—her supreme ignorance or her supreme raw political talents. The sheer terror of the thought of Sarah Palin as second in line to the Presidency, the shudder that ran across the body politic, is strangely subdued in this account of one of the most unforgivable insults handed to the American people.  And yet, after watching this sympathetic account of a badly handled candidate, I came away with a new respect and empathy for Sarah Palin.

The real villains of the piece are Steve Schmidt and John McCain who needed a “game change” to confront and counteract the charisma of Barack Obama.  Gently played by an amiable Ed Harris, John McCain is given an Easy Pass in this account of his catastrophic campaign.  The John McCain of today is an angry man, still smarting over his humiliation at the hands of Barack Obama.   Defeat has not sat well with him and he has shown none of the graciousness of a vanquished John Kerry or Jimmy Carter.  Ed Harris makes John McCain seem like a doting and absent-minded grandfather, rather than a candidate wounded from the campaign against George Bush and determined to find redemption.  There is no trace of his trade-mark hot temper, impulsiveness, and volatility.

That said, the movie clearly shows McCain as being reckless and irresponsible. On one hand, he casually used Sarah Palin to boost his percentage points; on the other hand, he abandoned her to his campaign staff, who came to hate her.  Chief hater was Steve Schmidt, well played by Woody Harrelson, who really steals the movie.  Schmidt rather liked Palin in the beginning but when the governor did not respond well to his wishes, he learned to fear and loathe his recalcitrant candidate.  Unfortunately, Julianne Moore’s performance is thin and bloodless.  Yes, she imitated Sarah Palin very well, but it is as if the imitation overwhelmed Moore’s ability to act and give power to what history suggests were a very real rage at what was being done to her.  In the face of Harrelson’s Emmy worth performance, Moore almost recedes and we are never given a convincing emotional connection to how Sarah Palin broke away from her captors and went “rogue.”

The film obscures the fact that Sarah Palin had actively campaigned for a larger role in Republican politics, courting susceptible neo-conservatives such as Bill Kristol, who pushed John McCain to select her as a running mate.  Kristol seems to have had a crush on the beautiful governor of Alaska and played a partial and outsider role to the campaign that gave his voice a significant weight with McCain.   Doubtless, Palin also enchanted McCain who, in the beginning (in real life), was visibly besotted with her.  By not making the connection between Palin’s active ambition and the thwarting of her fantasy of political stardom, her rise and rebirth after weeks of humiliation at the hands of the press has no foundation.

Game Change asserts that Palin was located through Google—an odd elision of known facts that makes the campaign look even more lacking in judgment that it was in real life. The criteria were few: the vice president must be a woman, to  counter the Republican deficit with women, and she must be pro-choice, to inspire the listless Republican base.  Given that America is behind Afghanistan in the percentage of women we have in public office, finding a Republican woman with the kind of political experience routinely granted to men was a difficult task.  Most Republican women active in politics at that time were pro-choice, narrowing the field significantly, almost guaranteeing a Sarah Palin-type—lightly educated and living in an isolated area outside the mainstream.

All Sarah Palin had to offer was ambition, the skills of a performance artist, and a taste for public adoration.  Sadly, from the very start, the McCain campaign mishandled a very viable politician who proved to be a game changer—if not in the way anyone had imagined.  What Schmidt utterly failed to see, even after her acceptance speech at the Republican politician, was that Palin could not and should not be prepped into sophisticated knowledge of world affairs. It was the intention of the McCain people that their boss should have a running “mate,” or a political wife who would “support” his positions.  Apparently assuming that a woman would be less ambitious than a man selected as vice president, the team did not consider the fact that the nation would view her the same way as a male candidate: as the proverbial “heartbeat” away from the Presidency.

Palin understood not only her expected role but also saw her nomination as a path to her own political future, and it is this ambition that Game Change failed to grapple with.  Julianne Moore is never allowed to fully show the driving ambition that led to the eventual success of Palin and is forced to spend most of the movie in a state of shamed failure.  True, Palin, as would anyone funning for office, needed to be “prepped.”  However, her needs went beyond an updating or a boning up on obscure aspects of foreign policy: Palin had to be taught or educated at a high school or college level, but the film shows that she was prepared for press interviews with condescension bordering on contempt.  In the process, the army of managers, consumed by concerns with her weaknesses, failed to see Sarah Palin herself and neglected to determine her strengths. The campaign proceeded to remake her in their own image.

The result was an artificial creation, an attempt to turn an ordinary Alaskan wife and mother who also happened to be a governor into a well informed chicly dressed talking head stuffed with undigested factoids.  The problem was that political operatives were not trained as teachers and did not have a clue as to how to educate a human being.  No one can learn disparate bits of information given without an intellectual context.  In a reflection of No Child Left Behind, Schmidt and Wallace, tried to teach Sarah Palin for the test—interviews with the press.  When confronted with this well dressed, sleekly made up vision political acumen, the press reacted accordingly, asking Palin the kinds of questions any run of the mill politician familiar with Washington D. C. could answer.  What was seen, what we all experienced, live on television, was a person stricken by a panic attack when asked about the “Bush Doctrine”—-“In what respect, Charlie?” And her inability to think when asked about which newspapers she read—”All of them.”

Oddly, given the amount of time the film gave to the teaching of Sarah Palin, little time is given to the interviews, which were sheer agony to watch in real life.  Nothing is more painful that witnessing a complete failure to construct a coherent thought but there is almost nothing in Game Change of Palin’s mangled syntax, twisted by what must have been her sheer terror.  After the interview with Charlie Gibson, the campaign owed her an apology but instead the operatives blamed her and redoubled their efforts to cram facts down her throat as if she were a Strasbourg goose.  No wonder, the poor woman became catatonic and rebellious.

Perhaps because the people who worked for McCain had ulterior motives concerning their own futures in politics, McCain is absolved and Palin takes all the blame.  Nicole Wallace flatly refused to work with her (and ultimately to vote for her) after Palin bombed the Katie Couric interview, leaving the governor to the irritated mercies of Steve Schmidt. Lower placed operatives in the campaign clearly leaked their dissatisfaction with Palin to the press and undermined her during the campaign with the presumed effect of letting McCain off the hook and shifting the blame from themselves to an inexperienced candidate.  In hindsight, everyone claimed that 2008 was a “Democratic year,” and the the McCain candidacy was doomed, particularly in the turbulent wake of the Bush presidency.  Palin, then, was a “Hail Mary” attempt at a three-pointer.

If there is, as Palin claims today, a “false narrative” to Game Change it lies in the refusal to take responsibility on the part of the major players. Why did Schmidt and Wallace not see who and what they were dealing with—the real Sarah Palin? Was it unconscious sexism? Was it failure to recognize the capacities of a person so different from themselves? Was it their own blind loyalty to John McCain?  This blind spot, whatever it was, blurs the heart of this narrative and, in the end, the film rushed past the most significant part—how Sarah Palin, possibly encouraged by her husband Todd, shook off her handlers and found herself, her own voice and reached past the campaign to the voters. In the process, she eclipsed McCain.

To this day McCain remains circumspect about Palin’s rise to fame and glory.  After all, it was this very rise of Palin’s popularity that not only surely bruised his ego but also wrecked his candidacy by unsettling the balance of the campaign.  And herein lies one of the great “what ifs” of 2008.  What if Schmidt and Wallace had recognized the potential of Sarah Palin?  What if they had allowed her to use the interviews with the press to reach out to the voters who had felt ignored and talked down to—the voters who adored her?  What if the campaign had used Palin to reach the very groups they hired her to represent—conservative women and base voters? What if they had allowed her to be herself?  No doubt Palin would have stumbled and made mistakes, but with proper guidance, perhaps she could have learned how to be a populist candidate with the heart she obviously had.

Instead, at the end of the campaign, what we saw was an angry mishandled woman on the loose, seething with resentment over the “lamestream media,” those very television journalists who had revealed her deficiencies and held her ignorance up to public ridicule.  Although there the movie is far too lax in covering Palin’s self-redemption, the candidate struck out on her own and began to campaign her own way.  Now that she drew huge and rapturous crowds, the campaign seemed to be unable to “handle” or contain her energies.  According to Game Change, her populism disinterred the “dark,” racist, xenophobic side of American life.  The audience to the film must fill in blanks that should have been edifyingly filled, showing us only a John McCain losing control of the narrative, horrified at the sight of the ugly underbelly of America and overwhelmed on Election Day by the public alarm over what had been unleashed.

In another area of fuzziness, both in chronology and agency, Game Change appears to blame Palin for linking Obama to a “terrorist” and to an America-damning pastor.  But this kind of dirty guilt by association game had been part of the Republican playbook since Lee Atwater and remains fully operative today.  In the end of the film, McCain warns Palin to beware of the “extremists,” such as the Limbaughs, of the Republican party.  This brief scene appears too self-serving, too pat to be genuine, a much too obvious attempt to make McCain appear to be blameless for what Sarah Palin had supposedly revealed about the Republican “base,” no pun intended.  But blaming Sarah Palin is another Easy Pass for the part Republican master-minds played in devising the infamous divisive “Southern Strategy”—divide and conquer through racism.  Palin did nothing but take advantage of an already ready well-worn set of tactics and rode to glory on behalf of the “Real” America.

A year ago this month, Bill Kristol bemoaned the failure of Sarah Palin to take advantage of the (unearned) opportunity that was given to her.  Like many of Palin’s  former defenders and supporters, Kristol jumped ship after Game Change the book was published.  It seems that they were disappointed that Palin’s reach towards fame exceeded her desire to do the hard work of growing into a viable politician.  Instead of going back to being a governor of Alaska, gaining experience and preparing to take on the role of heir apparent in 2012, Palin compounded the impression she did not want to work by resigning half way through her term and becoming a television personality on a boring reality show.  Instead of growing her candidacy for President into an aura of inevitability, Palin became an inarticulate talking head on Fox News, an embittered mockery of her former self, using self-righteous religion as a cudgel against liberals.

Rising from the ruins of the failed McCain campaign, a year later Steve Schmidt gave an timely interview with Anderson Cooper on CBS’s 60 Minutes and indicated that, although Palin “helped” more than “hurt” the campaign, he would not chose her again.  In clearing the ground just before Game Change was published, Schmidt sought redemption and exoneration for his part in what author John Heilemann termed an “irresponsible” action of foisting a “dangerous” candidate upon America.  Schmidt’s mea culpa worked and, thanks to an excellent book and to this television movie, Schmidt has cleansed himself and continues to do penance on MSNBC.

Game Change the movie benefited from additional interviews and from reading Palin’s book, Going Rogue, and the new perspectives from her book clearly added to the “empathy” angle, as the screenwriters stated.  One does feel sorry for Palin and it seem clear—book or no book, movie or no movie—that the McCain campaign let Sarah Palin down badly.  But Palin herself profited only monetarily, not politically, from those intense months.  One wonders…what if Sarah Palin had learned from her experience on the McCain campaign and surrounded herself with serious and sympathetic advisors?  She could have molded her very real strengths as a devoted wife and mother and shaped her image as a normal person called to a higher office.  She could have honed her formidable talents as a communicator.

But like a minor character in a Shakespearean tragedy—a Rosencrantz—Sarah Palin thrust herself to the fringes of history, a fleeting novelty, discredited by her own roiling resentment.  Too bad.  What if she had allowed herself to try to be better than she was, to learn?  Imagine the Republican primary today with Sarah Palin on the debate stage.  Her natural running mate: he whose name cannot be Googled. Now that would have been a real Game Change.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

 

The Assault on Reason, 2007, by Al Gore

WHAT IF AL GORE HAD BEEN THE PRESIDENT?

A Review of

THE ASSAULT ON REASON, 2007, by Al Gore

One of the great “what ifs” in American history is “what if Al Gore had become president in 2000?”   Notice I did not say, “What if Al Gore had won the 2000 election?”  For some, George W. Bush did not defeat Al Gore, instead the Supreme Court in what many left-wing thinkers consider a coup-d’état handed him the presidency.  Who knows who really won?  The counting of the votes, hanging chads, butterfly ballot and all that, was never completed but was halted by the Court.  The Republican response to the Democratic dismay was to “suck it up” and accept the loss.  While this transfer of the presidency to George W. Bush has never left the consciousness of the Democrats, and while we will never know who actually won the most votes in Florida, some things we do know for certain and that is what would not have occurred if Gore had become president.

Imagine what we would not have had

  • No war in Iraq
  • No “discretionary” wars
  • No Patriot Act
  • No torture, no torture memos,
  • No wholesale spying on the American people
  • No Guantanamo Bay
  • No Abu Ghraib
  • No flouting of the Geneva Convention
  • No privatization of the military
  • No Haliburton, no KRB
  • No wars fought on credit cards
  • No unfunded prescription drug programs
  • No government lying
  • No outing of CIA agents
  • No inaction on Katrina
  • Job outsourcing offset by jobs at home
  • No Great Recession
  • No Bush Tax Cuts to the Wealthy
  • No massive debts
  • No union-busting governors
  • No Defense of Marriage Act
  • No polarization between political parties
  • No John Roberts
  • No Samuel Alito
  • No Citizens United Decision
  • No Tea Party
  • No Sarah Palin
  • No Michelle Bachmann
  • No Barack Obama

What we would have had:

  • A Short War in Afghanistan
  • A Green Economy
  • Green Jobs in America
  • Smaller Wall Street Crash
  • Illegal Immigrants made legal tax-paying citizens
  • The Protection of Reproductive Rights
  • The Protection of Voting Rights
  • Well-funded Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid
  • Compromise and Negotiation
  • A Respect for Truth and for Reality

Each president teaches the nation a series of lessons, some of them with lasting repercussions, some good and some bad.  Lyndon Johnson taught us that presidents lie.  Richard Nixon taught us that government is not to be trusted.  Ronald Reagan taught us that greed was good.  George H. W. Bush taught us to use racist lies as a campaign strategy.  Bill Clinton taught us that presidents have sex while in office.  George W.  Bush taught us that it was just fine to spend money we do not have and had no way of paying back.  Barack Obama taught us that resistance is futile.  Al Gore taught us how to lose gracefully.  Al Gore also taught retired public servants who to make the most of their retirement and how to maximize their experience for the public good. Of all the ex-politicians, Al Gore has contributed to the globe perhaps the most admirably, warning the world of the coming catastrophe of Global Warming or Climate Change or whatever you want to call it.  Only Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have equaled Gore in public service after serving in elected office.  We are still waiting to see what the Bushes, Senior and Junior, will do to show that they deserved the faith their voters put in them to serve the people.

We know what happened under George W. Bush.  But what if Gore had been president?  What are the arguments that things would have been better as the result of a Gore presidency?  First, Gore would have retained the surplus accrued under Clinton.  There would have been no tax cuts for the rich.  So how would all that extra money have been spent?  Undoubtedly, the deficit would have been paid down over time.  But there are always rainy days and the unexpected.  During the first decade of the twenty-first century, there were two events that could not have been planned for.  In making the second point, we could arguably ask: would there have been a September 11th?

While it is doubtful that the terrible insane plan to turn planes into weapons could have been detected, there would have been much more awareness of the dangers of Islamic terrorism in the Gore administration than in the Bush administration.  The Bush State Department was fully briefed by the outgoing administration on the threats from Al Qaeda and chose, famously, to ignore the information.  Third, while we can assume that, regardless of the increased vigilance that 9/11 would have happened anyway, we also know that there would have been no war in Iraq.  Certainly after September 11th, American would have fought what probably would have been a short and sharp war in Afghanistan.  How short, we cannot know, but certainly not the ten plus years we are witnessing now.

Another cost of the Bush wars was the very expensive privatization of the military. Once the military took care of itself, from cooking to cleaning to fighting.  Under the Bush administration, the basic cost of running a war was enormously increased by outsourcing what had been standard military tasks to private companies, which proceeded to overcharge the government.  It has long been known that the Defense Department had always been the target of enrichment scams on the part of civilian businesses and there were attempts, however feeble, to keep the outrageous overcharges under control.  Under the Bush administration, the ceding of the military to private enterprise exploded the cost of the war beyond what it would have normally been.

And none of the increased costs were paid for.  During the Second World War, the military was self-sufficient and the citizens paid the costs, one day at a time, through the sale of war bonds.  Instead, no bid contract were handed out from everyone to electricians to caterers to commandos, effectively doubling the personnel and causing costs to spiral out of control.  It is doubtful that under a Democratic president that the wars would have been either plural or privatized.  Without the wars, there would have been no Patriot Act, no wholesale spying on the American people, no Guantanamo Bay, no Abu Ghraib, no torture memos, no flouting of the Geneva Convention, no decline in American credibility and no loss of American honor.

Fourth, this war would have been paid for.  The two Bush wars were the first in American history to be waged without a tax increase and fought totally on borrowed money.  Fifth, it is unlikely that going into two wars on credit cards would have been coupled with another charge on the card, the unfunded and unpaid-for prescription drug plan.  Although it would be safe to assume that none of the budget busting events that happened under Bush—two wars, a tax cut and a prescription drug deal, none of which were ever paid for—under a Gore Administration, it would not be safe to assume that there would have been no financial melt-down.  The crisis of 2008 could well have come about regardless of who was in charge. The only real question is how bad would it have been?

The Gore administration would have, in all probability, continued the de-regulation of the lending financial industries undertaken by the Clinton economic team.  What is unclear is the extent of the financial excesses.  During the Bush years, Wall Street came to resemble Las Vegas even more than usual.  The stock market and its minions take its cues from political leadership and the market clearly followed the lead of the Bush administration and adopted the philosophy of short-term goals and short-term gains, to borrow and spend with no thought to the consequences.  The market will always take advantage of the slightest permissive loophole and even invent a few more but, under Bush, there was clear permission to binge.

Recall that after 9/11, the president urged the nation to shop.  Credit cards were flashed and homes were used as the proverbial piggy bank and, thanks to “liar’s loans,” value was extracted from what was the homeowner’s major financial asset.  The market may always be counted on to behave badly and selfishly but, under Bush, the basic fabric of responsibility and morality and ethical behavior became openly unraveled.  The bills finally came due and the entire structure, built on fantasy, came crashing down.  Would the Gore administration have bailed out Wall Street?

It is possible that, given the precedents, such as the Savings and Loan debacle, the answer would have been “yes.”  But it is probably safe to assume the crash would have been much less severe and the money would have been there to pump into the economy.  Not only that, but the economy would have been in much better shape and could have better absorbed such a blow.  Under the Bush administration, there was no job creation and no rise in middle class income.  Jobs were going out the door and traveling to other nations with cheap labor.  Tax incentives were created to encourage outsourcing and corporations were allowed to not pay taxes.  Of course with the high cost of labor and the stringency of regulations in America, all the businesses that could do so shipped their jobs overseas.

This practice was nothing new and had been going on since the 1970s.  Outsourcing is not a bad thing in and of itself.   American consumers have certainly enjoyed affordable commodities; from television sets to automobiles, and it make sense to allow certain societies to specialize in manufacturing if the advantage exists.  The problem is that, under Bush, these lost jobs were never replaced.  Real wages went down and, when taxes were cut, especially on the people who continued to experience a rise in income, revenues fell sharply.  With not enough coming in and with huge unprecedented amounts of money going out, a deficit rapidly replaced the surplus and America went into a deep financial hole.

With the Afghanistan War over, with the rich paying their fare share, with no unpaid-for prescription drug plan, with no war in Iraq, and with a healthy economy, the Gore administration would have been ready for the Wall Street Crash of ’08.  The Bush administration encouraged jobs to leave America and did nothing to encourage job creation at home.  Eight, here is where there would have been an enormous difference between Bush and Gore.  Environmentally conscious, Gore would have started green industries in America, creating green jobs.  Green jobs are the kind of jobs that cannot be outsourced and the range of these kinds of jobs is enormous, offering opportunities to men and women with a wide range of skills and education.  In addition, green jobs would have been located everywhere, eliminating the pockets of joblessness and limiting the dependence on federal spending seen in the southern part of the United States, for example.  People could have actually afforded their homes, paid their bills, and, who knows, maybe there would have been no total meltdown that impacted homeowners.  Maybe Wall Street would have had to suffer for its own excesses.  Who knows?

Given the aging Baby Boomers under Gore would there have been an upswing in socialized medicine and health care?  Or to put it another way, would Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid been in financial trouble?  The crisis in these government guarantees of public health is due to the lack of taxes to support them.  With normal tax revenues, there is no problem for the future of any of these programs.  It is even possible that, under Gore, American would have been allowed to buy drugs on a competitive market, even allowed to buy drugs in Canada, bringing down the cost of health care. But there is something more to consider.  Under Gore would there have been a Democratic push to legalize illegal immigrants?  Given the rewards, why not?

Legal citizens pay taxes, instead of sending the surplus to Mexico, because they now have a stake in their new nation.  The influx of income would be felt immediately in local and state and federal governments. People of Latino descent are a fast growing demographic and a young demographic, more than taking care of the spaces left by the Baby Boomers who will very shortly stop paying taxes and will start extracting their contributions to their retirement.  The current budget “crisis” could be solved simply by ending the Bush tax cuts and by making illegal aliens legal.  Legal citizens can vote and in gratitude, they would vote for the party that had given them citizenship.

Republicans know this fact of life and will continue to obstruct Democratic efforts to solve the “immigration problem,” which like many of the so-called “problems” we are told we have are problems of Bush’s making, because they know that the Republican base is a small one.  The idea of a permanent Democratic majority is simply unthinkable to the Republicans, even Bush knew that, but his own party blew the opportunity he gave them.  The Republicans can offset their smaller numbers with larger campaign spending, which is no anonymous and unlimited, thanks to the Supreme Court infamous Citizens United decision.  And that Decision brings up another major difference between the administration of Bush and Gore.  Under Gore, there would have been no John Roberts and no Samuel Alito and no rightward turn to the Supreme Court.  Instead, Gore would have nominated two more liberal or neutral justices to the Court and there would have been no rollback of civil liberties and no decisions that favored corporations over citizens such as we have seen over the past decade.

Finally, the last thing that we do know is that without Bush and the drift rightward of his administration, there would have been no Barack Obama.  Obama, a conservative Reagan Democrat, was able to position himself left of Bush, only because of the extreme right leaning positions taken by that administration.  Obama’s mild Republican health care policies, which seek to shield American citizens from predatory health care companies, were a shock due to the strong contrast to Bush’s laisse faire attitude towards the poor and the middle class. Without a right-wing Bush administration, there would also have been no Sarah Palin.  The Bush administration prepared the ground for an extreme Republican agenda and for extreme Republican candidates who do not read newspapers and who want to pray the gay away.

At the end of a Gore administration, the next president could have been a moderate Republican, like Romney, or another environmentally conscious Democrat.  It is doubtful that whomever the President would have been in 2008 that there would have been the latest upsurge of the John Birch Society, the Tea Party.  The Tea Party emerged, as did Sarah Palin, on the fertile soil of the Wall Street Bailout.  With a good economy, there would have been no need for a faux “tax revolt.”   Today, when nothing substantial gets done in Washington, it is hard to imagine what might have been.  As unimaginable as it seems, the Democrats and the Republicans would be talking to each other today.

Just as Ronald Reagan allowed greed to emerge unchecked in America, George Bush allowed and encouraged a take-no-prisoners approach to politics.  Taking a page from the book of his father’s late unlamented advisor, Lee Atwater, for the campaigns of the younger Bush, no trick was too dirty, no lie was too extreme, as long as it worked politically.   The result was the birth of scorn for “reality-based” narratives and the door to stories that had no basis in fact was opened.  It was fine to lie about the weapons of mass destruction, it was OK to reveal the identity of an officer of the CIA, just as it was perfectly acceptable to torture and to hold people indefinitely without charge or trial.  If one side believes in an untenable scenario and castigates anyone who wants to tell the truth, then compromise is impossible.  Once facts become meaningless then the party, which believes in non-facts can neither see nor agree to other points of view.  When the Bush administration showed its willingness to buy into improbable versions of actual reality, the way was cleared for political gridlock.  Without an agreement on basic facts and basic truths, no actions could ever be taken.

What the Bush administration taught us is that there was no accountability.  Would the Wall Street Robber Barons have been allowed to go free in a post-Gore administration? Probably not, but Obama, following a regime without penalties, threatened the bankers with only Elizabeth Warren. But there is such a thing as accountability and we, the middle class American citizens, are still paying for old sins that we did not commit.  In his best selling 2007 book, The Attack on Reason, Al Gore does not mention any of the might-have-beens listed above. He simply outlines in a clear precise language the failings of the Bush administration.  Writing before the Wall Street Crash, his concerns have to do with civil liberties lost and the campaign of misinformation that passes for “news” during the first decade of the twenty-first century.  Gore is especially concerned about the spread of false information by a mass media that is controlled by corporations and political interests.  Gore quotes Edward Muskie, a former presidential contender, brought low by media manipulation in 1970,

“There are only two kinds of politics.  They’re not radical and reactionary or conservative or liberal or even Democrat and Republican.  There are only the politics of fear and the politics of trust.”

We all know that the next famous quote was “I am not a crook,” uttered by Richard Nixon.  The president engineered his own demise by turning a small political misdemeanor into a massive cancerous cover-up, bringing the term “Watergate” and all things “gate” into being to designate scandals that could not be overcome.  Watergate, like the McCarthy Hearings, was played out on television to a fascinated audience who was dazzled at the cast of luminaries brought low.  Watergate was a rare case of the truth coming out and of that truth having consequences and of those responsible being held accountable.  It would be the last time such a public political punishment would occur.  Watergate was a story broken by a great newspaper, The Washington Post and what lodged in the public psyche was that newspapers, print media, was the last resort of truth.  Since Watergate the public spends more and more time passively consuming television in a one-way no-exchange experience.  As Gore points out, today, television is the public’s main source of political news on government business and newspapers are folding one by one.

Not only are newspapers dying and television ratings are soaring but television viewing has become more and more of a niche experience.  Unlike newspapers where a range of news and opinions co-exist, television programs appeal to the fears and prejudices of the audience.  Television exists to entertain and to make money for the owners not to seek and find the truth.  Furthermore, competition has greatly lessened among media outlets since the 1970s and a few vast conglomerates control everything.  Monopoly capitalism has captured the news, turning it into a source of revenue.   In such an atmosphere, reason has no place.

Gore’s main thesis is that reason has been replaced by “dogma and blind faith.”  The result is “a new kind of power” that is arbitrary because the public is not informed and cannot consent from an informed position.  Gore also states that this power comes from “deep poisoned wells of racism, ultranationalism, religious strife, tribalism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and homophobia…” In such an atmosphere, the ugliness that always underlies any body politic is allowed and even encouraged to emerge.  Real problems can be ignored while non-problems and fake crises distract the American people.  The result is a replacement of our system of checks and balances with unchecked power and influence thanks to a “coalition” that serves their own interests, not that of the public.

Gore used the Iraq War and the systematic lies that led to it as a prime example of the techniques of distraction.  It is now known that the Bush administration came into office with the goal of deposing Saddam Hussein and the administration’s spin machine diverted attention away from Osama bin Laden to phantom weapons of mass destruction.  Anyone who disagreed with President Bush or brought facts to bear was dismissed as “unpatriotic.”  Ideology replaced facts, faith replaced information, fantasy replaced history, and dogmatism replaced reason so that Bush could “benefit friends and supporters.”

The coalition, or the “friends with benefits,” that Gore describes is made of a number of groups or what Bush called “my base.”   He lists “the economic royalists” who want only to eliminate taxation and regulation, an “ideology” which has an “almost religious fervor.”  The public interest does not exist for these people.  Indeed, any government programs that aid the people are disincentives to make these people work hard for low wages.  The interests of the “wealthy and large corporations” have the highest priority for Republican ideology.  The infallibility of this ideological position is buttressed by what Gore lists as “well funded foundations, think tanks, action committees, media companies, and front groups capable of simulating grassroots activism and mounting a sustained assault on any reasoning process that threatens their economic goals.”

True, Republicans have been trying to dismantle the New Deal and the prosperity of the middle class for eighty years, but Gore asserts “this is different: the absolute dominance of the politics of wealth is something new.”  He traces the long struggle in America to create an equal society, which is also a struggle against monopoly power and corporate interference with the workings of government but once regulations that made sure that there were many choices of media outlets to ensure competition.  Under Reagan, Gore points out, media competition was ended when regulations were lifted allowing vast corporations to gather together many television and radio stations and newspapers into one bundle that spoke with a single mind, devoted to preserving the wealth of the wealthy.  Any information that should get in the way of ideology is promptly distorted for the cause or spun in a favorable direction.  Gore says of the Bush administration, “I cannot remember any administration adopting this kind of persistent, systematic abuse of the truth and the institutionalization of dishonesty as a routine part of the policy process.”  Gore states that the result of administration tactics was “to introduce a new level of viciousness in partisan politics.”

The Supreme Court, always compliant with right wing agendas, helped President Bush garner unprecedented and unchecked power to the executive branch.  The Bush doctrine became whatever the president did was legal, a stance taken unsuccessfully by President Nixon.  Bush was allowed to flout the American legal system and to disdain international laws.  All Supreme Court decisions were made in favor of corporations and their powers and against the people, leaving the individual with no recourse, not even the right to a trial by jury.  Bush was less interested in social issues than the later Republicans would be.  He was far more interested in amassing the power to do what he wanted, whether it was warrantless wiretapping, searches without search warrants and the “right” to put an unprecedented number of innocent citizens under surveillance for no particular reason.  The public was not allowed to assemble freely and any protestors were removed far away from the President and corralled in special sections so that Bush’s day would not be ruined by any sign of dissent.

Gore ends his description of the illegal and unconstitutional abuses of the Bush administration by stating what it would take to create a “well-informed citizenry” that democracy requires.  He does not have much faith in television and puts his faith instead in the Internet.  Gore warns that there are powers, corporate powers, which want to control the Internet by giving the content the rich and famous approve the green light of high speed and forcing the dissenters into the slow land of endless downloads.  This compartmentalization of the Internet into fast and slow ideologically structured lanes is a real and present danger.  One can only hope that the True Believers and the Bloggers will keep protecting the last bastion of true participatory democracy.  This book was published before the Bush presidency ended and does not account the last days of the Bush Bonfire when Wall Street burned.  Reading The Assault on Reason three years into the Obama presidency is to recognize how totally the Bush administration ruined the very promising situation it inherited from the Clinton-Gore administration.  One realizes that this is a group of politicians where were discredited to a man and woman but they were never held accountable.  They just got out of town and left the government in a shambles.

What was gained?  What was the Bush Administration all about?  Reading Gore’s book helps us understand that what was gained by the monied interests was a significant weakening of regulations of all kinds, a shrinking of taxes on the rich, an enlargement of subsidies even for the wealthiest corporations, and a lack of meaningful consequences when oil spills or chemicals leak or coal mines cave in and people die.  Wall Street banks can demand money from taxpayers and then refuse to help the very same citizens refinance their mortgages while giving themselves record bonuses.  Global Warming is now a hoax and every time it snows, the right wing throws verbal snowballs at Al Gore.  Every time there is a tornado or a flood or a drought, then the same people call the federal government.  Labor unions, especially teachers, are now the villains and these groups are under assault so that more tax breaks can be given to the wealthy.  States’ rights have made a comeback and even Obama, a black man who should know better, says that states should decide on whether or not to “allow” gay marriage.  “Compromise” and “negotiation” are bad words for a person whose election promise is to destroy government as we know it.  Washington is in gridlock. Media has rewritten lived history: the deficit was caused by Obama who was not born in the United States and who wants us to all become “European,” whatever that means.

Gore has been largely silent about these events that have unfolded since his book was published, but he cannot be surprised by the trend of today’s events.  He has not been outspoken like Bill Clinton, nor has he overtly supported Obama.  He has put forward the facts of Global Warming, won his Nobel Prize, and he will watch to see all his prophecies come true in forest fires, tornadoes, floods, droughts, melting ice caps, the extinction of polar bears, the widening of the hole in the ozone layer, endless winters, rising sea levels—Gore watches it all.  Some Americans look away from the dust storms and cry “Hoax.”  Other Americans have lost hope, and no wonder.  The game, we learned, was rigged for the rich and not for the public interest.  The land will be raped for the profits of the few and we the many will pay for the destruction.  Meanwhile, we watch television and see good-hearted well-meaning Americans demonstrating in Revolutionary War costumes to preserve tax cuts for the Wall Street bankers.  The media they watch has convinced them to dismantle all the social programs they enjoy and use.  These good people have been gathered together by powerful corporate interests who can bend them to their will.  Reason has no place in politics.  Nor do facts. Nor does reality.  Spin rules.  Slogans speak.  If Al Gore is right, the last refuge of the honest broker is the Internet…while it lasts.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

 

Grown Up Digital: The Net Gen as Learners and Teachers

GROWN UP DIGITAL.

HOW THE NET GENERATION IS CHANGING YOUR WORLD

By Don Tapscott

2009

Is the Internet changing our brains?  We know what our brains look like on drugs—-but do we know what our brains look like on the web?  Don Tapscott, one of the experts in the realm of Internet communication says that our minds have been improved by unlikely mechanisms, such as video games and the much-scorned Wikipedia.  Even though it is hard to imagine World of Warcraft as the implementer of intellectual prowess and the facilitator of social skills, today’s children and teenagers, the sons and daughters of Dungeons and Dragons players, are smarter than their parents.  For some educators, the news that their students have sharper, better developed minds than they do, will come as a bit of a surprise.  However Tapscott insists,

…what we are seeing is the first case of a generation that is growing up with brains that are wired differently from those of the previous generation.  Evidence is mounting that Net Geners process information and behave differently because they have indeed developed brains that are functionally different from those of their parents.  They’re quicker, for example to process fast-moving images…

What does it all mean? What are the implications for the future?  Tapscott’s book is an informative and insightful journey into the way the twenty-somethings—the Net Generation—think.  Despite the scientific data that suggests that the brain of a person who has been web-trained his or her entire life is different from the book generation, the main thesis of Tapscott is not so much brain change but power change.  He posits the Net Gen as the “Lap Generation,” the first generation to lap or pass their parents by possessing authority their elders do not understand: how to use electronic technology.  The result of the younger generation’s apparent natural mastery of all things tech, Tapscott thinks, is the end of hierarchies and the abolition of a centralized authority.  The author focuses on four areas, family, education, business, and politics. All of these entities are being faced with the Lap Generation and their egalitarian mindsets.

Family

The youth of today are better informed, more adept at technology, and savvier with the ways and means of the Twenty-first century than the adults who are still in charge of education, businesses, and governments.  What Tapscott’s book points to is a huge generations gap, a chasm as wide as the famous “generation gap” of Margaret Mead.  For the Baby Boomers, their parents’ pre-war knowledge and experiences were irrelevant and useless, making what the author refers as the authoritarian family structure of the era extremely frustrating for the Boomers.  The fathers, who acted like CEO’s, as Tapscott calls them, pontificated, but they had little of use to share and were unwilling to learn from their children.  After years of having to endure lectures on topics that were alien to teenagers in the Sixties, the Boomers escaped the home front, never to return to the clutches of authority.

In contrast, today’s parents, who are the Boomers grown up, are more open to listening and to allowing their children to show them how to log onto the Internet. The relationship between parent and child is more open and more nurturing.  Parents and children are close, so close that an entirely new kind of parent has emerged, “the Helicopter parent.”  As an educator, I am familiar with that kind of ever-hovering parent but did not know that these same parents will continue to hover.  They will go on job interviews after college, and will even confront the boss if their child is not well treated.  How are the parents so well informed about the office politics for their child?  The Lap Generation, the “boomerang” generation, making a strictly economic decision, likes to live at home.  There are no hierarchies, only equality, in this new family.

After reading Tapscott’s observation about the new family, it occurred to me that this new arrangement bodes well for the distant future when the Boomer parents are elderly.  For the first time in generations, it may be possible that the children will care for the parents.  The Boomers ran away from home and abandoned their parents.  Many Boomers today are facing the conundrum of what to do about an elderly parent or two.  It is not uncommon for the Boomer’s elderly parents to be abandoned—again—in a facility where they will live out the last of their golden years, unvisited, and will die, unmourned.  But the Boomers who have been respectful and kind to their children should expect better care from their children.  What else could this new kind of anti-authoritarian family offer to the future?

Education

Educators should take note.  The current model of pedagogy is teacher focused, one-way, one size fits all.  It isolates the student in the learning process…. (Net Geners) will respond to the new model of education that is beginning to surface—student-focused and multiway, which is customized and collaborative… says the author.

Tapscott states that the Net Gen carries with it two sets of expectation when these students enter schools and colleges.  First, they are shaped by their experience with the Internet, which demands that they interact with technology, search for content, and socialize with their peers, long distance.  Second, they expect to shape and participate in their own education.  Rather than passively accepting intoned truths delivered from behind the lectern on high, this generation wants to participate and collaborate in what they expect to be a joint enterprise.  The author characterized current education as being a one-way model, that is one-person talks and another listens.  It occurs to me that, in fact, the educational system reflects the technology.  The Guttenberg technology, based upon the printing press, is a one-way form of communication.  The author writes and the reader reads.  The radio repeated this form of speaking and listening that reflected the print technology.  Then television came along and replicated the Gutenberg method once again.  Education is based upon the premise that an educated person, i.e. e. the teacher, is also a reader who has read and who, is, therefore, qualified to redeliver the written messages in an oral form, again repeating the model of one way communication.

Following my line of thinking, the real challenge to today’s educational model is the Internet, which is a two-way mode of communication.  In contrast the traditional Sermon on the Mount, the Web is participatory, non-authoritarian communication, a call and response format that is ignored and discredited by the authorities until they feel threatened by the sound of Other voices.  The call and response nature of the Internet—this new technology—means that education must become more participatory for the Net Gen students.  Tapscott writes that the Net Gen students expect interactive teaching and learning.  If they cannot actively collaborate, they will tune out and get bored with traditional methods of lecturing.  Although Tapscott does not get into the weeds of pedagogy, I suspect that, contrary to their current teachers, this is a generation that would accept and welcome distance learning.  Today’s students are used to learning from the computer, an instrument that many of today’s educators view with suspicion.  On one hand the computer is a convenient tool, on the other hand, it challenges the authority of the teacher who wants to be the sole source of knowledge.

Tapscott describes the elders of the Net Gen, the Gen Xers, as being “aggressive communicators who are extremely media centered.”  But unlike the Gen X, the Net Gen grew up using the “programmable web.”  “And every time you use it, you change it.”  The author continues later, “On the Net, the children have had to search for, rather than simply look at, information.  This forces them to develop thinking and investigative skills—-they must become critics. Which Web sites are good?”  Tapscott rightly calls the model of education we currently use—-teacher lecturing and student listening—-as Industrial, but I think he may be off by a few centuries.  The model is more that of a pre-Gutenberg culture, before the printing press made it possible for people to read what they wanted.  I would agree with Jeffrey Bannister, quoted in Tapscott’s book, who uses the term, “pre-Gutenberg.

We’ve got a bunch of professors reading from handwritten notes, writing on blackboards and the students are writing down what they say. This is a pre-Gutenberg model.

I might point out in passing, to Bannister, that in attempting to accommodate multiple learners, it is considered good practice to write on the board for the students who learn by reading, not hearing.  Indeed, Tapscott also states that,

Students are individuals who have individual ways of learning and absorbing information.  Some are visual learners; others learn by listening.  Still others learn by physically manipulating something.

As early as 1967, as Marshall McLuhan, also quoted by Tapscott, said,

Today’s child is bewildered when he enters the nineteenth-century environment that still characterizes the educational establishment, where information is scarce but ordered and structured by fragmented, classified patters, subjects, and schedules.

The New Learning must be customized for each student’s needs.  Tapscott also quotes Howard Gardner, who called today’s educational model as mass production, a reflection of the industrial economy, which created assembly lines and Taylorism that forced human beings to work in tandem with machines.  According to Gardner, school is also mass-production.  “You teach the same think to students in the same way and assess them all in the same way,” he says. True but this is how No Child Left Behind teaches, as it must, for the standardized test.  Even the best secondary schools teach towards to entrance exams so that the students can get the highest scores, not necessarily the best critical thinking skills.  The test becomes the teacher.   How are the Net Geners going to respond to a mechanism so crude and arbitrary as an SAT test?  Note that these standardized tests do not take into account the way that the test-takers, the Net Gen, actually think.  Change takes place at a glacial pace, especially when the entire educational system comes from a foundation based upon magical thinking: if the speaker says it, it is so.  Education equal authority—unquestioned authority.   How did strange combination of information without questions come about?  And how did such a procedure become labeled as “education?”

When Gutenberg invented the printing press, the Church was against this new instrument, because the sacred words, once intoned only from the pulpit would be distributed to the great unwashed, delivered by the voice of authority.  The Church feared, rightly, that the power of the printed word and of reading would allow the people to challenge the priesthood.  The authority of the Church was unquestioned and was based upon a far older form of disseminating information, an oral culture of story telling.  A culture of story telling is a logo centric culture, backed by the presence of the speaker who is the source of the story, information, and the truth.  God spoke to Noah, to the Prophets, etc. and the word of God was transcribed.  It was the task of religion to tell to those congregated the words of the Lord.  The Church inherited a largely illiterate society—even kings and queens often could neither read nor write–that had to be preached to.  Through years of standing for six to eight hours in cathedrals, hearing mysterious Latin, listening to sermons, and “reading’ the sculptural programs and the frescoes, the uneducated people under the care of the clergy were socially conditioned to listen to one voice (God’s) and one source of authority (the Church). The Protestant movement was proof that once the common person could read the words of the Bible, those people would take unto themselves the power to interpret God himself.

There are historically close ties between the Church and the University.  The first universities, the Sorbonne and Oxford, were affiliated with religion and, with the clergy the only educated group, the priests became the first faculties.  The traces of this history are clearly visible any graduation day with the procession of professors marching down the center aisle of the school auditorium, like the clergy files down the nave, in full “regalia,” wearing the long black robes, very monk like.  Further traces of the Church lie in the very practice of lecturing: the teacher stands at the head of the class and speaks alone.  The students speak only to ask questions and are expected to subside into obedient silence.  Just as the priests re-spoke the Word of God, academics re-speak the words of their precursors.  The very form of academic and scholarly phraseology mimes the sacred scriptures.  “As —- tells us,”  “As —- famously said,” and so on.  Logos being handed down from authority figure to authority figure.  Academics depend upon the logocentric tradition and upon the mystical belief that the speaker is backed by the fullness of authority.  It is as if Moses descended from the mountain, bearing tablets written in stone—not to be altered—-after communing with the Almighty.

The assumption of a plenitude of knowledge, like that of the completeness of presence, is a false one but authority must be protected at all costs.  Another prevailing characteristic of education, inherited from the Church, is, paradoxically, secrecy.  Knowledge is guarded by the initiated, those who are learned in the ways of scholarship; knowledge is not to be given out freely, especially insider secrets. Like the Greek temples where only the priests were allowed inside the inner sanctum, only those inside the circle of the select are allowed to “speak” or be “present,” that is to publish, that is to “re-speak” the already spoken.  The Internet has changed all that.  The Net Geners are not readers, they are not listeners; they are iconographers.  As Tapscott notes,

Net Geners who have grown up digital have learned how to read images…. they may be more visual than their parents are…. (They) tend to ignore lengthy instructions for their homework assignments…

Tapscott points out that students of today learn better through images.  Indeed, this generation has invented a series of new hieroglyphs that function as signs such as happy= (: and sad= ):

Today’s students, Tapscott points out, will want to customize their education.  He mentions that “tinkering” has made a come back.  Indeed it has.  The time of the mash-up has come.  In higher intellectual circles, we call the mash-up, or sampling, bricoulage, that is, taking the existing culture and making something else with it.  This is postmodern thinking, reclaim, reuse, remake, recycle.  The very same teachers who teach postmodern theories are those who insist upon “original” work from students who are what I call, the Mash-Up Generation.  The professors who eagerly and enthusiastically teach Postmodernism, or the questioning of the “metanarrative” of Modernism, will reject cutting and pasting and demand that the student cite “sources,” or the validating voices of authority.  The same professors find it hard to accept that a student has ideas of his or her own, attitudes that stem naturally from their own generation, for, although the Boomers may have resisted authority, they knew it existed.

If my generation got into trouble for questioning authority, this generation gets into trouble for leveling sources.   Every voice, every bit of cultural material has equal value and can be freely borrowed and re-used.  Net Gen seeks convenience and speed over venerated voices, who are often unwilling to make themselves available on the web.   Even more threatening to the traditional authority of educators is the declining value of scholarly knowledge, which is being by-passed and ignored by the mainstream undergraduate.  Every teacher knows that students think that Google is a database.  Students routinely ignore the expensive databases, paid for by student tuition, made available through library websites.  Getting into the date bases is a clumsy and cumbersome and often unrewarding enterprise, because the technology of these databases is antediluvian.  Naturally the student goes to Google’s fast and functional search engine to find information.  Like the Net Gener who gets a job and finds, to his horror, that the technology is twenty years behind the times, the student will not tolerate the ritual of multiple clicks and passwords and all the other paraphernalia that work to make knowledge inaccessible.  Even when forced to read a credible source, the students, accustomed to the all-purpose Net-speak, rebel at the insider jargon, written by scholars writing to scholars.

Net Geners want to be informed, not talked at.  They like to take materials they find helpful or interesting and remake it.  As opposed to always referring back to the authorities, the Net Gen likes to write its own material and to create its own content.  Tapscott indicates that the Web actually encourages creativity and productivity because the Web gives easy access to inventors.  From their habits of playing video games or participating in the virtual reality of Second Life, the Net Geners learn how to play their own game.  Speaking of video games, Tapscott says,

“This kind of play is deeply creative.  It involves trial and error, learning by experiment, role playing, failure, and many other aspects of creative thinking.

None of this kind of creativity is allowed in education.  Play is forbidden and failure is mocked.  In contrast, the author discusses a thirteen year-old writer who contributes stories to a website where they are read by thousands of readers.  “Isn’t that better than writing on paper and hoping that some day it might get published?” Tapscott asks.  For today’s teachers and professors the Web 2.0 is something Roland Barthes would have loved: this new Web is called the “read-write” web—we read it and we write it.

Although there are many teachers who are eager and willing try more experimental student centered ways of making learning a collaborative enterprise between mentor and apprentice, they are constrained by a system that demands command and control.  Distance Learning still attempts to replicate a now-obsolete classroom format, by demanding assignments at set due dates, by demanding chat room appearances at a set time, and so on.  This is hardly learning the way the student needs it, customized, when the student can devote the time to it, at a pace that facilitates learning.  Even distance learning classes end after a set number of weeks.  Traditional classroom education is ruled by the physics of time and space: one teacher to a classroom, a certain number of students in a space, taught a common denominator course that must fit into a larger curriculum at a specific time.  Student centered education is evidenced by allowing students to speak more or to participate in class discussion.  There is no time for the teacher to waste.  S/he has a set amount of material that must be covered.

Students are increasing unwilling to learn in the traditional manner, because they assume all knowledge is available on the Internet. Why learn math when one has a calculator?  Why not teach how to use the calculator to find the answer?  Why plow through many books when Wikipedia tells you anything you want to know and, even better, you too can write the content.  Tapscott tells an amusing story about interviewing a young man named Joe O’Shea who stated that he never read a book—why should he?  All the information he needed is on the Internet.

“I don’t read books per se,” he told the erudite and now somewhat stunned crowd.  “I got to Google and I can absorb relevant information quickly.  Some of this comes from books.  But sitting down and going through a book from cover to cover doesn’t make sense.  It’s not a good use of my time as I can get all of the information I need faster through the web.  You need to know how to do it—to be a skilled hunter.”

Before you educators out there jump to your feet to explain the difference between “information” and “knowledge,” know that the punch line was that the young man had just been awarded a Rhodes scholarship.

Business

Tapscott describes a new world in which the consumers remake the product, as they are remaking education. Education, he suggests, should think like a business and respond to the consumers, but Tapscott also points out that the businesses, which do not respond with agility to the demands of the Net Gen can get into trouble.  The Net Gen, rightly, in my view, views businesses and corporations with suspicion.  Tapscott points to the empowerment of the NetGeners who like to be “prosumers,” that is, proactive consumers, who customize their products.  Young people have been prosumers for generations, but no one has named their practices until recently.  Little girls have always treated their Barbies to new hair-dos and teen-age boys have always modified their cars with after-market products and custom decoration.  This desire to contribute to mass-produced and mass marketed products has only recently been harnessed by companies such as Apple where “there’s an app for that.”

The users of Apple have often been referred to as a “cult” because of their devotion to the product.  The term “cult” is derogatory and comes from those who simply don’t understand how the Net Gen thinks.  Apple is thought of by the techies as an honorable company, which strives to produce a product that is beautifully designed and user friendly.  In addition, the company also works closely with its user base, from the Bleeding Edgers to the novice customer, asking the tech savvy to participate in the improvement of the function and design of the product and watching for the difficulties of the blunderer so Apple can make function more straightforward.  The reason why the flap over the iPhone4 and its broken antennae was so minor to Apple users is because those customers know that the company will fix and improve the problem with the next iteration of the phone.  The Apple user is invariably an Early Adopter who expects such glitches and enjoys participating in the fix.  This kind of audience participation is the Apple business model and it has won the company a devoted following.

But all companies are not so accommodating to the customer base.  Witness the hostile relationship between music lovers and the music industry, publishers and those who write and read books, the car companies (Toyota) and those who drive.  The new generation of consumers wants to customize their experience with the product, Tapscott declares, but the corporate mind thinks in terms of profit not prosumer.  To the Net Gen, music and art and literature and knowledge, like information, should belong to no one and everyone.  Downloading “illegal” music is common practice, done without shame or remorse.  How can anyone own music?  Doesn’t art belong to everyone?  The Net Gen is forcing companies that want to survive to be transparent and participatory, Tapscott writes.  Older corporations do not want to interact with their customers.  Like the traditional media, the corporate mind insists upon a one-way communication: top down. As Tapscott says,

…the industry has built a business model around suing its customers.  And the industry that brought us the Beatles is now hated by its customers and is collapsing.  Sadly, obsession with control, privacy, and proprietary standards on the part of large industry players has only served to further alienate and anger music listeners…

Tapscott states that the Net Gen prefers flexible hours and “want to chose when and where they want to work.” not only that these young people what their work to be “meaningful.”  “They’re not loyal to an employer; they’re loyal to their career path,” he remarks.  Imagine the surprise of business types when the Net Gen shows up to “work.”  The Net Gen wants to play.   The Net Gen employee comes to a company for one reason—-no, not a job—to learn.  Once the Net Gen worker learns what s/he needs, s/he will move on to the next learning experience.  It is pointless to expect the Net Gener to be “loyal” to the company. The concept of loyalty that his grandfather may have enjoyed was broken when companies began sending jobs overseas in the Seventies.  Companies still expect the employee to commit to being a permanent fixture, while refusing to guarantee lifetime employment, much less health care. For the average corporation, human beings are a financial liability, but the Net Gener comes to play with the idea of contributing creatively.

Companies tend to create what Tapscott calls, a “generational firewall,” which separates the newbies from the oldtimers.  This strange way of not utilizing recruited talent is not unfamiliar to me.  I have often asked, why hire someone who is then suppressed and under utilized?  Business runs on a hierarchal basis, those at the top give orders and the orders roll downhill where the underlings carry out the dictates.  The Net Gen employee, according to Tapscott, does not accept hierarchy and assume that they were hired for their talents.  If they cannot and are not allowed to participate as an equal, the most talented will simply move on.  Their attitude, quite properly, is: if you won’t listen to me, why should I stay?  Net Gen wants to contribute and needs to contribute to something meaningful.  As the parents of the Net Geners changed the modeling of parenting, education needs to change its traditional assignments and business needs to change its traditional models.  Show the Net Geners what’s in it for them.

Politics

That same attitude—-what’s in it for me? appears in politics.  Today there are two common questions in popular culture: “What would Jesus do?”  And “What’s in it for me?”  We assume that Jesus would not say, “What’s in it for me?”  We like to think he would say, “What can I do for you?”  “What’s in it for me?” is a business question and the answer has to be “profits.”  “Profits” is a business answer.  So when a politician promises to run the government like a business, that implies that the government will not be in the service of the people but in the service of profit making entities, like corporations. Imagine if government were run like a business, like, say an oil company or a music company. Tapscott is convinced that the Net Geners have a better way. The Net Gen voter is an active participant who, unlike her grandparents, is a volunteer or a community activist, Tapscott says.  Some of the Boomers joined the Peace Corps, some marched for Civil Rights and some protested against the Viet Nam War.   Others marched for women’s rights and demanded gay rights.  The Boomer’s children are the Net Roots who became activated by the prospect of being allowed to participate in the election of Barack Obama.

Tapscott discusses the Internet based campaign at length, and reading these passages, now that we are two years into the Obama administration, is enlightening. I think that much of what Tapscott writes is insightful and informative and I learned a lot from reading his book, however, I do think he is too sunny and too hopeful and too optimistic.  Politics is a case in point as the enthusiasm for Obama wanes quickly.  The Net Gen expected results.  When Obama promised “transparency,” they thought that the President was thinking like the open artless, and fearless sharing that takes place on Facebook.  The web is totally open and uncontrolled as a source of energy and information. The web is a place where things happen.  That is why so many people (like me) devote their time to contributing to it.  But the Net Gen quickly learned its lesson.  As Tapscott writes,

Most Net Geners believe that the mechanics of power and policy making are controlled by self-interested politicians and organized lobby groups…The Net Generation does not put much trust in politicians and political institutions—-not because they are uninterested, but rather because political systems have failed to engage them in a manner that fits their digital and ethical upbringing.

The Net Gen experience as Internet users has taught them that if they coalesce towards a cause they can make changes.  The fact that the Net Gen volunteers for Obama were so excited because they were “natural” Democrats, that is, they shared a cultural attitude that the government should work for the people, and that they—the (young) people could shape the outcome through their participation.   According to Tapscott, the Net Geners are not conservative but more open to change and new ways of thinking than any other generation.  But a Democratic victory did not bring the change they expected.  And now the Net Gen has turned their backs on the administration.  Why?  The problem is that the government is controlled by a group of middle-aged people who will not let go of power.  Just look at Congress on C-Span.  All old White Men.  No one under forty.  No poor people.  Few People of Color.  Some women here and there.  No collaboration, no participation from half of the members of Congress, who appear to have abdicated their governing responsibility in the pursuit of political power.  The strategy of not participating—this is not the Net Gen type of thinking in Congress.

Things only get worse when one turns on to the news programs.  The gap in age is shocking.  Although there are some networks or news programs I do not watch, I do record at least four hours of news a day on TV to which I listen while I am writing) and read three newspapers a day. There are no young faces, no young writers (and therefore no young readers), no young voices, no young way of thinking. Only the Hill reporter, Luke Russert, the bright son of the late Tim Russert, stands out as someone under thirty.  An entire generation is being left out of the conversation.  The elders reflect back on their days with President Carter or President Clinton, prehistoric eras for the Net Gen, and discuss and debate raging political quarrels that are non-issues for the younger generation.

People—usually men—well beyond their childbearing years decide abortion policy.  People—increasingly women as well—who are too old to fight send their young generation off to war for their own political ends or their lobbyists needs.  People with lifetime jobs in Congress decide how much money the unemployed will or will not get. People with guaranteed government health care decide that others cannot have those same privileges and see no hypocrisy in their positions.  Those who are heterosexual (they say) decide the personal lives of homosexuals.   And so on.

Would results be different if the younger generation made itself heard?  As Tapscott points out, this generation is far more tolerant than their parents or grandparents.  It is their grandparents who are concerned about racial and gender equality, interracial marriage, “illegal” immigration, gay marriage, and other hot button issues.  For their grandparents, global warming is debatable, for this generation, raised on green values; a devastated planet is their inheritance.  If you asked a Net Gener which problem worried him more, the budget deficit or global warming, he would say, “global warming.” Always the optimist, Tapscott writes,

I’m convinced we’re in the early days of something unprecedented.  Young people, and with them the entire world, are beginning to collaborate—for the first time ever—around a single idea: changing the weather.

For the Net Gener, it is discouraging to see who is in power and to watch how they behave.  Partisan bickering and political game playing instead of collaborative game, negation instead of affirmation, blocking change instead of accepting it—all of this is alien to the younger generation.  Those in the government and those elected to office are one-way communicators, out of touch and out of date.  They allow the public to “speak” every two years at the ballot box.  And these are the people to whom the question of Net Neutrality will be turned over.  The corporations want to segment the Internet so that they can profit maximize what has been a free good, available to everyone.  The case of whether or not the net will remain the great equalizer will probably be decided by the Supreme Court, presided over by a Chief Justice who does not understand e-mail.

Not a wonk, I am probably better informed than some people and I value the facts over ideology.  So does the Net Gen.   For us it is not Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, it is integrity, honor, and the desire to tell the truth.  For Washington D. C., it is sound bytes and talking points.   By selling the “War on Terror” the “War for Weapons of Mass Destruction,” and the need to Bail Out the Big Banks to the credulous public, the government has created what a Bush appointee called, a “post truth” society.  How true.  For the Net Gen, truth matters.  The trust of the public in its leaders has been shattered, leaving a vacuum for the bloggers and talkers to fill.  Another authority has to be appointed and anointed.  For the older generation, still willing to accept one-way communication, sound bytes stand for wisdom, tweets become knowledge, and talking points are the truth.  The Net Gen finds it astounding when the politicians change their stories and refuse accountability, even when they are caught changing their positions or lying or fabricating stories. The Net Gen is used to trolling the Internet and finding the facts and cannot understand how their elders can lie, get caught, pay no consequences, lie again and so on.  No wonder they are disillusioned by politics.

The Future

Tapscott does not entirely ignore the real problems brought by the Internet revolution.  He points to the gap between the have-nots of technology and those who are active users.  His main examples are the poor or the third world, but there are other have-nots, closer to home, such as the poor, the elderly, or the close minded, or the technophobes who are getting left further and further behind.  Then there are the bad effects of the Web.  One of the odd and underreported facts of technology is that the Bleeding Edge is usually made up of illegal or questionable practices that become outlets for pathologies, including on line gaming, Wall Street derivatives, pornography, pedophilia, including on-line bullying.  It is these Early Adopters who benefit the Web by using it and creating new pathways, meaning that all these nebulous people are always one step in advance to the forces of law and order.   Parents protest the perfectly legal video games, such as the horrible Grand Theft Auto (which has awesome artwork) but forget that they watch and enjoy violent adult films such as Pulp Fiction. That said, the dangers of the Internet are real but, in the name of freedom, the Net Gen will defend the right of anyone and anything to prowl there.  One can only hope that the same Supreme Court that granted freedom of speech to corporations will see fit to allow the Net to remain open to all comers.

Tapscott believes that “Net Geners are quick to recognize that the best way to achieve power and control is through people, not over people.  Good lesson.  The Net Gen is intelligent enough to know that Obama cannot change Washington D. C.  There are too many entrenched interests.  The question has become not what can I do for you? but what’s in it for me?  All that hard work, all that dedication, all that Hope and no pay off, no results.   People go into politics to get things done, to make things happen and when nothing changes, you turn away.  It’s like your last job: you learned something new and then moved on.  How sad.  The problem for the Net Gen is that the fifty-sixty something generation of Baby Boomers have no intention of changing or of letting go of power.  They are impervious to the Net Gen.   “They” being the Big Banks, they being the Big Corporations, like Big Oil, are so powerful, have such a stranglehold on America that “They” answer to no one.  Big Business cares not about the Net Gen, neither as employees, nor as consumers.  By the time the Net Gen will have their turn to come into power, they too will be in their fifties, fully thirty years from now.   The Baby Boomers joined the Tea Party in their maturity.  What will the Net Gen do with their golden years?  Tapscott concludes his book,

The big remaining question for older generations is whether that power will be shared with gratitude—or whether we will stall until a new generation grabs it from us.  Will we have the wisdom and courage to accept them, their culture, and their media?  Will we be effective in offering our experience to help them manage the dark side?   Will we grant them the opportunity to fulfill their destiny?  I think this will be a better world if we do.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

Suggested readings from Don Tapscott’s Bibliography:

Beck, John C., and Mitchell Wade, Got Game: How the Gamer Generation is Changing the Workplace, 2004

Benkler, Yochai, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, 2006

Carlson, Scott, “The Net Generation Goes to College,” Chronicle of Higher Education, Oct. 7, 2005, chronicle.com

Gee, James Paul, What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, 2003

Howe, Neil, and William Strauss, Millennials Go to College: Strategies for a New Generation on Campus, 2003

——Millennials Rising: the Next Great Generation, 2000

Keen, Andrew, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture, 2007

Moglen, Eben, “Anarchism Triumphant: Free Software and the Death of Copyright,” First Monday, August, 1999, emoglen.law.columbia.edu

Prensky, Marc, Digital Game-Based Learning, 2000

Roos, Dave, “How Net Generation Students Learn and Work,” Howstuffworks.com, May 5, 2008

Tapscott, Don, and Anthony D. Williams, Wikinomics: Harnessing the Power of Mass Collaboration, 2006

Weinberger, David, Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, 2007

Mentioned in his book but not included in his bibliography:

Carr, Nicholas, “Is Google Making us Stupid?” Atlantic Monthly, July, August, 2008