The fact that the government website posting the full text of the financial bail-out plan crashed last week because so many people were trying to access it is an encouraging sign for the future of our democracy. For many years now, the information flow in our society has been increasingly manipulated to meet the requirements of special interests in government and/or corporations. The “message”, in whatever form it takes—commercial advertising, political bias, phony science, has been customized to suit the needs of a few at the expense of the greater whole (ie. us); as a result “government for the people” (as well as compassion and care for all members of society) has been greatly diminished.
Having been acquired by the same corporations who seek to control the message, the media, both print and visual, have largely become slaves to the message (it’s hard to face off with the guy who is writing the checks). The public, through either ignorance or apathy has, by and large, been complicit in this enslavement of the Fourth Estate, which previously had played the role of watchdog in order to protect the people from government and corporate excesses.
Thomas Carlyle, who is credited with the first to use of the term “Fourth Estate” in relation to journalism, wrote in 1841: “Literature is our Parliament too. Printing, which comes necessarily out of Writing, I say often, is equivalent to Democracy: invent Writing, Democracy is inevitable….Whoever can speak, speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power, a branch of government, with inalienable weight in law-making, in all acts of authority. It matters not what rank he has, what revenues or garnitures. The requisite thing is, that he have a tongue which others will listen to; this and nothing more is requisite. The nation is governed by all that has tongue in the nation: Democracy is virtually there…it will never rest till it get to work free, unencumbered, visible to all. Democracy virtually extant will insist on becoming palpably extant. . . .”
The bail out plan finally passed, but not without a huge swell of outrage from the public, which at least modified its original intent, which seems to have been more goodies for the people who messed up in the first place. It may or may not work. We shall see. But it was exciting to see the public taking an active interest in the process. This new awareness could signal a sea change in the governing of our society, which for too long has been given over to self-interested individuals who could rely on the passive endorsement and trust of the masses while they performed their financial and political shenanigans. Financial stings, however, can be a wonderful impetus to action, and from this perspective, the current mess in the markets could prove to be stimulating therapy for democracy.
When the Founding Fathers granted the people the right to bear arms, their intent was to protect them from an overbearing and well-armed government such as the one they had just freed themselves from (ie. the Brits). As Thom Hartman pointed out on Air America recently, given the size and weaponry of the current armed forces, this is now an unrealistic proposition (and not an option anyone in their right mind would want to pursue anyway). But these days, information may be a far more powerful weapon for the rights of the people. As Carlyle pointed out the “requisite thing is, that he have a tongue which others will listen to.” The internet, with all its faults, may be such a tongue. Used judiciously, it is a valuable means to spread information that can shed light on the misdeeds and misdoings of those in power.
Fair democracy requires open and honest communication between the people and their leaders, as well as active interest in government by its citizens. The internet may be providing us with a means to do that.