pre-election cynicism

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by: danah boyd

Editorial note: On this blog, we typically don't publish elements of US political debate.  Still, some thoughts are just too powerful to ignore.  That is why – if at Futurelab we want to be true to our belief of making a difference – our rules are there to be broken.   Thank you danah for what I consider one of this blog's most powerful posts of all times, and for reminding us what it is all about (note: also here in Europe).  Alain.

When i used to bitch and moan in high school or college, my mother would often tell me to shush up and enjoy because "these are the best times of your life." I used to snort at this comment in the same way that i used to roll my eyes whenever she started anything with "when i was your age…" or when she'd tell me that she understood. Yes, i was that pre-emo child who thought that no one could ever understand.

I imagined the future to be filled with opportunities. I counted the days until my 16th birthday when mobility would finally be mine! I anxiously awaited my 21st birthday so that i could feel legitimate without Photoshop and a printer. And i always thought that 25 was the last hurdle because then i could actually rent a car without paying an extraordinary fee. One of my main goals in growing older was the ability to access the world of scholars, politicians, press, businesspeople… i wanted entrance to the world of intellectuals who held so much power, who seemed so brilliant. All told, i haven't done too badly. I've met so many people who traffic in knowledge, power, and fame. The problem is that they haven't lived up to my fantasy of what they should be like.

As a girl, i genuinely believed that politicians had to be unbelievably brilliant. I thought that academic life was all about the pursuit of knowledge. I believed that the media was comprised of people who were determined to get truthful information to the masses regardless of whatever barriers. I believed that companies succeeded because they were the best. Although i never believed that people really started out on equal footing (it was clear to me from an early age that my friends of color got shafted and that i had to out boy the boys), i thought that meritocracy actually meant something. I truly underestimated the degree to which greed and self-interest control so much of society. Then again, i could never understand why people committed violent against others unless they were sick. I failed to realize how unaware people are of their contribution to a broken system.

As my cynicism grows, i think of my grandmother. I used to always giggle about how she would turn off her hearing aid whenever the family started speaking badly against the church or against anything that she believed. My grandmother has an amazing ability to only see the positive side of things. I used to think that this was ridiculously anti-intellectual, but i'm beginning to appreciate her POV; regardless, her positivism has kept her alive for a very long time.

It's election time in the States. I've been adamant that voting matters but i have to admit, i'm having a hard time really believing myself. I was listening to NPR discuss how the 2000 gerrymandering would effect this election and i started to cry. Recently, i met with a national politician whose views closely are aligned with mine. In our conversation, he exposed many of the concessions he has to make, actions he has to take because of how they look to his constituents not because they are best for his constituents. I know painfully well how people mis-interpret every word he says, every expression. He has to get elected based on impressions, not based on what's really good for America. To say that DC is about political theater is an understatement. ::sigh::

A few weeks ago, i was talking with a media reporter about how she had to propose every story she wants to cover and if it's not in the paper's interest, they don't cover it. She has to conform to her impression of their mandate. And then i opened up the New Yorker to see an ad for Ted Koppel on "The Price of Security" and i thought about how we no longer have the likes of Murrow and Cronkite, Koppel and Brokaw on our daily news. The correspondents are simply faces, not reporters. They must play by the norms of media organization. When i saw the wire report that Stewart/Colbert would not be running, i had to agree with Stewart: "Nothing says 'I am ashamed of you, my government' more than 'Stewart/Colbert for 08'." How is it that a news comedian is the only major reporter that is challenging the status quo when it comes to media? In many ways, i know the answer… freelance has killed reporting freedom. ::sigh::

At a benefit for Darfur this week, someone asked me if i would like to be introduced to Murdoch. I had actually been watching him and reading his lips for a half hour while trying to find my friend. I politely declined although i stood around while people i know talked to him. What could i say to him? Why did you do this to media? I know the answer… it makes economic sense. I mean, Fox News needed to cover the Foley scandal but it couldn't do it in a way that would go after the Republicans so why not call Foley a Democrat, right? Then in my stewing, i started wondering why Murdoch was at a Darfur benefit. Did he really care or was it a business proposition? My questioning this made me sad. ::sigh::

In the last month, out of academic duty, i blind reviewed over 20 academic articles for various venues. For the first time in a review cycle, every article i was given was related to something that i was knowledgeable about; i knew all of the citations and in many cases, i had done similar work. I was horrified to find that three of those included danah-isms (weird fucked up/made up turns of phrases) without credit; i was also surprised to see one argument that followed the exact logic of one of my blog posts and another that had arguments that i've given during talks (complete with the same citations). I swallowed my pride and reminded myself that the reason that i engage publicly is because i want to get knowledge out there. Without publishing my material, i must not be surprised that others will do so instead and take credit. I couldn't even bring myself to reference myself in the review because it would be so obviously from me. I tried to tell myself that maybe it was just coincidence. Even when i couldn't convince myself of that, i tried to think of when a friend's dad told her that whoever had stolen her car probably needed it more than she did; she could simply get another. And then, to my horror, i came into a situation where, for political purposes, i was not able to give credit in my own publication to someone who deserves credit. I still can't figure out how to deal with that. But it has all made me realize that the incentives behind publications and the politics behind credit are so messed up that i feel embarrassed to be a part of that system. I know that i build arguments on the shoulders of giants and so much about publishing (academic or not) is about taking credit whenever possible (often to get grants/jobs). But still, it breaks my heart to see academia incentivized by external structures rather than a pursuit of knowledge and the desire to share it. ::sigh::

I shouldn't have been surprised to see a marketing organization spin a story based on problematic data. I should've read it like i read every USA Today Poll. But it definitely hit me as i think about the polling that is happening for the election. There's no transparency in method, no transparency in data, no ability to really get at the flaws. In the last election, people foolishly believed the polls so they didn't vote because they thought it didn't matter. This all pissed me off but then i crumpled when i found out why an organization might validate inaccurate data that they know is inaccurate: it makes them look good. ::sigh::

Businesspeople, academics, press, politicians… All have destroyed my utopian fantasy of what intellectual life is supposed to be about. People are driven by money, by fame, by power. Of course, many have good intentions and those beliefs and hopes often work as a check and balance. Unfortunately, the institutions that have taken over have no such moral qualms. Corporations need to make money for their stockholders. All other systems are becoming corporations or corporate-driven. Political structure requires politicians get elected… which requires money… which requires corporations. Academia survives on grant money… which requires government (which requires corporations) or corporations directly. Media, well media has already become a corporation.

Mom was right. Life was far more fun in high school and college before my mythical ideals were shattered. There, i could believe in the moral high ground. I never really believed that man is basically good (hell, i got kicked out of class in 9th grade for arguing against it), but i didn't really get how crowds of good individuals could really go wrong. I guess i should've given how much i've argued that Milgram's experiment is more about everyday life than Nazis. But still, i wanted to believe that something could be done. Back then, i had infinite energy to fight injustice. But honestly, now, i'm exhausted.

How did we get here? How do we turn it around? It's so much easier to tap into people's fears, greed, and ignorance than it is to help them do good even when it's hard. I have to admit that i'm really tired of fighting and anomie is creeping in like a dark cloud. I just want to wake up tomorrow and see the world do good by itself.

Anyhow, i have so many other complex and confusing thoughts going through my head but i'll spare you. I've babbled too long but i wanted to explain my absence and confusion these last couple of weeks. And to ask you to help me regain at least one of my fantastical views of intellectual life: that voting matters. Deadlines to register to vote are appearing in every state soon. Please register. Please vote. And please help me try to believe that collective action can do good in at least one way. I don't know if it can and i admit that i'm as disillusioned as most folks. But i do want to try. Cuz really, i don't think that i can stomach another stolen election. And maybe if we can turn this around, we can turn around all of the other aspects of society that are disintegrating before our eyes. We have to have some hope, no?