Wednesday, August 20, 2008

taKing On the System

Taking on the System
by Markos Moulitsas Zuniga
Celebra, August 2008
pp 288
Buy Me!

Convergence is a frequent topic in regards to technology: in practice, we have cell-phones with internet and music-playing ability; in economics, we have telecoms offering a broad spectrum of services; in theory, Vinge and Kurzweil write of the "singularity", a convergence of technology and biology.

Likewise, books on the technologies of social networking, blogs, collaboration and the like seem to be contained in their own version of convergence. As a data set, my most recent reads on this subject contain many of the same anecdotes: Trent Lott, the Orange Revolution, Howard Dean's Presidential campaign, and Jim Webb. While this overlap can be excused as a result of the relative infancy of the medium, another, more unfortunate exclusion in these books is the bordering-on-Utopian regard for the internet as the epitome of democratic, equal access for everyone.

In this respect, Moulitsas is as guilty as, say Clay Shirky, David Weinberger, Lawrence Lessig and Yochai Benkler.

We are living in a time when technology is breaking down barriers, empowering the isolated, arming the powerless, and educating the ignorant. The tools and tactics to enact social change have evolved dramatically in even the last short decade. We're entering an era of dramatic democratization. (8)

Most of this is likely accurate - for those who have access to technology. There are still many who do not, though, usually breaking down upon socioeconomic lines. So, while the internet does offer an expansion of democratization for many, it never hurts to acknowledge that the benefits are not universal and that many of the intrinsic faults and layers of privilege found in the structure of American society (race, gender, religion, wealth and opportunity) are both mimicked and perpetuated in networked technology.

For Moulitsas' book, though, this is much less of an issue. He does not pretend to write a treatise on the vast potential of the internet and how it can change the world; rather, he has written a concise, practical and nuanced guide on how to change the world by means of the internet.

Some of the time is spent recounting and analyzing past successes and failures, from Jim Webb to Cindy Sheehan. Each of these forrays into deconstruction and theory is accompanied by advice - or "rules", in keeping with Moulitsas' channeling of Saul Alinsky - for the digital citizen/activist. And, through the more accessible medium of internet publishing, citizen/activist is an appropriate hybrid term; breaking the binary of creator/consumer or writer/reader is the ultimate goal of his brand of activism. It is this embrasure of post-Enlightenment, post-rational antiprofessionalism that truly inspired this reader. Moulitsas provides a convincing argument and useful methodology for taking back the ground that has long been ceded to "journalists", the lone guardians of reporting the "truth" to the "public". (At times, I am reminded of Hannah Arendt's great essay "Truth and Politics" and the difference between rhetorical and factual truth.)

Taking on the System succeeds in other manners, besides the useful advice for crafting a narrative from inception to deployment to manitainence, which I will not elicit here (buy the book! and read Al Giordano's fine review - and check out his work at NarcoNews for writing without the "middleman" - and check out his great POTUS 08 blog, The Field, which is essential reading, in my opinion). The book is a joy to read, especially for a fan of lefty blogs, or anyone who doesn't think "liberal" is a dirty word, or who believes that the American political institution is broken.

Moreover, this book offers a small, affective glimpse into the personal world of "the founder of America's most influential political blog" (from cover copy) through its voice. In admitting his unease over the impending fallout from one famously controversial post on the death of Blackwater mercenaries in Fallujah, you see the human through the text - which is arguably what make the DailyKos such a popular destination. Moulitsas' personality is a surprising and effective tool for driving home the most important and cogent aspect of Taking on the System: the powerful and clear step-by-step tutorial on how to tear down the walls of the establishment, corporate media and their conventional wisdom.

Of course, the total picture isn't without flaws: Taking on the System is published by an imprint of Penguin (and it seems most websites exclusively link to Amazon, which is the biggest single reason your local independent community bookseller is going/has gone out of business - perhaps, you might by the book from us). And it is hard to rectify the recommended incrementalism in activist approach with Kos' own hand-wringing and pledge to withhold funds from the Democratic nominee over a FISA vote, itself a clear exercise in legislative incrementalism. Conversely, the inclusion of many of the early battles of the 2008 primary election cycle makes for a very interesting current within the overarching narrative.

Despite these small hiccups, Taking on the System remains a nuanced and practical primer for internet activism that I recommend to anyone interested in changing the world from the pseudo-privacy of home.

Cross-posted at DailyKos *** Join the conversation *** Buy the book


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