Essay: In The Bubble, Everybody Can Hear Everybody Scream, But How Much Useful Action Emerges from the Noise?

Let me offer the sort of information that can help readers weed me out for any and many views I hold:

  • I was a Sanders supporter for his nomination as the Democratic Party’s candidate for the presidency in 2012, and then I voted for Clinton in the general election.
  • I agree with Thomas Piketty and a hoard of others that capitalism, unregulated, defaults to income inequality.
  • I appreciate the wisdom of Winston Churchill’s statement: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
  • I am a progressive within the Moyerist/Reichian spectrum, and perhaps too fond of the rule of reason brought forth in Western Civilization through The Enlightenment.
  • I see truth in the statement that “Wars make rich men richer,” and urge citizens pondering U. S. foreign policy to meditate on this proposition.
  • Like everyone else, I am a member of a minority group; in my case a Franco-American who understands and is educated in the history of and consequence for the French in English Canada and New England, et oui, ‘Je me souviens.’
  • I agree with but am heartbroken by the admirable Jimmy Carter’s assessment that the United States of Americas is presently an oligarchy.
  • I was raised in a Feminist household and continue to be a feminist.
  • I fervently want fossil fuel to be a Schedule One controlled energy substance that will be phased out as quickly and as thoroughly as possible.

To the two remaining readers who share a Venn diagram overlap, I’ll point out that the above list is, indeed, all about me: “I was…” “I agree…” “I appreciate…”

So, then, one more “I” statement: I fear that the proliferation of organizations that are encouraged through the mechanism of social media has a retarding effect on political and social solidarity. When a social media user sees so many variants of views and calls to action on the same issues, the likelihood of effective action on the part of that user is reduced.

Or maybe that is just me.

As a close friend has argued, the plethora of organizations and efforts do sometimes provide effective results, and his citation of the recent Women’s March promoted through perhaps hundreds of different organizations and groups is strong evidence that this friend makes a really good point. My own experience of this confirms that point, but I’m arguing that my more frequent experience within social media is that an overwhelming number of calls to action bombarding me constantly, where messages seem identical or similar, yet have the consequence of reducing my action, not improving it.

Perhaps I’m easily confused.

Perhaps I’m not fond of the business model promulgated through this fragmented multitudinous digital media.

Consider the following experiences that I—and, I’m pretty sure, many millions of others—have. Somehow I’ve ended up subscribed to a couple of dozen political email lists and I’ve “liked” political FB pages to the point of dreading the chore of reviewing FB because it involved wading through the thick of them. Here, for example, is a snapshot of once current list of political email lists to which I was subscribed:

  1. org
  2. Act Blue
  3. Avaaz*
  4. Berkshire County Progressives
  5. Bold Progressives
  6. Credo Action*
  7. Demand Progress
  8. Ed Markey
  9. Elizabeth Warren
  10. Emily’s List
  11. Leahy for Vermont*
  12. Massachusetts Climate Action Network
  13. Move On
  14. People for the American Way
  15. Progressives for America
  16. Democracy for America
  17. Our Revolution
  18. Schumer U.S. Senate*
  19. Social Security Works
  20. Team Sherrod*
  21. The Pen
  22. Truthout
  23. WAMC Northeast Public Radio

Mid-terms are near on, and I’ve done much to simplify and prune the list through the magic unsubscribe links, but as I’ve liked pages on Facebook, I also need to click on the “do not see posts from…” or “unlike” if I don’t want to get feeds from those pages on my home FB page. I’m yet again in the process of culling or unfollowing many pages, just as I am unsubscribing from many email lists (albeit slowly; those email lists marked by an asterisk above are recent examples of unsubscribe actions).

The Signal to Noise Challenge

I don’t have any specific complaints about the political action lists I’ve wound up subscribing to or the political FB pages I’ve liked, although as I’ve started in on a census of such lists and pages, I find myself wondering how I managed to get on so many of them. One way has been by signing a petition or another.

But I have to ask: Is there a benefit in these multitudinous post sources in terms of pushing forward the political changes we need to make?

Online petitions—whether solicited by a subscribed group or posted by FB friends—are a good example of the problem of signal-to-noise ratio loss in communication. The phrase “signal to loss ratio” is as well described as any in the following quote taken from the Internet:

Noun

The ratio of the strength of an electrical or other signal carrying information to that of interference, generally expressed in decibels.

Informal

A measure of how much useful information there is in a system, such as the Internet, as a proportion of the entire contents.

In practice, the consequence of so much attentional clamor from these dozens of political organizations’ posts and emails is confusion, and on worse days, numbness and inaction, even while I understand that, for example, many petitions are very much in support of a cause or action with which I entirely agree.  The problem is that the plethora of action calls, opinion pieces (hey, like this one!), and reports on the latest outrages ends up not being particularly efficacious in getting me to take action. For example, the many #DAPL or “Dakota Pipeline” or “Standing Rock” petitions had overwhelmed me to the point of paralysis, due mainly to my suspicion that I’d already signed the bloody thing, or one just like it, or wondering if the post I’m seeing is a repeat post from yet another FB friend, or that my choir time is being taken up by listening yet again to the preacher.

In any one instance, the condition is negligible and not worth mentioning. Add up the instances so that this is a frequent recurring condition and I, for one, grow impatient, grumpy, or annoyed, not to mention glassy-eyed and very prone to skip over the plea. My developing better email and FB habits could greatly ameliorate the condition, but then that is more work and more time I am required to spend, at least up front, and there are sites that make donation easy, right alongside email proliferation.

Time, like attention, is a precious commodity.

“Start a Petition” engine Credo Action, or any and all the other such petition generation tools, is a case in point when it comes to demands made on one’s time and attention.  These mechanisms encourage people to add calls to action—often on specific but not meaningfully distinct perspectives on shared problems—with the net consequence of overwhelming many within the body politic. So too is the consequence of the plethora of state-, local-, gender-, race-, ethnic-, religious-, non-religious-, and professional-identity groups seeking much the same solution of the other identity groups. “Berkshire for Bernie” may be an effective mechanism for local organization of Bernie events, but if these participants are also posting and re-posting items from “Massachusetts for Bernie” and/or “Bernie for President,” and/or “Franco-American Landscape Watercolorists for Bernie,” I might very easily miss that call to meet to plan the local phone bank effort. Honest, I meant to go, but I was too busy reading yet another post about why someone or another is the Devil Incarnate, or, maybe, watching yet another video of a cat walking on piano keys.

Unfortunately, the problem is bigger than my whining about how I am being forced to regularly maintain my social media selections. The greater problem is that social media, touted as the great communications and connections technology, is often failing its potential for getting the word out by instead burying us all in a sea of chatter, and this makes it harder for many of us well-meaning folk to identify and focus on political actions that are more likely to engender the results we seek.

The most consequential problem with this noise level, however, may be that it helps obscure the leadership that can help us be more focused and more effective in our political action. And another word for effective political action is “solidarity.”

Focused Leadership and Solidarity

A good friend of mine has serious labor bona fides, which in this day and age is impressive all by itself.  I remember a point he had made at a local meeting with the school board, now many years ago, where he publically argued for solidarity on a position being considered. The position was largely what I was willing to support, but that particular position didn’t include everything that I thought should be included.  Like a number of others at that public hearing, I argued for those inclusions, and a different position prevailed that had nothing either of us had been seeking. My friend was right that it is better to stand together for a good if imperfect demand, than it is to stand apart insisting on our particular tweaks.

Lesson learned.

Solidarity, after all, is what drove Labor’s success in its heyday, even while, no doubt, many of the rank and file may have thought one or another negotiating point or strike demand was not exactly as he or she would like. Today, at least among the progressives and even—Gasp!—the liberals, there is wide consensus, but little solidarity. We all want much the same things—stop DAPL, stop immigration arrests, reverse income inequality, recovery from the embarrassment and danger of Trump, real attention to climate change, relief from having to look at images of Mitch McConnell—but we are all over the place when it comes to focusing on specific action to achieve our aims.

There are some individuals who provide more or less effective focus on many of our shared aims—Robert Reich, Bill Moyers, Elizabeth Warren, to name some—but leadership remains fragmented as so many of us pick and choose among the seemingly endless varieties of solutions to achieve this or that aim.

Part of the problem is the classic “Too many Chiefs, too few Indians” (yes, I feel some unease using this phrase, don’t worry), and there will never be an uncomplicated resolution between individualism and collective action. While political parties have played a role in leadership historically, I concur with many progressives that the Democratic Party has too long failed in this role, and no doubt for many reasons, including the self-interest reflex common to just about any large organization, about which the above-mentioned unions have suffered at various times. In the case of today’s Democratic Party, the weakness has resulted in a failure of attention on the needs of its members, and this has occurred by way of the Party’s acceptance of easy and sizable funding by Wall Street (thanks, Bill Clinton!) and other big moneyed interests. The flip side of this is the Democratic Party Establishment’s failure of faith in everyday or grassroots participants, which it still continues to think is too unreliable and insufficient a base of funding, despite the clear demonstration of successful small donor fund-raising of the campaign of Bernie Sanders.

The fight for control of the Democratic Party is ongoing, and while I’m not optimistic about the Party Establishment relinquishing control, I do hope that progressives succeed in regenerating the Party so that it becomes once again effective leadership. As of the moment, however, the fight for control of the Democratic Party seems as much part of the ubiquitous noise, and much less the signal.

Focusing on the Key Issue

The level of noise among progressives is actually not the result of the mechanisms of social communication amplifying different opinions and objectives into deafening static, but that there are so many different slants and approaches about priorities and goals. The onslaught of messages can cause feedback when the many variants of style, approach to objective, and, of course, fund-raising plea makes it that much more difficult to do the work of identifying and communicating the fundamental goal, which I believe [insert static generator here] is to take our democratic process back from the undue influence of money, or, to use an old-fashion phrase, to fight corruption.

The central issue isn’t Donald J. Trump, or his cabinet of shameless kleptocrats. Ironic as this may be, it is likely the widespread perception that Washington (also state, also many other and more local government) isn’t working that is responsible for Trump’s victory. (Also, of course, the structural problems of the electoral College that results in a 3 million-plus margin of votes for the loser; also the Ruskkies, also Comey, also Alternative Facts, also etc., etc., and etc.)  The Body Politic knows—often in an unconscious and not deeply explored, studied, or reasoned way—that something is wrong in America, and enough of them, in the right states, chose the guy who said so.  Yes, I now hate irony, too.

How are progressives reacting to this reality? Well, many of us are spending our time and political capital on problems both worrisome and numerous, including but hardly limited to:

  • Immigration executive orders battles
  • Income inequality awareness and action campaigns and income tax reform
  • Feminist, gender, and minority rearguard actions
  • Infrastructure jobs programs advocacy
  • Clean energy and environmental policies efforts
  • Single payer health insurance pursuit
  • Social Security protection fights
  • Warmonger and excessive defense spending curtailment

And we’re spending our efforts on a whole lot of even more specific breakout issues, such as Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), to name one particularly heart-rendering example that combines environmental protection, Native American rights, and anti-paramilitary struggle.

All important issues and valid and necessary battles, I am sure. But amid all the clamor, all the calls to action, all the requests for funds for this group or that, all the petitions, posts, and tweets, and grunts, we are fighting battles and ignoring the war.

Unless you see the war being fought in the streets, I guess, since the war is about the systemic corruption that has evolved in our democratic government, where, basically, money talks and our so-called representatives listen. Government corruption is legal in this country, and the United Citizens ruling is most important not in what it allows, but for the obviousness of the institutionalized corruption the ruling presents to the citizens of the United States.

Out of all the FB posts of recent months, one has managed to get my avid attention, and that one was about The Anti-Corruption Act and an organization called represent.us.  Check it out.

More recently, Elizabeth Warren filed a comprehensive anti-corruption bill, god bless her.

Maybe represent.us can pull enough of us together to tackle the foundational problem, are the Warren Corruption legislation just might gain legs, but the challenge will be whether you can find these efforts among all the noise.

Can you hear my scream?

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