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Yes and No

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By William Deresiewicz


 

The Internet has been feeling its oats lately. One campaign after another, since around the start of last year, has shown that the medium is very good at getting people to say no: no to Mubarak, no to Putin, no to Wall Street, no to ATM fees—and of course, no to Kony. Yes is a little harder, but there have been some yeses, too—most prominently, of late, the campaign to arrest George Zimmerman, the killer of Trayvon Martin.

What’s scarcer, in all that, is any kind of intellectual coherence or long-term organization. Yes, the Internet is very good at bringing people together. But it also inculcates a consumerist attitude to political activity. You walk down the aisle of your inbox or Twitter feed, saying yes to this, no to that. One thing after another, without a larger narrative or logical connection. It is as if the world’s problems consisted of a discrete series of Bad Things, and all we needed to do was go down the list, crossing them off. There is, in the procession that passes across our screens, no bigger picture, no larger understanding of where those bad things come from.

Although the anarchist principles that animate it long predate the Web, the Occupy movement would seem to be a perfect replica, in physical space, of the conditions of online connectivity. No hierarchy, no center, no single, official voice. The movement runs on consensus, but it strikes me that it also depends on something like its opposite. By renouncing any kind of larger articulation—programs, ideologies, the much-discussed “demands”—it enables each participant to see the movement in their own image, projecting onto it whatever meanings they want—as solitary, in that sense, as if they were still in front of their computer. And note that Occupy also expresses itself through—indeed, seems largely to consist of—a series of ad hoc events: petitions, as it were, in the streets.

The Internet may be good at fostering reasoned discussion, but it is very, very good, because of its instantaneity, at arousing emotion (the essence of consumer behavior). Emotion can win the battle, but it can never win the war. After the ATM fees were revoked, the banks were still in charge in Washington. After Mubarak was ousted, the country fell to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian Army. “It is an unhappy fact of politics,” the critic David Bromwich has written, “that victory goes to the pressure that will not let up.”

William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, which will be published in August, is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.


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