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Washington Diarist

Network Nation

ON JANUARY 22, at 2:36 p.m., I received an email from President Barack Obama. “Friend,” it began. “Thank you for being part of the most open inauguration in our nation’s history.” You're welcome. I do not recall any closed inaugurations, but never mind. This is the season of the benefit of the doubt. Like anybody who knows anything about the American past, I soared when the President stated his now archetypally American name; and like anybody who has tired of the haughtiness of conservatives, I relished the Chief Justice’s fumble. (It was almost as if “Hussein” tripped him up.) But this presidential email makes me sour, for its content and its form. “As we begin the work of remaking America,” the president wrote to me, “we must draw on the common hopes that brought us together this week.” And: “I’m counting on you to keep the spirit of unity and service alive.” And: “We face many challenges. But we face them as one nation.” And: “Our journey is just beginning.” And: “Thank you for all you do.” It is all perfectly platitudinous, a Hallmark homily, but not in Obama's universe. Does the renovation of the civic sense really require such a return to literalness? I do not look to the White House for irony, but the extent to which the Obama bliss is premised upon such undisabused belief vexes me. Credulity is a poor foundation for conviction. I worry also that the Obama frame of mind sometimes slips its hope for reality into its assessment of reality: the challenge for reason is to understand that it is an island, that it is surrounded by its opposite and that therefore it may quickly reach the limit of what it can accomplish by its preferred method. If the recession and its outrages have shown anything, for example, it is that we are not one nation. Wall Street’s interests are not Main Street’s and Main Street’s interests are not Wall Street’s. (I understand that all the streets have an interest in prosperity, but there’s that pastoral level of generality again.) Everything will not always go together, there will sometimes be war, and it is not divisive to say so. The correction of an injustice will favor the victims of the injustice over the perpetrators of the injustice. True believers in the free market will have to console themselves with the thought––to paraphrase Anatole France––that a rich man has as much of a right to health care as a poor man. And so I am heartened by the alacrity with which Obama has acted on a variety of partisan positions, and by his ability to conduct himself as if there is nothing partisan about them. He has a gift for making the part seem like the whole. His universal feeling about himself, the sincerity of his faith in his own globality, may serve us well, if it gives cover for the philosophical and political specificity of many of his reforms. It may also be a benevolent kind of megalomania.

ONE  OF THE MOST  momentous questions facing our society concerns the impact of the new technologies of communication on our conception of human relations. That we are all connected is plain, but what is the quality of our connection? The ideal of a “national conversation” seems to have been electronically fulfilled, but does a nation really converse? What do the social networking sites conceal about an individual and what do they reveal? (They certainly reveal a horror of concealment.) When a society is described as a network, what is gained and what is lost? The network is the controlling metaphor of our age, but the wisdom of John McClane keeps nagging at me: “It’s not a system, it’s a country.” Some months ago I listened with amazement to a hotshot Israeli think-tanker explain that the medieval Jewish community was the first world wide web, and that therefore we could not understand it until the world wide web was invented. It was the dumbest thing I heard last year. I raise these doubts because of the email that I received from President Barack Obama. For one of his innovations in American politics has been the zealous adoption of the ideology of the network. To be sure, there were practical reasons: email and YouTube are cheaper than direct mail, and of course cooler––but direct mail is all they are. The number of people who can be reached in an instant is genuinely astounding––but this is a marketer's dream, nothing more. Btw, is not electronic communication the most facile and the most fleeting communication? Scholars have documented the inexorable effect of the Internet in creating “communities of interest,” and the Obama machine wishes to portray the nation itself as a community of interest; but this returns us once again to that mythical unity. What is more likely happening is that Obama’s community of interest is depicting itself as America’s community of interest. Communities of interest are formations of exclusiveness enabled by technologies of inclusiveness. So it was odd to get that email from my president. I voted for him, and I gave him a few dollars, but I do not revolve in his vast magical orbit. The personal touch had a distinctly de-personalizing effect, the way Amazon does when it teaches me about my tastes. The Obama machine may be excited to be connected to me, but I am not excited to be connected to it. I am not connected to it. The jazziness of the means aside, this was junk mail.

ALAS, THERE IS ALSO a cynical dimension to the texting of the people by the president. It is an attempt to evade the media and its apparatus of skepticism. Technology has made it possible for those in power to produce an unmediated and undisrupted transmission of their message. This is an epochal breakthrough in what Erwin Goffman called “impression management.” No longer is an administration at the mercy of that marvelous inconvenience known as the White House Press Room. Nixon lived too soon! It does not matter that the message I receive over the heads of the access-passed company is congenial or even uplifting to me: a digital communique is still a communique. The appeal of the new information arrangements to the presidency is obvious. I imagine that the netroots establishment also welcomes the official echo chamber, but they are a herd of linking conformists who are about to discover the complications of life after Bush. Yet why should any president, even a president so popular that his face is on the fare card of the capital's subway system, not have to suffer the impudence of the press? That impudence is an institution of democracy. The greatest liberal of our time, I mean Barack Obama, is colluding in one of the worst sins against the liberal order in America, which is the slow death of the American newspaper.