Archives for the month of: September, 2004

(From The Christian Science Monitor)

Are the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in cahoots with President Bush’s reelection campaign? Has Kerry campaign chief Mary Beth Cahill held secret meetings with to plan that group’s media attack campaign? It doesn’t matter.

Why not? Because the crafting of political messages is something that modern election campaigns have become very, very good at. The simplicity and effectiveness of such well-honed messages turns the campaign enterprise into something other than it used to be. The importance of the campaign organization itself has waned. Instead, such effective message building means that the election campaign is now a collaborative effort among far-flung groups that never have to talk.

Not unlike the computer world, where there is an arcane holy war going on. It pits those software companies that would like to keep their work completely private (Microsoft, Apple, and others) against a widespread, informal network of computer enthusiasts who have developed a computer operating system called Linux. In many respects, Linux is better than any other system out there – it is simple, stable, and easy to understand. It is also transparent: Nothing about how Linux is built or developed is secret or proprietary. People around the globe are constantly tinkering with it, adding useful features to the basic set of instructions, creating new hybrids and applications, and altering those created by earlier efforts. This informal system of fluid, decentralized, and public software development is collectively known as the “open source” movement.

Because modern election-campaign messages are so well crafted, the resulting campaigns are also open source. At their core is a message that is (like Linux), simple, stable, and easy to understand. The basic strategy is transparent. Independent groups can take over certain electioneering functions. The message is simple, so it’s easy to fit outside efforts into an overall strategy without ever needing to coordinate with the home office. can appoint itself the “Kerry attack machine” just as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth can pick up the “angry pit bull” mantle for the Bush organization, without knowledge or approval of campaign management.

What keeps the open source software movement from degenerating into just another shadowy source of programs that steal identities, hijack innocent web sites, and generally cause mischief? It’s a robust set of both written and unwritten norms. Everyone knows the rules. For instance, the popular TV recording service, TiVo, runs on Linux. There are a number of websites devoted to “hacking” TiVo to add features and generally make it more useful. But there is a rule against working on applications that would allow home users to pirate copyrighted movies and make them public. This rule is unenforceable, but it has strong support.

In politics, there aren’t any such norms. The stakes seem high enough to justify almost anything. And there is simply no way to curtail the free speech that independent groups are exercising without eviscerating a core freedom we hold dear in America.

So, are we doomed to having politics become just a big tag-team smackdown? Must we endure campaign after campaign in which shadowy groups perform hatchet jobs while campaigns remain blissfully above it all? Is there no countervailing force? Maybe not.

But, election campaigns are unique in at least one key respect: They exist to elect an actual person into office. That person, the candidate, has ultimate authority over the actions of the campaign organization itself, and has immense moral power over those who work – even informally – on his or her behalf. It is up to the candidates themselves to set down the guidelines as to what kinds of help they will welcome, and what kinds of help they don’t want.

Either presidential candidate could do this unilaterally, right now. He could say, “I appreciate the desire to move this country in the right direction. But I want to tell all those groups and individuals that seek to help me that my campaign is based on core principles that I do not want violated. I am specifically asking outside groups to make sure their criticisms of my opponent are fair, relevant, and based in truth. I will single out any group violating these principles and repudiate its support.”

The opposing candidate would have to follow suit, or else be seen as a dirty trickster.

Would such self-imposed guidelines work? Or would they simply be ignored? It depends entirely on the force and clarity with which the rules are stated. If even a fraction of the effort and thought that goes into message delivery were to go into rule delivery, then they would stick.

Open source campaigning is here to stay. Do the candidates have the moral backbone to fulfill their responsibility and demand fair campaigning from their own partisans? Do they have the guts to take their supporters to task?

They haven’t yet. But there’s still time before the debates.

The long knives have been drawn and sides chosen over Kitty Kelley’s new book that purports to uncover generations’ worth of scandal in the Bush political family. It’s now a political football, but there are far darker books on the shelves of your local bookselling conglomerate. Books you really don’t have to read.

At least Kelley’s book seems to have been written with the straightforward and time-honored intent of skewering those in power. But, judging by the titles, numerous other authors don’t care whether you open their books or not. What’s on the cover telegraphs the contents completely — and the contents seem always to involve a highly partisan political statement, repeated at length.

Gone are the quaint days of Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack, which, while uncomfortable for the subject (George W. Bush’s war prosecution), seemed to promise illumination that went beyond party ideology. The fact that both Democrats and the White House embraced it as supporting their cause is testament enough to that.

But now, bestseller lists give us, among many other similar selections, Unfit for Command and Bush Must Go, purely partisan statements that need not be read for their effects to be felt.

And that’s the point. To an outside observer, the book publishing business seems to have been taken over by agenda-driven political strategists. So many of the books on offer are transparently part of a broader influence campaign, a campaign that includes political advertisements in battleground states, diatribes on key radio talk shows, rebuttal articles in national print publications, and (if all goes well) a slot on “Hardball With Chris Matthews” or a similar show. Instead of selling the book and the ideas it contains, the authors sell the statement the book makes, all in the service of advancing the Red or Blue ideology.

So what? The intellectual marketplace has always been a bustling place, and has always associated itself with politics and public issues, hasn’t it? Indeed, the most soaring and durable argument against censorship, John Milton’s Areopagitica (1644), was itself a political tract.

But things have changed. The tail now wags the dog. Books used to lend their credibility to political arguments by being careful, well reasoned expositions. Instead, books now gain credibility by associating themselves with one of two competing ideologies. And such books, in turn, provide tactical ammunition for their adherents. Because books still add credibility, by virtue of — well, by virtue of the fact that they’re books.

At a time when a diminishing few read books at all, this is a problem. The place that used to be the province of reasoned debate is now the territory of angry shouts. Real thought is being squeezed out.

The solution will not be easy. It will demand restraint, restraint from the publishing houses, restraint from the political marketing machines, and, above all, restraint from the writers.

Perhaps this is too much to ask. There is a seductive symbiosis between the business of publishing and political marketing. Ideology-driven books have a ready and free marketing campaign in place in the form of the national political committees. No, it is writers who are our best hope. They alone may be able to resist the temptation to feed the political-publishing vicious circle.

So, a note to those authors sitting down to tap out their manifestos. Stop after the first chapter, and ask yourself: Is this really a book, or just a statement made repeatedly? Do I hope the book will be read, or do I hope the book will advance my party? If the latter, we the marketed-to humbly request that you stop right there and post your piece to a web log or send it off to a weekly journal of opinion.

For the honorable shelves of the nation’s libraries, institutions that dutifully purchase the output of publishers as a public service, are sagging under the weight of partisan vitriol.

Spare them.