Archives for the month of: November, 2008

Many of my friends and readers of my national commentary know that I am also the founder of a web site called Rockville Central, which is an example of what the Knight Citizen News Network would call “hyperlocal journalism.” Rockville Central is a citizen-produced, all-volunteer local blog that is intentionally designed to embody the kinds of participatory-democratic civic ideas that many of my readers share with me.

I am happy (and proud) to report that the National Civic Review, a well-respected journal on public issues published by the National Civic League, has an article about Rockville Central in the latest (Fall 2008) issue. While copyright restrictions forbid me from making the original available freely, if you simply email me (by responding to this note) I can send you the final draft version without restriction.

In any case, I thought you might be interested to read an excerpt from the conclusion:

I set out with Rockville Central to engage in a kind of civic experiment. I wanted to see what would happen when an online space popped up that had a very particular set of sensibilities. In essence, I wanted to try to embody many of the approaches and ideas espoused by the civic sector.

I learned that, with just a small amount of care, such an enterprise can be successful in a small way. I doubt the ability of something like this to be commercially viable on a large scale. Indeed, insofar as Rockville Central has provided a new space for people, it needs to remain on a human scale; growing too big would kill it.

However, I can honestly say that I hope for the model to proliferate. I’ve pursued Rockville Central specifically with the idea in mind that others could replicate it. Whenever there was a free way to do something, as opposed to an expensive way, I chose the free way.

While it is not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea to be a civic blogger, literally anyone could create something like Rockville Central. There are no special skills required and no training. It does not require access to capital or to fancy foundations.

So, for those who may have had their interest piqued by the story of Rockville Central, I offer this handful of lessons learned. They are things to keep in mind, if you choose to move forward.

  • Impact and Scale are very different things. Based on grateful emails I get, the fact that almost the entire senior staff and governing officials of the City reads it, and from anecdotal stories of ordinary people choosing to take actions they would not otherwise take because of something they read in the blog, I am certain Rockville Central is having an impact. However, its “scale” is relatively small and I have no plans for it to grow simply for growth’s sake. Scale does not interest me. Impact does. 
  • Try little things, if you fail so what? The history of Rockville Central is littered with ideas that did not pan out. Our year of existence (so far) has been marked by quick attempts to try new things, followed by equally quick admissions of failure where they occurred. . . . There was the time I thought I would adopt an informal approach to a series of video interviews with City Council members. It was 100 days into the term and I wanted to follow up on campaign promises. My first interview featured me in a ripped pair of jeans. It caused such an uproar that I publicly apologized. People demanded a bit more decorum of me. Lesson learned! This was not the first, nor the only, time I have publicly apologized for a mistake on the blog. After each of these episodes, messages came in praising the change in course. People appreciate experimentation, and understand that mistakes may be made — and they appreciate forthrightness about it.
  • You don’t need an organization to have an institution. Rockville Central is literally two people who just spend time volunteering. There is nothing official about it, no phone number to call, no office to visit. Its only real expense is its domain name — about $6 per year. Yet, it is enough of an institution that some members of the Mayor and City Council have chosen to release statements through it. In City Council meetings, office holders as well as citizens have spoken about something they have read in Rockville Central. While it is unorganized, it is still a community institution.
  • People want fun — it draws them in and gives them a reason to return. Rockville Central’s most popular pages are shopping and restaurant reviews. This troubles me not at all. It’s important for us civic junkies to remember that we are oddballs: most people are just trying to live their lives, not “be better citizens” or “become more engaged.” I firmly believe that one of the most important aspects of Rockville Central is that it is not a drag. For instance, every weekday morning’s “Photo Of The Day” is sometimes dramatic, other times silly. I am very idiosyncratic about my choices with it. More than one reader has told me that it is the POTD’s that keep them coming back.
  • People need reminding about the rules of the road. Every few months, someone begins posting anonymous, vitriolic comments. I typically delete them and post an article about what I have done. I welcome such episodes, because each one is a chance to reinforce the norms that Rockville Central is trying to promote.
  • “Politics As Usual” will try to use anything it can. Prepare for candidates and community organizations to seek to use the blog as a way to gain advantage. . . . [S]ome office holders have begun to try to feed tips and ideas in order to generate articles that will further their objectives. None of this is really a problem — it is how politics unfolds in most places. However, a blog like Rockville Central is trying to stay aloof from such things while still being relevant. It is a fine line to walk and it takes a willingness to resist f
    la
    ttery, threat, and cajoling. 
  • You must earn trust. Shortly after I sent an initial email to all candidates for City Council, asking for an interview, I got a call from one. She was very skeptical of my motives. I explained I was just trying to be helpful. She didn’t buy it, and said she did not believe someone would put the time in that it takes to do this work for simply an altruistic motive (I am paraphrasing). She agreed to the interview reluctantly. Over time, through being dedicated about being transparent and fair, this person has come to trust Rockville Central and is one of its best friends. Her initial reaction, though, was completely correct. There is no reason anyone ought to trust my neutrality simply because I claimed it — I had to demonstrate it over time.

Come visit Rockville Central! And — more important — if you feel so moved, start something like it yourself in your own community. I would love to hear about it.

I had know about it for some time, but I was first confronted with The Syndrome in 2004. I had penned a column — which in most respects was carefully balanced — that included critical statements of Democratic candidate John Kerry and praised President Bush on some point. The piece did not include any contact information and it was not a publication that included a space for reader comments. The morning it appeared, I received an email from someone I did not know. “You disgust me,” it began, and went on to describe what an idiot I was. I can’t go into greater detail because I did not save the note. Suffice to say, the writer, who had gone to some trouble to find my email address, was incensed that I had anything positive to say about president Bush whatsoever. Indeed, the reader’s ire was driven more by that, than by any criticism I might have leveled at Kerry.

Conservative commentators have for some years now observed a general “Bush Derangement Syndrome,” in which the mere mention of President Bush’s name generates such irrational vitriol that it’s almost funny (until you get to be its target). More recently, we’ve seen a bit of “Palin Derangement Syndrome” and even a smattering of “McCain Derangement Syndrome.” Ordinarily rational friends and acquaintances will simply lose it at the mention of one of these odious figures, and say the most amazing things.

However, these derangement syndromes are not at all the sole province of liberals and Democrats. My conservative friends are just as prone to bouts of insanity. In one generally conservative outlet in which I occasionally run columns, I have observed that if I merely mention Sen. Obama’s name, I am guaranteed to see comments that just go right off the deep end. And, if I want readers to tell me I’m an idiot and to question my motives and patriotism, I need only praise Obama in some slight way — or, just as bad, fail to criticize him sufficiently.

These episodes point to a broad, troubling trend in American politics. We are losing, ever more with each election, the ability to differentiate an opponent from an enemy. The stakes seem to be ratcheted up ever higher and the “grassroots” seem to go from being an electorate to a mob.

I place the lion’s share of the blame for this on the political professional class. These are the people who make their living at manipulating public opinion — political consultants, “party strategists,” and a number of media personalities who trade in invective, ridicule, and fear. Both sides of the aisle are just filthy with them. These folks are good at what they do. They move people — spur them to give, spur them to rallies, spur them to vote. They do it by villifying the other side until they go from “opponent” to “enemy.”

What’s the difference? An opponent is someone I hope to beat — but the integrity of the game is ultimately more important than the outcome. One of us will win and, we will each go our ways.

An enemy, though, is someone who must be vanquished. Facing an “enemy,” it’s kill or be killed.

As this year’s campaign has drawn on, positions have hardened and now most citizens feel it is “very important” that their candidate win. The share of citizens who say this has increased tremendously over just six months ago.

Just about half of the nation will wind up disappointed. What will they do? Will they be able to carry on honorably? Or will they stick “not my president” decals on their bumpers and do a slow burn?

Looking at the aftermath of the last three or four presidential elections, it’s a fair bet that we’ll see the latter. What will it take for us to take the outcome just a little less seriously, so that we can take democracy itself a little more seriously?

This article by me first appeared in Pajamas Media.

If you are reading this, you are not the target of Senator Obama’s 30-minute media buy. Which surely means, since I am writing, that neither am I the target. Good thing, too — I was disappointed.

Oh, sure, my eyes teared up at the right moments, and I enjoyed the homespun blues guitar. As commercials go, it was fine. And as infomercials go, it was a knockout. What I am disappointed by, on behalf of the civic life of America, is the squandered opportunity.

Set aside, for the moment, whom you prefer to vote for (or have already voted for) in the upcoming “historic presidential election.” The fact remains that one candidate is so dominating the current electoral scene that he is able to insert a 30-minute unfiltered message into almost all of prime time. He is a candidate who looks and talks differently than most other political figures cluttering the landscape. His charisma is undeniable, recalling orators of yore. He’s smart.

At his best, this candidate preaches (and it is preaching) a kind of politics that rests on a partnership between the leaders and the led, where citizens aren’t customers of government but are citizens, who hold responsibilities as well as rights. This at times seems a revolutionary idea, coming as it does at a time when politics itself seems exhausted, the rhetoric ground down by the accretion of promise after promise.

Americans know that they themselves can do better, that they can be better citizens. I hear it as I talk to people throughout the nation. Most would grade themselves a “B” in terms of citizenship, if that. They’re waiting for an invitation to step up, and many observers see Obama’s candidacy as just such an opportunity.

But he played it safe, sticking to the well-worn talking points and really, it seems, just hoping to make his points through repetition. I guess it is hard to fault someone in Sen. Obama’s position for steering a course that minimizes mistakes. After all, he’s trying to close the deal, and that’s a job not yet done.

But imagine if Sen. Obama’s campaign had instead seen these thirty minutes as an opportunity — not for his own campaign, but for the American people. He might have taken a different tack.

He might have gathered ten Americans from different walks of life — including, especially, people with whom he disagrees — and had a conversation with them. During this conversation he might not have spent the time trying to sell his candidacy, but instead to give voice to ordinary people, to probe what they want the public square to look and feel like. He could have even asked them: What will you do, to make this a better nation? This could have been a moment in which to make manifest the very deal Obama seems to want between government and citizens, an equal partnership.

Or, maybe, he might have spent the time weighing the relative merits of his and his opponent’s world views. He might have asked a co-host to present opposing views not in a demonic way, but with their best feet forward. After all, Sen. McCain is a serious person and his proposals are worth taking seriously. Why not examine them at their best, and explain why notwithstanding their good points, Obama would go in another direction? And why not point out the downsides of Obama’s own proposals – for everyone knows that there are upsides and downsides. This would just be leveling with the American people and telling them what they already know in their gut: there is no silver bullet and no one answer is undeniably the right one. This could have been a moment when the American electorate were finally being treated as the grown-ups they are.

Instead, Sen. Obama’s campaign chose to sell us a grill and a set of knives. It probably did his campaign good and it’s unlikely that it hurt.

But it could have been so much more.