Threads of our Fathers

Amy Harmon called tonight doing early research for an article, seeking a deeper insight into the Dean campaign. Amy’s beat at the New York Times is technology and culture, and we laughed as it occurred to us that nothing integrates tech and culture better than the Dean campaign.

Consider with me the deepest, most satisfying theme that might help us define the Dean phenomenon. It would have to be the resilient message of what American democracy means to its people. Like Robert Pirsig’s discovery about excellence, we all seem to understand the core of American freedom without needing a detailed definition.

In every age, we Americans suffer the current compromises of our freedoms, in confidence that they are merely clouds obscuring the imminent sun we hold as our birthright. We are cynics and innocents, mistrusting our politicians while assuming that they seek the same sunlight we do. What is the core of the Founders’ beliefs, and what core values do we hold so dear that our leaders trespass upon them at their peril?

The Founders’ breakthrough was their audacious assertion, which they held to be self evident, that the people collectively are more important than their rulers. This had never been stated before, and it was such a powerful idea that it inspired the French to come to our aid with a zeal in excess of their hatred of the English. (There’s a fabriqué en France statue on a little island four miles south of here, testifying to that belief and the support the French gave us in the 1770’s, without which we would not have won our freedom.)

This notion of popular sovereignty is a product of the Age of Enlightenment, that flowering of humanist rationality and idealism arising in the 17th-18th centuries. I’ve suggested before that this enlightenment grew out of two catalysts.

One was the importation of tea and coffee, awakening Europe from a centuries-long, alcohol-induced slumber. They weren’t a bunch of alkies on purpose. For centuries, the water hadn’t been safe in Europe unless it was boiled or distilled. The arrival of caffeine caused a cultural buzz that Madison Avenue can only dream of. Coffee houses sheltered radical thinking, as the interesting ferment moved from the distilleries to the conversations.

The second catalyst was the local newsletter. Printing had finally evolved from Gutenberg’s ponderous wood and leather-bound church bibles, one to each village church like the hand crafted and illuminated manuscripts they replaced (bible being Latin for “book”). An intermediate forebear of the newsletter had been the handy saddlebag-sized pocket books produced by Gustavus Aldus. They were bibles at first and then, slowly, became works of philosophy and fiction. Only in the 17th and 18th centuries were inexpensive printing presses produced that an ordinary tradesman might procure and with which he might produce a little broadsheet saying whatever he felt like saying. It was a galvanizing and outrageous freedom, transforming the printer as much as his readers.

Those cheap presses were the blog firmware of the eighteenth century, freeing voices from the hollow cadence of church and state, training the newly literate masses in clues never uttered before. For the first time, historic rites of succession were questioned, wondering what was, exactly, the divine right of thugs.

All of this had been going on at the same time as the settling of the New World, when a family might see a penniless son go off on a ship and return a millionaire, beneficiary of slavery and plunder and land seized from American aborigines (those marvelous British country mansions were won the hard way). It was a precursor to the Internet boom, when anything was possible and the old rules seemed less binding than they had been for centuries.

And then, in the New World, came a bandwidth revolution. Each of the colonies had started as settlements, divided from each other by an impassable barrier of wilderness. Their communications architecture was hub and spoke, a hierarchical command economy driven by old world masters who were the only source of the manufactured goods they needed to hack out a living from the forest. With time came expansion and roads and inter-colony trade and local foundries and mills and a slow realization that a very nice living could be had without reference to the masters now so far away. Physical distance was a metaphor for the attenuation of hierarchical control, and a clue that this newly flat society was giving more than it was getting.

The metaphors with our age are stunning and inspire us to pick up that old thread the Founders started and Emerson continued and Thoreau and Whitman and Clemens and Steinbeck and Kerouac and all the rest. We’ve been so busy lately that we’ve quit talking about ways while focused on means. But that hasn’t dimmed our collective sense of how we’re meant to live. To paraphrase what the rustic said about art, we may not know freedom, but we know what we like.

Somehow the Dean campaign dropped a little of this latent genetic sensibility into the nutrient pool called the Internet. Contrasted to an assault on freedom as we like it and a radical foray into preemptive war, we seem to sense an unprecedented disturbance in our collective force, as if a sister blue-green planet had been obliterated far, far away.

If there’s a larger meaning to the Dean phenomenon, that is it. Call me an idealist (please), but the character of people’s response counts as much as its quantity, at least in the early going. Consider the code produced by a few hackers at the open source conference in Philadelphia in 1776. Relative to the population of the colonies, there were fewer of them than there are Deaniacs among us. They haggled over it, signed it with a flourish, and let the power of their words carry the day.

If I had to pick a theme for the Dean phenomenon, that would be it.

3:25:10 AM    

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