Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Revolutionary /b/astards (Part II)

In the first part of this article, I began a discussion of how 4chan has begun to shape our political discourse. That post was very much about the mainstream--sorry, no Hipster Kitty joke--both in terms of American politics and in terms of internet culture. Yes, it was about dissent, but it was about protests and demonstrations, subversion and satire, all of which fall well within the commonly accepted range of American political behavior. The rights to free speech and assembly are constitutionally protected and largely unquestioned, whether your placards quote Thomas Paine or Antoine Dodson.

But there are less universally accepted (read: illegal) forms of dissent. American history has produced a number of these radical dissenters, and they are particularly likely to appear during a pivotal moment of political upheaval. The Abolitionism had John Brown. The early progressive period had militant anarchists. The Civil Rights Movement had the Black Panthers. And we have Anonymous.

It may seem a stretch to compare the actions of a group of hackers and internet pranksters to the raid on Harper's Ferry. of course, there are some significant differences between Anonymous and past political radicals, not the least of which is their medium. But there are also some significant similarities.

Anonymous didn't pioneer the prankster-radical persona. In 1968, Abbie Hoffman and his Yippie cohorts presented a pig as a presidential candidate during their protest of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. This was only shortly before these same protests devolved into riots that lead to the arrest and trial of Abbie and seven others. Like Hoffman and Co., Anonymous occupies the space between lawful, comedic subversion and acts of sudden mass trespass. Compare the trial of the Chicago Seven to the recent raids on the homes of Anonymous members* believed to be involved in denial of service attacks as a protest in solidarity with Wikileaks.

An even tighter parallel to Anonymous can be found in The Weather Underground. The Weather Underground, which emerged from the Anti-Vietnam War Movement, was responsible for a series of bombings during the 70s. Like Anonymous, they were a group of mostly young adult dissenters who were loosely organized and protective of their identities. Also like Anonymous, they followed their attacks with group-authored manifestos, and often acted as a show of solidarity with other groups or as a response to current events. And, once again like Anonymous, they managed to simultaneously pursue publicity and cherish secrecy. Both organizations focus their attacks on the infrastructure of their enemies--buildings, websites--rather than on human lives. Really, there could be an entire article devoted just to expanding on these similarities.

What might be most interesting though is how Anonymous has managed to evolved answers to some of the most difficult challenges faced by the Weathermen (and other earlier groups of dissenters).

One huge problem for the Weatherman was the possibility for human casualties. Lost lives would have been a public relations disaster for an anti-war group that had already been labeled as a terrorist organization. The Weathermen countered this by phoning in warnings in advance of their bombings. But this, obviously, was not a perfect solution. A building might not be evacuated in time, or some other accident might lead to someone being killed or injured in the explosion. (As it turned out, the only casualty of a Weather Underground bomb was a member of the group who was killed when a device exploded prematurely.) There is also the violence inherent in the use of explosives, which in and of itself undermined their peaceful message.

Anonymous' tactics, meanwhile, present no threat of death or injury, and damage only the infrastructure of their targets. While illegal, denial of service attacks and other acts of internet disruption, are totally nonviolent.

Another, more obvious, problem that Anonymous avoids is that of their namesake: anonymity. The threat of infiltration was always very real for the Weathermen and other similar groups. There was only so much they could do to hide their identities, and, ultimately, the physical nature of their actions demanded face-to-face contact, both in organizing and execution. Meanwhile, Anonymous members still have to worry about being traced and discovered--as the raids mentioned above prove--but they can act with no physical contact with other members, no names exchanged, and no voices heard.

With all of this in mind, I think we can see Anonymous for what they are: An evolution of old forms of political dissent and rebellion, a modern reinvention of old school radicalism. And I think their existence--and their ideology, with its heavy emphasis on free information--gives us some indication of the conflicts that may define our politics in the (perhaps near) future.

*I use the term "members" loosely here, since Anonymous has no formal membership.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Revolutionary /b/astards (Part I)

We've heard a lot of talk lately about the Facebook Revolution and the Twitter Revolution. So much talk, in fact, that without daily updates to the Libyan death roll and aerial photographs of thousands of demonstrators in Tahrir Square, we might be tempted to believe that these protests are happening in 140 character increments.

But even acknowledging the media's tendency to fixate on new tech over old tactics, it's impossible to deny the impact of internet communication on the recent revolts. It's simply easier to organize and contact hundreds or thousands of individuals with social networking websites than it would be through old school means, such as phone banking or email lists. (Did I just call email old school? Wow.) It's also less hierarchical and socially demanding, allowing even casual participants to notify and invite others.

So, there's no doubt that Facebook, Twitter, et. al. would be instrumental to any large scale U. S. protest movement. Indeed, this is happening already, as anyone who has been involved in any of the numerous nationwide protests in solidarity with Wisconsin labor unions can attest.

But one major website has been neglected in all of this coverage: 4chan.

This is a photo from a protest in Wisconsin, courtesy of the 4chan comedy aggregator site Memebase. And there are more:

4chan memes seems like odd source material for protesters, and the home of captioned cats and dubious Japanese erotica seems like a strange place to find political dissent. But before you write these pictures off as simple jokes, there are two things you should keep in mind:

First, 4chan is reshaping our dialogue. If Facebook and Twitter have fundamentally changed how we speak to each other, then 4chan has fundamentally changed what we are saying. Social networking has altered the mediums we used to communicate, but 4chan has changed our language. Internet memes aren't just for irreverent instant messenger conversations anymore, they're part of the way a large portion of our population jokes, socializes and, yes, shares information, so of course they are going to become a part of our political dialogue.

So what does this mean for the prospect of radical American political change?

A few things:

1. Satire. Satire is often the language of political subversion, and 4chan has become the new home of satire. Expect to see politically satirical memes begin to join music, literature, and other old forms of comedic dissent.

2. Insider vs. Outsider. Generally, dissenters use language to distinguish between friend and foe. Skim through protest historical movements, and you'll generally find that this is true. It may seem ridiculous now, but what we see an inane hippie-speak today, had real value among student protesters during the Civil Rights era, making it easier to protect the movements from infiltrators. I imagine if a sizable protest movement arose among contemporary young adults, mimetic conversation would serve this role.

3. The culture of 4chan is already subversive. I'll get into this in more depth in the second part of this article, but for now let's just look at the kind of content that is encoded in many memes. Yes, it's true that some of it is just cute cats. But popular memes also take on religion, politics, and sexuality. Let's not forget Pedobear. Memes have become a way to repackage controversial information as less confrontational winks and nudges.

And we haven't even begun to talk specifically about /b/, 4chan's uncensored, largely unmoderated dark side. And it's within /b/ that you find my second point: Anonymous. But there is enough to say about Anonymous to warrant a fresh blog post. Expect that post, part II of this series, shortly.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

America After America: An Introduction

We have an excess of revolutions. Today, in early March of 2011, there are actually too many states in the midst of social revolt for even our bloated 24 hour media cycle to effectively cover them all. (Seriously, when was the last time you heard about the upheaval in Bahrain? Even Al Jazeera is struggling to find time for it.) In just over a month, Tunisia and Egypt have undergone regime changes. Libya is in the midst of civil war. The governments of Jordan and Yemen and more may not survive long enough to be April's fools.

And Madison, Wisconsin has been home to a series of the largest protests on U. S. soil since the Vietnam War. It's hard to imagine that this is purely coincidental.

Yes, it's true that the protests in Madison have a different aim than those in the Middle East and North Africa. (Although labor rights are a significant, often overlooked motivator in Cairo and Co.) But I don't think we should discard the larger similarities because of differences in the details. History won't.

Am I suggesting that America is in the midst of a regime change? No, not necessarily. But the United States may be on the verge of a transformation, a moment of considerable political change.

It's almost become a truism or a cliché to claim that our political status quo is unsustainable. Whether it's the right bemoaning deficit spending and massive foreign debt or the left warning of ecological collapse and the seemingly unbridgeable gap between wealth and poverty, both sides of the spectrum seem to agree that radical change is necessary and unavoidable. And social reality seems to agree: Even if you ignore the unrest in Wisconsin, you still have widespread unemployment and a increasingly political radicalism. And don't think that I only mean the Tea Party; the left is rapidly moving from years of timidity and quiet despair to visible, vocal direct action. Note the in-solidarity-with protests that have spread far beyond Wisconsin's borders.

But this isn't a doomsday blog, nor is it a revolutionary manifesto. I'm not interested in fearful dread of dramatic political change, or instigating revolt. Instead, I want to reflect on what the future might look like and what trends and forces might lead us there. What could widespread political change mean for American life? And how might it happen? Could we be pulled dramatically to the right, or the left, or in an entirely different, entirely new direction? Could we see the fall of one or both of our two dominant political parties, and the rise of one or more replacements? Or could we emerge with a radically different kind of democracy--or no democracy at all? Will the primary instigators be in the streets, or online, or both? And on and on and on.

And that's "America after America:" America, the continent and the community, after the end of America, the dominant perspective and the status quo. American society after a drastic change in the thing we've been calling the American Way of Life.

I hope to make posts fairly regularly. (Hold me to it!) And I don't want to become trapped in a single perspective or vision for the future. I plan to explore a lot of different possible theories and topics, and do so rationally without excessive editorializing. (Once again: Hold me to it!)

I know this is bad form, as far as conclusions are concerned, but: If you have any thoughts, comments or suggestions, please comment. I'd like for this blog to be a dialogue, not a diatribe.