Yin, Yang, Web

This morning I willl circle the globe in order to connect “Internet manhunts” in China with “flash mobs” in the United States, and end with cartoonist Tom Tomorrow who rebukes the New York Times for its coverage of the “netroots” energy in the recent U.S. Senate primary in Connecticut. My goal is to suggest that the flowering of human expression made possible by Internet media offers glimpses into the soul of modern civilization. We are now witnessing a struggle between our finer and cruder impulses, with no way to know which will win out.

I started with a Poynter Institute commentary that led me to a blog posting on how the Chinese are using the Internet to put pressure on multinational corporations. The posting references a “Black March” that seems to have been something of an online rebellion against foreign brands and foreign capital investment in part because:

“foreign capital ha(s) caused a ‘crowding-out effect,’which makes a lot of local enterprises feel great pressures in their development.”

I found that fascinating, and resonant with concerns here in the United States. Substitute “Walmart” for what the Chinese refer to as MNCs, and the above statement could have come from any town in America. When I read stuff like that, the populist in me imagines that us little folk have found in the Internet our equalizing tool.

But in the course of poking around some of the references cited by Poynter, I came across a dark and cynical posting on a blog called EastWestNorthSouth, written by a Roland Soong, who is profiled here.

Soong’s posting described Internet manhunts in China, a subject I’d seen briefly referenced in some wire stories. Here is Soong’s capsule description:

“Quite a few blog posts here fit the following paradigm: An outrageous event occurs somewhere in China. Someone posts a description of the event at a Chinese Internet forum. A storm of passion is generated as the “human search engines” dig up the personal particulars of the culprits of the event and publish that information. A harassment campaign (e.g. telephone calls, threats, etc) is conducted to insure that ‘justice’ is served. Mind you, the culprits are not necessarily guilty of breaking any law. Usually, it is some alleged moral turpitude or depravity.”

Reading this ScarletLetter- meets-the-web story about a country across the Pacific is one thing. But Soong tied this Chinese phenomenon to behaviour in the United States. I quote:

“In the United States, there is a disturbing trend. There are now Internet manhunts whose preys are … bloggers, reporters, editors and publishers!”

Soong showed pictures of a t-shirt for sale, bearing the slogan: Rope, Tree, Journalist. Some Assembly Required.”

I followed Soong’s link to an open letter in which cartoonist Dan ( Tom Tomorrow) Perkins critiques the New York Times and mainstream media for getting the blog story wrong in general, and for dumping too heavily on some gaffes in the “netroots” campaign that helped lead to the primary defeat of incumbent U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman while ignoring similar nastiness in the conservative blogosphere.

Setting aside whether the critique is right or wrong I fear that polarization and inability to have civil disagreement is the scourge of our “modern times” because most people have little or no practice at politics. That’s what media is — at least information media. They are vehicles of persuasion and politics and we are now reaping the not-so-pleasant harvest of having a hundred flowers bloom, as our Chinese friends might say.

When I read optimistic pronouncements about the potential for Internet media to uplift and organize, as with Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs, I think that’s one possibility. But the flip side of an ultra-connected world is everything from stupid flash mob stunts (follow this link and scroll down) to Internet manhunts.

There’s no going back. Nor would I want to. But I recall a political theory lecture that I must have heard 25 years ago at UC Berkeley. It was something to the effect that politics required the subordination of passion to reason, a key tenet of the American Revolution and one of the points overlooked in the French Revolution 2.0.

Now everyone one of us must choose between our inner Jefferson and Robspierre each time we hit “send” — while having no control over the passion-quotient of the person posting right before or right after us.