Saturday, January 01, 2005

"Outed" by Hugh Hewitt

It is ill-manners to silence a fool and cruelty to let him go on.
--Poor Richard's Almanac

I had been holding off on establishing a web log until I had a little more free-time at work (The Department of Asian Languages and Literatures at the University of Minnesota), but crossing posts with Powerline and Hugh Hewitt in the commentary section of Jay Rosen's Press Think web site (Dec.28) has led Hugh Hewitt to write quite an extended post on my comments and reveal to the world that (gasp!) Ben Franklin is indeed Mark Anderson. He was impressed that I was posting under a pseudonym, but left it so easily traceable. My lack of effort to conceal my identity may perhaps be related to my lack of any particular determination to conceal my identity.

On Poor Richard's Almanac I will deal with politics and media, but it will also include my writing on personal as well as public topics of the day including music, media, and the world as seen from Japan as well as North America.

"Where is the connection between enka and the decline of the DFL?" Hewitt asks. Only Hewitt would suppose there was one, so I suppose he'll be left to answer this question. The strategy is apparently to suggest there is no connection between my research and my comments on Powerline and himself so I cannot know what I'm talking about, then to suggest that his dismissal of my comments casts doubt on the very professional qualifications he just said were unrelated. Either there is a connection or there isn't. If he is interested in consistency he will have to give up on one of those arguments. Essentially he says that because I disagree with him, the taxpayers must be wasting their money and I must be incompetent at my job as well as incompetent at agreeing with him.

In fact, my research takes up neo-conservatism in both Japan and the US, so the development of neo-liberal and neo-conservative attempts to privatize public space and delegitimize alternative views is at the center of my work. Hewitt's claim that the Republican blogosphere democratizes media advances this very view. My point is that corporations are generally trying to privatize public space as a part of the branding process that moves from selling products to selling brands as culture, as one's own identity. We can't know the answer to the political consequences of the blogosphere until we factor in the effect of synergy, the consolidation of programming, distribution, and reception throughout the entire media infrastructure. Powerline and Hewitt's blog have a synergistic relationship to tens of billions of dollars of Republican media infrastructure, from the American Enterprise Institute, to the Washington Times, to Fox, to Limbaugh, to Drudge, etc. I think we need to start trying to think about contemporary US politics in terms of the business and advertising models that drive them.

To my mind, President Bush prevaricates on an almost daily basis. I generally resent this in a president. But these same sorts of half-truths and misstatements are simply considered part of the PR process for a Fortune 500 CEO. Bush is no more and no less to blame then they are. We expect the president of Merck to deceptively claim that it is not safe for the health of Americans to import the drugs Merck itself makes in the US. That is just good business. But some of us more greatly resent hearing the same deception from the White House. Why? Vioxx may mean they are telling the truth in spite of themselves, but that is the fault of Bush letting the pharmaceutical industry run the FDA. Again, we expect the president of Merck to wish the pharmaceutical industry ran the FDA. Why are we surprised when President Bush wishes the same thing? We need to begin to think about the central role of branding strategies in the administration of the MBA president. This is how we get a Clean Forests Initiative that lowers pollution standards and a "save social security initiative" intent on eliminating it.

"But when corporate speech is increasingly expressed in multiplatform synergy and in ever more extravagant displays of branded 'meaning,' popular speech comes to look like the tiny independent retailer next to the superstore." (Naomi Klein, No Logo, p.185)

All blogs are not created equally. The question to ask is whether they have a synergistic relationship to massive partisan media infrastructure or not. To suggest that Powerline or Hugh Hewitt's blogs make the state or the nation more democratic is to ignore the relations of power and media distribution within which they do their work.

The complaint of the readers of their website who have sent me e-mail is that I dare accept a salary from the state of Minnesota and express my views as a citizen of the state and the country at the same time. Though my views were posted on a world wide web site, Hewitt and company's readers have suggested that somehow university facilities were involved because my University of Minnesota e-mail address was provided as contact information. I have since established a private e-mail address so even this non-issue is now moot. In their minds, it seems, public sector employment requires the surrender of the rights and privileges of citizenship. Or the exercise of these rights by public sector employees who disagree with them calls for punishment of some sort?

It is quite ironic that they have targeted my employment at a public university as the source of their aggravation. The posts they responded to extend an argument Naomi Klein makes about corporate branding (in No Logo) to the case of the synergized conservative mediasphere. I was arguing precisely that the contemporary conservative agenda is to privatize public space. Apparently, they are determined to prove my point for me.

The second point that needs to be made here is that it is barely true to suggest that my salary is paid for by Minnesota taxpayers. The Tim Pawlenty administration has reduced state funding of the university to the point that the College of Liberal Arts only receives 7% of the money for faculty salaries from the state. 73% comes from tuition paid by students in the College. The operating budget for Liberal arts education at the flagship Minnesota public university has nearly been privatized. That apparently doesn't stop conservatives from demanding more ideological control over that which their tax dollars do not pay for.

It seems that the fans of Powerline and Hugh Hewitt wish to expand state authority so as to assert ideological control over the very public education they refuse to adequately fund. What happened to the vaunted conservative concern to roll back the tyranny of state power?

The University of Minnesota library is now ranked 28th out of the top 30 research institutions in the country because it has been underfunded for several decades running. Above all, however, it is University of Minnesota students who are paying the price for Republican defunding of education in the state of Minnesota. But thanks to Powerline and Hugh Hewitt we now have advice on how to make the privatized public university even more Republican. If we confuse the Republican party and the private corporation with the public, they are undoubtedly performing a public service.