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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The power of the blogosphere

(updated below)

In just one day, before it has been released, and with literally nothing more in the way of marketing and publicity than a handful of bloggers discussing it and a very committed and passionate blog readership here, How Would a Patriot Act? went to #1 on the Amazon Top Sellers List last night, and it sits there currently. Both thank you and congratulations are in order for everyone who helped make that happen, especially the regular readers of this blog and the other bloggers who have supported both this blog and the book, and I want to make a few observations about why I think this is so potentially significant:

(1) This book is a pure blogosphere book. The book's ideas and arguments were developed almost exclusively as a result of writing this blog. The research was done primarily by blog readers who worked with me on the book, and I discovered many of the arguments and much of the evidence that comprise the book as a result of reading comments here as well as the posts of other bloggers.

The publisher, Working Assets, approached me about writing the book as a result of their reading this blog. They were willing to commit to the book, first and foremost, because they were committed to publicizing the ideas and arguments in it. But the fact that the liberal blogosphere along with more independent and centrist bloggers would likely discuss and support the book enabled them to feel comfortable that the book -- just from blogs alone -- had a viable marketing base. They were obviously right about that.

There have been a few other recent blog-based books, including Markos and Jerome's highly successful Crashing the Gate, Get This Party Started by Chris Bowers, and Tom Tomorrow's recently released Hell in a Handbasket. Publishing books by bloggers, the ideas for which largely emerge from the blogosphere, is clearly a model that works and will only grow.

(2) That matters not simply because bloggers are new faces, but because so many of the ideas, so much of the analysis, and the underlying approach to political change which characterize the blogosphere is just different in nature than most everything else that comprises the standard national media discussions of the political issues facing our country. That isn't to say that the blogosphere is perfect (it definitely is not) or that it doesn't have disadvantages as compared to the national media (it does). But very generally speaking, the blogosphere is a fundamentally different way of talking about, thinking about, and being engaged in political matters, and all of that means that the content it produces, the ideas it generates, are substantively different than what gets produced elsewhere.

Whole books could be (and, I believe, have been) written on how and why the blogosphere is different. The collaborative nature of it is definitely one of the principal factors -- unlike some paid media pundit who talks only to a handful of like-minded and similarly situated pundits and others in the isolated elite political class, the blogosphere is nothing more than the aggregate by-product of mass, undiluted conversations taking place among thousands of highly motivated, engaged and well-informed citizens every day.

But beyond being just collaborative, the blogosphere is characterized by an independence and autonomy which is glaringly absent in the conventional national media venues. As Jane Hamsher eloquently observed the other day, there has to be some significant motivation for someone to go to their computer every day and do the work to maintain a blog, just as something has to motivate people to spend time at their computers every day reading and participating in intense, detailed political discussions.

Bloggers, their readers and commenters are mostly just citizens who are highly dissatisfied with the conventional media outlets and dominant political institutions, all of which have failed in so many ways. What is most significant about the blogosphere, in my view, is that it enables direct and immediate communication -- and coordination -- among huge numbers of dissatisfied citizens who want to force new ideas and arguments into what was previously a closed and highly controlled media and political dialogue. And, gradually and incrementally, it's working. I think we are at the very beginning of that process and the impact on our country's political processes will only grow, vastly.

Reading other blogs is what made me become much more attentive to the political crises we face, and is what then motivated me to start this blog. That happens over and over again, to thousands and thousand of people. That is just inevitably going to have a significant impact.

Given how broken and rotted our media and government institutions are (with some noble exceptions), fundamentally new ideas and different voices, no matter their imperfections, can only be an improvement. Our media and government are, on the whole, staid, depleted, corrupted, broken down china shops that could use some good, irreverent, aggressive bulls running through them.

(3) Specifically with regard to How Would a Patriot Act?, I can't think of anything that would be more gratifying and, in my view, more beneficial for our country than for the issues it raises to enter the public discourse, and I know that most everyone who reads this blog shares that view.

Whatever else one might want to say about this administration, it is simply indisputable that the theories of executive power it has adopted are radical, extremist and extraordinary; the policies adopted pursuant to those theories -- including the efforts to intimidate the media, stifle dissent, and prevent disclosure of its conduct -- are wholly alien to our most basic political values and traditions; and the entire approach to governing the country is unlike anything we have seen for a very long time, if ever.

Regardless of whether one thinks those theories and policies are justifiable, there is simply no question that allowing them to fester and become legitimized and institutionalized -- and we are well on our way to that destination -- will change our country in fundamental and likely irreversible ways. The changes will be not just to our laws and system of government but to our national character.

The absolute worst and most inexcusable thing is for that to happen without Americans even having a debate about those issues, really without even being aware that these things are occurring. But outside of the blogosphere, we haven't had that discussion -- at all -- because the media, for multiple reasons, just doesn't report it, pundits don't discuss it, very few people with any real public voice outside of the blogosphere have explained and opined about the fact that all of these scandals stem from a common source: the President's expressly stated belief that he has the power to act without restraints and outside of the law, literally.

I believe that so many people ordered the book yesterday, including many who ordered multiple copies, because there are huge numbers of Americans who want to find ways to force these self-evidently critical issues into the public discourse and will enthusiastically support any effective project designed to do that. I know it sounds borderline trite and naive, but I really do believe that Americans are not going to just sit idly by and let the government continue to assault our political values and radically undermine the political system that has made our country great, strong and free for more than two centuries.

Americans are instilled from an early age with a commitment to our political values and liberties, even if it buried by other distractions and life concerns, but that deeply felt commitment has been triggered and galvanized to great effect many times before in our history, and can be again. If the media fails to perform its central function to serve as a watchdog over the government and to ensure that citizens are informed about what the government is really doing -- and it has been failing in that function, dreadfully -- citizens who are committed to defending the principles of our country will find other ways -- will create other ways -- for that to happen.

That is what I think largely fuels the blogosphere, and I think it's also what explains why there is such impassioned and truly awe-inspiring support for things like How Would a Patriot Act? There are many, many people who see that this administration has created a genuine and profound crisis for our country; that the safeguards which are supposed to exist against those abuses have been co-opted, eroded away, and are largely useless; and that it is therefore incumbent upon them to take matters into their own hands and find and create ways to force these facts into the light.

UPDATE: In a post about the unique virtues of the blogosphere, I would be remiss, as several commenters pointed out, if I did not mention the truly pernicious threats to the neutrality and independence of the blogosphere posed by various proposed regulations which would vest telecommunications companies with greater power to control access to Internet sites. Matt Stoller has been leading the effort to ward off these threats, and Digby adds some insights regarding the havoc which some of these proposals would wreak on the blogosphere.

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