Evil, Kittehs Abound at #PDF12
Evil shaves its head because it’s balding “gracefully.” Evil lacks principles. Evil tweets with a Mac. Evil is competent. Evil is well paid. Evil has a complexion like Edward James Olmos. Evil might even believe some of its own bullshit. Evil sat next to me during a panel on Wisconsin at the Personal Democracy Forum. Evil’s the online media strategist for the Republican Governors Association. Evil is named Matthew Gagnon.
Seated directly to evil’s right was the lesser evil — the incompetent evil, the douchey evil: defeated online strategist for Milwaukee Mayor, and noted rotten banana, Tom Barrett. He’s called Ryan Alexander. He’s a perennial loser, having had the same job with Barrett in 2010, who likes to blame his failures on other people, and say ridiculous things like, “Tom Barrett is a bold progressive.” He’s currently unemployed. If he were better at his job, he’d be more evil, and more employed. He’d be Gagnon.
To Alexander’s right sat Jennifer Dye, Esq. She’s a family lawyer from the Madison area, who gained a fairly massive Twitter following during the Capitol occupation last year, and then made her popularity official by being elected as a Dane County Supervisor. She beat a 10 year tea party-esque incumbent by 10% of the vote. She’s not evil — unless you consider adorable freckles evil. In that case, she’s covered in evil.
The panel was expertly moderated by The Progressive‘s Cultural Editor Elizabeth DiNovella. She’s evil in that she will drag you to an awful Manhattan sports bar to watch hockey. She also attracts the odd Nation writer/Democratic apparatchik at cocktail parties — who adamantly defends all politicians’ right to spew utter bullshit on the campaign trail, and suffer no consequences for it once elected, while he’s artlessly peeking at her boobs. But that’s not her fault.
And I’m not evil at all. I’m a good boy. A very good boy.
The Personal Democracy Forum — or #PDF12, as the kids tweet — went down in Manhattan on June 11 & 12. The annual event, and website, was co-founded by Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry. This year’s conference was about “The Internet’s New Political Power.”
Anyway, Alexander was a late addition to the panel. He called the PDF organizers and asked to be included. They obliged, and he got his chance to deflect some blame. And he wasn’t entirely wrong: Walker, and by extension the RGA, had “won the election before we even had [the Democratic] candidate.” In the eight months before Barrett won the primary, for ostensibly being the most “electable” candidate, the Republicans framed the recall as an expensive waste of time, an abuse of the recall process — which should only be used to remove elected officials who’re demonstrably guilty of corruption. Walker hasn’t taken a perp walk (yet), so the recall was competently painted as a politically motivated hit job, “elections have consequences,” and if you don’t like the way the guy’s governed, well, we already have a mechanism for removing officials from office: they’re called elections, and they happen regularly. So, in a big way, a vote for Walker on June 5th, was a vote against the recall itself. Even cocktail party Nation writers buy into that shit, so the Children of The Cheese were bound to buy it, too.
But, as true as that may be, it’s important to remember that neither the WI Democrats, nor the national party, offered a compelling counter-narrative. A more competent evil would’ve been able to construct a resonant pro-union/assault on workers-type message. Gagnon could have. And he has.
Before slithering over to the RGA, Gagnon worked for a company called New Media Strategies. One of their biggest clients was the NFL Players Association. They hired the firm to defend its collective bargaining rights during the 2011 lockout. It worked. And Gagnon worked to make it work. Why? Because evil lacks principles, and the NFL Player Association pays a lot better than the teachers union — which makes sense because they run around in tight pants throwing and catching balls for a living. So when Gagnon took exception to my claim that tons of money = good messaging, it rang especially hollow. Sadly, as he and Alexander dominated the panel, and he didn’t make this claim until our time was up, I wasn’t able to share the above fact with the crowd. I guess I’m incompetently evil, too, and I’ll forever live with that personal democratic shame.
Other conference highlights included CNN & National Review contributor Reihan Salam’s absolutely meaningless talk, full of undefined jargon, unsupported claims and intellectual masturbation, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian saying that the internet is a flawless meritocracy which sees no race or sex (ha!), and executives from Google and Facebook talking about the importance of internet privacy without laughing. And seeing Mort Zuckerman running around wearing John Fund’s conference pass was pretty hilarious, too.
The whole thing was pretty retro, in a way — a self-congratulatory, “internet is good, and aren’t we all so important” kind of thing that could have been a series of TED Talks from about five years ago. It was slightly embarrassing. I’m free to say these things because my 15 minutes is officially over. Elections have consequences — for my career. And I’m being a bit of an evil jerk by just focusing on the bad. But I have to uphold my “bad boy” reputation, which I just learned I had at this conference, and is extra hilarious considering that I currently live with and care for my disabled mother. But don’t tell anyone; it’ll ruin my rep.
I actually got a tattoo at the conference. It was a temporary stick-on jobber that the Sunlight Foundation was giving away, but still. I’m a bad boy. A very bad boy.
In fact, most of #PDF12 was pretty great, and I’m honored to have been a tiny, albeit awkward, part of it. Tech guru, and dreadlocked “Comic Book Guy” dead-ringer, Jaron Lanier gave the Best. Talk. Ever. There were also a few Egyptian and Chinese bloggers whose dedication to the potentially democratizing force of a free and open internet was truly inspiring. Sadly, I had to cut out early, so I didn’t get to see former Onion editor, and Jack & Jill Politics dude, Baratunde Thurston speak. Shame — I’m very interested in How To Be Black. Because, by all accounts, I’m doing it wrong.
My favorite moment of the trip — that I can write about, winky face — was my lunchtime nap in Washington Square Park. There was a cool breeze, live-and-not-too-loud New Orleans jazz, soft grass under deep shade, and a wonderful dream that I won the Olympic gold in skee-ball. If I believed in heaven, that’s how I’d picture it. Exalted and fantastic peace amid the center of a crumbling civilization. Very restful. The park was across the street from the conference venue, the Skirball Center at NYU — which I read as “Skiball Center.” You can imagine my profound disappointment upon realizing my errors. But the dream made up for it.
The power to level the playing field, and truly democratize the world, is the budding dream of the internet. And to watch cats jump in and out of cardboard boxes. It worked with SOPA and PIPA, but as they were bills with direct implications for the free internet, which played across political lines, I’m not sure that that represents the future rule or the future exception.
The presumption is that any and all compelling message can and will spread across the internet. The naive aspect of that presumption is that what’s “compelling” is based in reality. It’s “compelling” that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. It’s “compelling” that unions are the ruination of the American economy. It’s “compelling” that Tom Barrett wants to confiscate your guns and use them to murder toddlers. Social media is a tool like any other. And until it can teach us all not to be such incredible idiots, if that’s even possible, the traditional manipulation industry — your junk food marketers, your AFPs, your Heritage Foundations, your RGAs and their evil, little Matthew Gagnons, etc. — just has one more tool to manipulate people.
As opposed to print, radio, and TeeVee, the internet isn’t a solely passive medium. People are actively engaged. The dream is that enough people can engage and win against a heavily funded manipulator on the internet. But people are huge fucking idiots. So we’ll just have to see about that.
Onward. To the future. And so forth.