Monday, September 05, 2005

Fragmenting Spheres

Here in Philadelphia, the weekly "City Paper" contains an article about a weekly get-together of bloggers. "Drinking Liberally" has apparently taken off in liberal circles in the city, frequently attracting 40-50 bloggers, and is now even getting the occasional visit from local politicians willing to meet their detractors face-to-face. Apparently, since the end of the Presidential election, bloggers took a while to find something to turn their attention to, but quickly found their niche in local politics. In the state of Rick Santorum, that's probably not all that surprising.

Now, certainly if it's encouraging the mingling of politicians with the "regular folk", then that's all well and good. Especially the regular folk who take the trouble to be well informed of political issues and are unafraid to attach their names to their opinions when putting them out in the public sphere. Carefully media-managed photo-ops do far too much to degrade the reputation of politicians. Did it really help John Kerry to be holding rallies in the overwhelmingly Democratic city of Philadelphia to make it seem as if he had millions of charged supporters? Wouldn't the time have been better spent pressing the flesh and trying to win over some of those who would have previously seen themselves as conservative?

There, of course, lies a deeper issue. Why should a main drinking meeting of bloggers be limited solely to those who are going to feel comfortable with the epithet of liberal? (If, incidentally, any Philadelphia bloggers read this and can inform me to the contrary, I'd be delighted to hear from them) One of the worst things that can happen in politics is that discussion takes place in rarefied spheres that bear little relation to the real world, and in particular the juxtaposition of right and left side by side. The political class in Britain spends all its time in party think-tanks, and is, I am sure, one of the huge contributory factors to the way that politicians become convinced that it is presentation and not policy that makes the difference in the voters minds.

The real strength of blogging lies in the fact that the "new media" have the chance to engage with each other in an entirely different way. As I have said before, blogging isn't necessarily a medium for political campaigning - instead, it should be used as a means of having genuinely interesting, deep and wide-ranging debate. Engaging with the ideas of other bloggers, rather than just linking to posts we like, or trying to flog the Guardian for employing a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, is the best way that we can make a contribution to political life. We may even throw up new ideas or surprising areas of agreement.

To do that, of course, requires consorting with the enemy. We all like to go out for a drink, I'm sure, and those of us who blog probably like to have a discussion about politics while we're at it. Do we really want to be discussing on minute levels of disagreement with people who share the same opinions as us, or do we want to be challenged in greater detail on the basic assumptions that we hold? To have to actually fight our corner. I know which I prefer. I want my opinions to be challenged - if I can't defend them to those who disagree with me, they're probably not worth a damn anyway. Which is why it's great to see politicians engaging with their opponents in such settings. It's just regrettable that the bloggers don't want to be put on the back foot themselves.