Tune in, turn it off, drop in on your neighbor

'The Politics of Deceit' sees the Internet as a ticket to your 'hood

Distraction may be the biggest problem with America. Judging by the lifespan of any particular social cause (The American farmer, anyone? Land mines?), there seems to be ample evidence that television and video games have indeed shortened our attention span. There are so many delicious diversions that make us feel good without having to actually do anything to make the world a better place. We can sit back and commiserate with our disaffected liberal-leaning friends before heading out for a cocktail and bowling at Sons of Hermann Hall, and still make it home in time for the Jon Stewart Show.

How did it all come to this? Reformed political operative and Austin resident Glenn W. Smith has a few ideas that he puts forward in The Politics of Deceit - a book that is far more engaging than it sounds. Many of his ideas have roots in the media, not surprising considering that Smith is also a reformed journalist. He is late of MoveOn.org's Defend Democracy Campaign and has started his own website/movement at www.DriveDemocracy.org.

"One of the things we have to overcome are the messages that say that our individual lives don't matter," says Smith, citing studies that show that the single most reliable factor determining whether or not someone votes is their self-confidence as a citizen. The way in which economically poorer people are treated reinforce their status, says Smith. "Less affluent people spend more time standing in line," subtly reinforcing the idea that they have less power and matter little to the larger picture.

The Politics of Deceit:
Saving Freedom and Democracy From Extinction

By Glenn W. Smith
John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
$24.95, 237 pages
ISBN: 0471667633
But the disease of disengagement has atrophied the polis as a whole. "Free is a relative term, it's a stand-in for responsibility ... We've got to get out of our homes and engage people one on one," he argues, acknowledging that the Internet presents both opportunity - such as the growth of independent media and grassroots political organizing - and danger: Spending too much time at our computers encourages us to identify with virtual affinity groups rather than our local community.

In person and in his book, which manages to be both philosophical and pragmatic, Smith also targets the media's complicity in remaking citizens as consumers: "Identity politics becomes identity consumption."

"The last time `voter participation increased` in a significant way was the New Deal ... `the` programs had powerful local components," he says, but Smith is a moderate who is not a fan of government programs that don't have a local tie-in. His ideas for involving citizens locally, he claims, are neither identity nor party affiliated: rides for the elderly and disabled, tutoring programs. I'm not sure Smith has the right idea here, since what seems to get folk's blood heated beyond the catatonic state are issues such as FCC regulations and organic food standards. His website, however, features Texas stories with strong political tie-ins, so he may be as wily as his pedigree suggests. •

By Elaine Wolff


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