I recently had the opportunity to speak on globalization and democratization at a conference in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Because of globalization, we sometimes think we all now speak the same language. In some ways, we do all speak the same language. If I say, Hollywood, McDonalds, Sony, Nestle, De Beers, you all relate to me on one particular level. We have seen an internationalization of cultural icons. Shows like ‘Sex in the City,’ or films like ‘Bend it Like Beckham.’ Case in point. On an anecdotal note: Though I have lived in New York for more than ten years now, my sister-in-law came to the city last year for the first time, and she was able to point out many places in the city that were strange to me. She had seen them on TV, so she knew them. If she were not as smart as she is, she might have even thought that she therefore knew me, even though it was her first time meeting me.
There is indeed a danger that we can transfer that same sense of simplistic recognition to much more complex and abstract concepts, even if they are concepts that require much more dialogue. Take Democracy. Often, we think of it largely, simply as the right to vote. But isn’t Democracy also about a voice, a true political voice, and not just a vote? Isn’t it about equality of economic opportunity, a means to a livelihood, and not just investment opportunities: not just a dollar, a yen, an euro, a rand?
We spend a lot of time working on concepts and institutions, and we reach the point where we sometimes think our work is finished. Because they work at one level, we think they work all the time, or for everyone.
Globalization and Democratization as Works in Progress
Globalization, Democratization. Too often they are taken not just as abstract and debatable concepts but policy planks—finished goods, if you will—that simply can be exported or imported as the case might be. Francis Fukuyama famously argued that the development of Western Liberal Democracy essentially meant that history, that is, the evolution of the political process had ended. Captains of industry, heads of state had shown spectacularly in the 1920s and 1930s that they had not perfected themselves; in the 1940s, we showed that a final world peace was transitory—yet the idea that the freemarkets and Western liberal democracy are not infallible has come back enough into acceptance that we are again digesting mammoth accounting frauds in the United States and Europe, and again waging a “war to end all wars.”
Global markets and democracy need to take into account local needs and cultural considerations, because free markets and democracy must still be, by definition, unfinished where there is still inequity of voice, economic opportunity, health and welfare. The concept of international consensus can be a dangerous thing. Too often, it is not an international consensus, but the projection of power onto an institution or institutions. The International Monetary Fund, World Bank and United Nations pass resolutions, make loans or impose economic restrictions, often on smaller, weaker countries, even when those restrictions often favor the international investing community and not local labor, even when they favor the political outcome wanted by superpowers and not by those who live within a particular geography or culture.
The truth is that institutions often exist to institutionalize power. Since I am Taiwanese, I can tell you emphatically that the United Nations is an egregious example. Certain countries, some by historical accident, have a greater voice in the world than others. We call them, ironically, the Security Council. Countries like South Africa and Taiwan have a smaller voice in international affairs than their economic importance would seem to warrant. In Taiwan’s case, it is simply shut out.
Perhaps it’s idealistic to think it can be otherwise. It’s no coincidence that the weighting of international voices mirrors very much those who belong among the world’s major military powers, but how can an institution be truly global or democratic when it excludes on such a fundamental level? In a system of checks and balances, who checks, who balances these international institutions? Those with the checks and balances belong to a small and very selective club. To paraphrase Fareed Zakaria, ‘this is not rule of law, it is rule of the strong.’
Looking to Technology to Renew Grassroots Energy
We argue that in government, it is checks and balances that keep institutions young and vigorous. Again, we turn to Fareed Zakaria, who defines constitutional liberalism as "an individual’s right to life and property and the freedoms of religion and speech." Zakaria says this involves "checks on the power of government, equality under the law, impartial courts and tribunals, and the separation of church and state. In almost all of its variants, constitutional liberalism argues that human beings have certain natural (or ‘inalienable’) rights and that governments must accept a basic law, limiting its own powers, to secure them." Asking a government to limit its own powers is a tough proposition.
Zakaria could have also underlined the role of the journalist, the so-called "Fourth Estate," which in countries with greater press freedoms acts as a powerful check and balance on government. Media is not without its flaws. Traditional journalism does not have the ideal interactivity between itself and its constituents, and we have seen it become very institutionalized as well.
In the United States, we have seen consolidation of the media under a handful of publishing and broadcasting companies, The Washington Post Company, The Times Mirror, Knight-Ridder, Clear Channel. At the international level, we have seen the voracious investment appetite of Rupert Murdoch. In publishing, Bertlesmann. It is silly, of course, to think that consolidation means media conspiracies, but at the same time there is a real impact to all the cost-cutting, consolidating of editorial material and editors; there is an impact to the closer hewing to a bottom line—less diversity of voice. The media are often considered guardians of a true plurality, but even the media, as we have all seen, requires constant watching and rejuvenation. The answer seems to be the rise of alternative forms of journalism.
Consider, for instance, the impact of weblogs, or blogs, on the coverage of the U.S. presidential race between George Bush and John Kerry. The race was one of the most partisan in recent U.S. memory, and each news event grew in importance as the contest grew tighter and nastier. Media outlets became compromised, as some vocal Americans began charging that there was a bias.
Even a respected news television show like 60 Minutes was drawn in. The show seemingly succumbed to what was either the need to sensationalize its journalism or gave in to the political agenda of one of its producers when they ran a report that a memo substantiated the claim that George Bush had pulled political strings in order to get out of military service. The aftermath was nearly a circus. The purported memo was a photocopy. Conservative bloggers charged that the memo could not be real, since the typewriter font that the purported memo used did not exist during the time that Bush was supposedly doing his military service. More liberal bloggers fought a rearguard action explaining how some of the typefonts and superscript were available on certain typewriters back then. It was a fascinating exercise where ordinary citizens were able to publish their political opinions on a par with more powerful outlets; it harkened back to the pamphleteering days of the American Revolution.
The experts that had supposedly verified the authenticity of the memo backtracked, and 60 Minutes had to backtrack. The bloggers, particularly the conservative ones won a triumphal victory. The credibility of an old media outlet had been shot down. The downside, of course, was that this old media outlet and its ability to report on what many felt was still a legitimate news story, memo or no memo, was severely compromised. What the incident also showed was that news now has a true 24/7 cycle. We have moved way beyond CNN and the BBC.
A troubling side effect of the rise of this new journalism, at least in the guise of blogs, is that traditional journalism continues to get less respect in the eyes of many consumers of media. If you disagree with a viewpoint these days, you rail against it, or simply ignore it and go to an outlet—a blog maybe—that echoes your views. Too often now, we do not seek to be challenged by journalism. We want it to confirm our world views.
And yet—the new forms of journalism are shaking up the ways that we see the reportage of events, or even what we think of as reportage. The Filipino people’s power movement used cell phones to direct protesters where to mass. Ad hoc social networks provide the linkages that can generate a critical mass of opinion through these alternative forms of journalism. In the Ukraine, members of the Orange movement distributed their own version of the news—what they considered to be the real ground—level view of events, though text messaging, digital photos and digital videos that were passed from cell phone to cell phone. News of the Asian tsunami reached us almost instantaneously with photos and text messages from survivors and those reaching the areas of devastation earliest. These are exciting changes, because they have made it much more difficult for governments to suppress dissenting voices than the days when the PRC notably pulled the plug on CNN during its broadcast of the Tiananmen Incident. Moreover, we see more interactivity between media and the consumers of media. Truly, we see new meaning in the words "first person reporting."
Pundits call this movement citizen journalism. Korea’s Ohmynews had significant influence on Korean public opinion during the presidential elections it covered. LeMonde has elevated bloggers to the same level as that of its traditional columnists; they appear side by side on the pages of the newspaper. Such independent columnists have become as widely read, if not more widely read than traditional journalists, while traditional journalists like Christopher Hitchens and Andrew Sullivan have become bloggers. Journalists have formed a network called Reporters without Borders who are willing to go into military and political hot spots to provide reportage that is outside of official channels.
Pushing reportage to the grassroots level is particularly important in those places where journalism traditionally has largely been a mouthpiece for government. The challenges are that the news still has to be vetted, and it still must come across with credibility. There is a great benefit when we do not have editors censoring out individuality of thought, but we are still left with the problems of authority, credibility, legitimacy, and proper perspective. Sometimes, these new voices come to wield devastating power, as when a blogger named Matt Drudge reported on a certain dress worn by a certain woman that had certain importance to an American president.
Everywhere, we see the use of technology shaking up the old paradigms. News aggregation shakes up the relative prestige of news outlets. Search engine Google, which has international reach, aggregates news largely on the basis of when each particular news outlet reported the news, so that the Taipei Times and Xinhua can share the same importance on the "front page" of Google as CNN does. Consumers can customize their news pages so they see the news outlets of their own choosing.
Peer to peer and other technologies make it more challenging for old line media companies to impose stiffling restrictions on the use of content that consumers might have already legally bought. Consumers are able to download media in all its forms: images, sound, moving images, so that technology continues to be a way for the consumer to demand new information products and new forms of distribution.
Open source serves as another model for how information can be distributed away from governments, institutions and large sources of power. The open source model allows information, whether it be software or knowledgebases to be more easily transmittable across borders. Wikis, such as Wikipedia, allow groups to work on knowledgebases together, and one powerful tool they provide is that they allow knowledgebases to be easily translatable into many languages——even by those whose peoples would ordinarily be marginalized by governments who do not want them recognized—or by corporations who don’t find servicing them economically attractive or viable. As long as there are people willing to set aside the time, energy and resources, these resources can be created.
Articles have been written about Taiwanese film, language, literature and photography, artforms that have been traditionally marginalized. Traditional encyclopedias would not normally even write about the challenges of Taiwan’s identity on the international scene. Additionally, Taiwanese literature has been translated onto the Internet. Holopedia has helped to reinstitutionalize one of Taiwan’s common languages, and other Taiwanese languages such as Hakka and the aboriginal language have projects as well.
There have been those who have suggested that a strength of American democracy has been its community organizations. These are sometimes informal places where people’s voices can be heard. We have a need for grassroots organizations. Fukuyama says: "Social capital can be defined simply as a set of informal values or norms shared among members of a group that permits cooperation among them. If members of the group come to expect that others will behave reliably and honestly, then they will come to trust one another. Trust is like a lubricant that makes the running of any group or organization more efficient."
Tools like blogging, wikis and cell phone publishing are still nascent, but their potential is tremendous. Those willing to engage the political process have more channels to make their voices heard outside of official or corporate channels. More than having a vote, they can be heard. Otherwise illegitimate voices can be made legitimate. Government and large corporations can be made to listen. The challenge of citizen journalism is how those who love democracy, like those in this room who have dedicated their lives to its cause, can place more of these resources in the hands of more people.