Voicing America

Anthony Barnett
31 March 2004

America looms large for all of us, and never more than when its people are deciding their own future, their own direction. Our coverage of the United States elections has, at its core, three columns, three different voices, three evolving arguments with and about America.

With this edition of openDemocracy John Hulsman joins us with a new column. His bi-weekly reports from the capital city, add to Todd Gitlin’s weekly updates in ‘Our election year’ and Siva Vaidhynathan’s monthly reflections on America’s ‘Remote control’ relationship with the world.

Todd Gitlin analyses the election battle as he sees it – from New York, or wherever he happens to be – this week he files from Athens.

Every two weeks, John Hulsman of Washington’s Heritage Foundation will cast his realist eye over the administration’s foreign policy as it is fought out at home and overseas.

And every month Siva Vaidhyanathan of New York University, familiar to openDemocracy readers for his major engagements with info-anarchy and peer-to-peer networking, reports on the trends reshaping the USA. (Next week his column looks at how Karl Rove’s Republican makeover of Texas fuelled George W. Bush’s march to the presidency.)

A fair blend?

The question you might ask about this mix is: does it represent balance, impartiality, representation and fairness?

If I may be excused a political cliché, the answer is ‘No, no, no, and no’ (after all they are all male voices; we know we need more women columnists). But we are not looking for stiflingly predictable coverage. If an article is unbalanced, unrepresentative and unfair but nonetheless seeks to make a point that is grounded in reality, we’ll make it a lead story.

openDemocracy seeks to publish all good arguments so that readers can make up their minds for themselves. This is the point I make in the forum where members are currently debating whether openDemocracy is biased. We seek contributors who wish to engage with others – and are therefore willing to see their own minds changed by a good call or a new assessment from those they disagree with.

We call this openness. Its aim: to bring to a worldwide readership the classical qualities of accurate informed judgment, clear writing, accessible argument and a longer view – and in the process to open minds and possibilities.

I explored what ‘openness’ meant for openDemocracy writing from New York as the Iraq invasion was launched a year ago. I felt that war especially would present a test for us to publish different arguments at their strongest while refusing space to apologists for terror or deniers of atrocity, or the know-all cynics.

Now an election of worldwide importance provides another test for openDemocracy: to educate ourselves in the nature of democratic engagement – particularly in a media-saturated environment (Todd Gitlin dissects one example in his column going up alongside this note).

So we hope in principle that a Bush-backing Republican (Karl Rove, indeed) will want to turn to Gitlin knowing that he or she will come away wiser about how the election argument is evolving; we want a leftist, non-western, anti-imperialist reader to click impatiently on Hulsman to understand how Washington thinks. In both cases intelligent readers will enjoy learning and being taken by surprise.

Our aim in publishing these writers is to create an atmosphere where well-argued partiality – not neutrality – flourishes.

The twist is in what we mean by ‘well-argued’. I’ll put in the negative. There is too much of the clever Parliamentary style, British tradition of denigrating opponents while evading the important issues. This form has now migrated to the media, in which ‘winning’ meant not having the better case but being better at destroying who one is against (this is the sickness at the heart of political communication analysed for us by David Marquand in relation to Britian’s Hutton inquiry). It starts with belittlement and ends with full-blown character assassination.

We will see a lot of this in the American election, from all sides. This style implies that it values authenticity and integrity in public figures as the bearers of consistency. But it is, instead, driven by cynicism and prejudice whose objective is to stop people from thinking for themselves – especially, perhaps, one’s own supporters.

One consequence is that Americans become increasingly drawn not just into their own election, but into the entrails of its dirty-tricks, with the rest of the world assigned to irrelevance.

Our larger aim in 2004 is to try and counter this by bringing the rest of the world into an engagement with Americans. We will build on these three columns by publishing voices from outside the USA on what its policies entail for citizens outside its borders and therefore also, eventually, for those within.

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