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The dust and the butterfly

About the author
Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and author of the new e-book Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street, also to be published in an expanded edition, in paperback, this August (HarperCollins).

Sometime in 2000, my friend the social philosopher Steven Lukes passed on to me in New York a document heralding a prospective internet venture: an international magazine devoted to debating (but why be modest?) the central questions of our time. The prospectus was, to my taste, an impressively fancy as well as fancifully impressive document, full of colourful bar charts, bullet points, variable fonts, and – mirabile dictu! – clear and vivid prose. It was both more elaborate and more titillating than the sort of black-and-white texts that normally cross my desk – and more promising. "Anthony Barnett asked me to give you this," said Steven. "He wants you involved in his project."

I was impressed, and not only by the colour display. The document was persuasive. The internet was taking shape and the time was evidently nigh for a cross-border format that encouraged reasoned dispute about political and civilisational matters, the higher journalism, and God knows what else. Anthony Barnett's reputation for intelligent political-entrepreneurial flair had preceded him so this prospectus seemed like more than an idle fancy or a stroke of good luck.

Todd Gitlin is professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University. He has written eleven books, among them Letters to a Young Activist (Basic Books, 2003) and The Intellectuals and the Flag (Columbia University Press, 2006). His website is here

A small selection of Todd Gitlin's writings in openDemocracy:

"The ordinariness of American feelings" (October 2001)

"Rock of Sages" (December 2001) – on Bob Dylan

"The Clinton legacy and America" (August 2003)

"The forces of reason and unreason" (November 2004) – the last weekly "Our Election" column of 2004

"The authority of anti-authority" (November 2005)

I went to London in January 2001, to teach for a semester, and on arriving there went to look Anthony up. With customary enthusiasm he invited my wife and me to visit him at home in Tufnell Park. There, after a suitable lubrication of tongues and minds, we were ushered into the adjoining garage to see if the future worked and, if so, what it might look like. A century earlier, tinkerers in garages played with their crystal radio sets and imagined they were reinventing the world. Well, why not?

I have the odd recollection that the garage was so crowded with miscellaneous gear and detritus that I saw it through a wide-angle lens. There should have been a dramatic moment when a dust cover is lifted but there wouldn't have been room for it. Unfazed, the impressive young Paul Hilder gave a demonstration of the site and – presto! – convinced us that the future was rushing headlong into the garage (with the dust).

Inevitable techno-snafus were minimal – impressive enough for a start! The openDemocrats were making their thing up as they went along, but they were already generating that welcome air of learning from experience. Techno-proficiency was the rule, and let's say proto-professionalism, though I didn't quite grasp the butterfly logo at first. Later, when I saw these little butterflies flapping their wings as new pages succeeded other pages, I got the point. (Now I think of it, was this a demonstration of the famous chaos-theory effect of a tiny random act changing the world?)

James Curran, then as now professor of communications at London's Goldsmiths College, was there at Anthony's, too. We would (with the experienced television journalist David Elstein) co-edit a "media strand". We weren't hard to convince. Everyone we met associated with the adventure was full of bonhomie and good will.

When openDemocracy went live, albeit in pilot form, it looked from the start professional. A dizzying word, but this time it would (we hoped) mean not forbidding or exclusive but serious. Caspar Melville came on to do most of the active commissioning and editing. Readers who look back at the early months will judge the results. Myself, I note with pleasure that the debates we commissioned on media concentration and the public-service idea are still well worth reading. By editing contributions, sometimes a bit muscularly, we compelled disputants to address other disputants at their strongest, not weakest, points – a characteristic that has become, for me, synonymous with grown-up debate.

By the time I went back to New York at the end of May, I was sold on the model, even if fairly clueless as to how I would function as Western Hemisphere poohbah, or North American editor. Who cared? Energy was eternal delight. That summer, the globalisation debates onsite were urgent, fresh, and unusually frank. I was impressed with what came in during the Genoa G8 demonstrations in July. It seemed we could engage activists and theorists in a high-level way.

If I had ever had doubts about this enterprise-in-the-making, there came 11 September and the doubts were beside the point. Urgency boiled over. Cross-border channels of openness and democracy were at a premium as cant filled the air (along with the stench of the pulverised Twin Towers). Solidarity was no empty word. I felt all sorts of feelings in those days. One of them was gratitude that openDemocracy was open for business – a feeling that did not diminish.

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