E-mazing! How the Modem Has Changed Politics

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(L)M. SPENCER GREEN/AP (R)MORRY GASH/AP

Undecideds are likely to decide the contest between George Bush and Al Gore

The invention of the stirrup — enabling armored knights to fight on horseback — changed history. The modem has done much the same thing. It has supplied millions with a weapon that allows them to fire instantaneous opinions through the air like tracer bullets, and thus to engage in daily cultural warfare on a scale never seen before in history.

You can argue this as a wondrous stimulation and expansion of democracy. On the other hand, the hair-trigger modem, wired directly to the adrenal glands and needing only a finger-twitch to Send, encourages a certain violence of opinion — impulsiveness that (human nature being what it is) hardens more quickly than before into dogmatism. Once you've sent it, you're committed to it, you've got to defend it: The thought becomes your identity, your uniform. Thus, on almost any subject — on gay scoutmasters, say, or capital punishment, or abortion — Americans accelerate at unnatural speeds toward absolutes, and sort themselves into fierce tribes to defend the absolute they've chosen. The fact that the combat is virtual (no physical danger) only adds to the gruesomeness of rhetoric — the flaming with verbal napalm.

Americans have always argued, and divided themselves into pro-slavery/anti-slavery tribes, say, or "Wet" and "Dry." But the computer modem revolutionizes controversy. Every man is a king. Every person a moral philosopher (or blowhard) of instantaneous global reach. The written word, once a priestly prerogative — magic, held secret — now is power in the fingers of the wired masses.

And so the tribes of the Decided form. This is great in many ways — sheer liberation, democracy juiced up to a new dimension. But with a dangerous side effect. To be of the tribe of the Undecided is to belong to a bloodless, dying breed — you are shunned, held in contempt. To be Undecided means you are still looking, suspending judgment, still thinking. A culture balkanized by sound bite does not tolerate the ambivalent — which may mean it does not tolerate certain traditional processes of thought. In a world armed with speedy modems, reason tends to yield to instinct. I have always thought there was an advantage to sitting on the fence for a while, being able to see both sides, and especially when the issue is one that does not concern me in an immediate way (and might even have been construed, in my former life, as being none of my business). I have not made up my mind about all kinds of things — including this election. I live in the drab little village of the Wishy-Washy, and say things like "on the other hand."

And all around me a tribalism of scathing certainties has grown up. In my right ear, I hear a continuous roar of Limbaugh, with its concussive blasts of certitude. With my left eye, I read The New York Times, the curia and house organ of America's new established church — the church of correctness and diversity — with all its rigid doctrines now embedded in the rules of corporations, of government, of universities. To defy the church's teachings (to be accused of Hate Speech, or Sexual Harassment, say) is to bring on the Inquisition, no kidding.

On the other hand, the drab village of the Wishy-Washy seems to be located at the 50-yard line of American public opinion in this presidential election. It is the village residents who will — surprise — decide the outcome. Al Gore is the very pontiff, the psychopomp, of the established church. The whole trouble with the campaign of George W. Bush, compassionate conservative, is that he seems a little unclear about the identity of his tribe. He has (curiously? wisely? incompetently?) muted his certitudes. In the village, we think there are strong reasons to vote for Gore; and strong reasons not to. Same with Bush.

Hmmm.