Sunday, November 02, 2014

Stuff people care about

At Vox, Ezra Klein laments that Gamergate would be just a narrowly-specified row about video game culture and feminism except that a professional class of politicizers swooped in and politicized it --

Gamergate is going to happen again. As polarization proceeds, our political identities become powerful enough to drive our other identities. As Washington locks up, the political outlets that normally spend their time covering fights in Congress need to find fights that will engage their audience elsewhere. As cultural mores change ever more rapidly, the battles over what's acceptable to say and do will become even fiercer. And as everyone becomes more and more dependent on web traffic, skirmishes with deep digital roots will become increasingly attractive to cover.

The result will be a cycle we'll soon come to recognize: glancingly political fights will attract coverage from professionally politicized outlets and quickly be turned into deeply politicized wars. Once political identities are activated, these fights will spread far beyond their natural constituencies — in the Gamergate case, people who care about video games — and become part of the ongoing conflict between the red and blue tribes. Expect more Gamergates.

A couple of observations. First, this row was named Gamergate by the people involved in it long before the national media took notice. As in, Watergate. Which was a political scandal. So the framing of these shouting and roaring episodes as political already reflects a relationship between popular culture and politics that long precedes the Internet and a supposed acceleration of cultural differentiation. 

The second issue is whether these rows are really specialized arguments that polarized tribes then adopt and transform to general signals of position, as Klein says, or instead disagreements within an elite class that people one inch removed from (e.g. not regular readers of Vox) couldn't give a rat's arse about?

Let's put it in terms of the claim that political identities are driving other identities. One of the fascinating things about the USA is how much of it chugs along, at enormous scale, essentially oblivious to red and blue tribology (cities, schools, sports, and services, just to pick a few examples). Next week's inevitable crashingly low and unmotivated election turnout is just part of the illustration of that. Off course there is a lot of money sloshing around with an interest in people keeping stoked on particular issues, which it partly achieves by funding media outlets. But is it driving identity? That's a major stretch.