While reading Walter Lippmann’s “A Preface to Politics” my attention was mainly drawn to his discussion of the red herring. The red herring — a metaphor used to describe the obfuscation of, or distraction from, a particular object(ive) — is portrayed by Lippmann (1913, p261) as both “pest” and “benefit,” as a political maneuver which can be employed as “a matter of misrepresentation and spite” or as an “honest attempt to enlarge the scope of politics.” Having just given a presentation at the University of Surrey, which discussed the role of young people as both red herring and cultural innovators in current ‘debates’ over cyberspatial regulation, I took my unexpected discovery of Lippmann’s red herring analysis as sign of synchronicity.
Mitt Romney — former Governor of Massachusetts and current frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination — has been noted for his upbeat, gee-whiz campaign style, channeling 1950s nostalgia and a return to the “good ol’ days.” A recent campaign ad titled “Ocean” (which caught my eye on c-span the other day) puts “the children” front and center. With imagery of children playing in the ocean, Mitt’s voice informs the public of his desire “to clean up the waters in which our children have been swimming.” Way to go Mitt!!! As a former Bostonian I’ve waited a long time for you to come around on environmental issues, so how do we clean up all the pollutants which permeate the waters in which our children have been swimming? What’s that Mitt – with censorship…?
Ah yes, pornography. Of course Mitt doesn’t want to actually “clean up” the waters in which our children swim, he just wants to “clean up” the media – to hell with the real water! Quoting a Peggy Noonan article (article here) written after the Columbine shootings, Mitt warns about the media “cesspool” in which our children are swimming and and states his intent “to keep pornography from coming up on their computers.” Hardly an instant of “enlarging the scope of politics” this use of young people as red herring serves as a distraction from the issues of media censorship and government surveillance and instead misrepresents them as a simple matter of protecting our children. Additionally, this discourse portrays young people as helpless victims who need to be saved — demoralizing their sense of agency — in order to rationalize an erosion of the public’s civil liberties. While Mitt’s commercial is just one example from a single presidential candidate, this discourse has been frequently employed by both media (such as NBC’s To Catch A Predator or Time Magazine’s “Cyberporn” issue) and the state to command the public’s attention. Look no further than the U.S. Attorney General and FBI Director’s recent argument that Google must turn over all emails, internet traffic records and internet search data to the government in order to battle the national threat of child pornography.Laying the civil liberties argument aside (for the moment), this “save the children!” harangue is having a chilling affect on childhood, particularly within youth spaces such as the home and the school. As Cindi Katz (2007) has argued, a sense of ontological insecurity is being socially reproduced in both parenting practices and childhood, transforming the home into a reflection of the state and thus normalizing the process of surveillance during childhood. Torin Monahan (2006) adds, that such practices — particularly within schools — portray young people as either “victims or criminals” who must be “protected or controlled.
But such a duality presents a false choice since neither option portrays the young person as a “citizen” who could actually be “engaged.” Either through processes of protection or control, agency is removed from the young person and feeds a citizenry that is either dependent on the state to filter its information, or one that is subjected to consistent “risk management” by the state. Under both conditions, a sense of ontological fear and insecurity is promoted, surveillance is normalized, and political disengagement becomes standardized. What was that about cleaning up the water Mitt???
Rather than using young people as a political ploy to prevent a real debate over the role of commerce and the state in surveillance and censorship, perhaps we should be engaging young people in the debate. After all, if they are the ones swimming in this “water” wouldn’t their input provide some much needed first-hand experience? Its seems to me that engaging young people as participants (not as victims or as criminals) in this “debate” would only serve to enlarge its scope and legitimate its outcome. What say you Mitt?