Today, in the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan has another take on the democratizing tendencies of the internet. Like Tocqueville, she points out that the more democratic a culture gets, the more it tends to level things down. Of particular concern to Noonan, and for good reason, is how coarse the rhetoric surrounding women has gotten in the media:
This week marks the 20th anniversary of the Year of the Woman, declared by someone in 1992 to mark and encourage the entrance of so many women into American politics.
At the exact same moment something else was happening in our public life, and it had equal or greater impact on our culture—the rise of the Internet.
Suddenly, by the mid 1990s, there was a new public place of complete freedom. Suddenly everyone—in blog posts, on personal websites, on news sites, in comment threads—had an equal voice and was operating on an equal field. The Internet became—this is America, we have a certain DNA—a bit of a Wild West. It was exciting and invigorating, a new frontier, but it held dangers, too, and darkness.
When anyone can say anything, anyone will. When the guy in the basement having his third Grey Goose finally got a telephone line on AOL, he found out he could take his Id out for a ride. He could log on, indulge his angers, and because it was anonymous he never had to stand by his words, or defend them. He never had to be embarrassed in front of his kids.
Internet is a breakthrough in human freedom. But over the past 20 years it has had a certain leveling effect. It hypes the cheap and glitzy, it reduces the worthiness of a thought to the number of clicks it gets.It has helped set a new cultural tone. It is not a higher one than we've enjoyed in the past.
Our comics and commentators went with the flow, but it only flows downward. . . .
Interesting food for thought. It raises a fundamental question about American democracy: Is the democratization of our mass culture--as represented by the internet--concerning because it drags the culture down to the lowest common denominator, or is it good because, in its driving populism, it serves as a check on elitism?