Saturday, January 24, 2009

Todays Little Choices

It's been quite a week for democracy and people power.

Barack Obama's first inaguration was the media event of the week, with everyone from 5Live to the Daily Mail queuing up to kiss the ring. Obama recognised in his speech that leading the USA also involves leading the world. Even though the rest of us have no say in it, the choice of President made by the USA will affect our politics, economy and society.

And how many in the US actually made that choice? Obama won with 52.9% of the popular vote, which with a high turnout translated into 1 in 3 of the total adult population. His early decisions - on Guantanamo and international funding for abortion - affect people who had no say in that election. It's a reminder that when we vote we vote on behalf of others, not just ourselves.

They get a President, We get a Presenter
Back in the Messiah-free UK Jonathan Ross has returned, after his 3 month suspension. Many have put the BBC's response down to a campaign against Ross which resulted in nearly 40,000 complaints being sent to the BBC. I wonder if any of those against that campaign were involved in this one, which helped torpedo government moves to keep MP's expenses secret. With hundreds of people using the internet to raise the issue with MP's, there was a sudden change in the Westminster wind, and a Tory-Labour deal came rapidly unstitched. Was this what Hazel Blears had in mind when she explored how the internet could enhance democracy?

Less succesful were the 300+ complaints against the Agnostibus - the Advertising Standards Authority ruled that the slogan "There is Probably No God, now stop worrying and enjoy life" didn't breach the advertising code, being "an expression of the advertisers opinion" and that "the claims in it were not capable of objective substantiation." Would they have got a different result with 40,000 protesters? Or do some things stay true no matter what public opinion thinks? The weird thing is the ASA have ruled that atheism, and the claim that belief in God causes you to worry and stop enjoying life, can't be substantiated. So who won?

Meanwhile, though total figures don't seem to be public yet, I imagine that Ulkrika Johnsson's vote on Celebrity Big Brother knocks all of the above (except Obama) into a very small cocked hat. It would be dispiriting to think too much about it, but far more of us will take the time to vote on a reality TV show (or complain if John Sargeant is booted off), than to lobby our MP over a matter of justice and truth. This leaves the democratic process in the hands of the few, not the many - it is only those who are committed who can locate and pull the levers of power.

A funny thing has happened to choice. 100 years ago, women were fighting for the right to vote, to choose their political leaders. In an age when few economic or social choices were available, the right to exercise power through the ballot box was a unique opportunity to influence things. Since then there has been a massive change, as the power to choose has extended from politics, to economics, family structure, personal identity, gender roles and religious preferences. Choice is now a fundamental right for 3 years olds - chatting to a teacher at our local pre-school yesterday, they have to offer every activity as a 'choice' to the children, despite having dozens of 'learning outcomes' to deliver.

Weve got used to exercising many of these choices through consumption: what we buy, wear and do is part of our identity. At the same time, the Big Brother effect has created a parody of choice. Douglas Coupland once defined marketing as the art of feeding people's waste back to them in such a way that they don't realise it's not real food. The mobile phone and TV production companies one day woke up and realised that they could sell 'choice' back to us in a form which made them money.

And the more Gordon Brown tells us that the credit crunch is the result of global factors beyond his control, rather than our economy's quiet divorce from Prudence, the more text voting looks like a fun diversion and lobbying Parliament a waste of time. Even some prominent bloggers have taken to trying to stitch up public votes. Or was it campaigning?

So now to my choice: in my inbox is a newsletter from No2ID, warning of a key Commons vote next week on data protection, and an amusing circular email from a friend. Which one I choose to read might affect the country I end up living in. It should be a no-brainer, but......

this is a cross post from Touching Base, a regular column hosted by the Wardman Wire.

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