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November 1, 2004

against "messaging"

[On the plane returning from the American Library Association meeting in California]. The American Library Association (ALA) is committed to protect and expand the "public domain" or "knowledge commons"—that vast and growing heritage of information, ideas, and culture that has traditionally been free, but that is now threatened with excessive control as companies try to copyright old material, patent new software, and develop technology to block the lending and sharing of ideas. The public domain is a classic example of a public good—it benefits everyone to a fairly small and intangible degree, but a few special interests benefit much more from controlling it. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to mobilize a mass constituency to preserve it.

The same could be said of most causes I work on, especially political/electoral reform, civic renewal, and civic education. Since the 1970s, the progressive national organizations have developed a toolkit for mobilizing people in favor of these public goods—and other ones, such as environmental protection. Their classic tools include: boiling down a complex message into a short slogan or statement, testing that statement in focus groups, advertising it, finding celebrities to endorse it, persuading allied groups to promote it, identifying cases and examples that boldly illustrate it, attacking enemies who oppose it, incorporating it into school curricula, and scaring people into thinking that it's a crucial cause. At a more practical and operational level, their toolkit includes mass mailings to raise funds, grants from foundations, mini-research reports, conferences, websites, bumper-stickers, news alerts, and lobbyists.

I have ethical objections to this approach; I find it manipulative and often arrogant (because the promoters of a message assume that they know the truth about their issue). But even if my ethical qualms are overly squeamish, there is another problem with the standard progressive toolkit: it no longer works. True, the environmental movement used all the tools I've mentioned and succeeded in changing Americans' thinking and public policy. But we have only so much attention and time, and environmentalists now occupy a big piece of it. There is less room for other public interests.

An alternative strategy is to encourage and organize ordinary people to experience public good directly and creatively. For example, the base of the environmental movement consists of people who know and love nature from personal experience. The base of the movement for better civic education is social studies teachers. Likewise, we need to get people organized to enjoy—and contribute to—the public domain of knowledge and information. If we are successful, people will not have to be mobilized, but will seek out a "message" and a "policy agenda" from groups like the ALA. They will have enough direct experience that they will be able to analyze and criticize this message and agenda; thus the national organizations will be accountable to them. If people at the grassroots accept the message, then they will be motivated, knowledgeable, and organized enough to promote it effectively.

This strategy depends upon institutions with deep roots in communities. Libraries are perfect examples. That is why I (as a non-librarian) am interested enough in the ALA to have attended several meetings. It is also why I would be disappointed if the ALA put its scarce resources into "messaging" instead of organizing people to create public goods in libraries.

Update: Brad Rourke made a similar argument in the Christian Science Monitor recently. And be sure to check out Harry Boyte's comment on this post. Frederick Emrich has an interesting and persuasive reply to this post.

Posted by peterlevine at 3:50 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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