Last evening I caught the first episode of Ken Burns’ new documentary, “Prohibition” – on which more anon, as the series progresses – and noted that one of the commentators on the program was Harvard Law Professor Noah Feldman. I have been familiar with Prof. Feldman for a number of years, from the excessive amount of time I have spent watching C-Span Book TV on lazy, Sunday afternoons. Weekend C-Span is a place where those of us who like to listen to discussions of history, culture, and public policy tend to gather from the comfort of our couches, and drift in and out of consciousness, as we hear debates on topics such as whether Mary Todd Lincoln suffered from bipolar disorder. Prof. Feldman is also inevitably one of the more nattily dressed people on C-Span, and even though I often disagree with his conclusions about the future of American foreign policy, as something of a clotheshorse myself I have often tipped my hat to him on that score.
Among Prof. Feldman’s contributions to the first episode of “Prohibition”, were some particularly interesting insights with respect to how key changes in other laws had to take place in order for the 18th Amendment to become legally and fiscally practicable. As a Catholic of Iberian descent, I have always found the entire concept of the prohibition of alcohol and its rationale – such as the notion that Jesus and the early Christians drank non-alcoholic grape juice – to be completely ludicrous. Then again, I did not live in 1900 America where there were saloons on every corner, and drunken louts fighting in the streets.
After the first episode ended, I decided to see if Prof. Feldman was on Twitter, so that I might drop him a line to compliment his work on the film. As it turns out, he is not, or if he is he does not use his proper name as his Twitter handle. However what I did find, curiously enough, was an article of his published yesterday in Business Week on the subject of Twitter and its applicability in the future of political movements. [N.B. Ah, the vagaries of Twitter: how very randomly interconnected it is, if you make the effort to spend some time there.]
Essentially, Prof. Feldman’s thesis is that while Twitter can bring people together for events, whether social or political, it is not yet a substitute for the hardscrabble work of real political action, nor does it possess in virtual form enough of the human element of charisma that is a necessary part of bringing a movement to fruition. Indeed, as Ken Burns’ documentary showed last evening, there were many fits and starts by various groups before Prohibition finally became a viable political movement. It took real organization – in an age long before Twitter – to make that truly odd chapter of American history happen.
In this respect, and following somewhat along Prof. Feldman’s lines, one can see how Twitter is something like a virtual saloon from Ken Burns’ film. Here one can gather with those of like opinions, and attack those who disagree with those opinions, but with hashtag insults and blocking, rather than with drunken fisticuffs and dueling with broken beer bottles. There is always plenty of talk of politics on Twitter, of course. And there is also plenty of talk about entertainment – particularly sports, which sends me away from Twitter for many hours, as I have written about previously. Yet there seems to be very little in the way of deep conversation.
Is this a bad thing? Does it mean that those of us who enjoy spending time on Twitter are incapable of forming more complex thoughts? Is it impossible for the average tweeter to engage in meaningful conversations at a deeper level than what passes for humor in the Twitterverse?
Perhaps for some people on Twitter this is true. It has been appalling to discover that thousands of people with access to digital technology are incapable of using proper spelling or grammar within a limit of 140 characters. Lindsay Lohan is the Twitter equivalent of Mrs. Gaskell, by comparison to many of these individuals.
However, Twitter at its best can also be something akin to an artistic forum, when it is used by those who appreciate the flexibility of words for creative purposes. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it is not something which many are capable of doing well; this requires a certain appreciation for the English language that is often lacking today. The bon mot, so long vanished from most of today’s rather banal entertainments, is very much alive on Twitter.
And a bit more frequently than the perfect turn of phrase, which has always been elusive, I find that some of the best tweets come from the unexpected connections or juxtapositions that arise from a particularly observant tweeter keeping his wits about him. Take for example, this example of an observational tweet from my youngest brother, or this equally observant but unexpected juxtaposition from Georgetown Patch Editor-in-Chief Shaun Courtney. True, neither of these good people plans – so far as I am aware – to ignite a political movement, but then, it does not seem to me as though there is a requirement that they do so.
Twitter can be a tool, and a very effective one when used well, but we need to cut it some slack. Prof. Feldman would argue that, at least in its current incarnation, and on this point at least I would have to agree, Twitter cannot substitute for real political action when attempting to change a government or a policy. Yet that being said, one can and should allow Twitter to be what it is, i.e. a kind of giant text messaging machine, and leave it at that. Fortunately, the more I use Twitter, the more I realize what a profoundly useful tool it is for connecting people of like interests incredibly quickly, so long as Twitter is simply the means by which to come to be introduced to such people, rather than an end unto itself.
Imagine if temperance vigilante Carrie Nation had access to Twitter back in the day…