January 2009

Taking on the System: Rules for Radical Change in a Digital Age.

A Book Review by Thomas Vincent

For those who feel that – in the words of radio personality Randi Rhodes – “The news has been cancelled,” Markos Moulitsas Zuniga’s new book “Taking on the System: Rules for Radical Change in a Digital Age,” will be as welcome as a whiff of fresh air to a trapped miner. Best known as the founder of the popular political website Daily Kos, Moulitsas provides a fascinating look at a revolutionary new media phenomenon: the political news blog. While not quite a “how-to book,” – there are no instructions for setting up a website –“Taking on the System” is nonetheless a resource every budding blogger will want to have on his or her shelf. It is that rarest of commodities, a book that not only points out the flaws in a system, but also gives concrete examples of how to affect change.

At its core, the book has two themes. First it is a polemic against what Moulitsas calls “gatekeepers,” elitists who protect the status quo by belittling those whose “qualifications” don’t measure up to a standard defined by the elitists themselves. Second the book is a paean to those independent souls who refuse to let the gatekeepers keep them from expressing themselves and affecting the world around them. As Moulitsas puts it, “The world is often changed most radically by people who refuse to ‘know their place.’”

From examples of American blogs such as “Talking Points Memo” and “Daily Kos,” to political movements like MoveOn.org, as well as foreign web based networks such as Ukraine’s “Maidan,” which helped spawn the “Orange Revolution,” Moulitsas shows how ordinary individuals, frustrated with major media’s lack of investigative cohunes, are bypassing traditional media and becoming their own alternative news sources. Usually created on a shoestring budget, blogs all across the world are affecting the political landscape and influencing public opinion by offering people a chance to reclaim their power, one voice at a time. As Moulitsas says: “Making politics and causes participatory, exciting, and fun is key to sustaining citizen involvement.”

Moulitsas’ passion for his topic is evident on every page. Unabashed in his left-wing views, his “David vs. Goliath” narrative remains constant. “As we become conscious of our own collaborative power, we are taking charge of our culture and our politics, not because someone gave us permission, but because we… have roused ourselves from a restless sleep and realized that no permission is necessary.” This guy doesn’t just dream of revolution, he is the revolution.

Moulitsas is proud of the success his and other blogs have had in shaking up the established order of the media world. “When your enemies begin to notice you and attack you – you have arrived.” Nevertheless he remains humble about his role in changing the political landscape. In quoting his own blog entry he writes: “Did I play a role? Sure, a supporting role. A small role. But the beauty of the medium is that a lot of ‘small roles’ add up to something incredible.” Thus, Moulitsas doesn’t view himself as the father of the progressive blogosphere; more like the obstetrician who gave the tyke it’s first slap on the rear.

If I have one critique of the book it is Moulitsas’ tendency to rely on military metaphors to make his points. Chapter headings such as: “Raise an Army,” “Don’t Cross Enemy Lines,” and “Don’t Bring a Spork to a Gunfight,” would seem equally at home in Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.” (Okay, maybe not that last one.) Moulitsas also displays a curious ethical ethos that some peace activists might find disturbing. For example: “The only issue when considering a legally permissible tactic is whether the action will help further your cause. Efficacy, and not morality, is the governing principle.” Sounds suspiciously like something Karl Rove might have written.

These small criticisms aside, “Taking on the System” is an inspiring and informative book. To anyone frustrated with the current state of politics and looking for positive ways to affect change, “Taking on the System” offers up real life examples of individuals who have done just that. And while his politics lie to the left of Barack Obama, Moulitsas presents a similar message of optimism and hope. To the question: “Can we as individuals change the world?”; Taking on the System” shouts out loud and clear. “Yes we can!”