Tim McCarthy
Director, Human Rights and Social Movements Program, Harvard University
03:46

A Twitter Revolution?

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While it's clear that media drives politics, "there's a more complicated and symbiotic relationship" between social media technologies and popular revolts.

Tim McCarthy

Timothy Patrick McCarthy is a Lecturer on History and Literature, Adjunct Lecturer on Public Policy, and Director of the Human Rights and Social Movements Program at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. He also teaches in the Committee on Degrees in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

A historian of social movements, Dr. McCarthy graduated with honors from Harvard College and received his Ph.D. in History from Columbia University, where he completed his dissertation under the direction of Eric Foner. Dr. McCarthy's research agenda focuses on the relationship between human rights and social movements in three main areas: race relations and civil rights; LGBT politics, policy, and advocacy; and modern-day slavery and human trafficking.

McCarthy has published two books, The Radical Reader: A Documentary History of the American Radical Tradition (New Press, 2003) and Prophets of Protest: Reconsidering the History of American Abolitionism (New Press, 2006), and his third book, Protest Nation: The Radical Roots of Modern America, is forthcoming from the New Press in 2010.

An outspoken and respected leader in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community, Dr. McCarthy was a founding member of Barack Obama's National LGBT Leadership Council, serves on the Board of the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Caucus, and, in 2009, delivered Harvard's prestigious Nicholas Papadopoulos Lecture, entitled "Stonewall's Children: Life, Loss, and Love after Liberation." He lectures widely on topics ranging from history and literature to politics and human rights.

Transcript

Tim McCarthy: The one thing that I would sort of caution is that I do think that the new online or virtual kind of political culture does have its limitations.  Certainly the swiftness with which we understand and have information and share information is a great advantage, that we just know more and we know it quicker.  We see more and we see it quicker.  We're able to document our own witness.  But the other thing that it does, and I think that this is crucial, is that it takes away, or it robs us in some sense, of the space that we share physically, right?  If we imagine ourselves as part of a community, that's powerful and that's important to have those kinds of virtual or imagined connections to other people.

But it's also important to be in the basement of a church, working out what you're going to do at the protest, to see each other, to hug each other, to hold hands and sing songs like they did in the civil rights movement, right?  To be physically in the same space like those young queer activists were at Stonewall in June of 1969, right?  The gathering of physical momentum as an engine for protest I think is very important, to be face to face with somebody.  You can only do so much virtually and online.  You can do a lot, and I think it's certainly given us advances that we have to take into consideration.

I think one of the reasons why  you know, to bring it back into the realm of mainstream politics  one of the reasons why Barack Obama was so successful was because he  like Howard Dean but to a much greater and more sophisticated effect  marshaled and mastered the new media technologies as a way to generate political momentum and political interest. 

And the same is true of social movements as well.  But I do worry, though  and the Obama campaign's a perfect example  you know, there were people that I worked with for over a year in the Obama campaign that I didn't meet until the inauguration, or that I didn't meet until the election.  Well, David Plouffe, who I met at Harvard this spring.  But, you know, obviously David Plouffe was someone who was in my world, and I in his, for many -- much more him in mine than I in his  but we were part of each other's worlds virtually for two years or a year and half.  And that was great, but I met him for the first time in April, which was fine.  He's a good guy.  I like spending time with him, and I do think that there's something about this kind of new media technology that robs us of that.

And when we think about the great successes of the civil rights movement and of the labor movement and of the women's movement and the abolitionist movement and all the great social movements that have transformed this nation and other nations, a lot of them were the results of meetings, of coming together in common spaces and organizing together, of having fights face to face, of holding one another accountable by saying "are you going to be there?"  And you saw this in the campaign.  And as much as, you know, a lot of it took place virtually, you know, we also went up to New Hampshire every weekend and we knocked on doors, and we stood in the middle of intersections with Obama signs, and we called people, right?  And we used a lot of the old-fashioned tools of community and political organizing that had worked for many, many years.  And so I think we need to not just in our rush to the future, in our sort of exuberance about all of this new media in the 21st century, I hope that we don't forget that there are some good old-fashioned community organizing strategies that got Barack Obama to a place that he could even think about running for president and having the kind of online campaign that was so, so successful and that has, quite frankly, redefined politics.

Recorded on: July 1, 2009


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