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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[…]

Historian Tim McCarthy argues that new media isn’t necessarily the best method for organizing the next great social movement.

Question: How is technology changing the way social movements operate?

Tim McCarthy: The best-selling autobiographies of the 19th century were slave narratives, were narratives were written by or written for fugitive slaves, telling their stories of their escape from slavery to freedom.  And so this book looks at all these different  this print culture and these different technologies and media, to look at how they constituted an alternative political space where people  blacks and women and radicals and people who would never be elected, or could be elected, to public office had a political voice, and that they shaped the politics of the culture within which they lived.  And this social movement, I argue, was engineered by this print culture in a way that preserved the radicalism, that preserved the democratic and multiracial spirit, that ultimately gave the country its flavor after the formal abolition of slavery during the Civil War and the aftermath of the Civil War.

And, you know, you can extend that all the way to today, right?  You know, the radio profoundly shaped the way that people related to, for instance, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  He was literally, through his fireside chats on the radio, in their rooms.  I remember my grandparents, who were very poor recent immigrants who came to this country and who would tell stories about what it was like to have him in their living room through these chats on the radio.  So that transformed, very, very radically I would argue, the relationship between citizens and their president and their elected officials, particularly Roosevelt.

And then obviously TV and cable news and the advent of photographs in journalism, which goes back to the 19th century  all of these technologies have shaped our culture and our politics and also have in many ways driven our social movements.  And that continues to be true of the new media today: the netroots movement, the twittering, the Twitter revolution and other things.  I think that, you know, blogs as places for a much more vibrant and diverse form of political expression is also really important.


Question: What is the downside of these new ways of communicating?

Tim McCarthy: The one thing that I would say as a word of caution. Media drives politics  and I think that there's a more complicated and symbiotic relationship, obviously.  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