A funny thing happened to me a few weeks ago at the United States Supreme Court. I didn’t laugh out loud, but almost. And as I have reflected on it, it points to an important experiment we’re all performing on each other. What the experiment proves definitely will be no laughing matter.
I make it a point to watch the opening session of each Supreme Court term. Some people circle their calendars for Opening Day of their favorite baseball team. I do that for the first Monday in October each year. It’s an unusual hobby, but I’m not alone. Graham Blackman-Harris has been doing this for 25 years. The task involves waiting in line beginning before dawn.
This year, those of us who were first in line were directed to take the worst seats on the edge of the audience gallery, behind a marble pillar that blocked our view of more than half the justices.
“It’s not right,” pleaded Blackman-Harris, “We’ve been standing in line since 4:30 this morning. I want to speak to your supervisor.” When it became clear that pursuing his objection could get him ejected from the courtroom, Blackman-Harris backed down. Seeing three justices was better than seeing none.
The woman seated in front of me and behind the same pillar, who also began standing in line before sunrise, leaned back and whispered to me, “This is SO going in my Yelp review!”
Why was her quip so funny to us? Because we are stuck between two models of maintaining social order. One is fading fast, but the other hasn’t yet taken hold. Blackman-Harris instinctively pursued the legacy model of top-down authority. The woman’s joke alluded to the crowdsourcing model of customer reviews that may someday take its place.
There are no Yelp reviews of the United States Supreme Court. Or of presidential candidates. Yet. We’re closer than you may think. Polling doesn’t differ all that much from the star ratings we give to movies and restaurants.
Everybody has an opinion about everything, and they are no longer as private as they once were. That may have been part of the reason that The (Portland) Oregonian did not endorse a presidential candidate this year.
“Our goal as an editorial board is to have an impact in our community,” wrote editorial board member Laura Gunderson “And we don’t think an endorsement for president would move the needle.”
I’m sure Gunderson knows there are no needles involved, moving or otherwise. Elections are described with these terms all the time, but the metaphor sums the awesome complexity of human interactions that shape a community.
Is Gunderson arguing that not a single conversation would be altered or enhanced by their newspaper’s articulated reasoning for backing one candidate over others? Is she saying those conversations will fail to change a single person’s behavior?
A newspaper’s endorsement may not change the electoral outcome, but their’ influence cannot be limited to final vote tallies. Civic leadership must not be reduced to tallies, gauges and needles — especially this year.
Newspapers across the country are abandoning this year’s Republican nominee, some for the first time in more than a century. Others are endorsing a candidate for the first time ever. The Atlantic magazine made only its third presidential endorsement since before the Civil War.
Donald Trump points to these endorsements as proof that the news media have conspired against him, and to some degree they have. The upheaval of social order he contemplates would threaten how political power is used and transferred in America.
The Oregonian also noted that they were granted no special access to the national candidates. Readers have the same information as the editors. True enough, but when information is practically limitless, the judgement of those who have the time and skill to sift through it all becomes more valuable, not less.
Newspaper endorsements and Yelp reviews are in this way similar. We’re all better off when they are used to begin and deepen conversations between friends and neighbors. If and when they shut off or replace those conversations, our real troubles will have begun.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.