Wednesday, June 25, 2008

"John McCain is aware of the Internet."

To my thinking, John McCain's age is not a problem.

Yes, 71 is an advanced age. But McCain seems reasonably vigorous, and although I don't like him and I don't want him to win, I'm sure there are others in his age group whose candidacy I could support. His age is fair game for satire -- it's hard to imagine Life After Bush going by without a single reference to McCain's heroism in the Spanish-American War, etc. -- but I can't really get behind the notion that he is empirically too old to be president.

The problem is not that McCain is old. The problem is that he's out of touch. This is not necessarily tied to age; not everyone over 70 is out of touch, and not everyone under 40 is in touch. There is a compelling argument against McCain on the grounds that serious gaps exist in his understanding of today's world. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his inability to fathom the Internet.

Online ignorance is something of an epidemic in McCain's party. We've had a lot of fun with George W. Bush's admission that he "occasionally" uses "the Google" ("One of the things I’ve used on the Google is to pull up maps. It’s very interesting to see -- I’ve forgot the name of the program -- but you get the satellite, and you can -- like, I kinda like to look at the ranch. It reminds me of where I wanna be sometimes") and knows a thing or two about "the internets" ("We can have filters on internets where public money is spent," "I hear there's rumors on the, uh, internets -- that we're going to have a draft").

And then there's Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who famously referred to the Internet as "a series of tubes," and once declared, "Ten movies streaming across that, that internet, and what happens to your own personal internet? I just the other day internet was sent by my staff at ten o'clock in the morning on Friday, I got it yesterday. Why?" Well, Senator, let's see...if your staff sent you an internet at ten a.m. on Friday, and you got it on Tuesday, that's don't know what the hell you're talking about.

Rather than feign web savvy like Bush and Stevens, McCain is more honorably inclined to admit his shortcoming and dismiss its importance. During the primaries, when he was asked whether he favored a PC or a Mac, McCain wasn't sure. "I am an illiterate," he explained, "that has to rely on my wife for all of the assistance that I can get."

There's nothing inherently wrong with this. Lots of people, in lots of different age brackets and walks of life, don't know how to use the Internet, or rely when necessary on the guidance of those who do. But if you're claiming to be the best qualified candidate to lead the free world, I would argue that understanding the Internet is important, even vital. Andrew Rasiej, founder and executive producer of the Personal Democracy Forum, told the New York Times politics blog that McCain's computer illiteracy "shows he doesn’t understand how the world works and that he doesn’t understand what it would mean to be president."

At the Personal Democracy Forum's panel on Internet campaigning this week, there was a memorable exchange between Mark Soohoo (McCain's "deputy e-campaign director") and Tracy Russo (a blogger and Internet strategist who worked for John Edwards).

SOOHOO: I think that it's a mistake to assume that John McCain has no knowledge of this. I mean, this is a man who's served on the United States Senate. Has been, you know, on a number of committees that are --

RUSSO: He said that he doesn't use a computer. I mean, I wasn't making it up.

SOOHOO: But you don't necessarily -- yeah, yeah, but you don't necessarily have to use a computer to understand how it shapes the country. And I think he has a --

RUSSO: No, that's the point though. You do. That's exactly the point.

SOOHOO: You -- I think -- I think that -- I mean that John McCain is a man who has --

RUSSO: You can't just say you're a maverick and a straight talker, because it's the frame of reference that comes with being engaged in using the technology and tools that are moving our entire world forward. It's powering a global economy and bringing about massive change, and it has the potential to transform and revolutionize and give people back the power that they so rightly deserve to have.

SOOHOO: And I don't think that's necessarily lost -- I mean, obviously that's not lost on John McCain. I mean, John McCain is aware of the Internet. I mean it's not like this is a completely ridiculous thing that he just doesn't understand. I mean, this is a man who has, you know, a long history of understanding a range of issues. And that's --

RUSSO: I would try explaining e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, Google, and, you know, massive social movements to your grandmother, and then asking them to apply that to governing, and see if it would work for you.

Poor Mark Soohoo was obviously out of his depth, and he's stuck with an impossibly futile assignment: Convey the hipness and savvy of John McCain. The potency of Russo's argument is only increased by Soohoo's limp attempt to presume McCain's web know-how based on his "long history of understanding a range of issues." Facebook and MySpace may be fads, enjoyed mostly by young people, but of course the Internet is a lot more than that. The Internet is the means by which most of America now organizes movements, exchanges ideas, and does business. If your vision does not include it, something important is missing.

But to ascribe John McCain's computer ignorance to his age is an insult to all senior citizens who have admirably taken it upon themselves to explore this new phenomenon. He's not too old; he's too out of touch.


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