How democracy ends, or one “bum note” is round the world before you can delete a tweet…

That notorious Sinn Féin tweet of the St Patrick’s Day weekend was aimed at two audiences. The wealthy US audience which is an important part of the party’s revenue stream, and its base in west Belfast and the south and west of Northern Ireland. It was not really for anyone else.

Malachi O’Doherty outlines the obvious dilemma it raises in the Bel Tel. Sinn Féin has always had several publics to communicate with but this point resonates:

There’s no need to unpack the meaning and remember that the “rising of the moon” stands for the resumption of the war when orders come from the captain and “the pikes will be together”.

Surely Mary Lou was not actually threatening a return to armed struggle? Of course not. It’s much more reasonable and plausible to assume that she just has an unfortunate knack of hitting the bum note [emphasis added].

But this failure to manage complex publics is not unique to Sinn Féin. The incessant demands of social media creates thousands of small legislative moments never intended as such. Brexit Britain is full of them. I think Sarah was on to something when she mentioned ‘cosplay’.

It’s a word I’d first heard only a few months ago, and probably as such feels very internetty to me. It belongs with the anonymous profiling world of gaming and trolls. There’s also a whole literature on the use of masks in theatre and ritual.

The disinhibition it brings about in performers (and trolls) occurs because the mask-wearer feels less identifiable. And yet we are very slowly unhitching a lot of our info wagons from factcheck ‘centres of excellence’ to distributed networks inhabited by hordes of mask wearers.

This is a new state of affairs. And a difficult one for all of us to navigate. The wild cosplay of the digital natives can be fun, liberating even. A generation earlier and it wasn’t possible for people a disparate as Slugger readers to connect and create friendships over difficult topics.

Professor David Runciman has been slowly weighing the strength and weaknesses of democracy in a variety of places like his own Talking Politics podcast and recently in an epic engagement with Hugh Linehan on the Irish Times’ Inside Politics podcast.

In a blog introduction to his most recent book How Democracy Ends, he says there’s no point in catastrophising the present by dumbly recycling scary facsimiles of past collapses. This time is different and so we must look for different signals of failure:

 …far from following the familiar pattern of military takeover or collapse in the rule of law, it is likely that democracy will fail in the 21st century in ways that we are not yet familiar with.

Our democracies will not implode. But they may simply fade away, hollowed out by forces of technological progress and social division that we lack the power to understand, never mind resist.”

Which brings me back to where I started.  Unifying two quite separate parts of Ireland means weaving new combinations of narrative strong enough to create a trust bridge to take the weight of the diverse (and rapidly diversifying) population of the whole island.

The old, verging on racialist, discourse of demographic increase/decline run well with the disinhibited cosplay of the internet of strangers, but as we know from the recent Irish Times polling (and almost every other one) no single identity can deliver a United Ireland alone.

As Runciman notes, in current British politics we are seeing a multiplication of divides, between young and old, rich and poor.  He also observes quite keenly that it was the Brexiteers who were able to build enough of these bridges to nudge ahead.

However even the winners of the 2016 referendum seem to have forgotten that asking and taking permission from the people is not just done once so they can then return to a traditional MP’s life with the life long mandate of their own aristocratic choosing:

In the face of this disengagement and fragmentation of public interest politicians are driven to shallow forms of cosplay gesture, whilst the issues that matter most and the critical trade-offs needed to address them over the longer time arc (like a UI) just go a-begging.

In considering how we might respond to the challenges created by this new political masquerade, Runciman warns against mistaking present tribulations for those of our own shared past but also directs us to re-learning anew the signal lessons that past can give us:

In these uncertain times, it’s hard to come up with a rule of thumb to guide us. Still, mine would be this. Where history currently speaks loudest is where we should be open to the idea that what is happening is new. Where it all seems new is where we need more history.

“The medium is the message” said Marshall McLuhan. The complex nature of this network system of communication is the message. TV may not be over yet but it is becoming subservient a complexity in which one bum note is round the world before you can delete a tweet.

And the bridge is broken (again)….

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