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Previously in Web Citations:

Front Runners

Presidential campaigns are starting earlier and earlier. Here's how the field is shaping up for 2024.

Menace to Society

The hype isn't the most annoying thing about the new Star Wars release.

All Crime, All the Time

An online news site gives the people what they want.

Cutting-Edge Coupons

The digital revolution comes to a supermarket near you.

Not Your Father's Antiwar Movement

Are these the new peaceniks? Opposition to Clinton's war has made for some very strange bedfellows.

Someone Who Cares Wants You to Know

As Emily Post might have said, sometimes anonymity is the best policy.

Wheeling and Dealing

It all comes down to this: Would you buy a used (or new) car from these Web sites?

Lifetime Achievement

Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) was a filmmaker who kept his distance from Hollywood. His vision appears ever more original -- and lonely.

Modem Bride

Wedding planning made so easy even your mother can handle it.

Be Fruitful and Multiply

When it comes to modern reproductive technology, many are turning to the Web for a helping hand.

See the complete Web Citations Index.

Politics Made Simple
June 23, 1999

VaguePolitix Logo What is the greatest threat to democracy today?

There are many possible answers to such a question. But according to VAGUEpolitix -- a new political site brought to us by Web Lab and PBS Online, assorted funders, and a gaggle of would-be opinion leaders -- the answer is actually quite simple: "It's Boredom -- Ours." So begins an object lesson in the perils of low barriers-to-entry.

The apparent idea behind VAGUEpolitix is that conventional political discourse is too hidebound and predictable to be useful. What the world needs is a clever, witty prism through which to view current events, a portal that can transcend mere partisanship and give us The Truth. Or, as the editor's note puts it, VAGUE thinking is "Logically fuzzy. Paradoxical. Inconsistent. Strange." Thus, "VAGUEness" is a sort of healthy imprecision about labels and dogma -- a politics stripped of ideological referents.

But that is a generous interpretation. The real premise underlying VAGUEpolitix is threefold: First, that politics really is dull. Second, that fancy graphics and attitude can make it less so. And third, that even people with bad ideas can con PBS with youth, technosavvy, and claims of Zeitgeist-sense.

Like other politics-oriented sites, VAGUEpolitix is in part a Web digest that points users to information elsewhere on the Internet. The premiere edition's focus is crime, and the "Potluck" subpage contains links to a number of useful crime-oriented Web sites, such as the Department of Justice's crime statistics page and a site explaining various Internet scams. Visitors can even read an interview with gallery owner Phyllis Kind on prison art. The problems arise when the editors try to provide not only "the information you need," as the site's tag line goes, but also (as the tag line continues) "the attitude you crave."

VAGUEpolitix does provide you with information you need in certain sections (like Potluck) -- but the aforementioned attitude is provided in separate sections. For example, the "Opinion Poll-O" -- titled "It ought to be a crime" -- allows visitors to vote for things they think should be illegal, from "To bomb people in order to look presidential" (#1) to "For your neighbor to buy a second set of drums." What emerges, at best, are vaguely liberal nostrums dressed up in chirpy, edgy prose and pitched as post-ideological. At worst, it's airheaded theorizing about public life. "If there were no laws, there would be no crimes," one fairly representative entry reads. "Crimes are created by laws made in Congress, so crime is a wholly political construct." Like, indeed.

VAGUEpolitix isn't completely brainless. Vincent Schiraldi, the director of the Justice Policy Institute and a noted authority on juvenile crime, contributes a crisp and informative article about the media's tendency to distort the statistics on youth crime and violence. And the piece on TV's cop dramas is a nice diversion (if overwritten). But that's the problem: nearly all of the original content on VAGUEpolitix is, in essence, diversion -- Politics Lite for people who can't be bothered actually to digest the particulars of, say, sentencing reform. Almost everything on VAGUEpolitix worth reading is culled from some other, more serious-minded -- that is, boring -- organization.

Hence the paradox. VAGUEpolitix tries to spark interest in public life by appealing to two of the same cultural tendencies that have killed interest in public life: short attention spans and a relentless emphasis on spin over substance. VAGUEpolitix may have the right idea with a feature like "Walk the Talk," an activism guide that attempts to connect issues with concrete action, but it's hard to take seriously a prescription like "Show the people around you how to be both cool and legal." A better name for the site might have been "Politics for Dummies," except that that moniker is already taken by an infinitely more useful -- and surprisingly informative -- title in the "Dummies" print series.

In the end, VAGUEness is ... well, too vague -- so lacking in intellectual animation as to be virtually meaningless. Why is crime VAGUE? The site's answer: "Crime is VAGUE because it can be sexy, creative and inspiring while still being odious, destructive and depressing."

Now there's a threat to democracy.

--Nicholas Confessore

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More on Technology and Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Nicholas Confessore is a writing fellow at The American Prospect.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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