Foreign Policy Blogs

The Return of the Amateur

The 19th century liberal professions and the 20th century institutions which shelter them are currently groaning under the weight of huge populations, mass mobility, technological growth, black markets, crime, security issues, international trade and environmental and humanitarian disasters. From the local police station to the UN, the signs of strain are everywhere, not least in the economic crisis and overreliance on oil. As a species, our reach is exceeding our grasp. Technology and society are changing rapidly, but not quickly enough to absorb the shocks of the world’s wholesale integration. In the grey areas where professional organizations and traditional institutions fall short, society is being reshaped not only by agents of criminality and chaos, but by equally chaotic armies of volunteers, vigilantes and other lone individuals.

In 2002, a memorial to 9/11’s Flight 93 from “Grateful Colorado Citizens” was erected at the plane’s crash site in Pennsylvania; it was addressed, “To the First Citizen Heroes of the 21st Century.” 9/11 inspired new incarnations of the Citizen Soldier. A civilian might now operate outside former President Bush’s initiatives to expand the American army’s cadre of volunteer reservists. One such Citizen Soldier is Jonathan Idema who is more notorious as a vigilante than Bernard Goetz. Idema, a self-styled Super Patriot Bounty Hunter, a freelance Soldier of Fortune tracked by an equally freelance corps of investigative journalists, went to Afghanistan in November 2001, supposedly to do “humanitarian relief work.” Once there, he began capturing people he suspected of being terrorists, set up his own private prison and began torturing them, telling yarns about his affiliation with the US military and the US government, especially the CIA. The degree to which these agencies were surprised by, and slow to react to, Idema’s behavior shows the degree to which a free individual in a global world can rapidly overturn an order that even the most powerful traditional institutions demand and generate. This little-guy-looking-for-the-big-guy mentality also inspired the 2008 dramatic documentary Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?, conceived and written by the American venture capitalist Adam Dell, and directed, co-written and acted by Morgan Spurlock.

Yet these tactics are not simply available to unhinged activists, freelance journalists and inquiring filmmakers. They are slowly becoming more formal in structure and authority. Where the police falter in the cities, civilian watch groups have sprung up over the past two decades. Bernard Goetz’s case was preceded by the 1979 founding of the Guardian Angels now have several chapters internationally. In a similar vein, Perverted Justice is a group of volunteer cyber-vigilantes in California who conduct sting operations by posing as minors on chat sites to catch pedophiles.

Nor is this only an American phenomenon. New types of civic action are appearing in Europe. In the Philippines, the mayor of Davao City, Rodrigo Duterte, also known as “The Punisher,” cracked down on crime from 1987 up through the past decade. According to Time, he purportedly tolerated civic vigilante tactics off the books, as with his assumed support of the so-called “Davao Death Squad,” which openly executed more than 100 drug pushes and known criminals on the streets of the city in the mid-nineties. Duterte thereby appeared to have sanctioned vigilantism implicitly, backed by the power of elected office. As a result, a formerly murder-plagued town became a tourist haven.

Attempts to harness this phenomenon, though, often meet with popular skepticism. Celebrity spokespeople who try to rally public support for various causes increasingly confront a sullen mob of online civilians, who sometimes greet their appeals with the Internet’s special brand of high school humor. Two years ago, Bono went online to ask: “What can we do to make poverty history?” The response was: “What can we do to make Bono history?”An anti-Bono petition appeared online late last year, promising that petitioners would support Bono’s causes, but only if he agreed to retire from public life.

Amateur consumer advocacy has already reached the level of high art. We are bombarded by books, Web sites and videos by fitness and nutrition specialists who aren’t formally trained; disease experts who aren’t doctors; and relationship and family counselors who aren’t social workers, psychologists or psychiatrists. There are self-appointed social networking and marketing Web watchdogs; new laws to protect whistle blowers; and justices of the peace who got their credentials online.

So-called citizen publishers are overturning the structure of the publishing industry. In the world of information peddling, even the old warhorse Encyclopedia Britannica has been driven to copy Wikipedia’s format, with the caveat that they will only permit recognized experts to contribute content. And, of course, there are bloggers, Citizen Journalists, who criticize the mainstream media (MSM) as bastions of bias and misinformation. They feel that the MSM are too slow to reach world events that passersby can capture with cell phone cameras. There is also a sense that the MSM create mounting crises: missing white woman syndrome, moral panic, cultures of fear and deviancy amplification spirals.

All the same, government officials are now trying to repackage grassroots activities as state-sponsored initiatives.Think tanks hail the doctrine of active citizenship. Internet democracy has arrived alongside amateur activism in the real world. In 1993, Wired magazine named David Hughes, a Korean War hero, as the best-known personality on the Internet for inventing the electronic bulletin board that reshaped the conduct of municipal democratic politics.

This is the very template that defines President Obama’s presidential agenda. Neighborhood reorganization and deliberative democracy are the watchwords of a new order, where civil society will be actively remade by the values of what is now called “Main Street” rather than “Wall Street.” Obama has called for the creation of “regional innovation clusters,” asking citizens to participate in the rebuilding of communities through new government make-work projects.

Still, it should be clear that this is not a politically driven phenomenon: for every Citizen Mother on the left like Cindy Sheehan, there is one on the right like Sarah Palin. When little people take matters into their own hands, the barriers and structures we expect to rely on—of politics, institutions, professions, of national feeling and societal norms and expectations—increasingly cease to exist and are replaced by new systems of authority.

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Larissa Douglass

Larissa Douglass is an academic and writer from Montreal and Ottawa, who is studying history at Oxford.

Area of Focus
Womens Issues; Gender Relations; History