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Home » Book Review: Taking On The System – Rules For Radical Change in a Digital Era by Markos Moulitsas Zúniga

Book Review: Taking On The System – Rules For Radical Change in a Digital Era by Markos Moulitsas Zúniga

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Kos may be the longest name among politicos both left and right who use the Internet as their medium to network with like-minded individuals. In his third book Taking On The System, Markos Moulitsas Zúniga flexes his political muscle for a book that might also be titled How To Take On The System. In 272 pages Kos, a moniker he acquired from army buddies and users online, delivers an unexpectedly laugh-out-loud great read. Kos prefers the “progressive” label because he is left wing and a Democrat. Two baby-brand progressives, Kos and Arianna Huffington used to be Republican. And like so many screwed first by the GOP, Kos emerges through the birth canal a re-born Democrat.

Four anchor stories comprise the bulk of Taking. It retells the story (among others) of two women and two men: Katie Couric, Cindy Sheehan, George Allen and Mark Webb. These lives offline connect with many online and eventually pave the way for Web empires like Drudge Report, Josh Marshall’s TPM, Daily Kos: State of the Nation and The Huffington Post. Steve Colbert’s enduring “truthiness” also makes an appearance. His stinging levity in the face of George W. Bush and a cadre of journalists would have been an obscure performance witnessed only by those in the room. But CSPAN records it and one person passes the event along as a virus worth catching for YouTube. That is the Internet model at its best; the template that transfers power from one person to another via elections or network firings.

Kos chronicles headlines dangling in the news-ether from the beginning of the Iraq war to the 2006 election cycle, including the rightful questions journalist Couric formulated when faced with the facts of the Iraq war: is that all there is? However, it remains just a question in her mind and in the minds of other establisment journalists who give President Bush enough political rope to hang Iraq around the Republican hulk.

Throughout Taking Kos questions what one might call the “why” chromosome of journalistic credentials. Why does a journalism degree confer on the holder all the genetic material required to fill every nook and cranny in the 1960's media only with the countenance of white men? Kos becomes myth buster and Web giant by poking holes in the story that the media strangely ignores, or worse, has no clue it’s brewing.

The beauty of the Web beast lies in its surreptitious — almost stalking — nature that grabs its prey from behind with eyes averted but ego completely engaged in the hyperbole.

This was the case of Cindy Sheehan and many seasoned campaigners since. What began as a cry in the wilderness of Crawford, Texas and the birth of “Camp Casey” ended with the one-two gut punches of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Cindy sought the spotlight for her son’s death but when the overwhelming devastation of Katrina is revealed American eyes turn to that tragedy. In 2008 Cindy plans a march on Washington and unseating Nancy Pelosi. Kos points out in Sheehan’s case that she is reviving a strategy that was no longer viable — the march. Nobody cares.

Kos juxtaposing Cindy’s march with the one staged by millions across the globe protesting that foray into Iraq… argues that it did not dissuade Bush nor the U.S. military. Taking insists that a neophyte blogger with an insightful weblog is a more powerful weapon in the activists’ arsenal than a thousand marches.

At one point Cindy posts her “resignation,” Martin Luther-like, on the door of Daily Kos. She resigns from the Democrat Party. But a couple of days later she, well, comes back from her self-imposed exile and continues posting to her Kos diary as if nothing happened. But something did happen, she became irrelevant and misspent the political capital and sympathy garnered by her activism. It was simply too little too late.

Kos the Internet strider walks the news-cycle tension with the precision of a silkworm. While conservative observers would never wrap up in the socialist-like silk Kos and his Kossacks spin on a daily basis, they cannot ignore the power it yields. The genius here is catching. A small story ignored, propped up with a tiny crutch (read keyboard) waxes by day until, and Kos says this is essential; the story catches fire with NBC, CBS or ABC and its top anchor is spouting Internet-bred “BREAKING NEWS.”

Exactly what brought down the much-ballyhooed GOP candidate George Allen? Enter James Webb: “[He] was fresh off his netroots-fueled Democratic primary … was going head-to-head with a Republican heavyweight who was busy scoping out a presidential run.” Allen is pointed out by The Weekly Standard as “a leading contender for the Republican nomination for president in 2008.” Therefore no one saw it coming when this incumbent senator was brought down by a racial slur “macaca” and a single camera wielded by the very man whom he was addressing. The viral video's warp speed revealing both Allen’s Jewish and racists’ roots make Allen livid. He did not recover. He lost his senate seat and all presidential hopes. That was not supposed to happen and Kos argues that only netroots activism made it possible.

There are political failures to be sure. Taking points to the John Kerry loss. Why did he lose? One reason: waiting a two-week eternity before attacking the swift boat lies and ads which had become entrenched in the voters' imaginations. But lest bloggers become complacent or believe their own press Kos poetically issues a warning to would-be bloggers about dreams of a favored political candidate ringing the doorbell with contract in hand on bended knee inquiring “will you blog me?” Taking admits it won’t happen in an age of blemished bloggers who might have written some “things” that — shall we say — come back to bite the candidate.

The political blogosphere is adeptly-run by men and women who hold Master’s Degrees, law degrees, journalism degrees, or have military service and oodles of life experience. That is a line that bears repeating more often. They are not fools sitting around grandma’s basement in pajamas collecting unemployment checks. Bloggers are worker bees. So what struck this reviewer is a word missing from Taking: “vetting.” Vetting is hard work. And Kos, while not using that word, illustrates that political bloggers are actually vetting the story for newspapers, cable, and networks.

Elite bloggers detect, bottle-feed, incubate, hold, and rock a nursery crammed with premature stories until they are viable and able to walk upright — brilliant.  And so is Taking On The System. This well-written how-to tome about grabbing political power is a clarion call for this “Why Generation.”  It is required reading for the cultural critic, candidates in training, and non-believers. Taking will make a believer out of you.

The Web genie has escaped. Because now, regardless of age or infirmity, folks have hooked up and connected their voices with a few bucks, a pair of pajamas, and time. That is encouraging good news for the neophyte as well as the elite, experienced political blogger.

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