WASHINGTON -- On the Internet, anyone can be a star, as most everyone has pretty much figured out by now. Paris Hilton can credit it with her whole career. A handful or so of previously anonymous news junkies are now wide-reaching opinion shapers. The floodgates are open just as wide for the unnoticed talents as for those who should have remained obscure.
Place into the latter category of Internet stardom the Princeton University students who brought their "mock filibuster" to the National Mall Wednesday and Thursday. Their Washington protest culminated the talkathon against Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Princeton '74) and the nuclear option that they began April 26 in front of the major campus building back in Princeton, New Jersey, bearing the good senator's name.
In front of the Frist Campus Center at Princeton, this "Filibuster for Democracy" was a small, quirky, even mildly cute spectacle. Falling late in the academic year, this little stab at political escapism seemed almost quaint. And obscure. A Princeton sophomore told TAS he barely noticed these budding activists when he passed them. "It's very showy and self-glorifying, so I'm sure for them it's both fun and purposeful."
In a world with some sense of proportion, the Princeton protest would have remained a local story. A few New Jersey stations and papers would have sent cameras and scribblers, and the school newspaper would have covered the event. As it was, when the cameras weren't watching the campus protest usually consisted of one student filling his filibuster hour. Even in its Washington iteration, in the midst of the Capitol being evacuated, student groups milling about, Frisbee players enjoying a glorious day, and preparations for a Smithsonian festival on the Mall, the Princeton affair was a blip.
Yet this almost non-event became a mid-major political happening. The vocal stylings of a few college kids drew more media attention than the annual march for life. The Princeton kids have been on cable news repeatedly and written up by national AP, the New York Times, Time magazine, and the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call.
Only the Internet, along with a willing political climate, could have lifted such a stunt out of obscurity. Pete Hill, a junior majoring in politics and one of the technological gurus maintaining the Filibuster Frist website, told TAS that he didn't know his fellow organizers before the filibuster -- they met over e-mail. Armed with a webcam and a website, and fueled by the attention of major liberal blogs like Talking Points Memo and DailyKos, the mock filibuster took off. A mention on CNN's "Inside the Blogs" segment snowballed into a few paragraphs in the Washington Post and a full segment on Hardball. The rest is mainstream media history.
The Princetonians can even thank the Internet for their pre-exam bus ride to D.C. They raised all of their funds online through a PayPal account -- over $10,000 as of yesterday. People for the American Way helped them attain the protest permit and their local congressman, Democrat Rush Holt, helped them obtain needed sound and other electric equipment.
Classics graduate student Peter Turner said the filibuster wouldn't have existed without this Internet-driven media environment. "We do think the event has been successful to the extent that it's reached a level of national attention," Turner said. "We hope to combine articulate and persuasive arguments with a platform on which to make them."
Call it activism in a box. It frees activists from needing a genuine movement to be significant. Despite all the media coverage even before their arrival in Washington, a city chock full of college students and interns, next to no one stopped by their spot on the Mall. Yet it drew a press corps?
These Princeton students weren't marginal radicals. Those who trekked down -- and the third-year Georgetown law student we met -- struck us as genuine, kind, clean-cut, intelligent, and articulate. Thanks in part as well to their elite status, they engineered an impressive coup. It helped immensely that they were politically useful cogs in a much bigger Democratic operation in defense of the judicial filibuster. New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg spoke Wednesday and his counterpart Jon Corzine joined them yesterday morning, along with bandwagoneer Chuck Schumer. The usually obscure Rep. Holt enjoyed a spike in publicity after addressing the students in Princeton and in Washington Wednesday. "When people say, 'Well, the filibuster is not in the constitution,' I counter that the filibuster is very much constitutional," was one of his more inspiring morsels.
That the students and Holt could stick to such bland talking points is a testimony to their media savvy. But apparently desperate for any supporter with a title, they dug up Noam Chomsky imitator and erstwhile Georgetown law professor, Michael Seidman. Seidman strayed off message to the real stakes of the filibuster debate.
"By the standard conception, constitutional law amounts to decisions made two hundred years ago in Philadelphia by a bunch of elderly, wealthy, white men. Although none of us here had anything to do with those decisions, somehow we are now obligated to accept them. I think that version of constitutional law is deeply authoritarian."
Maybe he thought no one was listening.
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