Streitmater’s Voices of Revolution: lessons from the earliest dissident press

In reading the first three chapters of Rodger Streitmatter’s Voices of Revolution, there were three particular points that struck me most: early dissident presses established the concept of an open forum, made a tangible impact, and that the issues championed by these publications are timeless, despite the impact they’re making. Though the examination of independent media thus far in my Independent Media Issues & Challenges class has opened my eyes to these tendencies in modern dissident press, seeing the success stories and failures of historical revolutionary media makes those points all the more salient.

Open-forum-style media has ballooned with the blogosphere, providing the ultimate anonymous commenting system for the public to engage in discussion, media criticism, and activism with a few key strokes and clicks. While I was aware this facet of independent media is widespread today (especially on sites like Jezebel and The Huffington Post, where users cannot only comment but generate content), I didn’t realize it was so engrained in the revolutionary media of the past, beginning with the Mechanic’s Free Press by William Heighton in the early 1800s. By making room for letters from frustrated workers, he created the open forum that is now a “hallmark of the dissident press.”

Many mainstream media players and followers of only mainstream media consistently denounce independent media outlets as the needle-in-the-haystack publications, often overlooked and not valued. However, a glimpse into history shows that even the smallest voices, if they advocate loud enough, can be heard by the mainstream consciousness enough to change their minds. Modern-day mainstreamers may dismiss environmental blogs like Tree Hugger as radical and extremist, but in 30 years, when their points about climate change and environmental preservation have finally registered with the public and we’re taking action as a nation to combat our impact on the environment, these publications will be praised as initial voices of a positive change–just like William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator. Often regarded as the most radical and outrageous but the epitome of dissident publications, The Liberator championed the abolitionist cause without a hint of moderation. Yet, despite the mainstream media’s initial evaluation of Garrison as a “fanatical terror,” once slavery was officially abolished, these outlets, like The New York Tribune, praised him: “But now and then comes a man like Mr. Garrison to show us our mistake; to prove was virtue there is in fidelity to a single labor; to accomplish some great work vital to the progress of man.”

Dissident media not only encourage the voices of the oppressed and champion causes that result in real societal impacts, but their causes are timeless and relevant; though labor laws have been passed since The Mechanic’s Free Press, slavery has been abolished since the time of The Liberator, and women won the right to vote after the close of The Revolution, the fight for fair working laws and racial and gender equality are alive and strong in the independent media today. In particular, the movement started by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to advocate women’s choice for abortion, eradication of domestic violence and sexual harassment, and the establishment of equal pay for equal work are championed now not only by independent media like Feministing.com and Ms. Magazine, but also by mainstream women’s magazines like Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan, which are publishing articles like “Women’s Rights Advocates Protest Texas Abortion Bill” and “Tackling the Gender Pay Gap Through Negotiation.”

For those who consistently dismiss dissident and independent media–how can you argue against history?

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