The hashtag filibuster

Virginia Heffernan on Wendy Davis' Twitter moment, seven days after her historic filibuster

Virginia Heffernan is the national correspondent for Yahoo! News, covering culture and politics from a digital perspective. She wrote extensively on Internet culture during her eight years as a staff writer for The New York Times, and she has also worked at Harper’s, the New Yorker and Slate. Her book, “Magic and Loss: The Pleasures of the Internet,” is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.

Man, that was some good old politics last week! Senator Wendy Davis’s tumbling platinum coif, at a squint, could have been a powdered wig. The hot Davis, filibustering in white before the Texas state legislature, could have been, for all the world, the hot, bewigged Alexander Hamilton, delivering his own flights of semicolonic rhetoric almost exactly 225 years ago, before the New York Ratifying Convention in Poughkeepsie, New York.

But even Hamilton didn’t speak for nearly thirteen freaking hours—on topic, on foot, without so much as a lean, Stairmaster-style, on the table in front of her. She was ingeniously catheterized; the bathroom didn’t seem to cross her mind. Today, as #stand4life fights to trend on Twitter, we celebrate the one-week anniversary of the Wendy Davis triumph—for the (temporary) defeat of the onmibus anti-abortion bill she opposed; for advances in personal urological solutions; for stagecraft at the Texas Capitol; and of course for the blockbuster hashtag #standwithwendy.

Alexander Hamilton (left) and Texas State Senator Wendy Davis.


Glory is the only word for it, no matter what you think of the bill in question. The story of this current phase of the Web—where our mobile devices are nodes in vast vascular social networks, traversed by epigrams, audio clips and images moving and still—has been the story of the sanctification of live events. An event like Wendy Davis’s filibuster comes, in a moment, to seem like the hot, lighted center of human existence.

The word gets out, as it did on Twitter on Tuesday night, that it’s happening it’s happening—like Hurricane Sandy, the Arab Spring, the victory of Barack Obama. Now it can be said: disenfranchised types—women and members of groups who historically have not had a voice on the dais—officially make really good, avid, tireless, loud Twitter users. And these days the tens of millions of Twitter users who know the drill during big live events tend to assume our positions: “watching” the event, objecting to it (“#stand4life”), opining on it, debunking it, egging it on. In this case, #standwithwendy surfaced first and it was a perfect fit: individuals poking at their far-flung phones palpably experiencing togetherness “with Wendy” in an anachronistic, almost fictional arena—a domed Capitol building in the middle of Texas.

If you don’t use Twitter, it’s hard to describe what this feels like. Just as it seems corny to send prayers to friends with antibiotic-resistant pneumonia, or “good vibes” to a person taking a test or having a baby, you do it anyway—and when you see others doing it, and then lots of others, uniting in a kind of prayerful, hopeful project, it can bring tears, and even action. It might be akin to the mix of private-public flooredness that 20th-century Americans experienced watching Nixon’s resignation, or the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, on network television.

Lil B, a NoCal rapper on tour in the Netherlands, tweeted to his 700,000 Twitter followers: "SHOUT OUT TO WENDY DAVIS STAY #BASED AND POSITIVE! FIGHT FOR WOMENS RIGHT!" President Obama tweeted some good words to the Senator. The hashtag #standwithwendy rapidly topped Twitter’s worldwide charts. Wikipedia briefly called Davis “the Lebron James of filibustering.” Briefly vandalizing a Wikipedia entry, knowing a playful change will be reverted, is now another way to mark a showstopper event.

Tumblr artfully picked up the #standwithwendy tag, and soon high-profile types from Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks to Cecile Richards, the president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, along with Senator Davis, began to organize at standwithtexaswomen.com and broaden their hashtag to the durable #standwithtxwomen.

As of today, a survey by Public Policy Polling shows that Wendy Davis—that’s Wendy Davis—has doubled her name recognition in Texas, and is considering running for governor. It's not all rosy for Wendy Davis, though: The survey also shows that Rick Perry, the current governor of Texas, would handily beat her 53% to 39%.

Having started at 11:18am CST to pontificate on abortion rights Davis was obliged to hold the floor until midnight, closing time at the Senate’s special session, to preempt the vote on the bill. After ten hours, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst decided that Davis had ventured off on a tangent or two. He wanted a vote on whether she should be allowed to keep going. Republicans were good and ready to shut Davis up, but “parliamentary inquiries”—meaning countervailing pointy-headed proceduralism from the Democrats—as well as just a good old deafening shout-down by activists in the peanut gallery blared merrily through midnight, as at an 80s showing of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

There was some witching-hour haggling over whether a vote had taken place in the din before the deadline, but it hadn’t. Dewhurst, exhausted, declared the bill dead. Wendy Davis, Lone Star Scheherazade, had talked it to death.

Temporary death. On Wednesday, Governor Rick Perry kicked the can down the road—and added Senate Bill 5 to the a slate of three up for re-debate at the Senate’s next session. Today a spokesman for Davis said she won't filibuster the legislation a second time.

But as Alexander Hamilton, uncatheterized, once said: “All governments, even the most despotic, depend, in a great degree, on opinion. In free republics, it is most peculiarly the case: In these, the will of the people makes the essential principle of the government; and the laws which control the community, receive their tone and spirit from the public wishes.”

So Twitter, as usual, can do whatever it wants.

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