I, along with many others, am keenly following the Communications Decency Act (CDA) which is currently being argued in front of the United States Supreme Court. Like in the Federal Appeals Court in Philadelphia last year, I am quietly confident that the justices will be able to distinguish the forest from the trees and decide not to extend chilling speech codes into the dynamic new medium of cyberspace.
"Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify oppression of free speech and assembly. Men feared witches and burnt women. It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears....
RANT OF THE WEEK:
The Communications Decency Act
(originally written in the spring of 1997)
Perhaps you don't live in the USA. Why should you care? Maybe you shouldn't. But for the time being at least, most Internet activity is in the USA. If this bill passes, there could be a chilling effect across the Internet, limiting the quality and variety of information to which you have access. And here's something else to consider: in this issue, where the USA leads, other countries may yet follow."Those who would give up essential Liberty to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."
"Those who won our independence by revolution were not cowards. They did not fear political change. They did not exalt order at the cost of liberty."
Louis D. Brandeis
U.S. Supreme Court Justice
Like anyplace else, one will undoubtedly on the Internet find their share of perverts, weirdos, and predators. The authorities going after whatever already illegal activities (child solicitation, stalking or harassment, breaking and entering, terrorist threats, vandalism, etc.) that happen to occur in cyberspace causes me no pain - quite the opposite. However, to enact laws threatening jail time to anyone making "communication which is obscene or indecent" is frightening - obscenity and indecency being perilously subjective concepts. Who exactly is to decide what is "artful erotica" and what is "prurient smut?" The government? Historically, even the smartest people among us have not always had the wisdom to make such judgments well - remember the government banning "Ulysses" by James Joyce and the trials over "Lady Chatterley's Lover" by D.H. Lawrence earlier in this century? Or Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" withdrawn from publication in Boston in 1881, after the District Attorney threatened criminal prosecution for the use of explicit language in some poems?
The CDA is a similar attempt by hysterical legislators of the out of touch United States Congress who are ignorant of the new technology and would not recognize a modem if one fell out of the sky and landed on their head. Imagine the honorable and geriatric senators Strom Thurmond or Jesse Helms in front of a computer screen! That these lawmakers see themselves as the guardians of morality with respect to a supra-national computer network which seamlessly covers the globe only attests to their self-important arrogance. Or perhaps this whole blatantly unconstitutional business is insincere and more of a symbolic offering to worried parents by cynical and hypocritical officials who would climb all over each other to be seen as "protecting our children." Yet as a result, I find sections of my webpage threatened with criminality which could land me in a federal prison for 2 years and/or make me up to $250,000 poorer.
All this in the name of "protecting the young." I truly believe there is nothing in my webpages that would be inappropriate for a teenager over 13 or 14 years of age. In fact, I think my webpages which deal with material of a romantic nature would only help them to love literature, Eros, and the human condition more. Excerpts from literature such as D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover", Herman Wouk's "The Caine Mutiny", Benjamin Franklin on "Older Mistresses", or a general discussion of the Dionysian, the immortality of love, or the concept of true love - or famous love poems such as T.S. Eliot's "A Dedication to my Wife", John Donne's "Elegy XIX: To His Mistress Going to Bed", Christopher Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love", Judith Ortiz Cofer's "How to Get a Baby", W.B. Yeats' "A Drinking Song", "He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven", "When You Are Old", "On Woman", or "A Deep-Sworn Vow", Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Love is Not All...", Octavio Paz's "Touch", Walt Whitman's "This is the Female Form Divine" or "The Poet of the Body and the Soul", Lord Byron's "She Walks in Beauty..." or his famous love letter to the Countess Guiccioli - not to mention my own "The Nakedness of Woman is the Work of God", "To An Old Lover Aroused Last Night..." and prose "First Love", "A Love Letter", "Diamond Earrings", "Reconciliation", or "On the Beach". All of these webpages (most with naked pictures) can only be more healthy for young people than the standard fare of superficially hyper-sexed MTV music videos, Hollywood sitcoms, or a thousand different commercials where sex is cynically used to sell merchandise and which are broadcast unopposed by legislators. So much sex in the United States today and so little romance! And how is it that we live in a society more afraid of naked pictures than of graphic violence?
As Paul Johnson criticized the excess of our "permissive" society: "Violence is now an omnipresent feature of much of our cultural output, especially what is directed at the young, which rests on an unholy tripod of brutality, crude sex and radicalism." I am not so sure about radicalism, but sex and violence are important - indeed preeminent! - phenomenon in life that cannot be ignored or whitewashed. Nevertheless, they need be handled in a complex and moral manner instead of a gratuitous or exploitative one (you will find plenty of sex and violence on my webpages, hopefully none of it done out of context or merely to titillate). People - and especially parents! - are right to fear the mountains of garbage marketed by the unscrupulous and opportunistic among us who in the desire to make money do not seek to appeal to our best instincts. Yet education and being an instrumental part of the moral growth of children is the most effective manner to protect young people from evil. For make no mistake about it, I believe that evil is a reality in the world, as opposed to it being mere error or the result of unfortunate social circumstances. Yet the long-term struggle to raise children to become moral creatures will not be won by censorship - there are no easy outs. Raising children is not nearly so simple.
And the reality today is that, in an interconnected global computer network with millions and millions of nodes worldwide, no government or legislative body can control the flow of information - for better or for worse. The future is now. This fact only makes it more important that we educate our young people better than ever in the past and encourage thought and soul searching among adults like never before. No father-figure government can wave a wand or sign a piece of paper which will change this. But I believe in the marketplace of ideas and the power of the people (you and I) when presented with a full-range of information to find and embrace what is best for us. I believe in the capability of people to discard inferior ideas and choose what is best for themselves through conversation and education.
I believe in the power to choose even when people choose wrongly. Perhaps to our detriment, God has endowed us with the freedom to make the wrong decisions as well as the right ones - anything less would be to disrespect us as sovereign beings with wills of our own and thereby degrade us. It is essentially no different with children, other than that they depend upon adults to provide context and to teach them the difference between right and wrong. They depend on parents in a way they don't depend on an impersonal government.
"Books won't stay banned. They won't burn. Ideas won't go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only sure weapon against bad ideas is better ideas. The source of better ideas is wisdom. The surest path to wisdom is a liberal education."
Essays on Education
Sex should be a healthy and positive force in life and parents need to teach this to their children. I have no patience for parents who want other entities (ie. the government) to do their work for them in terms of deciding what is good or not for their children. Parents should teach their children about sex in all the complexity the subject requires - just saying "don't do it!" or "don't look at naked pictures!" clearly is not enough. Parents should teach their children how to discern what is healthy and what is not and entrust them to use their common sense. That is difficult to do, but nobody said parenting is easy. It is much easier but much less efficacious in the long-run to simply demand that the government get rid of some unpleasant reality. The world - like cyberspace - is full of dark alleys and dangerous corners and young people need to learn how to deal with them, too. By the way, I am a teacher and as such have PLENTY of experience with young people making the wrong decisions.
Parents have the power to control and monitor their children's use of the Internet the same way they can control use of the car, curfew, phone, TV, etc. What is needed is the will to exercise that parental authority. Internet terminals in the public milieu can be equipped with imperfect yet functioning software filters which block the most egregiously offensive websites. Parents can also put such software on their household computers. Nevertheless, enterprising teenagers will get around any and all roadblocks and access what they want in the same way their counterparts 100 years ago managed to get hold of black and white girlie pictures. No form of artificial censorship is as effective as teaching children about what is healthy and what is harmful. Teach them to do what any other decent adult would do in a similar situation. Without being trusted, young people will never prove themselves worthy of trust.
As a curious teenager myself, I viewed what were then cutting-edge technology VHS videotape movies of the most hardcore pornography available. I survived the experience "unscarred" and grew up to be an adult who finds those movies as boring and tasteless as do most people. Hardcore pornography in truth is only dispassionate posing or naked gymnastics without any real feeling, and has almost nothing to do with that vital bond between a man and a woman fused by coursing adrenaline, passionate sensation, and the most tender sentiments of romantic love which is the true stuff of poetry. I don't doubt that the teenagers of today scouring the World Wide Web for naked pictures of the opposite sex will be able to make the same distinction.
Being no fool, my mother knew we were watching those movies when I was a curious and hormonal teenager even as she was powerless to stop us, and she fretted about it: "A whole generation is learning about sex through these videos!" She need not have fretted; I didn't really learn about sex until I was 20 years old and fell deeply in love for the first time. Just because someone is young does not mean they are stupid. When I listen to people talk about pornography as if it were some unstoppable monster rampaging across the land leaving shattered lives in its wake, I wonder how weak and feeble do they think people really are?
Information is power, and with power comes responsibility - the responsibility to teach the next generation, to lead by example, and to employ knowledge in the service of the good. And I believe this is a force more powerful than that of those who would speak to the baser angels of our human natures. If we hold true to this belief, we have nothing to fear from the enemies of society. The greatest weapons a free people have are their ideas and belief systems.
Take, for example, the current controversy in the supposedly democratic Republic of Germany where the government is strenuously trying to block access to Web sites which "endanger children" by "glorifying and encouraging violence, bending morals, or inciting racial violence." The German government defends its actions by saying that with its "unique" history of fascism and extremist ideology, they cannot afford the full range of free speech. They are threatening prosecution of any German citizen who even has a link to the "Radikal" website or other sites with swastikas or other celebrations of the Nazi Third Reich. Think about it: if I lived in Germany, I could be prosecuted just for having this link on my webpage! Is this the best way to fight noxious political messages? - for make no mistake, I find those sites as noxious as do the vast majority of decent people.
I argue that instead of trying to stamp out sites maintained by small group of extremists it is better to let them have their say. Give violent and wild-eyed fanatics enough rope through free speech to allow them to hang themselves with their own words. As Justice Brandeis described the cleansing nature of free speech: "Sunlight is the best disinfectant." Let the dark and murky corners of cyberspace be examined and let repulsive ideas be exposed to the cleansing influence of better ideas. Perhaps if people in Germany had paid more attention rather than less to Hitler's "Mein Kampf", they would have understood him better and opposed his rise to power and thereby prevented enormous misery and suffering for themselves and others. In functioning democracies, radical and revolutionary publications have rarely attracted a considerable following. They are almost always rightly considered the work of immoderate minds and desperate souls.
In threatening imprisonment and/or imprisoning people, the German government creates martyrs and draws attention to extremist causes where otherwise little would have been forthcoming. I argue that it is better to let such "radikal" people and ideologies remain remote and out of the consciousness of ordinary decent people, their websites languishing in disinterest and neglect where they belong; allow better ideas to defeat inferior ideas in the minds of people who can view both sides and then make up their own minds. May the German authorities stand firm in the strength of their democracy and in the belief that the German people will choose moderation and reason over extremism and violence in their own hearts and souls; let the radikals stand judged and convicted in the court of public opinion. This is what the United States should have done with its own extremists during the 1920s instead of resorting to knee-jerk measures such as the Palmer raids and alien extraditions which do not rank among America's best moments.
One more time: the greatest weapons a free people have are their ideas and belief systems. This provides a protection to civil society that no amount of police officers and/or censors can provide. Democracy is about choosing the ballot box over the bullet if at all possible, the primacy of reform over revolution. Free speech is the absolute cornerstone of this system.
Contrast that to the radikals stated purpose: "We produce and distribute a magazine. A magazine which, in a time of state control and self-censorship, is a forum for a discussion of street militancy and armed struggle." This echoes the worst of Weimar Republic street mob violence and not the best tradition of a modern democratic Germany which defeated the infamous Baader-Meinhof terrorist group in a manner compatible with the rule of law. Let the German government build up its civil society by strengthening its center and not by attacking its extremes - the radikals out in the streets fighting with the police if that is what they desire with the general population at home and in disagreement with them. And if and when the authorities find concrete evidence of violence and/or plans for violence, let the German authorities fall on those involved with the full force of a responsible government which protects its citizenry supported by the vast majority of the population.
Understand this: that law enforcement aggressively seeks out and prosecutes child molesters, terrorists, electronic burglars or vandals, sexual predators, and others intent on doing harm is in no way incompatible with free speech in a democratic society which values the free flow of ideas and information perhaps above all things. Whether such illegal activity occurs on or off the Internet is immaterial; the nature of crime and reckless misbehavior are no different off the Internet than on it: Hacking into somebody's computer is no different than breaking into their office or bedroom; trying to seduce a child via computer is essentially no different than doing it by phone or in person. Planning a terrorist attack by e-mail is still conspiracy to commit a crime.
Without the CDA, persons engaging in such blatantly nefarious behavior electronically in the United States have been convicted and imprisoned with already existing laws. Authority and the exercise of authority should not be the problem; rather, it should be the sagacious use of authority in a manner compatible with our shared democratic heritage. I am not an extremist and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) will never see dollar one from me, but the proposed CDA clearly goes too far. Perhaps what is needed are new specially designed law enforcement organs designed to extend current laws within an already established framework to a medium which is still new, poorly understood, and, as such, feared. The U.S. Congress, in attempting to criminalize not only behavior but expression as well, seeks to significantly narrow our First Amendment rights. The U.S. Supreme Court has historically been loathe to cut back on any form of expression for adults and I most humbly hope in their wisdom they continue this noble American tradition.
"Those who won our independence... valued liberty both as an end and as a means. They believed liberty to be the secret of happiness and courage to be the secret of liberty... that without free speech and assembly discussion would be futile; that with them, discussion affords ordinarily adequate protection against the dissemination of noxious doctrine; that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty; and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government."      World Wide Web pages (such as this one), e-mail, etc. are just the newest and most exciting ganglia of a democratic civil society in the same spirit as are bookstores, coffee houses, museums, town hall meetings, libraries, letters to the editors and the newspapers, magazines, TV newscasts, publishing houses (the entire media itself!) and, of course, the schools and universities. In direct contrast to 400 years ago when literacy was rare and the number of extant books even rarer, anyone who knows how to read, has access to the World Wide Web, and possesses the desire to educate themselves can do so in a wired world without depending on the journalists or publishers who beforehand had a virtual monopoly on the dissemination of information. This has the potential to subtly but pervasively decentralize power globally and bring information and knowledge closer to everyday people. The long-term ramifications for education, democracy and mankind are profound.
Louis D. Brandeis
U.S. Supreme Court Justice
When I first discovered that I could get news online quickly and efficiently without having to endure commercial advertisements, I knew that the tide had turned against the publisher/broadcast and in favor of the consumer/user (hurray!). Instead of being mere spectators we become Internet users who can actively discover and evaluate content before deciding how to put it to work. No longer will the incredibly arrogant Hollywood moguls and media company elites be able to view communication with the public as a one-way process - it sells and the public buys ("and if you don't like it, tough!"). The traditional media will always be important in serving as editors, analyzers, and filters of raw information as there will always be a need for first-class reporting of news. However, they will not be the only providers of information.
No longer will we sit back and simply lap up the information others decide we should receive, as now we can go out and find for ourselves what we need from a variety of sources. This places more responsibility on the news consumer to filter out bad information and inferior ideas while finding the nuggets of gold in the ephemeral regions of the Internet. On the other hand, it frees us from the tyranny of national editors and media/marketing elites. Make no doubt about it: The Internet challenges traditional journalistic concentrations of power, as well as those of many academics, educators and politicians. Yet as it reduces the power of the journalist, it increases the power and participation of the individual citizens - and it is the individuals which has always been the center of American political life. And now every citizen with a home page is an 18th century pamphleteer and town corner crier! After all, the Founding Fathers of the United States of America saw diversity of opinion and the free flow of ideas as nothing less than a foundation of their revolution; and let's keep the Internet in mind thusly as it begins to blend seamlessly with such an intellectual worldview. As Thomas Jefferson originally wrote so passionately about information approximately two hundred years before the development of Hypertext Markup Language (HTML):
"Ideas should spread freely from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible all over space, without lessening their density at any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation."Whether through e-mail conversation or World Wide Web transmission of raw or processed information, the digital culture transmits ideas in just the stirring way Jefferson envisioned. I can hear federalist James Madison and rabble-rouser Thomas Paine cheering from their graves at the democratic and free nature of the Internet, the ability for individuals to educate themselves, and opportunity it provides for distant, disconnected, and ordinary citizens to make their voices heard in Washington and to monitor and participate in government activities. I can see Jefferson sitting down to pen passionately, "Information wants to be free!"
This does not mean that we have necessarily entered a new chaotic culture of the Tower of Babel where in a cacophony no powerful voices or messages may be heard; the arguments of elected politicians and distinguished thinkers will naturally hold more attention than those of others. I will never stop reading my major daily newspaper online or off with editors, professional reporting and filtering of the most important trends and news reporting, but it is no longer my only source of information. I can read online an article at CNN about a terrorist attack against Israel and then go and search out the website of that terrorist group and read their messages personally. It is highly doubtful I would be more amenable to their message of violence, but at least I am getting the information first-hand directly from the source. Afterwards, I can scour the Web for further information about Middle Eastern terrorism from professionals and academics at university and think tank websites or amateurs at their personal sites. It would be hard to underestimate the importance of this subtle but important shift in power from the massive media corporations to individual consumers of information.
The ramifications for tyrants and oppressed peoples in countries without free access to information are equally profound. An oppressive government shuts down a World Wide Web server with forbidden political content in their country? Simply move the information in a few key strokes to a server in a more tolerant country half-way around the world where that oppressive regime has no jurisdiction! Curious as to what is going on elsewhere or want to connect with the outside world? No problem. Anyone with a modem, computer, and access to a phone line effectively has the whole world at their fingertips. The Internet offers the promise of a new social space, truly global and without borders or nationalities, within which anybody anywhere can express to the rest of humanity whatever he or she believes. It is a unique forum in human history - a fact which still never fails to impress itself on me when I read e-mail from persons half-way around the world whom I never would have met if it had not been for the World Wide Web.
What are they going to do? Ban computers? Make a 6" x 8" modem illegal? Get rid of all the phone lines in and out of the country? Not likely if a country wants to remain even remotely competitive in a global economy. And even an obsolete computer today has the capacity to encrypt communications to the point of rendering them virtually indecipherable. In a heavily controlled society like communist China with all Internet communications specially routed through supervised chokepoints, any 13-year old who knows what they are doing can defeat the firewall and access any Web site in the world by use of proxy servers. Or they can simply make a phone call via satellite and sidestep the local controls completely. There are always creative ways to finesse information and effectively get it where you want it to go in a network; humans have already shown themselves quite ingenious in circumventing electronic controls.
As Digital Age guru John Gilmore explains, "The 'Net tends to interpret censorship as damage, and routs around it." The Internet, after all, was designed for military use and the design criteria were fault tolerance and reliability even after a nuclear attack. Even if the network experiences extensive damage or is largely disabled (censored?), information in the form of e-mail messages, graphical images, or HTML-text broken down into numerous electronic packets of data can still get from point A to B; dynamic re-routing ensures that if one communication link is broken, the traffic can be re-directed through other existing links. The process might be slow and tortuous, but the system functions even as long as sections of it remain operational. No single political leader or government is capable of crashing the entire system, much less controlling it. The Internet is no longer a national phenomenon - it is international. TCP/IP is the first truly international language.
"TCP/IP is the first truly international language"
Yet at the same time China, Taiwan, Indonesia, Burma, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore and many other countries are moving to control the flow of information on the Internet that enters their country. They will fail, and their failure will increase with time as Internet communications increase and become more pervasive worldwide.
"Singapore can block those [offending web] pages off, but would have an increasingly burdensome task to track down all 'hostile' and 'dangerous' information. I doubt if they will succeed, as the Net grows larger. Three years ago the worldwide usenet-flow was 100mb/day. Today it's about two gigabytes. In two years this will have quadrupled. No organisation can control such enormous flows of information. I don't want to even start thinking about tracking and censoring webpages, because they will just be put on a new URL every day."
writing in September of 1996
from the Netherlands
Clearly time is not on the side of those who seek to control what people view/read and how they think. If I were a dictator, I would be quaking in my jackboots. If I were a German politician, I would be explaining to my people what I am for instead of attacking what I am against. If I were a fundamentalist Christian whom pornography drove to distraction, I would spend less time lobbying Congress for new laws and get out there and start proselytizing on the Web.
"For philosophically committed people, politics is primarily a contest over public policy. The measure is not what people, but what ideas win."
Morton C. Blackwell
Much of human history revolves around the attempt to contest the spread of ideas and technology. As the abitily to control information and new ideas becomes more difficult and then impossible, political and cultural leaders will need to rely less on repression and more on explaining and justifying themeselves and their ideas in the public view. "Civilized society is a working system of ideas. It lives and changes by the consumption of ideas," claimed the Commission on Freedom of the Press, or the Hutchins Commission in their A Free and Responsible Press, "Therefore, it must make sure that as many as possible of the ideas which its members have are available for its examination." The World Wide Web makes this possible for the first time.
Of course, countries like Saddam Hussein's Iraq have already seen the writing on the wall and outlawed Internet access in the country, to no one's surprise. An official government newspaper recently declared the Internet "the end of civilizations, cultures, interests and ethics." A wily political survivor, Saddam Hussein the despot realizes that the Internet is the censor's biggest challenge and the tyrant's worst nightmare. Hussein does not want news from the outside world brought by the Internet into Iraq which might contradict versions provided by his regime, eroding the credibility of his positions and encouraging unrest. Hussein does not want personal contact via e-mail between Iraqis and people living in the free world which might lead to a more accurate understanding on both ends and further undermine his iron-fisted control. Hussein does not want information about violations of human rights and other forms of oppression to leak to the outside world. Banning the Internet - or trying to ban it! - is one option of dealing with the Internet. Is it the best one?
On the other hand, as Romana Machado explains culture in a wired world:
"We are, each of us, not merely consumers, but creators of culture. The value and power of each individual, and thus our individual responsibility, grows every day. What you choose to do, and whom you choose to become, matters much more than where you happened to be born. The World Wide Web makes possible a truly consensual society of individuals. No longer fed from a narrow menu of "approved" truths, each of us will face a vast and dubious smorgasbord of ideas, produced by the human mind in all its amazing diversity. Each of us must learn to choose well; attention is a most precious resource. Every time you invest attention in an idea, a written word, a television show, every time you buy something, every time you believe something, every time you act, the texture of your future, and mine, is subtly changed."
Read my webpages and leave influenced, be it ever so slightly. Let me know what you think and why and broaden my own perspective, be it only in a small way. ESPECIALLY if you hold opinions completely contrary to mine, communicate your ideas and the reasoning behind them - you might just change my point of view! I hardly claim to have it all figured out. The whole point of free speech is that through discussion and debate error can be uncovered and truth more fully understood. To do otherwise is to surrender to superstition and unreason; it is to let me down and yourself down: it leaves us both in the twilight, groping at shadows. As Charles Bradlaugh put it so elegantly over a hundred years ago: "Without free speech no search for truth is possible... no discovery of truth is useful... Better a thousandfold abuse of free speech than denial of free speech. The abuse dies in a day, but the denial slays the life of the people, and entombs the hope of the race."
This spirit of pluralism and diversity, embodied by the United States and the rest of the democratic world, has a historic opportunity through the Internet to move humanity to a higher level in terms of promoting conversation, cooperation, education, and understanding while facilitating commerce worldwide - raising all equipped to take advantage of it to a better educated and more prosperous social arrangement. I hope one day to see a worldwide digital forum with millions and millions of conversants thinking, commiserating, sharing, and persuading (the clash of ideas against one another and new hybrids emerging) in a constantly changing intellectual mass of the good, the bad, and the ugly of all different temperaments, inclinations, and ideals. I see people doing research and business with TCP/IP as the lingua franca which keeps us never more than a few key strokes away from each other. I envision a global infoculture in a future full of artists, politicians, wackos, businessmen, rebels, grandparents, geniuses, losers, children, priests, and, yes, even pornographers. The Web is big enough for everyone and everything if we truly want an electronic world with all the richness and diversity of a vibrant humanity. Don't kid yourself - you can learn from pornography! I learned it had little to offer other than a momentary shock and then I hardly gave it another thought.
"A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."
from a letter to W.T. Barry
August 4, 1822
The CDA is at heart an attempt by Christian religious organizations to engineer through force of law a society of their choosing (ie. one without pornography or explicit language). As for my part, I would not outlaw anyone or any behavior merely because I did not agree with or understand it - as long as certain core agreed upon rules and laws were not violated. Even as I bitterly disagree with someone, I would defend their right to their opinion to the bitter end. I might make a strenuous effort to persuade or influence them into what I felt was a better way, but I would not threaten or encourage punitive action simply because they did not conform to my own idea of the "good life." Jail does not change people's minds but only creates hatred. This is especially true when people find themselves imprisoned for no other reason than "incorrect" thought. Intolerant political philosophy has been the underpinning of the totalitarian tyrannies of both left and right, violent eruptions of nationalism, racism, and religious bigotry which have spilled so much blood and caused so much human misery in this our ignominious 20th century. In comparison, the past centuries of religious wars and Napoleonic campaigns seem provincial and relatively humane! Perhaps we should keep this in mind as we prepare to end one century and begin the next.
Let us hope that the era of illiberal societies dominated by church, military strongmen, commissars, all-powerful political parties, and charismatic demagogues and all they entail are behind us. Political and ecclesiastical leaders that seek to control what the populace reads, views, writes, and ultimately, thinks inevitably hold the paternalistic view that the role of government is not to obey the people but for the people to obey the government ("We know what is best for you!"). Such a philosophy makes a mockery out of human freedom as autocrats would invidiously submit art and the study of history and literature to the tyranny of ideology and thereby sanitize, simplify, debone, cleanse, bleed white, purge, hollow out, and ultimately diminish humanity and cheapen life itself if allowed to do so in the name of reshaping reality to make the world correspond to their image of the ideal. Governments of this sort in recent history have often proved greatly injurious to domestic and international peace and been an obstacle to any progress mankind can claim to have made in modern times. Revolution as blood and punishment (V.I. Lenin)! Religion as blood and punishment (Ayatollah Khomeini)! Race as blood and punishment (A. Hitler)! They put the proof to the assertion by J.S. Mill that "culture without freedom never made a large and liberal mind."
"Out of timber so crooked as that from which man is made nothing entirely straight can be built," claimed Immanuel Kant over 200 years ago, and attempts by man to fashion a Heaven on Earth in some future utopian society by any and all means necessary is inevitably doomed to end in only further cruelty, mass violence, suffering and finally failure. Even the best and brighest of among us can claim only to know a small part of all there is to know about an infinitely complex world and maddeningly ambivalent human nature. At most the "enlightened ones" among us can claim to be less ignorant than the rest if they pretend to be honest. All men do not think alike - neither in the past, present, nor any probably future - and the idea that society can be transformed in the light of certain "true" ideals believed in with sufficient fervor and dedication by a select few is dangerously seductive. The distance between such a philosophy and fanaticism is a short one. If our blood-soaked 20th century of wars and revolutions - gulags, executions, torture, genocide, and a myriad of other atrocities all in the name of abstract ideas - should teach us anything, it should teach us that. Think about a world today in which the German fascists or Soviet communists had proved victorious! Think about how much different life would be for most of us!
A nation (and ultimately the world!) derives its power and long-term stability from being able to mold a unity out of the inevitable differences that arise among men and not from imposing an artificial "stability" resulting from force and fear. Attempts to force mankind into some ideological schemata of the "correct" society is to degrade and attempt to kill humanity in all its great vibrancy and diversity. It results in a society with leaders ready and capable to perform any fresh barbarity necessary to preserve an enforced union. On the other hand, a self-government which recognizes the inevitable diversity of interests and ideas in any society and attempts to fashion laws and institutions to foster a degree of equilibrium and empathy between them can perhaps provide a modicum of understanding and freedom among peoples who wish to live lives compatible with individual dignity. History shows us that truly long-term prosperity and stability are offered only by governments based on a reluctance to use violence unless absolutely necessary, a formation of official policy through public debate and voluntary compromise, and the gradual evolution of moral principles shared by the majority of the population.
Mutual respect, open dialogue, compromise and consensus - this is not the stuff of heroic martyrdom, mythic grandeur or national legend, but it is perhaps the only option we human beings have in avoiding further bloodshed and strife worldwide. The alternatives are all too in evidence in this century of spectacular crimes.
Nobody has a monopoly on the "Truth," and let anyone who seeks to make known certain "truths" explain it to all of us. And explain it well. "The pretense to know all the answers to the deepest mysteries is, of course, the grossest fraud. And any people who declare a Jihad, a holy war on 'unbelievers' - those who do not share their believers' pretended omniscience - are enemies of thinking men and women of civilization," claims Daniel Boorstin and he could not be more correct, in my opinion. Searching and perchance finding whatever knowledge and truth we may encounter might perhaps be the only solace we can find in our relative human ignorance; but it is precisely this independent adventuring in the world of ideas by ordinary people which some elites in this world find terrifying. Yet this is what it's all about between us frail and questioning human beings searching for meaning in our lives - as Socrates put it when he said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." What do you believe in? That is an important question in this age of disbelief and rampant consumerism. Making money, amassing power, acquiring prestige - these things are all fine and well and necessary for the continuation of life, but the most important task in life should be the nurturing of the soul (in my opinion).
"The most beautiful thing in the world is freedom of speech."
"The Internet is not there to make us happy; it is not there to irritate us either. The Internet is there to use, to communicate. The Net is part of our universal right to express ourselves and communicate with each other."
I guarantee you this: if some sort of draconian "communications decency" act is upheld this summer, I will make a long list on this page using a large font of every single URL of mine which has a naked picture and/or sexual material and DARE the United States government to throw my ass in jail! That I promise.
To my fellow Americans: I most humbly submit that freedom is not simply the product of the Bill of Rights or words about democracy written on paper but the result of the convictions of those who passionately believe in and defend what those words and laws represent. As Judge Learned Hand claimed, "Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women, and when it dies, no constitution can save it." This is our true national heritage. In discussion (both online and in person) with anti-democrats from Chile to communist China to the United States, I have come to think that apathy and cynicism are the true mortal enemies of democracy, not pornography or extremism. Almost 50 years ago Adlai E. Stevenson stated, "Democracy cannot be answered by supermen, but only by the unswerving devotion and goodness of millions of little men." Let these comments then by a little man about the proposed Communications Decency Act and freedom of speech in general be my tiny contribution to democracy and the cause of liberty. In coming to grips with the dyamic new medium of the Internet, let us not through censorship show ourselves to be cowards.
"Loyalty... is a realization that America was born of revolt, flourished in dissent, became great through experimentation."
Henry Steele Commanger
"Freedom, Loyalty, and Dissent"
"It is the duty to defend these [First Amendment] principles for which this country stands. And these [principles] are the real strength of America. Without these, it is merely a piece of land between Canada and Mexico."
Robert Maynard Hutchins