Liberals and leftists are developing a shocking double standard on free speech -- and few people seem to call them on it. And with the exposure of this double standard, we're starting to come into focus something long suspected especially of hard leftists -- that they are willing to condone violence in their own cause, even as they denounce it when it appears on the extreme right.
On the one hand, they have been fretting about the free speech of the conservative right and the Tea Party, for example blaming Sarah Palin, who they said created a climate of incitement that enabled the shooting of Rep Giffords and the killing of others in Arizona, when Palin had bulls-eyes on a map targeting Democrats she wanted to see defeated in the elections.
On the other hand, the liberals troubled by the violent rhetoric of the right are suddenly indulging in it themselves -- Tom Friedman accusing the Republican Party of having a Hamas-like terrorist faction in the form of the Tea Party; Joseph Nocera talking about suicide belts and saying we should "never negotiate with terrorists". Um, you mean those elected people across the aisle in the Congress?!
On the one hand, an instant cottage industry springing up to find all the references in the Norwegian mass murderer's manifesto coming from American conservatives -- with the implication that they should "watch it" -- or even be silenced. On the other hand, instant comparison between British authorities concerned about the misuse of social media to wage devastating riots, and authoritarians like Mubarak shutting down the Internet to prevent democracy protests.
We're a long way from Skokie, when Aryeh Neier, then head of the American Civil Liberties Union, advocated the controversial position of allowing the Ku Klux Klan to march in a neighbourhood where Jews lived, many Holocaust survivors, and later justified the decision, which split his organization, in a Voltaire-like book, Defending My Enemy.
Maybe it's because with the Internet and smart-phones, we have a million virtual Skokies available now, over and over, like Orwell's jackboot on the face at the end of 1984 - with a certain number of them crossing over into real life.
Or maybe the instinct to "defend my enemy" becomes atrophied or unavailable when "progressives" feel their own survival is at stake -- and they are unwilling to cede the media to the barbarians.
Like Michael Massing, in a troubling piece in the New York Review of Books, they urging that "something" be done about what they see as violent incitement from Fox TV -- "It's Time to Scrutinize Fox".
All you have to do is imagine that headline on Fox itself, "It's Time to Scrutinize the Nation" or "It's Time to Scrutinize Democracy Now" to see what's illegtimate about it -- although few seem to see it that way.
Massing, long a fighter for media freeom at the Committee to Project Journalists and a journalist himself enjoying free speech, invokes the need to investigate Fox for its broadcasts merely because its owner, Rupert Murdoch, is under investigation for his news operation's hacking of phones in the UK. Murdoch has shut down the offending tabloid; he has submitted to parliamentary inquiries; he has caused his top executives to resign and some have even been arrested. It's never enough, however. There's no allegation that Fox has done anything illegal -- but maybe they should get up a police raid just in case?
And since the appalling atrocity in Norway, leftists and liberals have a new sport -- blaming right-wing anti-jihadist bloggers like Pamela Geller for inspiring the Norwegian terrorist anders Breivik -- as if he didn't have enough long-standing hate ideologies to pick from already in Europe's past and present, and in its network of extremist groups like the English Defence League.
Although she is mentioned only once in the killer's deadly 1,500 manifesto, Geller is tied to the Norwegian Christian mass-murderer because she writes incendiary blogs hateful of Muslims. She herself hasn't called for violence -- but no matter -- it appears she once got a letter from someone in Norwegian -- maybe Breivik, maybe not -- who seemed to express the racist views he does, and who indicated he was stockpiling weapons. Geller was caught scrubbing that part of the letter from her website -- and she sure looks guilty. Even so -- neither the hateful letter-writer nor she fits the Supreme Court test of "incitement to imminent lawless action." Yet many liberal writers behave as if she, and others like her, such as Michelle Bachman noted for anti-gay rhetoric, or Sarah Palin noted for her bulls-eyes, are already guilty of speech crimes leading to violence.
The Government is Coming to Get Your Blog! But Yes, Think of the Children
Meanwhile, these very same people, or those with similar views in the same free-speech networks, are banging the drum to stop what they claim is unconscionable government intrusion into privacy and interference with free speech on the Internet. At the forefront is Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is leading the campaign against a bill that would enable the government to monitor Internet users to prevent child pornography.
In typical misleading fashion, the EFF petition doesn't even mention the child pornography issue at all -- so the cause can appear as if it is only about government intrusion into users' privacy. But when you read the bill, you see that it amends existing legislation to enable law-enforcers to prosecute child pornography.
Opinionated bloggers on this subject, like Marti Lawrence, the follower of the collectivist Seth Godin who is already in the top 100 female bloggers of Google+, essentially claim that there is unreasonable "moral panic" about child pornography and think it's just an excuse for overreach (you can see my efforts to debate this on G+ here).(She's the kind of geek who thinks this kind of reductivist anti-democratic Internet humour should be a "norm".)
They confuse the problem of what minors see on the Internet -- an issue they think parents only should manage -- with the very real crime of exploitation of children in pornography viewed by adults, and the perpetuation of such child pornography networks on the Internet -- as a recent roundup of 72 suspects regularly using a child pornography club indicates.
Bloggers are ranting that their names, addresses, and billing information -- already solicited and maintained by ISPs in order to connect users to the Internet -- will be retained to be made available to law-enforcers.
Yet the bill doesn't call for the government to trawl through every users' account -- like any crime investigation, a test of "probable cause" would likely have to be met -- and would certainly be demanded by defense attorneys. The police can currently request landline phone records -- the government is merely demanding the same right to request cell phone and social media records for the same reason -- to investigate those suspected of committing crimes.
It's important to recognize -- though you would never know this from the hysterical blogs and forums -- that this is a bill (H.R. 1981) that hasn't passed yet and will undoubtedly have some revision-- and that it amends existing law. Er, even without this bill passed, guess what! The FBI rounded up 72 child pornographers -- but probably had to take a longer time doing it than they could if they could have access to Internet records, you know?
To be sure, we all get it that bills have to be influenced before they are passed -- but the US is a land of precedent law and a great deal actually depends on how the law is interpreted in a court of law. Many say that searching social media and mobile records is "unreasonable search and seizure," even though they tacitly accept such searches of land lines and physical properties when the government has "probable cause."
I won't debate here the extremists who think concern about child pornography is exaggerated -- not -- again -- when 72 people have just been rounded up possession a million images obtained from gruesomely harming children -- but rather look at the claim that it is a smokescreen or even if legitimate, will harm privacy and civil rights.
How? If the government is performing a search for child pornography, they will have their tips, and the social media companies will have their abuse reports sent in by helpful citizens, and they will no doubt have agents infiltrating some of the clubs. They will be working with a known set of leads and looking for where they connect to past and repeat offenders in particular. So based on that set of leads for "probable cause," they will ask mobile companies or ISPs to examine records to make their case.
I so no reason to ascribe to the government a priori an intent to subject all citizens to unreasonable searches and consider all users "guilty" -- which is how scarifying bloggers have put it and how the EFF wants to spin it. It's not just a question of saying "if you aren't doing anything wrong, you don't have to worry about a police search." It's rather a question of looking at the practicality and effectiveness of police work. Given the potential for countersuits if they do scan the wrong people or make a practice of just scraping everybody in a given community, police in our liberal, democratic society under the Obama Administration are not likely to do more than follow existing leads based on "probable cause." Therefore, I see nothing wrong with the bill as it stands. The jurisprudence and the already considerably well-entrenched habits of civil rights in the US will ensure that it is not misused.
The Internet's Magical Autonomous Realm
The alternative is to somehow concede that cyberspace and mobile phones are some Autonomous Realm where lawlessness can reign and children can be exploited in pornography, bullied to the point of suicide on social networks, and women can be stalked and even raped. And I see no reason why we should concede such a lawless, violent zone -- yet the same people who complain about Sarah Palin's bullseyes and Pamela Geller's name appearing in a mass-murderer's manifesto and think "something must be done" are willing to leave the Internet as a lawless space where all kinds of people can be harmed in the nexus between speech and action -- all for the sake of preventing a largely theoretical encroachment on their own privacy.
Nowhere is this double standard about incitement to violence ever really examined.
The same folks fretting endlessly about the need to rein in or even stop Fox TV -- didn't Glenn Beck denounce the Tides Foundation? Didn't some crazy guy get caught by the police who was going to go throw a bomb at the Tides Foundation? Shouldn't that be reason enough to remove him from the air? -- are curiously indifferent to the same sort of problem -- far more explicitly linked -- in London during riots organized over the Blackberry messaging system and Twitter.
London Calling -- and It's Collect
The civil libertarians, such as they are, instantly cry foul at the thought of UK Prime Minister David Cameron wanting to have a talk with social media providers Facebook, Twitter, and RIM, makers of Blackberry, about the usages of these services for coordinating imminent, violent attacks in which property was destroyed, livelihoods were destoyed, looting was rampant, and people were even killed.
They instantly make a comparison between despotic governments like Mubarak's regime in Egypt, who shut off the Internet, or other autocrats such as Iran's ayatollah's who track people through social media and arrest them, and Cameron, who is merely having a talk with the platform providers and hasn't ordered any service shut off on any emergency executive basis -- much less had a law passed in parliament enabling the government either to shut down messaging services being misused to riot, or requiring that they make user information available.
Of course, if someone doesn't appreciate the difference between Cameron, a prime minister elected democratically in a liberal democracy with an independent judiciary and legislature, and Mubarak, a tyrant, and the different uses they might put powers to suspend social media, then there's no point in having the discussion with them.
Yet it's not just the context or the nature of the governments -- right on cue, the tekkies' bible, TechCrunch, is here to tell us that it is "impossible" to predict riots on social media (in a particularly deft brand of tekkie literalism and binary thinking from Mike Butcher) -- although of course, British courts are now very capably trying people for their messages on Blackberry calling their chums to help them loot and pillage. That is, because the lefty and libertarian geek community feels it is wrong to have the more conservative Cameron control social media, they will backdate their argumentation to find "a technical exigency."
Butcher thinks that a moribund police Twitter account is some kind of marker for police inaction, and snarkily tells Scotland Yard to do old-fashioned policing with informants. Yet obviously they are already doing this -- they put up large photos culled from social media accounts of victory-dancers bragging about their looting and asked the public to help identify the vandals.
Must the government necessarily always step in to stop social media? If these services have a Terms of Service, what, they can't have their own staff to observe huge surges in the system that contain messages to flashmob and loot, and have them suspend the users' accounts on their own to comply with their TOS? Don't our geeky do-gooders like Craig Newmark of Craigslist always tell us that they cooperate with law-enforcers to stop crime? Don't they foresake their incessant invocation of "safe harbour" and "common carrier" status when it comes to the need to appear to be helping officers of the law stop crime?
Is the real problem that we can't agree any more what crime is?
Kill the Kill Switch?
Sure, we get it that "kill switches" can be misused in any hands. Even so, there's little awareness of how dictatorships like that of Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan or Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov in Turkmenistan already turn off the Internet at will and seize all cell communications as needed by laws passed in their rubber-stamp parliaments -- and what a huge difference there is between those closed societies, and a society where people are debating what *might* become a "kill switch* *if* the law is passed and would be implemented with very different contexts and capacities. In the closed societies, the kill switch prevents people from dissenting and challenging or even removing the government. In open societies, the kill switch is stopping the Internet from being taken over by hostile powers that would misuse it to *prevent* free media and speech. It's not like Obama wants to turn off your blog; the intent is to prevent Iran or China from a hostile takeover of networks and making them unusable for lots more vital things than your blog -- but your blog, too. Yet there's never any acknowledgement of this practical reality -- but just endless bloviating about Obama's "kill switch" -- which is then picked up mischieviously by Kazakh autocrats in places like OSCE meetings, where they can claim -- falsely -- a moral equivalence between their decades-long tyrant and our democratically-elected president.
(It's not just Kazakh apparatchiks, however; I've seen the odd TechCrunch geek argue to the mat that the Internet isn't really used for any vital functions like electricity or water or banking, that the web pages of agencies or companies related to such functions, if hacked, don't stop those utilities, and that therefore there is no rationale for setting a "kill switch". Yet disrupting the ability for people to go to paypal.com or nyc.gov or any such site, even if not actually running a generator, causes delays, losses -- havoc. If that can't be acknowledged, we're dealing with people without any moral compass at all, except what's expedient for their class.)
Should Cameron or any leader have the ability to stop the use of mobile phones and social media services from being used in riots? Why, yes, because every liberal democratic state has a concept of the limits of free speech -- and that limit isn't just the famous "crying fire in a crowded theater" -- it's *setting a store on fire, really -- and calling your friends.
That this was how social media was indeed used in the UK isn't disputed -- there is ample news reports. As Anna Applebaum pointed out, "Instead of using social media to create civil society or cyber-utopia, they are using social media to steal."
I'll do another blog entry at some point on whether the violence of the UK was really and truly about poverty and exclusion instead of opportunism and "pure criminality" as Cameron put it.
The Moral Slide into the Justification of Violence
But the double standards are surely visible when the same writers who are blaming the US right wing's media for hatred in the world, and telling us all to "watch ourselves" ever since the appalling tragedy of Norway, are now hastening to let us know that even if violent, the rioting of young people in the UK was *justified* due to cuts in social services and entitlements, unemployment, lack of opportunities and alienation.
Sarah Palin better not put any targets on her campaign posters and should apologize to Rep. Giffords; we should all "do something" about how Fox, watched by...two million people...is "getting out of hand" and sic a police investigation on it; Pamela Geller should just shut up as she could be related to actual terrorist attacks.
But God forbid if Scotland Yard investigates any phones for misuse to start riots -- the same Scotland Yard whose officer had to resign over the Murdoch scandals.
See what I mean? Actually, most people on lefty forums don't. That's because they simply no longer feel non-violence as an intrinsic value, or free speech as an intrinsic value to be used by friends as well as enemies -- instead, they see them as fake values invoked falsely and duplicitiously by either side in a cultural war.
There's also been a very marked moral slide on the left, especially in the UK, that has come to see violence as justified. Where once Amnesty International only adopted prisoners of conscience who had not used or advocated violence, today, their adoption of the Cageprisoners formerly of Guantanamo and their excusing of their calls for "defensive jihad" and the suppression of women's rights" is seen as unsurprising and not contradicting their past values.
Where once people using the banner of humanitarianism would accept a vow of non-violence along with such a cause, today they triumph in inciting violence to make a point and get their version of humanitarianism to have its way in Gaza, with the Flotilla wars.
It strikes me that the violence in Britain didn't just come out of poor management of immigrant populations and lack of opportunities -- not when we're also being told that ballerinas, charity workers, grade-A students from wealthy families, and 11-year-old kids are among the looters and vandals. The British press can't seem to make up its mind -- on the one hand there is much droning about poverty as a justifier of rioting, and yet to avoid appearing to focus on any one racial group, there is simultaneously a media effort to portray the looters as "from all walks of life," black and white, rich and poor -- yet while somehow desperately keeping to the "poor and disenfranchised" narrative.
No, I think there's something to be said for the casual acceptance of violence now, and the belief that violence is ok when harnessed to a "just cause," as coming from the lack of leadership from the organizations like Amnesty. If Amnesty officials dump the old prisoner of conscience values, and defiantly accept "defensive jihad" as a norm even when their gender specialist tells them it's wrong, then why shouldn't young people throw a brick through a window and grab some sneakers and a laptop? If Amnesty has moved away from traditional civil and human rights concerns to adopt a wider if more vague agenda of justice and poverty alleviation, why shouldn't people "send a message to the rich that we can do what we want," as one young white teenager put it in London, and why shouldn't they just "re-distribute the wealth," as a young man said coming out of an ice cream parlour with some loot. Amnesty -- and the Labour Party, and the Guardian, and lots of liberal and left institutions -- have been explaining patiently for decades who the enemy is, and slipping on the old pledge not to use or advocate violence when they celebrate the Palestinian intifada -- and use the term "intifada of youth" for the riots now in England. Surprised?
The Ideologues of Nihilism about Violence
I often find it difficult to keep coming back to reach opendemocracy.net, because of the pious leftishness and anti-Americanism in the writers, and the hysterical extremity of the comments. I wanted to see every perspective I could on the London riots, however, so I spent some time reading what was available.
I wasn't surprised to find a scholar who has concocted an entire justification of violence -- and done so with the usual guilt-tripping of the affluent and laying of the philosophical trip-wires. Dr. Helen Drexter tells us to reject a moral debate to examine the rationality of violence.
Her thesis goes like this: we are all in a kind of too-comfortable cocoon accepting our moral horror at violence and crime, and this is facile abstraction that we must get beyond in order to see the real springs and vectors of the riots -- the rationality. Once we stop wrapping ourselves in moral piety, so this reasoning goes, why, we see that people are using violence to "send a message" or because they are alienated and excluded and face real deprivation. We stop the judgement machine, see, and we begin to empathize with these victims of cuts in services, disparity between rich and poor, closures of libraries and other injustices, and we stop *reacting* to violence, which after all, is *merely a form that protest takes* -- so we should not become overly troubled by it. To recoil with horror and judgement as the prime minister and other leaders did is merely to signal that we are in that cocoon-class -- rich, sheltered, inured to the sufferings of others.
Well, baloney, I say. I find this kind of facile nihilsm-- and legal and moral nihilism is exactly what it is, even if dressed up in the garb of rationality and empathy -- is pretty creepy, really. It's ok to have moral judgement about violence. After all, if you accept violence as subject to "usefulness" in a case you like, then whose to say that it won't be used in a cause you don't like? You're going to be able to control it? Accepting violence means accepting that "might makes right". You say it's ok to throw a brick through a window and even burn down a building if you're poor; why, how will you then confront 16,000 policemen sent in to battle rioters and looters if they begin to use excessive force? Will you then reveal your hand -- that violence is just something you think some people get to use -- the little guy -- and never the big guy? How does that work? Who gets to decide? You?
There's also a revolting lack of humanity and just plain common sense in this position asking us to suspend moral condemnation of violence for the sake of clinically looking at social problems. Yet no neighbourhood has ever really been helped by being burnt to the ground, even if it helps glib sociologists like Richard Sennett pontificate about social deprivation. The first people hurt are other poor people or those slightly better off who managed and worked in the small stores or simply wished to have social peace. It's ok to have a very simple and clear moral imperative in making a civil society: no use of violence. It's ok to demand this; to teach this; to require this; to prosecute its violation. Indeed, not only the phalanxes of white people in the nation of shopkeepers with brooms for the clean-up, but the South Asian woman pleading bravely to looters to stop and go home, let us know that most people don't life in that rarified ivory tower of nihilistic rationality. They can't -- for practical reasons inherent in the "Do Unto Others" ethic.
That we're supposed to suspend such common-sense civic practicality in the name of some quest for greater empathy isn't just pernicious; it's ultimately not compelling. So I suspend all moral condemnation about all brick-throwers and I, as a liberal, show them the ultimate empathy, seek to absolve them from prosecution, and vote then for them to have more entitlements. What have I facilitated then? A society where it's ok to beat and smash and shoot your way to power?
The Cold Recognition of Inhumane Humanitarianism
This is as true at the local level as it is the international level. Maybe we have to concede coldly, as David Rieff does in the New Republic, that the flotilla activists, in making themselves into crusaders deliberately provoking violence, got the job of humanitarianism done, even if the method might be judged inhumane in the sense that it provoked violence (leaving aside the issue of whether there was indeed a humanitarian crisis, which was doubted not only by supporters of Israel, but UN officials.)
But if we conceed that cold, cold dismissal of our one-time value of non-violence in the name of a supposed greater good of feeding the hungry -- what kind of society are we left with, afterwards?
We're left with a society where gangs of people can provoke violence and try to overthrow border guards and police whenever they feel they have a grievance or are combatting another's real or perceived grievance. They can do what they like.
Who gets to judge what's right, then? Or should be "liked", as Facebook software prompts us? The leftist professor telling us to suspend our morality-cocoon imagines there will always be thoughtful intellectuals like herself at the helm to make the right call, and unleashing violence "for a good cause" will never backfire and never spread to bad causes.
My own conviction is that these professors and do-gooders leave us with the prospect of mobs then killing all the professors; all the priests; all the party members; all the wealthy farmers -- you get the Soviet or Chinese terrors and their imitators around the world in liberation movements in Africa, Latin America and Asia.
And that is, of course, where we're back to -- the Marxian forgiveness of violence as expediency; the Bolshevik's end justifying the means.
Checking into the Squared Circle
There is always a certain pretense that these conversations are complex or difficult and that we can't square the circle presented by needing the freedom of social media if we are to uphold our civil rights values and yet needing to somehow prevent crime committed with its misuse.
Yet our own US law of precedents in Supreme Court decisions, and similar jurisprudence in other countries even with different legal systems, have articulated the obvious connection between inictement of imminent lawless action and crimes of hate and violence and vandalism actually then occurring. When that nexus is found, authorities have to act and do act -- to act to protect civil society.
Yes, that will mean suspending Blackberrying messaging or Twitter access in a community if it is being exploited to plan and execute imminent violent crime. Your blogging will have to wait a bit. To suggest that it can't means that not only young white British girls at loose ends get to "send a message to the rich that we can do what we want" -- extreme right wing mass-murderers like Breivik can also send messages and do what they want, too. If you really think that media in your hands is okay and you know the limits of when you can tolerate violence, and media in your enemies' hands isn't okay and they don't know those limits, then I suggest you zoom out a little from your insularity.
The appalling acts of Breivik show us, if anything, the need for police to watch the nexus between people joining hate forums and plastering the Internet with anti-immigrant sentiment and the ordering of ingredients for bombs and weapons. Surely we can concede the police get to watch *that*. Or are we going to complain, along with the EFF, that it would involve government intrusion and deciding we're guilty before proven innocent?
We've already conceded that, oh, the Southern Poverty Law Center gets to monitor hate speech -- indeed it seems a vital service. The SPLC has declared the American Family Association and other right wing groups as a hate organizations for funding anti-gay campaigns, and have called those who used the term "cultural Marxism," like Breivik does in his manifesto, as "conspiracists." They are keenly attuned to speech they don't like and want government to "do something" -- not to fund the haters, at the very least. Many's the lefty blog now screaming that Michelle Bachman uses Medicare money to fund her anti-gay "therapy" clinic and think the government should "do something". Yet those same bloggers would likely be gravely concerned about the government intruding into social media to track potential criminals.
The Answer to Speech You Don't Like is More Speech
I'm not for allowing this double standard and hypocrisy to persist, and for opportunistic exploitation of concerns about violence and speech connections to be made to cast a chill over freedom of speech in general, and legitimate political movements in particular.
The bill to enable police to stop child pornography through obtaining Internet records should go forward, while ensuring in its implementation that it does not become a random dragnet to subject people to unreasonable searches -- an implementation that is achieved through practical experience day to day and litigation when necessary. Government must be able to turn off all or parts of the Internet if it is suddenly seized by an overwhelming outside enemy force -- but in taking such extreme action it should be compelled to announce that it is declaring a state of emergency and derogating from standard freedom of expression rights in the interests of preserving the democratic society itself.
The authorities in a democratic society also have to be able to have some kind of working relationship established by policy if not by law to cooperate with social media and Internet service providers to prevent the use of social media for incitement of imminent lawlessness as defined by law.
And unless someone can find an actual incitement to such imminence in a nasty blog by Pamela Geller or an odious talk show host's excesses on Fox TV, nothing should be done to turn them off or ban them. The answer to speech of this nature is more speech, not less. There is already an industry countering these manifestations of the conservative movement which are lawful -- sites like Loonwatch or Daily Kos or Jonathan Stewart make an industry of doing this and anyone is welcome to join the fray.
Have more speech then, not less; restrict it only when you really have grounds to prevent imminent violence. Yet don't needlessly hobble police forces in democratic societies from doing the job of protecting civil society from its destroyers.