I see with no surprise that Washington is stepping up its campaign to censor the internet. It had to come, and will succeed. It will put paid forever to America’s flirtation with freedom.
The country was never really a democracy, meaning a polity in which final power rested with the people. The voters have always been too remote from the levers of power to have much influence. Yet for a brief window of time there actually was freedom of a sort. With the censorship of the net—it will be called “regulation”—the last hope of retaining former liberty will expire.
Over the years freedom has declined in inverse proportion to the reach of the central government. (Robert E. Lee: “I consider the constitutional power of the General Government as the chief source of stability to our political system, whereas the consolidation of the states into one vast republic, sure to be aggressive abroad and despotic at home, will be the certain precursor of that ruin which has overwhelmed all those that have preceded it.” Yep.)
Through most of the country’s history, Washington lacked the ability to meddle, control, micromanage, and punish. In 1850, it had precious little knowledge of events in lands such as Wyoming, Tennessee, or West Virginia, no capacity to do much about them, and not a great deal of interest. People on remote farms and in small towns governed themselves as they chose, not always well but without rule by distant bureaucracies and moneyed interests.
For a sunny few years, local freedom rested substantially on principle, a notion inconceivable now. The Thomas Jeffersons, George Washingtons, and Robert E. Lees genuinely believed in freedom, and worried about the coming of tyranny. Justices of the Supreme Court often upheld the tenets of the Bill of Rights. As human affairs go—poorly, as a rule—it was impressive.
As time went by, however, it became clear that incapacity, not principle, was the only reliable brake on the rise of dictatorship. In 1950, the government could put a mail cover on anyone, quite possibly illegally if the FBI were involved, but steaming envelopes open required time, effort, and manpower. Mass surveillance was impossible, and so didn’t happen. Without surveillance, there can be no control.
For a long time it was due to principle that freedom of the press remained, no matter how much the government hated it. During the war in Vietnam, “underground” papers, which of course published openly, were virulently critical of the government. The mainstream media of the time published shocking photographs of the war, much to the fury of the Pentagon. The courts allowed it.
Today, that has changed. Washington has learned to avoid dissent from its wars by using a volunteer army of men about whom no one of influence cares. The use of “drones” further reduces public interest, and today the major media, owned by corporations aligned with arms manufacturers and manned by intimidated reporters, hide the results on the battlefield. For practical purposes, today’s press is an arm of government.