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  • Freedom, the Village, and the Internet

    Posted by David Foster on September 21st, 2013 (All posts by )

    I’ve reviewed two books by German writer Hans Fallada: Little Man, What Now?, and Wolf Among Wolves (the links go to the reviews), both of which were excellent. I recently finished his novel Every Man Dies Alone, which is centered on a couple who become anti-Nazi activists after their son Ottochen is killed in the war…it was inspired by, and is loosely based on, the true story of  a real-life couple who distributed anti-Nazi postcards and were executed for it.

    I thought this book was also excellent…the present post, though, is not a book review, but rather a development of some thoughts inspired by a particular passage in the story.

    Trudel, who was Ottochen’s fiancee, is a sweet and intelligent girl who is strongly anti-Nazi..and unlike Ottochen’s parents, she became an activist prior to being struck by personal tragedy: she is a member of a resistance cell at the factory where she works.  But she finds that she cannot stand the unending psychological strain of underground work–made even worse by the rigid and doctrinaire man (apparently a Communist) who is leader of the cell–and she drops out. Another member of the cell, who has long been in love with her, also finds that he is not built for such work, and drops out also.

    After they marry and Trudel becomes pregnant, they decide to leave the politically hysterical environment of Berlin for a small town where–they believe–life will be freer and calmer.

    Like many city dwellers, they’d had the mistaken belief that spying was only really bad in Berlin and that decency still prevailed in small towns. And like many city dwellers, they had made the painful discovery that recrimination, eavesdropping, and informing were ten times worse in small towns than in the big city. In a small town, everyone was fully exposed, you couldn’t ever disappear in the crowd. Personal circumstances were quickly ascertained, conversations with neighbors were practically unavoidable, and the way  such conversations could be twisted was something they had already experienced in their own lives, to their chagrin.

    Reading the above passage, I was struck by the thought that if we are now living in an “electronic village”…even a “global village,” as Marshall McLuhan put it several decades ago…then perhaps that also means we are facing some of the unpleasant characteristics that–as Fallada notes–can be a part of village life. And these characteristics aren’t something that appears only in eras of insane totalitarianism such as existed in Germany during the Nazi era. Peter Drucker, in Managing in the Next Society, wrote about the tension between liberty and community:

    Rural society has been romanticized for millenia, especially in the West, where rural communities have usually been portrayed as idylic. However, the community in rural society is actually both compulsory and coercive…And that explains why, for millenia, the dream of rural people was to escape into the city. Stadluft macht frei (city air frees) says an old German proverb dating back to the eleventy or twelfth century.

     

    Consider: an assistant manager at a Wal-Mart store recently lost his job because of a post he put up on his Facebook page, in which he made some negative and slightly obscene comments about Muslim women wearing niquabs. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) complained, and the man was fired. (Having demonstrated their power, CAIR is now kindly asking that he be rehired.)

    If, in the pre-Facebook era, a Wal-Mart manager living in a large city had made negative comments about some group to friends in person, the odds that it would have resulted in his firing would have been pretty low. On the other hand, if a store manager living in a village were to repeatedly express opinions hostile to the deeply-held beliefs of the majority of the villagers–say, if a rural store manager in 1955 became well-known as hostile to religion–it might well have had an adverse effect on his employment. The electronic village has to some extent re-created the social pressures of the traditional village.

    Of course, the village culture doesn’t always reinforce and serve the values of a society’s political overlords. During WWII, for example, the people of Chambon-sur-Lignon, a town in the French Massif Central Range, saved more than 5000 Jews from the Holocaust. The village community can act as a bulwark for civil society against the over-reaching power of distant tyrants, and in some cases–as with Chambon-sur-Lignon–the community culture will be of a nature that can accept and respect people whose belief structure differs from their own.

    Certainly, the ability of the Internet to facilitate the distribution of information and opinion, beyond the control of the media gatekeepers, has been and is of tremendous value in preserving liberty. Without it, we as a society would be in even more trouble than we currently are. But the erosion of privacy, and the resultant fear of expressing oneself or acting in “unapproved” ways that might “harm your permanent record” are factors whose influence in undeniable.

    The widespread distribution and sharing of information enabled by technology becomes particularly dangerous when the national government is in the hands of people who lack respect for individual liberties–and the United States is currently in the hands of exactly such a group of people, in the form of the Obama administration and its Congressional allies–and when the administrative discretion granted to individual bureaucrats is high. Can anyone doubt the high likelihood that information from the Electronic Medical Records being implemented as part of Obamacare will at some point be used to destroy political opponents of the Administration? Can anyone doubt that, as the ideology of “progressivism” becomes increasingly intolerant, large numbers of people will be denied jobs, promotions, college admissions, based on opinions that they have expressed in a Facebook post or a blog post at some point in their lives?…and that expressions of opinion will–unless the climate changes markedly away from one of “political correctness”–tend to become much more guarded, just as a village merchant might be reluctant to say anything to offend the small group of people on whose goodwill he is permanently dependent for his livelihood?

     

     

     

    14 Responses to “Freedom, the Village, and the Internet”

    1. Death 6 Says:

      Very good thoughts. In addition to wider dissemination, the speed of the spread of links, posts and reposts makes the info much more current as well. Word of mouth spreads much more gradually and dies out sooner because the relevance if often fleeting as is the human memory of them. Unlike word of mouth, the exact original text is never in doubt. With the exponential growth in networking, storage and filtering, access to electronic records of posts and communications has indefinite, incalculable life. Use with caution, limit or avoid.

      Mike

    2. David Foster Says:

      Marshall McLuhan wrote interestingly about the differences between oral and manuscript cultures, print-based cultures, and radio/TV-based cultures. It seems that the Internet has attributes of both the oral culture and the print-based culture, with different kinds of Internet usage having different manifestations. Chain e-mails (“Did you know that the Gerbilator product causes horrible diseases?) resemble oral transmission of stories and legends, whereas blogs are more like print in that the original post can be seen and referenced by everyone on the site.

    3. Lexington Green Says:

      Apparently Tyler Cowen’s new book is on a similar theme.

    4. MikeK Says:

      On the topic of the idyllic nature of rural life, a retired NFL player had his summer home in upstate New York invaded and trashed by teens over Labor Day weekend while he and his wife were in Florida. They have owned the home since 1981 and raised 8 children here in a rural setting. He put up a website showing the kids pics and tweets bragging about their party trying to identify who the kid were. Now the parents are suing HIM !

      I don’t know where we are going but I don’t like it. Had one of my kids done anything like this, I would probably be arrested for child abuse; my own child.

    5. David Foster Says:

      LG…is this the new Tyler Cowen book you’re referring to: Average is Over?

    6. Bill Brandt Says:

      I believe, too, that for most people, particularly younger people, they do not consider the implications of their posting on social media. You might as well take a megaphone and stand on a platform overlooking a crowd.

      They treat social media as simply a communication among their “friends” not thinking of the wider implications.

    7. dearieme Says:

      This sort of thing?
      http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2426172/Wedding-guest-PM-caught-napping-Barefoot-Cameron-pictured-fast-asleep-red-dispatch-box-sister-law-big-day.html

    8. Lexington Green Says:

      David: Yes.

    9. ErisGuy Says:

      “she is a member of a resistance cell at the factory where she works”

      Do you think there are any anti-Obamunist resistance cells at any workplaces in America? Or are “cells” solely a feature of Nazism/Socialism/Communism?

      “an assistant manager at a Wal-Mart store recently lost his job”

      I may have to disappear before I am disappeared.

      It is amusing to me that “face” (social pressure, standing in the community) only ever runs one way. I can recall many, many speeches about what are now called “protected classes” (our new nobility), being defended from losing a job because “their private life is their own,” “their beliefs/activities don’t affect their jobs,” etc. etc. Now we discover that this isn’t true. If you believe in…,well, why bother to make a list. We all know what beliefs people can be fired or sued for having these days, don’t we?

    10. David Foster Says:

      Images of free speech in America

    11. VXXC Says:

      If you’re a victim the world has no refuge. Including America.

      Reasonable = Victim.

      BTW if your getting ruined by CAIR and Anil Dash, I wouldn’t even mention Hitler or Stalin, as so many seem to…

      Neither could get a job as Stalin’s or Hitler’s shoe shine boy.

      You stop being a victim by stop being prey.

      Predators prey on the weak.

      If they know they’ll likely pay a price including harm for messing with you, they look elsewhere. They look for reasonable majority people they can have a reasoned conversation with…and in 7 secs they’ll know they can take you.

      Their methods are their’s [the salem mob moved online]. Not gonna work for you. Law, media, academe is where you challenge and refuse to submit. But there is no solution there, only refusal. Which is essential, but not resolution.

    12. Kirk Parker Says:

      John Perry Barlow got here before us, though not before Drucker.

    13. IGotBupkis, "'Faeces Evenio', Mr. Holder?" Says:

      }}} But the erosion of privacy, and the resultant fear of expression oneself or acting in “unapproved” ways that might “harm your permanent record” are factors whose influence in undeniable.

      This is why the capacity to be anonymous on the internet MUST be maintained, at least as much as we can with the NSA cross-correlating and data mining everything we say and do.

      It must remain possible to say things without direct repercussions, at the expense of reduced reliability of such things.

    14. tomw Says:

      I have to bring up the ‘non-criminal’ acts of the IRS official, Lois Lerner. Seems to me that the atmosphere at the IRS in Washington, DC, was that ‘liberal is good, conservative is bad’, and if you didn’t go along with that viewpoint you were likely to get passed over for plum jobs or promotions, perhaps having your ‘bonus’ calculated as slimly as possible, and any and all other reactions that could be taken without possibility of repercussion.
      If you did not join the majority liberal opinion, you were OUT. So it became normal, normative?, to have no problem at all in hindering those you thought “damaging”, helping those you thought had the correct attitude.
      She believes she did nothing wrong. Everything she did was beamed upon with approval by her senior management. The current WH occupant even was on record mentioning IRS action against his political opponents.
      It is here. It is now. PC has become the new “NewSpeak” of 1984, where you are allowed to voice any opinion you want, on any topic you want, as long as you agree with those currently in power.
      It must be something in the air in DC. A miasma, perhaps?
      tom