Freedom, the Village, and the Internet (rerun)

(Hearing in a town this size, by John Prine and Delores Keane, reminded me of this 2013 post–rerun here, with some edits and a special musical bonus added at the end.)

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’ve also read 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 eleventh 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 then kindly asked that he be rehired–don’t know whether he ever was.)

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 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 whatever Administration is in power at the time? Can anyone doubt that, with the ideology of “progressivism” becoming increasingly intolerant, ever-larger 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?

Special musical bonus

15 thoughts on “Freedom, the Village, and the Internet (rerun)”

  1. I have nothing to hide. Not a thing. So all the concerns about privacy, don’t resonate with me as it might with some. I don’t have much it’s true and not to lose.

    Medical records are an especial bug for many and I don’t understand. Why does information about your health and it’s history threaten anyone?

    As an entity that has no need to hide I can go anywhere I want. There are always risks in anything humans do, but that’s just a part of doing living. I’m a fairly careful person.

    I have a good idea of the depth of the information various entities hold about me and wish em’ all luck with that information, as it’s public domain as far as I’m concerned. Almost everything is these days and that does upset many people, but I have accepted that, as a given for decades. ;) It’s a party in the village alright.

  2. Actually “Stadtluft macht frei” is a bit more literal than your interpretation. It comes from a law that if a runaway serf managed to last a year and a day in the city, he could not be reclaimed by his former master.

  3. I grew up in a small town in West Texas (~250 people). You could not get away with ANYTHING. Someone, usually the old ladies, managed to catch you in your mischief, and your first inkling you were in trouble was when either your parents, or the county sheriff grabbed you by the scruff of the neck and made you fix what you broke…….

  4. A year or two ago, I read a rant on facebook by some woman on the topic that men should have absolutely no say on abortion.

    I posted a comment saying, sarcastically, that as long as female infants were only being aborted, I would agree with her. My point was that half of abortions are male and that should give males some ability to comment.

    She tracked down all female relatives and friends of mine and sent them all screeds saying that I was in favor for sex selection in abortion.

    I knew nothing of this until a cousin sent me a message berating me for my sexism. Even one of my daughters apparently received one of these messages and, instead of asking me what it was about, assumed the women was being truthful.

    I didn’t bother to track this nonsense down but, were I younger and in some vulnerable occupation, it could be serious.

  5. I have nothing to hide. Not a thing. So all the concerns about privacy, don’t resonate with me as it might with some. I don’t have much it’s true and not to lose.

    Watching A French Village the other day on PBS, the communist character was admonishing someone for desiring a “private life” as opposed to a “public life.” It reminded me of a publication disucussed in New Geography, The Ideal Communist City Excerpt:

    What should be the standard type of housing that not only can guarantee functional necessities, but also can provide the best conditions for psychological privacy?

    As experience shows, existing housing, when judged by these standards, is far from ideal. The tendency to increase the amount of space allocated to individual housing is clearly understandable under the circumstances. It can decrease, however, as the more rational planning of housing units separates private from public functions and services. Then it would seem reasonable to use a residential standard of not more than 225 square feet per person (on the average).

    This assumes a small number of persons living permanently in each apartment and the development of public eating places within residential buildings. The preparation of food in the family unit will no longer be necessary, but merely optional. The stove and kitchen cease to be the focal points of a residential plan. Minimal kitchen facilities can be included in a living room or foyer, and the space thus freed can be used for other needs, such as more spacious bathrooms.

  6. A friend of mine who grew up in Dallas found out that her mother had had a marriage previous to the long one in which she was one of the first of ten children. I expressed surprise. She said how would she have known? Well, I don’t know. But if you grew up – as I did – in a small town where the ethnic groups were distinguished from one another despite much intermarriage (not in a hierarchical way but a tribal one) and we knew the families that had moved from the South from 1870-1890 and who were our fourth cousins, well, I don’t think we wouldn’t have known. Some things weren’t spoken of, though. By brother has found much humor in the fact that a large percentage of the women on my mother’s mother’s side (and we all pretty much view that grandmother with affection and respect, but not her relatives) went a bit balmy in their late middle ages to old ages. He seemed to think it was a matter of the women. I pointed out that our fourth cousin’s (in my class and a year older than my brother and certainly from our family)father spent most of our childhood in the local mental hospital. It is true my parents never discussed that, out of respect, I suppose, for his really nice wife and the children. And it is true that I suspect my brother’s reasons for not remembering that were not just his inability to make as many jokes. Still, I remembered.

    I do think that there is a rich tapestry to such knowledge – it powers Faulkner – and a sense of some hazy natural order. (That may be because my parents really did believe in a goodness in man if the “system” was not always just and a kind of harmonious order if man’s law should be viewed with some skepticism.) My mother did not feel good about it but did imply a certain justice to the fact that the man down the street – who at one time was trying to convince my father to go with him to South America on some covert operation – had trouble with drugs and liquor after his family had been cursed by another family for providing bootleg liquor during Prohibition that had hopelessly “hooked” their son. Generations intertwine. In times of crisis, I felt the town hover, rather supportively, around our family. But that support was also stifling – I was pretty glad to get away. My more amiable siblings have stayed close.

    Oh, and housing that doesn’t consider the family and family dinners as central seems to me sure to fail.

  7. Small-town fear of shame — and the accompanying fear of being ostracized — is one of the things that makes them sane and liveable. There is still a measure of comportment and conduct; of giving a damn what your neighbors think.

    Modern American cities are places where you can be a complete cheat, liar, and all-around rude arsehole to almost everyone you meet and never worry about meeting them twice. You only need to be polite and upstanding at work. *Those* are your neighbors, your tribe. Not the ones you live next door to. My godson’s family in Silicon Valley is emblematic of this. They have lived in the same million-dollar house for a quarter century and never once been over to their neighbors’ house for dinner, nor issued any invites. They know them only vaguely, by sight and by name. Their friends are childhood friends or coworkers. They hire strangers who aren’t even in the country legally to house-sit, or to help with the occasional heavy lifting.

    When I was a kid in the Seventies there were still lunch parties for neighborhood newcomers; gatherings where everybody would dress up a little and bring mediocre food they did spend too much on and nod and smile and sniff each other over like a pack of dogs meeting out at the county landfill, and decide who they wanted to be friends with and who they wanted to stay away from. But at least they KNEW each other. It was a small-town custom that persisted, and we were the nicer and more wholesome and even a bit stronger for it. Somewhere along the way it was permitted to expire. No more going to greet the neighbors with a cardboard box with some toilet paper and light bulbs and maybe a fancy bottle of booze, even. No more Welcome Wagons. No more potlucks. No Christmas carolers, even. We don’t do that any more.

    Combine all of this with the utter licentiousness we have adopted, where healthy children get gelded and cosplay as the opposite sex and every sexual kink in the human animal has been enshrined as a high and holy civil right and the old dating game has been replaced with the get-drunk-and-screw-whoever-you-want-in-whatever-hole hookup culture and you go a long way towards diagnosing the ills of the suburban metrosexual Left and of the urban-rural divide in general. We have become pleasure-loving postmodern barbarians without the slightest fear of shame. All else follows from there.

    I’ll take a little small-town sense of shame as an antidote, thanks. I’ll accept the small-town gossip and occasional meanness that goes with it, too, if it means that even neighbors that actively dislike each other (and I’ve had a few) can still be trusted to keep an eye on your place when you go on vacation, and pull out a shotgun and yell at the man trying to break through your bedroom window.

  8. Phil…here’s some Chesterton:

    “The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing that is really narrow is the clique….The men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment like that which exists in hell”

  9. The electronic village has to some extent re-created the social pressures of the traditional village.

    The social pressures of traditional villages are like the social pressures of tribes. On the one hand, in the small village or tribe, people who need help aren’t left to founder on their own. OTOH, in such settings there are strong disincentives to creative risk-taking, because if you take a big risk and fail (say, in starting an innovative business) it’s costly for everyone in your group. Big cities, the corporation and modern capital markets help creative people and unconventional people to avoid the social and financial constraints of small towns. The unforgiving, unforgetting social environment of mass networked communication seems to be a step back in this regard.

  10. From the linked post: It’s too easy here to hate on Facebook — to blame the technology for the problem.

    No, it isn’t. The technology creates distorted feedback systems that exacerbate tensions between people who might get along with each other in face-to-face interactions. This isn’t an incidental problem, it’s a feature of unrestrained networked communication. It probably won’t change until enough people realize what’s going on, and that their interests may be at odds with the interests of the people who run the communication networks.

  11. I don’t think it’s about networked communication per se. (This didn’t happen with Usenet, for example; in fact there was a strong norm on Usenet that you don’t take Usenet arguments into the real world, and the few times someone tried complaining to an opponent’s boss or the like were met with universal disapproval.)

    I think there’s something specifically wrong with Facebook’s basic interaction design. There’s a clash between the sense that you’re publishing on your FB page and the reality that you’re inserting your posts into your friends’ FB pages, so you make a general shout to the world and it gets channeled right into your friends’ ears. There’s also the problem that commenting disapprovingly feels aggressive because it’s a direct comment under someone’s post, in their space, and according reluctance to push back, so people don’t get the kind of feedback that would tell them they’re going too far. The only feedback mechanism is unfriending, and most people don’t do that—they stop following the person’s posts instead, and the person isn’t notified of this. All of this ratchets up the aggressiveness level.

  12. Maybe it would be more accurate to say it’s a combination of networked communication, permanent archiving and costless search. The business models of FB and other social networks make the situation even worse by making it difficult for individuals to direct communications only to other individuals who share their interests.

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