Flags & the Tyranny of Quantum Liberty

It has been fascinating to watch the power of social media rapidly catalyze a latent disdain for the confederate battle flag as a byproduct of our outrage over the hate-filled, random murder of nine defenseless people.  I say it’s interesting because I have long-believed that there are perfectly unemotional arguments against any official flying of these battle flags, even if they did not connote racism.  Slavery, Dixiecrats, and the KKK aside, those flags were carried by regiments who fought to sever allegiance to the Constitution of the United States, and so do not belong flown over any institution that now derives its authority, liberty, and security from the power of that same body of law. As such, I have never been able to fathom why any conservative would defend the flag’s use in an official context, let alone anyone who has taken an oath to defend the Constitution.

Of course, these battle flags do connote racism and slavery and hate. In fact, the Stars & Bars may well have become one of the symbols of the early KKK because that group’s first members were supposedly veterans of the Army of Northern Virginia, whose banner that was. And I suspect these flags will soon come down in their official contexts, while private sales of rebel merch will continue to skyrocket, despite mainstream retailers like Walmart and Amazon discontinuing the sale of confederate-themed items. Some citizens who purchase these emblems are, of course, racists and haters, who were doubly-appalled last week by the concurrent hoisting of the rainbow flag with the Supreme Court’s affirmation of marriage rights for gay couples.  (No doubt, It sucks to be on the wrong side of history. Just ask Robert E. Lee.)

But many who will suddenly crave rebel hats, mugs, tees, shot glasses, etc. will do so as a reaction to the feeling that this sudden anti-flag “tyranny” represents another example of federal government overreach. And it is this narrative, often expressed by both the left and the right, that I believe is being overlooked, particularly as it plays out in cyberspace. As Jacob Siegel explains in this excellent article for The Daily Beast, it is a narrative that has been seething in the underbelly of the Internet for years.  And most interestingly, Siegel describes a confluence in which the anarchic sensibilities of the left swim in the same ideological pool that nourishes hate-crimes destined to manifest in people like Dylann Roof. Siegel writes…

“A reactionary, defiantly anti-social politics has been emerging for the last decade. It was well known under the auspices of “trolling” and well hidden by its pretense of trickstersism. It was actually juvenile fascism and vitriolic racism but, because it grinned and operated in cyberspace, it was a sensation when it first appeared less than a decade ago. Excitable theorists, bored journalists and naive political activists looked at its strange, adolescent face and pronounced on its revolutionary potential.”

My fellow progressives look at Dylann Roof, see a racist with a gun and want to go after the racism and the guns.  This is understandable. But it has thus far been anathema to the progressive agenda to look critically at the role of social media itself in helping to foster the seemingly relentless increase in these localized massacres.  Siegel provides insight into the evolution of hate groups, first on 4Chan and now on Reddit, and he describes the split within the “community” of trolls that produced the vigilante-style hacktivism of Anonymous. From Siegel again …

“In 2008 when The Church of Scientology began suing websites, forcing them to remove videos the Church considered private or defamatory, 4chan turned its attention to trolling the Scientologists. Eventually that produced a schism on 4chan. Some members, inspired by their success going after Scientology and the attention it brought, wanted to take a more activist role. The dedicated trolls rebelled. The activists splintered off and became the collective represented by a Guy Fawkes mask, known as Anonymous.” 

Although it is presently a progressive or liberal position to champion an “open” Internet bordering on a lawless internet with an absolutist approach to speech and a professed intolerance for infiltration by intelligence services, we might want to reconsider a more sober and balanced approach to these matters.  Because we can remove all the flags we want and scream for all the gun control we’re never going to get (or isn’t going to work), but what does work from time to time is intelligence gathering and, dare I say it, public demand that owners of businesses not support or profit from hateful, offensive, or criminal behavior. Siegel writes …

“Reddit defends the existence of communities like r/gasthekikes, r/watchniggersdie, and r/rapingwomen on free-speech grounds. That atmosphere has attracted right-wing extremists who left or were booted from other more established sites like Stormfront, where moderators, aware of scrutiny from law enforcement, have stricter posting rules.”

If Arkansas-based Walmart believes it’s time to remove a half-innocuous symbol from its merchandise, does it really make sense that San Francisco-based Reddit can defend hosting platforms that support the encouragement of racists, misogynists, and anti-semites to commit acts of violence?  Even if 99% of the idiots in the rapingwomen “community” on Reddit are not prospective assailants, and their speech is technically protected, that does not mean Reddit can claim this forum serves any social value whatsoever. And when the owner of a site or a publication makes a judgment call to moderate or even delete material that is both offensive and useless, it’s called editing, not censorship. It is the difference between a mature grasp of the contours of freedom and an adolescent penchant for anarchy. Anarchy is an illusion of freedom in which nobody is free except the monsters. Perhaps the most compelling statement Siegel makes is this one:

“What’s long been clear to the fascists has eluded the rest of us for a few reasons. The self-serving deceptions embedded in the idea of trolling, for one. And our persistent difficulty in grasping, despite all evidence to the contrary offered by governments and Silicon Valley plutocrats, that the Internet was not built to liberate us.”

Yes, I’ll be happy to see confederate flags placed in their proper historic context despite the fact that doing so is already amping up racist reaction.  As such, it may be time, while we rebuke the symbols of hate, that we also look more critically at the new mechanisms through which hate preaches, recruits, radicalizes, and activates its soldiers and lone-wolf terrorists. Because many progressive “digital rights” proponents have bought into what I’ll call a quantum view of civil liberty in which the infinite, micro-universe of cyberspace creates infinite opportunities for micro-infringements against an infinite sense of liberty. This mindset cannot help but redefine ordinary boundaries of fairness and decency as censorship. It assumes naively that people left to work things out in the cage-match of cyberspace will naturally produce a collective morality that is somehow more pure than the morality we shape in the physical world and express through the antiquated “rule of law.” Call me a cynic, but as black churches burn once again in the South, I struggle to see evidence of this new, cybernetic enlightenment expressed in the Reddit forum watchniggersdie.

Meanwhile, progressives who buy into the quantum view of civil liberty inadvertently provide aid to domestic terrorists like Roof by demanding policy, which actually makes the job of intelligence services more difficult.  As recently posted, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) stated that Internet-industry funded fears, exaggerating the role of public vs private surveillance of cyberspace has made rational debate in Congress over the proper role of intelligence nearly impossible.  So, while we insist upon the removal of hateful symbols, accepting that this will inspire more hate crimes, perhaps we progressives should also allow for the possibility that there are well-intentioned intelligence experts crawling through threads and chat rooms, who are in fact looking for the next son of a bitch planning another lynching.

When it comes to flags, corny as it may sound, I think about Aaron Sorkin’s fictional President Bartlett from The West Wing, who concluded many stump speeches with the declaration, “This is a time for American heroes, and we reach for the stars.”  The reference to stars is both literal and metaphoric.  Literally, the nation born in science and the enlightenment, and blessed with so many resources, has both the capacity and responsibility to lead the world in grasping the actual stars.  As a metaphor, I think “reaching for the stars” broadly refers to looking with hope toward the future.  The U.S. flag is grounded in heritage, it’s composition a derivative of the British colonial flags, but in place of the Union Jack that once adorned the corner, is the field of stars.  The stripes represent history, but the stars are about the future — about the capacity for the collective states to continually transcend the past, even to defy gravity, as when MIT nerds and good-old-boy pilots once reached for the stars together. Surely anything we call progress must be held to that standard.

Have a safe and happy Fourth of July.

Enjoy this blog? Please spread the word :)