Anti-piracy battle reveals dysfunctional thinking


Yes, I really am comparing the belief that SOPA threatens free speech with a belief in healthcare death panels; and I am more than willing to insult my friends to make the point. Both fears are irrational, both fears have been ginned up and funded by corporate interests, and both fears lead the electorate away from a sober effort to address a tangible problem. As a result, the general public loses to corporate greed -- again. And just to clarify for the libertarian element out there, I mean greed as distinct from enterprise because there is nothing about capitalism that guarantees the right to derive revenue from illegal activities.

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One could download the text of these bills and discover that there isn’t any evidence for the overwrought, doomsday claims made by the opposition; but like the death panel nuts, my friends aren’t seeking information so much as validation for what they want to believe in the first place. The Internet can be a source for what we need to know but is more often a source for what we want to hear; and in this case, what so many seem to want to hear is that anti-piracy legislation is just a Hollywood/government conspiracy to control us all. Frankly, I think we’ve gone just a bit conspiracy mad in this country, and I blame the egocentrism fostered by the digital age itself.

Consider for a moment the practicalities of squelching free speech in America. Speech is a genie not easily stuffed back into its bottle once released even in the most oppressive societies; so logic and history suggest that it would take extraordinary events to effectively silence our voices in a nation that has never existed without this basic right.  Nevertheless, the paranoiac assumption that narrowly focused bills like SOPA and PIPA can “shut down anyone anywhere anytime” stems from an egotism bordering on schizophrenia. Everyone thinks he has something so vital to say that of course it would arouse the interest of some vast network of would-be censors.

The PR forces of Silicon Valley have played directly into this psychology, and it is manifest in thousands of online comments that portray as Big Brother anyone who would even consider these bills. Paradoxically, while web culture celebrates individuality, its economics tend to produce a tremendous amount of group think. Most online “reporters” and news aggregators function by sourcing one another rather than engaging in original, investigative journalism.  So, while it may appear that there is broad consensus on a particular issue such as this one, the reality is that there is just a lot of shoddy, amateur journalism out there. This means any vested interest can more easily manipulate public opinion today than in the pre-Internet era.

I would never advocate blind trust in any government or organization, but blind mistrust is equally dysfunctional because it breeds the idea that there is literally nobody left willing to act in good faith to solve any problem. If this is indeed true, what hope is there for the country in general to address any of its myriad challenges? If everything is a grand conspiracy, what is the solution to that paradox? Where does that logic conclude? Whom could we elect that would possibly mollify this stagnating neurosis? The answer is there is nobody we could elect, and that’s why I believe we are seeing the most extreme, most egotistical voices -- from the Tea Party to Anonymous -- aiming not for change, but to dismantle the system itself. And that, my fellow Democrats, is where this process leads.  

If SOPA and PIPA are defeated not because of legal merit but because of a desire to throw off the shackles of a media oligopoly, we will only have donned the shackles of the tech oligopoly who scared us into doing their political bidding.  I know my friends and colleagues will celebrate recent developments as a victory for freedom, but I believe without reservation that it is only a victory for chaos.

David Newhoff is a filmmaker from New York.


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