The Internet, with emphasis on the two-way facilities of the contemporary World Wide Web, has provided freedom lovers with the most important information we could possibly have: reassurance that we’re not alone, that in fact we are many – possibly a majority – and are well represented in virtually every nation.
Before the two-way Web we lacked that reassurance, because the most important media of mass communication had been conquered by our enemies on the Left. We were ceaselessly bombarded with statist messages, the opinions of statist thinkers, and comments that strained to “humanize” tyranny and subjection. The overarching theme was always There are no alternatives. There is no escape. This is how it is and how it must be.
From roughly 1933 to 2000, there was essentially no countervailing voice. Huge numbers of young Americans were inundated with Leftist premises and attitudes by the media’s barrage of statism, and many bought into the scam. The effect was reinforced and amplified by the Left’s dominance of the “educational system,” particularly America’s “institutions of higher learning.” Those were the American Left’s best and happiest days.
Things changed dramatically as the Web opened up two-way channels of discourse. A great deal of conservative and libertarian sentiment came out of the shadows. Persuasive, well-informed commentators who had previously been unable to find an outlet for their thoughts found their audiences and energized them. Suddenly freedom was no longer just the stuff of an old man’s reminiscences of an era never to return. It was au courant, the happenin’ thing, and thousands of young Americans wanted a piece.
Alarm bells sounded in the high citadels of the Left. Their strategists found the counter-movement unacceptable. It threatens their entire enterprise. Something had to be done.
Something is being done.
The key to enervating a movement is to atomize it. If you can persuade its allegiants to believe that they’re alone, members of a tiny, crackpot minority, you can dissolve the thing without firing a shot. The key to doing that, of course, is to prevent those allegiants from communicating with one another.
If lines of two-way communication exist and are cheaply and easily accessed by ordinary citizens, the first approach that comes to mind will be to conquer those lines and deny access to the enemy. But this is not always possible. What then?
If you can’t impede communications, the next best thing is to inhibit the communicators: to convince them that merely speaking their minds is more hazardous than they’d care to risk. There are several variations on this approach: campaigns of public vilification, harassment by energetic “victim groups,” pressure on employers, commercial boycotts and threats thereof, lawsuits, and sub-penal government action. Combining these elements in the proper proportions will often persuade some mouthy freedom advocate to pull in his horns for the sake of his personal well-being.
The legal lexicon, in discussions of freedom of expression, often uses the term chilling effect. That’s the Left’s goal: to make objective delivery of facts and candid expression of opinion seem too dangerous, or too expensive, for a private citizen to undertake it. They can’t shut down the huge pipe of Internet communication, so they strive to lower the temperature therein to the freezing point.
They’ve been having an appalling degree of success.
Perhaps you’ve heard or read about the attempt, by DOJ thug Preet Bharara and miscellaneous accessories to the crime, to intimidate Reason magazine and its readers out of their criticism of various federal judges. For those a bit behind the curve on this atrocity, here’s former Reason editor Virginia Postrel on the throw-down:
Wielding subpoenas demanding information on anonymous commenters, the government is harassing a respected journalism site that dissents from its policies. The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York claims these comments could constitute violent threats, even though they’re clearly hyperbolic political rhetoric.
This is happening in America -- weirdly, to a site I founded, and one whose commenters often earned my public contempt.
Los Angeles legal blogger Ken White has obtained a grand jury subpoena issued to Reason.com, the online home of the libertarian magazine I edited throughout the 1990s. The subpoena seeks information about commenters who posted in response to an article by the site’s editor Nick Gillespie about the letter that Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht wrote to Judge Katherine B. Forrest before she sentenced him to life in prison without parole. Ulbricht was convicted of seven felony charges, included conspiracies to traffic in narcotics and launder money, and faced a minimum sentence of 20 years in prison. The letter was an appeal for leniency.
Please read the whole article. But the obscenities didn’t end there. The judge also issued a gag order forbidding Reason to talk about the subpoena:
When the government orders people not to talk about what it's doing, it's hard to keep track of what it's doing. That's what the First Amendment is intended to prevent. It's ironic that the Obama administration — whose supporters in 2008 made much of threats to civil liberties from George W. Bush's national security apparatus — has so thoroughly embraced surveillance and gag orders.
But if it won't support a prosecution, why gather this information? Bharara's office isn't talking, but I suspect that the purpose of this exercise is to chill speech: To send a signal that whether or not the First Amendment protects your right to talk smack about a federal judge, you'd be wise not to do so if you don't want to attract the attention of the feds, who might choose to share your information with employers or the news media. Consider it a sort of prosecutorial brush-back pitch, if you like.
Of course, the First Amendment term for "brush-back pitch" is "chilling effect."
No one enjoys being criticized. Those who wield power dislike it even more than the rest of us. This is particularly the case among those with electoral ambitions, or shaky positions, or who have misdeeds to hide.
It’s always been that way. Have a gander at this September 1973 Russell Baker column:
Here is an alarming little news story. It is about eight men who went to Florida in 1972 with a mind to stage some sort of protest against the Vietnam War....
Very quickly, however, they ceased being in politics and became in jail. The Justice Department had them indicted on charges of conspiring to do violence [in Miami Beach, where the Democrats and Republicans were both holding their quadrennial conventions], which they never reached, on account of their major problem with the law.
They were tried in Gainesville. After deliberating briefly, a jury found them not guilty. This was fourteen months after their arrest and five weeks of trial....
...the eight men who wanted to protest at Miami Beach have bills of about $150,000 as a result. Being tried by Uncle Sam is an expensive luxury.
In fact, Uncle Sam is something like the man in the cigar commercial who keeps threatening that he is going to get you. He doesn’t know how. Maybe by putting you in prison, maybe by letting you escape prison and merely driving you into bankruptcy. But he is going to get you.
With resources limited only by its ability to steal, the State can intimidate anyone into silence and passivity. It can do so as it did to Reason, or to the eight men in the Baker column above. It can do what it did to Gibson Guitars. It can do what it did to Catherine Engelbrecht. Should those methods fail, it has others.
Prosecution and official harassment aren’t the end of it. Whether they’re inside or outside the halls of power, they who have it in mind to silence the rising torrent of pro-freedom sentiment on the World Wide Web have other methods as well. Shouts of “racism,” “sexism,” “homophobia,” and other epithets. Defamation lawsuits, sometimes merely for quoting someone else’s public utterances. Commercial boycotts. Threats to one’s employer. Threats to one’s relatives, including minor children. On occasion even violence, perhaps with the assistance of some energetic “victim” group.
Still think “talk is cheap,” Gentle Reader?
There is no Last Graf. We can only wish we had more resources and more tools at our disposal. The fact remains that the Left and its henchmen within government have many highly effective ways of rendering the pipes of mass communication inhospitably chilly to us whom they detest. If there is warmth to be had, at this time we can only seek it from one another. Let’s do so while the means and opportunities avail us.