Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Note to Readers, on a Town Hall Proposal: “What Happened to American Liberalism?”

If you live in a progressive east coast town, I’d like to come to hold a free discussion

Sep 22, 2023

If you’re wondering why content for Racket has been coming in bursts lately, it’s in part it’s because I’ve been traveling, researching a book on “anti-disinformation,” digital surveillance, and other dystopian wonders. On the road this week, pondering a question that’s become an amusingly bottomless source of frustration, I had an idea I’d like to share with subscribers.

A mystery of the digital censorship era is the ease with which its core ideas have been sold to people who were its fiercest initial opponents. The closer you look at mechanisms now used to isolate, remove, disrupt, and spy on everyone from environmentalists to antiwar activists to anti-mandate or anti-lockdown protesters, the more easily you’ll see a direct line to high-profile civil liberties controversies of two decades ago. The modern Internet surveillance state was born in programs bitterly opposed then by left-leaning intellectuals, of the type who subscribed to The Nation and carried NO BLOOD FOR OIL signs while protesting war in Iraq.

I’d like to talk to these people now.

I’ll do it anywhere, even on a street corner, but was imagining a town hall setting at first. I’d come for free, to any venue, and the aim would be a respectful public discussion. It may be the Internet has become too impersonal a forum to to anything but trade barbs on these issues.

I’d want to make a short presentation first, on themes that keep recurring in research — namely programs that inspired outrage when deployed against al-Qaeda or ISIS, but enjoy a different reception now that they’re used at home — then open up the floor.

As federal enforcement officials noted in the publication of a national counterrorism strategy a few years ago, Americans have different informational habits now than they did at the start of the War on Terror. When the Towers fell, 54% of Americans were online, compared to 90% of adults now. This change is a reason the government now perceives the Internet as a greater source of a national security threat it often describes as “evolving.”

I wonder, however, if being so online is also part of the reason many Americans have become more welcoming of ever-stricter systems of online monitoring and policing. If being online is a complicating factor, maybe talking about the issue in person is the way to go.

I live in northern New Jersey. If you live within driving distance, in a town where an appropriately hostile crowd might turn out, and know of a venue that might work for something like this, please let me know in the comments. I’ll get in touch. Again, this wouldn’t involve any fee (in fact Racket would cover costs for the location if need be). If not, no worries, and we can drop the idea. In the meantime, thanks again as always, and have a good weekend.


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