What Works: SOPA, PIPA and the Illusion of Control

It was all of 13 minutes after midnight on Tuesday night when I went to look up something in Wikipedia… even though I knew the blackout protest was coming and had posted about it. If you didn’t know what was going on or would like to learn a little more about SOPA and PIPA, with hopefully a slightly spiritual angle, read on. But I want to stress, this is not a partisan issue. As I’ll explain later, the line between supporters and opponents has little to do with party affiliation. As Wikipedia said, in its message about participating in the blackout:

It is the opinion of the English Wikipedia community that both of these bills, if passed, would be devastating to the free and open web… although Wikipedia’s articles are neutral, its existence is not.

If you’re not interested, forgive my using this, oh, let’s call it a point of personal privilege. SOPA and PIPA are bills before the U.S. House and Senate, respectively, that aim to fight copyright infringement in the digital sphere. As such, their supporters are portraying them as simply fair. But the bills present a clear-cut dividing line between the interests of big business and the interests of free and vital internet and tech industries. And since a good amount of the public conversation (including this column) is on the internet, that means free speech. The health and vitality of speech on the net is of personal importance. I hope I can explain why it is important to you too.

What’s the big deal about SOPA and PIPA?

In a nutshell, piracy and bootlegging are already illegal. (You’ve seen that obnoxious message from the FBI at the beginning of every DVD that you can’t fast-forward through.) But enforcement is always tricky; rules about appropriate reuse are confusing and not always reasonable; piracy operations are overseas and there is no barrier for U.S. internet users to foreign sites (at least for now.)

Piracy will always exist, just as the poor will always be with us, at least until an entirely new phase of existence is manifest. You cannot “solve” these problems. That’s the trap people fall into. They crave simplicity, black and white answers, a sense of security and control in the face of the messiness of life. Promoters of new laws like SOPA and PIPA always promise people that if they just give up a few little freedoms then life can be less unpredictable, more secure. It doesn’t work and even if it did, it isn’t worth it.

The bills’ supporters are from those industries that make their money off of controlling intellectual property: movie studios, record labels, TV networks, some consumer products companies and the pharmaceutical industry. Also, misguidedly, labor unions and the Chamber of Commerce. Its opponents are, well, everyone else, from internet companies to most constitutional scholars. In Congress, this plays out not by party line but by which industries if any the congressperson is aligned with (supported by?). I don’t know how much of the bills’ support is based on lobbyist and donor influence and how much is based on unforgivable ignorance of the technical implications of the bills, but either way, these members of congress are taking a stand as enemies of a free and open internet.

As I said, piracy is already illegal. That’s not the issue. Here is what the bills do that makes them unacceptable:

  • As currently written, both SOPA and PIPA give the Attorney General the right to effectively de-list a website, ordering it blocked from domain name servers and banned from results on search sites like Google. In other words, it would criminalize some linking, undermining the foundational principle of the internet: a decentralized interlinked web.
  • SOPA would force Facebook, Youtube and other social media sites to police all user-generated content not only for copyright infringement but also for conversations that might involve infringing on copyrights, and shut down any posts and discussions that look problematic. This might seem minor, but it is what is called “prior restraint against protected speech” and it is unconstitutional. It also threatens a whole host of internet tools that are freely available and widely used which give users privacy and thus can be used for illegal activity. As the Electronic Freedom Foundation points out, these same tools are supported by the U.S. State Department when used by freedom activists in countries with closed internet policies, like China and Iran.
  • In both bills, copyright holders can get court orders to cut off payment processing and advertising to foreign sites that are accused of copyright infringement. In other words, even though most of the content being shared on a foreign site is legal, if some of it is questionable, an American copyright holder can effectively bankrupt them by shutting off their income stream.
  • Perhaps most troubling is what is informally called the “vigilante provision.” Both bills relieve ISPs from liability when they wrongly block a user or site that is only suspected of possible violations, with no judicial process. The intent is clearly to encourage them to over-police without worrying about violating people’s rights. But with content producers also acting as internet providers (my own home internet connection comes from Time Warner through my cable line), this will be abused to suppress smaller content creators and competitors. And when an owner of intellectual property wants to hurt a competitor, all they have to do is accuse them of copyright infringement and ISPs will censor the accused company’s site as a precaution, since they’ll be punished for knowingly allowing it, but not for violating the free speech of an innocent party. Companies that can afford lawyers can abuse this rule with no downside. From the Salem witch trials to McCarthyism, when you put the power in people’s hands to destroy enemies without risk through accusations, some will abuse it.

That spiritual angle I promised

I promised a spiritual angle; it is this: Piracy will always exist, just as the poor will always be with us, at least until an entirely new phase of existence is manifest. You cannot “solve” these problems. That’s the trap people fall into. They crave simplicity, black and white answers, a sense of security and control in the face of the messiness of life. Promoters of new laws like SOPA and PIPA always promise people that if they just give up a few little freedoms then life can be less unpredictable, more secure. It doesn’t work and even if it did, it isn’t worth it. The way to contain piracy is to arrest the guilty ones you can catch and make it harder for the rest to do their thing. Existing laws cover that. These new bills apply a sledgehammer to the problem, hurting the open internet and your individual liberties in order to make it incrementally easier for rich copyright holders to make bigger profits.

And after diminishing our freedom, SOPA and PIPA probably wouldn’t even do that. The profits of media companies are not being threatened by sites like Pirate Bay. If anything, they’re threatened by physical bootlegging of DVDs and CDs, and more significantly, by the fact that the mere existence of an open internet has changed the rules of the game, making it possible for people to get content from many new sources, and making them less willing, for example, to pay $16 for an album of which only one dollar ends up making it to the artist. These same industries tried to stop VHS players and audiocassettes. But the VHS player revitalized the film industry and made it many times bigger than it was before. And the explosion of ways musicians can now produce and distribute their music is equally exciting. These folks always get it wrong. They want to hang on to what they’ve got and make sure no one else gets any of it. In the process, they want to put this unruly mess called the internet under corporate control, as they think it should be. Let’s not let that happen.

SOPA in its current form was just shelved when the White House announced it would veto it, but PIPA is still moving forward in the Senate, and you can be sure SOPA will be back.

The Integrity of Creation

One of the first and key places I encountered the spiritual ideas that eventually led me to my Christian faith was Estes Park, high in the Rockies, amidst Birkenstock-wearing radical environmentalists. It was an interesting time for politics in the late 80s and early 90s and I was looking for new ideas. So were lots of people, and they were talking with each other and reading each other’s books despite divergent backgrounds. Some were grassroots activists, some academics; some were pragmatic, some utopian. There were communitarians and Greens, libertarians and socialists.

I came upon something new (to me) there, something I’d never heard of before with my atheist/Protestant upbringing: natural law. Most didn’t use the term. But the edges of the environmental movement were abuzz with fresh ideas, and two of the freshest were “deep ecology” and “ecofeminism.” (One of deep ecology’s leading lights was Fr. Thomas Berry, CP, whose The Dream of the Earth was required reading.)

It was at that conference in the Rockies that I first heard a woman argue that a pro-abortion stance was anti-woman. And though I didn’t hear the term “seamless garment,” there was a quiet respect for those Catholics and Buddhists who adhered to defense of life across the board, from anti-war and anti-death-penalty to anti-abortion and anti-euthanasia to environmental protection and reducing unnecessary deaths from starvation.

Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation

One of the first and key places I encountered the spiritual ideas that eventually led me to the Catholic Church was at Estes Park, high in the Rockies, amidst Birkenstock-wearing radical environmentalists. I came upon something new (to me) there, something I’d never heard of before with my atheist/Protestant upbringing: natural law.

It was in this same time period and setting that I encountered the phrase and concept, “Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation” or JPIC. (My recollection from those times is that this was a Catholic movement and, at least within the Church, it’s an outgrowth of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, though the phrase is used by others too.) In essence, the idea of JPIC — and the original long-forgotten idea of the Greens in general — was a simple step that had profound implications. By linking environmental issues with social justice and peace issues within the same structures, it created dialogue among bureaucrats and activists from those areas.

By accident or design, this sidelined the pro-industrialism state socialists, whose model is the flipside of the same coin as consumerism and is just as wedded with the material realm — and just as much in conflict with what Pope John Paul II called “the ecological question which accompanies the problem of consumerism and which is closely connected to it”:

“In his desire to have and to enjoy rather than to be and to grow, man consumes the resources of the earth and his own life in an excessive and disordered way. At the root of the senseless destruction of the natural environment lies an anthropological error, which unfortunately is widespread in our day. Man, who discovers his capacity to transform and in a certain sense create the world through his own work, forgets that this is always based on God’s prior and original gift of the things that are. Man thinks that he can make arbitrary use of the earth, subjecting it without restraint to his will, as though it did not have its own requisites and a prior God-given purpose, which man can indeed develop but must not betray.” — Centesimus Annus, 37

I wish the movement had been able to link conservation and small-c conservatism through our Scripture-based responsibility as stewards. It’s a cause I tried to advance; unfortunately, that political gulf was too wide to bridge. But if anyone can stand up effectively for Creation against unfettered consumerism and industrialism, then it has to be faith-based groups. And now that some within the evangelical community are embracing the small-c conservative principle of stewardship, it looks like the tide of public sentiment is finally turning.

An effective shift

But political strategies aside I was just struck, back then, with the profound Truth of it: that how we treat each other and how we treat the environment are related; and that conversely the answer to environmental problems is not forcing lots of new regulations on people, but increasing awareness of the preciousness of Creation. That as long as people approach all of life based on material fears — that they won’t get what they want or will lose what they’ve got — then long-term environmental concerns will always take a back seat to immediate “needs.” As Pope Benedict says in his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate, while policy changes and education are important, “the decisive issue is the overall moral tenor of society.”

As long as people approach all of life based on material fears — that they won’t get what they want or will lose what they’ve got — then long-term environmental concerns will always take a back seat to immediate “needs.”

Personally, what I saw as the integrity of the Church’s position was another piece that fell into place in my long journey to conversion. It provided a framework that pulled together seemingly unrelated views under a single coherent law. It made sense to me immediately.

The Church has continued to embrace and expand these principles. Caritas in Veritate managed to infuriate both political sides, a good indication that it has challenging Truth both need to hear. In it, Pope Benedict cautions that “the way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa,” and says “what is needed is an effective shift in mentality.”

So, sure, I reduce, reuse and recycle when I can, but I also know that won’t turn this thing around. My focus is on helping people increase their awareness, through everyday spiritual practices that help them stay more connected. Because when people are more awake, more present to the world around them, then whether they live in the city or the countryside, they will see the beauty, abundance and spectacle of Creation in all its vivid color. And they will mourn, in the way celebrated in the beatitude, when they see that Creation being harmed. This is the way to lasting change.

This piece was originally published on April 22, 2010.

Faithful Departed—William F. Buckley Jr.

I once told Bill Buckley that he’d played a huge role in the formation of my political thinking—as I’d been watching “Firing Line” since it appeared on PBS when I was 9 years old—and he said, “Well, that’s a frightening thought.” Of course, it was a frightening thought. Why was a 9-year-old watching a political debate show led by this devout intellectual with the vocabulary of a… well… the vocabulary typical of no one at any education level? Cause of my dad. My atheist dad. They were alike in many ways, and my father introduced me, through the TV screen, to Buckley.

My father may have been against religion, but his ethical example, his dignity, and his love and respect for nature and his fellow man were spiritual practices if ever I’ve seen them. I know I got part of whatever religious core I have though him. And he and the author of “God & Man at Yale” shared many values.

Bill Buckley is best known for starting the magazine National Review, and, largely through that publication, for leading a revitalization of conservative politics in America. But there has always been a tension within conservatism between what Buckley represented and what at one time called itself the “Know Nothings” — anti-intellectual, often anti-immigrant, populism.

The conservatism William F. Buckley stood for was a heartfelt belief in individual liberty, collective responsibility and a healthy respect for traditions. His was not a politics of fear. It was a thoughtful and a decent politics. One that he was more than happy to defend against reasonable opponents.

Buckley’s “Firing Line” was no relative of the modern split screen scream-fest, with surrogates of Left and Right speaking from memorized talking points, bullying their way to dominate the audio feed. On “Firing Line,” Buckley maintained a level of politeness that approached serenity. You finished watching an episode feeling edified, rather than feeling bolstered in an already-fixed position.

And Buckley’s politeness was not the false platitude of a politician’s “my esteemed colleague”—he didn’t hesitate to let you know if he thought your idea was idiotic, but he never attacked your character. Your idea might be stupid, you might even be stupid in his eyes, but you weren’t evil. And it must be said: he clearly was having fun. One of Buckley’s trademarks was the twinkle in his eye.

If there is one thing it might be fair for the Left to hate about Buckley, it is that twinkle. In his writing, his magazine, his TV show and in his person, Buckley made conservatism palatable by making it polite, and above all, friendly. Bill Buckley was playful.

Buckley, and of course my former debating-team-captain father, shaped this ideal in me, which I’ve carried throughout my life. Whether a person is Left, Right or other, whether I agree or disagree with them, I expect discourse to be civil; and if it is not, I’m just not that interested.

Son of an oil tycoon, Buckley, while no doubt an elitist, held the old-fashioned notion that the elite have responsibilities, that their privileged position requires gratitude (the title of one of his books) and service.

Buckley did not bring his Catholic faith directly into his political discourse often. But he wrote of the link between religious values and politics from the start. In 1951 at the age of 25, when he rocketed onto the American radar with “God & Man at Yale,” Buckley challenged the prevalence of socialism in academia with these words: “The duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world… the struggle between individualism and collectivism is the same struggle reproduced on another level.”

In a more general way, Buckley’s Catholic faith informed his character, and so his politics, from top to bottom. In particular in three things: his respect for individual liberty rooted in the God-given inalienable rights upon which the United States is founded; his focus on service, responsibility and tradition; and his personal conduct, always gracious and always seeking Truth even if it worked against his selfish interests.

Buckley was not a fan of modernizing the liturgy. Though I wonder how much of this was on aesthetic grounds. (Not to say those are illegitimate.) He described the new liturgy this way: “as ugly and as maladroit as if it had been composed by Robert Ingersoll and H.L. Mencken for the purpose of driving people away.”

Like me, Buckley loved Baroque music above all else. (Unlike me, he could also play it. He was an accomplished harpsichord player.) He probably winced, as I do, at many of the 18th to 20th century Protestant hymns. But aesthetics aside, I find a deeper truth in this. Buckley’s love for Bach especially — he once said, “If Bach is not in Heaven, I am not going!” — is based on the purity of the music: neither overly emotional nor overly complex, everything in its place and nothing superfluous. Bach’s transcendent beauty is in its Truth. In music, in politics and in faith, Buckley sought clarity, not complexity.

A diligent shepherd of the Conservative Movement, Buckley strenuously opposed anti-Semitism, anti-intellectualism, Ayn Rand’s selfish objectivism, and, with an unfortunate delay, segregation. He squarely challenged thugs of all stripes, denouncing, among others, the influence on the right of the John Birch Society.

And while his own moral compass was true, this sometimes put him at odds with the movement he created. Unless you understood the mixture of libertarianism and traditionalism that formed his ideology, his positions sometimes seemed odd, especially side by side: drug legalization and mandatory national service, McCarthyism and anti-racism.

My father passed under George H.W. Bush. For better or worse, William F. Buckley lived to see his cherished conservative movement lose its bearings. He wrote before his death that unquestioning support for the Iraq War would be its downfall. Perhaps waiting until after his father’s death, Buckley’s son Christopher, in leaving National Review and the Republican Party, said the anti-intellectual populists had regained control.

As I mourn the passing of one of my few personal heroes, I pray for a restoration in the times ahead of the kind of civility he and my father personified.

William F. Buckley Jr., 82, died, fittingly, writing at his desk.