Friday, June 27, 2008

DC Gun Ban, Online Censorship, Individual Rights, and Power to the People

Some bloggers are horrified and incensed at the Supreme Court's decision to strike down the District of Columbia's absolute ban on personal possession of handguns. "Public safety" shows up fairly often. I get a picture of guns running down the streets of America's capital, killing people.

Others are delighted that the right to bear arms has been upheld. Those bloggers may not be aware that the District of Columbia does have the right to regulate gun ownership, according to the Supreme Court - and doesn't allow people to carry guns outside their homes.

I'm moderately surprised, and pleased, that the Supreme Court decided to uphold individual rights: if only by a 5-4 decision. (More, at "DC Gun Ban Nixed - Second Amendment Defined (Finally!)" (June 26, 2008).)

Individual Freedom: a Treasure

This post expands on a point I made in "DC Gun Ban Nixed...."

America is a free country. When I was growing up, I learned that individual freedom was important. Since then, I've learned that one of the remarkable freedoms that Americans enjoy is the right to own and operate dangerous technologies and substances. These include
  • Guns
  • Substances like
    • LP gas
    • Ammonium nitrate1
    • Anhydrous ammonia1
  • Printing presses
  • Fax machines
  • Computers
What all these have in common is that they give whoever possesses them, and knows how to use them, considerable individual power.

Depending on your own point of view, you'll see some - or all - of these items as dangerous; and some - or all - as harmless.

I think they're all dangerous, and that people should have the right to own and use them, with very few restrictions.

That's because I believe that people should be free to use dangerous technologies, unless they've demonstrated that they're not able to handle that freedom: Like felons and people who have been diagnosed with psychological problems. These people have shown that they aren't able to behave as responsible citizens, or give definite indications that they could be a danger. (Think of a paranoid schizophrenic with a loaded gun - or knife - or club, for that matter.)

Computers, Dangerous?

I put the printing press and the fax machine in my list, because they are, in their own way, at least as dangerous as any gun.

Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones, but the Printing Press is Deadly

Martin Luther's 95 Theses might have have been discussed in Wittenberg, and maybe surrounding towns, and stopped there: if some incendiarist hadn't gotten his hands on them, printed copies, and distributed the things. The wars that followed would probably have happened anyway: Princes of northern Europe were ready and eager to free themselves from the wealthier regimes of southern Europe. But the conflicts would, I think, have been very different, and possibly easier to settle, if the printing press hadn't been around.2

Little Old Ladies and the Information Age

The fax machine didn't have as much of an impact, because it was overshadowed by newer technologies. The things were important, though. I remember references to Chinese dissidents who communicated through fax machines and email. Before that, I remember complaints about the little old ladies with tennis shoes and fax machines, who had the audacity to spread information that politicos and newspaper editors disapproved of.

Computers and the Internet: Now Anybody can Publish and be Heard

Computers, as tools on the Internet, are today's fastest, easiest, and most generally available means for an individual to make his or her voice be heard.

Worse, from the point of view of some traditional information gatekeepers, individuals can now publish and distribute their ideas without going through 'proper' channels.
  • Academics
    • In the 'good old days,' academic papers wouldn't be published published in professional journals, if the established authorities who ran the journals didn't like their ideas - or the author.
    • That's still the case, but it's possible - in principle - for an academician with unpopular ideas to get heard, by publishing online.
    • There may be a price to pay. Dr. William Gray, the hurricane expert, won't be seen on television now. His considered opinion about global warming wasn't politically correct, and then support for his television appearances was cut. There may not be a connection. And, Dr. Gray is defending the institution that silenced him. I don't blame him. It's not always easy to find another job.
  • News Media
    • Until rogue cable and online news came along, virtually all national and international news was filtered through a handful of east coast editorial boards. These people formed a rather tight social group, with similar beliefs and assumptions.
    • It's no surprise that what we read all seemed to support their world view. We were seeing events through the eyes of upper-crust Yankee gentlemen.
  • Book and Magazine Publishing
    • The publishing industry should be a wonderful opportunity for individual voices to be heard. Using the centuries-old technology of the movable type and the printing press, small publishing houses offered people with unusual ideas to get a hearing in the marketplace of ideas.
    • Then, around the late seventies and early eighties (if memory serves), the price of paper went up. A lot.
    • That, and other changes, made small publishing houses less profitable. Many closed their doors, or were absorbed by larger publishers. The impression I have is that although small publishing houses still exist, they aren't as good an opportunity for the author with unauthorized opinions as they were.
    • That leaves vanity/subsidy publishing. Most people don't have the background and contacts it takes to get their title into bookstores nation-wide, or globally. I doubt that most subsidy publishers would have the means or the motivation to push one of their printing runs, once they've gotten the check. I'm sure there are exceptions.
Until the Web became a major communication channel, people with ideas could talk to their neighbors, but it they wanted a wider audience, they'd have to get the cooperation of one of the traditional gatekeepers: an academic review board; news editors; or publishers - who to an increasing extent weren't interested in anyone who wasn't a Steven King or the latest celebrity with a story to have ghost-written.

If you were among the gatekeepers, or held their views, life was good.

Then along came the Web, search engines, and blogs - and suddenly just anybody with Internet access could get published. And heard.

Knowledge is Power: and I Like Power

Many of the ideas put forward online don't pass the 'stink test,' and fail in the marketplace of ideas. Others succeed.

The great thing about the Information Age is that people can publish their ideas. Even if those ideas don't sit well with
  • Established academics
  • Yankee gentlemen
  • Publishing executives
To someone who became comfortable with the well-regulated flow of information that a previous generation experienced, today's world of blogs and uncontrolled websites must seem like chaos.

I like it.

I also like individual freedom.

And I like the way that the Information Age has opened by giving 'power to the people:' the power of individuals to enter the marketplace of ideas, even if their views aren't approved by the old gatekeepers.

Now, the Bad News

Not all regimes are comfortable with the new information technologies. Some are downright hostile. A quick look at how individual freedom is faring around the world:
  • "False Freedom / Online Censorship in the Middle East and North Africa"
    Human Rights Watch (November, 2005)
    A look at which regimes in that region are comfortable with having informed citizens, and which aren't. "This report is dedicated to the writers and activists who spoke to Human Rights Watch in the course of the research that went in to it, often taking great risks to do so.
  • "Activists say China's online censorship is worsening"
    Ars Technica (June 19, 2008)
    A report on how China is controlling the flow of online information in its borders.
  • "ACLU Victorious in Defense of Online Free Speech"
    ACLU (March 22, 2007)
    "Online Censorship in the States"
    ACLU (February 13, 2002)
    The ACLU's own unique view of freedom: specifically, it's ongoing victory to protect Americans from the forces that would criminalize showing "the name, address, telephone number, or e-mail address of a person under 18" on "an adult obscenity or child pornography site."
  • See an excerpt from "Odd Allies: Opposition to Waterboarding and Web Censorship" (March 9, 2008) for my take on similar issues.
Related posts on this blog:

1 With the possible exception of LP gas, the danger of these substances may not be apparent to most Americans.
  • LP gas
    • All too often, there's a news item about buildings being destroyed and people being killed because someone was careless with liquid propane
      • Sometimes the death and destruction is deliberate
    • LP gas is very useful
      • I use it every weekend, to grill burgers for lunch
      • But when mixed with air it becomes a powerful explosive
  • Ammonium nitrate
    • Used in the attack on Oklahoma City's Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building
    • Nearly obliterated Texas City in 1947
      • Near Galveston, Texas
    • It's also, and mainly, a very useful high-nitrogen fertilizer
  • Anhydrous Ammonia
    • Ammonia has other uses, but for farmers it's another good fertilizer
      • We use a great deal of the stuff in my part of America
    • Is a gas at normal temperatures and pressures
    • Reacts strongly with water
    • We're mostly water
      • Which makes anhydrous ammonia particularly dangerous
      • But we still use it
An anhydrous ammonia incident: Anyone who's driven on Interstate Highway 94 between Fergus Falls and Moorhead, Minnesota, has seen a huge white tank, about 200 feet in diameter, north of Barnesville.
  • It stores anhydrous ammonia
    • Lots of it
  • Back in 1981, Barnesville made the national news, when about 50 tons of the stuff leaked out
    • Nobody was killed, thank God, but eight people were in serious condition before things got under control
  • The tank's still there, the people are still there, and there's no plan to 'save' them from the fertilizer.
2 An alternative view of The Reformation is available online: "What Was the Reformation?" (Chapter Six of "THE GREAT HERESIES," by Hilaire Belloc. A few notes and disclaimers:
  • The electronic form of the document is Copyright © Trinity Communications 1994
  • The document is written from a distinctly and explicitly Catholic point of view. Readers who are not Catholic may be exposed to unfamiliar ideas.

Update (June 28, 2008)

Another point of view:
"Accepting the Court’s Decision on the Second Amendment"
Stoneman's Corner (June 28, 2008)

This is a calm, reasoned look at the District of Columbia vs. Heller decision: written by someone who actually read the document before writing about what it means. in a discussion thread, the author pointed out a recent habeas corpus ruling which I'd missed. (Great, one more thing to look up!)

I don't see eye-to-eye with the author, but it's a relief to discover that there are people out there who take a deep breath and think before responding to issues.

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Note! Although I believe that these websites and blogs are useful resources for understanding the War on Terror, I do not necessarily agree with their opinions. 1 1 Given a recent misunderstanding of the phrase "useful resources," a clarification: I do not limit my reading to resources which support my views, or even to those which appear to be accurate. Reading opinions contrary to what I believed has been very useful at times: sometimes verifying my previous assumptions, sometimes encouraging me to change them.

Even resources which, in my opinion, are simply inaccurate are sometimes useful: these can give valuable insights into why some people or groups believe what they do.

In short, It is my opinion that some of the resources in this blogroll are neither accurate, nor unbiased. I do, however, believe that they are useful in understanding the War on Terror, the many versions of Islam, terrorism, and related topics.