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The digital world, like the modern world generally, is ephemeral. Entire universes appear and disappear in the space of days or weeks. In the mid-2000s, MySpace was a thing. Online “zines” have come and gone. Even the much maligned “Pepe the Frog” has been subsumed by his cousin, the Groyper.
Some of these changes are the result of something more than organic changes in taste; they are products of deliberate curation, as what used to be acceptable has become controversial. Steven Spielberg edited out the firearms used by FBI agents in the re-release of “E.T.”, for example, and the “Back to the Future” franchise omitted all references to terrorists in the version edited for television.
When dealing with mere entertainment, this is mostly just annoying. There is, however, a great deal of danger to be anticipated from the removal of entire categories of thought, facts, and data from the internet.
The Establishment is Fearful of Critics
Uncoordinated and anonymous criticism has become an important check on the legacy media and its preferred narratives. In 2004, crowdsourcing sleuths exposed the fake memo CBS News anchorman Dan Rather tried to peddle regarding George W. Bush’s National Guard service. In smaller ways, chain letter style reports of news on places like Facebook have weakened the gatekeeping role of the legacy media. From them, we learned of stories the mainstream media would prefer to have ignored, such as the Wichita Massacre or truth that Trayvon Martin was no plaster saint.
The broad coalition that makes up the dissident right had much to do with the election of Donald Trump, whose bracing rejection of political correctness rendered him a folk hero. The ongoing fact-checking and promotion of forbidden views by these dissidents have worried the media and the tech giants—by and large people who assume leftist politics are stand-ins for the words “normal” and “good” and who now feel somewhat responsible for unleashing this “monster.” They have recently reacted by tightening the screws on what they label “hate speech.”
Though we can laugh at the absurdity of the “E.T.” and “Back to the Future” editing examples, they’re worrisome because they remind us of something that applies to all digital data: all of it is easily altered, or deleted, and we may not even be aware of the change. A web page or article that purports to be written in 1998 or 2008 doesn’t look any different after the digital alteration. Whether it is a news article, a photograph, or a digital book, centralized control, coupled with sub rosa editing and censorship, suggests that nothing we encounter is necessarily authentic or safe from alteration: history books, news articles, or even one’s own personally created content.
Controlling the Past to Control the Future
In George Orwell’s 1984, the party’s preservation of power was the critical social value. The party altered facts, predictions, stories, and enemies to conform to day-to-day changes in ideology. Imagining our future, but not quite imagining the easy means by which digital data could be altered, Orwell wrote:
As soon as all the corrections which happened to be necessary in any particular number of ‘The Times’ had been assembled and collated, that number would be reprinted, the original copy destroyed, and the corrected copy placed on the files in its stead. This process of continuous alteration was applied not only to newspapers, but to books, periodicals, pamphlets, posters, leaflets, films, sound-tracks, cartoons, photographs—to every kind of literature or documentation which might conceivably hold any political or ideological significance. Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date. In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct, nor was any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record. All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary. In no case would it have been possible, once the deed was done, to prove that any falsification had taken place.
The dystopian vision of an ever-changing, politicized past had a contemporary precedent at the time Orwell wrote his masterwork. Stalin spent a great deal of time and energy writing out formerly loyal members of the Communist Party during his purges, which extended to altering photos and otherwise turning such enemies into “unpersons.” Western traditions of free speech were a mark of pride during the Cold War, contrasted with the false “official history” and widespread censorship in the Soviet Union. As the memory of that horror show recedes, however, our elite’s boldness in copying Soviet methods expands.
Tech Companies Become Censorious Schoolmarms
The recent embrace of political correctness among the formerly free-wheeling and anti-censorship tech giants has been gradual and incremental. At first, they refused altogether. Then they focused on the most offensive and extreme voices, who naturally find few defenders.
In the wake of last year’s alt-right Charlottesville rally and subsequent death of Heather Heyer, pressure for tech companies to do something in opposition to “hate speech” gained momentum. The first big purge was aimed at a website called the Daily Stormer, a Neo-Nazi and extremist operation. The website was purged at the highest level, the domain registrar. After being kicked off its host, the website could find no replacement and is now relegated to the dark web. Few stuck out their necks for this deliberately offensive website, but a precedent had been set: sufficiently hateful websites could and would be removed from the internet altogether.
More recently, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was removed from Facebook, YouTube, and now Twitter for “abusive behavior.” His chief abuse, of course, was that he supported President Trump. Left-leaning conspiracy theorists, such as those who suggested 9/11 was an “inside job,” face no such removal.
The latest party to join in on the action is Amazon. It recently blacklisted an author who goes by the name Roosh V (real name: Daryush Valizadeh), a prominent member of the so-called “manosphere.” While some of his website—grandiloquently named Return of Kings—is controversial and offensive, not all of it is. He, like most of the writers who emerged from the hedonistic “pickup artist” community, have pivoted to more general writings on the contemporary social scene, the lost values of traditional masculinity and femininity, as well as mundane topics like financial independence. He recently authored a book—Game—that is apparently more philosophical and was selling well on Amazon until this week. Then that title, and all of his previous works, were no longer available.
I feel no need to explain or defend Roosh V. I’ve never bought a single one of his books. I follow the old rules: those who disagree can choose not to buy his books, refute them, or ignore them. But Amazon’s blacklisting of an author is new territory. Amazon’s roots, after all, are as a bookseller. Librarians and book sellers have long been the most stalwart defenders of freedom of speech. Both groups controversially resisted attempts to use their records—including records of library internet usage—to track down terrorists during the Bush presidency. But Amazon evolved from a book seller, to an everything seller, to being one of the largest and most powerful companies in human history.
In addition to being larger, Amazon is now woke, and that means certain books will be removed quietly. Of course, you can still find writings of Islamic extremists, Mein Kampf, and the works of Joe Sobran. Amazon even proudly lists a series of “banned books.” Ironically, the first one listed is devoted to well-meaning censorship: Fahrenheit 451. . . . 111000011 in binary.
The left’s “punch a Nazi” mania of 2017 might seem limited to a small number of unsympathetic characters, but it is ultimately a limitless principle. They consider everyone to their right a Nazi, which is to say someone beyond the pale, an enemy of civilization, worthy of no protection, whether from violence or censorship. This is not mere paranoia. Recall the cashiering of such varied figures as Harvard President Larry Summers and the shout downs of Bell Curve author Charles Murray. Entire ideas are now “hate facts.”
As Roosh V himself said, “Alex Jones yesterday, me today, you tomorrow.”
Prepare for the Worst
I love my Kindle. It’s portable, the books are a little cheaper, and it’s easier on the eyes as age and a lifetime of reading have taken their toll. But will my books disappear or be altered without my knowledge? Will Shakespeare or the Gospel of John quietly introduce pronouns like “xer” and “xim?” Russell Kirk spoke of the permanent things, because most of what is true, relevant, timeless, and interesting will be found in old books in all of their politically incorrect splendor.
While there is an emerging view that censorship by large tech companies may need to be restrained through public policy, there is a smaller thing each of us can do, for now at least, that does not require any government action: buy and read old books in actual book form. Similarly, if you stumble upon an interesting and controversial article on the internet, it may be a good idea to print a copy or at least download a PDF. Otherwise, you might discover on an attempt at retrieval, that “the past was brought up to date.”
Photo Credit: Fredrick Kearney Jr/Unsplash