In American political life “the Culture War” refers to the conflict between conservative traditionalism and liberal progressivism that began in the 1960s. The Culture War transformed political discourse into an exercise of picking sides, and cleaved the Baby Boomer generation into two easily identifiable and highly calcified political categories. When political writer Andrew Sullivan endorsed Barack Obama in The Atlantic Magazine in 2008, he did so because he believed that Obama was the one candidate that could transcend that conflict:
At its best, the Obama candidacy is about ending…the war within America that has prevailed since Vietnam and that shows dangerous signs of intensifying, a nonviolent civil war that has crippled America at the very time the world needs it most. It is a war about war—and about culture and about religion and about race.
There is a growing debate about power and the internet. In Washington, this debate revolves around net neutrality and the proper role of government regulation of business on the internet. Activists focus on privacy rights, ownership of information, and the fight against censorship. The problem is not that there is a debate about the internet. As maybe the most powerful technology for reshaping human relationships and communication that has ever excited, we have to discuss it.
The problem is that the old battle lines from the Culture War are being redrawn on top of the debate, and the hypocrisy of both sides threatens to undermine the whole conversation.
The model Right in this conversation falls into the same trap it always has – demanding limited government presence, and prioritizing hands-off, let-business-as-business-will-do policy, but then siding at every turn with mega corporations whose policies threaten to undermine the disruptive power that has made the internet what it is.
The model Left in this debate rails against censorship in the US and abroad. Today in a speech at TEDGlobal, GlobalVoices.org founder Rebecca MacKinnon started her talk contrasting Apple’s famous “1984″ Superbowl ad with Apple’s strict control over which apps make it to its app store. The censored apps she mentioned were things the Left supports. She didn’t mention the types of apps such as anti-gay apps – that many on the left have protested the presence of and cheered when Apple censored them. The Left is hugely against companies infringing upon their privacy, but have no problem with activists like Julian Assange going after state or corporate secrets.
To recognize the psychic tension in these positions is not to make a value judgement about either of their underlying points. Nor is it to suggest that the people on either side aren’t passionate and intelligent. Indeed, MacKinnon’s is an incredibly smart woman who gave a good talk, and her organization has done an incredible service to the world.
The point is to tremble in the face of any new political a priori. The politics in this country are as fractured, angry, and acrimonious as they are in large part because for decades, you were on one side or the other. You believed that Vietnam was unjust, that Reagan was a fascist, that Ken Starr needed to get a life, that George Bush stole the election, and that Iraq was an unmitigated unjust and illegal war. Or, you believed that national security has always been the government’s greatest responsibility, that Reagan was the most transformational and important president in history, that there was no one who did more to define the lack of values in American culture than Bill Clinton, and that after September 11th, anything was justified in the war on terror. Your politics were not your politics, but your personality. They labeled you, easily, conveniently, and simplistically.
Of course, in the real world, almost all of us have opinions more complex than this. In each of us, beasts of question rage. We don’t like the idea of invading another country, but we also don’t like the idea of dictators persisting uninhibited. We are socially liberally, sure that gay people deserve all the same rights as the rest of us, but we don’t quite understand how that demands that we also favor increased taxes on corporations.
The internet is the most complex social forces in the history of the world. It can be used to liberate. It can be used to monitor and suppress. It has changed economies, it has changed governments, it has changed personalities. Some internet companies have a power to influence the nature of social interactions that is unlike anything we’ve ever seen. The presumption that this complexity can map easily on a bankrupt division of the world into the political Left and Right is nothing short of madness, and threatens to undermine the beautiful chaos that has made the internet the incredible force for innovation and transformation that it has been.
Check back on Inc. Technology for more updates from TEDGlobal.