The 1968 election of Richard Nixon had turned America from a nation based on manufacturing to one based on resources, from a politics of print to one of TV, and from a united nation to a disunited one.
I saw young voters supporting the new President. I saw politics moving from TV to the Internet, which I had already covered for 25 years. I saw technology becoming the dominant industry, the reign of oil fading into the past, and I saw biotech as the Next Big Thing, much as computing was when I started writing for money.
Instead of seeking consensus, we entered a new crisis period. Religious zealots and economic oligarchs rejected the new order. Seeing a majority arrayed against them, they rejected democracy itself.
Spurred on by Russia’s Vladimir Putin, they stole the 2016 election and plunged America into a new Civil War. Putin began a Third World War. He seeks to recreate the Russian Empire, attacking his neighbors directly, Israel through proxies, Africa through militias, and all democracies through anyone who accepts the premise that power can flow from the top down, and that people are sheep to be led by wolves.
That’s where we are.
Despite the election of Joe Biden, despite some successes since then, democracy remains on the brink.
The most important battlefield of this war is the Internet itself. A medium built for creating community through the force of Netiquette became, without governance, a balkanized mess, a haven for greed and crime. It became just another war zone.
Social media has replaced the credibility of gatekeepers with the tyranny of clicks. Truth of any kind can be confronted directly by lies and, without any arbitration, “both sides” are given equal play. This was demonstrated by the anti-vaxxers’ successful war against Covid science, at a cost of 200,000 lives and counting. Maybe that was the breaking point, because if you can lie on your deathbed you can lie about anything.
Freedom relies upon government. A democratic government relies on an acceptance of rules by all sides. Inalienable rights may be self-evident, but governments must have the consent of the people to protect freedom. Without government, freedom becomes license. If only power grants liberty, we’re still in the Middle Ages.
Speaking of which. While on vacation recently I visited a ruin called the Castle Blankenhorn. It was built in the 12th century by a line of German princes who, for a time, took the title Holy Roman Emperor. But the title was only as strong as their armies and long before the Renaissance the castle was abandoned.
We can’t let this Internet be abandoned like Castle Blankenhorn. It may look today like freedom is losing the war. But it’s not lost. All it needs is a recommitment to rules, and to the idea that everyone must be bound by them. That starts by demanding that the humanity of each human being be respected, even those you may despise.