One of America's most enduring and self-deluded myths about itself is that it's a free, thus morally superior country. It's not, as last weeks' feature on Princeton Bioethicist Peter Singer made clear. This society is riddled with unapproachable taboos. But technology is changing that, making some of our self-inflated notions of ourselves actually come true.
Even as technology systematically liberates the control of ideas from the hoary grip of ideologues, educators, clergymen and dogmatic politicians, the underlying tensions in culture and society grow. We are freer than ever, but we seem to like it less all the time.
In the past few weeks, a series of institutions and public figures have run headlong into America's mythology about itself, particularly the demonstrably absurd idea that this is a free country.
Censorship is a natural, perhaps even a biological instinct. Nobody likes to see himself as a censor but everybody, from school principal to parent to mayor to flamer, seems to feel the call. We almost reflexively want to quiet what disturbs, provokes and offends us.
Check out almost any topic or opinion posted on Slashdot. Even here, there's usually one or more - frequently lots more -- messages declaring that a person or idea doesn't belong here or shouldn't be expressed, assuming that the offending idea hasn't already been moderated into oblivion. And this is one of the freest places in media, new or old.
But technology, as any teenager knows, is a wicked censorship slayer. Almost all information is now available almost everywhere. Memes, ideas, arguments, opinions - none can be universally corralled or suppressed. Heretics and hell-raisers have never thrived so much.
Priests and ministers can't control dogma, lawyers can't monopolize the arcane and expensive language of law, politicians can't impose ideology, publishers can't monopolize editorial content, academics can't keep a lock on research, and journalism can't control the social agenda. Technologies like the Net and the Web have made this so.
But here's the irony. Even as technology makes censorship virtually impossible, people keep trying harder to do it.
The Brooklyn Museum of Art faces the loss of a third of its annual budget, even eviction, because the mayor of New York City finds a painting in an exhibit offensive.
Some leaders of the Reform Party are demanding Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura's ouster because of a Playboy interview in which he said, among other things, that people who support organized religion are weak-minded and needy. (Ventura ran his campaign on the Net, by-passing traditional media and expensive campaign structures). Good thing H.L. Mencken, the legendary columnist who savagely skewered members of the clergy as hypocrites, blowhards and airheads, died a generation ago. He couldn't get a job on any paper in America today.
GOP Presidential Candidate Pat Buchanan has been told - by Senator John McCain among others -- to leave the Republican Party because his book argues that the United States had no pressing self-interest in entering World War II.
And in perhaps the ugliest and most significant of all these conflicts, Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer has been reviled as a mass murderer and attacked by politicians, university contributors and trustees, and advocates for the handicapped.
He's been forced to teach in a guarded, unmarked classroom because he's argued that in certain circumstances, parents ought to have the right to kill a severely disabled newborn in order to prevent or end the child's suffering and preserve the family's happiness and well-being. Euthanasia, he argues, is sometimes a lot more compassionate than the withdrawal of life support systems.
The First Amendment has never been a particularly popular one. Americans have always embraced freedom until somebody says something they don't like. Then they like to fire the offenders, chase them away, close them down.
Technology makes all of these options unworkable. Hundreds of cable channels, faxes and videotape, e-mail and cellphones make the notion of quelling an idea or putting the person who advocates it out of business ridiculous. The Net is inherently uncensorable. There are too many chat forums, messaging systems, mailing lists and websites, and not enough cops.
When New York Mayor Guiliani threatened to shut down the Brooklyn Museum for displaying a painting of a black Madonna with a clump of elephant dung affixed to her chest, singer David Bowie announced he was putting the "offending" exhibit up on his website.
Buchanan regularly takes to talk radio and cable interview broadcasts to explain his philosophies about World War II directly to the public.
New technologies like the Net and the Web have liberated discussions of sexuality which, until a decade or so ago, were dangerous, if not impossible for most Americans.
Earlier this week, Slashdot published a story about Peter Singer in which his actual views - rather than outrageous and simple-minded distortions - were discussed.
The Singer controversy is, in fact, a significant reason to stop and consider the new reality of freedom and technology.
Singer is a complex, brave and brilliant philosopher and teacher. He is an empassioned animal rights activist and has argued for years that affluent people have a responsibility to donate some of their money to the less fortunate (he donates a fifth of his salary to groups that feed the poor).
He is doing precisely what thinkers, academics and critics are supposed to do: raise chillingly complex ethical issues that confront society but are rarely talked about. Princeton futurist Freeman Dyson, for example, has long hailed the idea that genetic engineering will remove the physically ill from the world. Genetic engineering is rapidly pushing us towards the idea of a Master Race - at least for wealthy, techno-centered cultures which can afford it - in which all humans brought into the world are tall, lean, smart, healthy and attractive.
But Dyson's much more politic about the way in which he expresses his ideas. He's never advocated anything as extreme as killing critically-ill newborns - a jarring idea. Some say that clearly is murder. But Singer doesn't advocate genocide or the callous disposal of the disabled. He's arguing that in extreme circumstances, parents should have the right to terminate the life of severely disabled newborns who have no self-consciousness or chance to survive.
Personally, I haven't even begun to formulate what I think about this idea. But I want-need to read, mull and talk about it. The wanton use of terms like "murder" and "genocide" make that impossible, and that means we aren't free either.
Singer is no monster, and the notion that he's an advocate of mass murder seems outrageously simple-minded and hysterical, a club to shut him up rather than a way to support or refute his ideas. The United States is using medical and other technologies that may result in genetic selection to remove physical, even psychological problems like alcoholism that are increasingly being linked to heredity (see Tuesday's story on Slashdot on genetically engineered kids).
Parents using in vitro fertilization and other contemporary fertility treatments routinely participate in disturbing genetic selections. Doctors performing IVF, for example, routinely examine egg and sperm matches for the "healthy ones." Some prospective parents have sought permission to abort fetuses over concerns about gender, even cosmetic issues.
As genetic screening tells prospective parents more and more about the children they're about to bring into the world, parents will inevitably - right or wrong - make complex choices about the children they choose to raise.
Do they want tall or short ones? Boys or girls? And especially, do they want - can they cope with? -- terminally ill or severely disabled ones? Inevitably, parents will argue that they have the right to make these decisions for themselves.
Parents already can avoid bringing children with certain serious diseases into the world through prenatal testing. Do they also, as Singer suggests, have the moral right to withdraw life support, or even approve lethal injections?
This is, after all, a country which wildly celebrates techno- medical "breakthroughs" like multiple births, even though they pose enormous health risks to the children involved and require massive and expensive public and community assistance.
The McCaughey family in Iowa was showered with gifts, from diapers to a new home, for their septuplets. But the country didn't seem to want to consider the fact that the fertility drugs they'd used had created a whole new kind of high-tech welfare family, producing children whose parents couldn't possibly support them financially, and perhaps not emotionally, either. Multiple births of fewer than six or seven aren't even stories any longer, they're so common, even as many pediatricians warn that such children are at high risk for illness and disability. In a world whose population is nearing six billion, the use of medical technologies to breed human offspring - in growing multiples -- transcends religion or philosophy. It may be the 21st century's most urgent social problem, particularly as food production continues to decline.
Patriotism is invoked by blockheads in the United States so often that it's easy to lose sight of the particular genius of the people who hatched the country. Singer exemplifies America's founders prescient convictions - born out of centuries of observing the gruesome interaction between religion and monarchies and free speech -- that it's often the most upsetting ideas that warrant discussion - and need protection. If Singer focuses the country's attention on the impact of ill-considered medical research and genetic engineering, then he's a hero, not a villain.
If you're handicapped, it's easy to fear what Singer seems to be advocating. But he argues that what he's proposing is compassion and the importance of a healthy life, which he sees as much of a right as life itself.
This is as complicated and difficult a technological and philosophical debate as there is. But it's exactly the sort of discussion America needs more of, not less, in an era when supercomputing, artificial intelligence and life, and genetic engineering make the issues raised in Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" seem simple. Genetic engineering is becoming a regular topic on this website, but not in the information spectrum off-line, where it's almost never mentioned.
Sociologists, historians and technologists argue that technology is never autonomous; it only does what we want it to do. But medical technology is, in fact, out of control, outstripping our ability to consider or comprehend it. We ought to thank Singer for having the brains and the heart to make us face these issues while craven journalists, religious leaders and pols hide their heads in the sand.
If America really were a free country, Singer would be able to talk about his ideas in the open, in a classroom without guards. He'd be able to list his classes in the catalogue along with the other profs. The Net, at least, makes it certain that these controversial memes will at least be considered.
And Gov. Ventura ought to be just as free to challenge the structure and function of organized religion, one of the most powerful institutions in American life and also one of the bloodier influences in modern history.
While the Internet has completely altered the context of free speech - online, people can and do find places to discuss anything -- these discussions take place underground, in a sense, at least for now. They're less welcome in the open, in the central institutions and outlets that collectively help set the country's political and social agenda.
Few major newspapers' op-ed pages would host a free-wheeling discussion of the issues Singer raises. No member of Congress would openly debate them or discuss them in campaigns. Few churches or synagogues would talk about them. No network news organization or newsmagazine would ever question organized religion the way Ventura has done.
In such a timid atmosphere, it's hard to know whether any of these ideas have legitimacy and are worth exploring, or whether some deserve to be roundly rejected. The so-called marketplace of ideas can't function effectively. In a country that talks so much about freedom, there isn't nearly as much as we and our elected leaders pretend.
It's ironic amidst all the commercial and patriotic drum-banging about the Millenium underway, that technology is forcing a country deluded with notions of its own self-righteousness to actually be free, rather than simply make the claim.