Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

April 3, 2007

Russian Censorship And American Liberty

by Brad Warbiany

Over at Reason, Cathy Young relates a story about the increasing online censorship in Russia. Putin is tightening the screws, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that Russia is slipping back into authoritarianism.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s steady rollback of hard-won press freedoms has entered a new stage. Not content with suppressing television, radio, and newspapers, the long arm of the state is reaching for political websites.

In March, Putin signed a decree merging two existing federal agencies—one for media oversight and the protection of culture, the other for telecommunications monitoring—into a single body, the Federal Service for the Oversight of Mass Communications and Protection of Cultural Heritage. It is perhaps no accident that the Russian word for “oversight” used in the agency’s name, nadzor, has a somewhat sinister ring for a Russian speaker: It commonly refers to the supervision of a prisoner. The new agency, which will start its work in about three months, will oversee and license broadcasters, the print media, and websites.

A lengthy investigative report published in 2006 on the Russian Democratic Union website alleges that in the Putin years, political forums on the Russian Internet have been the target of deliberate, organized intimidation by pro-government forces. The article, by former St. Petersburg television and BBC Russian Service correspondent Anna Polyanskaya (now Paris-based) and two colleagues, cites disturbing evidence that these digital goon squads are not simply loud, obnoxious, and well-coordinated but quite possibly connected to the government. Their members often seem to have mysterious access to personal data about anti-Putin posters; on some occasions, they have posted disinformation intended to discredit the opposition a few days before these exact same canards are officially circulated by the government.

As she goes on to point out, while technology is adaptable, totalitarian regimes can also be adaptable. It’s been credibly accused that government plants in online forums are there watching and driving the conversation. While an ineffective totalitarian regime might simply try to ban these online forums, a crafty regime understands that it’s much more able to watch their opponents by leaving the forums open, and to perhaps even actively counter and discredit them using arms-length goons squads.

But reading this, I was struck by another thought. Russia is a land that doesn’t have nearly the cultural inertia of freedom that those of the British/American tradition enjoy. America, and the British before us, have a history of fighting government overreach that goes all the way back to the Magna Carta and before. Culturally, we view freedom and our relationship with the state in a fundamentally different way than many other cultures, including that of Russia.

Russia had a short stint of freedom, between the end of Communism and the rise of Putin. In the span of those 10 years or so, it is clear that the freedoms that we take for granted were foreign to Russian citizens. Sure, they had their freedom fighters, but I don’t think the average person on the street had the sense that there were some things that the government just could not do. When they fell back into the authoritarianism of Putin, we in the West were heartbroken, because it seemed as if they had tried freedom and failed. But thinking further about it, perhaps it’s that they simply need more time and more fighting for freedom before they can achieve the sort of cultural inertia of freedom that will keep them from allowing the government to rest boot soles on their necks.

America faces the opposite problem. America has a history, or to again use the term, a cultural inertia towards freedom. But that freedom is under fire, and the constant drumbeat of collectivism in our media, our government schools, our Supreme Court, and our general society is reducing that inertia. But they haven’t reversed it. We are still a populace which values freedom. We still get angry when we see Kelo. We still look at the police as criminals when they gun down Kathryn Johnston. We still get angry about warrantless wiretaps. Each one of these issues gets under our skin. Taken collectively, they’re each just another beat of the drum.

But the cultural inertia still gives us a chance. The British, before us, had to fight the First Baron’s War in 1215 and the Glorious Revolution in 1688 when government overstepped its bounds. Our Founding Fathers had to fight back when the British overstepped their bounds on our soil in 1776. We have an 800-year legacy of fighting for our freedoms. And I still have hope that Americans won’t lie down forever and let this government walk all over us. Trouble is brewing, and we’re starting to beat a different drum — to the tune of freedom. I don’t think the day has come for violent revolution, and I hope that day never comes in modern society. But the American people are becoming more and more ready to simply stand up and proclaim “NO MORE!”

And that’s all it takes. Russian society wasn’t ready for freedom, and although they knew that Communism was hell, they gladly asked government to step in and deal with the dynamic chaos of freedom. American society has been given a lullaby into submission for decades, but the time has come that people are beginning to WAKE UP! With our eyes open and our resolve strong, we can remind our government that they are our servants, not our masters.

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  • tarran

    The NYPD’s intelligence unit, BOSSI, is legendary for its ability to identify and infiltrate groups of potential troublemakers, and its former members who have written memoirs all comment or joke that the revolutionary organizations they infiltrated were dependent the dues paid by government informants as well as the competent basic organizational or logistical stuff the informants did. essentially, most of the members were so poor, or lacking in competence, that the informants inevitably became part of the trustworthy backbone.

    One NYPD officer who infiltrated the Jewish Liberation Front, Meir Kahane’s group, also commented that whereas the NYPD’s infiltration was a “seduction”, the attempts by the ATF and the FBI to get people into the organization “was more akin to rape.” They would send these gung-ho young men who were loudly and aggressively asking to be included in violent activities or even suggesting, vaguely, that the organization should carry them out.

    Needless to say, the FBI and ATF approaches were pretty unsuccessful. This is why I laughed when the FBI announced that they had broken up the Miami terrorist cell.

    And yes, an officially controlled resistance is absolutely the way to go if you want to run a dictatorship. Remember the Orthodox Church in the old Soviet Union? My understanding is that pretty much every priest that preached openly was a KGB agent. The same is true of the Cathlic Church in China. They are in no way sources of effective rebellion, as the Catholic Church was in Eastern Europe.

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