Sunday, December 16, 2007

Online Anonymity: The Ring of Gyges Made Real

Online anonymity is something that people have widely come to assume is a necessary component of freedom online. It is frequently argued that without the ability to speak one's mind online anonymously, or to browse the internet secretly, that freedom would be curtailed. Myself and a growing number of other people think this is only partly correct: unrestricted online anonymity curtails freedom.

When it comes to browsing online, an argument certainly can be made for maintaining total anonymity. One example of the need for it that I've heard is that of people searching for information on such dread diseases as AIDS. If one were not able to search for information about AIDS in secret, many people who suspect they may have the disease might avoid doing so for fear of being discovered by the public (or closer to home, their community); the same would be true of people who do know they have the disease but who need more information and wish to keep their HIV positive status secret.

Typically, people extend this reasoning to posting one's thoughts online. Many maintain that without the ability to speak one's mind anonymously, many will not out of fear of retribution from others. An example often cited is that of whistleblowers, people who report the wrongdoings of corporations, politicians, etc. This is a valid point, and good in practice. But then people extend this consideration too far to cover online speech in general. That's when things go awry with the argument.

Something of this sort has been going on locally where I live for some time, involving the website of a local newspaper, the Moscow-Pullman Daily News. Their site has for a long time featured a comments function that allows the public to respond directly to articles published in the paper. In short, this feature has become a perfect example of why anonymity online does not equate to freedom, but frequently to the opposite of freedom.

On a blog I frequent, Right Mind, an associate of mine, Tom Forbes (founder of Palousitics), wrote about this phenomenon:

Tom: "Anonymity on the Internet does not lead to more free speech in the community as some claim. It leads to less. How many voices did the DN's Town Crier III series lose out on because people did not want to subject themselves to nameless character assassins? How many refuse to write letters to the editor for the same reason? It allows the anonymous few to intimidate the many. That is not freedom. It is tyranny." [Click here for the complete thread]

I posted to the thread an experience I had while teaching introductory philosophy at Washington State University. I was introducing my students to the works of Plato, and on one particular day we were reviewing the story of the myth of the Ring of Gyges:

"For [Gyges] was a shepherd laboring for the then ruler of Lydia and some part of the earth was shattered by a violent thunderstorm developing along with an earthquake and a chasm appeared at the place where he was pasturing. Seeing this and wondering, he went down and the fable says that he saw, among other wonders, a hollow bronze horse having openings, through which, peeping in, he saw that there was a corpse inside, as it seemed, greater than is usual for men, and wearing nothing else but a golden ring at his hand, that he took off before leaving. When time came for the shepherds to hold their customary assembly in order to prepare their monthly report to the king about the state of the flocks, he came too, wearing this ring. While he was sitting with the others, it chanced that he moved the collet of the ring around toward himself into the inside of his hand ; having done this, he disappeared from the sight of those who were sitting beside him, and they discussed of him as of someone who had left. And he wondered and once again feeling for the ring, he turned the collet outwards and, by turning it, reappeared. Reflecting upon this, he put the ring to the test to see if it indeed had such power, and he came to this conclusion that, by turning the collet inwards, he became invisible, outwards, visible. Having perceived this, he at once managed for himself to become one of the envoys to the king; upon arrival, having seduced his wife, with her help, he laid a hand on the king, murdered him and took hold of the leadership." [emphasis added]

I asked my students if they could identify the thing they all owned that gave them the power of Gyges' Ring and how it did so. Almost all of them immediately identified their computers and the ability to do things online anonymously as that device. Since this particular lesson was couched in a unit on ethics, I asked them to consider how the story of Gyges' Ring relates to how many people act online when given anonymity. The similarities were obvious: given the power of anonymity, most people turn into monsters.

And so it is with local goings on. As Tom pointed out in his post, many people are in fact intimidated online by anonymous thugs and free speech is curtailed, not fostered. There is also a tendency toward criminal behavior when given the ability to remain anonymous, as I've experienced personally in the form of someone masquerading as a medical professional for the purpose of defrauding people (who, thankfully, will soon be slapped around by the laws that have been broken). Far from being a guarantor of free speech, online anonymity is too often allowed outside of its truly useful contexts where it becomes a bull in a china shop. It is definitely time that online anonymity be reigned in.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Washington 8206: Watch Me Shoot Down A Bill

Ok, one more post for the evening, then I'm seriously going to consider bed.

Several weeks ago I posted something to another blog that I contribute to, Palousitics. It was a piece on my thoughts on Joint Resolution 8206, a piece of legislation to be voted on tomorrow by Washington state's voters.

I am against the resolution and voted my mail-in ballot accordingly. Here is the article on this piece of legislation that I posted to Palousitics.

"Lidless cookie jar," I'm calling this one.

I read through the comments people left and noticed one I hadn't seen before. It contained an interesting piece of info: my post is the first result that appears if one searches Google for "Washington 8206".

So I tried it.

Sure enough, there it is! Entering "washington resolution 8206" gets the same result, too.

Have I swayed massive numbers of votes? Am I about to kill a bill? Particularly this one?

Ahhhh... the stuff of pleasant dreams. And what great timing, as I'm off to bed.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

300: Watch it for the moral, not the history

I went to see 300, a retelling of the battle of Thermopylae, with a friend yesterday after months of waiting patiently since first learning of the film's existence. Since the film debuted, I've heard many complaints about the film: that it is historically inaccurate, racist, etc. One Iranian government official even called the film a propaganda piece created by U.S. "cultural officials" to disparage the current, post-revolution theocratic government of Iran.

I think the people who are writing and saying these things about the film have, in some cases, missed the point, but I suspect that there are many among them who have understood the film very well, and they fear its message.

As far as the criticisms of 300 go, the most I can say for its critics is that it does contain some minor historical inaccuracies (though I saw no evidence that these depictions were intended to be presented as fact). My own research on the battle suggests that there were many more Greek soldiers from their various city states at Thermopylae. Then there's the depiction of Athens and the Acropolis in flames, which happened after Thermopylae, but occurs in the film before then. The final scene of the film, which immediately follows the defeat of the Spartans and the death of Leonidas, depicts the tens of thousands of Greek soldiers, led by Sparta, who finally destroyed the Persian forces who were left in Greece under the command of Mardonius. This is a massive leap forward in time, as this didn't happen until after the battle of Salamis in which the Persian navy was all but destroyed, which occurred well after Thermopylae. To my mind, this is no big deal - this is the stuff that sequels are made of! If Frank Miller is up to it, I'm there.

As to the charges that the film is racist, I don't feel like dignifying that tired canard with an answer. The people who utter such garbage pretty much feel that anything depicting western civilization in a favorable light is inherently racist, and no amount of reason will crack their Cultural Marxist faith. So, I will happily pass over them and leave them to their indoctrinated ignorance.

The Iranian government, on the other hand, might have something to worry about in this film, though their claim that it is a product of our government is just silly. While some attempt to utilize a distracting argument by citing what they consider a bad depiction of their Persian ancestors - see the preceding paragraph for my response to that - the real meat of the film is the depiction of individuals fighting for a society based on reason versus a society of subservience based on mysticism. That, no doubt, gives both the Iranian theocratic government and coffee house commies fits, and so they roll out their weak proxy arguments to attack it.

To a would-be totalitarian like Ahmadinejad and his goons in the present Iranian government, and to leftists everywhere, the unmistakable challenge issued to those who idolize the power of the state at the expense of the inherent rights of the individual by 300 is anathema. It cannot be argued that Miller's work does not take poetic license with the true events and motivations behind Thermopylae nearly 2,500 years ago, but that should not be held up as the point of the film. It is common, and effective, for writers to couch a message in a story based upon real events, relying upon the fame and the power of inspiration those events have to hold the attention of the audience. Rather than focusing upon this (which those the film speaks against would rather we do) the moral message of the film should be focused upon: enslavement is not freedom, coercion is not just, and those who endorse such things do so for their own glorification, not for the supposed benefit of their subjects.

Consider not who the character of Xerxes in 300 represented, but the ideas this character represented: the view of some that the state is omnipotent. The film Xerxes considered himself to be a living god, which is representative of the belief of many today that it is government that gives us what we have, that government, in its benevolence, bestows upon us our rights. Frequently in the film, Xerxes said of himself, "I am kind," and he asked of everyone who came before him that they kneel at his feet - otherwise, Xerxes destroyed them. Xerxes' "kindness," however, came in the form of wealth and other resources doled out to people as he saw fit that he himself did not produce, but which came from the people he had subjugated. Demanding that people kneel before him, thus symbolically placing individuals beneath him, depicts the view that the individual is less than and subservient to the state, what collectivists throughout history have always believed.

So while the depiction of the Spartans as fighting for justice and reason was probably played up in the film quite a bit relative to what really motivated the Spartans at Thermopylae thousands of years ago, it speaks undeniable, timeless truths to us nonetheless. Through reason, we know that human beings are born free and rightfully should be, that we are the source of our rights - they are inherent to us - and that the false gods of government are not. Government is only composed of other human beings, who rightfully can govern only with the consent of the governed, and they are most certainly not anything close to gods, as was depicted in 300 when Leonidas wounded Xerxes with a thrown spear.

In parables such as 300, we are reminded of the better parts of ourselves and what we in the west should value and fight for. Reason is superior to mysticism, freedom is superior to servitude, and government is not worthy of worship. This is the valuable message behind the film that its detractors would like to obscure, and with good reason, as it presents in graphic detail the virtuousness of freedom versus the cowardice and insanity of what they believe.

Read the complete post at Helium!

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Call It Like It Is: The Libertine Party

While looking over a social networking website that caters to college students recently, I came across the profile of one person who expressed a desire for one Rigoberta Menchu, a darling of the far left despite the fact that her socialist-endearing life story is a fraud, to become the next president of Guatemala. This caught my eye and prompted me to continue looking over this person's profile, which turned out to be a massive wad of socialist/communist propaganda.

But what really got my attention was not these things, but how this person classified her political views: "Libertarian."

For some time now, I've noted an increase in the number of people who endorse clearly socialist political and moral ideals claiming to be Libertarians. Generally, they are indistinguishable from your average socialist, except that they pay more lip service to individual autonomy. The twist, however, is that "individual autonomy" in their lexicon comes to mean "free from the economic and social consequences of being stupid."

Generally, the thinking of these so-called libertarians runs like this: each individual is a sovereign being with hopes, dreams, and goals; it is wrong to initiate force against others (coercion); thwarting an individual's personal aims, if they do not cause harm to others, is a form of coercion and is unjust; a lack of resources will frustrate an individual's goals; if one person has more than enough resources to meet his goals and he does not give the rest to those who do not have enough resources to meet their goals, he is thwarting the hopes and dreams of those other people and thereby acting unjustly; unjust actions justify the use of force to correct the injustice, so it is therefore just to seize the resources of the better-off individual to satisfy the goals of less well-off individuals.

Those who have not before heard of this sort of "libertarianism" may be scratching their heads at this point and wondering how this is different from run-of-the-mill socialism. The fact is, this really isn't very different at all, except for one key detail: instead of justifying the seizure of private property for the benefit of an abstract "society," the violation of private property is justified in the name of "the free individual."

Think about that for a moment and you will understand the insidious nature of this twist of terms. It's easy to attack claims of social good that are aimed at the betterment of "society," because society being an abstract, one can simply ask "whom exactly do you mean?" Someone trying to justify wealth redistribution along these lines then has to name specific people or groups, leaving them open to attack for any number of reasons.

But who can argue with individual liberty? That is the evil twist this philosophy takes. If you agree with the thesis that individual humans are sovereign and should be free to pursue life, liberty, and happiness, and since you cannot argue against the fact that it takes resources to do so, then according to these "libertarians" you cannot argue against wealth redistribution!

This view suffers from the usual logical and moral flaws of socialism, the largest being who it is that gets to decide who has enough to satisfy their personal ends and who does not, which ends are worthy ends, the metric by which such things will be determined, etc. Ultimately, this so-called libertarianism ends up in the same place that collectivism will always go: totalitarianism.

I took a quick look around the 'net at the people who endorse these views and who use the title of libertarian in this way, and soon discovered certain common traits. Basically, every one of these people were pining after comfortable, upper-middle class lifestyles (on average - some wanted far more, but almost none wanted less) completely divorced from the usual means by which millions of people have achieved this vision: hard work and personal discipline. Frequently, I found that the people who endorse these twisted views are engaged in indulgent lifestyles, the types that frequently come with undesirable side effects - drug use, polyamorous sexuality, etc. It is also common amongst the small number of these "libertarians" I read up on to live far outside of their means, often involving them moving to areas where they would like to live alone or as a couple in single family dwellings, but where the cost of living is far beyond their means, "forcing" them to seek roommates, run down housing, etc. Many of these people also were engaged in some sort of social work of dubious benefit that would not provide income for them to live on while continuing their work, but that they clearly derived personal satisfaction from, which they outright demand that the rest of us fund.

Libertarianism, as I and most people who know of it know it to be, is the opposite of this. While there are certain lifestyle choices exhibited by these people that I do not approve of, I leave it to them to make these choices and suffer the consequences - if they value the fleeting pleasures over the permanent damages, it is their right, so long as they do not bring harm to others. That is the essence of true Libertarianism, which is why this other version is a fake: while these people pay lip service to respecting individual choices that do not bring harm to others, they twist the definition of libertarianism around and demand that all of us share in the harms that individuals bring upon themselves. While these "libertarians" clearly would not approve of one person shooting another, if an individual shoots himself, they want all of us to pay for the damages. Regardless of the self-inflicted nature of the harm (whatever form it may come in), these people would make it a harm that we all suffer, albeit indirectly.

Personal responsibility is therefore out the window, which is ultimately what these "libertarians" are after. That is why, for the sake of eliminating confusion and to rescue the otherwise good name of Libertarianism, I am proposing that people of this ilk call themselves the "Libertine Party." It is a name much more suited to the sort of base, childish greed that they have attempted to elevate to the level of a political/moral philosophy. It would also make them a more honest bunch, since a less-acquainted individual would not be unfairly confused by their use of a name that describes a better, truly moral, and practical body of beliefs and ideas.

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