While the Snowden episode raises the alarm bells on privacy, Saswat Pattanayak questions whether the state clamping on freedom is anything new. Was it better in the past? If yes, for whom was it better? Is it good now, then for whom is it good?
By Saswat Pattanayak
Possibly the greatest myth about the world we inhabit today, is that things are just getting worse everywhere. Apparently, the claim goes, things were all flourishing until a couple of decades ago. People used to be nicely employed, owned houses, had the finest of healthcare, made tons of savings, expressed themselves freely without fear, and were generally happy-go-lucky. And that, things are just plain ugly today, with uncertainties looming large, with privacies encroached upon, people falling prey to corporate propaganda, and intellectual vacuum looming large.
Alas, even the worst myths have some credibility. So let’s start from there – yes, things used to be great for some folks, back in the days. In those good old days. In those abjectly feudal, and overtly colonial eras. Since there was slavery, the plantation owners had it good. Since there were princely states, the royals had it good. Since there were colonial empires, the colonialists had it good. Since there was Apartheid, the racists had it good. In fact, the myth has so much credence that the ruling class of every epoch believed they all had it so good. Quite naturally then “You’ve never had it so good!” became the US Democratic Party campaign slogan in 1952 and was swiftly adapted by the UK Conservative Party five years later. The myth of goodness apparently existed until the advent of the 60’s, if not until the end of the 70’s.
What in the world suddenly changed?
Here’s the shocker: nothing perhaps has changed. Maybe the world is still the same. Whether things were nice and dandy back then depends on who we seek that answer from. Usually, a white privileged male in the US, an upper-caste landlord in India, a French right-wing supremacist in Algeria, among numerous other categories may find things getting worse over a period of time. Whereas a black Afrocentric radical, a feminist of colour, a gay man, a disabled woman, a Dalit activist – may in fact claim that either things have remained just the same, or they in fact, have improved. People who were being lynched in the public because of the colour of their skin or women who were treated as no more than dishwashers are not the ones to complain about the gradual turns of events. They may rightfully complain about the viciously slow growth, but they are in no rush to turn back the clock and tune into the halcyon days.
History of the world can be written through the lens of the ruling class, or it can be narrated from the perspectives of the oppressed. From the lens of the latter then, the world could indeed be making progress. It is making progress when we witness women demanding wages for house work, it is making progress when men join protests against rape culture, it is making progress when outcastes reject the dominant paradigm, it is making progress when the racial minorities establish academic departments in hitherto elite universities. And these progresses do not happen merely incidentally, they do not happen because of sudden change of hearts; instead they do, because of concerted efforts and revolutionary movements of the working class – a vital credit which the ruling class deliberately refuses to concede, lest such experiments become too commonplace to be suppressed.
Even greater in significance than the myth are the means. How exactly do the historically oppressed manage to make progress? After all, they traditionally lack not just power, but also access; they start out disadvantaged, with entry behaviour knowledge, skills, and abilities compromised. The dominant understanding of emancipation is that the ruling structure empowers the oppressed through greater facilitation of resources. The truth is way unsavoury: the historically oppressed invariably always turn ungrateful towards their ruling masters. They take time to gain the knowledge to challenge the status quo, make efforts to acquire skills to equip themselves to face eventualities, and finally work in solidarity to dismantle the oppressive structures, at times gradually, and at other times suddenly. What usually seems spontaneous in revolutionary framework is invariably always a result of prolonged preparations and wait for the opportune moment.This is an inevitable process pertaining to historical stages of development. The greed of the ruling class, the tactic of the oppressed class, and the revolution as the synthesis.
Media of all kinds are only extensions of that irresistible weapon of education, that ineluctable tool of emancipation.
The historically oppressed have always tried to seize the media and to make them work in their mission to overthrow the systems of oppressions. At times, they have succeeded. And at other times they have been defeated. This was true for print media, it was true for electronic media, and it is true for digital/online media.
Concerned by the NSA and its corporate partners such as Verizon, Brazil has become the first country to propose rejecting America’s web authority. President Dilma Rousseff has recently ordered a series of measures to ensure Brazilian online independence and security to defy NSA interceptions.
The ruling class interpretation however has been starkly different. Obsessed as it remains with keeping the oppressed duly invisible, and focused as it remains with its own profit charts, the ruling class interpretations are concerned only with the conversation its own team members have with each other. As a result, both liberal and conservative publications entirely leave out narratives that have direct impacts on the racially oppressed, for instance. The need for black underground press in the US rose specifically to challenge the prevailing discourses between educated whites who shaped media agenda while entirely ignoring existing racial tensions as a structural given, not as a symptomatic aberration. Most of the researches conducted at elite schools focus therefore, on media monopolies and the gory sketches of their battles to redraw the maps of territorial conquests. They remain oblivious to the underground rebellions by innumerable insurgents, at times deliberately oblivious because they are convinced that the noisemakers are not aspiring for a takeover. And more often than not, they are right. A political analysis will draw the parallel between the nature of the colonizers and the nature of the colonized. Whereas the colonizers worry about expanding their territories, the revolting masses only are interested in their own emancipation.
And so is the case of media. Huge majority of the world possibly has no interest to become media moguls. Rupert Murdoch is neither their competition, nor their enemy. The anti-poor, racist, casteist policies furthered by their oppressive governments are their concerns. Reclaiming a country’s past (sic) glory is not something they remain bothered about, especially since that system never worked for them anyway. Besides, the majority rightfully demands for a life with basic needs fulfilled, and not everyone thinks that unlimited greed is a good thing. And so they are interested in subverting the dominant paradigms without needing to reinforce those very undesirabilities themselves. From radical comic strips to basement mixtapes, from underground hip-hop to homemade newspapers – the creative subversion of media over time has been aimed at being emancipatory without being necessarily competitive. The producers of these media have been jailed by the authorities, harassed by the communities, and ostracized by the advertisers. But the quest to challenge the dominant media narratives has never ceased anywhere in the world at any point of history.
And so it is with the Internet and online media.
Started as a militarist project, aided by money from the capitalist regime, Internet has been subject to sustained appropriations by hackers, hobbyists and housewives. In the times of big corporate media engaged in mergers and acquisitions, Internet has enabled a plethora of independent bloggers, many remaining anonymous, and most continuing to update their platforms without necessarily fear of authorities or expectations of profits. They are aware of their state of being othered, marginalized and oppressed. And they are in no hurry to make compromises, while steadfastly remaining glued to making revolts. Many of them are even found micro-blogging on Facebook and Twitter, making alliances with strangers all around the world, generating consensus with hashtags, and creating alternative universities in the virtual world where conventional, institutionalized truths are massacred and unfounded claims are doubly, nay, innumerably checked for veracity. Internet has provided Afrocentric literatures that could never be found in public libraries or dominant media’s breaking news, it has allowed for interviews with those freedom fighters to be shared and archived, who would never get an invitation from any of the four estates of democracy.
There are challenges to Internet of course; enormous ones. Just as there were challenges to all previous and contemporary forms of media. But there are opportunities too on Internet; enormous ones. For one, it provides access to those who can access it, which is far greater an empowerment compared to, let’s say, writing a letter to the editor of a print newspaper, while waiting for it to be published uncensored. Secondly, the social media bring people together, virtually if so desired, and for real, if so. It allows for more people to get informed about and to participate in a protest rally, an Occupy demonstration, an awareness march against sexism. All one needs to do is post an event, provide a backgrounder, interact with the audience to answer any question, make changes to the plans real time, cover the event for those who could not attend, and archive it for future references. Not to discount the difficulties or even impossibilities of such networking at the face of enormous digital divide that has rendered majority of people without access to Internet, to begin with. But to underline the fact that Internet, when enabled, emerges greater as an accessible form of media than any other. The need therefore is to democratize it and to make it universally accessible, to make it truly participatory.
For the teeming millions, the question is often not about ownership. The question is about participation. The joy lies not in monopolizing. It lies in distributing. Maybe it is how most of us have simply been raised – amidst the sheer joys in, or necessities of sharing. And therefore it becomes our second nature to simply enjoy the very fact that we are able to share new information with each other, through blogging, through micro-blogging, through file-sharing. Maybe that something which appears to be unproductive by the ruling class is something we just tend to be doing over and over again. In an otherwise individualistic, secretive world reveling in distrust, suspicion and increasing abandonment of neighbours, maybe the virtual media is what boldly caters to our needs. Who knows if it is good, bad or ugly? For sure, at least for now, the authorities think it is threatening them. This coming together of people who disregard their carefully assigned social locations and organise themselves for a common cause that transcends boundaries set by the ruling class. Maybe that is what is a constant irritant to the historically oppressive ones, and for that reason alone, it must continue as a revolutionary tactic.
No wonder, Obama’s NSA is after these people, these global ungrateful netizens. In the most recent development, Verizon which at first denied, and later admitted to having turned over the call records of millions of American citizens to the NSA has, only this September, testified in the court that it wants to prioritize those websites and services that are willing to shell out for better access. Verizon has made it clear that the company would block online content from those companies or individuals who do not pay its tolls – obviously undermining Net Neutrality principle. Concerned by the NSA and its corporate partners such as Verizon, Brazil has become the first country to propose rejecting America’s web authority. President Dilma Rousseff has recently ordered a series of measures to ensure Brazilian online independence and security to defy NSA interceptions. The way Brazil wants to do this is by compelling Facebook, Google and other US companies to store all data related to its citizens locally on Brazilian servers and by pushing for new international rules on privacy and security through the UN General Assembly. Its potential effectiveness, or even viability, is yet to be evaluated, but it is certainly something that may encourage other countries to follow suit. This suspicion also underlines the refusal on part of the international community to be convinced by Obama’s assurances regarding user privacies. The bigger concern of course is if the anti-Americanism itself may then give way to invincible national repressions. Will it be any more ethically sustainable on part of other countries, to filter contents or to keep a watch over their respective netizens domestically?
Answers to that already exist within the US, where many a domestic horror stories remain untold until after a case reaches a court of appeals. The most invisible ones are related to Internet freedom, precisely because any expose of that would discredit the country’s long standing, albeit hypocritical, claims on free speech, while equating it with let’s just say, China. Or, for that matter, with India. When two girls landed in trouble over commenting on Facebook about Bal Thackeray, it made world headline last year. And yet the US has been persecuting its own citizens for much lesser Facebook activisms that go unnoticed. In 2009, six employees at the Hampton Sheriff’s office in Virginia lost their jobs after registering their ‘likes’ on the Facebook page of the person who contested their boss in an election. Two of those employees, Deputy Daniel Carter and Robert McCoy, filed a lawsuit claiming they were fired by Sheriff B.J. Roberts specifically for liking a Facebook profile for Roberts’ opponent, Jim Adams and as many as four years later, only last month, a court of appeals decided that liking something on Facebook was the “Internet equivalent of displaying a political sign in one’s front yard” and hence it would be considered protected speech.
While the cat-and-mouse game persists, losing sight over the pattern would be a travesty. Harassment of the audience based on their media consumption, or arrests of producers based on their media activism is not a new trend. Neither is encroachment on individual privacy rights as is being largely claimed following Snowden’s grand revelations. The entire saga of FBI is nothing, if not one state sponsored and violence-laden surveillance program. The Red Scare, the infamous Smith Act, McCarthyism, the war on Black Panthers are all among numerous systematic assaults on privacy rights in the US.
The truth is there never were any golden days of freedom and equality for the world in the past, as is being felt nostalgic about these days. Only when we take the starting point of analysis as one where the status quo is considered to have remained virtually the same, if not emerged better, we can recognize that more people – even purely quantitatively speaking – are able to join global resistance against capitalism and express themselves today, than ever before. And this political opportunity has opened itself up, because as the bearded old men have hinted at, the Internet may indeed be what the capitalism has produced to further its own gains, and yet, it may eventually become its own grave-digger. As more desperate measures are taken to control Internet and as even more resistance surfaces to free it – through the radical voices of the hitherto underrepresented – the fall of ruling elites and the victory of hashtaggers will become equally inevitable.