1584 – Everybody Knows

I’ve read Robert A. Heinlein’s “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” last summer, while we were in Italy. In between I have only read Mohsin Hamid’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”, a finally slightly disappointing, but nevertheless very interesting novel about post-9/11, from the point of view of a young Pakistani having studied and worked in the US, and then of course the three glorious books by Vikram Chandra.

While India / Pakistan have been the focus of my attention for half a year, I frequently think of Heinlein’s book and about the idea, that the most important thing in a constitution is not to list the government’s duties, but to restrict its possibilities by exactly enumerating what it is allowed to do, and to completely rule out everything else.

“The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” is a book about a revolution (an optimistic one at that), and of course when I come back to it, I am triggered by much of what currently happens in the Arabian world. But not only that. Let me explain.

There is much talk about an “Internet Kill Switch” among politicians, and we have just seen in Egypt what the only reason for a government to want such a “switch” can be: to stop a revolution. Well, they failed, Algeria might fail as well, but that does not prevent our politicians to desire such an ability. And that’s exactly why we have to stop them.

And there’s more. As much as I understand the concerns about Egypt and how the fall of Mubarak might impact stability in the Middle East, we must realize, that we can’t always lecture on the merits of democracy, and at the same time deny it to those who seek it. The western world has a long tradition of relying on totalitarian dictators abroad, and that is one of the reasons, why every revolution is seen as dangerous. Everybody in those suppressed countries knows, that we use Doublespeak and that we can’t be trusted. Everybody knows what hypocrites we are and everybody knows that our first desire is to betray them and rip them off. Why should they, once free, ally with us?

But it’s not only them, it’s us as well. Our governments hysterically try to keep the status quo, and in order to do so, they take away our freedom. The power to take down the Internet, total monitoring of communication, we can’t give it to them. We must not. What’s next? There are already politicians (lots of them!) who openly argue against publicly available cryptography and against anonymity on the Internet, who want to require some proof of identity, which would ultimately mean a license to communicate, a license that can be granted, denied or revoked, tied to conforming behavior. Everybody knows that this is largely driven by the media cartels and the fact that they don’t care for freedom and democracy, as long as they can stop file sharing, but still, this is the same infrastructure that can be used by a totalitarian state to prevent a revolution. And this is a bad thing.

If you take away a people’s ability to revolt, to turn down those in power, you have effectively given up on democracy. Democracy needs change, and ultimately this can be the forceful change brought by a revolution. To make a revolution impossible, effectively means totalitarianism, and exactly that is the importance of Heinlein’s credo. We must severely limit what a government is allowed to do, and the most important thing to take out of their grasp, is their ability to perpetuate their reign.

The Song of the Day, “Everybody Knows” by Leonard Cohen and Sharon Robinson, offers a much darker vision. But then, even in Heinlein’s optimistic utopia the dice are loaded. It’s only that they’re loaded by the good guys.

See a video from the London concert on Yandex, a Russian video site I’ve never heard of until now 🙂