Magazine | September 21, 2009, Issue

In Defense of The Book

A reply to the critics of Digital Barbarism

Two years ago, in complete innocence that I was parachuting into a holy war, I wrote for the New York Times an op-ed piece addressing disparities in the treatment of copyrighted versus other forms of property. This then generated, courtesy of verbally ferocious youths offended by resistance to their imagined entitlements, three-quarters of a million Internet hissy fits, many written at a beastly level, and others, even if only patronizing, displaying an inability to comprehend the English language, not to mention the least of its subtleties.

Because corporate defenders of intellectual property think they need only protect established law, they sit inertially in their towers and forfeit the more general debate to their active and numerous opponents. Thus, unwittingly engaged and with neither allies nor organizational support of any kind, I thought the only way to respond to hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of critics mobilized by “public interest” groups richly funded by private interests such as Google, was to write a book. Without pictures, links, or instantaneous transmission throughout the world, or thousands of wiki-coauthors, it would be an artifact of paper and ink that almost certainly would be overwhelmed by tidal waves of impatient electronic criticism. But then, over time and according to its merits, it might rise to the surface and remain, while, like all waves, the transient, substanceless agitation against it would leave no trace other than the scars of its damage.

Copyright was the sometimes sparkling, controversial fuse I used as an armature for a much expanded argument in regard to the relationship of man and machine, in which I attacked directly into the assault of modernism, collectivism, militant atheism, utilitarianism, mass conformity, and like things that are poison to the natural pace and requirements of the soul, that reify what those who say there is no soul believe is left, and that, in a headlong rush to fashion man solely after his own conceptions, are succeeding. The greater the success of this tendency, however, the unhappier are its adherents and the more they seek after their unavailing addictions, which, like the explanation for nymphomania, is not surprising. It is especially true in regard to the belief that happiness and salvation can be found in gadgets: i.e., toy worship. 

I addressed this. I defended property as a moral necessity of liberty. I attempted to reclaim Jefferson from the presumptuous embrace of the copyleft. (Even the docents at Monticello misinterpret Jefferson, failing to recognize his deep and abiding love of the divine order.) And I advanced a proposition to which the critics of copyright have been made allergic by their collectivist education — that the great achievement of Western civilization is the evolution from corporate to individual right, from man defined, privileged, or oppressed by cast, clan, guild, ethnicity, race, sex, and creed, to the individual’s rights and privileges that once were the province only of kings. This has taken thousands of years, and would never have happened without the protection and encouragement of the individual voice, of which copyright is one of the chief guarantors. Even the president of the United States cannot legitimately change a single comma in a work under copyright. Consider this in respect of the fact that the universal tendency of abusive power is to erase and suppress inconvenient assertion and belief.

Perhaps because Digital Barbarism is embedded almost promiscuously with stories and anecdotes in illustration of its arguments, and because it is written densely enough that legions of critics complain that they can’t understand it (they can’t understand the Constitution, either), its 250 pages cannot be justly summarized in a few paragraphs. But this is its concluding passage:

The new, digital barbarism is, in its language, comportment, thoughtlessness, and obeisance to force and power, very much like the old. And like the old, and every form of tyranny, hard or soft, it is most vulnerable to a bright light shone upon it. To call it for what it is, to examine it while paying no heed to its rich bribes and powerful coercions, to contrast it to what it presumes to replace, is to begin the long fight against it.

Very clearly, the choice is between the preeminence of the individual or of the collective, of improvisation or of routine, of the soul or of the machine. It is a choice that perhaps you have already made, without knowing it. Or perhaps it has been made for you. But it is always possible to opt in or out, because your affirmations are your own, the court of judgement your mind and heart. These are free, and you are the sovereign, always. Choose.

I expected nothing more than choked fulminations from the backers of the arguments I took on, although they did take the new tack that they couldn’t understand what I was saying, and I believe them. And because it seems necessary to their physiology to think that I am for perpetual copyright — as an originalist, I can’t be, and anyway never have been — they continue to insist that I am. They repeated their contention that because illegal copying doesn’t obliterate other copies, it isn’t a zero-sum game, although if there is a limited pool of buyers (as there must be), each pirated copy reduces it, in what is, in fact, a zero-sum game. They accused me yet again of being a Luddite, but I have no quarrel with machines. My quarrel is with them; that is, with people who surrender to machines their time, judgment, discrimination, emotions, and humanity. And, confined like moles to the narrow tunnels of the electronic culture, they not only did not understand my broader arguments, they didn’t know I was making them.

In the world of letters, it took a better and more learned essayist than I am, Joseph Epstein, to appreciate my argument fully, but I could hardly expect as much of the New York Times, in the pages of which it has been suggested that my political views arise from mental illness; or of such organs as the ever-tumescent Vanity Fair (oh, to have your baby aborted by Fidel Castro on Mick Jagger’s private jet!), which once classified me beyond Gore Vidal’s assessment of Bill Buckley as a crypto-Nazi, by trading “Nazi” for “fascist” and dispensing with the “crypto.” The Times’s always temperate and judicious Michiko Kakutani described my essay, and me, variously, as “pompous,” “sanctimonious,” “full of contempt . . . snarky, ad hominem . . . gratuitously nasty . . . pretentious . . . ill-tempered . . . absurd . . . uptight, modernity-hating . . . bullying” and “pigheaded.” Oink. Enchanted by adjectives, she neglected to oppose my arguments and even endorsed some of them, but went into anaphylactic shock because of the following paragraph, which was subsequently daisy-chained across almost every review of the book. 

It would be one thing if such a revolution produced Mozarts, Einsteins, or Raphaels, but it doesn’t. It produces mouth-breathing morons in backwards baseball caps and pants that fall down; Slurpee-sucking geeks who seldom see daylight; pretentious and earnest hipsters who want you to wear bamboo socks so the world doesn’t end; women who have lizard tattoos winding from the navel to the nape of the neck; beer-drinking dufuses who pay to watch noisy cars driving around in a circle for eight hours at a stretch; and an entire race of females, now entering middle age, that speaks in North American chipmunk and seldom makes a statement without, like, a question mark at the end?

Apparently Michiko Kakutani thinks that the only people who may express strong preferences are people whose name is Michiko Kakutani. In regard to the passage upon which she and so many others seem fixed, I confess that I am repelled by whole-body tattoos, that I regard trousers belted at mid-thigh as a kind of warning signal, and that I thought then, and nature tends to confirm, that I was crafting a euphemism. Whole generations, however, have been raised to believe that it is an outrage to criticize anyone but white Republican businessmen, and her reaction parallels that of the mother who, responding to her child’s declaration that he hated 2 percent milk, with narrowed eyes, tight lips, and a look that could turn Bert Parks to stone, spat out the words, “We don’t use the word ‘hate.’” 

Though it is true that since my earliest infancy my sole object has been to gain the approval of the New York Times, and that as it was withheld I was driven to become a psychotic curmudgeon, for the record, I don’t hate anyone in that oft-cited passage. Nor did I create them, or the people I quote who think, for example, that one’s children are one’s ancestors; that all contracts are limited by ten-year statutes of limitations; that “the sooner we can all get past the ‘idea’ that anyone can own the thoughts, the words, the music, the sooner we can survive the possibly ensuing class war and get down to the business of evolving our eventual hive mind”; and that “‘property’ is a relationship between freely conversing individuals.” I merely portrayed them, with less rancor than amazement, in no more than four or five pages out of a quarter of a thousand.

I waited to be rescued by the Right, but I was waiting in vain. Nearly every publication, left, right, and center, assigned the book, with digital in its title, to a resident digeratus, a member of the very tribe I provoke, and thus it was that I came to sell rosaries in Mecca. Even NR’s print reviewer reproduced the by now emblematic paragraph, pointing out that NASCAR and hip-hop predated the digital revolution, and that (by implication) I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. Except that, very clearly, I address the digital revolution as a subspecies of the machine revolution and the Enlightenment, both of which predate the Slurpee. And it is why in making my argument I cite, and count as allies, Churchill, Thomas Hardy, Flannery O’Connor, Shakespeare, Yeats, Montaigne, and even Charles de Gaulle, among others, none of whom was likely a NASCAR fan or wore backwards underwear (although you can never tell with Thomas Hardy — he was a wild one). 

Another strain of nearly substantive criticism, this from the — sort of — right, was Ross Douthat’s New York Times Book Review review, in which he described a cartoon about a man is shocked to discover that something on the Internet is untrue. Translation: I myself am so unhip as to have been spurred to indignation by what I found there, when everyone in the know makes sensible allowances for the fact that this is just the way it is. Well, as Neil Kinnock used to say, “I know that, Prime Minister.” I know what things have become: They are what I criticize, even at the expense of being unhip. I don’t want to be hip. I would rather be reincarnated as a happy aquatic worm in a North Korean septic tank — and if Barack Obama really is God, I will be.

When you combine all the things that by certain definitions one must be uncool to protest — inaccuracy, incivility, deliberate distortion, dirty tricks, vulgarity, threat, false attribution, and alterability of source, fact, and text — with history’s most efficient means of distributing opinion and information, what you get is acquiescence to the widespread degradation in which the electronic culture brings the vices of the political war room to what now passes for intellectual life.

Along with the four-decades-old New Journalism, this culture depends upon constant indulgence of curiosity and a nihilistic surrender to any kind of compellingness. Its devotees are embarked upon a sort of slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am journey through a world of evanescence, so that in a life only of cool flashes they see a million shooting stars and not one sun. Having rejected no temptation and accepted every transient stimulus, at the end of the day, when their electronic devices go to sleep, they are left with little more than crackles and static. 

In 1807, Wordsworth held that the world was too much with us late and soon. Little did he know. What with BlackBerries, Blueteeth, iPhones, webcams, Twitter, and a never-ending creation of time-absorbing toys, intrusions, penetrations, and pre-cooked programs, the tyranny of which we are not supposed to notice, scores — perhaps hundreds — of millions of people no longer have a life of their own, and can neither sit still nor face a moment of solitude without the oxygen of an incoming or outgoing flicker. As John Maynard Keynes famously said about Lloyd George, “When he is alone in the room there is nobody there.” Too many people are in danger of becoming or have become what the Italians call industriali: extensions and servants of a machine culture of which they fancy themselves the masters when in truth they are the slaves.

The narrative of any youth-directed epoch, the advent of which the last presidential election confirms, is that the past was egregiously inferior to either the present in the form to which youth are recasting it, or a future for which now the people who type with their thumbs are making transcendentally ambitious plans. My narrative and book are just the opposite. That is not to say that I attribute to the past the perfection that some see so close at hand if their revisions are implemented, but to believe that at this moment the character, the art, the pace of things, and man’s idea of his place in the universe, his powers, obligations, and destiny are sick and confused. Whereas in the past, burdened as it was by slavery, uncontrollable disease, and mass warfare, the tools of existence were largely capable of leading us out of them, the new tools of existence are capable of leading us back into them. This is not an opinion that a self-congratulatory era views with affection.

Digital Barbarism is not as much a defense of copyright as it is an attack upon a distortion of culture that has become a false savior in an age of many false saviors. Despite its lack of mechanical perfections, humanity, as stumbling and awkward as it is, is far superior to the machine. It always has been and always will be, and this conviction must never be surrendered. But surrender these days is incremental, seems painless, and comes so quietly that warnings are drowned in silence.

– Mr. Helprin is the author most recently of Digital Barbarism, but also of Winter’s Tale, A Soldier of the Great War, and many other books. He is a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy, in what used to be California.

 

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