Magazine | March 23, 2015, Issue

Stuck in Neutral

Did you hear? Scott Walker wanted to prohibit the University of Wisconsin from reporting sexual assaults to the federal government. The news ricocheted around the Internet for a few hours until someone pointed out it wasn’t quite so. The university itself said it had requested the elision for reasons of redundancy, and also repetition. No matter: If Walker was a Rethuglican, the story meant he wanted campus rapists to be loaded onto gilded litters and borne around the school, preferably by frat boys in blackface.

Even if it was false, it’s kinda true, no? The credulous believe the GOP would like all colleges, workplaces, athletic clubs, golf courses, and possibly shopping malls converted into places of untrammeled priapic perfidy. After all, if you oppose forcing nuns to pay for someone’s birth control, it stands to reason you want all women to be chained barefoot to a stove. Not reporting campus sexual-assault statistics to the federal government is practically a green light to the frat boys to stock up on duct tape and clear out a space in the attic for a thin mattress.

See, if the federal government learns of these things, then things happen. You’ve seen the movie. An intrepid mid-level bureaucrat (Naomi Watts) comes across a Troubling Pattern in the statistics, and tells her boss there’s something going on in Wisconsin. Unfortunately, her boss is played by James Cromwell, so he doesn’t care, and makes a remark about how she should be baking cookies for her kids. However: A brassy, no-nonsense woman at the Department of Heartland Bad Stuff is more receptive, and sends her to Wisconsin, along with a crack investigator who may or may not be secretly working for a secret conspiracy to collate assault statistics on a statewide basis without forwarding them to the feds.

Eventually the brave bureaucrat uncovers a plot, which goes all the way up to the governor, who is using the dark arts of politics to shield his old fraternity. It’s an unsettling ending, because the governor was played by Michael Keaton and we all like him, but he’s really growing into these dark roles.

Anyhow, it might be fiction, but it highlights some troubling issues, and that’s what that Walker flap was all about.

On the other hand, the same week as the Walker flap, the Drudge Report blared: “paper: obama threatened to shoot down israeli jets.” The “paper” part was adequate insulation — not making a charge, just reporting it. The story seemed fanciful to some, since it was unlikely Benjamin Netanyahu would be aboard any of the planes. And let’s just say that “a Kuwaiti paper, citing anonymous sources” is the sort of evidence that would get you five seconds of death-stare from Judge Judy. Perhaps it seems more plausible than the Walker story, because in your darkest moments you imagine the president watching news of an Iranian nuclear strike on Israel, shrugging and thinking, “I told them not to build that apartment complex on the West Bank.”

No, it’s not comparable. There’s no evidence Scott Walker supports campus sexual assault. And there is no evidence the president would be indifferent to a nuclear strike on Israel during his term in office.

The Drudge headline blared out on the top of the page for hours, even when the website on the other end of the link crumpled from the blast of traffic. Almost as if it was sufficient to let the assertion hang out there, unexplained. Even if the details weren’t true, one might think, does this strain credibility? False, perhaps, but kinda true?

Now. Imagine that the FCC decided to regulate the Internet. I know, I know, crazy talk, but just imagine. Which story might get quick scrutiny for being Fair and Reasonable? Those are the standards the Net Neutrality regs use, after all. Fair and Reasonable. No way those could be applied capriciously.

A slight digression, if you don’t mind. I started working in talk radio in the last months of the Fairness Doctrine. This was the lineup, more or less:

Let’s Talk Wheat

The Sticking-Plastic-Flowers-in-Chunks-of-Styrofoam Hour

What’s on Your Mind? (Note: Show was about hats.)

To be fair, we were allowed to be, well, unfair. The Fairness Doctrine was represented mostly by dull editorials and counterpoints that ran in the hours when the only commercials were ad-agency reminders not to sniff glue. But it was always there in the back of our minds, governing our tongues. Then it went away, and hey, presto, Rush Limbaugh. The end of government regulation of a communications medium led to an explosion of new voices, and the AM medium shifted right.

The lack of government regulation of content on the Internet let every opinion flourish and seek an audience, which is why it can’t be allowed to chatter on in happy anarchy. The point of progressive management is not to enable all views, but only the helpful ones. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on a Spanish political movement that seeks to import Venezuelan Chavismo to Iberia, perhaps because the people of Spain are too distracted by the ready availability of toilet paper and toothpaste and thus unlikely to concentrate on the necessary struggle for a more egalitarian country. The Spanish Chávezophiles are quite clear about the necessity of shutting down uncooperative media; when you have Virtue on your side it is your duty to fight those who enable evil. And by “evil” we mean the staff of wreckersandkulaks.com.

No surprise if “net neutrality” ends up licensing websites. And by the way, does your Twitter feed have enough progressives? Good thing to know before you’re audited.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.

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