Thursday, March 09, 2006

Reaction Norms

Biologists know that a given gene can only be said to be adaptive or maladaptive in the context of the other genes and in a particular environment. In the absence of malaria, the sickle cell trait, even in the heterozygous case, is a drag on the organism. Similarly, the mutation responsible for the paleness of Caucasians is simply a genetic defect in Australia where everybody’s hide is menaced by too much sun. The value of political principles is similarly situational. It isn’t just cases that are altered by circumstances.

If a presumptive prejudice in favor of civil rights made sense in the era of breeches and wigs and was even more important when bureaucrats and cops keep track of dissidents with human informants and file cabinets full of manila folders, it stands to reason that the advent of computers and omnipresent electronic surveillance makes such quaint taboos absolutely critical. Everybody talks about the Internet as if it were obviously an invention that promotes individual freedom, but it is actually the answer to the secret policeman’s dearest dream, the nearest thing yet to the TV’s in Orwell’s 1984 that watch the watchers. Every intemperate word written on every blog, every irritated comment typed into a comment section in the dead of night, every visit to a racy website gives the prosecutor and the political publicist another way to control the citizenry through the traditional combination of extortion and selective prosecution. In the face of such a drastic increase in the technical capability of oppression, a correspondingly absolute and uncompromising defense of individual rights is critical. The ACLU needs the bomb.

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