"Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster" --Friedrich Nietzsche
Plenty of monsters roaming about these days. The latest has taken the form of a potential Internet newsgroup, one that would cater to the musical tastes of white-power extremists. And while we Netters may have killed this abhorrence, let's hope we don't end up hurting ourselves with our new-found powers of destruction.
Last month, I received an e-mail petition urging me to vote on whether a newsgroup--tentatively called rec.music.white-power--should be created.
As are many aspects of the Net, newsgroup creation is a pretty democratic affair. It is overseen by a netwide coalition called the Usenet Volunteer Votetakers (UVV), which is made up of mostly industry techies.
Anybody who is interested in starting a newsgroup can write a proposal and post it online. If enough interested is generated--meaning if a would-be newsgroup can rustle up at least 100 more yes votes than no votes from fellow Netizens (As tallied by an impartial UVV member)--it will be commissioned. (None of this applies to Alt.* newsgroups. The alt hierarchy is left free for anyone at all to build a newsgroup, hence nonsense like alt.barney.die.die.die).
Now, most Netters don't normally receive a newsgroup "Call-For-Votes" (CFV) request very often. We'd go crazy if we had to sift through every potential rec.sport.football.canadian. So, CFV's tend to stay within a smaller group, usually those who want the newsgroup in the first place.
In this case however, the rec.music.white-power CFV became a chain letter. It made its way to thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of users, usually with attachments explaining why they should vote NO. Other newsgroups, from punk to country, also carried the petitions and thrived with heated argument on the matter.
The results should be tabulated by the time you read this. Although Usenet Volunteer Votetaker Mikeal Handler, the beleaguered inpartial soul in charge of the tally, can't reveal the results before they are posted on the news.announce.newgroup, the overwhelming consensus seems to be that rec.music.white-power has gotten das boot.
Without this chain mail reaction, rec.music.white-power would have probably been approved unbeknownst to the public at large. With it, the newsgroup didn't stand a chance.
There's simple justice in denying bandwidth to a clan that thrives on the idea of oppression. And if we could have admitted that we stomped these evil fuckers because their willful ignorance deserves the Doc Marten facial treatment, then everything would be cool.
But no, we had to bring rationality into the mix. Subsequently, many arguments against the newsgroup appeared inconsistent at best, hypocritical at worst--especially after all those rallying free speech cries against the Communications Decency Act.
On my copy of the petition, for instance, someone wrote that since white supremacist music isn't "legitimate" music, it doesn't deserve a newsgroup. Even I have to admit that "legitimate" is one heck of a fudge word. What exactly makes music "legitimate"? Sure, this white-power rock is probably not very good music, you probably can't dance to it, and it probably doesn't come with the most intelligent lyrics, but neither does Mariah Carey's.
Detractors also claimed this newsgroup would be merely a front for vending political propaganda. So what else is new? I see no discussion of Aeolian cadences on rec.music.artists.mariah-carey either (Come to think of it, a typical Carey posting like "Alanis Sux!!!! Tori Roolz!!" is pretty darn partisan, at least for prepubescents anyway.)
Another argument: What about those young impressionable children who might stumble onto this group and take the disinformation as fact? Hmmm, where have we heard that line before?
There were a brave few who mentioned that there are a few very good reasons for allowing the newsgroup to exist. In fact, they countered, barring it was censorship of the worst sort--political censorship. There is a better way to combat disinformation, they argued, and that is to confront it with the truth.
This is old news to the Web, that section of the Net whose content isn't subjected to a vote. Last fall, when infamous holocaust-denier Ernst Zundel set up a Web site detailing his views, Ken McVay created The Nizkor Project, a web site that refuted Zundel's assertions, many on a point-by-point basis. Similar sites were created by the Anti-Defamation League, and, closer to home, University of Baltimore graduate student Rob Bennett 's L'Chaim: A Holocaust Web Project.
Of course, some would say any refutation is doomed from the start, being that holocaust revisionists and white supremacists are not so much interested in an exchange of ideas as much as they are in simply gaining power. And power comes in the form of more converts. As Netter James Dugan pointed out in a newsgroup discussion of the topic, "Unlike most organizations, bad publicity doesn't trouble these guys. They operate on the notion that for every 100 people, 99 will hate them, and one will join, which is why they keep going on Geraldo."
Should there be a limit to freedom of speech, even political speech on the Net? Or is white-power presence the price to pay for inhabiting an information-based Utopia? Should the Net be value-neutral in regards to politics? Or should stances be taken? If so, our collective values had better be determined by means more thoughtful than leaving them to whoever can send out the most E-mail. (Postscript: The rec.music.white-power RFD [Request for Discussion] lost by a margin of 592 to 33033-- Wired news.)