January 21, 2021
Now we have the Internet – where will it lead? Will we be mature enough, as a society, to handle the ongoing presentation of raw information? Will reactionary mobs be the norm, or can we engineer a system of governance that can more effectively respond to raw information?
Is History like an onion?
The outer skin is the protective cover. On January 6th, 2021, the protective cover was the understanding of how we govern ourselves. There was a cadence to America. We measured our days with assumptions that things progress in a predictable fashion. Yet as the mob stormed the Capital, it was clear that something was quite different. The protective cover had been peeled away. What did it reveal?
If you cut the onion across the grain it will reveal distinct concentric layers of growth. If you were to pick any aspect of human nature, you would most likely discover that mankind seems to evolve through layers. Lets take the concept of “transparency.” I like the definition provided in Wiktionary: “openness, accessibility to scrutiny.” In the Hebrew mind, it was a state of being, based on one’s relationship to God – “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom.” Jesus would declare, “the Truth shall set you free,” and he taught lessons stating that the darkness will not be able to contain what is evil, but rather succumb to the light.
And so it is that “light” and “knowledge” are often placed side by side. We even refer to a time after the fall of Rome as the “dark ages” because there seemed to be little knowledge (at least as it applies to Europe). And for a thousand years Europe wallowed in confusion, plague and darkness until the Renaissance emerged in the 15th century. As history is typically taught, the great advances were in art, architecture, and the rediscovery of scientific inquiry. While that is significant, when you consider how many contemporaries were directly changed by a nice painting, or the Pieta, or St. Peter’s Cathedral, you have to confess not many.
No, true change was rather more Bohemian. It began to spring forth in Prague when a priest by the name of John Huss stood up in the pulpit and did something truly revolutionary – he read the Bible in Czech! For the first time the Word of God was communicated in a language that the audience understood. The onion at that time was much smaller. The protective covering was centuries of tradition where spirituality was defined as a priest who prattled away in a language you could not comprehend. Your understanding of God was framed in paintings, stained-glass windows and icons, shrouded in stories and superstition. Now, suddenly, you could hear what the source document actually stated.
How did mankind respond? Prague and the surrounding region went wild. There was unrest and eventually warfare with neighboring kingdoms. The Catholic authorities invited Huss to a conference under a guarantee of safe conduct, heard him out, arrested him and burned him at the stake in 1415. But Huss left a legacy – that knowledge was available to everyone. And that Rome was not to be trusted.
That was about the extent of this social disruption because the word of the event was limited to the locality. But then something else came along, another layer to the onion. Around 1440 the printing press was invented. This ingenious tool of mass production would simmer about the continent until 1517 when a German monk in what is now Wittenberg, Germany published 95 Theses that challenged the Catholic church. His name was Martin Luther. Like Huss, he committed the heresy of translating the Bible to the native tongue. Unlike Huss, he had the printing press. Furthermore, his local prince held considerable clout. The printing press made it nearly impossible to contain a movement. Since everyone knew that Rome could not be trusted, his prince arranged to have his recalcitrant priest protected. Luther’s ideas rapidly spread throughout Europe because they could be easily replicated on paper, in several languages, and distributed to thousands of readers. Protestantism was born and the rest is history. Transparency gained scope. An idea that emerged in 1415 in Prague was now the same idea spread throughout an entire continent. As the Catholic Church would discover, you can lock up Galileo in his tower, but the ideas that stirred his inquisitive mind were seeded by other ideas written on paper, and his observations would drift about the continent like a feather in the wind.
The printing press, combined with Protestantism, would give birth to a major shift in the affairs of mankind – a literate population. That would evolve into the pamphlet revolution. Pamphlets would spread like wildfire in England and would play a vital role in the English Civil War in the mid-17th century. Pamphlets would be fuel for the fire for the American Revolution. And it would be an arsenal of magazines and newspapers that would foment the American Civil War. Transparency, the exposure of our sins, the exaltation of our potential, the unveiling of our passions, would too often culminate in a cauldron of hate and violence, oppression, death and suffering. Political and social philosophers would ask the question of whether the common man was to be trusted with too much knowledge. Our Founding Fathers ventured to claim that people could be trusted to speak freely and to govern responsibly. The French Revolution would shatter such illusions in Europe.
In 1920 radio broadcasting was introduced. This new form of communication would just remain a curiosity until a peculiar politician emerged in Germany who shrewdly exploited this new technology. Adolph Hitler, or more precisely Joseph Goebbels, literally invented the science of “propaganda.” When we look back at that time we too often fail to see the real revolution that was taking place. He was using a communication platform that was untested and misunderstood. To the tragedy of countless millions, the German people drank the Kool-Aid. Transparency, the world as it is, was merely what we thought it to be. Man, it turned out, was not really that wise after all as it was clear that his mind could be shaped and passions directed by the will of a few.
Television would be the next layer of the onion. While the State could seek to control what was broadcast, the wheels fell off that wagon with the advent of the satellite and cable TV. There is even the claim that the Romanian revolution was fomented through pirated video tapes of American movies! But for me, the most telling event was the beating of Rodney King. In a previous generation, it would have just been a short remark in the police report section of the LA newspaper. But in December 1991 something new was to shape the news – the portable video camera. Following a high-speed chase that reached 117 miles per hour, policeman surrounded and subdued a black man, then proceeded to beat the hell out of him. This was news. And with dozens of cable news networks now available, it reached the American public unfiltered.
What followed would bring to question our ability to handle this additional information. When the officers were acquitted in 1992, riots erupted in LA. Sixty three people would die – and some of that was captured on TV as well. It took the National Guard and the Marines to restore order. I vividly recall the Korean protecting his shop with a gun, and the poor truck driver who was beaten senseless.
In 1989 the Internet was born. Sixteen years later a web business appeared: YouTube. Like radio, it simmered for years as a toy, a fun place to deposit home videos that labored to travel limited bandwidth. But then the real world soon emerged, a world filled with sad things, bad things, evil things. Michael Brown in 2014 was quickly seen by much of the world. It did not have any filters, no editorial review. It hit the Internet raw.
Just because something is transparent does not mean it is entirely true. What we don’t see are the before or after. Those details only emerge days later, but by then the country is in a frenzy, protest marches emerge in countless cities and towns, the University of Missouri virtually shuts down, we begin to hear of “safe places” and other odd notions. The event gets tangled with the agendas of various groups, so much so that you can’t return to the original grievance. The passion of the moment provides little opportunity to see the other uncomfortable details described in boring print, the dispassionate narrative of grand jury hearings.
The death of George Floyd in 2020 was a transparency of the same sort. Here there was a before and after. Yet what we know best is a singular 15 minutes for all the world to see. It was “force” in the flesh. It demonstrated that after 18 years the question still remains. What is the proper use of force? More importantly, why use it in the first place?
But just as important, how do we respond to this revelation? The reaction once again tests humanity’s ability to handle raw information. Simply hearing the Bible in your native tongue plunged Europe into centuries of warfare. The printing press would eventually see the emergence of our great nation, but it would also show the emergence of other bad ideas that would subjugate millions and fan the flames of countless wars. Radio would give us countless hours of music and laughter, yet be the avenue by which the most brutal regime known to man would come to power. Television has been rather benign, but since cable TV has emerged our range of choices have resulted in the Balkanization of our country and, sad to say, of news coverage.
Now we have the Internet – where will it lead? Will we be mature enough, as a society, to handle the ongoing presentation of raw information? Will reactionary mobs be the norm, or can we engineer a system of governance that can more effectively respond to raw information? Transparency demands that we respond. But the burning and looting is unacceptable. Like the original crime that spurred the protests, the violence that came alongside the marchers was equally transparent, showing to all of us the ugly face of anarchy.
In a practical manner, authorities will need to develop contingency plans for responding to transparency. They will need to recognize that a random event broadcasted in seconds over the Internet can transform a peaceful community into a war zone. They will be confronted with people who are basing reality on a fifteen second snippet from YouTube. They will need to get law enforcement in place, provide avenues for peaceful demonstrations, and pro-actively communicate to the public a commitment to get the complete picture.
But each of us, as citizens (or is it netizens), must take a deep breath when we see controversial videos posted on-line. Don’t take the bait. Don’t let your emotions overtake reason. Expect a full story to emerge. If you are angered by what you see and demand justice, do so peacefully. Even better, find and engage responsible leaders who will seek to address the issue. Maybe the last thing to do is to impulsively click the “Like” or “Share” button.
The Internet is a dangerous place to get information. There are people out there that have an agenda behind the information they are posting and the agenda too often matters more than the truth. If we are to expect the Internet to be free (in terms of liberty), then it behooves us to act responsibly. Hmm. Didn’t somebody say the same thing about freedom of speech about two hundred years ago?
I choose to be hopeful. Liberty is always a good thing. Liberty also poses risks, and those risks are worth taking. What we saw happen to George Lloyd and other African Americans needs to be seen, not hidden or discretely edited. It requires us to engage a conversation and seek constructive change. The greatness of our democracy is that we have the means of implementing change without violence.
January 6th, 2021 will probably go down in history as a dark day for our country. What was quite transparent was a blow-by-blow account of madness recorded by a thousand smartphones. The response is also revealing. Powerful companies can determine who speaks? Can they determine whether an entire company can exist? Is this “rule by law?” It makes me wonder whether man has progressed enough to handle more transparency.
Yet we can be hopeful. When you consider that Europe went up in flames because the Bible was read in German, we have come a long ways. Yet some things never change. What tests us as individuals and as societies is how we respond when “what is hidden is revealed.”
Yes, history is like an onion. It flavors our thoughts, yet brings tears to our eyes.
For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open.
– Mark 4:22
By Eric Niewoehner
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