Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Intellectual Freedom and Natural Rights

I came across an interesting fault line in liberal politics today that I thought I'd share and compare with y'all.

It happened in my intellectual freedom class. Someone posted a discussion about Haystack. Haystack is a program developed in the United States that allows the user to bypass the state censors in Iran, providing Iranians with unfettered internet access.

Me, I think it's awesome. I think undermining oppressive governments' bans on intellectual freedom should be our national pastime. I believe that all human beings have a natural right to intellectual freedom, and the more a government tries to curtail it, the less legitimate that government becomes.

There was a surprising near-consensus among the people in my class that generally identified as "liberal," though, that this was an arrogant imposition of our cultural values onto others, and that we could be negligently engendering the lives of people who use it.

Is this a generational thing, with my beliefs being a relic of Cold War-era liberalism? Is the classic liberal belief in natural rights in decline? Is it war fatigue? Are you "furt" or "agin't?"


Rene said...

I'm not sure I understand the argument against.

Americans making technology available that helps Iranians subvert censorship hardly seems like an "arrogant imposition" in my world.

It would be an imposition if we forced it upon Iranian insurgents, but to my knowledge they are taking this up themselves.

It would be arrogant if we both knew what websites were being censored and simultaneously believed that only those censored websites could expose Iranian governments as worthy of being overthrown. In fact, most of what's being unblocked is probably porn.

On a broader level, censorship runs counter to liberalism in general.

el ranchero said...

Maybe I'm not representing their views fairly. Here's their own words:

" If it were an Iranian programmer creating and promoting this, I’d be on the cheerleading squad in an instant. Iranian women ditching head scarves and donning jeans? You go, girl. I might even chip in for your fine. (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/37313677)

However…the United States of America is based on principles like freedom of speech and religion. That’s right, the United States of America, not Iran. I don’t expect the Indonesians to come over and force me to wear head coverings. Why should we expect to force our ideals on them?"

"We cannot (and maybe should not?) force our ideas of free expression on other nations."

"Yes, it is difficult to hear that this company believes it can override the government's ideals on censorship. While I believe that people should have rights to view what they want on the Internet, it still is a different culture that has different rights than what the U.S. provides in the Bill of Rights. I do not believe that our views should interfere with Iran's way of life."

"...many people will be rightfully arrested in Iran for using Haystack because it provides access to illegal websites, and if the programmers of this program are based in Iran they may reasonably face charges of treason if caught, which is generally punishable by death.

We as Americans get egotistical, believing that our way is the only way and everyone else in the world must conform or else. We forget the laws of other countries are valid and enforced within the borders of those countries, not our laws. It's all well and good to encourage non-violent protest of unjust laws, but we have to remember that the consequences of such protests will be a lot harder in other countries than here. I have the utmost respect for those in Iran with the courage to make the stand, who will try to download and use Haystack; but let us remember that lives could end up at stake as a consequence."

Charlie said...

I am pretty certain in my belief that this is not a negligent cultural imposition. If we performed cyber attacks against the censorship firewalls, that would be an imposition of our beliefs, making something legal in the US available is not. It may be illegal in Iran or elsewhere, but that is on the individual users.

It is sort of like partaking in marijuana in Amsterdam, it is legal there and so long as it is out of your system before you get back, there isn't a strong precedent in the US for you to get brought up on drug charges. You will likely fail a drug test for the next week or two, depending on the test, so you could still get in trouble for it but that is a separate issue in my mind.

Charlie said...

Cultural relativism is less enlightened than it sounds.

(sorry for the double post)

el ranchero said...

By the way, I wholeheartedly agree with your points. To be honest, I thought both sides of the political spectrum in the United States were in agreement on countering foreign censorship. I was surprised to find we're not all on the same page.

I'm starting to wonder if Bush's crusades in the Middle East discredited the notion of spreading freedom to other countries for the people I quoted. He did often use the language of natural rights to justify war in Iraq.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of myself, sophomore year in undergrad, right after I'd taken my first anthro class. Cultural relativism was the only universal principle, as far as I was concerned, to the extent that I actually couldn't oppose female genital mutilation because, you know, it was an essential part of some cultures' blah blah blah blah. My 31-year-old self gets quite upset with my 19-year-old self.

For me, it was a matter of taking the next step and being brave enough to decide if there are universal rights we should acknowledge, and if there are universal rights, how hard we should fight against those who are trying to restrict them. It's a matter of the difficulty of engagement, at least in my personal history. It took me a long time to learn that the world wasn't going to end if I disagreed with people.

In the end, one of the universal rights I acknowledge is the right to information. People do with it what they will, but the U.S. working to keep the lines open and information flowing freely is an unmitigated good. Like you say, I think it should be our national pastime.

Rene said...

I don't find their arguments persuasive.

It's been outlined before in spots here, but the fundamental issue is whether these Iranian citizens are under any sort of duress or coersion to use the Haystack software.

They're not, of course and they will have a far greater sense of the consequences of being caught than we will. They use these tools at their discretion and at their own risk.

This looks like it is only imposition on the Iranian GOVT by the Iranian people, with a modest assist by American programmers.

I also don't see how you can reconcile the argument that we make this technology available arrogantly with the fact that the end users utilize it voluntarily and with full knowledge of the consequences of their actions. Are people arguing that we generally know better what will happen to caught Iranians than they do?