Thursday, November 22, 2007

Democracy, Dissent, and Free Speech

Enter our contest!

I've been in court this week on a matter involving my son, so until that's done, the posts here are likely to be sporadic. Apologies to those who have elected to read.

Speaking with a dissenting voice is a sure sign that democracy is alive. Let's face it: nobody likes to be told they're doing a poor job, but there isn't a better test of democracy than the public expression of discontentment. Shame is a powerful motivator to create positive change, particularly where that shame is considered by the public at large.

Shame in my own life has been a powerful motivator for change, particularly where I've been concerned about the opinions of those around me. I've done some things I'm definitely not proud of, but with my set of experiences, the end result has been positive. The problem is that there needs to be accountability for wrongdoing, and in corporate America, there is little accountability because of the power of money to bring lobbies to bear on Congress, limiting their effectiveness by creating the impression of a large amount of support or opposition. However, the issue is that lobbies often misrepresent the issues at hand, because the lobbyists only know what they are told, and often they are not told a complete set of facts.

Two items of shame that I to point out include the secrecy with which our country's current administration operates, excluding people from the operation of government because (as some insiders have stated openly) they have "operations that wouldn't stand up to sunlight". This untenable practice cannot be tolerated in a democracy.

The other item of shame is the blind adherence of the top political contender for being our next president, Barack Obama, to the draconian system of copyright that pervades our country and which threatens to undermine not only the democratic processes that make us great, but also our economy. This system of copyright is not democratic, and expanding on it is absolutely counter to the Constitutional mandate of protecting the creative works and processes that make our nation great.

And where Obama is concerned, this is about the only spot I really disagree with at a basic level. I can understand his pro-consumer stance, but I also believe that his entire campaign is undermined by his stance of expanding on copyright.

Most Americans who care don't want copyright expanded. In fact, what we need is a complete reform of the current laws in order to return us to the traditional value of artist protection. You see, the large studios don't want artists to be protected; they want their own rights as producers to trump the rights of artists, who often are not even allowed to perform their own works because of transfer agreements, which the studios essentially force out of these artists in order to ensure that they have their bottom lines maintained.

Another point to consider: the WGA strike that continues. Writers are essential to the business of entertainment. Writers feel they should be taking a larger share. And studio execs continue to take the lion's share of the proceeds. Not the artists. Not the writers who create the works. It's their creativity that makes Hollywood. Actors, in spite of their vitality, can be trained and acting talent can be taught. Writing talent requires a "feel" for the written word. This fact alone means that most writers could be actors, if they merely looked nicer. But writers are concentrating on what they write, often sacrificing their own sanity in certain moments and under certain conditions in order to really get into the minds of the characters for which they write. Hollywood, and especially the MPAA, promotes their own well-being, and doesn't support the art.

The entire idea that the MPAA, RIAA, and their ilk is doing anything that protects artists' rights is against the idea of common sense, simply because those industries at the base of their practice are exploitative. They not only exploit artists, but also consumers.

I am not in favor of doing away with copyright; that would not only be unconstitutional, it would be disastrous. What we need is to rebalance the idea of copyright with the idea that creative derivatives are not infringement. I'm not talking about the idea of "piracy" where there is a huge gap between those who want to expand and those who want to abolish. There must be a balance to the approach; a necessary retention of some parts of copyright, while eliminating others. We need a "common sense" approach to copyright, where consumers are not the enemy of copyright holders and artists are permitted access to their own works.

It is unreasonable to believe that by eliminating the access to one copyrighted work, artists are somehow motivated to produce another. Creativity doesn't work like that. Creativity is not motivated. Creativity is inspired. Creativity is an innate response to emotional stimuli. Creativity is not an emotional response to logical pressures. Creativity resides in the right, creative side to the brain. It is not rational. It doesn't operate by a strict set of rules. But on the flip side of things, neither is creativity entirely unpredictable. Only greatness in creativity is unpredictable. Creative genius does not know borders of culture, society, gender, sexuality, political status, income level, or religion. It is a part of the human soul.

But for creative genius to exist, creativity itself must not be stifled. In this sense, democracy is the ultimate crucible in which creativity can be produced. This fact of history is due in large part to the freedoms of speech and expression that we enjoy in this country, and the current regime of copyright holders want to exercise control over the very thing that proves that we are democratic and free. This is not an acceptable state of affairs.

I would invite Obama to send me his research which supports the idea that copyright should be expanded upon. I will submit only two papers, neither of which was produced here in the United States, but instead in England, where the copyright regime's controls are all but absolute at this point, and which essentially do nothing but create a rift between consumer and industry to the point that the industry itself is starting to be bypassed completely.

These two studies show their methodology, explain their reasoning completely, and leave very little to the imagination. They don't contain the leaps in logic that are required for reading the studies sponsored by the MPAA and RIAA. They really do not require the enormous profits they claim, nor is online piracy really the bugbear that these organizations claim. It's really not killing the industry. What's killing the industry is the insistence that consumers are the main enemy and must be controlled at all costs. I reject the notion on grounds of logic and reason.

We need someone like Obama, who is the most decent candidate we have right now, with regard to the front-running candidates, to really take a close look at copyright and how it really affects us, and to do the common-sense thing, since that's one of his primary position-toppers (the other candidates lack any semblance of common sense). And even though I like Obama, I'm not really ready to vote for him yet, simply because of the copyright issue and its importance to the smooth functioning of our democracy. Not to mention, I'm not a democrat.

I just hope Senator Obama can appreciate that. Because if he wants me to not write in a vote for "abstain" again this year, I'm going to have to hear him publicly say that the current system needs reform, and that he supports such reforms in order to prevent a complete meltdown of the entertainment industry and to sap the strength of the extremist views which are unnecessarily promoted and escalated by the often vindictive method which we now employ. I would support him entirely, had he not opted for openly stating that he wanted to strengthen our copyright overseas, and to increase the WTO. This is against my principles, and so I am hoping I won't have another write-in vote this year.

My biggest problem right now with the whole "intellectual property" debate is that it very much erodes the rights of creative individuals while preserving the rights of large companies. Individual rights of one should never outweigh another. Both rights must be upheld.

And so the right to dissent must also be upheld. The strength of a democracy is in the fact that we are not all one voice, nor one vision, but we all have the same goal: the well-being of our society. When we are fighting to preserve such a high aim, we must always listen to even the dissenting voices of the minority, because there is no idea that can be called worthless, excepting that is calls for violent action where violence is unnecessary. Dissent is not dissidence. Dissent is disagreeing with a policy or one idea. Dissidence is calling for the entire dismantling of an existing structure. Abolition of copyright is dissidence, in my opinion. But dismantling copyright can still occur by the rabid enforcement of such by the powers that be. Such rabid enforcement spawns the opposing extreme, and it's patently a mistake to promote it. It does not preserve the right of artists and inventors to profit from their works if the population at large doesn't support it.

Dissent is inherently linked to free speech, and as a foundation to democracy, it must be upheld to be inalienable. So when we criticize the government's operations, we're not doing anything against the government. Instead we are exercising the right which our Founding Fathers believed was God-Given: the right to freely express belief. If our beliefs are controlled, then what we have is not a democracy at all. Democracy means that the entire population rules. Democracy means that the government invests its power into the population. But those in power hate that idea. They don't like the idea that the public knows what's best for it. They don't enjoy the concept that popular control is asserted by the population itself. It's not a particularly comfortable idea to those who stand to benefit from positions of power.

But in the end, the power of democracy asserts itself in ways that can only be called beneficial to the long-term. Democracy requires a certain amount of honor be invested back to the people, who tend to be dishonorable and selfish in emulation of what they see at the head of our country. If we want a responsible people, then our leaders must also accept responsibility unshirkingly for errors in judgment. Such errors are magnified by public office, and so when the people in office don't know what their own principles are, these errors will proliferate.

And often, what's right is not what's popular. But in general, the population does know. We have the ability to offer instantaneous feedback for all options which are on the table, and yet we consistently remove this ability by failing to demand it. We don't dissent enough, because we fear rocking the boat and being viewed as unbalanced even as we call for a balance. Dissent is hard, but the preservation of the right to dissent is so utterly important to democracy that I can't imagine what our country would be like without it.