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February 4, 2009

Ideology and the Internet


From Right to Left – and back again?

by Justin Raimondo

I never believed in the Internet's potential to displace the world of print, nor did I take it seriously at all. It was sometime in the early 1990s – 1995, perhaps – when Eric Garris, our webmaster, then a computer publishing specialist at a weekly magazine, called me up and suggested registering a domain name.

Oh, forget it, who cares about the so-called Internet! It'll never catch on!

Eric sighed. After a decade or so of knowing me, he was used to displays of utter certitude, however misplaced. "Okay," he said, "well, just in case it does take off, what would you suggest as a good domain name?"

Antiwar.com was the obvious choice, on account of our mutual political history: anti-imperialism had always been the linchpin of our commitment to libertarianism. In the Libertarian Party, and, later, in the GOP, we consciously sought to build an anti-interventionist tendency in American politics that was congruent with our free-market ideology. Together with Murray N. Rothbard and a number of his associates, we had always made our critique of America as a republic evolving into an empire the prism through which we looked at the world.

The Internet, in the beginning, was a much smaller and far more ideological place. And in contrast to today's leftist domination of the blogosphere, in the beginning it was the Right that had the techno-savvy in its arsenal. Free Republic was the first really big political Web site, a posting site run by one Jim Robinson. He had run into censorship on the first posting boards on account of his rightist views, so he decided to set up an alternative to the AOL-Yahoo universe, outside the self-enclosed cyber world of the conventional Clintonian wisdom

Free Republic attracted many thousands of registered members, and its history of conflicts, purges, and purifications charts the troubled and vexatious history of the American Right from the Clinton era to the age of Obama. Antiwar.com articles were regularly posted there during the Kosovo war, when it was conservatives who were questioning our role as the world's policeman and Republican congressmen who were voting against funding U.S. troops on the battlefield. Oh, those were the good old days, for sure!

Bush's victory gave new impetus to the online Right, and this was amplified and maintained by the signal event of his presidency. The attacks on 9/11 greatly increased the Internet's reach and simultaneously empowered the War Party in an entirely new way. The neocons began to dominate not only the right-blogosphere, but also the ostensibly left-wing sites. Antiwar.com was completely isolated in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, almost alone in viewing the attacks as blowback and explicitly warning against the danger of overreaction.

The hate mail was huge, and threatening. On the other hand, our traffic reached a new level during this time and forever changed the way we worked and presented the site: it required professionalizing an operation that had, up until that point, been a semi-amateur effort. We had to regularize the way we presented the news and produced original content. It didn't happen overnight, but events forced us to react, so we did.

The first real successes on the Internet, in terms of political and ideologically driven sites, came from the Right, for the simple reason that these were the outsiders, the dissidents, the rebels against the dreadful conformity of the Clinton years. Banished from the mainstream media by the self-appointed arbiters of political correctness, the Jim Robinsons and Lucianne Goldbergs pioneered cyberspace and planted the flag of conservatism in such sites as Free Republic and Lucianne.com. The latter was a split-off from the former, a bitter parting of the ways that limned the larger alienation of the neoconservatives from the populist, anti-government Right.

As soon as the dissidents got into power, however, their domination of the Internet began to wane. No longer full of vim and vigor, consigned to the role of defending the decisions of the Cheney administration, they started out full-throated, but their song came to lack conviction.

As the Right began to lose its grip, the anti-Bush online wave began to build. Such sites as DailyKos.com, Democratic Underground, and others began to spring up: all the verve, all the vitality, was now on the Left. DailyKos began to undertake political organizing campaigns online, in a way that the Freepers (as the denizens of Free Republic dubbed themselves) never managed to accomplish. They organized conferences and became a real force in the Democratic Party, as the online representative of its left-wing-of-the-possible.

This movement spawned a mini-revival of left-oriented talk radio, and then the corporate types began to sit up and take notice. MSNBC jumped on the bandwagon, carving out a niche as the televised version of the leftish blogosphere, with Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow rivaling Fox's numbers for the first time.

Yet the election of Barack Obama and the Democratic sweep of Congress augur a repetition of the old pattern of victory followed by decline. The online Left has crested, and it's downhill from here, for two reasons:

(1) They aren't cyber-guerrillas anymore, and the sclerosis that inevitably sets in when one becomes an apologist for the powers-that-be is already in evidence.

(2) The corporate connection: In the age of corporate liberalism, it make perfect sense that the corporate types would attempt to invade and colonize the Internet. The accelerated economic failure of print media means that, outside of television, their influence is marginal. In terms of their ongoing campaign to conquer the Internet, the Huffington Post, with its $25 million investment, is the corporate version of the Normandy invasion.

With its crude amalgam of Matt Drudge-like opinionated headlines, a Hollywood-centric perspective, and the look of a British tabloid, the Huffpost is corporate America's idea of what is supposed to appeal to us Internet types. Fast-changing headlines, flashy graphics, a little bit of sex, all of it mixed up with the pop-liberalism and annoying narcissism of Arianna Huffington, who mixes the touchy-feely-ism of cult leader John Roger, her longtime mentor, with clear aspirations to become the high priestess of the Obama cult. Each new announcement by the White House is headlined at Huffpo as if it were a divine revelation. Obama's opponents, no matter what the issue, are obstinate obstructionists, Obama's only problem being, in Arianna's opinion, that he doesn't go far enough in his Obama-ism – but, not to worry, he'll soon see the light…

This kind of balderdash is not only embarrassing, it's boring. The corporate invasion of cyberspace is headed for a huge crash: if I were those investors, I'd start asking for at least some of my money back. If it's not too late, that is.

The next Internet tsunami to come along will be blown in by a gust of dissent, and I think we're in for a major storm. The confluence of economic turmoil and President Obama's escalation of the "war on terrorism" in Afghanistan and Pakistan is sure to produce a new reaction – in the opposite direction, of course. This is the dialectic that defines the laws of motion on the Internet: the technology enables opposition to the status quo, whatever that may be, either in politics or in the culture. This is why governments everywhere fear it and ceaselessly try to chain it – so far, with limited success.

One final point. The "dialectic" mentioned above doesn't hold true for Antiwar.com. We were born during the Clinton years and came to prominence in the Bush era. The age of Obama poses certain challenges, but our mission, by its very nature, puts us in opposition to the current regime, no matter who's in charge – so we get to ride the rising wave of opposition, whether it be from the Right or the Left.

This really underscores the unique nature of our mission, which is to build a movement that transcends the outmoded categories of "Left" and "Right," a single-issue anti-interventionist coalition that opposes the rise of empire and seeks to restore our old republic.

We have made progress over the years, thanks entirely to the support of our readers. We face the future confident that we've made a difference, and that we can count on your continued support. Every nonprofit institution is facing a dire situation in these hard times, but we've made a lot of friends over the years, and we trust that they'll be there for us, as they have in the past.

While uncertainty is part of life, this I know for sure: we here at Antiwar.com have stood on the watchtower, for all these years, warning our readers of coming dangers that all too often proved prophetic. We've proved our value, time and again, as the premier news site covering international affairs.

Our success is due to the fact that we've been a force for independent journalism, loyal not to any faction or party, but to the truth, the facts, the real news they don't want you to know about. We've kept our vim and vigor and never fallen prey to partisan politics and loyalties. That's what the corporate model can't duplicate, no matter how hard they try – and that's what keeps us going, in spite of everything.

 

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  • Jorge Hirsch is a professor of physics at the University of California San Diego.

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