On the eve of a new millennium

by Matthew M. Lug - Newspeak Staff

Not long after the New Year's celebrations around the world ended and the cleanup began, I read an interesting article about the theft of college newspapers. It seems that while not that common at WPI, this practice is very widespread and is often ignored. The theft itself isn't what got my attention though; it was the justification for these illegal acts that got me thinking. Apparently, some people believe that newspaper theft is protected by the First Amendment. Now, I've seen the First Amendment defense used for just about everything, but theft is stretching it a bit far. This started me thinking about just what the First Amendment is there for. Let's start by looking at the wording of the amendment in question.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The first thing that should be noted is that there is no mention of theft. Instead, there is specific mention of freedom of the press, which would seem to indicate that newspapers can do whatever they want and you'll just have to learn to accept it. Of course, this isn't entirely true, since libel isn't protected, but then again misrepresenting the truth in a way that is harmful to a person or persons is a violation of that person or persons' rights, and anything that violates someone's rights is a bad thing (whether or not the law agrees).

Now that the silliness of using the First Amendment to justify theft has been dealt with, just what does this thing mean? First, let's look beyond the exact wording, since wording can be somewhat confusing and possibly inaccurate after a couple hundred years. The main message is that you are free to believe whatever you want and express your beliefs, so long as you don't violate the rights of others in the process. This statement is too vague for a law, much less an amendment to the US Constitution, but it will be good enough for this article.

That takes care of what it is, so why was this amendment included? Well, it all seems to go back to the basics of controlling a society. The best way to keep people in line is to control their thoughts. If everybody thinks the same way, then there will be no need for people to question anything, and therefore they will fall in line and be good little citizens. Orwell and Huxley have both explored extreme examples of this, so there is no need for me to go into great detail. In order to control people's thoughts, you need to control the information that they have access to. Bradbury and Hitler have been kind enough to firmly associate the burning of books with the loss of freedom. So what's the problem if everyone is content to be herded around like sheep? Enter John the Savage, or in historical context, our founding fathers.

The unfortunate result of attempting to control people is that some people won't like it. They'll speak out against the injustice and usually end up getting slaughtered by the local oppressive government. Sometimes they might actually have some pretty good ideas, so their destruction would only perpetuate a state of mediocrity rather than a pursuit of excellence. Mediocrity wouldn't do for the new and exciting United States of America, so a free flow of ideas was necessary. The last part of the amendment is the real clue to its reason for being - "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." In other words, the people had the right to march on Washington, or Boston or Albany for that matter, to protest injustice or corruption in government. This is a necessary mechanism to prevent the government from becoming above the law and unresponsive to those it serves. The government should be answerable to the people.

The rest of the amendment is the key to understanding how our founding fathers viewed the future of the nation they were forming (regardless of their reasons for forming it in the first place). A people can only achieve greatness if new ideas are allowed to flow freely and be accepted or rejected based on their merit and not the force that is used to spread them. With the First Amendment, the founding fathers had provided a way for people to share ideas and ultimately to create.

Over two hundred years later, the rights provided by the First Amendment have undoubtedly resulted in some of the most remarkable creativity in human history. However, these same rights have also been used to protect the spread of ignorance and hatred; they have been used to destroy. Today lies are spread as easily as truth, more so in many cases. The speech protected by our sacred documents not only talks of equality and tolerance, but also of oppression and injustice - the very same forces that the First Amendment sought to protect against.

So why are we in this position today? What went wrong? The answer has nothing to do with ineffectual laws or corrupt governments. The government may be in need of some serious reform, but this is unrelated to the problem with free speech today. The cause of this problem isn't rooted in conspiracy either, or the conspiracy to use conspiracies to keep people's attention away from real problems. The cause is within all of us, it is our resistance to change and our desire to hold on to deep-rooted ideas and beliefs, no matter what the costs. Our human weaknesses are being exploited by those who seek to control us and undermine the foundations of this nation. We are all to blame.

While most of us accept that with rights come responsibilities, we often fail to see the responsibilities inherent in our First Amendment rights. We fail to recognize that just because we can say or do something, that doesn't mean we should. We fail to accept our responsibility to others to express ideas and beliefs that we have not only accepted, but also analyzed and explored until we truly believe that they are right for ourselves and others. We fail to even make sure that we do not unknowingly pass off lies as the truth. We allow our emotions to rule over logic, and even allow emotions like anger to rule over emotions like compassion. Collectively, we perpetuate ignorance in an age when knowledge is our freedom.

Are we doomed to a life of ignorance and stupidity? Is there nothing we can do to encourage truly free thought that can make the world a better place for all? The answer may lie in that vast repository of pornography known as the Internet. By making all information available to everyone on equal footing, people will now be able to make informed decisions about what to believe and what to reject. People will be able to distinguish truth from lies by seeing arguments for both and choosing the side that presents a better case. It won't be perfect, but at least there is a chance to express all opinions without the fear of censorship by an organization or government. No single government can control the content of the Internet, and no government should be allowed to try. Information on the Internet has the unique property of remaining invisible until someone tries to find it (or something related to common keywords hidden in a porn site). In this way, information isn't forced on anyone, and therefore does not violate the right to be ignorant that so many people treasure. With the Internet, we can all be members of the press, and government censorship is the same as stealing a stack of our newspapers.

Even with the power of the Internet, we still must face our responsibilities. We have the responsibility to present our beliefs clearly and peacefully. We have the responsibility to give our opinions and let the opinions of others be heard. We have the responsibility to show others, especially children, how to properly use the Internet so that they may benefit from it safely. We have the responsibility to realize that the Internet is for finding information and that moral development must begin at home. We have the responsibility to speak out whenever ignorance or injustice tries to lead us astray. We have the responsibility to understand that the people in the Internet's global community come from many different backgrounds and have many different beliefs. We have the responsibility to be strong enough to let go of our prejudices and misconceptions so that we may create a better world for those who will come after us.

With that said, I will attempt to deal with a common misconception so that we can get on to the real problems. January 1st, 2000 was not the start of a new millennium by any widely accepted calendar, regardless of what they said on television. The most common proof is that the Gregorian calendar was numbered from 1BC to 1AD without a year 0. 1+2000 = 2001 The other proof has to do with historical accuracy. The Gregorian calendar did not start counting in its year 1. In reality, its initial form was created several hundred years after the event that was used as a reference. After looking at records from that time period, it appears that the alleged birth of a person named Jesus took place sometime around 6BC. This would mean that if the birth of Jesus is used as a reference, the third millennium started sometime around 1995. Either way, we were only celebrating a big number.

So what does this all mean? It means that we are still standing on the eve of a new millennium. It means that there is still time to recognize our weaknesses and accept our shortcomings before claiming to usher in a new era. It means that we have one more year to prepare to make that new era one of more than just hope for a better world. We have the chance to make it an era of a world that is made better by all those in it.

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