Having pigged out on sci-fi, Gingrich now sorely wants to go back to the
future. One day the poster boy of the right seeks a return to Victorian
virtues, the next he glorifies the Internet. Spend a little time posting in
your favorite forums or downloading FTP files, and you’ll discover that the
Net liberates us from two of the main ingredients of civility —
accountability and a sense of shame. And the liberation is not in itself
good or bad. As some would have it, the digitization of culture is the
triumph of mind over body, of idea over matter. Whether or not we
have arrived at this new plane of existence, the anarchic sprawl of the Net
makes a return to those simple moral virtues Gingrich extols harder, not
easier.

Put Gingrich’s moral rhetoric in the context of existing information
technologies and it dissolves like sugar in water. First, he wants a
bottom-up revolution in morality, fashioned after the crusading moralists
of the Victorian era. Consider his call to moral arms: “[The Victorians]
changed the whole momentum of their society. They didn’t do it through a
new bureaucracy. They did it by reestablishing values, by moral leadership,
and by being willing to look at people in the face and say, ‘You should be
ashamed when you get drunk in public; you ought to be ashamed if you’re a
drug addict,'”

For the specifics of this Victorian revival, Gingrich takes his cues from
Gertrude Himmelfarb’s recent book, The De-moralization of Society: From
Victorian Virtues to Modern Values. “Honesty, integrity, courage,
politeness…hard work, sobriety, frugality, prudence” make Himmelfarb’s
top ten list.

So the prescription reads, in short: moral leaders should inspire people
to uprightness, and fear of stigmatization should keep those tempted to
slovenly behavior in check. Despite this rallying call for moral
leadership, Gingrich’s Contract for America points to the absence of thrift
and responsibility in Congress. The Balanced Budget Amendment and term
limits, in particular, reveal his unspoken conviction that these
virtues are in short supply. With these two failed procedural changes,
Gingrich sought to instill fiscal restraint and responsible governing free
of the corrupting influence of political careerism. Essentially, he
attempted to legislate morality, the very solution he dismisses as
unnecessary when “shame” abounds. (One reporter asked if Gingrich thought
scarlet letters were in order. He replied, “No, that’s legality again. I
didn’t say you had to translate moral force into running around and using
the law to brand people.”) In Gingrich’s view, either shame does not
afflict many Congress people, or the shame that they experience isn’t
potent enough to promote responsibility and restraint.

Besides this leadership vacuum, the Republican’s emphasis on “community”
and “family” makes shame an even more crucial weapon in the arsenal of
virtue induction. And when used as an ethical stick, shame has a
distinctly physical dimension. In a recent editorial in The Wall Street
Journal, Heather R. Higgins, director of the Council on Culture &
Community, senior fellow of the Progress & Freedom Foundation, and co-host,
with Gingrich, of The Progress Report, on National Empowerment Television
points this out as she counters the left’s critique of capitalism–that it
lacks a human face. Higgins dismisses this by conceding, “Of course it
lacks a human face, and so does government or any other system. Only human
beings have human faces, which is why the right is calling for a renewed
civic virtue and a reawakened sense of personal obligation.”

Shame is looking someone in the eye and seeing disapproval, the judgment
cast. And here’s where the Internet leads us in exactly the opposite
direction, or really directions, from where the right would like to see us
go. The Net has a neat formula for the “look at people in the face” part of
shame, which Gingrich sees as the most powerful way to modify behavior:
F2F. The slashes and keystrokes and mouse clicks hide the creeping blush of
shame; there are no eyes to meet except your own reflected in the glow of
the computer monitor. Which is why thousands use the cover of the Net to
download porn and upload expletive-laden outrage.

The Net does require a certain etiquette and decorum, and the ritualistic
“flaming” intimidates neophytes into learning it or leaving. But Net
culture (or the seductive fantasy of this culture) exalts concepts like
anarchy and the subversion of authority. Though most technological advances
occurred in government supported research labs or corporate labs like Xerox
Parc, hackers have become the newly mythologized heroes of the Net
precisely because they jettisoned self-restraint and studiously defied the
boundaries of civil society (i.e. breaking into phone systems). Their
behavior revived the American romance with the Wild West. And while they
were being outlaws, hackers also helped make the US the world leader in
software innovation.

Indeed, the near total absence of mechanisms for shame make the Net the
ideal communication tool for people stigmatized by “real” community
standards, such as gay, rural teenagers. They can come out with online
friends even though they may be physically trapped in a hostile
environment. In the online world all behaviors are acceptable
(think alt.sex.bestiality.barney) which means no one has to conform to
reigning morality.

Several online services do integrate the wonders of virtual communities
into the world of solid objects and human faces. New York Online (NYO),
ECHO and the WELL give users the option of taking virtual relationships
into the material world with regular gatherings. Those who choose can shed
pseudonyms and anonymity for face to face conversations complete with
expectations of civility. For the most part though, the Net saps words of
intonation, replaces faces with perennially smiling icons, and diminishes
the consequences of delivering insults. That’s why the mannered, civil
behavior Gingrich prefers is hard to find out on the cyber frontier.