Americans must be experiencing some mental whiplash over the media reporting
about the Internet these days. Not long ago the net was touted as the
greatest thing since fire. Now, thanks to a cover story in Time magazine, a
segment on Nightline, and fevered headlines in every newspaper in the
country, the Internet has become known as the world’s filthiest pipeline of
hardcore pornography and pedophilic seduction. The Exon bill banning
“cyberporn” is the biggest controversy on the net since the Morris virus
triggered widespread panic over the prospect of malicious hackers bringing
the country to its knees.

Newt Gingrich to the rescue! As Phil Agre says in the latest issue of his
useful and provocative electronic newsletter, The Network Observer, “After
the Internet community and civil libertarians spent months busting their
butts trying to defeat the Communications Decency Act, Newt Gingrich just
about killed it with one breath.” Gingrich announced his opposition to the
Exon bill on a cable TV show and sent conservatives scrambling and
editorialists whirling. “It is clearly a violation of free speech and it’s
a violation of the right of adults to communicate with each other,” said
the Speaker.

As Agre notes, this is the latest example of conservatives warring with
each other over cultural and economic issues — “family values”
authoritarians versus free-market libertarians. “Speaker Gingrich is
probably uninformed about the full extent of this bill,” said Kristi
Hamrick, a spokeswoman for the conservative Family Research Council.
Unlikely. Jeffrey Eisenach, head of Gingrich’s thinktank, the Progress and
Freedom Foundation, said, “He believes in a strong culture underlying the
free market. But he does not believe it is the government’s job, beyond the
most basic levels of right and wrong, to be the moral policeman.” (Recall
that grad student Gingrich once challenged the Tulane University
administration when it tried to ban the publication of a risque picture
from the student newspaper. Gingrich may also be thinking of the effect of
the Exon bill on the distribution of his bodice-ripping “sex kitten”
novel.)

The ideological contest this latest tussle represents will be the primary
spectacle of American politics for the foreseeable future. The Democratic
Party, not to mention people to the left of that Party’s leadership, will
be spectators. And for a variety of reasons, the Internet is likely to be
one of the main arenas where this struggle will play itself out.

The reason for this is that the overwhelming ethos of the Internet is
libertarian, even tilting toward anarchism, which flies in the face of the
theocratic tendencies of the Christian Coalition, its fellow travelers, and
the politicians now pandering to the religious right. Even though the
Christian Coalition is masterful at using new technologies, religious
fundamentalism is almost always a subject of ridicule on the net. And even
though the “patriots” of the militia movement are known to use computer
networks, the predominant values expressed on the net by digital gurus are
supranational, derisive not just of the U.S. government but of all
government. The anarchy of the net is about to slam into basic American
values; the conservatives’ internecine fight over the Exon bill is just the
opening, warm-up event.

Consider, for example, the creeping threat of “digital cash.” Although it’s
a small phenomenon now, its potential is big enough to have prompted a
cover story in a recent issue of Business Week. Some Internet visionaries
regard “digital cash” as a way to escape government claims on income
through taxation — with encryption and untraceable cash unhooked from any
national system of accounting or even currency regulation, net denizens
will be able to transcend the powers of government. This will make
cyberspace a “political” space, or, more accurately, an “anti-political”
space, beyond the nation-state, where the only regulation will be peer
pressure and spamming.

Imagine Pat Buchanan getting hold of this issue. Buchanan and the Christian
Coalition get their support from ordinary working joes, not big
corporations, and those ordinary joes believe in paying taxes, serving in
the armed forces, pledging allegiance, going to church, and all the other
values of the 1950s and earlier. The Internet they can do without. Newt
Gingrich’s lofty theories and Toffleresque jargon about revitalizing
American civilization through high technology almost certainly baffle or
roll off these people. Even though Gingrich idealizes the fifties himself,
he hasn’t yet been able to square this circle.

As Rutgers University political theorist Benjamin Barber argues in his
forthcoming book, McWorld or Jihad, the bipolarity of the Cold War, which
pitted Soviet communism against American capitalism, is giving way to a new
bipolarity, a struggle between religious fundamentalism, encompassing a
yearning for old values, and amoral, go-go, global capitalist monoculture.
The “jihad” isn’t restricted to Muslim fundamentalists; the Christian right
in the U.S. represents the same personality type. And international
capitalism is not globally abstract — it’s manifested in local fights,
such as whether we’re going to surrender to the idea that all American
suburbs will look like each other, and like those in South Africa,
Southeast Asia, Australia, and anywhere else modern developers stick a
shovel.

In other words, while most of the Internet — not to mention other
commercial computer networks like America Online, CompuServe, and Prodigy
— is starting to resemble the monotony of U.S. suburbs, the fizzy “digital
counterculture” that gets all the attention in the media is increasingly
the ideological vanguard for the internationalist monoculture of stateless,
libertarian, “virtual” capitalism. But its modern “symbolic analysts” have
less and less in common with Americans who really want things to be the way
they were forty years ago, before the Bell breakup, before computers,
before on-line anything, let alone porn. James Exon, the slow-talking,
grandfatherly, befuddled-sounding Senator from Nebraska, who admits he’s
never used the Internet, is more their spokesperson than fast-talking Newt
Gingrich.

The “end of history” thesis of Francis Fukuyama and others, the idea that
the story of the world is now one of uninterrupted technological progress
and individual freedom, is more or less taken for granted among the
Internet elite. But religious conservatives don’t buy this: for them,
history is still the ageless tale of our struggle with sin, and the story
won’t be over until we see the conversion or the silencing of the last
infidel.

Americans believe in the rule of law, but laws don’t seem to make sense in
cyberspace. The majority’s patriotism is regarded as corny and
anachronistic by the “digiterati.” Americans regret the loss of the comfort
of community, but “virtual communities” are not an adequate substitute for
most people. We’re developing two cultures: those who predict and welcome a
globalist computer culture taking over nearly every dimension of our lives
and thoughts, and those who say “no thanks.” It’s this clash of high tech
modernism versus homespun native values that will be the most salient
feature of American politics for the next decade, if not longer.