Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Winston Churchill and the New Digital “Iron Curtain”

Philip White

March 5th will mark the 66th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s “Sinews of Peace” address, better known as the “Iron Curtain speech,” delivered in a gymnasium at Westminster College in tiny Fulton, Missouri. There, Churchill provided the epoch-defining view of the division between the Communist “Soviet sphere” and the democratic West, the memorable (and now, almost overused) appraisal of the Anglo-American partnership as the “special relationship” and a word-perfect exhortation of the principles of freedom and liberty.

But all these years later, with the USSR no more, do Churchill’s words still ring true?

In searching for an answer, one need look no further than the recent censorship actions of another Communist regime, North Korea. Following the death of Kim Jong-Il, their Supreme Leader, the Pyongyang authorities declared that anyone caught using a mobile phone during the state-ordered 100-day mourning period would be convicted of a war crime. Similarly, during the recent crackdown in Syria, the tech minions of Bashar al-Assad used a “kill switch” to cut its embattled citizens off from the web – the same tactics used by the panicking regime in Egypt during its last days. Meanwhile, Iran tried to close down all social networking sites to prevent protest organizers from spreading the word.

And how does this relate to Churchill, a technophobe who, after all, denied Westminster College president Franc “Bullet” McCluer’s request to broadcast the Iron Curtain speech by TV, telling him "I deprecate complicating the matter with technical experiments”?

One of Churchill’s reasons for using the “iron curtain” metaphor was that Stalin’s cronies were preventing media access to Poland, Yugoslavia, and other countries struggling under the Red Army’s jackboots. Despite the Marshal’s feigned support for “free and unfettered elections” in the Yalta Declaration, diplomats from Britain, America, and elsewhere were, just weeks later, followed and harassed, and some expelled. Stalin had rung down this solid metal curtain to prevent reports of his puppets’ malfeasance from leaking out, and to keep his new subjects and their tales of woe in.

The modus operandi of the new dictatorships is different, but the spirit is the same. Essentially, the people of Syria, North Korea, and Iran (not to mention China, which also restricts internet use) are living behind a virtual iron curtain, every bit as oppressed as their predecessors in the USSR. And while bright minds in these countries are jerry-rigging internet connections via old fax machines and (for those with the resources) satellite phones, and Twitter provides a platform for Iranian dissidents to show the Revolutionary Guard’s brutality, we are in need of a Churchill to enunciate their plight on the world stage.

In addition, our leaders must be forthright in not only explaining the inherent wickedness of totalitarian rule, but also in their defense of the principles we are privileged to have in a democracy: the rule of law; freedom of religion, the ballot box and expression; and the chance to advance ourselves without the backhanders and corruption that are rampant in a police state. Too often, we take for granted these great pillars of liberty, or we fear that praising them will make us sound like self-righteous imperialists. Churchill knew that this was not so: it is only by confessing our creed that we can hope to perpetuate it, and, by putting it into practice through strong diplomacy, to help others who find themselves under the dictator’s yoke to obtain it. As he said at Fulton, “We must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man which are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking world. ” Just as true now as 66 years ago.


hcr said...

Thanks for this. Someone once said to me that the issue in America is only exceedingly rarely about free speech, the issue is access. You can say anything, for the most part, without the state getting involved. But what you can't get is access to be heard, since the media tends to devolve into very limited channels to which only the wealthy have access.

That's why the internet is such an important tool... and why it's so important to keep it accessible to all.

Richard John deals with these issues in his book on the postal service, by the way.

Unknown said...

Amazing, Philip. A war crime to use a cell phone for a hundred days, and we can't even stop kids using them while driving.

While I don't think I disagree with you, I am a bit uneasy about the idea that anybody who tries to limit people's access to western media is in the same camp as Kim Jong-Il. There are plenty of legitimate reasons why people in the non-English speaking world might feel ambivalent toward the internet, Facebook, twitter, .xxx sites and the culture they all promote. The question, I guess, is can the underlying technology be freed from the overlaid culture? Which I suppose is not too different from Heather's point about access -- and that's why we need anarchist hackers every bit as much as leaders who stand forthrightly against totalitarianism. (But I've just finished reading V for Vendetta, so take this with a grain...)

pw said...

Heather and Dan, thanks for the comments.

Heather, I am interested to read that nook on the now imperiled postal service. I agree that the web is crucial for people to be heard, even when we don't agree with some of the content. As Churchill, FDR, Jefferson et al stated, freedom of expression is a pillar of liberal democracy.

Dan, of course not everyone who limits web access is a Kim Jong-Il wannabe. I don't want my five year old getting on porn sites inadvertently, and if I download software to prevent that I don't believe that makes me a tyrant. However, the motivation of leaders in Syria, Iran and company is clear - try to maintain the lie that the grass isn't greener outside their high walls, keep records of atrocity smothered, ans prevent people from educating themselves about 'dangerous' principles such as free elections.