Letters to The Ethical Spectacle

May was mostly devoted to The Censorware Project. We got out a report on WebSENSE, the product in use in the federal court system and a number of public libraries; it blocks the Liza Minnelli fan page, the Jewish Teens page, a grocer, a speakers' bureau, and two Indiana soccer teams-as pornography. The Cyber-Times picked up the story, as did a number of other publications.

This month, I also delivered an article on the "pervasiveness" doctrine for Reason magazine and am finishing a briefing paper on Net anonymity for the Cato Institute.

Writing for The Spectacle, as always, is the most rewarding writing I do, because the feedback is instantaneous and comprehensive and then goes on for years-I am still getting responses to articles that were in the Spectacle's first issue in January, 1995. About thirty thousand unique domains have been hitting The Spectacle every month; I don't know how this number translates into individual readers (aol.com counts as one domain) but assume it may mean there are as many as forty or fifty thousand actual readers in a month.

As always, you're invited to email me at jw@bway.net .

Jonathan Wallace

Problems of Free Speech
Good issue, Jonathan. Nice way to start my day. Thanks.

Paul McMasters pmcmasters@freedomforum.org

Dear Jonathan:

I read your articles in the latest Spectacle with great interest, as I have long had some thoughts of my own as to how game theory can be applied to some problems of free speech. But I found your explanations quite disappointing.

I couldn't make much sense out of your Prisoner's Dilemma piece. Sorry, it was just shot through with dubious assumptions and outright wrong statements. Socrates, Jesus, Gandhi and King were not killed as "responses to speech". Gandhi and King weren't intellectuals writing away in some corner. They were leaders of mass resistance, which while it might have been non-violent, was very direct and extensive action. Socrates wasn't a dotty philosopher as is the popular image, he was an active wartime collaborator. Even Jesus had a violent side, remember the driving of the moneychangers from the Temple?

When you write: "If we keep it up long enough and are successful in renouncing force, at some point we will stop regarding each other's utterances as betrayals, ...". Said who? Why? Sure it'd be nice if that happened, but it's hardly inevitable.

As far as I can make out the point being made, in an extremely foggy and roundabout way, is that IF we believe that a) speech should only receive speech in response and b) good speech drives out bad, *THEN* free speech is the best (cooperative) response.

But, in a word, "So what?". The whole free-speech debate is about assumptions such as the above. Taking them as true in the first place is no trick at all. It seems you're trying to use the Prisoner's Dilemma as a way to give them backing, but all along you're actually assuming what you want to prove.

In your Commons article, you seem intent on defining whether or not something "is" a commons, in some ill-defined all-encompassing sense, and reasoning from there as to whether a tragedy of the commons can happen. This is akin to introducing the Prisoner's Dilemma, then going off on a long examination of whether one can be said to be a prisoner or not (with lots of opportunities for poetic but meaningless writing about being a prisoner of love, prisoner of circumstances, prisoner of war, etc). That wasn't the point of the insight! These game-theory ideas are joining Einstein's Relativity and Goedel's Theorem as concepts where, since they are such attractive metaphors, the actual meaning has been beaten out of almost everyone's mind by literary abuse.

What game theory tells us is that, when it comes to people making decisions, in groups ranging from the very smallest (the two-person Prisoner's Dilemma) to arbitrarily large (the community Tragedy of Commons), each individual pursuing their self-interest can produce overall disaster for everyone. This is a deep and profound insight, often hard to articulate and use in a discussion because it contradicts business propaganda. It implies that markets can fail, the "invisible hand" that supposedly aligns interests may be paralyzed, and most heretically, that government intervention can result in everyone being better off. These are such shocking statements that some people will simply scream in rank denial that it can't be so.

But with all theories, there is always a tendency to try to force everything into that framework, to think that the wonderful ideas explain everything. I think what happened with the fight-censorship list had very little to do with anything that needs prisoner's dilemma or tragedy of the commons to explain it, and more to do with what perhaps might be called the problems of any undefended community (I'd call it a problem of anarchy in the classical sense, but too many people don't know the older meaning of the word). Two big aspects of its decline can be traced directly to poisoners and proselytizers. Poisoners (aka "Trolls" in net parlance) aren't in any sort of P-D or T-O-C situation. Trying to view them as some sort of early-defectors is simply extending the theory beyond its applicability, since they aren't playing the same game at all. In fact, that's the whole point, their goal is just to wreak as much havoc as they can, for their own payoff. The proselytizers (on the net, these are usually Libertarians, but the phenomena isn't limited to them) are out to hijack every resource for their own cult purposes, and drive away anyone else. To have a commons poisoned by an enemy, or looted by a band of religious fanatics for their crusades, is surely a tragedy, but this shouldn't be confused with the meaning of "tragedy of the commons".

Seth Finkelstein sethf@MIT.EDU

Dear Mr. Wallace:

Garret Hardin certainly coined a compact phrase (the "tragedy of the commons") which packs punch.

Unfortunately the historical premise doesn't hold water - no one has produced good evidence that the 'commons" which were a part of the rural economy in England were ever overgrazed and hence became unsustainable.

What there is is considerable evidence of hype. The process of enclosure. by which the medieval 3-field system - 3 areas broken into individually held strips plus a common area -- were consolidated into parcels enclosed by barrier fences, hedges or walls - involved parliamentary debate, enclosure by enclosure. These debates are either transcribed, or described by contemporary observers; each enclosure had to be voted on and the parliamentary members had to convinced - that's where the hype came in because -- as far as the commons were concerned the process was a land grab, the title was granted to the larger landholders, while the commoners were dispossessed of their grazing rights.

This has nothing much to do with the internet, but you could have said what you said without leaning on Garret Hardin's phrase.


MichaelP papadop@PEAK.ORG

Bill Clinton
Dear Mr. Wallace:

I fail to see how you can lump together the likes of Bill Clinton with Presidents Nixon or Grant.

Nixon never committed adultery, killed his enemies, or stonewalled, but only wanted the truth to come out. Grant was a great Civil War general who served selflessly for a cause he believed in.

To put it simply, you compare apples to oranges.

Theo Szurek theoszurek@yahoo.com

Dear Mr. Wallace:

As a non-American I have been intrigued by the lurid fascination that US tabloids seem to have with the president's sex life. Who cares? It has no bearing on whether or not he is a capable leader. Of course, he may not be a capable leader but that is a completely separate issue.

An Australian newspaper summed up the issue some years ago with regards a Prime Ministerial candidate. Said the paper, "We are voting for the leader of our country, not for father-of-the-year".


Anna Stokes astokes@mercy.com.au

An Auschwitz Alphabet
Dear Mr. Wallace:

I read "An Auschwitz Alphabet" and did an entire five page research paper on Dr. Josef Mengele using your work as my primary source of information. It was well written, well thought out, and very moving. One thing disturbed me, however, as I was reading "What I Learned from Auschwitz." You have decided that there is no God. All I know is that God gave humans free will. Without Him, what reason could there possibly be for the people at Auschwitz to want to live? There is a page I would like you to visit. The address is http://www.geocities.com/HotSprings/Villa/1674/rose.html. If it wouldn't be too much of a bother, please read it and the first of the links at the bottom of the page. Then, if you would read the second link and consider what it says. After that, I would be much obliged if you would visit the third link and tell me how there cannot be a God where there is love like that shown by Night Owl towards Kaci and by Kaci towards her daughter. Thank you.

Karen R.

Dear Mr. Wallace:

I am writing a research paper about Auschwitz and your "Auschwitz Alphabet" is my main source and the basis of my paper. I was hoping you'd be able to respond. I actually do have one question..........I read almost the entire alphabet, but are you a survivor? Or are you writing from information, or a relative of a survivor? I'm so sorry to ask, you don't have to feel obligated to respnd. Thank you for your time.

Melanie L.

Dear Mr. Wallace:

Hello. I am a 15 year old high school sophomore. I have been interested in the Holocaust for many years, ever since I first read The Diary of A Young Girl. I now read everything I can get my hands on about that time. It is "horribly fascinating", as I like to call it. By that I mean that it is not good that it happened and I don't support it in any way, but I find it interesing, unbelievable how they could do such a thing. I read your introduction and think the idea of a third pathway to put people in the shoes of an inmate is a very good idea. However, I also understand your hesitancy.

Keep up the great work!


i can see that reading all the law books and obviously skipping a serious education has left you confused, what the hell is wrong with a totally optional program, cybersitter, filtering out some material from a personal computer if the end user deems that necessary. you are horribly misguided and your pathetic attempt at wrapping yourself in the constitution and the flag screaming free speach is an obvious sign of your illogical thinking.


Good for you for pointing out the Federal judges have been judged by WebSense as not capable of deciding what to read.

I am glad WebSense doesn't decide what I can read. I feel quite able to do that myself.

Anthony Mournian mourniann@acusd.edu

Dear Mr. Wallace:

Hi! I am gentile with Jewish blood relatives. I have been to the Holy Land on two separate trips for the Israeli government. (1974 & 75) I am a Christian and as such love all people. (A true gift from God) To hear someone say that the Jews killed our Lord is rubish. It shows how little people know about Christianity. God sent Jesus to die for our the remission of sins for those who believe that He came to earth for that mission. (To die for the sins that we commit, both of ommission & commission). All sinners, which means ALL who have lived, had a part in the death of Christ. This means that everyone who ever lived contributed, as well as all who will be born. To be technical, the Romans were the ones who actually, physically crucified Him. Everytime I hear the comment that the Jews put Christ to death, I have to set the record straight. Sin killed Christ.

Don't know if you have heard this before, but I needed to say it for you. Ever read the book, Betrayed, by Stan Telchin? It is about the conversion of an entire Hebrew family, and makes mighty fine reading. I've read it three times. Try it. May God Bless you and that you discover the Truth, which will set you free.

Ken A. Brock scubadaddy@sprintmail.com

Dear Jonathan:

Happened on your archived piece on Philip K. Dick. I had an odd personal letter from Phil that gave a weird insight as to his ethical workings. He was living in a security high-rise in the poverty-stricken barrio, and he'd met the local priest, who told him that the parish church had no funds for their social services program. Phil happened to be flush at that moment and wrote him a whopping great check to cover the cost of it for a whole year. Then he took a nap, and had a horrible dream that he'd given away a huge amount of money, and woke up terrified, all in a sweat.

Poor old nutcase! I did agree with the observations in your article pretty much.

Aussie Meyer aussie@compassnet.com

Dear Sir:

I read your article on Vicki Weaver in The Ethical Spectacle. Thank you for expressing the issue so clearly. Living in Idaho, this story is particularly important to us.

Obviously, the federal government is out of control. I don't know if anything less than a genuine revolution -- at least in thought -- can stop it.

Keep up the good work.

--The Mystic
Quest of the Unquietmind
...a webjournal of thoughtful dissent

Dear Mr Wallace,

Your bio is particularly moving; your newsletter, site, whatever you choose to call it, intelligent, thoughtful, impressively concerned with the quality of life here on our difficult planet. I call myself one concerned with similar issues of tolerance, compassion, and ethics, but currently do little to manifest that concern other than at the most local of levels, in relations and conversations with friends and co-workers. Your activity in producing this site is most impressive, and is, I hope, one more spur to get me off my jaded buttocks and back into the world.

Thanks for keeping the flame of ethical thought and action alive. That light is enough to be an encouragement at least here, in one tired gray corporate cubicle in the Heartland.

Best wishes & continued success in all your endeavors,

Robert Devendorf rdevendo@spss.com

Dear Mr. Wallace:

Right now, I have about reached a half way point in a web site designed to approach both social and technical issues, from computer systems design to corrections and capital punishment. In passing, I refer to the case of Jesse Dewayne Jacobs; probably the most clearly dubious (in all senses) execution since Gregg v. Georgia. Your web page has the best synopsis of the case I have seen. Since your use of frames for the "Ethical Spectacle" suggests you may not want your articles directly "hot-linked", I would like your permission to link to this one.

Yours, J. G. Spragge spragge@umich.edu

Dear Sir,

Are you a journalist sir? I ask for a variety of reasons. My name is Glynn Rocka and I live in Texas, about 40 miles from the Walls Prison Unit, where Texas executes those on Death Row. The thing of it is, I don't believe Karla Fay should have been executed. Did you know she was married? She was married to a man named Dana Brown, whom I do know. He never got to touch his wife while she was still alive. The State of Texas would not let him hug or kiss or even say good-bye face-to-face. The first time he got to hug her, she was already dead.


Dear Mr. Wallace:

You have a very interesting web site. When I have some more time, I will peruse it at a more leisurely pace. I noticed that you have the read the Bible through in your search for God. I wonder, have you ever read "Mere Christianity" by C.S. Lewis?

David C. Jamison dcjamison@toad.net

Dear Mr. Wallace:

i just read your article on the book 1984and its influence on your life, i must say, i agree with your article on all but one point...not everything passes (at least not quickly)

i believe that democracy will be the form of government in america for at least another 1000 years. the american system is the single most perfect idea ever wrought by mortals. the reason for this opinion? flexibility. in america, if we don't like the government, we get rid of it.

Nicholas J. Reisinger

Dear Mr. Wallace:

I just want to thank you for The Ethical Spectacle and let you know that I am really moved by the way you express yourself. I especially like the essay, Who Are You? In my own little way, I am the change that I wish to see in the world, and after discovering you, I am more sure of that now than I ever have been before. You see, it has been four years since I gave up my career as an engineer to pursue a life devoted to doing something about protecting our environment. It truly is one thing to say, "We must change," versus "I am going to change it myself." Thank you again and best wishes. Javier F. G. Saldivar javiers@sprynet.com