Left Behind

The Radical Right Got Wired Fast. When Will Progressives Catch Up?

The students at the Oakland, California- based college honed their skills in a class about online organizing and then trained the Liverpool dockworkers, through a transatlantic phone hookup, to go online, says veteran activist Ellen Starbird, a teacher at Laney.

'When there is a free and open discussion of the race issue, fact and reason will triumph,' David Duke writes online. 'My friends, that free and open discussion is coming, and it comes by way of the Internet.'

The workers, at the time locked out by the Pacific Maritime Association, called for "electronic solidarity actions" worldwide. In Oakland, dockworkers were prohibited by their union contract from picketing, so Laney students and retirees picketed a ship called the Neptune Jade and prevented it from unloading cargo. In an ominous development that is likely to be repeated as labor efforts make use of the Web, the maritime association sued the students and union workers, demanding they turn over their e-mails. Another Internet-based campaign helped force the trade association to drop its request for private correspondence and other information about the students and picketers. The fact that the Liverpool Dockers Defense Committee is headquarted not in England but in Oakland testifies to the Internet's wide reach.

On other fronts, the Internet is enabling liberal activists to fight propaganda with propaganda. Aravosis organized the campaign against Dr. Laura (StopDrLaura.com), protesting her homophobic rants and causing several advertisers to pull their support from the show.

Perhaps because left-wingers have had to hear, or at least hear about, the nattering of right-wing nabobs for so long, they feared early on that the right would take over the Internet, after already conquering satellite broadcasts and talk radio. Aravosis notes that, when it comes to portals, at least the conservatives have TownHall.com, the Heritage site that leads directly to about 50 other conservative sites. "The left still doesn't really have anything like that," he says.

But some activists on the left are moving into other new technologies, like microradio, a low-power alternative to high-watt radio stations, with their expensive, hard-to-come-by licenses. Such sites as FreeRadio.org lead to other online homes of what's called the free media movement.

Despite what may seem like a head start in Internet infrastructure for the right, left-wing activists have already tasted blood in real political battles, like the Neptune Jadeincident. And they're beginning to find natural allies. The way Aravosis sees it, the libertarian leanings of leading Netizens boost the left and may stop some of the moralizing that's gone on.

Leave-me-alone separatists and policy-minded liberals might seem like unlikely bedmates, but they combined to fight off the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which would have severely limited free speech online. That battle, captained in part by the libertarian members of Families Against Internet Censorship (shell.rmi.net/~fagin./faic), was largely waged through discussion lists and e-mail campaigns.

This new breed of self-styled libertarians on the Internet includes everyone from high-octane entrepreneurs with their antigovernment posturing to open-source programmers who believe information wants to be free. Techies who favor independence, Aravosis says, may not care much for the right's puritanical urges. "Is that person going to be more supportive of a gay-rights advocate," he says, "or a look-into-your-bedroom conservative?"

Thanks to the Reagan-Bush years and seeding by groups like the Heritage Foundation, D.C. is now crawling with young conservatives, many of them well-versed in the ways of the Web. But the Internet has made geographic location unimportant. Everybody has a keyboard—and a connection—now. "They tried to jump on the technology," says Aravosis, "but I think we've got a lot of the smart young things on our side."


Other articles from Take Back the Net (Special Section)

RIGHT THINKING by James Ridgeway
Want to Understand Conservatives? Read Them.

FROM THEIR VAULTS TO YOUR DESKTOP by Russ Kick
Finding Documents the Man Wants to Hide

VIRTUAL MARCHERS, REAL RESULTS by Meg Murphy
Fight Back Online

KEEPING UP WITH THE NAPSTERS by Eric Weisbard
At Pho, a Thousand E-mails a Month Track the Great Digital Debate

DOOMSDAY IN THE MP3 WARS by George Smith
Excavating Stoned Metal From the Internet

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