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National Observer, Australia, No. 81 (Dec. 2009 - Feb. 2010)National Observer, Australia No. 81 (Dec. 2009 - Feb. 2010)


A Writer's Manifesto

by Mark Helprin
(New York: HarperCollins, 2009)
Hardcover: 232 pages and index
ISBN: 9780061733116
RRP: AUD$49.99


Reviewed by R.J. Stove

This is a weird, unclassifiable, periodically annoying, and yet important production which will irritate many by its extreme digressiveness, yet, paradoxically, which contains valuable insights on one of the greatest cultural threats of our time: the threat to intellectual, and above all to literary, property. The cover design is singularly appropriate: an omnivorous, computer-generated blob, redolent of the early 1980s' PacMan, about to gobble up a copyright symbol.

Digital Barbarism's subtitle is A Writer's Manifesto, with the emphasis being on the writer part rather than the manifesto part. Mark Helprin, a much-published novelist who seems never to have produced any full-length non-fiction before, has served in the Israeli armed forces and in the British Merchant Navy. So diverse a background has, at any rate, given him a certain detachment from those American academic commissars and their computer-nerd camp-followers who have supplied the loudest voices and most destructive weapons in the great anti-copyright campaign.

Like many recent efforts of its general type, Digital Barbarism grew from an article. In this case, the article was a 20 May 2007 op-ed in The New York Times (still occasionally capable of disseminating legitimate thought, despite its notoriety as a cash-cow for psychopathic conmen from Walter Duranty to Jayson Blair), suggesting that copyright, instead of being abolished, could beneficially be strengthened. Few op-ed items — as anyone who has ever written them knows — generate more than half a dozen responses, whether pro or con, from even the most articulate readers. Helprin fully expected that his own piece would either inspire a similarly restricted discussion, or else be altogether overlooked. Not so with Helprin's essay: "Because I look at a computer screen as little as possible, I was unaware of the tempest as it mounted." But mount it did.

Inside ten days, the essay had elicited 750,000 (no, that is not a misprint: three-quarters of a million) abusive online comments, running the gamut of emotions from mere vindictive lunacy to imperious demands in lavatory-wall patois that Helprin go and commit sexual intercourse. The complainant in such fora is, need one say, "sheltered by anonymity, his acts multiplied by an almost inconceivable multiplication and instantaneousness of transmission ... [resulting in] a certain sinister, angry, off-the-rails quality (think the Unabomber) which is perhaps to be expected from the kind of person who has spent forty thousand hours reflexively committing video-game mass murder and then encounters an argument with which he finds himself in disagreement. ... I had touched upon a mysterious nerve, and although the style of the response can be explained, who, exactly, would react in such a way to a plea for the extension of the term of copyright?"

The present volume aims to answer this last question. Unfortunately, in doing so, it lacks the crucial virtues of directness and coolness. Helprin comes to resemble nobody so much as a prosecution lawyer of eloquence and talent, blessed with a legally and morally watertight case, who yet is so flustered by the impudent smirking of the defendants in the dock as to be goaded into wholly irrelevant autobiographical ruminations. Inside this fairly thin book is an even thinner book screaming to get out. The author loses no chance for tangential brooding about how he was bullied at school, how he likes life in Virginia, how he hates socialising at parties, and other matters totally unrelated to his actual theme.

There are far too many paragraphs burdened with beginnings like: "At age fourteen, on a cheap three-speed Robin Hood bicycle that my father inexplicably (to me) provided as a replacement for a magnificent English touring cycle, the colour of a Weimaraner, that I had left to rust in the rain. ..." As Garfield the Cat used to say: "And your point is ...?" After more than a small amount of this stuff, its audience must be tempted to conclude that the villains at whose punishment Helprin (rightly) aims have scored an acquittal by default. It is hard luck on Helprin that the present reviewer was only recently examining a true model of the polemicist's art: Hilaire Belloc's The Free Press (1918), where not a syllable is wasted, where not a single side-issue is permitted to distract the author from his task, where no suggestion of ad hominem mars the whole, where the causal relationship between A and B is as lucidly demonstrated as it would now be in a good PowerPoint presentation, and where the prose is no more clotted with extraneous sentiment than is any proposition of Aquinas.

At least Helprin names the leading malefactors involved, of whom the chief is Lawrence "Larry" Lessig: law professor at Stanford, anti-copyright obsessive, "sexual abuse" litigant (this role being pretty much de rigueur these days among the politically ambitious), and a founder of the "Creative Commons" movement which is supposed to be a more ethical alternative to existing copyright statutes. A clever and unscrupulous public intellectual, Lessig has crusaded against the 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (named after the late pop star and congressman whose initiatives increased existing copyright terms in the USA by twenty years, to bring them into line with international rulings). Lessig also has a preoccupation with the joys of the "remix": in other words, with (Helprin's words) "taking a work that someone else has made, chopping it up, and rearranging it, perhaps adding or subtracting elements according to whim, [which] is a favoured 'art' form of a generation weaned on push-button alternate endings ... he is what old-fashioned people might call careless about aesthetic standards and the integrity of a work."

This, and much else, raises the issue of What Makes Larry (and his more feral apologists) Run. No doubt Lessig's attitude derives partly from a certain amount of démodé baby-Marxism sloshing around inside the brain. A powerful constituent of Marxism, and especially baby-Marxism, from its very birth was always euphoric canting about how "everyone's an artist". But Lessig has never been a Marxist in the conventional sense, and while he has declared his admiration for Obama he appears not to have any burning party-machine commitments. Far more important than Marxism per se — as Helprin admits — is the whole culture of collectivism, which poisons the very air that the typical modern academic breathes, and which would continue to poison it even if Marxists, by some miracle, had never existed. A culture of collectivism means a culture of entitlement, and entitlement is the transmission-belt (to use Lenin's characteristically scientistic metaphor) which gets the anti-copyright movement out of the senior common room and into the public square.

Those old enough to possess fond memories of the Li'l Abner comic strip will recall the nightmarish Lower Slobbovia, where the national motto exemplified with rare precision the collectivism-entitlement nexus: "If you got it, I deserve it." This motto epitomised, in plain English, envy. Iago did not need Marxian claptrap about economic determinism or the labour theory of value to propel his malice. All he needed was for envy to consume him. Envy not just of the good, like Desdemona, but of the foolishly harmless, like Cassio. No-one with the smallest first-hand knowledge of the campuses where Lessig and his followers flourish will fail to recognise that Iago is alive and well and living on them. The puzzle is where, and how, anyone else is. To the bizarre and self-serving notion, propounded by the likes of Lessig, that violations of "so-called" intellectual property (Lessig loves that "so-called") harm no-one, Helprin sharply responds in the simplest possible language:

"Let us say someone opens a golf course. Some people pay to use it. Others sneak on to it without paying. What these solons are saying is that because the non-payers don't spoil the enjoyment of those who do pay, no harm results. But even if the non-payers don't tear up the fairways, and play at night so as not to crowd them, if the general rule is to sneak on and only a few people pay, very soon there will be no golf course for lack of revenue. Therein would lie the harm, both to the bankrupt golf course owners and to the general public with no more golf course."

Is this an abstract example, far removed from reality? Would that it were so. As Helprin notes, the anti-copyright brigade first tasted blood in its successful warfare against the recorded music industry, which is now, thanks largely to illegal online downloading, more or less in ruins. The recorded music industry was a veritable behemoth compared with the book publishing and serious magazine publishing industries. If the former can be finished off, there is nothing to stop the latter being, for all practical purposes, finished off also. This naturally alarms Helprin: "I am indignant that a movement begun by people who wanted to avoid paying for music that to me is worse than North Korean water torture, now mortally threatens the stability of a craft and art that was ancient at the time of Jesus, that encompasses the world, and that has evolved by the love and labour of the greatest souls ever to have graced the earth."

That the anti-copyright activists are mostly as illogical as they are hypocritical is almost the least objectionable thing about them. (Lessig's book-length denunciations of copyright are themselves in copyright. Shades of Marshall McLuhan, who in 1967 predicted the imminent death of the book — and who did so within the pages of, you guessed it, a book.) Worse is the way "they are capable of elevating a theory, notion, idea, or dogma above reason, fact, practicality, and experience. Given that they are able to do this even at the cost of their own destruction, when their own interests are unaffected or advanced it becomes especially easy." Furthermore:

"[A]s evidenced by their own testimony in their blogs and plaints, many of these people have tried their hand at writing and are perfectly content to be paid a pittance or nothing at all, and think therefore that this should be a universal condition. Were it the universal condition, everyone who wrote would be supported, like them, by a salary from some other source. The art of letters would exit even further the realm of professionalism."

Just what the world needs: yet more drivelling, incompetent authorial amateurs. Preferably funded — as in Australia, at least, they would indubitably be funded — by the Servile State. And preferably plagiarising like mad, since in practice opposition to copyright and zest for plagiarism go together like the proverbial horse and carriage. (Surprisingly, Helprin makes all too little of this self-evident truth.) Once plagiarism was defended mostly by hard-core Bolsheviks such as Bertolt Brecht. Now it is defended by the likes of Keith Windschuttle, who in Quadrant's May 2008 number allowed the following remarkable observation to appear under his name:

"There are very few cases where plagiarism should be a sacking offence for a university teacher. ... Such charges [of plagiarism] are increasingly used today as the continuation of academic politics by other means. In fact, there would be few members of the academic or media commentariat who have not at some stage in their careers been carelessly guilty of this offence, which their opponents could potentially use against them."

It is regrettable that Helprin seeks to project Lessig-type attitudes upon Lord Macaulay, who, after all, differed from Lessig in that he did favour copyright during the author's lifetime, although he opposed copyright after the author's death. Macaulay said some foolish things — not only about copyright of course — but to call him, as Helprin does, "spiteful, duplicitous, vengeful, cruel" ill accords with the verdicts on Macaulay's character passed by his biographers G.O. Trevelyan and Sir Arthur Bryant. What Macaulay too often exhibited was a formidable bent for self-deception; and that bent (implicit when he depicted William III as an angel and James II as His Satanic Majesty) is quite enough to explain his silliness on the copyright issue, without any need to fit him out with horns, a trident and a tail.

Helprin's diversions into nineteenth- and twentieth-century history are further impaired by odd factual and orthographic slips. The celebrated historian of the French Revolution was Carlyle, not (as Helprin would have it) "Carlisle" — did no proof-reader at HarperCollins have enough familiarity with English literature to spot this mistake? — while the taunt "Why should I speak to the organ-grinder's monkey when I can speak to the organ-grinder?" was not, pace Helprin, uttered by Churchill about Mussolini's son-in-law Galeazzo Ciano, but by Aneurin Bevan about former British Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd.

So Digital Barbarism is not a work to be read without severe reservations. It nevertheless names (to quote the old pamphlets from wartime England) Guilty Men; it proclaims its creator's high ethical sense; and it is the only treatise of its kind. On these grounds it can, and should, be cautiously recommended. Certainly every aspiring magazine writer needs to peruse it, though perhaps all Helprin's best points were made more tersely by American Conservative film critic Steve Sailer when, in April 2004, he upbraided Lessig:

"As a pixel-stained wretch who would like to someday make at least a lower-middle-class living writing books for pay, I say, 'Forget you, Larry. I want every penny that's coming to me, my kids, grandkids, great-grandkids and on, unto the seventh generation.' It makes no sense that web libertarians are for cutting down intellectual property rights. Libertarians are supposed to be for property rights. The reason Lessig's obsession is so popular with web libertarians is because they are greedy people who want something for nothing."

R.J. Stove is a writer and commentator on public affairs and has had numerous articles published in Quadrant, National Observer, Chronicles and The American Conservative. He is also the author of A Student's Guide to Music History (ISI Books, 2008). He lives in Melbourne.

National Observer, Australia, No. 81 (Dec. 2009 - Feb. 2010)