Reading Lawrence Lessig’s “Free Culture” reminds me of a book I had to read for a high school global history class: “The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People’s History of Ancient Rome” by Michael Parenti.
Parenti, a Yale grad and “cultural critic” (Wikipedia’s words), argues in his book that history has really done a number on poor Caesar, who was not, in fact, assassinated because he
was abusing power and ignoring the needs of his constituents. A few chapters are eloquent laundry lists of all the great things Caesar did for Rome, like creating the Julian calendar (a variation of which we still use today) and working to relieve poverty among the very plebs he was accused of mistreating; other chapters debunk common misconceptions ‘traditional history’ has fed us. A 2004 book review from Parenti’s website synopsizes his thesis: “In The Assassination of Julius Caesar, the distinguished author Michael Parenti subjects these assertions of “gentlemen historians” to a bracing critique, and presents us with a compelling story of popular resistance against entrenched power and wealth. Parenti shows that Caesar was only the last in a line of reformers, dating back across the better part of a century, who were murdered by opulent conservatives.”
I disliked the book from the first few pages because of Parenti’s smug attitude. He seems to think that he is pulling the wool off our eyes and showing us a hidden truth, when in reality, he is simply proposing a theory contrary to the ones in our boiler plate high school textbooks. Responsible readers will identify this bias and take his argument with a grain of salt; but I can easily see a less careful reader thinking that he now understands Ancient Rome better than his friends because he knows ‘the truth.’ Textbooks’ version of why Caesar was assassinated and Parenti’s are both rooted in facts; it’s just that each one gussies up his argument in a different way, puts those facts in a different order, foregrounds different information and flat-out omits what doesn’t suit the thesis.
I promise, I’m circling back to Lessig, now. In reading the introduction and first few chapters of “Free Culture,” I was getting strong Parenti-vibes. Just like Parenti, Lessig’s argument is
opposed to the one that contemporary culture furnishes us with. Most people believe it’s important to protect intellectual property, whereas Lessig dramatically states, “Ours was a free culture. It is becoming less so” (30). There’s nothing wrong with taking the counter view, but I am skeptical of an argument that stands upon completely disproving another position, rather than generating genuine ideas that may or may not line up with prevailing theories. That sounded pretentious and confusing. I just mean that I sense a little rebellious flare in Lessig’s writing, like he’s excited to tear down the mistakes our culture has made.
Lessig is doing the Socrates thing, where you ask little questions that people agree with (“isn’t it silly to sue Girl Scouts for singing copyrighted songs around a campfire?” “don’t scientist build off each other’s work all the time?”) until you’ve led them to a conclusion miles away from where they started. Think about what he’s saying: protecting intellectual property is not only illogical, but is changing our culture for the worse. Yet, every one of us has created something that we are proud of, sometimes even defensively proud of. Can you imagine another person or corporation taking credit for it? As someone who has been plagiarized, I can tell you that it’s more gut-wrenching than you’d think. I do not think it is such an evil thing to get credit for your hard work. Just because some inventing happens in the mind rather than in a workshop, that doesn’t mean we should privilege the protection of one kind over another.
But I am getting ahead of myself a little bit, because to be honest, I’m not even sure that I understand Lessig’s argument completely. I probably shouldn’t be criticizing him like this until I’ve read the whole book, I admit. From what I’ve gotten through, though, I can say that I find his argument convincing only in small chunks, but kind of incoherent in the big picture. Lessig adores historical anecdotes. Each chapter contains several very interesting stories about how Joe What’shisnose got ripped off by a big corporation or how Jane Blah was only able to create the world’s greatest whatever because she used someone else’s idea. I really liked all of these examples, especially the one about Steamboat Willie and the explanation of Japanese ‘copycat’ comics. The problem was that I had trouble connecting them. Lessig tells us that his book is “about an effect of the Internet beyond the Internet itself: an effect upon how culture is made. […] The Internet has induced an important and unrecognized change in that process” (7) and that his goal is “to understand a hopelessly destructive war inspired by the technologies of the Internet but reaching far beyond its code” (11). Honestly, that’s the kind of thesis that I would circle at the Writing Center and say, “You have a really interesting idea here, but the thesis is supposed to be the roadmap to the rest of your paper. You need to be more specific.” Saying that you want to talk about how the Internet has changed culture and how there is conflict surrounding technology tells me very little about what I as a critical reader am supposed to be looking for.
Yikes, this is getting wordy. My point is that some of Lessig’s anecdotes seem to cast the people who lost their intellectual property in a sympathetic light (like the first story about poor Edwin who committed suicide over his idea being stolen), while others underscore the importance of brooking property rights if we ever want to advance as a society (the Kodak episode). I’m pretty confident that he is arguing against strict intellectual copyright laws on the Internet, but if I wasn’t reading his book in the context of this class, I might be less certain.
He also pulls a Parenti every now and then and throws out a statement in support of his argument that is just totally ridiculous. Lessig honestly thinks that “we, the most powerful democracy in the world, have developed a strong norm against talking about politics” (42)? Really? He backs this up by noting that we are discouraged from discussing politics because they are too controversial and can lead to rudeness, but as a card carrying American, I can say that the thought of offending someone has never stopped me from saying anything. He cannot really try to get us on board with the idea that our society stifles political dialogue (or even satire).
All in all, I have not found this reading unpleasant. I like his writing style and, like I said, his anecdotes are very captivating. I just wish he had a little more direction, a little less sass, and a smidge of common sense.
You’re a champ if you stuck it through the whole thing. Hope the animal pictures helped.