We give too much attention to a rehearsed world, one in which newsworthy events amount to little more than staged press conferences. Yet every now and then it happens: Someone pushes through the crowd and demands an explanation. When it happens, it’s priceless. The best within us resides upon those unscripted moments.
So it went with Google, an American corporation operating in China that was reportedly hit by a cyber attack designed to raid the email accounts of human rights activists. Google censors searches in China, at the demands of their hosts. In the wake of the attacks they announced that they won’t be doing that anymore, even if it means leaving China. Hell clearly hath no fury like a technocrat scorned.
This is not the first time an American company has met with a government dabbling in duplicity. It is, however, the first time in recent memory that a company responded by saying: “That is not how we do things.” You don’t see that kind of chutzpah often, particularly from technocrats in Silicon Valley, who view politics and governments as ideological inconveniences en route to technologizing the world.
This is a big story, and yet it has received far less attention than the late night squabbles of Conan vs. Leno.
To be certain, the mainstream media does not like stories like this. It’s impossible to report Google vs. China without acknowledging that this is a contest concerning values. As a nation, we still suffer from Cold War-fatigue and dismiss talk of values as the clichés of hillbillies and progressives. Above all, a discussion on human values interrupts the “China Rising, American Falling” narrative that has been the darling of pseudo-intellectuals for three decades. After a history of getting burned by championing ideas sprung from coffee shop politics, such as fascism in the 1920s and communism in the 1930s, pundits won’t commit to a specific alternative but instead content themselves to note that the world is entering a “post-American” phase. You can’t pass a newsstand without being harangued by titles like “After America” or Newsweek’s latest musings on the “Post-American World.” Hyperbole sells magazines, providing what amounts to Social Security for the dying flagships of the old media, but no matter how often they cast America as a former child prodigy now entering her pensioner years, this “Post-American World” is nowhere in sight.
To the contrary, it is the world that is becoming wholly American. The power of America is what it has always been: ideas. Those ideas have designed the future we live in. The examples are ubiquitous. Whenever a human being, anywhere, is talking on the telephone, watching television, flying on an airplane, listening to music, using a light bulb, or, yes, surfing on the Internet, they inhabit an American idea.
We are not in a post-American world, we are living on Planet America.
This is what makes Google’s objection so powerful. They are the U.S. Steel of the 21st century. Google was founded by a couple of computer geeks in a dorm room in Stanford. They didn’t proselytize about the world; they built something that changed it. They then adopted a corporate motto: Don’t be evil. It’s corny to a degree that makes cynics cringe. It is naïve in a world which, we are told, is a morally-relative place. But, I don’t know, I think the world needs far more corny, 30-something, self-made billionaires who are willing to push through the crowd of lawyers, investors and bureaucrats and say, “You can use our search engines, but not as the whipping boy of totalitarians.”
Something kind of magical happened—far larger than is being reported—if you doubt it, providing you aren’t in China, you can simply Google it.
Eben Carle served in the White House as an Associate Director on the Homeland Security Council from 2008-2009. He received a master’s degree in American studies from Columbia University and is currently writing his first novel.