Chris Gulker column

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The Independent Culture
Sovereignty, defined as the power to govern without external control, can also be thought of as the right of a state to do things in secret.

A good example of why I think little of sovereignty is the Mississippi State Commission on Sovereignty. This institution's records were recently forced open by a lawsuit, revealing documents which had been sealed when the commission was disbanded.

The sovereignty commission's purpose had been to defend racial discrimination as a way of life in the state of Mississippi. Its records include detailed surveillance of civil rights workers, noting everything from the shade of their skin colour and sexual proclivities to their car's licence number.

One document lists ways to stop a black student from enrolling in a public college - including wiring dynamite to the man's car, train "accident" and having police plant contraband as a way of sending him to jail. A few of the commission's subjects were murdered during the battle over desegregation.

The commission was found to have aided in the defence of the suspected assassin of Medgar Evars by investigating and screening out potentially sympathetic jurors. In short, the sovereignty commission, cloaked in secrecy, was able to carry out acts that would have rightly landed other citizens in prison.

Sadam Hussein and the current Iraqi government are big on sovereignty. But then, so are most of the world's nations.

In America, many feel that sovereignty is just fine - it's those shifty other countries we have to look out for. But when things like the records of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission come to light, would we be forgiven for wondering out loud if sovereignty is a good idea at all?

This might seem to be a weird topic for a technology column, but the Internet has brought the whole notion of governance and sovereignty into a new debate. Most of the world's governments were formed in times when distance and the slow movement of information required proxies of some sort.

The US electoral college is an example; this body is formed for every national election, and its original mission was to carry the will of the people from far-flung frontiers back to the capital for national elections.

Since the invention of the telegraph, it has been a largely useless institution, indeed poses a danger to popular will. Richard Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey in 1968, even though he had slightly less of the popular vote, because of the way the electoral college works.

The Internet at least offers the possibility of flattening governments to a level where abuse would be far more difficult. Citizens could decide issues directly, relying on elected or, better yet, hired proxies mainly to manage programs, keep the books and do the work.

Sound like a recipe for chaos? I think not - Buckminster Fuller was fond of saying that if some calamity were to remove all government overnight, leaving the water, power, police and garbage collection intact, that the world would function far better than if the reverse were to occur.

Governments operate in a self-created vacuum, isolated from the people who elect them. Government, at least in the West, is a relentless growth industry at every level - despite politicians prattling about efficiency and less intrusive government.

Most government growth is not decided in direct popular vote - it is rather our governors who find the means to hire ever greater legions to the public payroll despite many attempts by voters to cut taxes or otherwise limit runaway government.

The only kind of sovereignty that, in my mind, makes any sense at all, is personal sovereignty - we usually call it privacy. Our affairs, our thoughts, our loves, our actions should be our own, provided we respect the same in others.

For the first time in the history of the world, there is a medium that is beginning to be universally available which can allow us to take direct control of our national destinies. Even better, this medium could conceivably help us to shape the whole planet's future.

Already I see groups around the globe whose interests lie outside the traditional "God-and-Country" parameters that have made warfare and wholesale slaughter of like-minded individuals one of this planet's enduring artifacts.

My stepson, for instance, has been in touch with other young people around the world who happen to share his taste in music. This group's political boundaries have more to do with funk than federalism and they're more likely to bash a less-hip musical style than each other.

Indeed, imagine how many wars would be stopped if the citizens of the opposing sides were in touch via e-mail. People would quickly learn that the other side was no more eager to see their children sacrificed to political ends than the other.

To be sure, there are lots of issues to address. As we speak, Internet access tends to belong to an economic elite, and there would have to be guaranteed universal access to make this scheme work. Security and identification would have to be first-rate, lest the politicians turn from tactics like registering the deceased to hacking routers. Strong encryption, and digital signatures for every citizen, would be a basic requirement.

We would have to learn how to make this new way work, but I, for one, am willing to give it a go.

cg@gulker.com

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