Censorship is no longer a plausible solution to real or perceived dangers, political issues or social problems. Prominent among its many legacies, the Internet has gravely wounded, if not killed, the very idea of censorship, probably for good.
If you have any doubts, consider "Buffy The Vampire Slayer," who, along with her many fans, has not only taken down a passel of demons but humiliated a craven corporation as well in a much more dramatic finale than the show's writers could have imagined.
The drama over the season finale of "Buffy" demonstrate that there are just too many people out there with too much access to too many computers for censorship to work anymore.
This is horrendous news to religions, governments, corporations, educational institutions, journalists, and moral gatekeepers who for centuries have been telling people what they should see, read and hear.
The "Buffy" debacle also shows us that the people who run these potent institutions still can't quite accept the reality of the new and porous world - and the free flow of information, ideas and imagery -- that is one of the hallmark accomplishments of networked computing.
The bone-headed corporation of the year award (won last year collectively by the music industry for its ostrich-like response to Mp3's) goes to the WB network, in recent weeks paralyzed with uncertainty over what to do about the second half of "Buffy's" final episode, "Graduation 2."
The network was afraid the fantasy violence sequence at Sunnyvale High's commencement ceremonies (in which the town's evil mayor was supposed to ascend to demonhood) was - in the network's words - "inappropriate" after the killings at Columbine High School in Colorado. So they cancelled it.
Shockingly dumb. Unless there are demons from Hell lurking in American high schools, it's hard to imagine how "Buffy" could have any bearing on the horrific but very rare outbursts violence that have broken out in several American high schools in recent years. Are kids who watch the show supposed to ascend from hell and grow scales?
By this logic, every rerun of "Gunsmoke" would provoke saloon shootouts all over the country. The lesson isn't that the WB is worrying about our kids, but that among media corporations, there is no such thing as principle, only greed and cowardice.
The WB might have a keen eye for teen angst and drama, but its corporate masters are sadly ignorant of the Net or the Web. As long as one employee of any company has access to a computer and a phone line -- in TV this means almost all employees -- the cancellation of popular programs like "Buffy" is inane.
George Lucas understands this principle, which is why he adroitly parceled out bits of "Phantom Menace" on the Web for months before the movie came out.
Although the season finale was banned in the United States, at least until mid-summer, "Buffy" aired as scheduled and without controversy in nearby but saner Canada (the country's schoolchildren seemed to survive the broadcast without incident).
Canadian Netizens - perhaps proving that Net citizenship may be growing as powerful as national boundaries - immediately posted digital copies of the episode on the Net. In the last episode, Buffy and her gang go after the town's mayor, who's been plotting all year to use the school's graduation for his "Ascension," whereby he morphs into an evil, giant, heavily armed serpent just as diplomas are being given out.
There is nothing in this episode which in any way evokes or is derivative or reflective of the tragedy at Columbine High School, or encourages or provokes viewers to go kill their classmates or commit other kinds of violence. Most of the movies being shown in theaters this week (and many contemporary TV shows, including the very excellent "Sopranos" "Walker, Texas Ranger," and "Jag") have more graphic yet equally unmenacing violence.
The finale - which I and many thousands of other people have seen -- is typically funny, even droll (skip the next two grafs if you want to learn absolutely nothing about the episode).
"If someone would just wake me up when it's time to go to college," pleads Buffy after one battle scene, "that would be great."
Oz: "Guys'take a moment to deal with this'we survived."
Buffy: "It was a hell of a battle."
Oz: "Not the battle'high school."
The finale is a perfect culmination of the show's wickedly funny premise - high school is a Hellmouth through which much evil enters the world. There's no demon more menacing than life among one's peers, and the real challenge isn't surviving monsters but adolescence and education itself.
Even with Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) around, a fair percentage of Sunnyvale's students get eaten, tortured or nibbled on by vampires and other demons. That this notion is a funny and perhaps even badly-needed reflection of education for millions of American schoolkids seemed lost even on the network that broadcasts "Buffy."
To suddenly declare the premise dangerous in the wake of the noxious post-Littleton hysteria is more of the opportunistic pandering media companies are notorious for. It's the exercise of hypocrisy under the guise of morality. Your viewers are not that gullible, folks. The WB has been airing a great series it doesn't have the guts or the sense to stand behind.
In canceling the finale, the WB did considerable harm. It ratified the notion that TV -- not easy access to lethal weapons, poor parenting, uninspired and oppressive education, or mental illness -- is responsible for the spate of high school murders in recent years.
On the bright side, the WB's bumbling, and the quick and devastating response of Net-savvy fans, is one more example of how power is draining away from fat corporations and towards individuals. Like it or not, fans have to be taken into account. They now have a say.
Many people on the Net are intensely connected to pop culture, and if canceling the finale in the United States was foolish, airing it in Canada and thinking it wouldn't get onto the Web was mind-numbing. On the Net, even regularly scheduled dramas and shows like "The Simpsons," "The X-Files" and "Buffy" never really go off the air - they are intensely discussed and followed and fans write new episodes all year long.
"We are the people. We have the Internet. We have the power. Any questions?" one Buffy fan asked the WB on alt.tv.buffy-v-slayer site, one of the sites where people congregating to offer online taped versions of "Graduation 2."
(If you want what is reputably believed to be the transcript of the final episode, go to: Http://www.geocities.com/TelevisionCity/Set/1858/script.html).
The WB is going ballistic over the Net's liberation of its show. "We paid nearly a million dollars for that episode. We bought the rights to it," said a network spokesman, vowing to "aggressively" fight the Net bootlegging of the season finale.
Good luck. Kiss that tape goodbye.
The network has as much chance of keeping the "Buffy" finale off the Web as Kenneth Starr does of getting back his pornographic report on Monica Lewinsky.
The WB ought to lose every penny of its million bucks, and many millions more - a richly deserved and just fine for its stupidity and cowardice.
American politicians and most of the journalists who cover them have no appetite for dealing with complex social and political issues like violence, culture and the young. But these are difficult and expensive to consider or solve. Blaming TV shows and the Internet is easy. That's why 80 per cent of Americans do it.
Clearly, this isn't going to work any more. The collapse of censorship raises lots of complex questions from traditional notions of intellectual property to how to raise children sanely and rationally. It's time to get on with thinking about them.
From hackers to pamphleteers, the long fight for the free movement of ideas and information has some odd and unlikely heroes. "Buffy The Vampire Slayer", now in the pantheon, may be the weirdest yet.