On censorship (2006)

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 "I think it's arrogant for us to walk into a country where we are just beginning operations and tell that country how to run itself...  We had a choice to enter the country and follow the law, or we had a choice not to enter the country."   -Google CEO Eric Schmidt, speaking to journalists in Beijing

Chief Says Google Won't Fight Chinese Censorship 

- New York Times, April 12, 2006 

On censorship 

Part 1

By Chris Gulker 

April 18, 2006


 Censorship, which has been much in the news lately, is hardly a 21st century phenomenon.  The 16th century saw, in 1557,  the publication of Index Librorum Prohibitorum [1], a papal list of banned books that sough to protect the faithful from immoral works rife with theological errors. And the Index was hardly history's first shot at censorship. 

 The Index was published by the Sacred Congregation of the Inquisition (yes, that Inquisition), now known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith and headed recently, until his election as Pope, by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

 Galileo's (and Copernicus') contention that the Earth revolved around the Sun were among the writings officially banned by the Church and included in the Index. So were, ultimately, works by Desiderius Erasmus, Giordano Bruno, Laurence Sterne, Voltaire, Daniel Defoe, Nicolaus Copernicus, Honoré de Balzac, Jean-Paul Sartre. France, alone, counted Rabelais, Montaigne, Descartes, La Fontaine, Pascal, Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Denis Diderot, Helvétius, Casanova, Sade, Mme De Stael, Stendhal, Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert, Alexandre Dumas, Emile Zola, Maeterlinck, Pierre Larousse, Anatole France, and Andre Gide among the banned.

 Galileo, by the way, remained on the list until 1835 [2], and the Index, now proscribing the works of virtually every great Western writer and philosopher of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, was not deprecated iuntil 1996.

 Imagine the Church was running the only search engine in 1557. In a way it was - the vast majority of 16th-century Europeans were illiterate. If one among the flock were to have a question about the nature of things, she would most likely query her confessor.  On the topic of the Earth and the Sun, it is pretty clear that no opinion formed by Galileo or Copernicus would likely be returned. 

 Indeed, the 16th century clergy were among the very few of their era  who were both literate and had the means (a book cost the equivalent of about $300) to read at all - and the Church's seminaries and universities had closely held much of the Western world's knowledge, encrypted in the Latin language, for over a millenium. Not incoincidentally, the Church was the single most powerful institution in Europe during much of the same era.

 The Church attempted to keep its hold on knowlege in the 1500s, although the invention of Gutenberg's press (in 1450) and the arrival of the first reliable postal service in the early 16th century (think: a network[3] where horses move the packets), was making it harder for the Church to keep its near-monopoly on the dissemination of knowledge. Indeed, the publication of the Bible in the vernacular of Europe's tribes, instead of Latin, is thought to have been the spark that kindled both the rise of nation-states like France and Germany, and competing religions, like those espoused by Luther and Calvin - both of which led ultimately to the decline of the influence of the Catholic Church.

 New technological means - printing and the postal network - along with rising literacy rates made the church's job of censorship much harder. The world was beginning to leak information in an unencoded form that was available to a wider audience than would be pleasing to a Church censor of that era. Indeed, the Church became so alarmed that at one point, in a classic exercise of closing the barn door after the horse has galloped, it banned the printing of Bibles in any language except Latin.

 But the information cat was out of the Latin-crypto bag, as it were. Vernacular Bibles gave people a reason to learn to read their language, and that in turn created an audience for dissidents who chose to publish and thereby question the Church's stranglehold on the interpretation of scripture (as well as all other knowledge). People who learned to read were empowered to choose what to read.

End of Censorship, Part 1.

Censorship, Part 2 is in progress.


[1] "Index Librorum Prohibitorum." Wikipedia. 2006. 19 April 2006 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Index_Librorum_Prohibitorum> 

[2] "Galileo's condemnation." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2006. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service. 19 Apr. 2006 <http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?tocId=9119720>

[3] "A shift in information processing." www.gulker.com. 2003. 19 April 2006 <http://www.gulker.com/2003/03/24.html#a1008>