This is taken from a response I made on a mailing list discussing technical means of implementing “filtering”, or computerized censorship, of children’s access to the internet in a school environment.
I’m a bit disturbed when I hear people using the euphemism “filtering” for automated, computerized censorship. I understand there may be legislative or political mandates. However, we should never talk about this as though it is a good or desirable or acceptable thing.
I realize this may be seen as off topic from the merely technical discussion of how to implement computerized censorship, but when we calmly discuss technicalities of something which is obviously wrong without questioning it, then the discussion needs to be aired.
“Filtering” is what you do to the water in a fish tank. “Censorship” is when a state or quasi-state agency proscribes and limits access to certain classes of written material.
Here are a few tests we should apply to any such proposed system.
Does it allow access to information about “Romeo and Juliet”? (Underage sex, gang-oriented violence, suicide, murder)
Does it allow access to “Huckleberry Finn” (Slavery, frequent use of the word “nigger”)
Does it allow access to “The Catcher in the Rye” (Use of “fuck”, blasphemy, drinking, smoking, lying, promiscuity, implied pederasty)
Does it allow access to “Heather has Two Mommies” (Lesbianism)
Does it allow access to “Our Bodies, Ourselves” (Information about human health, sex and sexuality)
Does it allow access to “Slaughterhouse-Five” (Genocide, strategic bombing, sex)
Does it allow access to “Of Mice and Men” (Retardation, sex, rape, murder)
Does it allow access to “The Handmaid’s Tale” (Sexual roles, patriarchy, racism, and theocracy)
Does it allow access to “The Kite Runner” (Homosexuality, rape)
Does it allow access to “His Dark Materials” (Anti-state, anti-catholic, magic and witchcraft)
Does it allow access to “One Hundred Years of Solitude” (Alchemy, murder, debauchery)
Does it allow access to “1984” (Torture, illicit sex, anti-state and anti-party politics)
Does it allow access to “Canterbury Tales” (Promiscuity, anti-clericalism)
Does it allow access to “The Decameron” (Anti-state, anti-Catholic and general ribaldry, such as the Third Day, Tenth Story, “How to put the Devil in Hell”)
And in terms of websites particularly,
Sites which criticize the ruling party or government.
Sites which criticize or parody the predominant religion.
Blogs, in general
And classes of internet services such as
Peer-to-peer file-sharing services such as Bittorrent, EMule, Gnutella
In general, censorship is bad and morally wrong; and automated, computerized censorship especially so; and we should never refer to it by a purpose-made and innocuous-sounding term like “filtering” or treat it as though it is morally or pedagogically acceptable.
What progress we are making. In the Middle Ages they would have burned me. Now they are content with burning my books.
–Sigmund Freud, 1933
Copyright © 2009 Henry Edward Hardy
Murder and Mystery in Medieval Cambridge:
Mistress of the Art of Death
G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2007
reviewed by Henry Edward Hardy
Mistress of the Art of Death (G. P. Putnam, 2007) is an engrossing yarn of skullduggery and forensic pathology in 12th-Century Cambridge, England. The protagonist is one Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar or “Dr. Trotula”, a physician and “doctor to the dead” from Salerno in the Kingdom of Sicily.
Adelia and her companions, Simon, a Jewish Italian “fixer” and Mansur, an Algerian eunuch, are sent on a mission by the King of Sicily to the aid of the Jews of Cambridge. This is not the Cambridge of the eponymous University. This is an earlier Cambridge, a prosperous merchant town with a small port, several Roman roads, a native wool industry and a Jewish quarter.
Adelia and her companions must redeem the Jews of Cambridge, who are interned in the local Royal Castle while under suspicion of murder and child crucifixion. She must gain the trust of the local people while investigating the awful murders and fending off the mostly unwelcome attentions of the local knights and crusaders.
The recreation of medieval life is serviceable, but as the author notes in an afterword there are a number of anachronisms. The town itself wasn’t known as “Cambridge” until hundreds of years after the time depicted. Nor would the term “doctor” have been used at that time for a physician or surgeon.
Trotula of Salerno was the reputed author of an authoritative text on women’s medicine, the Diseases of Women (Passionibus Mulierum Curandorum), also known as the Trotula Major. It is disappointing that Franklin did not acknowledge in the afterword, and odd that most reviewers have not noted, that the protagonist was based on the character of an historical author and scholar.
Mistress of the Art of Death starts with a curious sort of “over the shoulder” first person plural: “Here they come. From down the road we can hear harnesses jingling and see dust rising into the warm spring sky”. This seemed promising but likely to be a difficult conceit to carry throughout, and indeed the narrative soon assumes the more usual third person singular, only to return to the curious “we” form at the end. One suspects the heavy axe of an editor has been at work here to condense and commercialize what was probably once a bloodier, scarier, and less broadly accessible novel.
The character of Adelia presented here is that of a modern woman, scientific, irreligious, compassionate, egalitarian, and humanitarian. We don’t have the sense here that this “Dr. Trotula” would subscribe to the view presented in the Trotula Major that women are more susceptible to disease due to the “curse of Eve” resulting from the apple in the Garden of Eden. The character of the protagonist is being twisted to conform to a set of modern (or post-modern) sensibilities which would have been peculiar even to the enlightened Eleanor of Aquitaine or Empress Maud. When the book overreaches to appeal to modern sensibilities it produces a jarring effect which disturbs the “willing suspension of disbelief”
When Roger Picot, a knight of the Crusades and the erstwhile love interest, opines about what the crusades are achieving, the author is not talking only about the medieval crusades, but giving an allegory of the Iraq war: “They’re inspiring such a hatred amongst Arabs who used to hate each other that they’re combining the greatest force against Christianity the world has ever seen. It’s called Islam.”
Mistress of the Art of Death is particularly redolent of Ivanhoe, written by Sir Walter Scott and published in 1819. This novel chronicles the adventures of a young Saxon noble, Ivanhoe, in 12th century England. In Ivanhoe the essential dramatic conflict is the same as in Mistress of the Art of Death: Jews are accused of murder and witchcraft and held in the castle while the protagonist must solve the mystery while protecting the weak and innocent around themselves, as well as guarding their own reputation.
The character of King Henry Plantagenet in Mistress of the Art of Death is given sympathetic treatment as a democratically-minded monarch who falls prey to occasional carpet-chewing fits of madness. It is interesting to compare the more subtle and devious depiction of Henry in the play A Lion In Winter by James Goldman which was made into the sublime 1968 movie with Peter O’Toole as Henry and Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Mistress of the Art of Death is a well-written and engaging book which offers a peephole into the goodness and depravity, enlightenment and ignorance of an imagined world of England, 900 years ago.
A version of this article appeared previously in Current Magazine and on Electric Current.
Copyright © 2007 Henry Edward Hardy
Jimmy Carter’s Middle East Peace Plan
Palestine: Peace not Apartheid
Simon and Schuster, 2006
by Henry Edward Hardy
Palestine: Peace not Apartheid, former US President Jimmy Carter’s newest book, is a fair-minded and well-reasoned account and analysis of the past 50 years of Palestinian and Israeli relations. The inflammatory title is unfortunate: not because one could not make a case that there are similarities between the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the former white minority regime in South Africa. Simply though, it’s a case he doesn’t make. The book isn’t about apartheid, and it isn’t really mostly about Palestine per se. Rather, it is a diplomatic perspective of the history leading to the current bloody stalemate, and how in Carter’s view it might be alleviated.In many ways, Carter is an ideal interlocutor to describe and analyze the events, policies and personalities which have shaped the bloody history of Palestine and Israel. His recounting of past events and meetings, based on copious note taken by Carter and his wife Rosalynn, have the ring of truth and authenticity to them that writers like Bob Woodward must rightfully envy.
Carter cannot be justly accused of having an overly sympathetic view toward the PLO, Hamas or their elites. Similarly he clearly understands the different natures of the Arab and Israeli regimes. He says, “Only among Israelis, in a democracy with almost unrestricted freedom of speech, can one hear a wide range of opinion concerning the disputes among themselves and with Palestinians.” By contrast, Carter says, “It is almost fruitless to seek free expressions of opinion from private citizens in Arab countries with more authoritarian leadership.”
Carter begins with a succinct timeline of key events in the post-1948 history of what was previously known as Palestine under the British Mandate. His chapter on “The Key Players” has an informative summary of the narrative of key events as constructed by Israeli, Palestinian, US, and Arab officials and personalities.
Carter is not too immodest in describing the Camp David peace process that led to peace between Israel and Egypt and the Nobel Peace Prize for himself in 2004. He does speak disdainfully of the rather amateurish (in his view) efforts of the Clinton and Bush Jr. administrations, while he speaks approvingly of former Reagan Secretary of State James Baker.
It is clear that Carter has continued to play a behind-the-scenes role in the Middle East. He describes how he and the personnel of the Carter Center overcame significant obstacles in monitoring the elections for the Palestinian Parliament and President. And he describes some interesting detail of how he helped to facilitate the back-channel negotiations which led to the “Geneva Initiative”, an unofficial framework for a comprehensive negotiated solution to the illegal Israeli occupation of the land seized in the 1967 “Six Day War”.
Some of Carter’s most withering criticism pertains to what he calls Israel’s “segregation wall” separating parts of the West Bank from other parts. “Israeli leaders,” Carter writes, “are imposing a system of partial withdrawal, encapsulation, and apartheid on the Muslim and Christian citizens of the occupied territories”. Carter notes that this wall was found to be in contravention of International laws and covenants by the International Court of Justice, but that the Israeli Supreme Court and Israeli government have refused to recognize or implement this decision.
Carter understands that the basis for any permanent peace in Palestine must come within the framework of UN Security Council resolution 242, which calls for the return of land seized by Israel during the Six-Day War. Carter notes that Israel itself voted for the resolution.
Carter’s recollection of facts, dates and personalities is such that we can only wish regretfully that the current President, a man 22 years his junior, could be even half as percipient and perspicuous. Palestine: Peace not Apartheid is an admirable primer for the history of the conflict and what has brought it to the current fraught state of affairs. It is a devastating critique of Israeli diplomatic perfidy and double-dealing and of the impossible conditions of privation and despair brought about by the segmentation and fragmentation of the West Bank; the desperate poverty and malnutrition brought on by the Israeli siege, and the counterproductive spiral of suicide bombings and military reprisals it engenders.
Carter borrows from his previous book, The Blood of Abraham (Houghton Mifflin 1985), so not all of the material in this current effort can be considered entirely new. His writing style is pedestrian, although not plodding it by no means sizzles, sparkles, or snaps. He is a bit prim and patrician in his uncharitable evaluation of Clinton’s peace efforts and the current administration’s diplomatic aspirations. And his evangelical background tinges some of his perspectives with an unfortunate, and unnecessarily sectarian cast. Though imperfect, Palestine: Peace not Apartheid is a lucid, thoughtful and important book.
Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (wikipedia)
A version of this article was previously published in Current Magazine and on Electric Current.
Copyright © 2007 Henry Edward Hardy
Benevolent Giant or Pathological Monster?
by Henry Edward Hardy
Ubiquitous and powerful and yet strangely invisible in our society, the modern corporation is inescapable. We eat, drink, sleep, bathe in, wear and drive corporate products. Their influence is everywhere, but we seldom stop to observe their effects.
Enter filmmakers Jennifer Abbot and Mark Achbar. Their film, The Corporation (2003) is based on University of British Columbia Professor Joel Bakan’s book, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. The film is a neo-Marxist thesis padded with entertaining clips from archival material such as old corporate training films and cleverly edited cuts from recent news coverage.Weighing in at a hefty two-and-a-half hours, the film, like Fahrenheit 9/11, mimics the documentary style, but exploits it to present carefully edited interviews and video clips to promote a single, if somewhat incoherent, pre-determined view. These are the movie counterparts of editorial cartoons rather than the journalism per se of more traditional and balanced (and ultimately one might argue, more interesting) documentaries, such as Control Room.
The Corporation asserts that 150 years ago, corporations did not play a major role in everyday life in the United States. Without having seen the film, Professor Noel Tichy of the University of Michigan Business School, and editor of book, The Ethical Challenge: How to Lead with Unyielding Integrity, asks skeptically, “Where do they think people were getting their goods?”
Katherine Dodds is director of corporate communications for Big Picture Media, the Canadian for-profit corporation formed for the purposes of financing the film. She explains that The Corporation is really aimed at large, publicly held corporations. Dodds says 150 years ago, corporations had not yet gained their modern scope and powers granted through limited liability and the legal fiction of the “Corporate Individual.” Yet she recognizes the inherent irony that Bakan and Achbar first needed to set up a corporation in order to benefit from exactly those ubiquitous features of the modern corporation — such as limited liability — they identify as part of the problem.
The point they make, she says, is the change in the legal definition of the corporation. “One hundred years ago, the corporation was not a legal person. It did not require people to put profit above everything else.” The Corporation is effective in presenting this thesis through archival footage and talking-head interviews of left-wing pundits, reformed and semi-reformed capitalists, disillusioned journalists and whistle-blowers.
According to Dodds, the project was first edited to be three one-hour TV episodes before the removal of 20 minutes for the theatrical release. Left more or less intact, one still feels the missing commercial breaks in the choppy presentation. Perhaps this snappy and very visual presentation will better capture the minds of the attention-deficient and quasi-literate MTV generations.
The film initially presents a coherent narrative, before breaking up into disparate “case studies” which attempt to prove that if corporations are to be compared to individuals, then these companies, according the World Health Organization standard DSM-IV, should be classified as psychopaths.
Dodds accepts the fact that people are likely to have different reactions to the film. “There could be those who are like, ‘Dude, tear down the corporation, down with all of capitalism all over.’ You can have differing views on whether corporations should exist at all, but I think where we come down is saying, ‘They should not have this kind of power.'”
While maintaining that corporations are “the wealth producing-instrument in society,” Tichy endorses Canadian economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s view that strong democratic institutions, both governmental and private, are needed as part of the necessary checks and balances on strong corporations. In the words of the 1998 edition of the UN Human Development Report, “Strong institutions, free from corruption, are needed to enforce regulations in such areas as rights to land, security of tenure in housing and accurate information on consumer goods to protect the interests of poor people.”
However, the movie compares the modern corporation to the Catholic Church or Communist Party of other times and places. Tichy challenges this notion, saying “Those were monopolies,” noting that corporations do not form a monolithic block in society. Subject to regulation, public pressure and competition, corporations are born and die, or are absorbed, regularly. He says even the very great, such as Microsoft, will be brought down by a combination of consumer preference, competition and regulation in the public interest.
Using as examples AT&T, IBM, Digital Equipment and Compaq, Tichy says the market and the structure of a democratic society will by nature break up unhealthy monopolies and concentrations of political power and wealth.
Tichy also wryly notes that public confidence in corporations as institutions and in businessmen as individuals of good character and public trust is at an all-time low, rivaling the (un)popularity of politicians and journalists.
Resulting from scandals, such as Imclone, Enron and recent cases involving defense contractors, public confidence in business institutions is “terrible,” Tichy says, and that corporations viewing their relationship with the public as “damaged” are “desperate to demonstrate and rebuild trust.”
Dodds warns of companies desperate for that quick fix may use a tactic she calls “greenwashing,” in which a few cosmetic changes are trumpeted and magnified by media manipulation into looking like a whole-hearted reversal of irresponsibility.
Such an example in the film is the designer firm Liz Claiborne, which advertises that proceeds from the sale of a $127 coat go to children’s charities. What the company doesn’t reveal, as the film claims, is that the jacket was produced by women and girls as young as 14, who were each paid approximately eight cents per jacket.
The film does champion some elites, such as reformed capitalist Ray Anderson of Interface Carpet. Having gone through some kind of epiphany after reading Paul Hawkins’s book, The Ecology of Commerce, Anderson cheerfully condemns himself and his fellows as “plunderers” who are destroying the earth. His interview has a queer aura to it, as if filmed for a 1970s-era post-apocalyptic science fiction thriller — a sort of Battle for the Planet of Soylent Green, perhaps. Yet one must wonder exactly how sincere he is since he hasn’t given up the business, and has found such an articulate way of deflecting opprobrium with studied and apparently sincere self-criticism.
While the film is quirky, self-referential, humorous and informative, Dodds says a proscriptive solution isn’t offered because many of the people appearing in the film each have their own disparate ideas and ideologies. Michael Moore, she says, is urging people to get involved in the electoral system, while Noam Chomsky is a “Chomskian anarchist.” She also says the movie is intended as a lead-in to the Web site (www.thecorporation.tv), where specific multimedia presentations from varying perspectives suggest how viewers can “get involved.”
Had it remained a three-part TV series, The Corporation would have been better. As a movie, it is at once both over-long and maddeningly incomplete, yet still eminently deserving of further examination. Without the blistering white-hot sarcasm of Fahrenheit 9/11 and lacking the balanced view of Control Room, The Corporation still has many virtues that make it worth watching. The sound and video editing are very well done, and Abbott and her crew have done yeoman work in assembling and splicing together various archival and historical clips in a way which is both humorous and engaging, and relevant and informative. While the talking heads are tendentious — and heavily edited — there are worse heads than Howard Zinn, Moore and Chomsky to see talking.
A version of this article appeared previously in Current Magazine and on Electric Current.
Copyright © 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 Henry Edward Hardy