As a rule, the tone of these articles for the past 2½ years has been a bit negative. That’s the nature of the beast: pointing out the inanity, past and present, of listening to con men and their flunkies tell us what God wants us to do. This piece is the other 1%: a paean to someone standing up for truth, even when it is inconvenient to do so. I speak of our Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, and her speech last week on internet freedom.
Secretary Clinton spoke at the “Newseum,” a Washington landmark dedicated to the freedoms Americans enjoy under the First Amendment to the Constitution – carved in 50 tons of marble on the building’s exterior. She started with the usual banality about how marvelous the internet is, then got a little saltier when talking about governments around the world who are engaged in censoring it. China is the most well-known offender, but Clinton slammed Muslim-dominated governments as well. She picked on not just our enemy Iran, but even our so-called ally, Saudi Arabia, which routinely blocks people’s access to internet sites not in strict conformance with Wahhabi Islam. Just within the past year, she pointed out, Uzbekistan and even a relatively moderate Muslim country like Tunisia have tightened the screws on what their people are allowed to look at online.
She even took the controversial step of singling out for praise one American company – Google – while criticizing its rivals, which she was polite enough not to mention by name. (I’m less polite: the bad guys here are Microsoft and Yahoo.) Google is thumbing its nose at the biggest, fastest-growing market in the world for its products, simply because it is sick of cooperating with Chinese censorship. In a civilized country like this one, if you go to Google’s search engine and type in something like “God experts,” at the top of your list will appear links to some truly fascinating information. In China, Google has to pay whole rooms full of employees to make sure its product does not enable people to reach a website saying something like “The Chinese government is filled with selfish morons and goons who care more about their own aggrandizement than about their people’s access to the truth.” (Note to honorable Chinese censor: I’m not saying that … I’m just suggesting that someone else might.)
Google is now officially tired of it, and is not going to play anymore, even if that hurts its future profits. Microsoft and Yahoo are greedily looking to pick up the pieces – I wonder if their salesmen suck up to the government by bragging about how much stricter their censors are than those slackers over at the other shop? Secretary Clinton came down hard on Google’s side: “We are urging U.S. media companies to take a proactive role in challenging foreign governments’ demands for censorship and surveillance. The private sector has a shared responsibility to help safeguard free expression. And when their business dealings threaten to undermine this freedom, they need to consider what’s right, not simply what’s a quick profit.”
Information is the humanist sacrament. It is what we revere. We know we are all stuck on this planet together, and we need to wake up every day and figure out the best way to get along. The more and the better information we have, the better we can do that, and the better we can counter the experts who tell us that we don’t need to learn anything new, because they already know what’s best for us.
In the Middle Ages, there was precious little information to go around. In 1424, the Cambridge University library owned a total of 122 books—each of which had a value equal to a farm. This made it relatively easy for the Church of Rome to tell everyone what to do, especially with regard to the disposition of their money. The stake in the heart of Church power was the development of the printing press, and the resulting explosion of access to information across Europe. As Bibles proliferated, people began to notice that Church dogmas like Purgatory, indulgences, and infant baptism never appeared in it – so why did the reigning God experts insist on their truth? Then came the explosion of knowledge now called the “scientific revolution,” which among other things extinguished smallpox from the earth. As information spread, people like Desiderius Erasmus and Baruch Spinoza began questioning the Bible itself, noting that it was brimming with self-contradictions and mistakes. Erasmus found an average of one translation error on every single page of the New Testament officially approved by the Church.
The 18th century had no internet, but it did witness a leap forward in information nearly as profound as that of the internet in the 1990s. Denis Diderot conceived the idea of assembling a vast quantity of the most modern information available from the most eminent scholars of France into a single compendium, which he called the Encyclopédie. The idea caught fire among French humanists, including the magnificent Voltaire, who envisioned the Encyclopédie as a powerful tool for pushing back the forces of darkness. So did the forces of darkness, which like today’s internet censors did everything they could to prevent the Encyclopédie from being published and distributed. More than once the French government, at the insistence of the Church, banned its publication and smashed the plates, at one point suggesting that the project be turned over to the Jesuits for completion. Still Diderot persisted, using hidden printing presses and assorted skullduggery to embarrass a government that was sluggish and inept. It may not be an overstatement to suggest that the Encyclopédie was the single most important factor that ultimately led to the French Revolution.
The French humanists had to fight censorship on their own, without foreign help. What makes Secretary Clinton’s initiative so remarkable is that she is offering concrete assistance to lovers of information in China, Iran, and elsewhere, as a central tool of American foreign policy. One thing we are still good at is hacking; our government is now devoting resources to help hackers in other countries wiggle their way past the censors to get at the world of information now available on the internet. Clinton also cited the Senate’s recent bipartisan approval of the “VOICE Act,” which according to the official press release authorizes $20 million to “counter efforts to block, censor, or monitor the Internet in Iran.” That is so cool; I get goose bumps just thinking about it.
China doesn’t like this, any more than the French cardinals liked the Encyclopédie. So now the Communist Party People’s Daily is accusing Google of being a tool of Washington’s “internet hegemony.” Damn straight! Clinton said that America actually does stand for something: “We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas.” If you want to call that “internet hegemony,” fine. As Clinton bluntly put it, we invented it, and we’re the ones called on to pay in money and blood every time some tyrannical expert decides to impose his own thinking on his neighbors by force. Information terrifies totalitarians; let’s see how they deal with an army of American hackers, marching along the irreverent trail blazed by Denis Diderot, who are actually getting paid by the American government for what they do!