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Welcome to the dark side. In this section we examine various social structures that do not embrace intellectual freedom. Democracy and intellectual freedom enjoy a symbiotic, mutually nurturing, relationship, which tends to be self correcting when it works well. When, for instance, a government makes rules that suspend freedoms for the sake of preserving the institution, the system chaffs and will eat at itself until the imbalance is returned to a normal state. Systems of governance that employ controls on its citizens access to information and impose limits on their self expression do so in an attempt to manage the culture and society for the purpose of maintaining control. The low hanging fruit of this example would be Germany’s Third Reich, Tojo’s Japan, and Moussolini’s Italy. They were our Axis of Evil in the early middle years of the last century. All of them maintained strict standards of behavior, limits on what its citizens could have access to in regards to world news, and had high expectations for the personal commitment of its people towards the welfare of the state.


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Photo: German students burn books with unGerman ideas on May 10, 1933. [1]

More subtle are the nuanced controls that happen even in democratic governments during times of difficulty. Our own nation’s struggles from the times of slavery where teaching a slave to read was a crime to our recent struggles with the Patriot Act, all indicate that the maintenance of intellectual freedom is a constant struggle. But it is not always by government edict that our freedom to have access to information and rights to personal expression are threatened. Sometimes strong cultural or societal forces rise to suppress opposing points of view to solidify their power base. Silencing opposing views through force or intimidation has long been a fundamental tool for those seeking to gain or maintain control over a given populace. Examples of these tactics creating formidable obstacles to those who cherish freedom of thought are to be found in each phase of human history but some carry with it the stuff of legend. One such tragic episode took place in the year 415 CE in the city of Alexandria.
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Into this setting we introduce Hypatia, daughter of Theon, himself a noted scholar at the library. She was encouraged from childhood to embrace learning being sent to Athens and Italy to study. She became a great mathematician, astronomer and philosopher. The classes and lectures she gave at the library were popular among the rich and influential of the city and she was highly regarded among her colleagues. Considered of uncommon beauty, Hypatia enjoyed free access to society becoming close friends with the Roman Prefect Orestes, and openly riding her chariot to and from her work at the library. This was her life in a time where women were considered little more than property. She was a Pagan though she had many Christian friends. Her refusal to accept the Christianity, her popularity with students and scholars, and her friendship with Orestes, brought her the unwelcome attention of Cyril, a Bishop who railed at her and her pagan beliefs from the pulpit.[2]

Then, in 415 CE, an angry mob of Christian fanatics set upon Hypatia as she was driving her chariot home from a lecture at the library. The mob was believed to be led by a man called Peter the Reader, a devotee of Cyril’s. They dragged her from her chariot and stripped her naked. Accounts vary as to whether she was led through the streets in disgrace to a church where she was murdered, but all accounts agree that the fanatics tore the living flesh from her bones using broken shards of pottery then burned her remains. Almost all of Hypatia’s published works were eventually lost with the decline of the library. A few of her inventions, like the hydrometer used to measure the density of water, made it out of Alexandria before her murder, but for the most part her works have been lost to history. Cyril was sainted by the church.

Through the dark agGalileo.jpges superstition and religious zealotry worked hand in hand to maintain the appropriate level of societal ignorance. Free thought was not only discouraged, in many instances it was punishable by law. One of the more famous of the martyrs of intellectual freedom was Galileo Galilei an Italian scientist in the 1600’s. Such was his impact on how we think about the universe, that Steven Hawking is quoted as saying, “Galileo, perhaps more than any other single person, was responsible for the birth of modern science.” He made many important discoveries and charted many heretofore unexplored pathways through the cosmos. But his great crime was to support heliocentrism, or the theory that the sun was the center of the solar system as opposed to geocentrism, the belief that the universe is earth centered. He defended his theory in a publication he titled, “Dialog Concerning the Two Chief World Systems” which was published in 1632. Church fathers were not amused and Galileo was forced to recant his beliefs, publicly, and spend the rest of his life under house arrest. [3]

In a far more modern test of intellectual freedom, we move forward just short of 300 years to 1925. The State of Tennessee passed a law making it illegal to teach “any theory that denies the story of the divine creation of man as taught in the bible”, forbidding the teaching of the Theory of Evolution. A general science teacher by the name of John Scopes was charged for that crime setting the stage for one of the most spectacular jury trials of the century. Two titans of the legal profession , Clarance Darrow defending Scopes and three time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan leading the prosecution, headlined the trial. Although Scopes was found guilty the verdict was reversed on appeal . Though a case that was meant to examine the innocence or guilt of Scopes in his actions, it became a pivotal point in the American jurisprudence regarding the state’s ability to restrict free thought. [4]

Modern times offer no sanctuary for those who hold intellectual freedom as an inalienable right. Certainly there are examples of blatant restrictions throughout the world. China is perhaps the most striking example of a nation struggling with itself over the issue. Though continuing a very strict hold on its citizens access to certain types of information, the Chinese authorities recognize the need for a reevaluation of what kinds of information they allow as they in their role as an international commerce powerhouse. But countries like China, North Korea and Cuba have long been held up as examples of oppressive governments where intellectual freedom is concerned. [5]

More worrisome, perhaps, is where we see the Russian government beginning to reassert itself as a heavy hand particularly in its media’s coverage of political and world issues. Another hot spot worth keeping an eye on is Italy. With its leader, Silvio Berlusconi besieged by media reports of his affairs with prostitutes and young women has begun attacks on media outlets suing two newspapers over such reports. That Berlusconi owns a large portion of his country’s television and print media brings into question a conflict of interest. He has gone on national television to call the media “scoundrels” and encourages business to buy advertising space in media outlets that are critical of him.

According to Freedom House, a Washington based NGO that monitors the freedom of the press on a worldwide basis, only about 17% of the world’s population live in a country where their media operates freely. Fully 42% live in fully restricted situations and another 41% live in partially restricted countries according to a survey compiled in 2009. The press is the canary in the coal mine where intellectual freedom is concerned. When the press is restricted, it is usually a sign that the government intends to restrict other democratic institutions. [6]


“Advocacy and belief go hand in hand. For there can be no true freedom of mind if thoughts are secure only when they are pent up.” William O. Douglas Supreme Court Justice [7]


References

[1] International News Photos. (NWDNS-208-N-39840) Still Picture Branch (NWDNS), National


[2] Hypatia of Alexandria. (n.d.). In Wikipedia the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from

[3] Galileo Galilei. (n.d.). In Wikipedia the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from

[4] Linder, D. (2008). The Scopes Trial, an Introduction. Famous Trials in American History

[5] Zissis, C., & Bhattacharji, P. (2008). Media Censorship in China.Council on Foreign Relations

[6] Freedom House. (n.d.). In Wikipedia the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from

[7] Liberal Justice. (2006). In J. Padgett (Ed.), Uncle John’s Gigantic Bathroom Reader. (pg. 198)
  • Canada: Portable Press