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Posts Tagged ‘censorship

“Everything faded into mist. The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth.”*…

A bonfire burned on Berlin’s most important thoroughfare, Unter den Linden, just opposite the Friedrich Wilhelm University on May 10, 1933. Watched by a cheering crowd of almost 40,000, a group of students marched toward the flames, carrying the bust of the Jewish intellectual Magnus Hirschfeld, and threw it atop thousands of seized books by other “un-German” writers. Rows of young men in Nazi uniforms gave the Heil Hitler salute, while similar scenes took place in 90 other locations across Germany. The bonfires were a warning sign of the attack on knowledge about to be unleashed by the Nazi regime; more than 100 million books may have been destroyed during the Holocaust.

“There is no political power without power over the archive,” the French philosopher Jacques Derrida wrote in his classic work Archive Fever. Authoritarian rulers have long understood the truth of this statement. But what does it mean in the Digital Age?

To many, libraries seem less important than ever—everything’s online, isn’t it? Yet control of knowledge remains a key battleground in the fight for democracy. At the outset of the Trump presidency in January 2017, his adviser Kellyanne Conway was claiming “alternate facts.” By the end of his presidency, after years of dishonesty, Trump sought to reverse his electoral loss with a “firehose of falsehood” strategy, persisting with the obfuscation even after a mob of supporters stormed the Capitol.

Protecting democracies against “alternate facts” means capturing the truth as well as statements that deny it, so that open societies have reference points to trust and rely on. For over three millennia, librarians and archivists have developed systems, methodologies, techniques and an ethos for preservation to ensure that knowledge persists. Their focus on facts underpins integrity in public decision-making; enables a sense of place in our communities; and ensures diversity of ideas, opinions and memory.

By contrast, recent cases of “book-burning” remind us of how ominous the destruction of information is. During the Bosnian War, the mass murder of humans went alongside the destruction of libraries and archives. Serb forces targeted the National Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina with incendiary shells in August 1992, while forces raided provincial archives across the country to destroy records of land ownership as a means of eradicating the official memory of where Muslims had lived. Millions of books and documents in libraries and archives all over Bosnia and Kosovo were destroyed in the ethnic conflicts of the former Yugoslavia—attacks that became part of the charge sheets at the International Criminal Tribunal in the former Yugoslavia.

Officials in South Africa’s apartheid regime destroyed documents on a massive scale too. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was hampered by this; in its final report, it devoted an entire section to the destruction of records. “The story of apartheid is, amongst other things, the story of the systematic elimination of thousands of voices that should have been part of the nation’s memory,” it said. “The tragedy is that the former government deliberately and systematically destroyed a huge body of state records and documentation in an attempt to remove incriminating evidence and thereby sanitize the history of oppressive rule.”

In Iraq, after the American-led coalition invaded in 2003, U.S. forces moved many of the key state records to the United States, where some, such as the archives of the Ba’ath Party, remained until recently. Just as the eradication of records can presage violence, the recent return of these documents can, I hope, form part of a process of national “truth and reconciliation” in Iraq.

Librarians today are not the stereotype of tweed-wearing introverts obsessed with enforcing silence. They are skilled professionals, often with subject-domain specialisms, adept at navigating physical and digital forms of knowledge–trained in project management and budgetary controls, and well-versed in deploying new technologies to support the public in identifying bogus online information, while using digitization to preserve fragile documents.

Digital technology lends itself to extraordinary archival projects, as in the work of the organization Mnemonic, whose Syrian Archive contains millions of online records about the civil war, alongside a Yemeni Archive and a Sudanese Archive, providing historians, journalists and international criminal lawyers the information to understand these conflicts. Other archival projects online include the Xinjiang Victims Database, which aims to document the Chinese campaign against the Uyghurs and other indigenous groups in northwest China.

As for institutional libraries and archives, they are highly trusted by the public—yet are experiencing declining levels of funding. This is happening when knowledge is increasingly held in digital form, controlled not by public institutions but by tech companies. How can we protect society from the “power over the archive” exercised by private corporations? Greater regulation should sit alongside a new role for libraries as citizens’ data sanctuaries, accountable to the public, and funded by a tax on tech-industry profits.

Looking back at the Nazi book-burnings in 1933, this low moment for human truth had lesser-known responses that should not be forgotten. Exactly a year later, on May 10, 1934, the Deutsche Freiheitsbibliothek (German Freedom Library, also known as the German Library of Burnt Books) opened in Paris, founded by German-Jewish writer Alfred Kantorowicz, with support from writers and intellectuals such as André Gide, Bertrand Russell and Heinrich Mann. Rapidly, it collected more than 20,000 volumes—not just the books that had been targeted for burning in Germany but also copies of key Nazi texts, in order to help understand the emerging regime.

The Brooklyn Jewish Center in New York established an American Library of Nazi-Banned Books in December 1934, with noted intellectuals on its advisory board, including Albert Einstein and Upton Sinclair. The library proclaimed itself a means of preserving and promoting Jewish culture at a time of renewed oppression.

If we are to heed George Orwell’s warning in Nineteen Eighty-Four—“The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth”—then we must ensure that libraries and archives have the resources and public support to serve as our guardians of knowledge.

Bodley’s Librarian Richard Ovenden (@richove), author of the essential (and gripping) Burning the Books- A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge, explains why rampant dishonesty reminds us that we must preserve documents. Even– indeed, especially– in the Digital Age, archivists are crucial: “Facts in Flames.

Your correspondent supports institutional archives like Richard’s (Oxford’s Bodleian Library), the Harvard Libraries, and The New York Public Library; and the digital archive that’s the mother of them all, the remarkable Internet Archive. You might consider contributing to them or to the archives of your choice.

And, of course, we should all support our public libraries, which democratize access to information and knowledge and build community in ways that are critical to a healthy society and to constructive civil discourse.

* George Orwell, 1984

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As we prioritize preservation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1919 that fiery hot molasses poured into the streets of Boston, killing 21 people and injuring scores of others– the Great Boston Molasses Flood:

The United States Industrial Alcohol building was located on Commercial Street near North End Park in Boston. It was close to lunch time on January 15 and Boston was experiencing some unseasonably warm weather as workers were loading freight-train cars within the large building. Next to the workers was a 58-foot-high tank filled with 2.5 million gallons of crude molasses.

Suddenly, the bolts holding the bottom of the tank exploded, shooting out like bullets, and the hot molasses rushed out. An eight-foot-high wave of molasses swept away the freight cars and caved in the building’s doors and windows. The few workers in the building’s cellar had no chance as the liquid poured down and overwhelmed them.

The huge quantity of molasses then flowed into the street outside. It literally knocked over the local firehouse and then pushed over the support beams for the elevated train line. The hot and sticky substance then drowned and burned five workers at the Public Works Department. In all, 21 people and dozens of horses were killed in the flood. It took weeks to clean the molasses from the streets of Boston.

This disaster also produced an epic court battle, as more than 100 lawsuits were filed against the United States Industrial Alcohol Company. After a six-year-investigation that involved 3,000 witnesses and 45,000 pages of testimony, a special auditor finally determined that the company was at fault because the tank used had not been strong enough to hold the molasses. Nearly $1 million [over $15.5 million in today’s dollars] was paid in settlement of the claims…

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“One should aim not at being possible to understand, but at being impossible to misunderstand”*…

Here’s an ambiguous sentence for you: “Because of the agency’s oversight, the corporation’s behavior was sanctioned.” Does that mean, “Because the agency oversaw the company’s behavior, they imposed a penalty for some transgression,” or does it mean, “Because the agency was inattentive, they overlooked the misbehavior and gave it their approval by default”? We’ve stumbled into the looking-glass world of contronyms—words that are their own antonyms…

This phenomenon is called enantiosemy, enantionymy (enantio- means “opposite”), antilogy or autantonymy; an enantiosemic term is necessarily polysemic.

Contronyms, also known as auto-antonyms or autantonyms– or just as Janus words: “25 Words That Are Their Own Opposites.”

For a longer list, see “75 Contronyms.”

* Quintilian (Marcus Fabius Quintilianus)

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As we note that context is everything, we might recall that it was on this date (which is, by the way, Fibonacci Day) in 1644 that John Milton published Areopagitica; A speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, to the Parlament of England.  A prose polemic opposing licensing and censorship, it is among history’s most influential and impassioned philosophical defenses of the principle of a right to freedom of speech and expression.  The full text is here.

409px-Areopagitica_1644bw_gobeirne

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Written by LW

November 23, 2020 at 1:01 am

“I traveled far and wide through many different times”*…

Fifty years ago this month Harold D. Craft, Jr., published a remarkable black-on-white plot in his Ph.D. dissertation at Cornell University. A stacked series of jagged lines displayed incoming radio waves from pulsar CP1919, as detected at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Several months later the chart appeared as a full-page visualization in Scientific American, this time with white lines on a field of cyan [above]…

Scientific American

In 1977, the image was included in The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Astronomy

… where, two years after that, Factory Records graphic genius Peter Saville discovered it and adapted it as the cover art for Joy Division’s debut album, Unknown Pleasures. He reversed the image from black-on-white to white-on-black, against the band’s stated preference for the original. “I was afraid it might look a little cheap. I was convinced that it was just sexier in black.”

It has, of course, become an icon.

* Joy Division, “Wilderness,” from Unknown Pleasures

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As we tap our toes, we might recall that it was on this date in 1985 that the U.S. Senate held hearings on what they called “porn rock.” The session was convened at the urging of the Parents Music Resource Center, a group founded by Tipper Gore, wife of Senator and later Vice President Al Gore; Susan Baker, wife of Treasury Secretary James Baker; Pam Howar, wife of Washington realtor Raymond Howar; and Sally Nevius, wife of former Washington City Council Chairman John Nevius, and devoted to forcing the music industry to affix Parental Advisory stickers– “warning labels”– to albums and CDs deemed to contain morally challenged material (like the “Filthy Fifteen” songs the group condemned).

Three musicians– Frank Zappa, John Denver, and Dee Snyder– testified in opposition to the proposal at the hearing… which was in the end moot, as the industry, afraid of negative publicity, agreed voluntarily to begin the labeling.

It is unclear that the “Tipper sticker” was/is effective in preventing children from being exposed to explicit content. Some, citing the “forbidden-fruit effect,” suggest that the sticker in fact increases record sales, arguing as Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind & Fire has: “for the most part [the sticker] might even sell more records… all you’ve got to do is tell somebody this is a no-no and then that’s what they want to go see.”

Tipper Gore at the hearing

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“To treat the founding documents as Scripture would be to become a slave to the past”*…

 

Constitution

 

As historians from James MacGregor Burns to Jill Lepore remind us, the United States was– and is– an experiment.  The Constitution was the collective best effort of the Framers to write the first draft of an operating manual for the society they hoped it to be– a society unique in its time in its commitment to political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people– what Jefferson called “these truths.”

But like any wise group of prototypers, they assumed that their design would be refined through experience, that their “manual” would be updated… though even then Benjamin Franklin shared Jefferson’s worry [see the full title quote below] that American’s might treat their Constitution as unchangeable…

Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.  -Benjamin Franklin, letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy (13 November 1789)

The Framers expected– indeed, they counted on– their work being revised…

Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.   -Thomas Jefferson, letter to H. Tompkinson (AKA Samuel Kercheval) (12 July 1816)

Jesse K. Phillips has found a beautifully-current– and equally beautifully-concrete– way to capture the commitment to learning and improving that animated the Framers: he has put the Constitution onto GitHub, the software development platform that hosts reams of (constantly revised) open source code (and that was featured in yesterday’s (Roughly) Daily.)

[Image above: source]

* “To treat the founding documents as Scripture would be to become a slave to the past. ‘Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched,’ Jefferson conceded. But when they do, ‘They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human [and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment].”‘

― From Jill Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States

 

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As we hold those truths to be inalienable, we might recall that it was on this date (which is, by the way, Fibonacci Day) in 1644 that John Milton published Areopagitica; A speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, to the Parlament of England.  A prose polemic opposing licensing and censorship, it is among history’s most influential and impassioned philosophical defenses of the principle of a right to freedom of speech and expression.  The full text is here.

409px-Areopagitica_1644bw_gobeirne source

 

 

 

“Those who are easily shocked should be shocked more often”*…

 

bodleian

Interior of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, by David Loggan, 1675. Rijksmuseum.

 

In the nineteenth century some librarians became preoccupied with the morality or lack thereof displayed in some of their texts. Consequently a number of libraries created special shelf marks or locations for restricted books to ensure that only readers with a proper academic purpose might access them…

Take a tour of the restricted collections in remarkable libraries: “Do Not Read.”

* Mae West

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As we cover our eyes, we might consider censorship’s close cousin, misinformation: it was on this date in 1964 that Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.  A response to a reported attack by the North Vietnamese Navy on the destroyer USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin, the Resolution gave President Lyndon B. Johnson authorization, without a formal declaration of war by Congress, for the use of conventional military force in Southeast Asia– a right that Johnson exercised vigorously.

In 1967, A senate Foreign Relations Committee investigation determined that the incident had not unfolded as earlier reported, and repealed the Resolution.  An NSA study of the incident, declassified in 2005, put it bluntly: “It is not simply that there is a different story as to what happened; it is that no attack happened that night.”

275px-Tonkin_Gulf_Resolution source

 

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