May 21, 2009


"The Stoning of Soraya M" is a disturbing, devastating, yet triumphant film. The truth got out. The book was written, and now the film was made.

Soraya M. was a real woman, living in Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran. Her husband, Ali (Navid Negahban), wanted to marry another woman, had Soraya falsely accused of adultery and stoned to death. "Stoned to death," should give you the shivers. It's a hideous way to die, buried in the ground up to your waist, and then stoned to death. You can't move, you're facing your executors. You don't go right away. There's lots of blood. People left my screening theater saying: "It's like 'The Passion of the Christ.'" Indeed, some of the same filmmakers who made "The Passion" worked on "The Stoning": producer Stephen McEveety and composer John Debney. The stoning is like an agonizing "ballet." Soraya (Mozhan Marno) is in the prime of life. Soraya's doleful eyes, long brown-red ringlet hair and white bridal-like dress become matted with more and more innocent blood. We endure her passion with her. The stoning never really becomes a blood sport. That would have been easy. It gets off to a halting start, there are pauses, Soraya is still very much alive. You just won't be able to watch at a certain point. (Rated R.)

The actual stoning is at the end of the film—not sensational, but prolonged. That is, personal. At one point, it's the camera that's being stoned, so you can almost feel the rocks hail down on you. We've gotten to know Soraya by then. She is a kind woman, a good mother and as good a wife as she can be to an abusive, philandering husband. Her crime? She won't go along with the divorce because she and her children would starve. It's easy to push those who die in violent, heinous, unjust ways into some fateful, unreal realm. But we are forced to watch this travesty unfold increment by increment, compromise by compromise, intimidation by intimidation. We feel how completely trapped she is. We are forced to admit that this is a real person, as real as us. Particularly as a woman, I think: that could be me, if I was born in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"Stoning" is not all that foreign to Jews and Christians. We've heard of these things in our Bibles (including the New Testament: think Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, the stoning of Stephen). It seems that Moses allowed divorce because the only way out of a marriage for a man was the death of his wife. And it seems there were a lot of untimely deaths of wives. Jesus said that "Moses allowed divorce because of the hardness of your hearts. But it was not that way in the beginning." What happened to Adam's cry: "At last! This is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh!"??

The story/action is riveting and never lets up. There's a slightly anti-climactic period when Soraya awaits the town council's decision. She doesn't seem quite scared enough. But it's a minor flaw.

This was a story that had to be told in the name of everything decent under heaven. Soraya's aunt, Zarah, (Shohreh Aghdashloo) describes the event to an Iranian journalist (Jim Caviezel) passing through the town right after the stoning. The real-life journalist, Freidoune Sahebjam, died in 2008, and didn't get to see the film released. If you saw "Persepolis," and was as extremely disappointed as I was (a young Iranian girl is irked by the Iranian Revolution mostly because she can't be as dissolute and aimless as the West), "Stoning" tells another, much more serious story of the Revolution.

The everyday religiousness of the people is well-woven into the story. God is a part of everything. There are simply good religious people and bad religious people (because everybody's religious!), true religion and false religion. Soraya's aunt demonstrates true (spunky) religion. A simple, good man, Hashem, who ultimately caves and perjures himself against Soraya, sums up the "true religion" worldview: "God is watching." The mayor offers a distorted, "magical" prayer: Stop us, O God, if it isn't Your will. What a horrible, horrible abuse of religion! I won't spoil the movie by telling you the other gross abuses of religion. Interestingly, Soraya herself is probably the least "religious" character. She is just an upright woman. When given her chance to address the villagers, she simply says: "How can you do this to me? You know me. I am your neighbor, wife, mother, daughter."

"Stoning" is THE anti-Theology-of-the-Body movie. Even more so than decadent films. Soraya has almost no rights. She is despised for being a real woman (not a plaything or slave). For being a good woman. The film accentuates what is wrong with the whole backward—yes, backward—system of women being responsible for the honor of men. No. Men are responsible for the honor of women. If virginity and the vows of marriage are so important in these cultures, how can there possibly be a "double standard"? For what else are promiscuous men out doing other than deflowering and disrespecting women? You CAN'T have it both ways. As one woman in the movie says of their men: "They never stick up for us." Women can never win in this system. (The many demeaning attitudes towards and customs regarding women are pointed out—but not overplayed.)

Thank you to everyone (especially the men) who made this film possible. Thank you for caring about this beautiful, ordinary woman and her brave aunt who spoke out for women everywhere. Unfortunately, Soraya's stoning was not an isolated event. It's estimated that 1,000 women in the Middle East and North Africa were put to death by stoning last year. For more information:


--ABSOLUTELY REQUIRED READING about women in Islam: Ayaan Hirsi Ali's "The Caged Virgin—An Emancipation Proclamation for Women in Islam," "Infidel" (her autobiography) and Benazir Bhutto's "Reconciliation." Ayaan is an easy read, Benazir is dense.

--Will there be an outcry from Iran or the Islamic world regarding this film?

--Did American feminists of the 70's go abroad and help women in other countries in any kind of a big way? See the wonderful, small doc, "Kabul Beauty School," about present-day American women teaching Cosmetology to women in Afghanistan.

--Another very important issue: FGM (female genital mutilation)—so-called "female circumcision": Sorry, you can't circumcise a female. Jay Leno's wife has been fighting this for a long time.

--The whole film is in Persian with subtitles, but the dialogue is quick and easy, shot mostly in close up. Non-tedious reading.

--We are God's wife. God would never let us undergo that. He not only takes on the pain FOR his Bride, but He takes on the pain OF His Bride.

--Agisherderloo is a bit theatrical, but I haven't seen her in anything else. However, this lends her character the air of a kind of prophet, because she sees the stoning as a kind of cosmic happening that she's determined to tell the world.

--As in "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," there's the "reality jumping out at you" moment when Zarah says: "The whole world will know what happened here!"

--Why do people insist on eating popcorn at these types of movies?

--Women in audience crying. I wonder what the men were feeling?

--I would have just run and not stopped running out of the town and fought every inch of the way. I would not have gone with Soraya's quiet dignity.

--Many of the actors are Iranian ex-pats.

--Jim Caviezel, once again speaking a foreign language, has a small "bookend" part that he acts very well. If you didn't know who he was, you'd really think he was Iranian.

--The film starts off with a quote from one of my favorite Islamic writers: Hafiz!

--Will this movie (and the activism it inspires) help bring an end to this barbarism? Like the monk responsible for the end of the gladiators, or the (Dialogue of the) Carmelites who were some of the last slaughterees of the Reign of Terror?

--The "See? All religion is violent" crowd may have a field day with this.

May 20, 2009



To ask Americans whether or not they are for/against abortion (and to gauge the answers as truly indicative of a culture of life) is NOT helpful.

Americans are an optimistic, hope-filled people. We are, in some ways, a "culture of life." But the better question is: "If I found myself with an 'unwanted'* pregnancy [this question could hold for women and men]--what would I DO?" But this, too, is a hypothetical question. The real question is "What DO Americans DO?"--not what do they SAY they BELIEVE. Allegedly, U.S. abortions went up in January for the first time in a long time.

The "abortion question" is a band-aid question. We need to be asking the diagnostic questions: "What do you believe/do about outside-of-marriage sex?" "What do you believe/do about artificial contraception?" "What do you believe the human person is?" "What do you believe true love is?" "Should love and life ever be separated?" "What happens when they are?"

As Pope Benedict so simply and beautifully put it in regard to AIDS and condoms in Africa: "We need a new way of relating to each other as persons." (Harvard University research shows that condoms DO spread AIDS--the AIDS virus easily passes through the porous condom. This fact has been surpressed for a long time.) Uganda has cut new cases of AIDS by 50% by putting into practice the "beat AIDS by fidelity to your marriage partner" campaign.


*"Unwanted" is relative. Unwanted by ME, not by millions of other people. And ironically, it's MY child that's unwanted by ME, while millions of other people want MY child.

May 13, 2009


Dan Brown has—with the inexplicable help of Hollywood (Howard/Hanks)—created his own genre of film. The "Dan Brown" Genre. That is, fantasy--VERY loosely based on reality—fantasy when Dan Brown says it is, and reality when Dan Brown says it is. Facts be darned. History be darned. And now, science be darned. This new genre could also be called the "Simon Says" Genre.

Why do I say that Hollywood (Howard/Hanks) has inexplicably aided DB? Doesn't money explain all things? No. There are standards in Hollywood. If something exists in reality, like say, oh, the Catholic Church, or a certain landmark, or period in history, or discovery of science, one must present it as accurately as possible. It's called "verisimilitude." So, if you show an airplane pilot in a cockpit in a movie, you must take the time to learn the real names of the controls, the jargon pilots use, etc., so that 1) you introduce the audience to this world into which they would otherwise not gain access 2) the audience will have a simulated experience of this world 3) the audience will come along with you for the ride because they can trust your basic foundation for the story 4) experts in the field (pilots) will be able to say: "they got it right." Fiction/fantasy employs some semblance of reality from which the imagination then jumps off ("what if"?). Otherwise, we have entered the world of the hubristic babblings of someone too lazy to do their homework at best, or the world of the malicious, insane or absurd at worst. One is allowed one or two "cheats" per film—impossibilities that everyone knows (or could easily discover) are impossible. But Hollywood has bent all the rules for Dan Brown. Dan Brown's (only?) genius is that he has delved into the arcane world of Church history and spouts off supposed factoids that—quite frankly—your best-educated priests, Catholics, theologians WOULD have to look up to ascertain their veracity. Or not.

I must stop and give credit where credit is due. This "Dan Brown" genre of public discourse (of whatever medium) already has a name (coined by the razor-sharp wit of Stephen Colbert): "truthiness." Colbert often used the term with regard to President Bush, but it applies to so much more in our culture. Permit me to explain what this word and this very "climate" are all about. I have ripped the following references from the "truthiness" entry in Wikipedia.

"Truthiness is a term first used in its recent satirical sense by American television comedian Stephen Colbert in 2005, to describe things that a person claims to know intuitively or 'from the gut' without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts."

"We're not talking about truth, we're talking about something that seems like truth – the truth we want to exist." –Stephen Colbert

"Now I'm sure some of the 'word police,' the 'wordinistas' over at Webster's are gonna say, 'hey, that's not a word'. Well, anybody who knows me knows I'm no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They're elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn't true. Or what did or didn't happen. Who's Britannica to tell me that the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? If I want to say it happened in 1941 then that's my right." –Stephen Colbert in jest

"Truthiness is tearing apart our country, and I don't mean the argument over who came up with the word…. It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that's not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It's certainty."—Stephen Colbert

"Truthiness is 'What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.' It's not only that I feel it to be true, but that "I" feel it to be true. There's not only an emotional quality, but there's a selfish quality."—Stephen Colbert

Why am I not giving you any examples or referring to the plot of "Angels and Demons" at all in this review? Because the examples of "truthiness" in "A & D" are simply legion (in the book and the film, just as they were for "Da Vinci Code"). For a brief attempt at cataloging errors, check out Steven Greydanus' article in "The Catholic World Report," May 2009, "The Hollywood Illuminati." What I'm really waiting for (someone else to do) is a "pop-up" version of both movies with footnotes/corrections. For "DVC" corrections, check out Amy Welborn's excellent (and not too large) books: "De-Coding Da Vinci," and "De-Coding Mary Magdalene." I'm afraid that, even though we don't talk about "DVC" any more (we all got "DVC"-ed out), it has taken its toll and planted a deep-seated skepticism about Jesus, the Gospel, women and the Church in many people. (Just one quick note: The Blessed Virgin Mary has NO place in DB's history of the world. And women are simply objects through which MEN get in contact with the divine. The feminists of the 70's, to their credit, would never have swallowed these things down as 21st century women have done.)

Are we wasting our time "answering" Dan Brown? Are we behaving like Dan Quayle carrying on a dialogue with the fictional Murphy Brown? No, because DB claims his research on the "things which actually exist in real life" is factual. When someone claims to be saying true things about you and they're not, it's called slander. We are simply correcting gross inaccuracies and slander. For the record. For those who "prefer" facts to fiction.

What is "A & D" all about? A conclave, a conspiracy, and the red herring of The Church vs. Science. One can't help note a sense of creepy glee ("in the hatred of the faith") as we witness the graphic, brutal torture of four elderly Cardinals. (Let's hope this isn't prescient!) At least the Cardinals can't be hated for being white any more. Just old and male and celibate. The screenplay (which is kinder to the Catholic Church than the book) zigzags rapidly between insulting the Church and patting her on the head. By the way, the Church's enemy is not Science (they're BFFs!). It's Evil. Check out JP2G's "Fides et Ratio" ("Faith and Reason") document at . Check out the Vatican's world-wide Science/Theology/Philosophy project: .

There are two BDDBNTOBOW moments: "Boy, Does Dan Brown Need Theology Of the Body Or What?" One in the beginning of the film when Professor Langdon walks by a bunch of naked male statues with fig leafs on. He declares in a loud voice: Pope Pius IX hacked off the genitals and the fig leafs were put on later. (Is that true? I have no idea, and I'm not spending one extra second on this review to find out.) The second BDDBNTOBOW moment is when one of the clues turns out to be Bernini's sculpture of St. Teresa of Avila in ecstasy. The face of this statue is often compared to the likeness of sexual ecstasy. The clue is "woman on fire." "DVC" was much more concerned with sexuality, but poor DB seems to be dancing all around Theology of the Body and missing it (much like the clues in his novels that are often in broad daylight). It's a new day, Dan! Wake up and smell the TOB! Perhaps a little "anti-matter" is needed here, so that Dan Brown will be "consumed with light!"

The only off-the-wall "A & D" lunacy I will concern myself with here is a scientific one. We'll all blow up if the real-life "God particle" super-collider succeeds. It won't be the Big Bang, it will be the Big Buh-Bye. We won't be talking about what a wonderful experiment that was, "proof for the existence of a divine power." (We can't prove God exists anyway.) Regarding "A & D," this time it's the scientists who should be up in arms (even though CERN—the European Organization for Nuclear Research—consulted on the project).

Sure, go see "A & D" if you wish. But leave your brains at the door. Over each "A & D" cinema should read: "Abandon ALL rationality, ye who enter here."


--They fixed Tom Hanks' hair.

--Ewan McGregor does a good acting job, but unfortunately his character is made to be so angelic that it gives the plot away from the get-go. McGregor looks like he knows this is a bad script/story and is in "let's just get this over with" mode.

--Ayelet Zurer, who plays a scientist joining Robert Langdon in his sleuthing and who is one of Israel's most acclaimed actresses, is superb. She somehow manages to give the role (and the film) gravitas, without taking the overall story TOO seriously.

--The exposition is just a chore. Like "DVC," lots of standing around blah, blah, blah-ing, episodic giving of clue after clue, explaining meaning after meaning, then rushing off to the Next Big Clue like a scavenger hunt. Except that you paid $10 to watch this.

--Nothing follows any logic. Not even the simplest of conversations. Example: Langdon is asked if he BELIEVES in God and answers that he doesn't UNDERSTAND God and the conversation goes on without anyone saying: that's not what was asked. I don't want to speak for Fr. Robert Barron, but I was sitting next to him in the theater, and at every illogicism, he would mutter: "Oh brother."

--In case you had any suspicions, "A & D" will confirm for you that Professor Robert Langdon is, indeed, Dan Brown's alter ego. One reason is that, although "A & D," the book, was written BEFORE "DVC," the "A & D" screenplay is written as a SEQUEL to "DVC." So in other words, "DVC" is triumphantly referenced in "A & D," the movie, and how it "did not endear Langdon to the Vatican." Robert Langdon is summoned by the Vatican who now needs his help! But this Catholic Church, remember, has already been completely undermined as a fraud! And the Vatican thanks him for his services at the end!

--I find Church protocol, bureaucracy and intrigue boring ("The Third Miracle," "The Cardinal"). Anyone else?

--There are all kinds of Obvious Proclamations: "He has a gun!" "St. Peter was the first pope!" [Although it was supposed to Mary Magdalene, right? ha ha] "The Vatican City-State is a separate country from Italy!" "It's a pentagram!" "What are you doing?!"

--The villain responsible for a huge body count, who shoots with impunity anyone who even sort of gets in his way, meets up with our hero and heroine who are out to bring him down, and just lets them live. Okee dokee!

--The music is very exciting and will artificially prolong your interest in the film long after your brain has atrophied and your "give a darn" has busted.

May 12, 2009


ABC interview 'sensationalized' Theology of the Body, Christopher West says


Sat 3:34pm


Philadelphia, Pa., May 9, 2009 / 11:01 am (CNA).-

Christopher West, a Catholic speaker on Catholic sexual ethics and the Theology of the Body, says the recent ABC television segment about him made understandable but "sensationalized" misrepresentations and distortions. In the interview, West was described as having as his "two big heroes" Pope John Paul II and Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner.

On Thursday ABC News published a story and a seven-minute video segment on its interview with West, describing him as "not your average sex therapist."

"As Christians, we are desperately in need of a renewed vision of our sexuality," West said. "The union of man and woman itself is meant to be here on planet Earth an image, a foretaste, a little glimmer of the eternal ecstasy that awaits us in heaven."

ABC named as West's "two big heroes" Pope John Paul II and Hugh Hefner, reportage West later disputed.

"I actually see very profound historical connections between Hugh Hefner and John Paul II," West told ABC, which reported that West believes each man rescued sex from prudish Victorian morality.

According to ABC, West said Hefner had a "yearning," an "ache" and a "longing" for love, union and intimacy.

On the other hand, West said Pope John Paul II took the sexual revolution further in his "Theology of the Body" which taught that sexual love has been central to God's plan for mankind.

West has sold more than a million copies of his books and more than 3 million CDs. Attendees at his retreats told ABC his talks "revolutionized" their marriages and their views of their spouses.

"Christians must not retreat from what the sexual revolution began," West said in a lecture excerpted by ABC. "Christians must complete what the sexual revolution began."

"We have to bring God and sex back together," he added.

CNA spoke with West in a Friday interview to follow up on ABC's report, asking him to give his opinion on the report and to explain his view of the Theology of the Body and Christian marriage.

"The Theology of the Body is the vision of what it means to be human," West said. "The Theology of the Body teaches us that our bodies as male and female are a sign here on earth of the eternal mystery of the Trinity. Ultimately the mystery of the Trinity is revealed through Christ and the Church.

"Pope John Paul II says that, right from the beginning, the holy nuptials of man and woman are a primordial sacrament, a foreshadowing, a sign that points us to the love of Christ and the Church. Love is sacramental, revelatory."

He said it was "very important" to understand that the Theology of the Body is not only for married people.

It is "for everybody, married, single, or consecrated celibate, because it provides a vision for us of what it means to be human. That was very lacking of the story."

"The story [by ABC] sensationalized some of the sexual aspects," West said.

"Certainly the Theology of the Body provides a beautiful vision for us of marital love. But to reduce the Theology of the Body to its teaching on sexual morality, or to some kind of Catholic version of a sex manual is terribly missing the mark."

He said the ABC correspondents were generally "very professional" and "very interested" in giving a fair hearing to the Theology of the Body. However, the two hour interview and four hours of speaking footage had to be reduced to a 7-minute interview.

"I can understand why they put it together the way they did. They did a decent job," he told CNA, but his concerns prompted him to encourage people to read his articles and books for "the very important context."

Responding to ABC's characterization of Hefner and Pope John Paul II as "heroes," West said the statement was not given proper context.

"I never said Hugh Hefner is a hero, never," he remarked, explaining that Hefner said he started Playboy as a personal response to the hurt and hypocrisy of Americans' Puritan heritage.

"The point I was making with ABC was that we as Catholics agree with Hefner's diagnosis of the disease of Puritanism, a fearful rejection of the body rooted in heritage of Manicheanism. Sadly, that very important point did not come out in the interview."

"Let the record stand very clearly: the pornographic revolution that Hugh Hefner inaugurated, the medicine that he suggested, proves to be in many ways more dangerous than the disease itself.

According to West, Hefner has remarked that he has never "found the love that's satisfying."

"The man is just going to the wrong menu to feed the hungry," West said.

"We disagree radically, in that we do not agree with his remedy of the disease. Pope John Paul II provides precisely the proper remedy to a 'Manichean' or 'prudish' Puritanism."

In West's view, Pope John Paul II was in agreement with Hefner that the body and human sexuality must not be rejected.

"The very, very important distinction is that Hefner began a sexual revolution of indulgence, of indulging libido, without concern for a proper understanding of the true dignity of the human being and of human love."

While the Sexual Revolution started people talking about sex, this conversation must be brought "into the glorious mystery of why God made us this way in the first place."

"We must redeem the body, redeem sexuality," he remarked. "That's what I mean by 'completing the sexual revolution.' Only Christians can do that because of the work won through the bodily death and resurrection of Jesus Christ."

The Sexual Revolution led people away from a "prudish" rejection of the body, but also led people to "wallow in the mud."

"Now we need to take a bath," he told CNA.

These points were made in his interview with ABC but were cut for the section that was broadcast, West reported.

He added that Pope John Paul II "rescued" sex both from the "fearful Puritanism" in which many Christians are raised, but also from "the pornographic distortion of sex that is rampant in our culture."

West said a hunger for the true understanding of the human body and sexuality is implanted by God, but charged that Christians have placed themselves on a "starvation diet" that leads other hungry people to the "fast food" of pornography.

"Why was Hugh Hefner a successful 'evangelist'? Because eating fast food is a lot better than starving to death," West said. "What Pope John Paul II does is, he shows us that Christianity is considered an invitation to the banquet of love that truly satisfies."

West also disavowed the characterization that he sees the Bible as "the ultimate sex guide," saying he never made such a statement and that the phrase can be seriously misunderstood by "our pornographic culture."

"The Bible provides for us a guide to learn how to love," West told CNA. "Our culture has such emphasis on the mere physical mechanics of sex… the Bible is not a sex guide in that context. Rather, it is an ode to love, an invitation to love as Christ loves."

He also issued a response to the interview on his web site, saying that he is not a sex therapist but an educator, author, lecturer, and faculty member of the Theology of the Body Institute.


I fully expected this book to be hokey, heretical, New Agey, or all of the above.

After a horrific personal tragedy, a man gets to meet the Trinity in a shack. Yes, the Trinity. The Father is a maternal African-American woman figure, the Holy Spirit is an Asian woman, and Jesus is a Jewish carpenter. This is not divine gender-bending, and that's made clear. The Father only appears as a woman because the main character couldn't handle him as "Father" at the moment. But "she" is still called "he," and "Papa." (It's not as confusing as it sounds.) Make no mistake, this is a profoundly Christian reflection, written by a Canadian Christian who was looking for answers himself. (His mysterious personal tragedy is only hinted at on the back cover.)

"The Shack" is a kind of Job fable/parable--Job questioning God. And it totally works. I'm sure there are theological inaccuracies and impossibilities when one takes on the Trinity, but they escaped my attention. There ARE glaring omissions: Um, where's Jesus' Mum, pray tell? But one could conceivably INJECT these huge M.I.A.'s, and wind up with a Catholic "Shack."

I believe that "The Shack" has entered the library of Christian books on "theodicy and the problem of evil and suffering." Some of my other favorites: C.S. Lewis' "The Problem of Pain," "The Humility and Suffering of God," JP2G's "The Christian Meaning of Human Suffering."

We have NEEDED a book like this for a long time. To realize that we CAN talk to God like this. That He DOES talk to us like this. To delve into Trinitarian theology--how DO the persons of the Trinity relate to Each Other, and to Us? What could be more important than this?

May 11, 2009


Volume 56, Number 2 · February 12, 2009

New York Review of Books

By Robert Darnton

How can we navigate through the information landscape that is only beginning to come into view? The question is more urgent than ever following the recent settlement between Google and the authors and publishers who were suing it for alleged breach of copyright. For the last four years, Google has been digitizing millions of books, including many covered by copyright, from the collections of major research libraries, and making the texts searchable online. The authors and publishers objected that digitizing constituted a violation of their copyrights. After lengthy negotiations, the plaintiffs and Google agreed on a settlement, which will have a profound effect on the way books reach readers for the foreseeable future. What will that future be?

No one knows, because the settlement is so complex that it is difficult to perceive the legal and economic contours in the new lay of the land. But those of us who are responsible for research libraries have a clear view of a common goal: we want to open up our collections and make them available to readers everywhere. How to get there? The only workable tactic may be vigilance: see as far ahead as you can; and while you keep your eye on the road, remember to look in the rearview mirror.

When I look backward, I fix my gaze on the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment, its faith in the power of knowledge, and the world of ideas in which it operated—what the enlightened referred to as the Republic of Letters.




The eighteenth century imagined the Republic of Letters as a realm with no police, no boundaries, and no inequalities other than those determined by talent. Anyone could join it by exercising the two main attributes of citizenship, writing and reading. Writers formulated ideas, and readers judged them. Thanks to the power of the printed word, the judgments spread in widening circles, and the strongest arguments won.

The word also spread by written letters, for the eighteenth century was a great era of epistolary exchange. Read through the correspondence of Voltaire, Rousseau, Franklin, and Jefferson—each filling about fifty volumes—and you can watch the Republic of Letters in operation. All four writers debated all the issues of their day in a steady stream of letters, which crisscrossed Europe and America in a transatlantic information network.

I especially enjoy the exchange of letters between Jefferson and Madison. They discussed everything, notably the American Constitution, which Madison was helping to write in Philadelphia while Jefferson was representing the new republic in Paris. They often wrote about books, for Jefferson loved to haunt the bookshops in the capital of the Republic of Letters, and he frequently bought books for his friend. The purchases included Diderot's Encyclopédie, which Jefferson thought that he had got at a bargain price, although he had mistaken a reprint for a first edition.

Two future presidents discussing books through the information network of the Enlightenment—it's a stirring sight. But before this picture of the past fogs over with sentiment, I should add that the Republic of Letters was democratic only in principle. In practice, it was dominated by the wellborn and the rich. Far from being able to live from their pens, most writers had to court patrons, solicit sinecures, lobby for appointments to state-controlled journals, dodge censors, and wangle their way into salons and academies, where reputations were made. While suffering indignities at the hands of their social superiors, they turned on one another. The quarrel between Voltaire and Rousseau illustrates their temper. After reading Rousseau's Discourse on the Origins of Inequality in 1755, Voltaire wrote to him, "I have received, Monsieur, your new book against the human race.... It makes one desire to go down on all fours." Five years later, Rousseau wrote to Voltaire. "Monsieur,...I hate you."

The personal conflicts were compounded by social distinctions. Far from functioning like an egalitarian agora, the Republic of Letters suffered from the same disease that ate through all societies in the eighteenth century: privilege. Privileges were not limited to aristocrats. In France, they applied to everything in the world of letters, including printing and the book trade, which were dominated by exclusive guilds, and the books themselves, which could not appear legally without a royal privilege and a censor's approbation, printed in full in their text.

One way to understand this system is to draw on the sociology of knowledge, notably Pierre Bourdieu's notion of literature as a power field composed of contending positions within the rules of a game that itself is subordinate to the dominating forces of society at large. But one needn't subscribe to Bourdieu's school of sociology in order to acknowledge the connections between literature and power. Seen from the perspective of the players, the realities of literary life contradicted the lofty ideals of the Enlightenment. Despite its principles, the Republic of Letters, as it actually operated, was a closed world, inaccessible to the underprivileged. Yet I want to invoke the Enlightenment in an argument for openness in general and for open access in particular.

If we turn from the eighteenth century to the present, do we see a similar contradiction between principle and practice—right here in the world of research libraries? One of my colleagues is a quiet, diminutive lady, who might call up the notion of Marion the Librarian. When she meets people at parties and identifies herself, they sometimes say condescendingly, "A librarian, how nice. Tell me, what is it like to be a librarian?" She replies, "Essentially, it is all about money and power."

We are back with Pierre Bourdieu. Yet most of us would subscribe to the principles inscribed in prominent places in our public libraries. "Free To All," it says above the main entrance to the Boston Public Library; and in the words of Thomas Jefferson, carved in gold letters on the wall of the Trustees' Room of the New York Public Library: "I look to the diffusion of light and education as the resource most to be relied on for ameliorating the condition promoting the virtue and advancing the happiness of man." We are back with the Enlightenment.

Our republic was founded on faith in the central principle of the eighteenth-century Republic of Letters: the diffusion of light. For Jefferson, enlightenment took place by means of writers and readers, books and libraries—especially libraries, at Monticello, the University of Virginia, and the Library of Congress. This faith is embodied in the United States Constitution. Article 1, Section 8, establishes copyright and patents "for limited times" only and subject to the higher purpose of promoting "the progress of science and useful arts." The Founding Fathers acknowledged authors' rights to a fair return on their intellectual labor, but they put public welfare before private profit.

How to calculate the relative importance of those two values? As the authors of the Constitution knew, copyright was created in Great Britain by the Statute of Anne in 1710 for the purpose of curbing the monopolistic practices of the London Stationers' Company and also, as its title proclaimed, "for the encouragement of learning." At that time, Parliament set the length of copyright at fourteen years, renewable only once. The Stationers attempted to defend their monopoly of publishing and the book trade by arguing for perpetual copyright in a long series of court cases. But they lost in the definitive ruling of Donaldson v. Becket in 1774.

When the Americans gathered to draft a constitution thirteen years later, they generally favored the view that had predominated in Britain. Twenty-eight years seemed long enough to protect the interests of authors and publishers. Beyond that limit, the interest of the public should prevail. In 1790, the first copyright act—also dedicated to "the encouragement of learning"—followed British practice by adopting a limit of fourteen years renewable for another fourteen.

How long does copyright extend today? According to the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 (also known as "the Mickey Mouse Protection Act," because Mickey was about to fall into the public domain), it lasts as long as the life of the author plus seventy years. In practice, that normally would mean more than a century. Most books published in the twentieth century have not yet entered the public domain. When it comes to digitization, access to our cultural heritage generally ends on January 1, 1923, the date from which great numbers of books are subject to copyright laws. It will remain there—unless private interests take over the digitizing, package it for consumers, tie the packages up by means of legal deals, and sell them for the profit of the shareholders. As things stand now, for example, Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt, published in 1922, is in the public domain, whereas Lewis's Elmer Gantry, published in 1927, will not enter the public domain until 2022.[1]

To descend from the high principles of the Founding Fathers to the practices of the cultural industries today is to leave the realm of Enlightenment for the hurly-burly of corporate capitalism. If we turned the sociology of knowledge onto the present—as Bourdieu himself did—we would see that we live in a world designed by Mickey Mouse, red in tooth and claw.

Does this kind of reality check make the principles of Enlightenment look like a historical fantasy? Let's reconsider the history. As the Enlightenment faded in the early nineteenth century, professionalization set in. You can follow the process by comparing the Encyclopédie of Diderot, which organized knowledge into an organic whole dominated by the faculty of reason, with its successor from the end of the eighteenth century, the Encyclopédie méthodique, which divided knowledge into fields that we can recognize today: chemistry, physics, history, mathematics, and the rest. In the nineteenth century, those fields turned into professions, certified by Ph.D.s and guarded by professional associations. They metamorphosed into departments of universities, and by the twentieth century they had left their mark on campuses—chemistry housed in this building, physics in that one, history here, mathematics there, and at the center of it all, a library, usually designed to look like a temple of learning.

Along the way, professional journals sprouted throughout the fields, subfields, and sub-subfields. The learned societies produced them, and the libraries bought them. This system worked well for about a hundred years. Then commercial publishers discovered that they could make a fortune by selling subscriptions to the journals. Once a university library subscribed, the students and professors came to expect an uninterrupted flow of issues. The price could be ratcheted up without causing cancellations, because the libraries paid for the subscriptions and the professors did not. Best of all, the professors provided free or nearly free labor. They wrote the articles, refereed submissions, and served on editorial boards, partly to spread knowledge in the Enlightenment fashion, but mainly to advance their own careers.

The result stands out on the acquisitions budget of every research library: the Journal of Comparative Neurology now costs $25,910 for a year's subscription; Tetrahedron costs $17,969 (or $39,739, if bundled with related publications as a Tetrahedron package); the average price of a chemistry journal is $3,490; and the ripple effects have damaged intellectual life throughout the world of learning. Owing to the skyrocketing cost of serials, libraries that used to spend 50 percent of their acquisitions budget on monographs now spend 25 percent or less. University presses, which depend on sales to libraries, cannot cover their costs by publishing monographs. And young scholars who depend on publishing to advance their careers are now in danger of perishing.

Fortunately, this picture of the hard facts of life in the world of learning is already going out of date. Biologists, chemists, and physicists no longer live in separate worlds; nor do historians, anthropologists, and literary scholars. The old map of the campus no longer corresponds to the activities of the professors and students. It is being redrawn everywhere, and in many places the interdisciplinary designs are turning into structures. The library remains at the heart of things, but it pumps nutrition throughout the university, and often to the farthest reaches of cyberspace, by means of electronic networks.

The eighteenth-century Republic of Letters had been transformed into a professional Republic of Learning, and it is now open to amateurs—amateurs in the best sense of the word, lovers of learning among the general citizenry. Openness is operating everywhere, thanks to "open access" repositories of digitized articles available free of charge, the Open Content Alliance, the Open Knowledge Commons, OpenCourseWare, the Internet Archive, and openly amateur enterprises like Wikipedia. The democratization of knowledge now seems to be at our fingertips. We can make the Enlightenment ideal come to life in reality.

At this point, you may suspect that I have swung from one American genre, the jeremiad, to another, utopian enthusiasm. It might be possible, I suppose, for the two to work together as a dialectic, were it not for the danger of commercialization. When businesses like Google look at libraries, they do not merely see temples of learning. They see potential assets or what they call "content," ready to be mined. Built up over centuries at an enormous expenditure of money and labor, library collections can be digitized en masse at relatively little cost—millions of dollars, certainly, but little compared to the investment that went into them.

Libraries exist to promote a public good: "the encouragement of learning," learning "Free To All." Businesses exist in order to make money for their shareholders—and a good thing, too, for the public good depends on a profitable economy. Yet if we permit the commercialization of the content of our libraries, there is no getting around a fundamental contradiction. To digitize collections and sell the product in ways that fail to guarantee wide access would be to repeat the mistake that was made when publishers exploited the market for scholarly journals, but on a much greater scale, for it would turn the Internet into an instrument for privatizing knowledge that belongs in the public sphere. No invisible hand would intervene to correct the imbalance between the private and the public welfare. Only the public can do that, but who speaks for the public? Not the legislators of the Mickey Mouse Protection Act.

You cannot legislate Enlightenment, but you can set rules of the game to protect the public interest. Libraries represent the public good. They are not businesses, but they must cover their costs. They need a business plan. Think of the old motto of Con Edison when it had to tear up New York's streets in order to get at the infrastructure beneath them: "Dig we must." Libraries say, "Digitize we must." But not on any terms. We must do it in the interest of the public, and that means holding the digitizers responsible to the citizenry.

It would be naive to identify the Internet with the Enlightenment. It has the potential to diffuse knowledge beyond anything imagined by Jefferson; but while it was being constructed, link by hyperlink, commercial interests did not sit idly on the sidelines. They want to control the game, to take it over, to own it. They compete among themselves, of course, but so ferociously that they kill each other off. Their struggle for survival is leading toward an oligopoly; and whoever may win, the victory could mean a defeat for the public good.

Don't get me wrong. I know that businesses must be responsible to shareholders. I believe that authors are entitled to payment for their creative labor and that publishers deserve to make money from the value they add to the texts supplied by authors. I admire the wizardry of hardware, software, search engines, digitization, and algorithmic relevance ranking. I acknowledge the importance of copyright, although I think that Congress got it better in 1790 than in 1998.

But we, too, cannot sit on the sidelines, as if the market forces can be trusted to operate for the public good. We need to get engaged, to mix it up, and to win back the public's rightful domain. When I say "we," I mean we the people, we who created the Constitution and who should make the Enlightenment principles behind it inform the everyday realities of the information society. Yes, we must digitize. But more important, we must democratize. We must open access to our cultural heritage. How? By rewriting the rules of the game, by subordinating private interests to the public good, and by taking inspiration from the early republic in order to create a Digital Republic of Learning.

What provoked these jeremianic- utopian reflections? Google. Four years ago, Google began digitizing books from research libraries, providing full-text searching and making books in the public domain available on the Internet at no cost to the viewer. For example, it is now possible for anyone, anywhere to view and download a digital copy of the 1871 first edition of Middlemarch that is in the collection of the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Everyone profited, including Google, which collected revenue from some discreet advertising attached to the service, Google Book Search. Google also digitized an ever-increasing number of library books that were protected by copyright in order to provide search services that displayed small snippets of the text. In September and October 2005, a group of authors and publishers brought a class action suit against Google, alleging violation of copyright. Last October 28, after lengthy negotiations, the opposing parties announced agreement on a settlement, which is subject to approval by the US District Court for the Southern District of New York.[2]

The settlement creates an enterprise known as the Book Rights Registry to represent the interests of the copyright holders. Google will sell access to a gigantic data bank composed primarily of copyrighted, out-of-print books digitized from the research libraries. Colleges, universities, and other organizations will be able to subscribe by paying for an "institutional license" providing access to the data bank. A "public access license" will make this material available to public libraries, where Google will provide free viewing of the digitized books on one computer terminal. And individuals also will be able to access and print out digitized versions of the books by purchasing a "consumer license" from Google, which will cooperate with the registry for the distribution of all the revenue to copyright holders. Google will retain 37 percent, and the registry will distribute 63 percent among the rightsholders.

Meanwhile, Google will continue to make books in the public domain available for users to read, download, and print, free of charge. Of the seven million books that Google reportedly had digitized by November 2008, one million are works in the public domain; one million are in copyright and in print; and five million are in copyright but out of print. It is this last category that will furnish the bulk of the books to be made available through the institutional license.

Many of the in-copyright and in-print books will not be available in the data bank unless the copyright owners opt to include them. They will continue to be sold in the normal fashion as printed books and also could be marketed to individual customers as digitized copies, accessible through the consumer license for downloading and reading, perhaps eventually on e-book readers such as Amazon's Kindle.

After reading the settlement and letting its terms sink in—no easy task, as it runs to 134 pages and 15 appendices of legalese—one is likely to be dumbfounded: here is a proposal that could result in the world's largest library. It would, to be sure, be a digital library, but it could dwarf the Library of Congress and all the national libraries of Europe. Moreover, in pursuing the terms of the settlement with the authors and publishers, Google could also become the world's largest book business—not a chain of stores but an electronic supply service that could out-Amazon Amazon.

An enterprise on such a scale is bound to elicit reactions of the two kinds that I have been discussing: on the one hand, utopian enthusiasm; on the other, jeremiads about the danger of concentrating power to control access to information.

Who could not be moved by the prospect of bringing virtually all the books from America's greatest research libraries within the reach of all Americans, and perhaps eventually to everyone in the world with access to the Internet? Not only will Google's technological wizardry bring books to readers, it will also open up extraordinary opportunities for research, a whole gamut of possibilities from straightforward word searches to complex text mining. Under certain conditions, the participating libraries will be able to use the digitized copies of their books to create replacements for books that have been damaged or lost. Google will engineer the texts in ways to help readers with disabilities.

Unfortunately, Google's commitment to provide free access to its database on one terminal in every public library is hedged with restrictions: readers will not be able to print out any copyrighted text without paying a fee to the copyright holders (though Google has offered to pay them at the outset); and a single terminal will hardly satisfy the demand in large libraries. But Google's generosity will be a boon to the small-town, Carnegie-library readers, who will have access to more books than are currently available in the New York Public Library. Google can make the Enlightenment dream come true.

But will it? The eighteenth-century philosophers saw monopoly as a main obstacle to the diffusion of knowledge —not merely monopolies in general, which stifled trade according to Adam Smith and the Physiocrats, but specific monopolies such as the Stationers' Company in London and the booksellers' guild in Paris, which choked off free trade in books.

Google is not a guild, and it did not set out to create a monopoly. On the contrary, it has pursued a laudable goal: promoting access to information. But the class action character of the settlement makes Google invulnerable to competition. Most book authors and publishers who own US copyrights are automatically covered by the settlement. They can opt out of it; but whatever they do, no new digitizing enterprise can get off the ground without winning their assent one by one, a practical impossibility, or without becoming mired down in another class action suit. If approved by the court—a process that could take as much as two years—the settlement will give Google control over the digitizing of virtually all books covered by copyright in the United States.

This outcome was not anticipated at the outset. Looking back over the course of digitization from the 1990s, we now can see that we missed a great opportunity. Action by Congress and the Library of Congress or a grand alliance of research libraries supported by a coalition of foundations could have done the job at a feasible cost and designed it in a manner that would have put the public interest first. By spreading the cost in various ways—a rental based on the amount of use of a database or a budget line in the National Endowment for the Humanities or the Library of Congress—we could have provided authors and publishers with a legitimate income, while maintaining an open access repository or one in which access was based on reasonable fees. We could have created a National Digital Library—the twenty-first-century equivalent of the Library of Alexandria. It is too late now. Not only have we failed to realize that possibility, but, even worse, we are allowing a question of public policy—the control of access to information—to be determined by private lawsuit.

While the public authorities slept, Google took the initiative. It did not seek to settle its affairs in court. It went about its business, scanning books in libraries; and it scanned them so effectively as to arouse the appetite of others for a share in the potential profits. No one should dispute the claim of authors and publishers to income from rights that properly belong to them; nor should anyone presume to pass quick judgment on the contending parties of the lawsuit. The district court judge will pronounce on the validity of the settlement, but that is primarily a matter of dividing profits, not of promoting the public interest.

As an unintended consequence, Google will enjoy what can only be called a monopoly—a monopoly of a new kind, not of railroads or steel but of access to information. Google has no serious competitors. Microsoft dropped its major program to digitize books several months ago, and other enterprises like the Open Knowledge Commons (formerly the Open Content Alliance) and the Internet Archive are minute and ineffective in comparison with Google. Google alone has the wealth to digitize on a massive scale. And having settled with the authors and publishers, it can exploit its financial power from within a protective legal barrier; for the class action suit covers the entire class of authors and publishers. No new entrepreneurs will be able to digitize books within that fenced-off territory, even if they could afford it, because they would have to fight the copyright battles all over again. If the settlement is upheld by the court, only Google will be protected from copyright liability.

Google's record suggests that it will not abuse its double-barreled fiscal-legal power. But what will happen if its current leaders sell the company or retire? The public will discover the answer from the prices that the future Google charges, especially the price of the institutional subscription licenses. The settlement leaves Google free to negotiate deals with each of its clients, although it announces two guiding principles: "(1) the realization of revenue at market rates for each Book and license on behalf of the Rightsholders and (2) the realization of broad access to the Books by the public, including institutions of higher education."

What will happen if Google favors profitability over access? Nothing, if I read the terms of the settlement correctly. Only the registry, acting for the copyright holders, has the power to force a change in the subscription prices charged by Google, and there is no reason to expect the registry to object if the prices are too high. Google may choose to be generous in it pricing, and I have reason to hope it may do so; but it could also employ a strategy comparable to the one that proved to be so effective in pushing up the price of scholarly journals: first, entice subscribers with low initial rates, and then, once they are hooked, ratchet up the rates as high as the traffic will bear.

Free-market advocates may argue that the market will correct itself. If Google charges too much, customers will cancel their subscriptions, and the price will drop. But there is no direct connection between supply and demand in the mechanism for the institutional licenses envisioned by the settlement. Students, faculty, and patrons of public libraries will not pay for the subscriptions. The payment will come from the libraries; and if the libraries fail to find enough money for the subscription renewals, they may arouse ferocious protests from readers who have become accustomed to Google's service. In the face of the protests, the libraries probably will cut back on other services, including the acquisition of books, just as they did when publishers ratcheted up the price of periodicals.

No one can predict what will happen. We can only read the terms of the settlement and guess about the future. If Google makes available, at a reasonable price, the combined holdings of all the major US libraries, who would not applaud? Would we not prefer a world in which this immense corpus of digitized books is accessible, even at a high price, to one in which it did not exist?

Perhaps, but the settlement creates a fundamental change in the digital world by consolidating power in the hands of one company. Apart from Wikipedia, Google already controls the means of access to information online for most Americans, whether they want to find out about people, goods, places, or almost anything. In addition to the original "Big Google," we have Google Earth, Google Maps, Google Images, Google Labs, Google Finance, Google Arts, Google Food, Google Sports, Google Health, Google Checkout, Google Alerts, and many more Google enterprises on the way. Now Google Book Search promises to create the largest library and the largest book business that have ever existed.

Whether or not I have understood the settlement correctly, its terms are locked together so tightly that they cannot be pried apart. At this point, neither Google, nor the authors, nor the publishers, nor the district court is likely to modify the settlement substantially. Yet this is also a tipping point in the development of what we call the information society. If we get the balance wrong at this moment, private interests may outweigh the public good for the foreseeable future, and the Enlightenment dream may be as elusive as ever.


[1]The Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 retroactively lengthened copyright by twenty years for books copyrighted after January 1, 1923. Unfortunately, the copyright status of books published in the twentieth century is complicated by legislation that has extended copyright eleven times during the last fifty years. Until a congressional act of 1992, rightsholders had to renew their copyrights. The 1992 act removed that requirement for books published between 1964 and 1977, when, according to the Copyright Act of 1976, their copyrights would last for the author's life plus fifty years. The act of 1998 extended that protection to the author's life plus seventy years. Therefore, all books published after 1963 remain in copyright, and an unknown number—unknown owing to inadequate information about the deaths of authors and the owners of copyright—published between 1923 and 1964 are also protected by copyright. See Paul A. David and Jared Rubin, "Restricting Access to Books on the Internet: Some Unanticipated Effects of U.S. Copyright Legislation," Review of Economic Research on Copyright Issues, Vol. 5, No. 1 (2008).

[2]The full text of the settlement can be found at For Google's legal notice concerning the settlement, see page 35 of this issue of The New York Review.

May 6, 2009


Sin Divides, But Purity Brings Near, He Says

LOURDES, France, SEPT. 14, 2008 ( The Virgin Mary's special protection from sin does not make her far from the rest of humanity, but rather draws her closer to us, Benedict XVI says.

The Pope affirmed this today from Lourdes, where he is marking the 150th anniversary of the apparitions of Our Lady to Bernadette Soubirous. In his address before praying the traditional midday Angelus, the Holy Father said the privilege of the Immaculate Conception, "which sets [Mary] apart from our common condition, does not distance her from us, but on the contrary, it brings her closer."

"And your own soul a sword shall pierce that the thoughts of many hearts may be laid bare." --Luke 2:35

He explained: "While sin divides, separating us from one another, Mary's purity makes her infinitely close to our hearts, attentive to each of us and desirous of our true good. You see it here in Lourdes, as in all Marian shrines; immense crowds come thronging to Mary's feet to entrust to her their most intimate thoughts, their most heartfelt wishes.

"That which many, either because of embarrassment or modesty, do not confide to their nearest and dearest, they confide to her who is all pure, to her Immaculate Heart: with simplicity, without frills, in truth. Before Mary, by virtue of her very purity, man does not hesitate to reveal his weakness, to express his questions and his doubts, to formulate his most secret hopes and desires."

The Pontiff said that Mary thus shows man the way to come to God. "She teaches us to approach him in truth and simplicity," he said. "Thanks to her, we discover that the Christian faith is not a burden: It is like a wing which enables us to fly higher, so as to take refuge in God's embrace."

Benedict XVI went on to note that the grace of the Immaculate Conception is not given to Mary as a merely "personal grace," but is rather "a grace for all, a grace given to the entire people of God."

"In Mary," he continued, "the Church can already contemplate what she is called to become. Every believer can contemplate, here and now, the perfect fulfillment of his or her own vocation. May each of you always remain full of thanksgiving for what the Lord has chosen to reveal of his plan of salvation through the mystery of Mary: a mystery in which we are involved most intimately since, from the height of the cross which we celebrate and exalt today, it is revealed to us through the words of Jesus himself that his Mother is our Mother.

"Inasmuch as we are sons and daughters of Mary, we can profit from all the graces given to her; the incomparable dignity that came to her through her Immaculate Conception shines brightly over us, her children."