You may not have heard the exciting news, but this is Sunshine Week.
According to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the sponsor of this occasion, we should spend these seven days engaged in “dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.” Who could be against that?
But let’s dig a little deeper. Among the things exercising the advocates of “open government” these days is the fact that, on the basis of security concerns, the Bush administration has been withdrawing from circulation lots of official documents–more than a million of them–from the National Archive in Washington D.C. Some of the withdrawn documents apparently are old. Some more than a century old.
The Associated Press told the story in a March 13 dispatch. “In some cases, entire file boxes were removed without significant review”; inside them may have been a wealth of innocuous materials. Tom Blanton, who runs the National Security Archive at George Washington University, finds this to be “a scandal, a case of misplaced priorities.” Patrice McDermott, who heads up a web-based organization called OpenTheGovernment.org, calls it “a questionable use of tax dollars.”
The novelist Peter De Vries once observed that there are certain people who appear profound on the surface while deep down they remain superficial. This seems a fair characterization of anyone who could take seriously as an indictment the term “Enlightenment fundamentalist,” coined by Timothy Garton Ash to describe the fearless critic of Islam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. As an act of verbal jujitsu, “Enlightenment fundamentalist” seems arresting at first. But just try to locate the intellectual and moral ties that bind, say, Sayyid Qutb to Baruch Spinoza, and you will come up empty-handed.
Hirsi Ali’s unapologetic preference for rationalism over “revealed” truth is not rooted in her own bone-chilling experiences, as she emphasizes in her new memoir, Infidel. (She was subjected to genital mutilation, arranged marriage, and regular beatings delivered by both kin and cleric.) Rather, through reading and common sense, she concluded that the open, secular society, where women are not treated as divinely licensed sex slaves, is self-evidently better than the closed, Islamic one, where they are.
On March 12 an Egyptian court began hearing the appeal of Abdel Kareem Suleiman, an Egyptian blogger sentenced to four years in prison for his writings. This case is unlike that of Alaa, a prominent Egyptian blogger imprisoned for forty days last year. Alaa had been arrested at a demonstration, thus leaving some ambiguity about whether he had been singled out because of his blog or merely suffered the fate of other street protesters in Egypt. But Abdel Kareem was charged purely on account of his writing.
This is therefore a portentous civil liberties case. Blogging has exploded in the Middle East, rapidly eroding the region’s tradition of state control of communications. Not everyone has access to the Internet today, but it is only a matter of time until they do. Last year, an association of Egyptian bloggers announced that it had passed the milestone of one thousand members. The number in Iran is much larger. And even in Saudi Arabia, with its tight traditional controls, I discovered many bloggers on a recent visit. State interference has consisted of blocking sites that go too far, but this can be circumvented by the tech-savvy, and it cannot stop communications that rely on a satellite signal rather than on a wire, as will also become universal.
The Times of London reports today on yet another episode in the closing of the European mind—in this instance, a shocking case of academic censorship.
Matthias Küntzel, a German political scientist from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was invited by the German department at Leeds University for three days of lectures and seminars this week. His lecture on “Hitler’s Legacy: Islamic Anti-Semitism in the Middle East” was expected to draw a large audience. Then the university’s student Islamic society complained about the lecture’s “provocative” title. Last Tuesday, at the behest of university authorities, the words “Hitler” and “Islamic” were excised and the title was amended to read: “The Nazi Legacy: The Export of Anti-Semitism to the Middle East.” But when Küntzel arrived at Leeds this Wednesday, he was informed that his lecture and the rest of his program had been cancelled “on security grounds.” Küntzel was understandably indignant: “I value the integrity of academic debate, and I feel that it really is in danger here.”
No one is going to confuse 300, Zack Snyder’s film about the battle of Thermopylae, with Citizen Kane. Adapted from Frank Miller’s graphic novel, it is in essence an animated comic book, its lavish sets and special effects created entirely by computer. Computers seem to have generated the dialogue as well; characters speak in the sort of timber-hewn oratory last heard from Victor Mature in his sword-and-sandal spectacles of the 1950′s.
This is not the worst of it. The film’s creators seem not to have trusted the story itself, which they have tinkered with shamelessly. Evidently it is insufficiently dramatic that three hundred Spartans sacrificed themselves 2500 years ago, holding off the Persian army long enough for the Greek city-states to rally. That story must be tarted up with prehistoric wolves, eight-foot giants, and a monstrous hunchback straight from the set of Lord of the Rings. As is often the case with surgical enhancements, something stately and simple has been disfigured beyond recognition.