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Chapter 1: The Monsterverse

This is a book of hope—and fire. It is set in the modern-day version of William Tyndale’s Monsterverse. Every age has had its evil—and history shows us that tuning into that evil is central to succeeding in acting against it.

Published onFeb 23, 2021
Chapter 1: The Monsterverse

1. The Monsterverse

William Tyndale, born in 1494, killed in 1536, believed that the structure of communication during his time was broken and unfair, and with a core, unwavering focus, he sought to make it so that the main body of knowledge in his day could be accessed and then shared again by every man alive. He engaged in an unparalleled act of coding (not for nothing do we speak of computer programming “languages”), working through the Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic of the Bible’s Old, then New, Testaments to bring all of its good books—from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22—into English for everyday readers. He is reported to have said, in response to a question from a priest who had challenged his work—a priest who read the Bible only in Latin: “I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost.” And he worked with the distribution technologies of his time—the YouTubes, websites, and Twitters back then—by connecting personally with book designers, paper suppliers, printers, boat captains, and horsemen across sixteenth-century Europe to bring the knowledge and the book that contained it into the hands of the people.1

It wasn’t easy. In Tyndale’s time, popes and kings—Roman pope Clement VII and English king Henry VIII, in particular—had decreed, out of concern for keeping their power, that the Bible could exist and be read and distributed “only in the assembly of Latin translations” that had been completed by the monk Saint Jerome in approximately 400 CE. The penalties for challenging the law were among the most severe imaginable, for such violations represented a panoply of civil transgressions and an entire complexity of heresies. In taking on the church and the king—in his effort simply and solely to translate and then distribute the Bible in English—Tyndale confronted “the greatest power[s] in the Western world.” As he “was translating and printing his New Testament in Worms,” his leading biographer reminds us, “a young man in Norwich was burned alive for the crime of owning a piece of paper on which was written the Lord’s Prayer in English.”2 Moreover, the text he was translating alone was not the work of one creator. The Bible, as one of its modern translators has said, is “a work assembled by many hands, reflecting several different viewpoints, and representing literary activity that spanned several centuries,” and the text assembly involved in its original production “a process akin to collage.” “There are other instances of works of art that evolved over the centuries, like the cathedrals of medieval Europe,” this modern translator reminds us, but bringing the Bible into English involves “an elaborate process of editing” akin to the work behind “some of the greatest Hollywood films.”3

Tyndale knew seven languages—Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Aramaic among them—and with them all he sought to accomplish mainly this one thing: to translate the non-English Bible into English. He was a devout Christian. “Such was the power of his doctrine, and the sincerity of his life,” one biographer tells us, “that during the time of his imprisonment”—some twenty months, before he received the capital punishment for his crimes—“he converted, it is said, his [prison] keeper, the keeper’s daughter, and others of [the keeper’s] household.”4 But hopeful or not, devout or not, Tyndale met his violent end: “executed by strangling,” as his Wikipedia biography reads, “and then, burnt at the stake.”5 This was his lot after he was pursued across Europe by a king and church determined for decades to capture and destroy him; after he was caught following an act of gross and itself almost biblical betrayal; and then after close to two years of privation in a cold and wet cell outside of Antwerp, Belgium, where he was held, often in solitary confinement. This poor scholar and polymath to whom, it is now known, we owe as much as we owe William Shakespeare for our language, this lone man sought and slain by church and king and holy Roman emperor—his initial, official strangling did not go well, so that when he was subsequently lit on fire, and the flames first lapped at his feet and up his legs, lashed tight to the stake, he came to, and, while burning alive in front of the crowd of religious leaders and so-called justices (some seventeen trial commissioners) who had so summarily sent Tyndale to his death and gathered to watch it, live, he cried out, less to the crowd, it would seem, than to Another: “Lord! Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes!”6

Grim, the fate of the people who spread knowledge.

This was not an uncommon thing during Henry VIII’s time—or Pope Leo X’s or Clement VII’s time—in and around the 1500s. Tyndale’s most rapacious pursuer, Sir Thomas More, himself met a similar end. Henry VIII lost patience with More and initially wished for him to be hanged until he was half-dead, then castrated, then disemboweled and forced to watch his own intestines being burnt in front of him, and then (and only then) beheaded and burnt up whole. But, on the advice of counsel, he relented in favor of a much simpler decapitation:

About Nine [More] was brought out of the Tower; his Beard was long, his face pale and thin, and carrying a Red Cross in his Hand, he often lift up his Eyes to Heaven [. . .]. When he came to the Scaffold, it seemed ready to fall, whereupon he said merrily to the Lieutenant, Pray, Sir, see me safe up; and as to my coming down, let me shift for myself. Being about to speak to the People, he was interrupted by the Sheriff, and thereupon he only desired the People to pray for him, and bear Witness he died in the Faith of the Catholic Church, a faithful Servant both to God and the King. Then kneeling, he repeated the Miserere Psalm with much Devotion; and, rising up the Executioner asked him Forgiveness. He kissed him, and said, Pick up thy Spirits, Man, and be not afraid to do thine Office; my Neck is very short, take heed therefore thou strike not awry for having thine Honesty. Laying his Head upon the Block, he bid the Executioner stay till he had put his Beard aside, for that had committed no Treason. Thus he suffered with much Cheerfulness; his Head was taken off at one Blow, and was placed upon London-Bridge [after being boiled—and to a black mass], where, having continued for some Months, and being about to be thrown into the Thames to make room for others, his Daughter Margaret bought it, inclosed it in a Leaden Box, and kept it for a Relique.7

Imagine, then, the head of a television news network today—any TV network, really, but take for example Rupert Murdoch, Bill Shine, or Jack Abernethy at Fox News—garroted, disemboweled, drawn and quartered, and auto-da-fé’d in this way. Would they manage to endure, as Tyndale did back then? What is (or, when history judges them, was) their personal commitment—above and beyond the here and now—to making the world a better place through the media: through the power, the instruments, the weapons that they wield? Or, let us address even Johannes Gutenberg and the early printers—would they have had themselves strapped to a stake for the sake of knowledge?8 Guglielmo Marconi and all the radio pioneers? Philo Farnsworth and the other inventors of television? Tim Berners-Lee?

Today there is a new movement—nothing short of it—galvanizing around freeing knowledge. Its success is neither universal nor assured—various countries block its progress, still, wholesale; various forces and personalities seek to stifle and sometimes even to strangle it. But it has billions of catalyzing engines powering it now, and those engines are people, screens, speakers, pages of paper, and all the networks that together comprise the modern Internet. And while there have been purposeful, focused, grandiose efforts before now—around the Bible, in Tyndale’s time; around the first encyclopedia of knowledge, during the original Enlightenment; amid the Soviet revolutionary experiment, when there was even a government Commissar of Enlightenment; and at the foundation of public-media experiments much closer to home—to make knowledge grow and take root everywhere, there may be a true chance now to realize the hope that has lain at the heart of these grand visions, and to make all these advances over the centuries somehow more significant and permanent.

This then is a book of hope—and fire. It is set in the modern-day version of Tyndale’s Monsterverse. Every age has had its evil—and history shows us that tuning into that evil is central to succeeding in acting against it. Tyndale’s Monsterverse had Thomas More. More is best known today for his 1516 work Utopia and his flattering portrait as a principled and courageous Catholic in the play and film A Man for All Seasons. But More was heinous—a savage—and, as King Henry’s chief ideologue, the man who really singularly led the effort to capture Tyndale. He wrote close to a million words—two thousand “heavy pages,” as Tyndale’s biographer puts it—bubbling with bile and venom, and also fulminating with scat.9 Typical was More’s accusation that Martin Luther—another contemporary heretic, in his view—had claimed the right to “bespatter and besmirch the royal crown with shit.”10 “You kissed the ass of Luther, the shit-devil,” More wrote to our man Tyndale on one not atypical occasion. “Look, my fingers are smeared with shit when I try to clean your filthy mouth.”11 Such were the defenders of their own orthodoxy and own worlds in the 1500s (not unlike those you would find today in comments on the Internet).

And Tyndale worked in an environment that spawned other februations, as another scholar has put it, more “penitential public theater”: the ceremonial execution of texts as well as of the purported heretics and transgressors who wrote or trafficked in the worst of them. Burning books, ripping out their pages (itself a kind of disembowelment), imprisoning them—all that was common in the sixteenth-century Monsterverse. One author of the time was sentenced to have his ears cut off and have his books

consumed before his eyes in a fire tended by the public executioner. The sentence was carried out . . . with Prynne in the pillory and his books in flames before him. According to one observer, the smoke from the burning almost suffocated the author, which was hardly surprising since each volume had more than a thousand pages.12

Hardly surprising, indeed.

With the Aaron Swartzes of the world as suicides, the Julian Assanges pursued into prison, the Edward Snowdens chased into exile, our time in many ways is no different. There will come a moment again soon to consider how to limit all of the damage we are doing to our world through our media and communications policies and norms, and that we are doing—and allowing to be done—to our world by allowing our political leadership such free rein. The damage is altogether too stark and blinding to see at once—like black lightning, if there were such a thing. Today the most powerful offices in the world are once again involved in a relentless effort to crush freedom of thought, independent thinking, expertise—and to stanch progress toward open, civil society. The cabinet of daemons installed in Donald Trump’s White House has been extraordinary, in historical perspective, for its share of felons, accused felons, and just general mountebanks nominally in charge of stewarding a sector of society—education, labor, the “interior,” health and human services—but each more keen than the next on deregulating and commercializing his fief, all to keep in lockstep with the moneyed interests that, perhaps more subtly, have been steadily and systematically steering our society toward this point for decades.

In 1536, Tyndale had been in his basement cell for 450 days, the first weeks of which “would have been punctuated by long visits from the procurer-general and a notary”—both of whom facilitated the preparation and documentation of the full accusation against him—and the last weeks of which involved an examination-cum-trial replete with apostolic inquisitors and theologians, university rectors and faculty, lawyers and privy councillors: “heresy-hunters,” as his biographer calls them. When, at the end, he was condemned, he suffered what they would choreograph as a formal degradation, led in public and in his priestly raiment to a high platform outdoors where oils of anointment were scraped symbolically from his hands, the bread and wine of the Eucharist situated next to him and then just as quickly removed, and then his vestments “ceremonially stripped away,” so that he would find himself, and all would see him as, no longer a priest.13 Death came next. Actually there remains some question whether he shouted out to the king before he was strangled or after (and thus whether the whole botched-strangling account is true or not), but his words—of warning, of prescience, of (what matters here) selflessness—as so recorded were his last.

When we speak of the thirst for access to knowledge, our knowledge, we needn’t look as far back as William Tyndale for an exemplar. We can connect to the life of a real martyr from the modern age, one whose story is tied to almost all of the issues we address in this volume, one who is perhaps the closest modern figure to Tyndale we have, hounded down in our own day just as Tyndale was in his: pursued, captured, arrested, locked in.

Hounded quite literally to death.

Aaron Swartz was a progressive computer programmer, hacker, and activist—an entrepreneur, a genius, a young man of hope—who downloaded scholarly publications illegally. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Police arrested Swartz in an MIT closet where he had deployed his laptop and connected it to the MIT system, and in 2013, at twenty-six years old, he took his own life—hanged himself by the neck—during the investigation and prosecution that ensued.14 His suicide, under pressure from the academy and the government, prompted worldwide examination and reflection. His death and the official government pursuit that led to it contributed, as part of his legacy, to a push by scholars and activists to craft an even more aggressive agenda of publishing reform—a reform, indeed, of the research and action agenda itself, such that MIT’s visionary director of libraries, Chris Bourg, could ask of us all, five years later, “How can we create a world where Aaron Swartz’s act of disobedience was just . . . research?”15

Swartz downloaded copies of academic articles—4 million or 4.8 million; millions, at any rate—with the objective of publishing them freely online, so that anyone could read them anywhere, at any time. His target and source was JSTOR—a “digital library,” as the company describes itself, “for scholars, researchers, and students”—and one that holds, as of this writing, some 12 million digital articles, books, and primary documents across 75 disciplines or fields of study.

The hounding Swartz endured as a result was unbelievable. Some 14,500 pages of the US Secret Service’s files on him are available online.16 The original indictment against him—the charge—featured this language:

Between September 24, 2010, and January 6, 2011, Swartz contrived to:

a. break into a computer wiring closet at MIT;

b. access MIT’s network without authorization from a switch within that closet;

c. connect to JSTOR’s archive of digitized journal articles through MIT’s computer network;

d. use this access to download a major portion of JSTOR’s archive onto his computers and computer hard drives;

e. avoid MIT’s and JSTOR’s efforts to prevent this massive copying, measures which were directed at users generally and at Swartz’s illicit conduct specifically; and

f. elude detection and identification

all with the purpose of distributing a significant proportion of JSTOR’s archive through one or more file-sharing sites.17

Among the laws he was charged with breaking were 18 U.S. Code § 1343 (committing wire fraud); 18 U.S. Code § 1030 (a)(4), (b) (computer fraud); 18 U.S. Code § 1030 (a)(2), (b), (c)(2)(B)(iii) (unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer); 18 U.S. Code § 1030 (a)(5)(B), (c)(4)(A)(i)(I), (VI) (recklessly damaging a protected computer); 18 U.S. Code § 2 (aiding and abetting); and 18 U.S. Code § 981(a)(1)(C), 28 18 U.S. Code § 2461 (c), 18 U.S. Code § 982 (a)(2)(B), and 18 U.S. Code § 1030 (i) (criminal forfeiture).18

Swartz believed that knowledge should be set free when and where it could be—and he so proselytized. “Information is power,” he liked to say. He wrote a tract and treatise—the ‘Guerilla Open Access Manifesto’—in July 2008, where he reminded his readers:

But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. . . . Those with access to these resources—students, librarians, scientists—you have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not—indeed, morally, you cannot—keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world.19

In its own review of the matter after Swartz’s death, MIT’s Review Panel stated that “the Review Panel views the question of what [Swartz] intended to do with the information that he was downloading from JSTOR as remaining open.” The Review Panel also stated that “Federal law enforcement apparently took the first sentence [of one paragraph of the ‘Guerilla Open Access Manifesto’], ‘We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world,’ as the motive and purpose behind his extensive downloading—some 4.8 million articles, or 80% of JSTOR’s database of journals.”20

Apparently so.

In many ways William Tyndale and Aaron Swartz were just trying to accelerate events, the realization of eternal truths they knew, but knew in the wrong time.

In many ways they were just trying to accelerate freedoms that will be as obvious to us in the future as the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to our Constitution are today.

But Swartz—the Monsterverse took his life away, too.

Samuel Klein:

Also grim, the fate of those who suppress it

Peter B. Kaufman: