Cherish the Poets and Other Heretics

Shakespeare, a poet, wrote the line “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” for the character Jack Cade in the Henry VI cycle, and it refers to Cade’s vision of a utopian, social revolution in which he would be dictator.  Of course, the irony is that when it comes to establishing or maintaining autocratic rule, one must first kill all the poets.  After all, nobody really understands lawyers.

The Poetry Foundation, human rights groups, and other news agencies report today that Iranian poet and activist Hashem Shaabani was executed by hanging on Monday after suffering three years of imprisonment and torture.  His crime was “waging war against God.”  There’s a reason artists are invariably among the first to be killed or imprisoned by any authority predicated on orthodoxy; and it is the underlying reason why I will never stop writing or speaking about the rights and the value of artists.  Because their work is not just content.  And while we may take the absence of orthodoxy in our own governance for granted, we should not underestimate the social or economic force of artistic diversity for helping it stay that way.

Coincidentally, I leave this month for Rome to film some documentary material with the widow of my former film professor about a man named Giordano Bruno — philosopher, scientist, and heretic burned at the stake in 1600 by order of Pope Clement VIII.  Perhaps the trip will provide new food for thought for this blog.  For now, it’s enough to say that as we debate the subtle and profound ways in which technology changes our world and  our notions of civil liberty, that we are privileged to have this dialogue in relative luxury, with the leisure of academics, and at a safe distance from people who still hang poets.

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