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Today's dissenters not burned at the stake, just ridiculed, disparaged, and blacklisted

Statue of Giordano Bruno in Campo dei Fiori. Photo: Livioandronico2013/Wikimedia Commons

The brooding statue of Giordano Bruno in the Campo dei Fiori in Rome attracts few tourists. Among those who do stop to look at it, fewer still know who Bruno was and why he has been so esteemed. But he is widely remembered in academic and literary circles, and is revered as a hero by many modern dissidents.

Bruno was a 16th-century Dominican friar who quit the order to become an itinerant teacher and philosopher. He was burned at the stake for heresy in 1600 by the Roman Inquisition.

His "heresies" were many, but the one that most infuriated the Vatican was a view he shared with Galileo (and earlier with Copernicus) that Earth was not the centre of the universe. He wrote several treatises contending that our planet revolves around the sun, and that the stars are distant suns that also probably have planets with sentient life.

This theory, of course, contradicted the Church's teachings that the whole universe rotates around Earth, as God had ordained. And so Bruno was excommunicated, imprisoned for seven years, frequently tortured, and finally executed. He could perhaps have saved his life and regained his liberty if he had recanted his "heresy," as Galileo did, but he adamantly refused to do so.

For his courage and his steadfast defiance of religious fallacy, he has been immortalized by the statue in Rome. He is also the character "Nolan" in James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. (A Nolan is a citizen of Nola, a town near Naples, where Bruno was born.)

Novelist Morris West wrote a three-act play about Bruno, which was published as a book called The Heretic in 1969 and which I recently re-read. In his preface, West described Bruno as "the quintessential non-conformist of the Middle Ages" -- as the "odd man out" who refused to agree with what the ruling powers (in this case the Church) insisted was true, but which he knew was false.

The fate of today's 'heretics'

West wrote his play as much to honour the heretics of today as to pay homage to the historical Bruno. He said it was a mistake to assume that dissent from the prevailing orthodoxy is tolerated now any more than it was in Renaissance Italy. It's just that what West calls "the mechanics of social control" are much more sophisticated today than they were four centuries ago. Heretics are not jailed, tortured, or burned at the stake any more (at least not publicly in the "civilized" Western industrial countries), but they are subjected to methods of suppression that can be just as effective, if not as physically painful.

"The growth in large monopolies in communication [dedicated to defending the status quo]," said West, "has forced the protester into the streets, where his protest may easily be construed or manipulated into a public disorder. A whole industry has been built around the art of affirmation, but the dignity of dissent is daily denigrated, and the doubter is in disgrace…

"This is why I wrote the story of Giordano Bruno, dead and buried for heresy centuries ago. I could not believe that any man should be required to sell his soul to anyone who promised him order, discipline, social acceptance, and three meals a day."

What the Church feared in medieval times was that Bruno's ideas and books would influence others, and that a growing number of doubters and dissenters would threaten its theology and hence its power. Not having a sophisticated propaganda machine to discredit Bruno, it resorted to brute force to stop him from spreading his blasphemous views.

Today's corporate hierarchy also fears those who challenge its "free market" ideology, especially if they seem to be attracting a large following; but the "church" of the modern ruling elite has no need for the rack or the stake. Its version of the Inquisition is much more subtle. It denounces, ridicules, and disparages the heretics' conflicting opinions, and thus deters their broad acceptance.

I'm referring, of course, to the corporate-owned mass media, arguably the most powerful mechanism for protecting a dominant doctrine that has ever been created.

Those who own and control the newspapers and the TV and radio networks were not so foolish as to try to stifle dissent completely. They allocated a limited amount of space and time for the heretics to propose different policies. This was considered necessary to maintain the illusion of a "free" press, but the dissidents' access to the commercial media -- prior to the emergence of the internet -- was far from sufficient to enable them to reach the public continuously and effectively. And their heretical views were overwhelmed by the unceasing chorus of establishment editorial writers, columnists, and radio hosts, whose main function was to denigrate the dissidents and depict them as cranks and troublemakers.

Occasionally, however, modern-day heretics still managed to garner more public attention and support than our corporate rulers wanted to tolerate. The person deemed a heretic then became the target of a vicious and sustained smear campaign.

This was the fate of populists like Ralph Nader, Jessie Jackson, and Michael Moore in the United States. Here in Canada, Maude Barlow, the eloquent and charismatic chair of the Council of Canadians, became a thorn in the corporate side. With her books, her speeches, and her council's growing membership, she emerged as a steadfast critic of corporate misconduct, and to the CEOs that made her dangerous.

So they unleashed their media attack dogs to bring her into disrepute. Simply to moan, "Oh no, not Maude Barlow again!" was considered enough to discredit her. It didn't -- not immediately -- but it did ultimately result in her being virtually blacklisted as a guest commentator on the TV and radio networks or in the major newspapers.

My Toronto Star column

I had a taste of this kind of treatment back in the 1970s when I was writing a weekly column on labour relations for the Toronto Star. Since I also held a full-time PR job with a union at the time, and since I frequently used the column to snipe at the misdoings of business leaders, I naturally incurred their wrath.

They tried several times to persuade the Star's then managing editor, Martin Goodman, to terminate my column. But Marty was that rarity in the upper echelons of commercial journalism: an editor who refused to bow to corporate dictates. You might say that Marty himself was a heretic, and after he rebuffed my corporate foes for the umpteenth time, they finally gave up and I went on to write the column for 14 years, subjected only to occasional rebukes from pro-business columnists.

But the business barons eventually got rid of my column after Marty tragically and prematurely died of cancer in 1982. He was barely in his grave when the Star's publisher phoned to tell me curtly that my column was "no longer needed."

Now that I'm confined to writing for online journals like rabble, my dissenting views arguably don't reach nearly enough people to make the CEOs uneasy. So I can be safely ignored. But Maude Barlow had a much higher profile. So did other progressive authors and commentators like Linda McQuaig, Jim Stanford, Armine Yalnizyan, and Murray Dobbin.

Of course, with the internet, Facebook, and other digital modes of communication now serving as easily accessible alternatives to the corporate media, it leaves the corporate bigwigs with no workable substitute for the Inquisition.

It's also worth keeping in mind that, although Giordano Bruno continues to inspire and encourage us 420 years after his death, the names of his persecutors -- even that of Pope Clement VIII, who ordered his execution -- have long since been forgotten.

Ed Finn grew up in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, where he worked as a printer’s apprentice, reporter, columnist, and editor of that city’s daily newspaper, the Western Star. His career as a journalist included 14 years as a labour relations columnist for the Toronto Star. He was part of the world of politics between 1959 and 1962, serving as the first provincial leader of the NDP in Newfoundland. He worked closely with Tommy Douglas for some years and helped defend and promote medicare legislation in Saskatchewan.

An earlier version of this article first appeared on the CCPA's Behind the Numbers blog.

Photo: Livioandronico2013/Wikimedia Commons

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