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Spinoza, P2P, Porn, and WikiLeaks

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First, a big thanks to the Personal Democracy Forum for its timely FLASH conference on WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. I was privileged to be there in the audience.

WikiLeaks is new -- now. It combines the anonymity and distributed support of p2p networking with a message pointed directly at government and media both, exposing their private parts. It also has a visible front figure, Julian Assange. What may be less known is that back in 1670, a new voice, Benedict de Spinoza, with similar pretensions to seriousness and relevance as Mr. Assange, arrived on the scene. In 1670, Spinoza published a book, the Theological-Political Treatise, which advocated toleration of all points of view and free speech, and which claimed the best society lets every person reach their own goals. The book even argued the purpose of a state is to protect freedom. That's the good news.

The book also said that God is governed by the laws of nature, that most priests are cons, frauds and predators, that the Bible should be read in its historical context, and that no miracles contradict nature. The treatise was in Latin, and was immediately banned. The Vatican unbanned it in 1966.

When Spinoza died in 1677, he left two manuscripts in a secret desk drawer. His friends liberated them the next day. The day after that, police searched the apartment. We know all this about Spinoza, of course, because his works were published anonymously, republished often, and commented on endlessly over the next two centuries. Spinoza's banned works were sold right next to the Marquis de Sade's, over the same under-the-table networks as pornography and copyrighted music. They were in every private library in Europe. Their number overwhelms the number of books by any other author at the time, except for Anonymous and the Bible.

Two recent books by Jonathan Israel, a historian now at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, cover how all the controversy and spewing as opinion about Spinoza evolved. Israel calls Spinoza the father of the Radical Enlightenment. Reading these histories, the repetitiveness and squabbles are so boring. Conservatives and liberals repeat the same points. One writer's gutter is another writer's bowling alley. One soon realizes, almost no one read Spinoza anymore. He was banned, so it was illegal to use his own words to defend him. He was NSFR. It is worth reading him, though, to learn what the fuss was about.

Up to the French Revolution and beyond, anyone "convicted" of being Spinozist could end up in prison or dead. The great liberal John Locke argued endlessly that atheists should have no rights, they were enemy combatants. Spinoza was Public Enemy No. 1. Moderate liberals like Locke had one great argument in favor of their kind of tolerance: if not us, Spinoza. Friends of Spinoza, meanwhile, argued with evidence, he was never an atheist. His personal life was clean as a whistle. Charges laid against him were lies.

Imagine Bill Keller at the NY Times working to persuade the US government that certain Times reporters should be permitted to view all diplomatic cables with "secret" designations. Bill Keller would be a moderate liberal in the ancient regime century after Spinoza and before the French Revolution.

If you want a sneak peak at the future and the role of dumps such as WikiLeaks in it, look at the history of the diffusion and reaction to Spinoza's work. You won't go too far wrong.

Correction: Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study was originally referred to here as the Institute for Advanced Research.