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The Communications Decency Act and Pope Joan

by Marian Hank

"The voice of conscience is so delicate that it is easy to stifle it: but it is also so clear that it is impossible to mistake it." - Madame de Stael

"You must be the change you wish to see in the world." -Mahatma Gandhi
What does a musical love legend about the only female pope have to do with freedom and the Internet? More than you may think. When I became Webmistress for POPE JOAN, I fell in love with the project for several reasons. One is the rare privlege of working with so many talented and creative people. The second is that the producer, Michael Butler, has allowed me so much creative freedom in terms of the growth of this site. The third and most intriguing aspect of this project is the personal message this musical delivers to me. POPE JOAN is a musical about tolerance and freedom.

The Catholic Church in 857 is big, corrupt and motivated by self-interest, much like the United States Government in 1995. Throughout the play, Joan works through peaceful means to create a change so that the Church is truly working towards the common good. I experience this on the Internet all the time; I am constantly amazed by the many ways people give on the net, through sharing information, ideas and kind words with perfect strangers. In 857, Joan has to disguise herself as a man in order to achieve her objectives. If the crushing blows to freedom of expression imposed by the Communications Decency Act (CDA) are allowed to stand unchallenged, then those of us who believe in this freedom of expression will have to "disguise" ourselves. We will have to come up with ways to express our views that work around the law.

It is a sad day indeed when we can draw so many parallels between the Middle Ages and the Information Age. And yet, the general appearance of suppression and intolerance haven't changed all that much over time. The idea is always to silence the opposition. It stems from the belief that, if you can keep the other side down, you win. And yet, despite this unfortunate repeated historical theme, we also have a contradictory theme which offers hope: every threat against dissident voices, from the loss of all worldly goods to the loss of life, has never fully succeeded in silencing points-of-view that vary from the norm.

The arts in general and theatre in particular have a special responsibility to challenge the majority point-of-view. Many arts, such as painting and writing, are designed to present a unique perspective. As often as not, that perspective is a direct challenge to the powers that be. That is why artists are always among the first to suffer at the hands of those who would silence the dissident. In theatre, many artists combine their talents to create something larger than themselves. POPE JOAN is one of those special theatrical experiences, because in addition to being entertaining; it dares to challenge the idea that gender determines your role in the Church and in the world. And to my way of thinking, keeping people from doing a job because of their sex is a form of censorship.

When I came into this project, I never doubted that it would be fascinating work. I knew that we wanted to share something larger than just an advertisement for the show and we have succeeded in doing so. We have a web that not only informs people about the musical, it also shares with them about the process of creating a musical. Here was my suprise: that the themes of POPE JOAN would reflect not only the current frustration women experience in trying to move into serious roles of spiritual ministry; but that it would also serve as a challenge to the current general trend to silence the voices of tolerance and freedom of expression.

I am particularly proud to be a part of the development team for Pages from Michael Butler's Memoirs. In this section of the web, Mr. Butler, who has always understood the power of theatre to inspire social change, reflects on how artistic efforts such as HAIR have served to not only entertain, but to awaken people to political and social transformation. As I've come to know him, I am now certain that this is part of his attraction to the POPE JOAN project. He truly understands how powerful the arts are in terms of changing the world.

He also understands how this power works on the Internet. Much like the band of artists who combine talents to present a show, he knows that the combined statements of many voices on the net serve to create a powerful and peaceful demonstration of free speech. Hence, as individuals and as a group, the Pope Joan Workshop Web has supported many of the peaceful demonstrations organized on a net-wide basis by such organizations as Voter's Telecommunications Watch. In writing this essay, as an individual I have a very limited impact on the course of events. By writing it in combination with all the other freedom-loving essay writers around the globe; I become part of a powerful voice that will help to change the world.

As Mr. Butler would say, "Right on!"

Currently POPE JOAN is only playing on a Chicago stage. Thanks to the Internet, the themes and ideas are playing all over the world. I know as I type this, there are people everywhere struggling to find their voice in their own essay. Each of us hopes to find the right words to keep tolerance and freedom on the Internet. Individuals around the globe have never had such a powerful tool at their disposal to communicate with each other and work for peace and freedom. I am proud to be a part of POPE JOAN, a play that speaks for tolerance, and even prouder to be a part of the Internet, a communitity which passionately defends individual freedom of expression. May the Goddess smile favorably on both endeavors, for the bottom line is that they both represent a peaceful plea for change.

The magic of the arts is that we often challenge the norm through not only intellectual evidence but also emotional and spriitual experience. Never doubt that this is powerful stuff. The magic of the Internet is similar. We do have the power to change the world and be remembered as the generation that paved the way to working towards the common good. Skeptics may say this type of idealism is a "pie in the sky" approach to life. But I believe that when so many people are working towards the common good, positive change is a natural outgrowth. In the closing number of POPE JOAN, "a thousand voices sing as one" in order to change the world. And here on the net, we are making that dream a reality.

Marian may be contacted at marian@imagescape.com

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