Burning Bruno

After reading today’s column you can amaze your friends

and astound your enemies simply by asking:

“Do you know what day this is?”

Few will give the correct reply: this is the 400th anniversary of burning Giordano Bruno at the stake.

We do not usually celebrate the victims of the Inquisition. But this 400th anniversary of roasting Bruno is an exception. The president of France, Jacques Chirac, himself, has used the occasion to make a point.

His point? He spoke in favor of “tolerance” — the leading, and perhaps the only, ideal still in fashion. Few commentators today will take issue with him. I predict that not a single columnist in any of the world’s papers or Internet sites will take a favorable view of the Inquisition…and none will doubt that cooking Bruno was a mistake. Even the Roman Catholic Church is now preparing an apologia for the Inquisition.

Bruno was a remarkable man. His ideas on the cosmos and the atomic structure of matter were ahead of his time. Intuitively, he guessed right about a number of things that science would later discover. Many of his other ideas were as nutty as any that emerged at the end of the 16th century.

But it was not really his intellect that got him into trouble. It was his contrary nature. He managed to offend practically everyone. He got himself excommunicated by the Catholic Church while still a very young man in Italy. Then he went to Geneva, the center of Calvinism, and was excommunicated by the Calvinists. Later he spent time teaching in German universities — and was excommunicated by the Lutherans, too.

Finally arrested and charged with heresy, Bruno’s indictment includes almost every form of free-thinking of the time. Gnostiasm, Arianism, Manicheism, antinomianism, Lullienism, Ramism. He was said to have denied the divinity of Christ…the virginity of Mary…and the idea of transubstantiation.

He was charged with wanting to create a new cult, claiming that Cain was better than Abel, believing that Hell didn’t exist and that Moses invented the Commandments, failing to accept the Holy Trinity, blasphemy towards Christ, believing in an infinite number of worlds and that the world was eternal, and of having committed sins of the flesh.

But what is interesting in reading the account of Bruno’s life is not the intolerance of the Inquisition — but the dignified, civilized and tolerant manner in which it was conducted.

Bruno was able to dispute the charges against him, in detail, over a period of several years. He negotiated. He was offered an opportunity to admit his errors and get off with light punishment. He had an advocate defending him…and was able to launch counter-charges against his accusers.

Near the end, the panel of ecclesiastical judges in charge of the case recommended torture as a way of getting out the truth. But torture could only be applied with the approval of Pope Gregory XIV — who vetoed it.

Then, given a last chance to accept that fact that he was wrong — Bruno refused. He even seems to have talked back to the judges in an impudent fashion.

Finally, 400 years ago, Bruno was led to the Campo di Fiori, stripped, tied to a post and burned alive. Whatever torments Hell had prepared for him, or not — Bruno found out on the 17th of February, 1600.

Today’s columnists can feel superior. In the Christian world, you can write the most heretical thing you could think of and not have to worry about punishment. Instead, you could probably qualify for a government grant. Or a literary prize.

But before you warm to the congratulatory impulse, it might be worth recalling a persecution far worse than anything Bruno faced that existed during the lifetimes of many DR readers. In the Soviet Union in the `30s and `40s, even a casual conversation with a friend could get you in deep trouble. All you had to do was to express the slightest doubt as to the leadership of the country or the Communist Party. The victims numbered in the millions. They were hauled away within hours, tortured and, usually, shot. There were no trials, no delays, no arguments. If you were lucky, it ended quickly.

Today’s spirit of Festivus — — where nothing matters except stock market success and having fun — is largely a reaction against the death toll of 20th century “isms.” Who would die over the doctrine of transubstantiation? Who would give up his comforts to take up the struggle of the working class? What abstraction is so compelling as to be worth sacrificing a single bottle of good vintage wine? The signers of the Declaration of Independence lost years in prison, their fortunes, their homes, their children and sometimes their own lives in the quest for “liberty.” In the early 19th century, duels were so common over points of “honor” that even Marcel Proust fought one.

Voicing an antinomian opinion today will get you branded as a nut, not a heretic. Challenging a man to a duel will probably get you a jail term. Even Protestantism and Catholicism seem to mean nothing. People choose their religion on the basis of convenience and social programs — not doctrine. Episcopal churches with good outreach programs fill up with ex-Jews and Pentecostals. No one cares. Heck, no one even knows what he is supposed to believe. All the “isms” that so animated the Inquisitors, Founding Fathers and Bolsheviks seem to have soured to the point where they have the appeal of a moldy orange. What counts is day care and ski trips for the kids.

All that matters is that nothing matters too much. Everything is beautiful, in its own way. Whatever…

Tolerance is in a bull market.

Bruno, were he alive, would probably go short.

Happy Anniversary,

Bill Bonner

Ouzilly, France February 17, 2000

*** “The Internet bubble has burst,” said yesterday’s “USA Today.” “On average, each stock in the Internet 100 is down 38% from its high, which by even the most optimistic definition qualifies as a bear market.”

*** The “USA Today” article makes me think the “moment of truth” may have arrived for the Internet bubble. This is the moment when investors realize that their expectations were unrealistic…and are not likely to be realized.

*** It doesn’t mean that a crash will come today or next week. Typically, the moment of recognition is followed by a period where things go on as usual…people keep playing the game, but with a growing lack of confidence and interest. It is a little like a cartoon, after a character has run off the edge of a cliff. He hangs in mid-air for moment or two — giving him time to realize what he has done — before falling.

*** “Amazon is 35% below its high,” continues “USA Today,” “AOL is down 44%, BarnesandNoble.com is down 60%, eToys is down 83%, Charles Schwab is down 50%…Value America is down 94%, Beyond.com down 85%, E-Loan down 85%, iVillage down 85%, Autoweb.com down 83%, Autobytel.com down 81%, Net.bank down 80% and Emusic down 77%.”

*** Richard Russell’s comment: “The great majority of Internet stocks will be smashed before this year is out.”

*** Meanwhile, the Dow gave up most of Tuesday’s gains yesterday. It was down 156.

*** Only 26% of NYSE stocks are above their 200-day moving averages. This means that nearly three out of four stocks are in bear trends.

*** Nasdaq managed a small gain, but as the numbers above show, the gains in the Nasdaq are smaller and smaller and based on a smaller group of stocks.

*** AOL fell again. It’s down to $51 — barely above the point where, according to rumors, the deal with Time Warner would come unstuck.

*** “TheStreet.com Seeks Partner,” says today’s headline in the “Financial Times.” Readers may recall that I’ve followed the progress of TheStreet out of professional as well as financial interest. I signed up for a trial subscription but soon dropped it. Half of the articles made no sense.

*** The stock hit $71 after the IPO amid the typical dot-com excitement. I couldn’t see how the company could ever earn any money — much less justify a market value over $1 billion.

*** Then, about a month ago, TheStreet admitted that its business model was a failure and decided to stop charging subscribers for the basic service. What the heck, try something new.

*** The trouble was, the new model relied on the very thing TheStreet.com’s leading voice had said was a dead end — counting eyeballs. “They don’t take eyeballs at the bank,” wrote James Cramer, “they take cash.”

*** I guess Cramer has been to the bank. His company lost $9.1 million in the last quarter, against only $5.1 million in sales. But the stock is still trading at $17 — giving the company a capital value of $400 million. Which shows how much farther the bear market in dot-coms has to go. What’s a company that has $20 million in revenue and loses $35 million really worth? A lot less than $400 milllion. Maybe zero. Maybe less.

*** Okay, I’ll let you in on my secret business strategy. My guess is that TheStreet.com and other Internet publishers will someday be available for almost nothing. Then I will be a buyer.

*** I know you were on the edge of your seat yesterday, wondering how the elections in Zimbabwe turned out. You’ll recall that Mugabe’s government was making a brazen appeal to voters to rewrite the constitution so he could rip off white farmers. But even voters sometimes do the right thing. Mugabe lost. This is such an unexpected blow…he is considering resigning. Or shooting the voters.

*** “The dirty little secret of the information age,” writes the chief economist at Morgan Stanley, Stephen Roach, “is that an increasingly large slice of work goes on outside the official work hours.” I have been trying to do to the New Era myth roughly what the Russians did to downtown Grozny. But occasionally, I see a wall or chimney still standing.

*** Mr. Roach fired a rocket at productivity increases which the New Era has supposedly delivered. The big increases are coming in the service sector — largely among knowledge workers. According to the government, these people are working five fewer hours per week than they did in 1964. Roach believes…and everyone knows…people are now working harder than ever — but doing a lot of the work from home, using laptop and home computers.

*** Says Roach, “If the productivity growth in the white collar service sectors is as overstated as I fear, the arithmetic [of productivity gains] breaks down.”

*** I know I am working from home a lot more. And on trains. And airplanes. And sitting on the beach. And at lunch. Jean got me a new IBM Thinkpad. It is light. It goes wherever I go. I am not only stuck in traffic on the Internet highway…I’m shackled to the truck.

*** Yesterday I took the train up to Paris. I was the only person to board the 6:22 a.m. train to Poitiers at the tiny Lathus station. But at the next stop a couple of real bumpkins got on. They looked like a French version of Andy Capp and his wife. He was a small wiry man with a short, square face and a Bismarckian mustache. She was large, with a pleasant smile and a manner that suggested that she was accustomed to bossing her husband around. She carried a large purse. He carried a spare tire. God knows why a person would want to take a tire from Montmorillon to Poitiers by train.

The couple took seats across from me. The woman continued talking. She then decided to go to the bathroom. But instead of heading towards the lavatory, she went into the engine compartment.

“There were no toilets in there,” she remarked to her husband as she passed towards the other end of the car.

Then they both marveled that the train to Limoges would pass through the town of Lussac, which they knew to be in the opposite direction from where they wanted to go. “Isn’t that funny,” she said to her husband, as if the train system were such a technological wonder as to be able to run counter to the laws of geography, “they’ve got the train to Limoges running through Lussac.”

At that point, I thought it was my duty to interrupt:

“Uh…Madame…I’m afraid this is the train to Poitiers, not Limoges.”

In their bucolic innocence, they were taking their tire to the wrong city.