reading, censorship & theocracy in the US

… Sometimes, fighting for freedom of access to information seems shallow in comparison to the struggle against poverty and inequality, or against government-sponsored murder and torture, or even the struggle to survive in the face of hurricanes and tsunamis and floods. But ultimately I believe it’s all the same struggle.

… Philip Pullman recently wrote an essay, published in The War on Words The Guardian [2004-11-09] and previously apparently in Index on Censorship, about reading, dogma, and theocracy in Bush’s US. So timely, as the world faces so many incidents of censorship and outright ideological attempts to control education and access to information. A few notes:

My third and final charge against the theocracies, atheist or religious, and their failure to read properly is this: that the act of true reading is in its very essence democratic.

Consider the nature of what happens when we read a book – and I mean, of course, a work of literature, not an instruction manual or a textbook – in private, unsupervised, un-spied-on, alone. It isn’t like a lecture: it’s like a conversation. There’s a back-and-forthness about it. The book proposes, the reader questions, the book responds, the reader considers. We bring our own preconceptions and expectations, our own intellectual qualities, and our limitations, too, our own previous experiences of reading, our own temperament, our own hopes and fears, our own personality to the encounter.

I like this analyis of reading. The observation isn’t unique, but tying this form of reader empowerment into broader exercises of democracy and empowerment is sharp.

One of the most extraordinary scenes I’ve ever watched, and one which brings everything I’ve said in this piece into sharp focus, occurs in the famous videotape of George W Bush receiving the news of the second strike on the World Trade Centre on 9/11. As the enemies of democracy hurl their aviation-fuel-laden thunderbolt at the second tower, their minds intoxicated by a fundamentalist reading of a religious text, the leader of the free world sits in a classroom reading a story with children. If only he’d been reading Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, or Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad, or a genuine fairy tale! That would have been a scene to cheer. It would have illustrated values truly worth fighting to preserve. It would have embodied all the difference between democratic reading and totalitarian reading, between reading that nourishes the heart and the imagination and reading that starves them.

I have a minor quibble with the substitution of the term “theocratic” for what might be more properly termed “dogmatic.” Theocratic would be a special instance of dogmatic. I understand, I think, what Pullman is getting at; he wants us to see the common strands between theocratic dogmas and other forms of ideological dogmas, such as the Soviet Union. The US’ current dogma might fit somewhere in the broader slate even if it doesn’t quite line up with Iranian-style theocracy. But as a US citizen who is quite concerned about actual theocracy, I want use of terms to be precise. Just a nitpicker, I guess. I suppose I wouldn’t care if I didn’t have particular beefs with the use of religion to create and buttress political structures. But among dogmas, theologies are particularly prone to abuse.

Pullman also quotes Karen Armstrong’s recent The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam:

There is a good description of two different modes of reading in Karen Armstrong’s The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (2001). Armstrong is eloquent on the difference between mythos and logos, fundamentally different ways of apprehending the reality of the world. Mythos deals with meaning, with the timeless and constant, with the intuitive, with what can only be fully expressed in art or music or ritual. Logos, by contrast, is the rational, the scientific, the practical; that which can be taken apart and put together again; that which is susceptible to logical explanation.

Both are necessary, both are to be cherished. However, they engage with different aspects of the world, and these days, says Armstrong, they are not equally valued. Her argument is that in modern times, because of the astonishing progress of science and technology, people in the western world “began to think that logos was the only means to truth, and began to discount mythos as false and superstitious”. This resulted in the phenomenon of fundamentalism, which, despite its own claims to be a return to the old true ways of understanding the holy book, is not a return of any kind, but something entirely new: “Protestant fundamentalists read the Bible in a literal, rational way that is quite different from the more mystical, allegorical approach of pre-modern spirituality.”

These notes lead to the heart of Pullman’s observations, which are that the current US government is increasingly dogmatic in dangerous ways. It’s true that those who see fit to govern us seem to have less of a sense of humor than ever. I’m reminded of John Ashcroft installing covers for the naked lady statues at DOJ (for $8000, apparently!). (U1) More recently, just a day or two ago I saw this story about Mississippi county library officials banning Jon Stewart’s America (The Book). The district library director was offended by the photoshopped photo of the naked US Supreme Court, which asks readers to “restore [the justices’] dignity by matching each justice with his or her respective robe.” Surely, the inability to appreciate absurdity and satire is another feature of the dogmatic … It’s always depressing when a librarian falls short of the standards that so many of us uphold so well. Robert Willits, library director for Jackson & George counties, said “I’ve been a librarian for 40 years and this is the only book I’ve objected to so strongly that I wouldn’t allow it to circulate.” Jesus. Mississippi really is backwards if this was the most offensive thing he’s seen in 40 years. Or is it that he was particularly offended by the use of nudity in the satiric context? … Certainly it wasn’t the prurient aspect of this nudity that appalled, since the sight of 9 naked people, not one of whom is less than 55 years old, isn’t really calculated to arouse prurient interest in most folks today. [update 1/12: after complaints the library board un-banned the book]

I remembered recently the story an acquaintance of mine told me about her youth. Her parents were embedded in an evangelical church, hung up on issues of satanism. At one point her parents became concerned about her choice of reading materials — science fiction, fantasy, comic books, historical romance novels — convinced that some of it at least was satanic — and literally began burning her books. After she pulled some books out of the flames and pointed out to them that they were classics, or not satanic, or were in some other way significantly misapprehended, her parents changed tactics. They demanded that she herself sort the books out according to a standard they adapted from the Supreme Court case Miller v. California: that the books she kept had to have redeeming literary or other social value. Her parents weren’t concerned with just the prurient interest, either, apparently; her books had to attain some higher value other than mere non-prurience in order to be redeemed.

She was required to sort her books according to this metric, and turn over a good portion of her collection of “escapist” fiction with no “redeeming values” to be destroyed. … Forcing someone to apply another’s standard to their own punishment is a tactic of humiliation, of course, used by authoritarians to make the victim complicit in their own victimization. …

Redeeming. Suggesting that the books were damned to begin with, and had to be redeemed by some especial value. Damned, I suppose, because they were for entertainment, or purposes other than religious education. Redeemed by being for some other acceptable purpose. The Supreme Court in Miller damned books (and films, etc.) for their prurient value. A hang-over of our Puritan religious past, a distaste for the sexual. The Court let materials escape if they had other redeeming values — even prurient materials may be redeemed by some other benefit to society. But change the test just a little, as my friend’s parents did, simply drop the prurience requirement, and you’ve shifted the burden from some literature or art to all literature or art. All literature or art is now guilty unless proved innocent, damned unless redeemed.

Carry that notion a little further, and measure science and education and medical information on the same yardstick. Now you’re no longer balancing science education in the schools or medical information against the truth of the science — now you weigh it against some other scale, in which there is a subjective redemptive value. We don’t teach the truth because of its truth. We teach because we want to control the ideological outcome. Now, advocates of so-called intelligent design can feel outraged, hurt, treated unfairly, because all they want is equal time, a fair share of the educational pie. Critics of dispensing information about birth control and the efficacy of condom use for disease prevention can weigh the information not against its accuracy but against their values.

In this view, education isn’t about truth. Education is about ideology, and the intelligent design folks deserve just as much opportunity to control the instillation of ideology (“education”) as the scientists and teachers. Learning, truth, education, truth, aren’t valued for themselves. In fact they’re damned because they cause us to question the values that redeem.

Pullman observed in the His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, etc.) that all of history is a struggle between those who want to disseminate knowledge, and those who want to control and limit that dissemination. Between those who trust only themselves with information — and consequently with freedom — and those who think that information and freedom and power belong to all.

Another acquaintance of mine was recently wrestling with the question of whether or not to have an abortion. Her circumstances were difficult, but she had always identified as “pro-life,” and most of her close friends and family members felt similarly and encouraged her not to have the abortion. Ultimately they joined, though, in supporting her; they believed that she would do the right thing, whatever it was; they trusted her to make the right decision. I was angry about this, although I didn’t discuss it with her. It’s easy to trust people you know. But who are they to make those decisions for all the people they don’t know? Why, in fact, should the people that pro-lifers don’t know have to trust the pro-lifers to make the right decision for them?

The Bush administration is just one manifestation of this greater historical tendency. We ought to weigh this manifestation properly — hard to do, sometimes, when you’re in the thick of it. The Bush administration didn’t start the fear; but it is capitalizing on it, and building on it, and strengthening that tendency in the US and around the world. The push is away from multilateralism, away from respect of others, and towards unilateralism, towards limiting trust to oneself and one’s clan. The control of people’s access to information is a symptom and a sign, but it is also a means towards the end of controlling people. You don’t trust people to do the right thing with information, and by keeping it away from them, you prevent them from doing what the wrong thing.

And since all our struggles — whether against economic injustice or the effects of natural disasters or the repression of governments — are carried forward by individuals, then trusting individuals with information, empowering them through information, and letting people build their own tools is still the best way to further social change. … which of course is why, as Pullman observes, governments and hierarchies such as the Bush administration are always so interested in stifling knowledge and education transfer. Keep the knowledge, keep the power, don’t trust anybody else to do the right thing.


U1: 2005/July/9. Replacement Atty. General Gonzalez quietly undraped the statues, returning a little bit of sanity to the otherwise indecent DOJ.