The Golden Compass and “anti-Catholic bias”

I have not said anything about the controversy over the Golden Compass, because the issue has seemed too simple and clear cut to warrant comment. But take a look at what appeared in this week’s American Libraries Direct:

The Golden Compass accused of anti-Catholic bias

Several Toronto-area Catholic school boards in Ontario have removed Philip Pullman‚Äôs The Golden Compass fantasy novel from library shelves for review following a complaint in the municipality of Halton in late November. The novel and its two companions in the ‚ÄúHis Dark Materials‚Äù trilogy are receiving heightened scrutiny for their allegedly anti-Catholic content prior to the December 7 U.S. release of The Golden Compass movie (right) starring Nicole Kidman and Donald Craig. ALA President Loriene Roy issued a statement December 4 urging libraries to resist calls for censoring the books or boycotting the film….

I find this way of covering the issue quite interesting. Up to this, I had only seen the book attacked for the author’s “open atheism,” which seems so blatantly forgetful of the fact that we (in the U.S. and Canada) don’t live in a theocracy that the story pretty much spoke for itself. But restating the issue in terms of an “accusation” of “anti-Catholic bias” puts the story in the frame of anti-defamation, hate speech, and multiculturalism, an area where intellectual freedom has some competition from other progressive values.

This kind of pisses me off. Freedom of speech means that we are free to criticize a religion. Here, American Libraries Direct is using the word “accusation” in reference to the book’s anti-religious viewpoint, as though such a viewpoint would be criminal or immoral. The word “bias” suggests that an unfavorable opinion of a religion amounts to prejudice, as though we are talking about a minority ethnic group that has a legitimate interest in countering false stereotypes and misunderstanding. Religions are belief systems and organizations, and should be just as open to criticism as political parties or corporations. We should be able to talk about specific beliefs, including beliefs that form a religious doctrine, as the beliefs that they are, separate from the political baggage of institutional sacredness. If Philip Pullman wants to tell a story that contains an anti-religious viewpoint, “accusation” is not the appropriate word to use regarding what he is doing, any more than saying that C. S. Lewis has been “accused” of incorporating a Christian viewpoint in The Chronicles of Narnia. Some may not like Philip Pullman’s beliefs, but others like them. He is not advocating crime or immorality, as the word “accused” implies. American Libraries Direct should not use phrases like “allegedly anti-Catholic content” when it’s not a crime in Canada (as far as I know) to criticize a religion. If the Church doesn’t like it, too f-ing bad!

19 comments on “The Golden Compass and “anti-Catholic bias”

  1. I think this from the AL says it all Rory:

    “Of course [the President of the ALA] also mentioned that this same insidious “censorship” is occurring in America, since some Catholic hillbillies in Kentucky have also removed the book from the open stacks of their Catholic schools. Oooh, how frightening. Some Catholic school kids in Kentucky won’t be able to check out this book from their school library. They might have to go to their public library for the book. Horror of horrors!

    You might have noticed a theme here. Some Catholic schools in Canada and the United States have questioned the appropriateness of this book for their own school systems. The book is widely available in public libraries and bookstores. Nothing has been banned. Nothing has been censored. Some Catholics have decided it’s not appropriate for their Catholic students. How is this of any concern to the ALA?”

    So why is this so f-ing upsetting? As a Christian, I will certainly want my children to be able to understand the arguments of this book and to be able to discuss it intelligently, as I am sure many of these Catholic parents would like as well.

    Perhaps you might say something like “one has to learn to evaluate the behavior of other people, not just blindly copy them”, and I agree, but I wonder *when* this process should start. I have to say as a father, that in a child’s early years at least, children really don’t seem to need much explanation for why you believe something is right – and explicitly introducing them to alternative viewpoints to “evaluate” would seem to only breed unnecessary confusion. I suppose I tend to be quite “traditional” and “intolerant” in my values. For example, even if I myself might enjoy sharing a beer with a NAMBLA member, listening sympathetically to him about the merits of his case, hell would have to freeze over before I gave him access to my seven-year old son (he’s actually about 5 right now) so that he could convince him of the richness and beauty of man-boy love. “Eight is too late” indeed!

    All things in due time. “Age-appropriate-ness” is key.

  2. Nathan,

    What I am objecting to is American Libraries Direct’s choice to borrow the Church’s point of view in referring to an “accusation” of anti-Catholic bias without putting it in scare-quotes. This effectively merges the point of view of American Libraries Direct with that of the Church, which I think is alarming.

    I have no issue with a Catholic school censoring the book in their own library. When they speak publicly to say the book is mendacious, however, I think their statements should not be treated with any special sanctity, but should be countered along the lines of “Speak for yourselves.” Their assumption that others do or should share their values is offensive to me.

    I don’t consider the comparison to NAMBLA appropriate, because even religious people tend to agree that atheists can live very moral lives by any standards; they just think that their destination is hell despite their goodness. So we are not talking about morality or the law.

  3. Rory,

    You said:
    “American Libraries Direct should not use phrases like “allegedly anti-Catholic content” when it’s not a crime in Canada (as far as I know) to criticize a religion. If the Church doesn’t like it, too f-ing bad!”

    By using that phrase, they are not making any statements about the morality / legality of criticizing a religion, they are simply *trying* to report (see last paragraph below for why they fail).

    I don’t see how the American Libraries Direct is “borrowing” the Church’s view. Again, I would say that they are accurately reporting the Church’s view – partly (again, see last paragraph below). If that is what this school is saying – that the book has “anti-Catholic” bias – then they are accurately reporting this – they are allowing them to “speak for themselves” (to put forth their particular bias) as you might say. I don’t see how putting square quotes around this would be a good idea – it would simply be confusing. I don’t understand how you could reasonably have another viewpoint here. “We report. You decide”, really is not a bad statemtent sometimes.

    The article does say “allegedly anti-Catholic content” though – I find this to be the most humorous, really. 10 seconds on Google would help them get rid of the “allegedly”. It clearly is, really. 🙂

  4. Nathan,

    “Allegation” and “accusation” both imply guilt. Using those words without scare quotes implies agreement with the Church that there is something wrong with being anti-Catholic or atheist. From the Church’s point of view it may be an accusation, but that’s the Church’s point of view; hence the appropriateness of quotation marks.

  5. I thought of a good analogy. Let’s say I eat a hamburger for lunch, and a moralistic vegetarian takes exception to this, and a reporter says that “a vegetarian accused Rory of eating a hamburger for lunch.” I am saying that “accused” ought to be in scare quotes for the same reason. If I were also a vegetarian, then it would be wrong for me, in a sense, to eat a hamburger. But I am not a vegetarian. A vegetarian might think that it was wrong for me to eat a hamburger, and a vegetarian newspaper might agree. But I would not expect a non-vegetarian newspaper to agree, which using the word “accused” or “alleged” in reference to eating a hamburger would imply that it did.

  6. “American Libraries Direct should not use phrases like ‘allegedly anti-Catholic content’ when it’s not a crime in Canada (as far as I know) to criticize a religion.”

    No one is saying it is a crime. But if the book criticizes the Catholic Church, then it would have anti-Catholic content, or at least anti-Catholic Church content. Just as if a book that criticizes the American Library Association, for example, would have anti-ALA content.

  7. It is anti-Catholic, anti-religion, but one can only “accuse” the author of this if one considers it morally wrong. If it’s morally neutral, one can note it, claim it, etc.

    The issue I am raising is American Libraries Direct choice to echo the Church and use the words “alleged” and “accused” with reference to what it is that they don’t like. I would be much more comfortable to see those words in scare quotes. See my analogy, Stephen.

  8. Thanks for trying to help me figure this out. I don’t think there would be any problem with a newspaper reporting that “a vegetarian accused Rory of eating a hamburger for lunch” although such a headline would indicate a terribly uninteresting story. Especially if most people did not care about such matters, which is not the case. Rory, it seems to me that it is precisely because the editors believe that people are interested in this story that it 1) in the paper in the first place and 2) framed this way. I would have no trouble with the headline “Muslims accuse Christians of anti-Muslim bias” (are you confident that anyone is “neutral”, really – I just think some biases are more obvious [explicit, either deliberately or not] than others) regarding this or that issue, so I’m still not sure what the big deal is here. Actually, when I look at it, I’m not even sure if the word “accuse” is appropriate (this word sounds so mean! :), since the book is simply receiving “heightened scrutiny” at the moment as the school takes the time to look at it closely (for the allegedly anti-Catholic bias – and they will indeed find out that it is!) due to the concerns of the one person who issued the complaint.

  9. Alleged: from Webster’s Dictionary:

    1. asserted to be true or to exist
    : questionably true or of a specified kind : supposed, so-called
    3 : accused but not proven or convicted

    So alleged can mean an unproven accusation, but it can also mean an unproved assertion of any kind, including an assertion of innocence. Allege is different from accuse, it does not necessarily involve a moral judgment. In fact, if ALA Direct were to say “‘alleged’ anti-Catholic content” rather than “alleged anti-Catholic content” that would imply that it believes there is no real question that the book has anti-Catholic content. By using the word “alleged” without the scare quotes in front of “anti-Catholic content” ALA direct is taking a neutral position on the question of whether or not the book actually has “anti-Catholic content” (and it is quite likely that the author of this news item had not read the book in any case and therefore was not in a position to judge whether this was true).

  10. Hey Rory, I’ve got an idea for you: why don’t you start a blog on censorship in the Middle East? You could travel to Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Syria, and report back on the state of their libraries. What a great idea! Why don’t you start by seeing how many copies of the Bible you can find in Saudi Arabia?

    Of course, you’re really just a critic of ease and convenience, aren’t you. You’ll criticize you friendly neighbors and fellow citizens at the drop of a hat, but not those who really crush their people via censorship and much, much worse.

    Let’s see you go after Islam a bit, shall we? Nah, I didn’t think so, you’re too f-ing cowardly!

  11. The lesson you should be deriving from your post and this thread is that you have absolutely nothing to say that hasn’t been said a million times over at the Daily Kos or Democratic Underground. And for that reason, you’re right, you shouldn’t be blogging.

    If you want to blog, try to find some new angle of attack. Search for the real enemies of the ideals you purport to hold so dear. Then you’ll be contributing something that other people will not fall asleep to.

  12. Thanks for the friendly advice, Yachira, but it only shows that you haven’t been paying attention, and don’t realize that the issue I am blogging about is pretty quirky and unusual, and not dealt with elsewhere. It has to do with coverage at American Libraries Direct, and the use of words like “accused” and “alleged” without scarequotes in a way that unwittingly, but tellingly, merges the point of view of the publication with that of a group whose “accusation” only makes sense in terms of its own private value-system. But since this is not the kind of thing that you seem to expect to find in a blog, it goes right past you. A look at the rest of my blog would also show that your comment is really misplaced. If you find my blog boring, then I suppose you are not its intended audience anyway.

    But regarding your overall point that I should address intellectual freedom or civil liberties problems in other parts of the world because they are worse than the problems we have here, I’ll just say that I and many others have a moral preference for self-criticism, for starting in our own backyard, and for taking care of those problems for which we as a society are responsible before criticizing other societies. I may not have a “live and let live” attitude in all respects, but in this way I do. I’m worried about what’s done in our name, much moreso than what’s not. I would be much more willing to criticize other societies if we had a system of democratic world government. But as a member of a superpower society, I’m not as comfortable doing that. I’m not saying that it’s necessarily wrong to criticize what goes on in other societies, or that it isn’t sometimes important. I’m just stating the way I see the balance.

  13. > But I would not expect a non-vegetarian newspaper to agree, which using the word “accused” or “alleged” in reference to eating a hamburger would imply that it did.

    If you ate at McDonalds, it _was_ an “alleged” hamburger.

Comments are closed.