Talk for Freedom to Read Week PEN Benefit: The Bookshelf, February 25, 1996

This text was written as a short introduction to a reading from Lunar Perspectives: Field Notes from The Culture Wars, at a fundraising event for PEN Canada held in The Bookshelf (41 Quebec Street, Guelph, Ontario) on February 25th, 1996, as part of Freedom to Read Week. Readings were also given by Judy Rebick, co-host of Face Off and former president of NAC; by T. Sher Singh, lawyer and Toronto Star columnist; by Yan Li, author of Daughters of the Red Land; by the poet Karen Houle; and by Thomas King, author of Medicine River and Green Grass Running Water. Run for decades by Barb and Doug Minette, The Bookshelf is a one-stop civilization: it includes under one roof an excellent bookstore, a rep cinema, a restaurant, and a bar.

I want to begin with a little anecdote that has some bearing on the relevance, here and now, of Freedom to Read Week. I've brought with me a copy, wrapped as you see in brown paper, of a book I ordered a little over a year ago through The Bookshelf (that's where the serious ordering of books is done in this city). Don't be misled by the brown paper cover: it's something I do to prevent the books I use in teaching from wearing out too quickly.

This book is one that some of my colleagues and I have used in recent years in a graduate course in literary theory that we've team-taught at the University of Guelph. Feminisms: an anthology of literary theory and criticism: published by Rutgers University Press, it's interesting in several respects. Nice cover under that brown paper, though torn and bruised, as you can see. The book contains fifty-eight well-chosen literary essays written since about 1975 by feminist theorists and critics. And for some reason, just before the last academic year, Canada Customs chose to hold up the shipment of this book between New Jersey and Guelph for almost a month. The book is over 1,100 pages long: perhaps it took all those literary theorists at Canada Customs that long to puzzle their way through it.

Who knows what they were looking for? Leather and chains, perhaps? Wild single-sex sado-masochistic pornography? Or some other form of evidence that feminism, as American televangelist, antisemitic conspiracy theorist and former presidential candidate Pat Robertson has informed us, is “a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians”?

Whatever the Customs officials were looking for, they didn't find it. Hardly surprising, if you pause to reflect for just a moment on the sobering kind of thing that university presses habitually publish. But our books arrived in Guelph almost a month late—and looking, as Doug Minette remarked to me, as though a pretty energetic gang of people had been playing football with them.

So what's the moral of the story? The Bookshelf sold the damaged books to my students at a substantially reduced price, taking a loss of several hundred dollars on the consignment. Since it would be folly to take legal action over such a sum, and since our government shows no signs of wanting to rein in the zealous censors at Canada Customs, these officials have the pleasure of knowing that whenever they disapprove of a foreign book, they can with impunity inconvenience its would-be readers and financially harm the bookseller who imports it. They can also punish stores like The Bookshelf for having engaged in solidarity and fund-raising work in support of the campaign to help Little Sisters bookstore in Vancouver in its ongoing struggle against government harassment.

In a country whose Prime Minister has trouble reading his own speeches, it doesn't make a lot of sense to tax literacy by applying the GST to books. But here we have a second tax on books—and one that is applied, not evenly, but with careful and foolish discrimination, by censors, mountebanks, and misogynists. I don't see why we put up with it.

This little story is related, in a sidelong way, to the book from which I'm going to read you a couple of short excerpts. I wrote Lunar Perspectives (as I said in its preface) “in response to a widespread perception of crisis in North American education—a perception stemming largely from the outcries over 'political correctness' in American and Canadian universities that began in the late 1980s and peaked about a year ago, leaving behind a widespread distrust of scholars in the humanities.” I was prompted as well by a sense “that the PC furore and a longer-term withdrawal of public support from institutions of higher learning are together aspects of a larger cultural and political crisis—the most notable signs of which include an ever more overwhelming dominance of narrowly economic, utilitarian and instrumentalist habits of mind, and a correspondingly steady shrinkage of the public space within which genuinely critical analysis of the present state of affairs is possible.”

That public space or public sphere is threatened when customs officials are encouraged by their political masters to harass and persecute bookstores like Little Sisters which cater to minority communities, and feel sufficiently emboldened by their success that they turn to harassing other bookstores like our own Bookshelf. The public sphere within which it is possible to participate actively in a thriving and humane culture, to imagine a truly democratic social order, and to take part in processes of transformation and renewal designed to sustain and enhance that culture and that democracy, is currently endangered in other ways as well.

It is threatened when, for example, an Education Minister like John Snobelen declares his government's intention to “bankrupt the actions and activities that aren't consistent with the future we're committed to,” and to do so by “creating” or “invent[ing] a crisis”—which means, in more direct language, manipulating the public through misrepresentations and outright lies into accepting panic solutions to false problems. Snobelen and the Harris government threaten our freedom to read because they are committed to a corporatist agenda of massive public disinvestment and privatizing that focusses with particular intensity on higher education, and that will have the direct effect of excluding all but the well-to-do from this sector of our public sphere.

Reading well—with moral acuity, with historical depth, and with contextual richness—is something that our colleges and universities pride themselves on teaching. When people are denied access, for purely economic reasons, to the mind-expanding interpretive exercise of our best humanities programs, their freedom to read is being sharply curtailed.

Our freedom to read is perhaps more directly threatened when neoconservative campaigners against “political correctness” attempt to panic us into believing that the barbarians are within the gates, that our cultural institutions, and our universities in particular, have fallen into the hands of Visigoths in tweed. The Greek poet Constantin Cavafy had something to say about this in a poem I have used as a epigraph to my preface—“Expecting the Barbarians” (in Rae Dalven's translation):

Why this sudden unrest and confusion? 
(How solemn their faces have become.) 
Why are the streets and squares clearing quickly, 
and all return to their homes, so deep in thought? 
Because night is here but the barbarians have not come. 
Some people arrived from the frontiers, 
and they said that there no longer are any barbarians. 
And now what shall become of us without any barbarians? 
Those people were a kind of solution.

The drumbeaters of neoconservatism have tried to persuade us, in particular, that leading roles among the barbarians who are obliterating Western Culture and William Shakespeare are being taken by women—and women of colour, such as Alice Walker or Rigoberta Menchú. A substantial part of my book is devoted to refuting this kind of panic attack—to showing that the charge is false and absurd, to analyzing the sleazy motives which underlie it, and (along the way) to wresting Western Culture out of the hands of such blundering would-be defenders (and censors) as Allan Bloom, Roger Kimball, and Dinesh D'Souza.

Here's a brief section in which I pay the panic-mongers back in their own coin: it's from a chapter entitled “Monster Zombies on Campus,” and follows a passage in which I analyze nuclearism, futurelessness and nightmare as part of the context that informs our readings of literature.

[The analysis of nuclearism, futurelessness and nightmare alluded to here, and its application to literary interpretation, will be found on pp. 59-66 of Lunar Perspectives; the passage I read aloud at The Bookshelf, which analyzes and mocks anti-PC panic-mongering by University of Toronto political scientist Jean Edward Smith, appears on pp. 67-71.]