Monday, January 30, 2006

Baha'i Scholars as Collateral Damage

There have been some rumblings online from writers and scholars about the NSA's boycott of Kalimat Press, as might be expected. There's a lot of fear out there, because they know what this means for anyone who has published with Kalimat, yet they also know the consequences of publicly -- even on a small email list -- criticizing a decision of a Baha'i institution.

However, one of them got a letter back today from the US NSA, which I hesitate to show in its entirety, because there's personal stuff in it, and the person involved seems rather torn two ways between talking about this publicly, and simply hoping that going through approved Baha'i channels will resolve the problems. So, I'm not going to shove him into the limelight if he's reticent -- although this letter could very well pop up elsewhere; the email list it was posted on doesn't have a no-forwarding rule.

Anyway, the NSA is quite aware that their actions create enormous difficulties for Baha'i scholars, but the attitude appears to be "Sorry, but it's your problem". Apparently, smearing Kalimat in the eyes of the community is important enough that hurting virtually every prominent Baha'i scholar is worth it to them. And Baha'i scholarship itself ranks so low on the list of priorities that for the sake of a few books they don't like, they are willing to allow all the other work that Kalimat has produced to be tainted.

What caught my attention was this: "As to the distribution of those titles of which the Assembly approves, this has been the approach for a number of years and has only emboldened and enabled Kalimát Press to carry more harmful titles." That is, the policy has been for the Baha'i Distribution Service to simply avoid purchasing the titles it doesn't approve of -- at least in the US; I noted that a couple of the controversial titles are being carried by the UK BDS. And actually, that's a fair way to approach things -- I certainly would never say that the NSA is obligated to buy books it doesn't approve of. Like any other buyer, it can make choices. However, what struck me about this passage was the decision that this approach wasn't working i.e. Kalimat just kept distributing books the NSA didn't like anyway. What this tells me is that the NSA expects this action to destroy Kalimat. After all, if Baha'is continue to buy Kalimat books, as the NSA keeps saying they have the right to do, then things will go on pretty much as before, and Kalimat will be just as "emboldened and enabled" as it has ever been, which is clearly not their goal here.

This is why all this stuff about how it's only the severing of a business relationship, and that Baha'i are free to buy from Kalimat etc. is just so much bovine manure. A business relationship can be severed without a big public announcement -- and if Kalimat survives this, because Baha'is continue to buy these books, then even stronger measures will be taken either against the company or against its owners. Because they don't want these books to have any influence on the thinking of Baha'is.

The really insane thing about all this is that these titles, while controversial, are not harmful. They are ideas that can be openly discussed and debated, just like anything else. The big problem hereis that the institutions think they have to play thought police. They say they don't want to name the "inimical" titles because they don't want to create a list of banned books, yet for the sake of those books they say they aren't banning, they are willing to destroy an entire publisher and risk the reputation of many, maybe most, Baha'i writers.


mrs.strongarm said...

Does the NSA not understand that what they are doing is illegal? And how is it that this publisher is so cowed [sp?] as to do nothing to stand up to this?

I don't understand this. If the cattle ranchers sued Oprah, why won't Kalimat take action?

Anonymous said...

I don't think that what they are doing *is* illegal - it's not illegal to publish a review that says "don't buy this book, I think it's rubbish" - it's a little odd, but not illegal to say "everything Heineman publishes is inimical to the interests of the United States".

The trouble here is that Kalimat is informally dependent on Baha'i officialdom for its customers - so what it's doing to Tony Lee is very, very nasty and narrowminded - but there's no legal case to answer here.


mrs.strongarm said...

Really? I thought that if you could prove that your business suffered dramatic financial loss from a public statement, you could be compensated for damages.

We could argue about it, but I'm no legal expert. It just sounds like it would be case-worthy, based on cases I've heard about in the news.

MrDonut said...

I was outraged to receive the letter from the NSA that so fascistically slandered Kalimat. It was SO unnecessary, SO pointed, and there was SO much between the lines! It was against Baha'i law, it was against the First Amendment, it went to every Baha'i in the U.S. and it was constructed to be so vague that anyone challenging it would be up for review. It was a despicable act, unworthy of the NSA, but it was a wake-up call to any Baha'i with "ears to hear and eyes to see." I take delight in sitting back and watching the stumbling about of the NSA as it tries to do SOMETHING, anything at all, that will justify its existence.

Today they want respect. Desperately! And they expect the Baha'is to hand it over without earning it, by using threats and punishments against any Baha'i who comes out in favor of the rights he was given, both by God and by Country.

Thanks again for allowing a comment.