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26 November 2008 @ 10:14 pm
How to fight bad books.  
A number of bloggers who I read once in a while have been discussing a book called Lebor Feasa Runda. The possessor of this book, Stephen Akins, claims it is an ancient Celtic manuscript which describes Druidic ideas from before the rise of Christianity. He has recently published an English translation. It has never been offered to a reputable university for authentication; moreover, its content is characterised by neo-Nazi white supremacy.

I don't need to say more about it than what has already been said by The Wild Hunt blog and others. What I'm curious about, however, is why people fall for this sort of thing.

In a conversation about a similar diatribe of dogmatic dung which somehow inexplicably got published, someone said to me:

"I know there are some historical inaccuracies, but the author has some good ideas."

That is to say, the author pulled some philosophical concepts from out of his hat, mixed them into a poetic series of wise sounding pronouncements, and claims about facts from history or language that may or may not be verifiable. This will be done without systematic argument or close analysis of hidden presuppositions. However, it is often done in the mode of a confident assertion: the author appears certain and committed to his beliefs: he claims they are real and true, and he does not waffle with expressions of relativism. People are impressed by that kind of confidence, even if they are not otherwise inclined to be gullible. I suspect that this is the strategy which enables Akins and the like to be successful.

So, how do we fight it?

One way to fight it is to not talk about it: for blog entries about his stuff (including this one) only increase the amount of exposure and publicity he gets. Remember your Oscar Wilde: "Speak of me well, but speak of me poorly - but speak of me."

Another way is to write better books. This is my own preferred strategy.

Those not in a position to write their own (better!) book can talk about better books, and do what they can to increase their publicity. So, the next time someone mentions Akins' stuff, or Monroe's 21 Lessons, or the like, try countering with: "But have you read Myers? Or Erynn Laurie? Or Greer? Or Philip Carr-Gomm? What about Emma Restall Orr? What about Isaac Bonewits? Those writers have interesting ideas too. And they have much more professional research habits. They want to inform and inspire people, just like the writer you mentioned. But they don't want to just placate readers with seemingly interesting ideas. They also want to pose the deepest questions, the most serious problems. They want to engage the world in a real conversation, so that their readers will be better people, and our shared world will be a better place to live. For example, in one of my favourite books, the author said something really amazing that made me change my beliefs for the better. Here, let me show you..."

This may well be the case not only for one short book published by one person. This may well work for any noble and socially just cause. I think the effort to quell Akins' book should be seen as just one part of a larger effort to resist racism everywhere. And for that larger effort, good people should not just ignore it and hope it goes away by itself. Good people should be prepared to act.

I'm convinced that what good people need to do is not simply, nor only, denounce the falsehoods. They must also uphold the truth. For "falsehood yields to truth", as a wise man once said. But this only happens when the truth is respected: "let him care for the truth, it will care for him". The meaning of the Druidic motto, "The Truth Against the World", is that it is the Druidic task to assert the truth when 'the world' is about to succumb to ignorance. If history teaches anything, it is that knowledge is stronger than ignorance and truth is stronger than lies, but lies and ignorance always win when those who stand for truth and knowledge do nothing.
Wordslingerwordslinger on November 27th, 2008 03:58 am (UTC)
I am seeing this in the field of archaeology. People love a good read about the Mayan "end of the world", Nibiru (which doesn't exist), Atlantis, and so forth. The flimsiest evidence or no evidence (like the imaginary "Emerald Tablets of Thoth") is much preferred to the truth.

The problem is, the fantasy is far more exciting than the truth.

We run into this on CR.
(Deleted comment)
Wordslingerwordslinger on November 27th, 2008 07:31 pm (UTC)
Books, no (because they're trying to teach what's real and not debunk myths.)

Nibiru, no. It's a throne name for Marduk (like "your highness") and because Marduk is associated (but not equaled to) Jupiter, there's no real link of it and Jupiter.

But it's been taken (thanks to one or two very bad writers) to be this planet that zooms through the solar system (from the Oort cloud, or various other locations) every 3500 years and causes Biblical Disasters. Nevermind that we had civilizations all over the world in 1500 BC that were writing stuff down... it somehow manages to come, shift the poles, causes the Earth to stand still, brings Great Cosmic Enlightenment... oh, heck. Just google for it. You'll be appalled.

I can bore you to death wit the topic in my own blog if you ask a question or three.
sara_super_id: magesara_super_id on November 27th, 2008 04:28 am (UTC)
I agree. Better books, and if you want to spread truth to the audience who is eating up lies, you have to write to them! Write to them, with clear concise language. Go to the publishers that make books for them and get them published to a vast market. Organize the books in the way that they are vastly consumed. You don't have to lie to do that, you just have to be willing to supply the kind of material people want. A chapter that explains the idea, a spell or exercise the reader isn't actually going to do (but will think about long enough to consider the implications) at the end of the chapter, rinse repeat. I honestly think it can be done.

I don't think cr actually wants that identity though. No shame in that, but lets be honest.
sara_super_id: magesara_super_id on November 27th, 2008 04:32 am (UTC)
P.S. I am in the middle of reading your book. I like it, I am thinking a lot.
Brendan Myersnorthwestpass on November 27th, 2008 08:02 pm (UTC)
Glad to hear it. Thank you!
cultus_sabbati: ODUcultus_sabbati on November 27th, 2008 07:36 am (UTC)
Well, I hope this book won't be translated into russian, we have enough of Monro's fans here. If they will become a Nazi-Druids, that will be too much.
Time to write a good books.
the blind webster: witches' godblindwebster on November 27th, 2008 08:07 am (UTC)
You raise a number of fair points, but I still think it's important to point out inaccuracies in literature when they present themselves, and to hold authors accountable for them. As a Wiccan, I can't tell you how many times I've seen a beginner stumble into a forum and ask, "A lot of people don't seem to like Silver Ravenwolf - why is that?" Whereupon she's lead to one of the varied criticisms of the author available online, and a person who would have otherwise walked into the world of neopagan publishing unquestioningly is now, at the very least, armed with questions. And that's due to public criticism.

It's true that many people simply won't be swayed by such criticisms, and then the only course of action is the one you prescribe, which is to gently suggest better reading (or to create better reading). But I don't think actively criticizing poor quality texts is completely without benefit, and I think that, generally, both responses are necessary. If it weren't for such criticism, I don't think I would be so well-informed as I am today.
hagazusa: mariahagazusa on November 27th, 2008 08:56 am (UTC)
Emma Restall Orr has professional research habits? Who knew! :)
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Brendan Myersnorthwestpass on December 1st, 2008 09:47 pm (UTC)
If you believe that Isaac's best idea ever was expressed in that film appearance (which, as Isaac personally told me, was scripted by LaVey and thus the request was not truly Isaac's own), then may I gently recommend that you have a look at his more recent books. After all, he was a mere teenager in that film, and he's a fully-grown, mature, and life-experienced adult now. I'd also recommend reading some of the essays on his web site, especially the piece entitled "My Satanic Adventure" which explains it all quite clearly. Here's the link:

Brendan Myersnorthwestpass on November 27th, 2008 08:01 pm (UTC)
On the research front: E.R.O's latest book, "Living with Honour", is much better than her previous offerings.
Brendan Myersnorthwestpass on November 27th, 2008 07:59 pm (UTC)
Just to clarify:

I'm not saying that we shouldn't do some de-bunking work for bad quality books at all. I'm fully aware of how useful and important such work can be, when it is done well. However, I am asserting two things:

- that there can come a point at which even a de-bunking exercise can subvert its own purpose. For one who debunks a bad idea has implicitly judged that the bad idea under scrutiny is still worth talking about. Remember Oscar Wilde again: "the only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about".

- More importantly, a de-bunking exercise by itself cannot be the whole effort. It simply isn't enough to denounce the bad: it is also necessary to uphold the good. As part of the effort to resist racism, sexism, etc., we must also promote the alternatives of excellence. In my view, this activity should have the greater share of emphasis.
finnchuillfinnchuill on November 27th, 2008 08:59 pm (UTC)
I agree with the last paragraph but I think we should be *thankful* for the very informed essay Dr. Bernhardt-House has made available to the community. If we love this tradition we must defend it against those who dishonor it with lies and racism.
the blind webster: witches' godblindwebster on November 28th, 2008 12:23 am (UTC)
Then we're on the same page. :)
Grey Catsidhewcm on November 28th, 2008 05:55 am (UTC)
I very much agree. Some others who I've been following on the topic have discussed the importance of someone writing an essay for Witchvox since the book is listed on the site. You're very eloquent and I plead with you to submit your posting to them in the hopes that they will release it to the public.

Brendan Myersnorthwestpass on November 28th, 2008 07:01 am (UTC)
All you have to do is ask; you don't need to plead. :-)

I'll edit this piece a little bit, and take into account some of the comments I have seen here. Thank you for the suggestion.
Brendan Myersnorthwestpass on November 28th, 2008 07:41 pm (UTC)
Done! I have just written a longer (1800 word) version of this piece, which I think fairly accounts for the comments I've seen here on this LJ, and sent it up to the editors at Witchvox. It looks as if it's in the queue, and may appear in two to three months.