Archives For Libraries

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

Witchy fashion? Spring 2013 Saint Laurent collection. (Photo: NYT)

Witchy fashion? Spring 2013 Saint Laurent collection. (Photo: NYT)

  • Witches: Always fashionable. Quote: “Witchcraft and its moody expressions — long weedy hair, peaked hats and pointy boots — have attained a strange cachet of late. No longer the hideous wart-covered crone of folklore and fairy tale, the witch of current films, like “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” and “Oz: The Great and Powerful,” and recent youth-oriented novels like “Released Souls” and “A Discovery of Witches,” has swept aside the vampire as a symbol of power, glamour and style.”
  • Glub, glub! We’re submerged in the occult says “ex-Satanists” Jeff Harshbarger! Quote: “Our society is submerged in the occult; Harry Potter has filled the minds of our children for a decade and vampirism meets our teens with the illusions of grandeur. Witchcraft went mainstream decades ago, and Wicca is its offspring.” Sinister!  Maybe all these “former occultists” should spend more time being better Christians instead of trying to sell books. 
  • Zimbabwe seems intent on starting up a moral panic around Satanism with, quote,  “some people going as far as blaming the Witchcraft Suppression Act for “protecting” suspects and witchcraft practitioners.” It has all the hallmarks of America’s Satanic Panic, but with the added danger of people (suspected Satanists) being killed by angry/fearful mobs. This can’t be going anywhere good. 
  • In an addendum to the Salem (Missouri) Public Library occult filtering case I reported on earlier this week, the Riverfront Times publishes the official, quite defensive, statement from the library on the case’s resolution. Quote: “Under the judgment, the library will continue to use the same internet screening provider it has used for many years. This is the same internet screening service provider as ninety percent of public libraries in Missouri. Months prior to the time the lawsuit was filed, the provider used by the library made changes in its minimal screening categories which the Salem Public Library and many other libraries in the state adopted. By agreeing to the consent judgment, the Salem Public Library does nothing more than agree to continue to use the new updated categories recommended by its service provider and adopted by the library before the suit was filed.” Shorter version: we will never admit we did anything wrong. 
T. Thorn Coyle

T. Thorn Coyle

  • T. Thorn Coyle writes for The Huffington Post about John Brennan, Sekhmet and the Fires of War. Quote: “We are damaging ourselves, our souls, and the earth. We are dealing out death at a distance, and slowly dying inside. Freedom is hard to bear. But so is war. So is our enslavement and inner blindness. How shall we waken to the light that dawns over the desert so beautifully? If life and death are sacred, what is our role in these wars being fought via real-time video? We try to distance ourselves from the cycles of the earth, but in the long run, this simply is not possible.”
  • The Havasupai Tribe and environmental groups are suing the U.S. Forest Service for failing to adequately protect land sacred to the tribe and moving forward on a controversial uranium mine. Quote: “The complaint (full text) in Grand Canyon Trust v. Williams, (D AZ, filed 3/7/2013) claims that the Forest Service failed to comply with environmental, mining, public land, and historic preservation laws. It alleges, among other things, that while the Forest Service has designated the area as Traditional Cultural Property and has recognized that it is a sacred site to the Havasupai Tribe and has begun consultations with the Tribe, it refuses to carry out a complete “Section 106 process” under the National Historic Preservation Act, which would include developing a memorandum of agreement with the tribe and state historic preservation office before restarting mining operations.”
  • Got caught being a scam artist? Convert to Christianity! It’s a fabulous PR move. Quote: “Chan converted to Christianity and renounced his former practice ofgeomancy just weeks before appearing in court for forging the will of one of Hong Kong’s richest women, billionaire Nina Wang, whom Chan also claimed to be his girlfriend.”
  • The site Pagan Dharma has returned from Internet limbo, Some of the rationale for why it’s back can be found, here
  • Heiner Bielefeld, in a report to the U.N. Human Rights Council, says that blasphemy laws should be ended, and that they endanger religious minorities. Quote: “Speaking on the fringes of the rights council on Wednesday, Bielefeld said criminalizing concepts like blasphemy was dangerous for free speech because there could be no common definition of what it was.”
  • Slate.com says the goddess Columbia is cool. Quote: “As a personification of the United States, Columbia is far less sinister and far more charismatic than her coattailed counterpart: She’s the goddess-like figure who inspired all the women in breastplates from the women’s suffrage marches of 1913.”
  • A reality television Witch. Move along, nothing to see here.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Associated Press are both reporting that a consent judgment has been handed down in the case of Hunter v. Salem Public Library Board of Trustees, in which Salem, Missouri resident Anaka Hunter was denied access to websites dealing with Wiccan and Native American customs due to the filtering software being used by the library. In addition, Hunter reported that she was “brushed off” and intimidated by library employees and board members. The settlement, approved by U.S. District Judge E. Richard Webber, says that the library agrees to remove the “occult” filter, among others, for library patrons. The ACLU, who represented Anaka Hunter, noted that “public libraries should be maximizing the spread of information, not blocking access to viewpoints or religious ideas not shared by the majority.”

Salem Public Library

Salem Public Library

“Even libraries that are required by federal law to install filtering software to block certain sexually explicit content should never use software to prevent patrons from learning about different cultures.”  – Tony Rothert, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri

The Wild Hunt covered this issue extensively last year when the ACLU filed their lawsuit against the library, at the time I explored the long, strange history of Internet filtering services and how many of them contain filters that remove minority and alternative religious viewpoints in deference to their (then) largely Christian user base.

“The more one digs, the more it seems that the “occult” category was one created to cater to the“constellation of values” of conservative Christian religious groups in the United States. Phaedra Bonewits, whose site, Neopagan.net, is listed as “occult” by Netsweeper, claims that the initial target market for filtering software “was Christian households, thus all the ‘cultic’ keywords being included with the porn.” I tried to contact Netsweeper by phone and email for background on how a site comes to be labeled as “occult” in their system, but a representative never responded.” 

Any library that receives federal funds is obligated to install Internet filtering software under the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). However, that filter is only supposed to block only obscene material, and content deemed “harmful to minors.” Sadly, either through ignorance of what various filter groupings contain, or misplaced (and illegal) paternalism, some libraries “overblock” the Internet stymieing open information and free inquiry. This was exactly the scenario warned of by critics of CIPA, and other advocated of an open and free Internet.

shutterstock 41035354

“Libraries should be bastions of free thought and information access; but, as the actions by the Salem public library demonstrate, Internet Freedom (and freedom of religion) aren’t just under attack overseas — the same censorship technologies used by oppressive regimes are finding their ways into our own back yards.” – Sascha Meinrath, Director of New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative.

This victory comes at a time when Pagan religions are emerging from their classification as “alternative,” or “occult” belief systems, as evidenced by the Book Industry Study Group’s decision to reclassify books on Wicca and modern Paganism as belonging in the Religion section rather than the Body, Mind, & Spirit (aka Occult) section (not to mention the fact that the University of Missouri lists the Wiccan Sabbats in it’s Guide to Religion). Still, even if Wicca and other faiths were unpopular, reviled, and relegated to non-religious categories, it would not change the fact that no belief system should be filtered by our government, under any circumstance. The adoption of Internet filters are supposed to protect children from pornography and harmful material, not keep adults from doing research. There shouldn’t be an option to block the sites of minority religions for institutions receiving federal funds, and no library committed to free expression should enable such a filter if provided.

My only regret at this decision is that it won’t create new precedent in which we can use to stop other public institutions from over-blocking Internet search results. We need to change the very filtering industry itself, which is, as a whole, mostly unresponsive, secretive about their databases, and grudging to change. That many of the filtering companies who provide their software to libraries here also provide that same software to oppressive governments overseas is an irony that should not be lost on us. A first step towards greater freedoms is the destruction of the “occult” filter, an outdated and discriminatory filter created by the fearful. The decision handed down today in Missouri is a small step towards that goal.

[The following is a guest post from Michael Smith. Michael Smith, Gwydion Stormcrow, has been practicing Wicca, Magick, and various esoteric disciplines since 1989. He has been active in the pagan community since 1993 when he became a member of the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel (ASW), a Wiccan organization in the Mid-Atlantic region. He is an Elder of the ASW and is currently serving as High Priest of Coven of the Rowan Star, a coven in that Tradition. He is also involved with the Tradition's New Alexandrian Library.]

(Skimmers, the bold is for you! ;-) )

The New Alexandrian Library (an Indigogo fundraising drive) is a project that has been in process since 2000, when the idea was first presented to the larger pagan community at the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel (the Assembly) at the first Between the Worlds Conference. The dream was and remains to create an academic-quality repository for the writing, art, cultural artifacts and wisdoms of religions and practices in the esoteric traditions (‘Pagans’, for lack of a more convenient label).

Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary with Assembly Elders at NAL's foundation.

Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary with Assembly Elders at NAL’s foundation.

The primary aims of the Library are: 1) to secure the resources to ensure the Library is wholly owned and administered by Pagans and contributes to the real-asset community infrastructure; 2) provide ongoing stewardship for our communities’ work and essence; and 3) make the collected materials as convenient as possible for the community to access. Ultimately, the Library will be a resource to support new academic study and research to further develop our community for centuries to come.

It is vitally important at this time that we create and maintain real pagan infrastructure. The transition from the Age of Pisces to the Age of Aquarius threatens the continued dominance of the current mass religions and they have reacted by trying to institutionalize their faiths in the secular realms of government and law. The ‘major religions’ fear diminishing dominance in the new Age and that has resulted in collections of pagan materials being marginalized or made unavailable in and by the large non-pagan institutions that now hold them – even more than when we were just considered ‘unimportant’. Many collections are difficult to access or are maintained in obscurity. Much of the accumulated wisdom of pagan people has been lost in past times of transition. We must make serious effort to create structures to ensure as a much as possible gets through this transition.

This Library will be/is owned and stewarded by a Wiccan organization, in services to the wider esoteric community. The collections will not be marginalized in some dark, inaccessible backroom of an indifferent institution. The whole purpose of this project is to ensure that our culture, philosophy, wisdom and creation have another stage to be seen, studied and expanded!

New Alexandrian Library foundation.

New Alexandrian Library foundation.

Assembly members believe so strongly in this need that 80% of the funds to build the project has come from Assembly members (>$150,000 to date) and several members have donated shared ownership of ~100 acres of forest to the ASW and the Library project. The land, the structures and all of its materials will be in the stewardship of a Pagan Tradition. Plans are also being made, of course, to establish long-term resources for maintenance of this living treasure of our community.

Mind you, of course, none of us are rich. We share this to let you know that we are not just spending other people’s hard earned donations – that we put our money where our mouth is. But, make no mistake, this cannot happen to its potential without the financial support of the wider community to create and maintain this vital resource.

As our many of our seminal teachers, visionaries, leaders and thinkers pass to the next life – their collected wisdom is often lost. We have all heard stories of decades of newsletters, articles, teachings, research, vision, and other inspiration being lost because there was simply no place for these collections to go. Often times, non-pagan family members do not recognize the value of their loved ones’ work to the larger pagan community. Sometimes, it is simply thrown out.

Each time this happens it is a tragic loss to the entire community. Every living tradition must have connection to its roots, ancient and modern, to help feed it’s grow and evolution. The Library, in network with other efforts like it, will be a solution to this challenge, providing our community Elders with a resource that can receive, preserve and honor their work.

And, of course, researchers, academics, teachers, seekers and the curious must have access to the collection to inspire deeper understanding of our history, theologies, worldviews, and concepts – as well as greater appreciation of the viewpoints of other esoteric paths. The Library will continue its efforts to make sure that as much of the collection as possible is accessible via the web, inter-pagan-library lending and onsite visits. In this way, the Library will be a cornerstone of the new magickal renaissance, encouraging expansion of esoteric theory and philosophy and of honest and open interchange of ideas and experiences between paths.

We are nearing fruition of over a decade of work. The Library is rising! It is heart stirring to walk out to the site and see the physical manifestation of this idea coming to life, the dome rising into the air like the dawning sun, the coming of a new light of understanding into the world – and our pagan world.

We do not ask for your financial support lightly. We are in this for the long haul to benefit the current generation of witches, pagans, magicians, shamans, druids, and everyone else and to leave behind a growing legacy of learning, scholarship, experience and ecstasy for future generations. We are the Ancestors of the lines of magickal thinkers and doers in the future. Even as we have built upon that which was left to us from ancient and not-so-ancient times, so too will our work become the foundation upon which our heirs will build. Help us all leave a heritage worthy of honor to those that follow. With your donations, New Alexandrian Library will become a part of the foundation and legacy we leave, with optimism and blessings, to the future.

If you believe in this vision of our esoteric community surviving and thriving into the new Age with vigor and foresight, make a donation to the New Alexandrian Library at our Indigogo fundraising drive (http://igg.me/p/190140).

To date, 686 people have visited the indigogo campaign. If everyone that visited donated only $50-75 (and got a sweet chant CD or two as a thank you!), we would have enough to birth this important pagan asset and have a weatherproof, concrete, long-lived repository for a great collection of the esoteric community’s thoughts, teachings and essence – for all of us!

Be a part of the coming Magickal Renaissance. Thank you!

Here are some updates on stories The Wild Hunt has reported on previously.

Teaching Paganism in British Schools: On Sunday I deconstructed the sensationalist Daily Mail’s assertions regarding the teaching of Paganism in British religious education courses, specifically in Cornwall. I pointed out that there is no hard-and-fast mandate requiring schools to insert Pagan religions into their curriculum, and that the RE advisory council is exactly that, advisory. Still, why let facts and reason get in the way of a good rant? That’s seems to be the position of conservative Catholic columnist Christina Odone, who uses the story as a jumping-off point to rail against any who dare place non-Christian faiths on equal ground with Christianity.

Cristina Odone, not a fan of Pagans. Photo: STEPHEN SHEPHERD

Cristina Odone, not a fan of Pagans. Photo: STEPHEN SHEPHERD

“God, Gaia, whatever: school children are already as familiar with the solstice as with the sacraments. In pockets of Cornwall, children will point out a nun in her habit: “Look, a Druid!” Their parents will merely shrug — one set of belief is as good as another. How long before the end of term is marked by a Black Mass, with only Health and Safety preventing a human sacrifice?

How long indeed! It seems that individuals like Odone are all for pluralism when it’s the other groups being tolerant and inclusive, but watch the knives come out when Christians are asked to make a bit of room to allow differing views. You know things have gone off the rails when a columnist makes The Daily Mail seem restrained by comparison (heck, even The Christian Post simply rewrites The Daily Mail’s article with no further editorializing).

The Problem With Passive Distribution: Last week I reported on the latest developments regarding the Buncombe County School Board in North Carolina’s policy regarding religion in its schools. The new policy passed at that meeting was the culmination of months of activism that began when North Carolina Pagan Ginger Strivelli challenged her child’s school’s policy regarding the distribution of religious materials. However, the larger question about the distribution of religious materials by non-student groups was tabled until next year, with talk of a religion fair of sorts where local churches could distribute literature. Now, advocacy group Americans United weighs in on that idea, warning the school board to tread carefully.

Can we really expect that future incidents of favoritism in distribution would not occur? What would happen if a Muslim group tried to drop off Korans, or Hindus left the Bhagavad Gita? Would local residents and the school board be open to letting impressionable minds read literature from minority faiths or anti-religion groups? There is absolutely no need to allow outside organizations to engage in “passive distribution” of materials at public schools, plus one would like to think that the school board has better things to do with its time than deciding whether or not a copy of the Satanic Bible is appropriate for students. [...] Getting religious materials into student hands is simply not a void that public schools should fill.”

Local activists have noted that constant vigilance will be needed to make sure schools don’t seek out loopholes to their new rules, or try to create an unfair distribution policy once the glare of national attention is off of them. For more on the school board’s new policy, check out the two-part post from local Pagan activist Byron Ballard. She wisely notes that “we won’t be resting on our laurels but we will take a breather and figure out the next steps. Because it ain’t over. Not by a long shot.”

A Brief Update on the “Occult” Library Filtering Case: Back in January I reported on a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Eastern Missouri against the Salem Public Library, accusing the institution of  unconstitutionally blocking access to websites dealing with minority religions, and “improperly classifying them as ‘occult’ or ‘criminal.'” I’ve taken a keen interest in this case as I believe there shouldn’t be an option to block the sites of minority religions for institutions receiving federal funds, and no library committed to free expression should enable such a filter if provided. Since my initial report there hasn’t been much word as the case slowly worked its way towards trial, though Religion Clause does have a brief update on the city of Salem, Missouri being dismissed from the lawsuit.

“…a Missouri federal district court dismissed as to one defendant a free expression and and Establishment Clause challenge to the Internet filtering policies of the Salem, Missouri public library.  Plaintiff, who was attempting to conduct research on Native American spirituality and on the Wiccan Church claimed that the library’s policy of blocking religious websites categorized as ‘occult’ or ‘criminal skills’ while allowing access to the websites of more mainstream religions” was a content and viewpoint-based restriction on speech and has the effect favoring one religious viewpoint over another in violation of the Establishment Clause. The court dismissed the city as a defendant finding that the city retained no control or oversight over the library that was governed by a separate Library Board. The suit however will move forward against the Library Board and the library’s director.”

So not much has changed other than the city itself being removed from the case. I posted this update because I want to keep this story, which I think is very important, fresh in our minds. The results of this case could have far-reaching implications for adherents to Pagan and minority faiths looking for information in federally-funded institutions, and may even change the Internet filtering industry itself. Once the trial starts, or there’s more information to be shared, you’ll find it here. Oh, there is one other thing, the Library Board did file a response in March, which you can find here. They, naturally, deny all the allegations (seriously, “deny each and every allegation” is repeated at length).

Spotlight on Project Conversion (Spoiler: He Didn’t Actually Convert): Amanda Greene writes a profile for the Religion News Service (RNS) on Andrew Bowen’s Project Conversion, which I’ve mentioned a couple times previously here at The Wild Hunt. The goal, “convert” to 12 faiths in 12 months, including Wicca, and share what he’s learned. The RNS piece constructs the story as a personal journey through tragedy (his wife’s ectopic pregnancy that had to be aborted), the 12 religions were each there to help him “find faith in humanity.”

Andrew Bowen as a Wiccan.

Andrew Bowen as a Wiccan.

“…the 29-year-old Lumberton resident doesn’t call himself by any of the 12 faiths he practiced for a month at a time last year [...] It was an obsession – his personal intervention. [...] Bowen was one of the best students of Wicca Greenville resident Melissa Barnhurst has had. “He gave it a lot more than some students who’ve come to me wanting to become Wiccan,” she said. Meanwhile, his wife worked as a labor and delivery nurse at a local hospital. Things were hard financially, at times, because Bowen wasn’t working.”

Interestingly, this personal journey isn’t even referenced in the “about” page of Project Conversion, or his bio, which claims that “theology is a playground” to Bowen. Project Conversion caused some controversy in the Pagan community for what was seen as a too-blithe tourism through the Wiccan faith, nor did his account of an experience he had with some from-the-book “shamanism” he engaged with in 2003, do much to reassure folks. Bowen mentions in his Paganism wrap-up post the “firestorm of criticism” he received, and how he managed to rise above it all and find the true meaning of Wicca. In a sense, Bowen is just another “embedded” journalist, tasting our wares, and passing his judgment from a limited engagement. Very few such arrangements ever end up with the writer or journalist converting, but does lead them to have stories to tell at parties about that time they did a Pagan ritual.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

In 2002 Nancy Willard, Executive Director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, issued a report that warned of the troubling confluence between content-control software and conservative religious groups.

Willard voiced concerns that the relationships between companies providing web-filtering software to public institutions may be “inappropriately preventing students from accessing certain materials based on religious or other inappropriate bias.” She went on to note that terms like “occult” or “cult” are “frequently applied to any non-traditional religions” and that it would be “unacceptable for schools to block access to non-traditional religious sites.”

Five years earlier, the American Library Association (ALA), the oldest and largest library association, issued a resolution affirming that “the use of filtering software by libraries to block access to constitutionally protected speech violates the Library Bill of Rights.”

However, today, the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), passed in 2000 and upheld by the Supreme Court in 2003, mandates Internet filtering software on any library or K-12 school that receives federal funding. The mandate covers only obscene material, and content deemed “harmful to minors,” but the seeming intersection of religion and content-control software continues to haunt public institutions as web-filtering has become an everyday part of our virtual society.

On January 3rd, 2012, The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Eastern Missouri announced the filing of a lawsuit charging the Salem Public Library with unconstitutionally blocking access to websites dealing with minority religions, and “improperly classifying them as ‘occult’ or ‘criminal.'” It’s alleged that Salem Public Library officials refused to change their filtering policies when challenged, and that the library directory Glenda Wofford intimated that “she had an obligation” to alert the authorities to report those who were attempting to access blocked sites.

This new case not only raises the issue of web filtering in our public institutions, but why an “occult” category is even an option for secular and government-funded filtering clients where such control is unneeded or even illegal. The company that provides filtering services to the Salem Public Library, Netsweeper, currently categorizes several prominent Pagan organization sites as “occult,” including Covenant of the Goddess (COG), Circle Sanctuary, and Druid fellowship Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF), while more mainstream faith sites are listed under “religion” or “general.”

Media critic and scholar Peg Aloi says she is troubled by the inclusion of Pagan sites in “occult” filters, “since this word is not even necessarily associated with Paganism, Wicca or earth-based spirituality.” Dr. Gwendolyn Reece, Ph.D., Director of Research, Teaching and Learning at American University Library notes that “whatever the initial intent of the law may have been, the software used to comply with CIPA censors numerous topics that have no bearing on protecting children and the way the software blocks access to information reflects a particular constellation of values. The real consequence is to undermine part of the necessary infrastructure in a democracy by denying citizens the requisite tools to inform themselves through free inquiry.”

The more one digs, the more it seems that the “occult” category was one created to cater to the “constellation of values” of conservative Christian religious groups in the United States. Phaedra Bonewits, whose site, Neopagan.net, is listed as “occult” by Netsweeper, claims that the initial target market for filtering software “was Christian households, thus all the ‘cultic’ keywords being included with the porn.” I tried to contact Netsweeper by phone and email for background on how a site comes to be labeled as “occult” in their system, but a representative never responded.

What is clear is that leaders and clergy within the modern Pagan movement believe that their sites should be readily available when accessing the Internet, and that blocking “occult” sites oversteps the mandate of CIPA and infringes on the Establishment Clause by favoring one religious expression over another.

In a statement, Rev. Kirk Thomas, Archdruid of the ADF, said that “only by free access to knowledge can everyone participate in the marketplace of ideas, guaranteeing true freedom for everyone,” while Selena Fox, speaking for Circle Sanctuary, said that they are disappointed in Salem Public Library’s “unwillingness to provide free and equal access to websites containing information on religions such as Wicca, Paganism, Native American traditional ways, and other paths that honor Nature.”

Rachael Watcher, one of the National Public Information Officers for Covenant of the Goddess, a 501c3 organization recognized as such by the United States government for 36 years, added that “the distinction between the labels ‘religious’ and ‘occult’ is an arbitrary one,” and that “one person’s religious group is another person’s occult group.”

It seems clear that no public library should be blocking access to minority religions, as Sylvia Linton, a librarian by profession and a Circle Sanctuary Community member said to me via email: “In this country, with our guarantees of freedom of religion and of speech, librarians respect the diversity of their patrons and allow them access to information without regard to the personal beliefs of the library staff.”

In addition, instances of “overblocking” by web filtering software here at home raise troubling inherent questions of how this technology is used by countries that don’t share our commitment to free speech or access to information. “Libraries should be bastions of free thought and information access; but, as the actions by the Salem public library demonstrate, Internet Freedom (and freedom of religion) aren’t just under attack overseas — the same censorship technologies used by oppressive regimes are finding their ways into our own back yards,” stated Sascha Meinrath, Director of New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative.

“As a growing compendium of evidence documents, technologies developed by U.S. companies and deployed throughout the country are the same ones being used in places like Syria, Iran, and North Korea — Salem would be wise to distance itself from practices that lump them in with some of the worst human rights violators around the globe.”

The option of an “occult” filter in content-control software should be of great concern to all who value religious liberty. The boundaries of what can be labeled “occult” or “cult” are so porous that it can include everything from information on Yoga to your daily horoscope.

The journalist and author Tom Wolfe once opined that “a cult is a religion with no political power,” an opinion that seems reinforced by the sites blocked by the Salem Public Library. Occult, when used as a term in the realm of Internet filtering, is a religious and cultural value judgment that in no way protects minors from obscene or indecent material within the context of CIPA.

There shouldn’t be an option to block the sites of minority religions for institutions receiving federal funds, and no library committed to free expression should enable such a filter if provided. One can only hope that this case goes beyond merely changing policy at Salem Public Library and instead institutes a precedent that changes the filtering industry, removing biased categories that have little purpose in a free society.

Links to full statements gathered for this story:

Yesterday the ACLU announced that it has filed a lawsuit against a library in Salem, Missouri (download the full complaint) for using Internet filtering software that blocks websites pertaining to Wicca and Native American religions. As Ars Technica notes, sites blocked by the library’s software include Wikipedia’s page on Wicca, but not Christian-run pages that are critical of Pagan religions. According to the ACLU filing, Salem’s library director, Glenda Wofford, said “she would only allow access to blocked sites if she felt patrons had a legitimate reason to view the content and further said that she had an obligation to report people who wanted to view these sites to the authorities. While there’s no doubt the press are paying attention to this story because of the “Witch” angle, I am extremely glad the “occult” category on Internet filtering software is finally being pushed into the spotlight.

“It’s unbelievable that I should have to justify why I want to access completely harmless websites on the Internet simply because they discuss a minority viewpoint. It’s wrong and demeaning to deny access to this kind of information.” – Anaka Hunter, The Associated Press

The default option of filtering occult and Pagan websites is an issue I’ve followed at this site over the years, its existence tied directly to the fact that Internet filtering software was initially developed by and for the Christian market. As such, the inherent values of that demographic are imprinted into the DNA of the web-filtering industry. These programs are then sold to schools, libraries, and government institutions, which can lead to controversy and litigation once individuals realize the bias inherent in the filter. At this point those original biased filtering lists have long since permeated into the secular filter market. Sadly, many (though certainly not all) libraries, schools, and public institutions take a “block everything until someone complains” policy when it comes to this issue.

I sincerely hope that this case goes to trial, as it’s long past time the “occult” filter, which inevitably includes a raft of non-Christian religious sites, was eliminated from any secular context. If a local Catholic parish wants to block a Wikipedia search for Wicca, fine, but no library or school should be engaging in the default restriction of these sites. Nor should any secular institution be purchasing software that was built on the prejudices and misconceptions of conservative Christian list-makers.

Oh, and in a final note, you’ll be glad to know that The Wild Hunt has (so far) escaped being placed in the “occult” category by Netsweeper, the filtering software used by the Missouri Public Library.

Last month I reported that the J.R. Ritman Library (aka The Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica) in Amsterdam was endangered, and is currently closed to the public as Ritman and Friesland Bank negotiate a massive 15 million Euro collateral loan behind closed doors. A Dutch heritage site, and home to many rare hermetic and esoteric works, it is now in danger of crumbling apart entirely. First, Ritman’s contested sale of the The Grail of Rochefoucauld, which contains the oldest surviving account of the legends of King Arthur, and the action that sparked the current crisis, has been allowed to go through.

An illuminated 14th-century manuscript containing what is believed to be the oldest surviving account of the legend of King Arthur and the knights of the round table was sold for £2.39m yesterday [...]  It was written in Flanders or Artois some time between 1315 and 1323 and probably produced for Guy VII, Baron de Rochefoucauld, head of one of the leading aristocratic families of medieval France. Sotheby’s specialist Timothy Bolton said: “This is one of the principal manuscripts of the first significant medieval work of secular literature.”

That sale of one of the library’s most prized works is supposed to go towards paying off Ritman’s bank debt, for which the library was used as collateral. In the wake of these events, the Dutch government seems to have lost confidence that a workable solution will be found and is pulling all the works they own, around 40% of the total collection, out of the J.R. Ritman Library in order to protect the works and make them accessible once more.

sitestat

“The Ministry of Education has told EénVandaag that the part of the collection owned by the central government is currently secure. [...] The Department announced that [this decision was made] with the utmost care and prudence and that the accessibility of the collection for science is the main reason for this [move].”

So despite the protests and petitions, the dissolution of the library seems all but certain now. The “core collection” owned by the Dutch government will most likely be integrated into one of their existing libraries, with the rest in danger of being sold in order to cover the bank debt. This is a huge blow to hermetic scholarship, with many works now in danger of falling into the hands of private collectors, out of reach to the general public.

I will keep you updated as further news surfaces. Once again, I’d like to thank my Netherlands contact Suus Oudbier for providing essential information and resources for this story.

Just a few quick news notes for you this Saturday.

Subcultural Red Light Districts: The aptly-named city of Banning, California is looking to adopt changes to its zoning codes, targeting certain kinds of businesses.

“Under the proposed development standards, tattoo and body-piercing parlors, hookah and smoking lounges and businesses that specialize in fortunetelling or occult arts would be kept away from schools and parks, residential neighborhoods and businesses that sell alcohol and adult merchandise. Their hours of operation would be limited. Someone who wants to open this type of business in Banning would have to obtain a conditional use permit from the city. Such permits cost $4,779 and have to be approved by the Planning Commission.”

They are, in essence, working to make sure no-one opens a tattoo parlor, occult shop, or smoking parlor in any place where people might congregate. They can’t even open near an “adult” book shop! This is how you ban certain kinds of businesses without actually banning them, make the barriers so high few can surmount them. It remains to be seen if singling out such businesses like this is legal, or will hold up to litigation. The city council is scheduled to take up the matter on Jan. 25, 2011.

Teaching Vodou: The Lexington Herald-Leader interviews history professor Jeremy Popkin about his class “Haiti in the Modern World”, which includes a section on the religion of Vodou. According to Popkin, the class was a way for the campus to discuss and explore Haiti after it came to international attention during the January earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince. The paper also interviews Vodou scholar Leslie Brice about the oft-misunderstood faith.

There is a movement to create a centralized way to share information about voodoo. There is now a federation of voodoo practitioners in Haiti. But efforts to alter what for hundreds of years has been a religion passed down as an oral tradition have encountered resistance, said independent voodoo scholar Leslie Brice, who spoke at UK earlier this fall. Some of the resistance is because people fear the religion will be mocked by those who don’t really understand it, Brice said. Voodoo is often portrayed in popular culture, especially movies, as a singularly dark force, said Brice, who is studying to be a voodoo priestess. But, she said, it really is a religion centered on healing. When slaves were first brought to Haiti they came with “nothing except for what was in their minds and hearts,” she said. The religious traditions they brought with them were crucial to their survival, she said.

In a culture that often depicts Vodou as a detriment to Haiti’s future, and often only reports on it when something horrific happens, classes like these are vitally needed to educate people as to Vodou’s true nature and legacy. Classes like these, along with an emerging “Vodou voice”, may be essential to preserving this faith at a time when Haiti is in serious crisis.

Saving the Wicker Man Library: The Whithorn Library, the front of which was featured in 1973 cult classic film The Wicker Man, is in danger of being closed down due to government austerity measures. Jan Cole, and other campaigners, are trying to rally support to stop the historic library from being shut down.

The "Wicker Man" Library

“The library is part of the famous Wickerman Trail which popular with tourist fans as well as, surprisingly, stag parties who have been known to turn up in fancy dress. Occasionally fans will be seen to re-enact the film, or take a rubbing of the plaque outside.”

A sit-in protest was held last week, and there already seems to be some response from local government. Hopefully this site will be spared, not only because it was in a cult film that many of us love, but because libraries are wonderful things that should be honored and protected! You can keep track of the campaign at their official Facebook group.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

Word has been spreading among blogs and local newspapers in the Netherlands that the J.R. Ritman Library (aka The Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica) in Amsterdam is endangered, and currently closed to the public as Ritman and Friesland Bank negotiate behind closed doors. The current conflict began when Ritman attempted to sell The Grail of Rochefoucauld, which contains the oldest surviving account of the legends of King Arthur, through the auction house Sotheby’s. The problem is that the bank claims Ritman used the 14th century manuscript, and other library works, as collateral on a 15 million euro loan.

“An extremely valuable medieval manuscript owned by the BPH (The Grail of Rochefoucauld) was put on sale at Sotheby’s, and this triggered a reaction from the Friesland Bank, which took possession of the library, that had apparently been brought in as collateral, in order to get back a 15 million euro loan from mr Ritman. At present the BPH is closed, and intense negotiations are going on behind closed doors. It is impossible at this moment to predict the outcome, but there is no doubt that the situation is extremely serious. There is a very real possibility that the Friesland bank will try to sell at least the ca. 60% of the library that is still owned by mr Ritman, and nobody knows what implications this will have for the rest of the collection and the BPH as a whole, including its staff. The brand-new government of the Netherlands has announced a program of radical financial cuts in the culture section and elsewhere, which makes a renewed intervention from that side highly unlikely.”

While 40% of the collection is now owned by the government, and the library itself protected as a Dutch heritage site, no one knows what will happen should the bank try to liquidate the 60% of the collection owned by Ritman. As University of Amsterdam doctoral researcher Egil Asprem points out, the government plan to slowly buy up the rest of the collection has been hampered by new austerity plans that make a last-minute governmental rescue unlikely. While negotiations happen, a petition is being circulated to help save the collection from liquidation.

Additionally, you can express your concern by means of a signed letter. The initiative for this petition comes from the Center for History of Hermetic Philosophy and related currents at the University of Amsterdam (organizationally independent of the BPH, and not in any danger itself), so please send your letter to its director: Prof. Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Oude Turfmarkt 141-147, 1012 GC Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Email: w.j.hanegraaff [ at ] uva.nl

The library is an essential resource in the areas of Hermeticism, mysticism, Western esoteric works, alchemy, Rosicrucian studies, and comparative religions. Its works have been cited by numerous scholars, and have been utilized by famous personages like author Umberto Eco, who lobbied to save the library when it was threatened in the 1990s. To see its dissolution would be a huge blow to scholarship that directly relates to modern Pagan and esoteric traditions. I’ll be keeping track of this story, and providing updates as they come to me.

Thanks to T. Thorn Coyle and Suus Oudbier for providing essential information and resources for this story.

A few quick news notes to start off the week.

The Case of the Disappearing Library Books: The Lewiston Sun Journal in Maine tackles an oldie but goody, which books “have legs” in the local public library, that is, which books are most often stolen.

“It’s like you know as soon as you order them; it’s almost like you have a betting pool. Anything to do with Wicca, witchcraft, supernatural, things like that. Especially the spells.” At her library, those books seem to bolt before they’re checked out, taken directly off the shelves. The library simply reorders every once in a while. Increased use of eBooks will help, she said — there’s nothing physical to lose. Her best guess on why it happens? “You know, I think there probably is just a little bit of fear that somebody’s going to judge. ‘They’re going to think I’m into something weird,’” Neal-Shaw said. “It’s almost like they’re trying to hide it from themselves; they haven’t come out of the Wicca closet.”

An informal survey conducted in 2001 by the American Library Association found similar results, books on Witchcraft, Paganism, and the occult get nicked on a regular basis. Why? Well, there’s the shame theory, as elucidated above, and there’s the anti-occult thievery theory as well.

“People take them because they don’t want other people to read about witchcraft, and people use them without returning them. I think we have a little bit of both going on.”

While there’s no doubt that some library Pagan/occult sections are getting thinned due to anti-Pagan sentiment, those perpetrators usually like to make a public statement regarding their actions. I think in many cases it is simply individuals who believe they have a right to keep a book, and lack the moral clarity to see how their actions harm other library patrons. It’s hard enough finding decent occult and Pagan-oriented library collections, and these thefts only make it harder. After all, why waste money on books that will simply get stolen?

Alan Moore on Austin Osman Spare: Writer and practicing magician Alan Moore (Promethea, Watchmen) discusses the British fine artist and magician Austin Osman Spare on BBC2.

The tribute to Spare was in timed to the closing of an exhibition of his art at Cuming Museum. You can find some of Spare’s occult writings, here. You may also want to check out this profile in the Fortean Times.

Christine O’Donnell Dominates: She didn’t win the election, but she did win more election-season coverage than any other political figure short of the President. Thanks to “dabble-gate”, and other embarrassing incidents, Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell dominated the news cycle, dragging a large number of Pagans into the spotlight with her.

What does it mean? Well, that there is such a thing as bad press, and that the mainstream media was more interested in talking about O’Donnell’s tenuous ties to “witchcraft” than about the real issues Americans actually cared about. Certainly this isn’t what I was hoping would be the most-reported story involving modern Pagans this year. In my heart I’d like to think this could be a wakeup call for the press, but I highly doubt it.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!