RECENTLY I WAS ASKED TO host the "Andy Barrie Show" on CFRB radio while Mr. Barrie was on holiday. A privilege, because CFRB is the most successful radio station in North America and this program reflects the views of ordinary, working Canadians rather than the opinions of a contrived elite. Consisting of invited guests discussing issues of the day and telephone calls from listeners, it is informative and entertaining. I chose for the first half of my show the controversy involving Judy Steed's book about paedophilia, Our Little Secret, and the decision of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, NAC, not to sell copies of the book to their members after first agreeing to buy 5,000 paperbacks from the publisher, Random House. All of the major players came into the studio and the debate was one of the most heated that CFRB has ever known.
Here is exactly what happened. NAC is in financial difficulties and thought that they could make money by this undertaking -- the first of a series of deals with Random House involving books with a feminist theme -- and eventually become self-financing. Yet after initial enthusiasm for the plan the national executive of NAC suddenly withdrew their agreement. NAC's vice president, Shelagh Day, one of the loudest opponents of the book deal, claimed that the new reluctance was because of a fear that NAC could end up losing money. The deal's chief negotiator, and a fund-raiser for NAC for five years, was Gail Picco, who resigned in disgust at the decision and said that after this "people won't touch NAC with a ten-foot pole." Other resignations followed.
According to Judy Steed the issue was not about business or finance at all but concerned a power struggle within NAC and an attempt by those with aspirations to lead the organization to discredit the current president, Sunera Thobani. More important, Steed also claimed that those who objected to the deal had accused the book of being homophobic. "They were trying to censor it because of their ridiculous ideas," she said. "This book is about women, about motherhood, but they simply tried to censor it."
David Kent, Random House's president, explained that "we offered NAC a deal so good that even my 12-year-old son would have made money on it. There is no way they could have lost money on it, that's just a smokescreen. They're claiming that the book is homophobic and we've asked them to show us where. They haven't." Gail Picco added that "This has nothing to do with business, it was all about an extreme position, saying that the book's attack on paedophilia meant that it was homophobic."
If Steed had argued that the sexual abuse of children was only carried out by homosexual men then there would indeed be an argument that she was provoking a fear and hatred of gays. But she does not do this and even tries to refute it, as Ms. Day half admitted to me. So why are some NAC leaders so vehemently opposed to Our Little Secret? They may have been influenced by a review in Xtra, the homosexual newspaper with the largest circulation and the most influence in all of Canada. Steed's book was eviscerated in a long article by Gerald Hannon. "She has let pity and outrage run away with her senses, and has produced a book that takes as its premise the notion that sexual contacts between children and adults can never be ethical," writes Hannon. "I find that position intellectually unsatisfying." He goes on to write that he could never understand
how children's hockey differed from an organized child-sex ring. Both involved strenuous physical activity (adult coaches taking the role of the adult lover). Both involved danger. Both involved pleasure. Yet we approve of children's hockey and deplore child-sex rings.
Xtra has published other articles and letters in a similar vein.
So here we had a culture clash. Two different worlds, two different purviews, two different sets of assumptions. David Kent is broadly a supporter of NAC and Judy Steed is a long-time feminist, radical, and nationally known and respected journalist. Gail Picco has been an activist for some years and remains a supporter of NAC's position on most issues. But as Kent said, "It's like we're arguing with people from another planet."
The story is pertinent to books and writers not just because a book is at the centre of the argument. The story is fascinating because it proves yet again that former frames of reference, past assumptions, and previously self-evident truths no longer form the parameters of intellectual and literary dialogue. Nothing is sacred any longer. Some might argue that this is a good thing. Not me. Some things most certainly should be sacred. Such as the innocence of childhood, and the glory of a good book. Worth fighting for, worth dying for. Perhaps one day we will have to.
Michael Coren's latest book is The Man Who Created Narnia (Lester).