Sleazebags in Librarianship

After my last post on TeamHarpy, a friend contacted me to ask why I’d written, noting that the post itself was bland and opining that it seemed like I’d wanted to write more, but for some reason didn’t. That seemed a fair assessment. The post was bland. Its purpose was merely to publicize the fact that Joe Murphy was suing a couple of librarians and that they were requesting support from the librarian community.

As I wrote before, I don’t have any first-hand knowledge of Joe Murphy or any other alleged sexual predators. None of them have ever preyed on me. Like the librarians in the lawsuit, and apparently other librarians, I’ve heard many things about Murphy over the years from numerous people who know him, but these weren’t tales of his alleged sexual hijinks. As it happens, I’ve never heard anything positive, only negative. However bright a star Murphy might think he is in the librarian firmament, there are clearly a lot of people who don’t like him. Then again, I’m sure there are plenty of librarians who don’t like me, although I doubt for the same reasons. For his own sake, I hope Murphy drops the lawsuit, because the more publicity this gets the worse he’s going to look.

I wrote because I don’t like sleazebags. I have no proof that Murphy is a sleazebag, and I’m not accusing him or talking about him here, but I know for a fact they exist in the profession and that this existence is generally whispered, not broadcast. Sleazebags in this case are those men who frequently make sexual propositions to uninterested women, or worse yet start handling them. Sleazebags are the ones who will tell any lie in order to have sex with a woman.They view women as objects to be taken or “conquered,” not human beings to relate to.  They also might brag that they’ve had sex with women at conferences. (Seriously, how insecure do you have to be to do something like that? What’s the thinking here? “I know I seem like a smarmy toad, but real women have had sex with me!”) They’re the cads, the mashers, the “pickup artists,” and other varieties of sleaze. I don’t like them and I never have.

I wrote because of a conversation I was in recently. I was the only man there, and the conversation somehow turned to sleazy sexual predators at ALA, I think by someone who had been aggressively hit on by one at a conference function. At that point I mostly just sat back quietly and listened. I realized, even at the time, that I was privy to the kind of conversation that generally occurs only among women. And, frankly, what I heard was appalling. Some of the behavior mentioned was unprofessional, rude, and just plain creepy.

That sleazebaggery happens didn’t surprise me. Sleazebags are everywhere. But I was surprised by how frequently it seems to happen at conferences of librarians. There might be only a few sleazebags in the profession, but they really go out of their way to offend. Thinking about it more, I believe the reason I hadn’t seen any of this behavior was that such sleazebags are similar to child molesters and other predators. They have a sense for who they think they can target and who will remain quiet. They’re not going to harass people while other grownups are around.

It’s possible there are some unwitting sleazebags out there who really are well meaning and don’t know they’re sleazebags. They just don’t understand appropriate boundaries. Here’s a rule of thumb for men like that. Imagine me for a moment. I’m 6’2″ tall, big, and kinda hairy. Imagine we’re at a social event at a conference, perhaps at a bar. If there’s anything you’d feel uncomfortable me doing to you, then you probably shouldn’t do it to a woman. Would you feel comfortable if I fondled your buttocks, or came up behind you really close and started massaging your shoulders or put my arms around your waist, or leaned in and whispered sultrily in your ear, or reached out and squeezed your thigh, or kept asking if you’d like to go back to my room and have sex? No? Then don’t do it to a woman.

This reminded me of a unpleasant experience I had. A few years ago I was part of a pub crawl in a small college town, one of those evenings that starts out well and then devolves as the hours pass, and I was trapped. So I ended up at a college bar sitting alone being generally annoyed by the whole situation when a young man came up to a table of young women sitting near me. Despite their apparent lack of interest in him, he proceeded to lay on the smarmiest, sleaziest schtick I’d ever heard. At first I had trouble believing that someone would have the nerve to even say the bullshit he was saying. Being annoyed and perhaps a bit tipsy, I started making fun of him, giving a running commentary of every statement he was making, exposing the motivations behind his seemingly casual conversation and causing the women to laugh. (And yes, I realize I can be guilty of my own inappropriate behavior.)

Seeing how he was alone and I was a lot bigger than him, his main response was to tell me repeatedly to shut up and mind my own business. And that’s the final thing I don’t like about sleazebags. They count on silence. They count on women being afraid to speak out and on other men to “mind their own business.” He counted on the silence of men who disapproved of him, just like if he’d ended up date-raping one of those women he’d have counted on her silence.

The defendants are done being silent. Are they right? Are they wrong? That’s not for me to decide. But I believe that women should be more outspoken about stuff like this and that men should mostly shut up and listen and not try to defend inappropriate behavior as if it’s somehow innocent, and if in the end they disagree, then they can disagree and move on. My default position is also that if there’s smoke, there’s probably fire. Most men, or at least most male librarians, would likely be as appalled by this sort of behavior as I was, only they aren’t aware it exists. I want to know so that I’m aware of sleazebags in professional clothing and can act towards them appropriately. I believe the more information out there, and the more everyone, men and women, talks about it openly, the less likely such behavior will be. Well, maybe not believe, but at least I hope so.

[I took a while drafting this post, unsure of the form it should take. While I was doing it, Barbara Fister also wrote about the situation. While I wasn’t thinking about “whistleblowers” as such, I pretty much agree with everything she says here.]

Libraries, Neoliberalism, and Oppression

I just read Beerbrarian’s post on libraries and neoliberalism, partly responding to this post on locating the library in institutionalized oppression by nina de jesus. I wanted to enter the discussion, but then realized I’ve already pretty much said what I have to say on the subject. I’ve addressed neoliberalism and libraries some before, particularly in a post on Libraries and the Commodification of Culture. I wanted to make that a research project a couple of years ago, but frankly after a lot of reading I found the topic too overwhelming. Nevertheless, the gist of that and other writings provides some view of where I think libraries are located in “institutionalized oppression.”

At the end of Libraries and the Enlightenment, I suggest that libraries are places “where values other than the strictly commercial survive and inspire, places people can go, physically or virtually, and emerge better people, their lives improved and through them perhaps our society improved.” The key is “values other than the strictly commercial,” because I think public and academic libraries are examples of public spaces where commercial values don’t dominate. They are public goods founded upon the values of democratic freedom and critical reason and provide a possible location within society to promote and protect anti-neoliberal values. Librarians in general are committed to open access to information and education. As Barbara Fister just wrote, they are gatekeepers who want to keep the gates open.

de jesus says that she has “seen very few people take a critical and sincere approach to analysing how the library, as institution, is actually oppressive and designed to create and perpetuate inequity.” The reason for that could be that the library, as an institution, isn’t that oppressive or designed to create and perpetuate inequity. That’s a strong and counterintuitive claim, and the burden of proof rests on de jesus. However, there have been two  books arguing just that, both published in the 1970s and both still worth reading (although as you’ll see below I disagree with some of their conclusions). First is Michael Harris’ The Role of the Public Library in American Life, second is Rosemary DuMont’s Reform and Reaction: the Big City Public Library in American Life. Excerpted below are three pages from Libraries and the Enlightenment where I address Harris and Dumont and the possible counterargument to my claims that libraries are institutions philosophically founded upon Enlightenment values of freedom and reason, and are instead instruments of oppression.

From Libraries and the Enlightenment:

The taste elevation theory has also been criticized for its “elitism” and “authoritarianism.” In The Role of the Public Library in American Life,” for example, Michael Harris argues that the entire democratic argument behind the founding of the Boston Public Library is flawed because of its elitist authoritarianism. By the eighteen forties, Boston had developed into a major destination for new immigrants, who in the opinion of the Standing Committee of the Boston Public Library thought “little of moral and intellectual culture.” George Ticknor believed the massive influx of immigrants could be a problem because, in Ticknor’s words, they “at no time, consisted of persons who, in general, were fitted to understand our free institutions or to be intrusted with the political power given by universal suffrage,” and thus the city needed to “assimilate their masses” and accommodate them to democratic institutions, primarily through education. Harris criticizes “Ticknor’s belief in the library’s potential as one means of restraining the ‘dangerous classes’ and inhibiting the chances of unscrupulous politicians who would lead the ignorant astray,” and claims this belief “explains his insistence that the public library be as popular in appeal as possible” (6). The most significant motivation behind the founding of the Boston Public Library and other libraries in the nineteenth century, Harris argues, was a fear that the masses would destabilize society, especially the immigrant masses unused to republican regimes. Any attempt to “Americanize” immigrants was “elitist” and “authoritarian,” a critique developed further in Rosemary DuMont’s Harris-inspired Reform and Reaction. The desire to elevate the reading taste of the people is just a desire to control the lower orders and prevent radical social change.

I mention this revisionist history of the founding of public libraries because it calls into question my argument that such foundings were inspired by the Enlightenment goal to educate and improve the lot of everyone, rich and poor alike. For Harris and like-minded historians, such idealistic rhetoric always masks the ambitions of the powerful to control the powerless. However, one does not have to disagree with Harris’ account of George Ticknor—who did seem to be an authoritarian prig—to recognize that something as complex as the founding of a large public library could be motivated by multiple reasons, some of them perhaps contradictory. Though the 1852 “Report” goes out of its way to argue that while good books should be supplied, no one should be forced to read them, one could still argue that even thinking some books were better than others and that people should read those books is “elitist,” etc. One question is whether such elitism and alleged authoritarianism are anti-democratic, and potentially counter-Enlightenment. The revisionist critique seems to imply that to be democratic in relation to books and learning means to consider all books equally good and useful and to consider all political beliefs and values worth defending, even if they are hostile or foreign to the needs of a democratic republic.

These days we would say this is a question of the value, or perhaps even the meaning, of multiculturalism, and addressing this debate in depth is out of our scope here. Harris and others (rightly in my opinion) would argue that the culture of the immigrants should be respected, but the question is, to what degree and in what areas? Let us assume that Ticknor and other upper-class Bostonians had a very conservative idea of what democracy should be; nevertheless, that does not show that they did not believe in democratic institutions. If we believe in the value of democratic institutions, then we must support those institutions, and what is more we must insist that everyone supports those institutions publicly, regardless of their private beliefs. Groups in democracies might fervently believe in fascism, but a democratic society cannot allow them to act on those beliefs. We can have a reasonable pluralism in society, but only if everyone acknowledges the authority of the public democratic institutions. What democracies cannot allow is a mere “modus vivendi,” as the philosopher John Rawls argues, where groups abide by democratic institutions until they can be overthrown. Carrying this argument back to Ticknor, why would he not believe that immigrants from countries without democracies would need some sort of education regarding democratic institutions? How could anyone possibly believe otherwise? Is there any difference in motivation behind this belief and the practice we have in the United States of giving extensive tests on American democracy to naturalizing immigrants, tests which most natural born Americans themselves cannot pass? While some supposedly democratic criticisms of practical educational institutions are no doubt valid, we must resist the tendency to believe that all educational efforts not derived from the group being educated are inherently undemocratic. Undemocratic groups require an education in democracy.

Harris and DuMont are quite critical of the admittedly stuffy movement in nineteenth century libraries to Americanize immigrants through education, arguing that Ticknor and others merely wanted to suppress dissent and the rising ideologies of socialism and communism. Even if Ticknor and other conservatives were motivated by a fear of, say, communist demagogues convincing the undemocratic masses to revolt, or whatever the fear was, this does not undercut the fact that they did indeed seek to educate people and to provide them with the means to educate themselves throughout their lives. That the founders of the Boston Public Library were not trying to educate revolutionaries does not take away from their accomplishment. We could just as easily interpret their actions as an early stage of progressivism. For example, Jane Addams and the settlement workers in the early twentieth century wanted to “’Americanize’ immigrants into the norms of their new society,” but they definitely improved the lives of urban immigrants (Flanagan 37). Indeed, by the standards of the anti-immigrant movements that gained control of the American government in the nineteen twenties, George Ticknor looks like a raging liberal. Citizens of a democracy must be acculturated into democratic institutions, and criticizing this necessity because the action first arose from the conservative fear of uneducated immigrants ignores this. Even Harris is forced to admit the value public libraries had for everyone, including immigrants. “That the library’s services to the immigrant had definite positive values for those able to take advantage of them cannot be denied,” though he still claimed that librarians had little to do with benefit, arguing that “these positive values were the result of the immigrant’s persistence and not the librarian’s conscious attitude” (14). In his zeal to deny the beneficial accomplishments of anyone remotely conservative, Harris acts as if the libraries which benefitted the immigrants sprung into existence without influential citizens to found them and working librarians to run them. Regardless of whether or not an enlightened and democratic ideal was not realized in practice, it is undeniable that the Trustees of the Boston Public Library wanted to found an educational institution to allow people access to useful knowledge and give them the opportunity to educate themselves for life and citizenship, and that the Boston Public Library became such an institution whatever its flaws. It is also clear from the founding of the Boston Public Library to the founding of libraries throughout the century, that the most important motivating reason was the link between the public library and public education. (pp. 110-14)

Being a Man in a Man’s World

[This one’s been sitting in my drafts folder for a while. I wasn’t sure whether to post it or not, and I’m still not sure it’s coherent. But what the hell, it’s only a blog post.]

It’s hard to escape news of rapes by and of high school and college students these days. It almost seems like if you’re a girl or young woman within five feet of a group of male athletes you’re in serious danger of assault. I shouldn’t pick on athletes, though, because the male rape mentality, and the inhuman assumptions behind it, are pervasive throughout most cultures in the world and always have been. Indeed, one of the nastiest rape-related incidents I’ve read about that didn’t involve actual rape was a college student who is supposedly “a junior studying classics and religious studies” holding up a sign on the University of Arizona campus that reads, “You Deserve Rape.” It sounds like he spends a lot of time preaching outdoors babbling his incoherent hatred, so he’s probably too busy for athletics. Usually the preaching role is reserved for insane old guys who wander around college campuses ranting and being the butt of student jokes, but I guess even those insane old guys were young once.

That story also links to various other rape stories that have happened lately, the saddest one involving a high school girl who killed herself over the shame of the event. Police trying to investigate the crime had trouble finding witnesses who would talk about it. “One girl told investigators, ‘I just don’t want to throw anyone under the bus.'” It’s always sad to see someone complicit in her own oppression. I wonder how worried she would be about buses had she been the victim. Then there was the media sympathy for the Stuebenville rapists. Those poor little boys, raping someone and then having to deal with the annoyance of going to jail for it. Oh, their poor ruined lives. Raping women is a moral evil. Sympathizing with the rapists instead of the victim shares in that evil.

I think about this kind of thing more now that I have a teenage daughter who will be going to high school next year. I’ve always taught her to stand up for herself, resist bullies, and never let people push her around. I’ve taught her how to physically and verbally defend herself. Lately I’ve tried to gently tell her about some of these awful stories, not to frighten her, which I doubt would happen, but just to warn her that the world is occasionally a dangerous place for women and that knowledge and caution help keep people safe. After reading this rather depressing article on Shulamith Firestone, I also decided a little positive feminism was in order and got her this book, which she devoured in two days, her only remark to me about it being, “This is cool. Thanks.” I figured a book written by a teenager on “why feminism isn’t a dirty word” would be easier going than The Dialectic of Sex. I want her to be as independent as possible, protect herself, and never think there’s a role she should take on just because she’s female.

I never had to think about this kind of thing as a boy. In another post I mentioned that the claim of male superiority never had a great hold on me because I’ve met a lot of men in my life and haven’t been particularly impressed by many of them. I’ve also never been much of a joiner, so the natural breeding grounds of group rapist male bonding were out of my demographic. I’ve never understood the urge to be violent towards women or shared in the “bros before hos” communal misogyny so many men enjoy.

I also never had to worry much about bullying like the kind that drove that poor girl to suicide. The only thing about bullying in school that’s changed is people are now trying to do something about it, although based on the very public teen suicides prompted by bullying I’m not sure that much can be done. Through seventh grade I attended what I now sometimes call my violent Christian private school. Fights and bullying among the boys were as common as the daily baseball games at recess. As a bookish introvert, I was occasionally the target of verbal or physical bullies. However, I was also smarter, funnier, bigger, and stronger than most of the other boys, and never one to back down from a fight, so usually one encounter convinced them to leave me alone. I got into a lot of fights with bullies, but even with all that, I still never had to worry about some of the problems girls have to worry about.

A lot of you are probably aware of this, and some righteously angry about it, but I’ll point it out anyway. It’s pretty easy being a man in a man’s world, and it is a man’s world. Look at the people in power in just about any non-woman-centered political party or corporation or what have you, and the people in power will mostly be men. That this doesn’t seem strange to men is because they’ve been raised to expect it, like they’ve been raised to believe they deserve to get the girl because they’re the heroic action star in the movie of their life.

It’s easier to be a man in so many ways. People take you more seriously, even when that’s a foolish thing to do. I remember a contractor who wanted to point out to me some work he was planning to do, but didn’t want to talk to my wife. Whatever it was (this was fifteen years or so ago) I knew nothing about but my wife actually did. I’ve watched auto mechanics explain simple maintenance issues to women like they’re infants, and then turn to me and start talking like I know something about cars. If I knew that much about cars, I’d fix the things myself. But, you know, men. If I’m assertive in a discussion, I don’t have to be worried about being labelled an aggressive bitch. If I’m speaking during a meeting, other men don’t routinely interrupt what I’m saying. No one would ever say I how cute I am when I’m angry. Nobody would ever expect me to make the coffee or clean up the dinner mess after a family meal. Being a man and not being aware of the social bias towards men isn’t as morally heinous as rape, but it’s still inexcusable. In an ironic example of how much easier it is being a man, I probably get moral points from some people just for writing about this stuff, as if thinking everyone should be treated like human beings is some sort of radically enlightened assertion.

The sexual politics are much different on the other side as well. Just for fun I Googled two similar phrases: how to get a man and how to get a woman. The first two results for getting a man are “How to Get a Good Man: 12 Steps” and “How to Get a Man to Fall in Love with You: 8 Steps.” The 12 steps seemed reasonable to me, and were along the lines of “just be a decent, worthwhile human being and stop worrying about it.” The 8 steps had stupid suggestions like “be a little mysterious” and “always leave him wanting more.” Maybe it’s just me, but I prefer the decent, worthwhile human being who doesn’t bother with crap like that. Nevertheless, the majority of the links are about finding relationships. Most of the men’s links are about trying to get laid. Sometimes it’s more, like this advice: “Do you want a “Total 10”? A “Total 10” is a woman who’s beautiful inside and out — she’s hot , intelligent, emotionally mature, and knows who she is. If this is the kind of women you want, you’re probably not going to meet her at a bar, a club or a strip club.” It fails to mention that if you’re the sort of guy who browses websites for tips on how to pick up women, you’re probably the sort of man that intelligent and emotionally mature women would want to avoid. Women seek a connection with another human being, men seek a pliant object with moist orifices, and everyone goes along like this isn’t a perverse state of affairs. The prevailing assumption, as with the rape mentality, is that women are objects to be used. They’re not to be considered as human beings by men, just game pieces to be played. Everything I’m pointing out here is common knowledge, but what kind of sick culture do we live in where this is the norm?

And then there’s the alleged danger of female sexuality, which is the bizarre pseudoproblem promulgated by traditional religions and cultures from time immemorial. If you’ve taught college writing, you’ve probably run across essays that start, “Since the beginning of time people have done [insert action that people have certainly not done since the beginning of time].” However, I believe it might be true that since the beginning of time men have been raping women and then claiming they just couldn’t help themselves. Like that egregious buffoon at Arizona or the morally retarded in any country justifying legal penalties for women for not walking around covered in a blanket everywhere they go, the bizarre and absolutely untrue assumption is that men just can’t help themselves. When they see a bare leg or a bare breast, they’ve just got to get them some sex. It’s not their fault! They just can’t stop themselves! Well, I’m a straight man who likes women and likes sex and I can tell you for sure, men can stop themselves from assaulting women. It’s just that in certain morally twisted cultures and subcultures, they don’t have to because they’ve got unaccountable power. Blaming women for the violence men do to them seems to be common everywhere.

The only good I can see coming out of the publicity around all the traumas and trials is that some people, even some men, seem to be waking up to the situation. It’s healthy to see the aggressive and vocal reaction to the moral obtuseness of, say, high school principals who want to silence raped girls so the football team won’t get in trouble. That’s the sort of sick behavior that people don’t want known about themselves, which means the threat of publicity might stop some other morally questionable behavior. More brave girls fighting against a system of exploitation and silence might change things for the better.

Even non-traumas are sparking conversations. I remember last summer the controversy after a comedian who’d been heckled by a woman who claimed jokes about rape are never funny replied with the “joke” that it would be funny if that woman was gang raped right at that moment. Another comedian tried to defend it by saying feminists don’t have a sense of humor, as if saying a woman should be gang-raped was at all humorous. The woman was wrong that rape jokes can’t be funny, and the comedian was wrong that feminists don’t have a sense of humor. For example, I thought up a rape joke in response that I bet would get a few chuckles even in the most radical of feminist circles. I’ll try it out on you, with the warning that it’s a bit crude: “men who fight against women’s reproductive rights should be raped with old baseball bats and then denied medical treatment in order to preserve the life of the splinter.” I bet some of you laughed at that. You might even feel bad about it because it’s violent and disgusting. There are plenty of people who wouldn’t laugh, but no one would try to respond, “Republicans just don’t have a sense of humor.” Except for Bob Dole, that might be true, but not laughing at that joke wouldn’t necessarily be an indication of it.

I have no conclusion or special wisdom to offer. It’s just that I’ve been saddened and angered by the spate of stories about the abuse of high school girls and college women, and these were among the thoughts conjured up by all the tragic news. I’d like my daughter to grow up in a world without rape or reactionary gender expectations, but that’s not going to happen. All I can do is help her learn how to be careful in a world that can sometimes be dangerous for women in a way it isn’t for men and to understand that except maybe for breastfeeding, the idea of “women’s work” is a moral prejudice and not the natural state of affairs. Oh, and maybe watch out for football players.

People I Neither Hate Nor Fear

I’ve been trying to ignore the post-election insanity, but it’s pretty hard to do if you follow the news at all. There’s a lot of craziness out there, whether it’s some loonies in all 50 states petitioning the White House for their state to secede from the United States, or the obvious hate of some of the white people mourning Romney, or people defriending Obama voters on Facebook, or a Florida man possibly committing suicide because Obama won, or a pregnant Arizona woman definitely running her husband over with their automobile because Obama won. According to the injured husband, the Arizona woman “believed her family was going to face hardship if Obama were re-elected.” Since he was hospitalized in critical condition and the wife was in jail, it turns out she was right. None of my Republican friends went batty after the election, but there are obviously some psychologically damaged people out there.

Apart from all the gibbering bile, the thing I read that most resonated with me was this blog post: Letter to a future Republican strategist regarding white people. The Republican apologists had one thing wrong for a lot of independent voters. They seemed to think that people voted for Obama. Technically, they did, but a lot of voters, including me, don’t necessarily vote for candidates they support so much as against candidates or parties they don’t like. I’m not sure I’ve ever voted for a candidate that I’ve completely supported. I’m not a joiner, I’ve never registered with a political party, and I find people who prefer party to country at best misguided and at worst dangerous. I’ve voted for Democrats and Republicans and even one Libertarian. This year I was tempted to vote for the Green Party just for variety, since NJ isn’t exactly a swing state.

I pretty much agree with his assessment. I have no idea what most Republican voters voted for or against, but the Republican leaders’ stances on science or war or marriage aren’t very defensible. Multiple divorcees whining about the sanctity of marriage repulse me. Also, I’m in more or less the same situation as him. I’m a straight, white male, married for almost 19 years, never divorced, raising a daughter, and while I’ll never be in the 1%, I’m solidly in the top quintile. Except for a few semesters in college, I’ve held a job steadily since I was 14. I work hard, pay my taxes, and have never received any sort of direct governmental support (other than student loans, which I’ve yet to default on). Although I do work in the non-profit sector, I don’t work for any government body. I’m exactly the sort of person that a lot of people would consider a “real” American.

And therein lies the problem for me. In addition to unpalatable stances on science or marriage, what I vote against are people who seem to hate me because I don’t hate or fear the right people or for reasons that should have nothing to do with governing the state. What I would like to see are political parties whose leaders don’t try to sway voters by placing large swaths of the population into the Other category. People who talk about “real” Americans or “traditional” Americans are counting on other people fearing or hating a lot of their fellow citizens. I can’t support that, because there are several groups of people I can’t bring myself to fear or hate that a lot of people seem to.

Non-white people

It’s been difficult to ignore American racism this year, from racially motivated protests at the University of Mississippi to the Twitter meme, “It’s called the White House for a reason,” sometimes preceded by “I’m not racist, but….” Unsurprisingly, the map of the most racist tweeters corresponds pretty closely with the red states. Growing up white in the south, I was exposed to plenty of racist sentiments from my fellow white people, who no doubt felt comfortable expressing their true selves around a pasty person like me. Since I’ve never been particularly impressed by most of the white people I’ve met in my life, that whole white supremacy thing doesn’t work for me. And since I’ve spend most of my adult life in higher education exposed to all sorts of people who aren’t like me, I’ve learned to take people as they come. If people are nice to me, I try to be nice to them, and I don’t care what color their skin is. And if they’re not nice to me, then screw ‘em, I’ve got enough friends.

Homosexuals

While Rick Santorum, for example, seems obsessed with gay sex, I’ve never heard any of my numerous gay and lesbian friends and acquaintances over the years ever mention sex. Contrary to what a lot of people seem to believe, homosexuals aren’t out to convert anyone to homosexuality, which is about as possible as praying away the gay. As for gay marriage, I really don’t see why it bothers anyone what other people do in private. In fact, I see it as downright unAmerican to try to restrict people’s liberty. Anti-gay types are usually just provincial and limited in their experiences. Since the don’t know any homosexuals, they don’t realize that the defining characteristic of homosexuals isn’t all the gay sex they’re having with each other and trying to have with straight people. It’s the same stuff that defines us all: work, hobbies, friends, family, etc. If the Republicans weren’t so obsessed with gay sex, there would be a lot more Log Cabin Republicans.

Women

Now, I don’t really think that Republican leaders hate or fear women, well, most of them anyway. Calling women sluts is a pretty good sign of misogyny and double-standards. However, even the non-haters often think women are less than full citizens, and their rights to control their own bodies cease when they become pregnant. To some, women are merely baby receptacles and their rights end where a fertilized egg begins. I know they have their reasons, even some good ones, but I just can’t get behind that. “Life begins at conception” isn’t a fact; it’s a catchphrase. And while I’ve never met anyone who was actually pro-abortion, I’ve met plenty who are definitely anti-choice. For the record, I like women, and I think they should have the same rights over their bodies as I have over mine, and that includes all the ones who turned me down for dates in high school, which in my experience is a leading cause of misogyny. One can be morally opposed to abortion without being opposed to its legality. If a belief in equal human rights gets me hated, that’s fine. As for male superiority, I feel about that like I do about white supremacism. I’ve met a lot of men in the course of my life and haven’t been all that impressed by most of them as some sort of superior beings.

Poor people

Otherwise known as “the takers.” I can’t bring myself to hate poor people, either. I’ve been poor myself at times, and grew up, if not exactly poor, then at least in tight circumstances. But I had advantages that a lot of poor people lack: two parents who set examples by working, attending safe if not spectacular schools, living in a safe neighborhood, etc. I’ve even known a lot of truly poor people, especially in the rural south. What they seemed to have in common wasn’t a desire for government handouts or an unwillingness to work hard so much as a lack of knowledge about what is possible and an environment that didn’t allow them to succeed without overcoming extreme obstacles and deprivations. A lot of people grow up in circumstances that make it highly unlikely they’ll succeed without being geniuses of some sort, while others grow up in circumstances where even their stupidest actions don’t allow them to fail. People born rich who think they’re self-made are deluded.

Immigrants

I have a confession to make. Unlike, apparently, all the immigrant-haters in the country, I’m descended from immigrants to America. Sure, they came over a few hundred years ago, but my ancestors were all immigrants, except possibly that Choctaw woman my dad claimed was his great, great grandmother. (Actually, he claimed she was Cherokee, but given that the family is from central Mississippi, if it’s true she was most likely Choctaw.) The thing I’ve noticed about immigrants to America is that they like to work. If hard-working people want to come to America and work hard, I say let ‘em. As for the attempt to distinguish between “legal” and “illegal,” well, we all know laws change. If we passed a law saying all immigrants are now American citizens, then suddenly they wouldn’t be illegal. Good or bad laws don’t change the fact that people come here for work and freedom. And if immigrants want to deprive Americans of grueling jobs picking fruit or cleaning rich people’s toilets that no Americans actually want, I can live with that.

Scientists and the scientifically minded

Not only do I not hate scientists, I state approvingly that my Congressman is a rocket scientist, which is what it says on his bumper stickers. Since I don’t stand to make a ton of money peddling fossil fuels, it doesn’t bother me that scientists are concerned about the long-term sustainability and environmental damage of our reliance upon dirty energy. Since I don’t care that I’m descended from monkeys or whatever it is anti-evolutionists believe I believe, it doesn’t bother me that the scientific evidence is pretty much all in the evolution camp. Good science is good for everyone. I don’t have a problem with following the scientific consensus because I don’t have a religious or political ideology hostile to empirical evidence or reasoned analysis.

Atheists and agnostics

According to something I read recently, atheists are among the most reviled people in the country. Personally, I think atheism is a philosophically untenable position, which is why I’m an agnostic myself, but despite our philosophical differences I don’t hate the atheists, and for the haters we’re all the same anyway. The objection seems to be that it’s supposedly impossible to be a morally upright person if you don’t believe in whatever god the person judging you happens to believe in. I think this one is another example of provincialism, a limited upbringing, and a lack of experience. I’m too busy working hard, paying taxes, obeying laws, not being cruel to people, being married, and raising an almost perfect child to worry about what the haters think, though.

Liberals

I saved the most vague for last, because when I read right-wing descriptions of those darned liberals in the comments to a news article or a blog post, I can’t figure out who they’re talking about since none of the descriptions seem to have anything to do with me, and I’m pretty much a liberal. I believe in the individual right to life, liberty, and property; freedom of speech, religion, and association; equal rights; constitutional government; representative democracy; the separation of church and state; the Bill of Rights; basically, liberalism. If you don’t like those things, fine. Hate me. But you know what, liberals are concerned about government spending and the economy, too. If people quit attacking me for something they obviously don’t understand, they might get my vote occasionally.

There are probably some other groups of people I don’t hate or fear, but these are the groups I see being “othered” or demonized the most. When politicians, talk-show hosts, and whatever Sarah Palin is these days demonize people I know aren’t demons, it just makes them look crazy to me, like they’re not part of the reality-based community. If the recent election shows anything, it’s that demonizing or demeaning women, minorities, immigrants, the scientifically minded, and the poor isn’t necessarily a winning strategy, not that I expect it to stop.

2012 Presidential Election Guide

Election time is rolling around and in the spirit of the season I’ve produced a completely objective and non-partisan guide to the two major Presidential candidates for those 14 truly undecided voters in the country. Feel free to pass it out to your library users.

Height and Great Hair Index

Two important factors in a political campaign. Supposedly the taller candidate always wins, and when was the last time we had a bald President?

Obama: 6’1″, hair too short to be great, turning whiter every moment he’s President
Romney: 6’2″, great hair, got the shellacked pompadour and distinguished gray at the temples going for him

Point: Romney

Celebrity Endorsement Index

Since celebrities are celebrated because of their political wisdom and because they’re so much smarter than us ordinary people, it’s important to know who’s voting for whom.

Obama: Scarlett Johansson–talented, articulate, very hot as Black Widow
Romney: Ted Nugent–old, kinda scary, famous rock musician 35 years ago

Point: Obama

Does that not seem fair? Okay, let’s try it again.

Obama: George Clooney–handsome, articulate, women want him and men want to be him
Romney: Gene Simmons–old, kinda scary, famous rock musician 35 years ago

Point: still Obama

Racist Index

For voters who really don’t like brown people, despite, you know, some of their best friends being brown people.

Obama: definitely black despite that white mother of his
Romney: very, very white

Point: Romney

Lone Individual Well Being Meter

For voters who think their personal well being is determined by who is President, and that it alone should determine your vote. Am I better off than I was four years ago? Yes, I am. Thank you, Mr. President.

Point: Obama

Rich White Male Index

For voters who believe that rich white males are, by definition, superior to everyone else and deserving of tax breaks, like capital gains tax rates being significantly lower than income and social security tax rates.

Obama: not rich, not white, male
Romney: rich, white, male, liked by other rich white males, loves tax loopholes and offshore accounts

Point: Romney

Foreign Policy Index

Obama: 3.5 years of actually being President and having to make decisions, killed Osama bin Laden
Romney: No foreign policy experience. Not even liked by the British, despite their “shared Anglo-Saxon heritage.” Best in Republican lineup because he shared the primary with the most foreign-policy-challenged Republicans since the 1930s. Didn’t the Republicans used to have this category wrapped up?

Point: Obama

Crazies who are more anti-Obama than pro-governing Index

Mitch McConnell: “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

Point: Romney

Stock Market Index

Like astrological signs, stock market indicators tell us who to vote for, or something.

Dow Jones on 1/23/09, four days after Obama took office: 8077.56
Dow Jones on 9/14/12 at lunchtime: 13,592.63

Point: Obama

Hopelessly Deluded Index

Four years ago, this would have undeniably gone to Obama. Otherwise sane and intelligent people devolved into breathless disciples who were then disappointed that Obama’s election was not in fact equivalent to the second coming of Christ. Last week on the radio I heard a woman from Virginia say she was voting for Romney “because we’ve got women living in cars with little kids and we need someone to take care of them instead of all those foreign countries.” Good luck with that.

Point: Romney

Joe Six-pack Index

Obama: Used to smoke, drinks beer, obsessively follows sports
Romney: doesn’t smoke or drink, friends with many NASCAR team owners

Point: Obama

Ignorant Yahoo Index

One word: birthers. Plus all the people who think Obama is a Muslim. That would include a woman from rural Mississippi who told my grandmother during the 2008 election that if Obama was elected she would need a prayer rug because he would convert the country to Islam. The conversion process has apparently been very subtle, but I’ve put a couple of prayer rugs in my Amazon Wishlist just in case.

Point: Romney

Political Consistency Index

Obama: has held more or less consistent political positions throughout his career
Romney: earned porn star Jenna Jameson’s ironic endorsement because he’s the only candidate who has assumed more positions than she has

Point: Obama

Family Values Index

Obama: successful marriage, stable children, no divorce
Romney: successful marriage, stable children, no divorce

Point: tie

Educational Credential Index

Obama: BA, Columbia, JD, Harvard
Romney: BA, Brigham Young, JD/MBA Harvard

Point: tie. Columbia is more highly ranked than BYU, plus Romney was an English major. But Romney has two degrees from Harvard. Ivy league snobs might vote Obama because of the Ivy undergraduate degree.

Unemployment Rate Index

For voters who think the President is responsible for them having a job or not.

Unemployment Rate in 1/09: 7.8%
Unemployment Rate in 8.12: 8.3% (down from high of 10% in 10/09)

Point: tie–not Obama, no evidence on Romney other than unproven faith that cutting taxes always creates more jobs. Hopeless voters might vote for Romney if Obama hasn’t gotten them a job by November.

Persistent Folly Index

Obama: kept thinking Republicans would work with him for the good of the country
Romney: once tried to convert the wine-drinking French to Mormonism

Point: tie, although Romney was young at the time and had to try to convert someone, whereas Obama really should have known better

Youthful Indiscretion Index

For voters who think the child is father of the man.

Obama: some marijuana and cocaine when younger
Romney: allegedly held down younger boy in high school and cut off his hair

Point: tie, depends on whether you’re more offended by youthful experimentation with drugs or youthful experimentation with bullying. I’m not a big fan of either. However, I am conjuring an image of President Obama smoking a joint while Governor Romney gets him in a headlock and tries to give him a noogie. That would be the best Presidential debate performance ever.

So far, they’re tied, with each candidate scoring well on major indices. The deciding factor should probably be social media indices, because if Twitter can start a revolution, then Twitter and Facebook can certainly determine a Presidential Election. How do the candidates stack up?

Facebook Likes

Obama: 28,594,746 likes
Romney: 6,846,537 likes

Point: Obama

Twitter Followers

Obama: 19,741,449 Followers
Romney: 1,114,418 Followers

Point: Obama

Twitter and Facebook don’t lie. I’m calling this one for Obama.

The Stupidity of White Supremacists

Before any of you white supremacists out there start to object, I want to preface this by saying that I have nothing against white people. I’m white. Some of my best friends are white. And while I don’t subscribe to the doctrine of white supremacy, I know for a fact that there are a lot of white people out there who are quite articulate. Nevertheless, I can’t help but think you have to be pretty stupid to be a white supremacist.

I heard an interview on NPR with Pete Simi, author of American Swastika: Inside the White Power Movement’s Hidden Spaces of Hate, about Wade Page, the Sikh temple gunman. Simi had interviewed Page before, and noted that one of Page’s formative influences was his time in the American military. Page told Simi that if you entered the military not a racist, you would still leave as one, and by “you” I assume he meant a white person who was probably pretty racist to begin with. Why? Because the American military treated black soldiers and white soldiers differently. Black soldiers, for example, were promoted over more deserving white soldiers and they weren’t disciplined for offenses like white soldiers were.

First, I doubt that’s true at all. None of my friends in the military have ever mentioned it, and given racial politics in this country I find it very hard to believe that black soldiers are coddled in the military, except by possibly treating them more equally than society in general (which itself would be a crime from the racist’s perspective). I suspect this belief is the result of selective evidence and confirmation bias. If you are a white supremacist, you believe that black soldiers don’t deserve promotion. Thus, if they get promoted, then it must be because the military is biased towards the black soldiers. Given the shaky psychology of many white supremacists and, as Simi noted, their drinking problems and inability to hold jobs, I would think it’s much more likely that black soldiers would be promoted above them, which would just make them angrier at the unjustness of a system that prefers competence over skin color.

But even it was true that the American military was biased toward black soldiers and against white soldiers, wouldn’t the obvious target of hatred be not the black soldiers, but the military leadership? The black soldiers benefiting from their preferential treatment are no more individually to blame for their success than white Americans who have benefited from their preferential treatment in American society. And unlike the subtle racism that benefits white people in America, this racial injustice would be caused by an identifiable group of people.  So even if it were true, it would seem a logical place to vent your hatred through assault would be a military base or the Pentagon rather than a temple. On the other hand, people attending worship services are less likely to carry M-16s than soldiers on a military base.

In my experience growing up in the deep south, the sort of people who espouse white supremacy or aggressive racism are always unachieving white people. Though a subtle racism is pervasive though all classes (or at least was when I was growing up) the most outspoken white racists I have met were always unsuccessful by any measure. Successful white people may owe some of their success to being white, just because being white in America makes many things easier for you, but they’re unlikely to attribute any of their success to being white. Quite the contrary, most white people are content to believe that their skin color gives them no advantages whatsoever. However, just being white isn’t enough to get by, even in America, a lesson lost on the white supremacists. If you’re white and still one of life’s losers, I guess it makes some twisted sense to demonize a group of people and stew in your illogical fantasies, but it’s still pretty stupid.

The stupidity is present even in the reviews of Simi’s book on Amazon . All the reviews are 4 or 5 stars except for this absurd review giving one star:

I’ll be anxiously awaiting your next books on the Black Power movement aka Black Panthers, the Muslim Brotherhood movement and the Hispanic Reconquista movement that claims the Unites States stole the southwest from Mexico. These groups have their own “spaces of hate” so let’s see some reporting on them as well. In fact, these movements are a bigger threat to white Americans than the any “white power” movements are for people of color. Case in point – when was the last KKK lynching? Ah yes.. the 60’s… But almost DAILY we see Black on white hate crimes that get BURIED by the mainstream press. Tsk Tsk – your bias is showing..

Well, someone’s bias is certainly showing. I’ve noticed on Amazon that oftentimes the worst “reviews” have absolutely nothing to do with the product. Products get one star because the shipping was slow or it wasn’t what the buyer wanted in the first place. This review doesn’t even have anything to do with the book and seems to be by some sort of racist who wants to avoid the painful fact that sometimes white people do stupid and awful stuff. The rhetorical move is what I call the “But what about….” Simi has written an extensively researched book on the white power movement. The racist ignores it and says, “but what about other races doing bad things,” as if there were no other books in the entire world about whatever other topics he was interested in. The “anxiously awaiting” comment is particularly pathetic, because it’s pretty clear the reviewer doesn’t read books.

Seriously, if you take a look at the person’s other reviews on Amazon, only two are about books, the review of Simi’s unread book and another review about a book on multiculturalism and education that just rants about how bad it is that people from other cultures are ruining our “cultural fabric,” and I’m betting that fabric is white. Again, another stupid review about a book most likely unread. I guess that’s part of the stupidity of racism or any sort of ingrained hate. It blinds a person to everything but their obsession.

Well, not everything. The reviewer thinks a $350 bidet toilet seat is the “best invention ever,” and not just because it’s white (which it is).

I love this toilet seat – it installed very easily (make sure you have an outlet near your toilet however). I love the warm toilet seat – never knew what I was missing! The wash and bidet features are perfect and I am sure I will use 1/10th the toilet paper now. I just use the OVER-PRICED toilet paper now to dab dry versus trying to use it to do the entire job. I predict I will be saving money on buying TOO MUCH TOILET PAPER from this one purchase and it will pay for itself within the year.

It’s not just people from other cultures and races that ruin our cultural fabric. Apparently there’s some sort of conspiracy by toilet paper manufacturers, who sell that “OVER-PRICED” toilet paper (those toilet paper factories are probably run by foreigners or brown people). What does expensive toilet paper cost, like a buck a roll or something? If using 1/10 the toilet paper will pay for itself in a year, then the racist reviewer must use something like a roll of toilet paper a day. Then again, I guess if you’re that full of shit you need a lot of toilet paper.

The Daily Me

[This post is more personal and doesn’t really concern libraries, so be warned and feel free to skip. Just stuff I’ve been thinking about.]

Princeton students sometimes talk about something they call the Orange Bubble. Though not as restricted from the surrounding communities as the students often are, I seem to be living in a bubble myself, but what kind? You’re probably familiar with the concept of the Daily Me and possibly of some of the criticism aimed at the phenomenon, especially political criticism of the echo chamber effect that comes from being able to filter out of your information feed anything that you don’t already agree with. I agree with the political criticism, and am willing to believe that the increasing polarization of the American electorate over the last decade or so has partially been caused by this effect, and that the polarization is a bad thing. I’m just not sure what I’d be willing to do about it.

I had a similar concern about myself years ago and fought against the echo chamber. When I was in grad school in the mid-90s, I grew frustrated that the majority of my vaguely leftish friends and I could talk a good game about Marx or Gramsci but knew almost nothing about mainstream political thought, much less any politics to the right of Raymond Williams. I set about remedying this ignorance with a multi-year reading project, starting with fascism and working my way left. I also practice a sympathetic hermeneutic, which means that the first time I read something, especially something I’m likely to disagree with, I read it as sympathetically as possible, then again critically. What I learned along the way was that there’s something sympathetic about most political positions depending on your point of view and historical circumstances, and that people who radically disagree with you aren’t necessarily stupid, irrational, or evil (though they very well may be). I read a number of worthwhile writers who are part of the conservative intellectual tradition, such as Edmund Burke, Irving Babbitt, Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, Michael Oakeshott, and Friedrich Hayek. Oakeshott and Hayek in particular had a profound effect on my thinking.

The conservative intellectual tradition, such as it is, is in pretty dire straits these days. After all, you don’t need intellect if your solution to every political problem is to eliminate the government. I can only imagine what the thoughtful and cautious Richard Weaver would think of some of the buffoons currently writing and speaking about something they’re calling conservatism. The kind of Bircher craziness that was part of the lunatic fringe in the 1960s has gone mainstream. Nevertheless, despite the Rush Limbaughs and the Glenn Becks there are intelligent and thoughtful conservative writers, and I read them. I’m particularly fond of Theodore Dalrymple and Roger Scruton, whose senses of cultural despair and nostalgia (respectively) I don’t share, but whose writing I usually enjoy. Their versions of conservatism aren’t especially American, but of living Americans I’d also include Roger Kimball (his cultural criticism in The New Criterion, not the shrill protests against academia that first made him famous). And thanks to Arts & Letters Daily and the Bookforum Omnivore, I’m as likely to run across interesting essays from The New Criterion or City Journal as from Nation or Dissent.

After all that, I thought I was safe from the political isolation of the Daily Me, at least until a traumatic incident in a dentist’s waiting room last week made me question myself. Because I couldn’t escape from the blaring television, I encountered something that I later learned was The Five, which Wikipedia calls an “American talk show” but I can only describe as a shouting roundelay of idiocy. The idiots weren’t just shouting their baseless opinions at each other; they were also yelling about and disputing completely factual questions. “The Bush tax cuts were passed at this time!…. No, they were passed at another time!” My god, people, stop the show and do a bit of research. I’d never seen anything quite like it before, and I was literally cringing every moment while the people around me passively consumed it. How could anyone tolerate that stupid junk? That’s when it hit me. I was the odd man out. I’m in a bubble, sort of a smart bubble. It turns out I’ve almost completely removed stupid from my life. Generally, I think that’s good for my happiness and sanity, but are there negative consequences?

First are the people. I rarely interact with stupid people. It helps that I work where I do. My colleagues are generally pretty smart. And the students are smart. And the professors are smart. Basically, in my working life, I have no significant interactions with anyone who isn’t intelligent and educated. It’s nice. Then I get home to my wife and daughter. They’re both pretty smart, too. Maybe it’s genetics. The family members I interact with the most are my in-laws, retired college professors in the sciences, and they’re also pretty smart. Then there are my friends. I don’t have many close friends, but the ones I have are smart. Come to think of it, so are my less than close friends.

Also, I haven’t watched commercial television for 25 years, which has eliminated all manner of stupid. After a childhood of voracious TV consumption, I fell out of the habit for a few months after high school and after that couldn’t abide commercials interrupting the narrative flow of anything. In my adult life, the only television newscasts or political talk shows I’ve seen have been fake ones in movies, which I mistakenly thought were parodies until I saw The Five. For a few years, I still had cable and just watched movie channels, but I haven’t had cable TV for about 20 years either. That means that all those dumb TV shows and reality TV and garbage people watch just because it’s on and they’re tired I’ve never seen. If I don’t get it through Netflix, I never see it. After a 20 year hiatus, I’ve discovered some really smart TV, but I’m always a season behind at least, and I don’t have to watch commercials. I know some really stupid shows exist because occasionally they rise up to the mainstream news from the celebrity gossip, which I never read. Living in New Jersey, I’m aware there is a show called Jersey Shore, but I’ve never seen it. It sounds stupid. A friend told me he turned on his TV one day while cleaning and working around the house, and later realized he’d inadvertently watched eight hours of some dumb fashion model reality show. That can’t happen to me.

My anticommercialism extends to radio as well. I’m not sure I’ve listened to an explicitly commercial radio station since high school. In college, I usually listened to my university’s radio station. In grad school, I started listening to a lot of classical music after I had a roommate with a great classical collection and a willingness to share. Other than NPR and the BBC World Service, I usually listen to classical radio at work and in the car. I also listen to other kinds of music, but that’s what iPods are for. So the shock jocks and the morning DJ shows and the stupid commercials that I know exist because I’ve sometimes been forced into proximity to them in public are almost completely absent from my life. It’s very calming.

As for reading, my tastes since my freshman year in college have been relatively serious. I read a lot of literature in college and grad school, but these days I mostly read essays and books on history, philosophy, or politics. Recently someone saw me reading this book about Nietzsche with my lunch and said, “a little light reading, huh?” I never know how to respond to that without sounding condescending, which I don’t mean to be. The honest answer is that for me, yeah, that’s sort of light reading because I’ve been reading books like that for 20 years. If not light, it’s certainly pleasurable or I probably wouldn’t read it. It’s not heavy reading by any means. Of the topics I actually know something about (and thus can understand the books at all), my heavy reading would probably be books with both complex ideas and tedious writing, books by people like John Rawls, which I very much appreciate having read, and which I’ve also taught, but to which I rarely turn for pleasure reading. My political views have been influenced by Rawls, but leisure reading over lunch? I don’t think so. Then there’s all the reading that’s so heavy I can’t even lift it, like anything dominated by equations.

It sounds like I’ve deliberately removed the majority of pop culture from my life, but it was more accidental in my quest to eliminate stupid distractions. It means I’ve removed a lot of stupid, but also that I’ve divorced myself from my culture enough that I wonder if I even understand what’s going on anymore. In all honesty, my knowledge about a lot of pop culture is based on what I read at Cracked. How could someone watch The Five or Jersey Shore? I just don’t get it. Add to that all the other things I don’t really get that I don’t equate with stupid, like sports fandom, and I’m seriously out of touch with something, but I’m not sure if it’s something worth touching. Am I as naive and uninformed as the people who get their news only from Fox News or from their carefully selected friends on Facebook? Probably not. But am I guilty of the same insularity that I would normally criticize? If I am, that wouldn’t make me unusual. Hypocrisy, or at the very least a serious lack of self-awareness, is hardly unique in the human condition.

If I have a saving grace in this regard, it might be movies. Though I’ve enjoyed numerous highbrow movies over the years, I’d usually rather watch Die Hard or Anchorman for the 10th time than the latest indie art house film. Some of my very favorite movies like Casablanca might be old, or even “classics,” but they’re not particularly highbrow. Casablanca is schmaltz from beginning to end. Yet I’m right there tearing up when Rick gives his speeches to Ilsa and Laszlo at the end, laughing when Ron Burgundy plays jazz flute, and cheering John McClane when he puts a bullet in Hans Gruber. I’m not sure if my cinematic philistinism counts as stupid, though. John McClane might be a mouthbreather, but Hans Gruber?

Is this enough to avoid the possible negative effects of the Daily Me, especially the political ones? Is avoiding stupid morally equivalent to, say, avoiding even the mention of any political view you don’t like, or never encountering people not of your “class”? I’d like to think not, but then again of course I would. That’s exactly the sort of moral high ground I enjoy standing on. Nevertheless, my bubble is similar in some ways to the class bubble that Charles Murray wrote about last year, especially in my lifestyle habits. He argues that a class bubble is tearing apart white America. (He learned to avoid talking about black America after The Bell Curve.) You can take his quiz on how thick your class bubble is. I scored 34 points (out of 100, the higher the score the lower the class), 22 of which came from the first four questions about my Life History. When it comes to People Who Have Been Part of Your Life; Sports, Pastimes, and Consumer Preferences; Some American Institutions; and Media and Popular Culture, my bubble is pretty darn thick, despite my taste in movies. For Life History, even though I had a lot of crappy manual labor jobs when younger, I had to answer no to #6 because I’ve never had a job where something hurt at the end of the day, unless “my soul” counts as an answer.

Based on my score, Murray predicts I’m a “first-generation upper-middle-class person with middle-class parents.” Technically, according to Wikipedia, I am upper-middle-class based on my work, my wife’s work, and our household income, but that’s very recent in my life and came about as I was avoiding stupid, not cultivating upper-middle-classness, whatever that is. (It also ignores wealth, debt, and the NJ cost of living, but whatever.) My parents for a time achieved (barely) lower-middle and went downhill from there. So I think I escape Murray’s class bubble even as I technically have similar habits. He’s talking about the people increasingly born that way, who go to Ivy League universities, marry fellow Ivy League graduates, work in high prestige professions, and live in exclusive and wealthy parts of the country. But that’s not me. I went to a middling state university in the south, work in a middling prestige profession, married a Seven Sister grad, and live in Trenton, NJ (just not the part where people shoot each other). And that’s totally different, sort of.

I don’t see my bubble as a class bubble so much as an anti-stupid bubble. If my bubble resembles Murray’s, it’s because many years ago I decided I’d rather be an impoverished scholar than a rich anything else and had the luck not to end up destitute. Does that make me the part of class divide? Am I the part of the upper-middle-class isolating itself from the masses with no understanding of how most people live, and thus, presumably, lacking any sympathy for or understanding of their lives?  I still don’t think so. After all, I’m pretty much the same intellectual snob with exactly the same habits now as when I was a grad student living on $12K a year.

Instead of upper-middle, I’d prefer to be part of what the late Paul Fussell called “category X” in his amusing survey of the American class system. He believed that academics and intellectuals and artists sort of opt out of the class system because they care more about ideas and creativity than about social status as such. (And by his Living Room Scale, I barely make it into the middle class.) According to Fussell, you are born into a social class, but “you become an X person, or to put it more bluntly, you earn X-personhood by a strenuous effort of discovery in which curiosity and originality are indispensable. And in discovering that you can become an X person you find the only escape from class.”

That sounds appealing to me. I want to be an X person living in an X bubble, isolating myself from stupid rather than from other classes. However, I might be fooling myself. Isolation is isolation, perhaps. If I can’t watch The Five without cringing, am I missing something important about contemporary America? If, as a friend of mine commented, that’s what passes for political debate these days, should I be concerned that I’ll have none of it? It doesn’t matter much anyway, because I’m as unlikely to change my ways at this point as the anti-me, whoever that might be. I’m thinking one of the Jersey Shore people, maybe that guy “The Predicament” or whatever his name is, but even my concern over the insularity of the Daily Me won’t make me watch that show, so I’ll never know.

Thoughts Out of School

Several incidents in the past few weeks have sparked ideas for posts, but they’re not coming together as coherently as I’d like. Hence, a few thoughts related, if at all, by their occurrence outside my usual academic milieu.

People who don’t write think writing is easy. Is there any other activity that the general public treats this way? Does anyone think they have a few good tennis games in them even if they’ve never picked up a racket? Or that they could solve a few calculus equations even if they haven’t done any math since high school algebra?

Recently over drinks, someone who doesn’t write–but plans to, someday, really, when she gets around to it–asked my advice on writing. My main comment was, writers write, after which I tried to change the subject. Following some more persistent requests for advice, I may also have added something like, they don’t just sit around in bars talking about what a fascinating story their lives would make if they ever found the discipline to sit down and actually write. The person didn’t like my advice. Maybe it was my tone. Whiskey might have been involved.

Skepticism is an acquired trait most people don’t acquire. Perhaps it’s not a trait conducive to human flourishing. It didn’t help Socrates much.

Same bar, different evening, I inadvertently stumbled into a political argument with someone whose statements I should have ignored out of friendship and kindness. The argument ranged over several issues and it became clear to me that the person held very strong beliefs with almost no facts, evidence, or reasoning justifying them. Blind faith in God is one thing, but blind faith that people regularly receive preventive health care at emergency rooms or that Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks is something else, unless perhaps they are the same thing. The claims about reason and reality made during the attempts to evade my questions grew ever more surreal, which shouldn’t have surprised me. When people’s beliefs are challenged, they tend to cling even more tenaciously to those beliefs regardless of the lack of evidence supporting them. Eventually, I realized the pointlessness of the debate and gave up, though I learned two important lessons. First, my tolerance for people spouting nonsense gets lower all the time. Second, saying “Do you really believe that nonsense or are you just fucking with me?” is an ineffective rhetorical strategy.

Dialectic isn’t popular outside the academy. When challenged about their beliefs, people often avoid answering direct questions. If you ask, “what about this,” they will almost inevitably reply, “well, what about this other tenuously related thing instead?” When someone can’t or won’t answer a direct and easily answered question, I sense both victory and stalemate. People panic. They sense the conversation is going in an uncomfortable direction for them. They probably think I’m trying to get them to admit they believe something which contradicts something else they’ve already claimed to believe. To be fair, I am.

Political and religious disagreements are often about method, not belief. Some people are disturbed that other people don’t believe what they do. In contrast, I’m more concerned with the way people arrive at their beliefs. The two points of view don’t mix well.

In conversation with a conservative fundamentalist Christian minister in rural Mississippi (don’t ask), I was asked what I thought about New Jersey’s current governor, Chris Christie. My opinion is that he’s an improvement on the last two New Jersey governors, but that’s damning with faint praise. He called Christie a rhino. I thought to myself, well, Christie’s got a weight problem, but that hardly seems the Christian thing to say. It turns out he meant RINO, or “Republican in Name Only.” What folly to treat political parties as if they had eternal essences. The party of Lincoln is now the default party for southern racists. Political parties change. For that matter, religions change. To myself, I thought this. To him, I merely nodded and smiled. Some worldviews are so hermetically sealed it’s pointless to engage them.

Trying to see the world from the perspective of someone unlike yourself is difficult. It requires curiosity, imagination, and sympathy. Maybe that’s why so few people try. Maybe that’s why all of us give up sometimes.

Some people question whether you can ever really understand the world from the perspective of others, or perhaps The Other. If that were true, most literature would be impossible. I’m a tall, smart, white, heterosexual man with symmetrical facial features and a full head of hair living in a society that often rewards those arbitrary characteristics. How could I possibly understand what it’s like to be a member of an oppressed group of any kind? Maybe I can’t. But I know what it’s like to be poor, to be unfairly judged, to be ridiculed, to be feared or hated because of a perceived difference, and even to be harassed by the police. If I consider my worst experiences and magnify them considerably, I can imagine what it must be like to be routinely on the receiving end of American oppression. I’ve never been stupid, but I’ve been stoned. I assume being stupid is like being stoned all the time. What I can’t understand is a white southerner who claims to be unaware of racial discrimination in the south. Maybe it’s like being stoned all the time.

All that stuff academic librarians try to teach about searching for evidence, critically evaluating it, and integrating it into your worldview–that’s a lot tougher than it looks. Even tougher than writing.

An American Fall

Most of you probably know that the Occupy Wall Street movement in NYC has a library, appropriately enough called the Occupy Wall Street Library. They accept contributions, so as a small gesture of solidarity, I sent the library a couple of books: Brian Barry’s Why Social Justice Matters and Nell Irvin Painter’s Standing at Armageddon: a Grassroots History of the Progressive Era. It seemed the librararianly thing to do.

Why Social Justice Matters was political philosopher Brian Barry’s last book, and while it’s not perfect it makes a good case for the injustice of large social and economic inequalities, and it’s more or less accessible for a work of political philosophy. I considered sending John Rawls’ Justice as Fairness: a Restatement, but Barry’s book is an easier read in my opinion and has a tinge of anger appropriate to the moment.

Painter’s book was one of several histories of the Progressive Era I could have chosen, all of which tell more or less the same story. I really don’t understand all the hostility to the federal government among people who would be significantly worse off if the government shrank to the levels of the nineteenth century, which seems to be what a lot of people claim to want. I believe, but could be wrong, that the hostility is based on a lack of knowledge about what conditions were really like for most Americans before the social legislation of the first seventy or so years of the twentieth century. With income inequality approaching Gilded Age proportions again, Americans should realize that the only thing that makes life secure and tolerable for the majority is that disorganized citizens have some protection against the force of politically connected transnational corporations and totally unregulated markets. Yet, some Americans want to take us back to an age of relative barbarism. Some fool claims Social Security is a Ponzi scheme, another fool believes him, and we’re on the road to misery. There’s a difference between the elderly and infirm who benefit from Social Security and Bernie Madoff, and if Americans can’t tell the difference we’re in trouble.

Some of the radicals trying to destroy the government claim that Social Security, for example, is “broken.” That’s nonsense. Social Security has been a raving success and saved millions upon millions of people from destitution, which is what it was supposed to do. Apply the payroll tax to all income instead of just the income below $106,800, and it would probably be well funded forever. The New Deal social legislation that so-called conservatives want to destroy came about for a reason. It wasn’t created by a bunch of socialists intent on destroying America. It was created after mass protests and misery that threatened the stability of the entire society. Massive income inequality is in itself bad if social order is important, even if you don’t care if people die in front of hospitals because they can’t afford treatment. All you have to do is read about America from 1880-1935 or so to see what I mean. Again, I suspect that a lot of people intent on rolling back the New Deal don’t know much about what it accomplished.

The predictable right-wing criticisms are so rote and hollow that I don’t see how anyone could possibly take them seriously, as I suspect even the politicians and pundits who mouth them don’t. The strangest one is the claim that one must be some sort of socialist to approve of the protests. I, for one, firmly believe in private enterprise and free markets, and that we should rely on free markets to provide what they can. But it’s clear to anyone with eyes to see that there are some things free markets can’t provide: equitable access to education, healthcare, sanitation, safe food, clean water, and breathable air for starters. Reading any history of the Progressive Era will show you that those things cannot be taken for granted for everyone without the government redistributing wealth into social programs, environmental protection, safety regulation, and infrastructure. To want every American child to have the opportunity to get an education, live in surroundings other than squalor, and have clean drinking water and untainted food and unpoisoned air doesn’t make a person a socialist; it just makes them a decent human being. If people live or die, flourish or stagnate, based completely on factors out of their control–like how much their parents make, or if they even have parents, or if they can afford to live in a safe neighborhood–then there is no social justice. The equal opportunity that a lot of Americans believe should be available to people regardless of where and to whom they were born isn’t possible without good government, and plenty of it. If people don’t believe America should be a land of equal opportunity, then they should just come out and admit it rather than crying “socialism”  and “tax cuts” every five minutes.

The more intelligent criticism from the right is still misguided. It always wants to find a focus for the protests, the way the Republicans eventually got the Tea Party movement to focus on the deficit (though not on any of the Republican policies that increased the deficit so much). Why are they protesting J.P. Morgan when Morgan had nothing to do with financing bad mortgages? Why are they protesting the bailouts when the money was all paid back with interest? Focusing on specific concerns is an act of rhetorical prestidigitation, trying to focus your attention on one tree instead of the whole forest. It’s not about bailouts or mortgages or unemployment or the economy or any one given thing. It’s about two generations of American politicians at the federal and state levels favoring corporate interests above all else and steadily eroding the opportunities of the lower and middle classes that had been created in the first seventy years of the twentieth. America has never been a country of truly equal opportunity for all, but the closer we come to that, the more just our society will be.  It’s not about one thing. It’s about everything. It about what America means, and what it means to be an American. We witnessed the Arab Spring. Perhaps we’ll witness an American Fall, one way or another.

On Homosexuality and Non-Neutral Stances

This post from the Gypsy Librarian resonated with me. In it, he discusses his reaction to the anti-gay bullying and subsequent suicides, and the possible difficulty caused by taking public stances as a “neutral” librarian.

I, too, have been wanting to write about this, especially the Rutgers case, which I found both disturbing and depressing. Since I rarely treat this as a personal blog, I felt I didn’t have an appropriate space to write, but I’m going to do it anyway. At least I’m warning you up front.  In the case of Rutgers, I found myself wondering if we’re raising a generation of sociopaths, or at least of mild sociopaths. The inability to distinguish between right and wrong and the incapacity for empathy are characteristics of sociopaths, and both seem evident in the behavior of the student who created and publicly posted the videorecording of Tyler Clementi. Something about the anti-privacy culture of teens on Facebook encourages this, and I think it’s telling that Tyler Clementi’s penultimate act was a Facebook status update.
I very much disagreed with this response from an Inside Higher Ed blogger. In it, she argues that the minds of the young aren’t fully developed, and that we shouldn’t blame the student who posted the video. After all, we all did dangerous and foolish things when young! One example is driving drunk or stoned as teenagers, and thus endangering others. However, while such behavior is itself foolish and dangerous, the danger is also to the drunk driver. This doesn’t excuse it, but it changes the situation somewhat. Drunk drivers don’t deliberately try to harm themselves or others, whereas the video-posting student must have meant to harm Clementi, though I hope not to the extent he actually did. Her best example is the “hot lips” scene with Frank and Margaret in the movie M*A*S*H, a scene which the Rutgers incident eerily parallels in some ways. But the parallel doesn’t go far enough to to provide a good analogy. In the movie, Frank and Margaret are the outsiders, but they’re the outsiders only because they’re establishment figures temporarily in the midst of the real outsiders, whom they relentlessly criticize. Part of the motivation of that scene was to show the hypocrisy of a Bible-thumping and bullying Christian committing adultery. In the Rutgers case, Clementi was the outsider, or at least he felt himself as such. That it happened at a university makes the whole thing more disturbing.
I’ve never quite “gotten” anti-gay prejudice. Unlike other forms of hate and bigotry, it’s directed at something you can’t even see. One usually doesn’t look at a person and see desire for the same gender in the way one sees skin color or age or (often enough) social class. And I assume most anti-gay bigots have never actually seen two homosexuals having sex with each other (and two women in porn movies doesn’t count). It’s a prejudice against a way of being that has no effect on anyone else. I really can’t imagine why people care if other people have harmless desires or engage in harmless acts they don’t even have to see. Because the prejudice is based on something not actually seen but only sensed through often flawed signals, I myself have been a target of anti-gay bigotry, even though I’m not gay. I grew up in the deep south, and I met plenty of people who assumed that if a man didn’t watch football and hate gays, he must be a homosexual. In college, a friend of mine–at the time a semi-closeted homosexual–told me that he’d been warned by a mutual acquaintance to stay away from me because I was gay and people might think he was as well if he was seen with me. Somebody’s gaydar was sure messed up. The irony amuses me to this day. Another time in college, I apparently was verbally attacked by drunken frat boys in a bar. (I say “apparently” because the details are, um, a bit hazy to me, and I’m relying upon a friend’s testimony.) I’m not sure what the provocation was, but some guy called me a fag. According to my friend, I told him I knew I wasn’t gay because I gave a blowjob once and didn’t like it. I suspect that I (6’2″) and my friend (6’5″) were saved from physical attack because of our size. Possibly my antagonists believed it would be embarrassing to be beaten up by someone they thought was gay. Bigotry should be ridiculed, and bigots should be mocked. 
Obviously, I’m not neutral. Like the Gypsy Librarian, I’ve given some thought to the supposed neutrality proclaimed for the profession of librarianship. As I understand it, librarians are supposed to be neutral in the sense that they build collections that represent diverse views, especially on controversial topics, and they don’t allow their personal prejudices to influence their selection of books, etc. In this sense, I am to some extent neutral. But in this series of posts, I argued that academic librarians aren’t really neutral about our collections. Every view doesn’t have to be represented if that view is poorly reasoned or unsupported by any evidence or argument. As the religion selector, I frequently receive gift books about all kinds of wacky stuff. If it’s about astrology, or crystal healing, or someone explaining scientifically that Jesus really was the son of God and that he can help you lose weight, the chances of it reaching the collection are slim. It’s always good to keep a few curiosities so that future researchers will know how some people believed in the past, but popular books on crystal healing aren’t exactly an area for a research library to collect to strength. Limited budgets mean some silly things just have to fare on their own. It’s part of our jobs to say one book is better than another in the sense that it adheres to a higher standard of reason. It’s also part of our jobs to teach students to critically analyze the sources they find. It’s not a matter of indoctrination into a particular position (as conservatives sometimes claim), it’s a matter of indoctrination into a standard of criticism and reasoning. 
Typically, it’s some “controversial” topic that receives book challenges, but in academia there aren’t many controversial topics, and the ones that are controversial are the ones book-challengers tend to agree with. Controversial positions are roughly whatever social conservatives would support. The positions aren’t controversial because they’re conservative, whatever that means, but because they don’t adhere to the values of the academy: reason, liberty, and equality. There’s a conservative conspiracy theory that there aren’t many conservative academics because liberals dislike their politics. However, it’s very clear to me that there aren’t many conservative academics because conservatives tend not to defend their views with reason, analysis, careful argument, and evidence. Most liberals don’t either, but liberalism is a rational political philosophy because it believes political decisions should be based on public reasons, which is exactly what many conservative intellectuals have criticized it for. Academics tend to be liberals because they tend to value reason more than faith or tradition.
Conservatives value faith and tradition more than reason; that’s what makes them conservatives, and it’s what makes them so hard for liberals to understand. Most conservatives are impervious to argument about certain political and religious issues not because they’re stupid, but because they don’t believe in reason as the ultimate arbiter of truth. To the liberal ac
ademic such a position appears just short of insane. Relying upon reason rather than faith or tradition will lead you to more liberal positions on most social issues. (I’m exempting so-called fiscal conservatives, who are often just libertarians, and thus a variety of liberal.) Add to this the freedom necessary to explore (almost) every topic and the equalizing nature of reason and argument. For the most part, what matters isn’t how much money you make, or how good you look, or what kind of car you drive, or who you prefer to have sex with, or what God you claim to believe in,  but how reasonable and civil you are. Other values are leveled by the value of reasoned discourse. We judge people by their reason and their civility, not their sexuality. Thus, one goal of a college education is to teach people to engage in civil debate and to think and reason critically, and once they do there are certain beliefs they’re unlikely to have. It’s merely a coincidence that these happen to be mostly conservative beliefs, because there are plenty of irrational liberals out there, too. The liberals who projected messianic qualities onto Obama two years ago were no more rational than the conservatives who now blame him because they can’t find jobs.
Thus, in academic libraries, as in academia more broadly, we have an ethic based in reason, liberty, and equality. It’s about the only place left in America where calm, reasoned discourse can prevail, which might be why some conservatives want to destroy it. We don’t have to be neutral about anti-gay bigotry, or racism, or sexism because they all conflict with our values. If someone tells tells us that “God hates fags,” the appropriate response is to ask why? And how do you know? And then to point out all the flaws in his reason. In open debate, bigots and bullies don’t fare very well, which is why they don’t engage in it. But we can. We can say to the bigots and bullies of the world that if they have something to say worth taking seriously, they can defend it with reasons, arguments, and evidence, rather than name-calling, fear-mongering, and demagoguery. And we can say with assurance they’re wrong because they’re incapable of working within the neutral framework of shared human reason to persuade anyone. They might be dangerous and popular, but that doesn’t mean they can hold an intelligent conversation with an opponent. And then we can mock them, because there’s not much point engaging irrational bigots in rational argument.
The values of academia are also the values of librarianship more broadly, at least in public libraries. Librarians might not keep someone from reading a book they disagree with, but it doesn’t mean they can’t criticize the ideas it contains. A dedication to intellectual freedom is a dedication to reason, liberty, and equality. 
Does any of this help the children and adults being harassed because of their sexuality or anything else that marks them as “different”? Obviously not. If I saw an act of bullying, I would intervene, but there’s not much more I could do. I do wish someone had been able to tell Tyler Clementi, or Billy Lucas, or Seth Walsh that the bullies are wrong, their hatred pathetic, that there are people in the world who judge others as individuals and not types, that it does get better, that there are places in the world where outsiders are accepted and tolerated and inspired, and that one of those places is the library.