Libraries and Enlightened Views

I’ve been reading Gabriel Naude’s Advice on Establishing a Library (1st ed. 1627, 2nd ed. 1644; trans. into English, 1661). Naude’s treatise is one of the earliest works on librarianship in any modern sense, and lays out a plan for systematically collecting a research library. Among other things, Naude was the librarian who developed Cardinal Mazarin’s personal library, the Bibliotheque Mazarine, and requested it be open to the  public, thus creating the first public library in France (at least as far as I can tell). Until relatively recently in human history, libraries were private, the property of royals or the rich, and served to collect but not disseminate knowledge, and Naude was among the first to develop the idea of a comprehensive, "universal library" open to the public and collecting works on almost every subject, libraries the historian Jonathan Israel has called "workshops of the early Enlightenment."

What’s especially interesting considering the time and place is Naude’s enlightened views on collection development. Consider some of his defenses for acquiring unpopular, heretical, or just plain wacky books:

On books with new ideas:

Neither may all those who have introduced or modified anything in the sciences be omitted, for it is merely flattering the bondage of man’s feeble wit if the scanty knowledge that we possess of these authors is buried under the disdain to which they are inescapably subject for having set themselves up against the ancients and having learnedly examined what others were used to accept as by tradition. . . .  I affirm that all these authors are requisite to a library . . . since it is certain that the knowledge of these books is so useful and valuable to him who can consider and draw profit from all that he sees that it provides him a thousand openings and new conceptions, which, being received by a mind that is open, inquiring, and free from prejudice, “bound to no master fealty to swear,” make him speak to the purpose on all subjects, deliver him from the admiration which is the true mark of our weakness, and enable him to discourse upon whatsoever presents itself with a great deal more judgment, foresight, and resolution than many persons of letters and merit are used to do. (23-24 in the U. of CA Press ed.)

On unusual books (Cabbala, divinations, etc.):

For, though most of them teach only hollow and unprofitable things, and though I hold them but as stumbling blocks to all who amuse themselves with them, nevertheless, to have something with which to please the weaker wits as well as the strong and at the least to satisfy those who desire to see them in order to refute them, one should collect the books on these subjects, although they out to be considered among the rest of the volumes in the library like serpents and vipers among other living creatures, like tares in good wheat, like thorns among the roses—and all this in imitation of the natural world, in which these unprofitable and dangerous things help to round out the masterwork and the scheme by which it was accomplished. (26)

On heretical works:

Since it is necessary, therefore, that our scholars should find these authors somewhere available in order to refute them; since M. de T. posed no objections to collecting them; since the early Fathers and Doctors had them at hand; since many of the clergy keep them in their libraries; since there are no scruples about having a Talmud or a Koran, which belch forth against Jesus Christ and our religion a thousand blasphemies infinitely more dangerous than those of the heretics; since God permits us to profit from our enemies. . .; since they an be prejudicial only to those who, lacking the basis of right conduct, suffer themselves to be carried away by the first puff of wind that blows, and seek out the shade of a beanstalk, and—to conclude in a word—since the intention which determines all our actions for good or ill is not vicious or hardened, I think it nether an absurdity nor a danger to have in a library . . . all the works of the most learned and famous heretics. . . .” (27-28)

How hard it must have been at that time to defend such a library, I thought upon first reading it. A Catholic librarian defending a comprehensive research library owned by a Cardinal during the Reformation. The defense isn’t that the books are right, or even good, but that they exist and are part of the world, and educated, enlightened, unprejudiced minds should read to learn and test their beliefs rather than just to confirm their prejudices. What a daring idea for its time.

Naude was enlightened for his age, and he’s still enlightened for ours. Consider stories like this, about a "conservative" blogger and dim thinker who toured the White House and discovered (gasp!) books on socialism in the library, and thus concluded Obama might be a socialist. Ooooh, those scary socialists! Imagine the poor education and lack of reasoning ability it would take to consider such a thing at all problematic. I’ll ignore the fact that anyone who thinks Obama is a socialist doesn’t know much about socialism. (No President who hands 30,000,000 new customers to big insurance companies is a socialist.) Instead, consider the mindset of someone who obviously believes that people read books to confirm their prejudices and not to learn. Owning or even reading a book on socialism is prima facie evidence that one is possibly or probably a socialist. I suppose reading Inside the Third Reich makes one a Nazi. For such people, education is nearly impossible, because of the unwillingness or inability to encounter ideas contrary to their own.

This sort of crude, ill informed belief isn’t confined to the right, by any means. One of my writing students–a good liberal whose very poor understanding of conservatism was based entirely  upon reading David Brooks’ columns in the New York Times–was in my office and once asked me about my political beliefs. Specifically, he wondered if I was a conservative because I have several books on conservatism on my shelves. Politics drives this sort of blindness more than other subjects, perhaps, because it would never have occurred to him to see all the books on Plato and ask if I were an ancient Greek philosopher. His reasoning became quite clear in the ensuing conversation. Only political conservatives would read books on conservatism, just as liberals read only liberals and his libertarian friend read only Milton Friedman. Thoughtless liberals may not be enemies of Enlightenment, but they’re not necessarily friends or examples. He probably has the Alvy Singer Defense ("I’m a bigot, but for the left, fortunately"). Or there was my socialist friend in library school who refused to read The Wealth of Nations because it’s "capitalist, isn’t it?"

The pattern is the same, and is much like the cloistered, stultifying mindset that Naude was battling in the early 17th century and that Enlightened libraries actively resist. Open inquiry and intellectual freedom are cornerstones of Enlightenment thought and foundational values for most libraries academic and public. The reason we collect books on all subjects isn’t because we are neutral and just want to represent all points of view. The false neutrality might make it easier to win local political battles, but it’s a value that’s incompatible with another value championed by librarians: intellectual freedom.

Intellectual freedom isn’t a neutral value, but instead one of the constellation of Enlightenment values that support research universities as well as academic and public libraries. In academic libraries, we don’t build extensive collections of the sort Naude envisioned because we’re neutral, or because we think every
idea should have equal representation and be considered equally useful or valid. We build those collections to support the habit of open inquiry and the increase of knowledge. If I buy books promoting totalitarianism, it’s not because I think totalitarianism is right or true, and in fact think it’s utterly imcompatable with the foundational values of libraries in a liberal democracy as well as being an assault on the nature of human beings. To the extent that public libraries serve as the "people’s university," their collections serve the same purpose, to allow at least the possibility of open inquiry even if few take advantage of it. It should clear from examining our country and culture that there are always plenty of people hostile to open inquiry, intellectual freedom, and reading to learn rather than reinforce their prejudices. When those people write books, we collect them so that open minds can be informed about them, not by them, and can test their beliefs against the arguments of those who wish to shut down argument.

Libraries Never Change

While doing some research for a project on libraries and Enlightenment, I ran across an article by Grace O. Kelley on the "The Democratic Function of Public Libraries" that presents some familiar criticism:

The library, even more than other institutions, seems not to have been altogether a true part of the social process. In some way, it has been switched out of the current of social change, occupying a niche or eddy of its own. For a long time it seems to have been but slightly affected by the forces which have been changing the rest of the world. One looks in vain in histories of culture and education for studies of the modern library as an active force which is making its impress upon the social fabric. Due to the nature of its organization and of its service it has been possible for it to continue to function largely on its original indefinite ideals and, in a sense, to let the modern world go by….

Not only our knowledge of the world, but the world itself, keeps changing from day to day. "The inescapable drive of change under the accumulation of ideas and traditions, under the relentless impacts of science and invention," make a fixed regime impossible. "An industrial civilization founded on technology, science, invention, and expanding markets must of necessity change and change rapidly." Any institution which does not change too, adapt itself to the times, and become part of the onward "drive of change," will be pushed aside to be left perhaps for a time to make a harmless life of its own. 

The most interesting thing for me about the article was when it was written. It’s from The Library Quarterly, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Jan., 1934), and yet it seems as timely as today’s headlines, blog posts, or conference presentations. I left out a middle paragraph that helps fix the date of the article more.

On the whole, the public library still has its eye on a state of society which it considers to be more or less permanent in nature. It is academic in its ideals, and to it the world’s "best books" of literature and fiction are still of superimportance; it seems sometimes "unaware of the words, thoughts and things that science and invention have brought" but which in the long run must be heeded. The effect on general reading of the auto, the radio, the talkie, the news-reel, the tempo of modern life and of the machine age in general, is only confusedly sensed.  
I almost wrote that this paragraph dates the article, but I don’t think that’s true. The effect on general reading of the talkie and the news-reel is still probably "only confusedly sensed."
What has changed isn’t the criticism of libraries for not adapting rapidly enough to social and technological change, but the assumption of what changes they should be making and why. The problem, according to this article, was that public libraries had no clear concept of their clientèle, and thus offered reading that may or may not have been appropriate. However, the purpose of the library was to offer reading, especially reading designed to further the education of the masses in a democracy.
Kelley makes a lot of the distinction between public and special libraries. "The primary aims of both relate to knowledge: in the case of one, to the spread of the fruits of knowledge among the people; of the other, to the extension, through aid given to research and study, of the boundaries of knowledge." Public libraries weren’t adapting fast enough to the specialization of knowledge, and were with public funding attempting to supply reading of interest only to specialists. Instead, she argued, libraries should be supplying general reading that makes the rapidly increasing specialist knowledge accessible to the public. In fact, "librarians may well encourage writers to couch their findings in understandable and illuminating form, and, at the same time, improve their own equipment and facilities for distributing this product freely to eager readers." At first I thought this placed an unrealizable goal before librarians until I considered the enormous expansion of reference publishing in the decades after this article was written. 
This isn’t a serious issue now, if it ever was one, so that’s at least one problem we’ve solved. The practical concerns of the time are as dated as the principles and hopes. Kelley, also writing in a time of economic uncertainty, was still hopeful in a way I’m not sure we would be capable of today, even if we were prone to think in her terms. Here’s her concluding paragraph:
For we can have faith to believe that the intelligent reading of worth-while books on important matters that are of mutual interest both to the reader and to the author will result gradually in a clearer understanding of the changing concepts of society and all of its problems. This in turn will lead to a more effective and enlightened control over social conditions, increase the probability of happier and more successful living, and in this way justify the vision of democracy.
It’s an attractive vision in some ways, but one I doubt many librarians would believe these days. There are certainly plenty of worth-while books on important matters being written, and to some extent even read, but few still have any faith that more people reading good books (or even being more educated, for which "reading good books" is just a metonym) will lead to a clearer understanding of social problems or a "more effective and enlightened control over social conditions," and even less faith that public libraries are an essential part of that process. 
This snapshot of library criticism from 75 years ago shows us both that libraries have in practice and principle changed dramatically in that time and in unpredictable ways. The only thing that hasn’t seemed to change is the relentless criticism we apply to ourselves and our profession, the insistence that we are out of touch somehow with the larger world, that we’ve been "switched out of the current of social change, occupying a niche or eddy" of our own. Unless we assume that libraries suddenly began changing and adapting in response to this article in the Library Quarterly, we have to assume that such wasn’t true then, and we have no real evidence that it’s true now. What we have instead are insubstantial panics and false prophets of doom, and in this area it’s true that libraries haven’t changed at all.

Not Economics but Justice

LIS News led me to this blog post from Conservative Librarian, written by an academic librarian at Purdue. I’m all for librarians participating in popular political discourse, but I think this post trying to make "An Economic Case Against Homosexuality" has some rhetorical and logical problems.

The author opens by saying that "as a Christian," he agrees "with the biblical condemnation of the homosexual lifestyle." He realizes that making such a claim based on his interpretation of his holy book means nothing to any but the choir. It’s as if I said, "as a Christian, I agree with the biblical imperative to love your neighbor as yourself." Who cares? John Rawls argued that to make political arguments in a pluralist society, we need to use public reason, that is, common reason available to us all, not partial reasons available only to those who share a particular prejudice. It’s also the standard by which academic discourse is generally judged. The author apparently recognizes this problem, and thus tries to make the "economic case" against homosexuality.

Unfortunately, the claim of his provocative title falls apart almost immediately, as he’s forced to consider "other aberrant forms of sexual expression." Otherwise, the argument, such that it is, makes little sense. For example, one of the "economic cases" against homosexuality is the amount of money the U.S. has spent on AIDS treatment and research in the past few decades. There are no sources cited, and a couple of uses of "probably" rather than hard numbers, but if we consider what the U.S. has spent worldwide on AIDS it is probably a lot. I agree. However, the biggest AIDS epidemic for a long time has been in Africa, and has nothing to do with homosexuality. Hence, the resort to "other aberrant forms of sexual expression," which in the AIDS argument seems equal to "heterosexual promiscuity in Africa and elsewhere." All this money being spent on AIDS, even if it has nothing to do with homosexuality, could have been spent on other diseases. I suppose there’s a point there. It’s not a point against homosexuality, though. Note some of the money has been spent on needle exchanges. The needles have nothing to do with sex–homo, hetero, or otherwise.

Then comes this claim: "Our ongoing U.S. political debate over health care reform also needs to factor in the economic costs of  homosexual and other sexually deviant behaviors on our health care system in terms of pharmaceutical drugs, tainted blood supplies, and requiring doctors and nurses to treat sexually transmitted diseases which would be less likely to occur if people practiced chastity outside of heterosexual marriage and monogamy within such marriage." We could wonder what those costs might be, but the motivation to consider them in the way phrased has stepped outside the boundary of public reason. Sex outside of marriage is much more likely a norm of sexual behavior, which would make abstinence the "deviation," unless one’s assumptions come from a religious base rather than the evidence of what people actually do. STDs are apparently widespread in the U.S. It might be the case they’re from deviant sexual practices, but there’s no reason to assume that doctors not treating them would have been busy treating other things. We could easily reverse this and argue that it’s a good thing we have all these STDs that need treatment; otherwise all those doctors and nurses wouldn’t have as much employment.

The next paragraph is the one that really threw me, though. Here it is in full:

Anyone who studies prison conditions knows that AIDS is a reality in many correctional facilities due to the occurrence of rape. I’m not sure how systematically the Justice Dept’s Bureau of Justice Statistics keeps track of prison rape statistics or other instances of same sex sexual assault, but that also has economic implications not to mention the psychological trauma experienced by all rape victims.  I have seen one Bureau of Justice Statistics study indicating that 90% of prison rapes are from male on male sexual activity.  This particular problem was serious enough to cause Congress to pass legislation in 2003 creating a Prison Rape Elimination Commission which issued its report earlier this year.  The presence of sex offender registries, which require significant law enforcement staff time and expense to update and maintain, is another demonstration of the high economic costs of sexually deviant behavior.

Now we’ve moved well beyond any economic argument against homosexuality. "Sexual deviance" as defined by the author now includes homosexual sex, extramarital sex, prison rape, and the broad range of behaviors known as sexual offenses. Collapsing all these into the same category is conceptually problematic unless one has left public reason behind once more. To say that a stable and long-cohabiting but unmarried heterosexual couple are the equivalent of prison rapists or child molesters doesn’t make much sense morally or philosophically. Regardless of the conceptual problems trying to relate all these disparate behaviors, what "economic implications" are there about prison rape? There’s a claim, but no evidence or argument whatsoever. And even if there was, why would we need to make an economic argument against prison rape or child molestation? Surely most of us could agree that prison rape or child molestation is bad regardless of our stances on economics. This guilt by association is a poor excuse for an argument.

The author then gets slightly back on track by discussing same-sex partner benefits. This at least has some relation to homosexuality and possibly to economics. He claims that providing same-sex partner benefits "drives up insurance costs for these companies" and "requires these companies to pass on the costs of their goods and services beyond normal inflationary trends." Maybe. I don’t know. There’s no evidence cited. "Additionally, it also probably makes it more difficult for them to expand their businesses and create additional jobs in an economy coping with near double digit unemployment rates." There’s that probably again. Maybe it would. Wouldn’t all benefits do this, though? Why not eliminate all health care benefits, if economic efficiency is all that matters?

The oddest thing for a blog post from an academic librarian is a questionable citation to an alleged study–"Corporate Resource Center’s study Do Domestic Partner Benefits Make Good Economic Sense? (available at their website)"–only there’s no link and I could find no evidence that such a center or study exists. Why not just link to it? The question is irrelevant, anyway, but having a citation one could actually track down is a minimal academic requirement.

The post ends talking about further problems with the "homosexual lifestyle," despite the fact that many of the claims about "economic consequences" haven’t been based on homosexuality at all. The only economic issue specifically regarding homosexuality in the entire post is the claim that businesses expanding coverage makes it difficult for them. That’s the case for any benefits at all, though. If companies dropped all their health benefits, they’d be more profitable. Tens of millions of people would suffer horribly, but economic arguments don’t address that.

Besides the red herrings, the real problem with the argument is that, while pretending to rely on public reasoning, it relies on the wrong type of public reasoning. It’s making an economic argument when a political or moral one is appropriate.

One could make an "economic case" against all sorts of rights. For example, one could have argued during the civil rights debates in the fifties and sixties tha
t ending Jim Crow would have economic costs. Ending Jim Crow and spending money to enforce equal rights cost money. So what?

Males under 25 are the most dangerous drivers on the road and cause the most accidents. Should we forbid them to drive? People who eat red meat have a higher chance of getting heart disease, which is a tax on our health system. Should we ban meat? The divorce rate for evangelical Christians is higher than for any other religious group and for agnostics and atheists? Think of the economic costs in terms of divorce lawyers, property loss, increased chances of impoverishment for single mothers with children, not to mention the costs of dealing with the psychological problems divorce can cause in children. Should we ban evangelical Christians from marrying and having children?

Despite the apparent attempt to use public arguments not based on the Bible, the exercise in this blog post is misguided. Using economic arguments in a political debate only makes sense if the persons in the debate share common values, because there’s no value in economics besides efficiency. There’s a persistent belief among many Americans that economic arguments trump political or moral arguments, but that logic isn’t carried through consistently. It’s only applied when the supposed economic argument benefits their political side.

This attempt at public reasoning ultimately fails. Economic arguments are about the most efficient means to an end, but they’re pointless unless we agree on the end. Besides, questions of rights aren’t about economics; they’re about justice, whichever side you’re on.

 

The Counter-Enlightenment in Our Midst

I’ve been vacationing for a couple of weeks on a Great Lake, swimming, sailing, hitting the local tourist attractions, and reading books on the Enlightenment . On vacation I deliberately try to avoid the news (so I don’t spoil it playing tiny violins after reading sad tales like this one), but somehow I ended up reading a summary account of rabble-rousers and their roused rabble at town hall meetings about health care reform, and the contrast between that and my reading left me feeling depressed.

It was Voltaire, I think, (or perhaps Diderot) who wrote that violent resistance to arguments just meant you were too stupid to form arguments. We have seen this playing out around the country, with right-wing professional idiots (leaders?) encouraging their followers to shout, disrupt proceedings, deliberately avoid debate, and all the other tactics of the stupid and inarticulate in the face of calm reason. The irony is that these leaders and their followers seem to think of themselves as "conservatives" of some kind, but it’s not at all clear what they want to conserve other than the wealth and power of private insurance companies. They certainly don’t seek the ordered liberty so beloved of some who deem themselves conservatives. I’ve long speculated that there aren’t really any conservatives in America anyway. There are only variations of reactionary against the Enlightenment ideals of the founding.

Historians of conservatism–e.g., Russell Kirk, Robert Nisbet, Jerry Muller–often trace the beginnings of conservatism in the English-speaking world to Edmund Burke and his Reflections on the Revolution in France (though Anthony Quinton goes further back to Bolingbroke, if I remember correctly). Burke himself, though, was a beacon of tolerance and reason compared to aggressive soldiers of the Counter-Enlightenment like Joseph de Maistre. A clubbable man and friend of Adam Smith and a supporter of the American War of Independence such as Burke couldn’t have been otherwise. As the title and movement of conservatism were born and spreading through Europe, it made some sense. The conservatives were trying to conserve, or at least to resurrect, an older regime of authoritarian political and religious order that was actively under assault from Enlightenment values such as liberty, equality, toleration, reason, education, and individual rights against the state.

In America, such a tradition makes little sense, despite Kirk’s heroic efforts to give American reactionaries an historical tradition. America was the first country founded upon Enlightenment values. Granted, Americans themselves have rarely in the mass lived up to those values, and the history of America is to some extent the development of these enlightened  values over the darker forces of our nature for two hundred years. No one with eyes to see could say that America is a perfectly enlightened or tolerant country, but without a doubt the enlightened values of the founding have slowly found favor with a greater percentage of the population. Those Americans resisting the ideals of reasoned discussion and debate, toleration for the Other, individual rights, liberty, equality, and education are thus not conservatives, but reactionaries. They don’t wish to conserve or even resurrect a fallen order, but to impose darkness on the land.

To give some substance to these musings, let’s briefly examine two figures of the Enlightenment who are in stark contrast to the shouting rabble and their beloved leaders in the recent meetings: Immanuel Kant and Adam Smith.

Kant wrote a late essay called "What is Enlightenment?" that summarized some of his views. For Kant, enlightenment meant throwing off the self-imposed shackles of leaders and having the courage to use your own reason to make decisions. The motto is sapere aude, or "dare to know." Enlightened people educate themselves, use their reason, and challenge irrational authority. They are not looking to be lead. The unenlightened desire to be led. They want people to tell them what to believe about important issues–about God, religion, ethics, politics. The unenlightened take on faith, for example, the literal truths of religious texts because they have been told to do so and have rarely had more faith in their own capacity for reason than in the word of another. This is not to say the unenlightened are stupid, though sometimes they are. This is merely to say they are unreasonable. Many of them wouldn’t object to this at all. Recall Tertullian’s famous defense of his Christian belief: Credo quia absurdum est–I believe because it is absurd. De Maistre and other figures of counter-Enlightenment were no different. For them, reason is not a primary value.

In the current debates, as in so many others in the country, we see this playing out. We see people who want to be led, who take their marching orders from radio and television entertainers like Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, or from others hidden inside various advocacy groups. They don’t reason, they don’t dare to know. They certainly don’t balk at the irrational and foolish. They’re encouraged to become part of a mob and they do it in an attempt to forestall any rational debate by any side in the discussion. I heard one woman interviewed on the radio who claimed that she opposed a public health plan because she didn’t want her health care decisions made by "some bureaucrat." Regardless of one’s position in this debate, this response–no doubt fed to her by someone leading her on–is absurd. If she has health insurance now, who does she think is making decisions about her coverage but some bureaucrat, and, what’s more, a bureaucrat with an eye on the profit margin of her insurance company rather than the needs of her health. An enlightened person would say, oppose or defend whatever you wish, but at least have intelligent reasons for doing so.

It’s a more curious contrast with Adam Smith, a mainstay of the Scottish Enlightenment and one of the most misunderstood writers of contemporary times. In this country, Adam Smith has the reputation of being an absolutely laissez-faire economist, totally dedicated to the "invisible hand," opposed to government, a friend of the capitalist class and an implied enemy of those who find themselves losers in a perfectly free market. Both right and left have this illusion of Smith. Rich financiers in the Reagan years supposedly sported ties with Adam Smith’s image, thinking he was one of their kind. Leftists are seldom any better. I once had a strange interaction with a fellow library school student, a socialist of sorts with an M.A. in history, who saw me reading The Wealth of Nations. The student refused to read Smith "because he was a capitalist," thus demonstrating his own lack of enlightenment. He’d been told all he needed to know by some professor or pundit, and relinquished faith in his own power to educate himself and make reasonable judgments based on his own knowledge.

Adam Smith was a defender of what he called the "system of natural liberty," and he did indeed describe and defend the division of labor and free trade that undeniably builds wealth in nations. However, he was not necessarily a friend of the capitalist or an opponent of government, as anyone who has ever bothered to read Smith would know. Does this quote from the Wealth of Nations surprise you?

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty and justice. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies; much less to render them necessary.

Does this sound like a friend of the rapacious capitalist? What else are lobbyists and business interest groups but conspiracies against the public? Cabals dedicated to their own interest at the expense of the common good? Or this argument against mercantilism:

Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer. The maxim is so perfectly self-evident that it would be absurd to attempt to prove it. But in the mercantile system the interest of the consumer is almost constantly sacrificed to that of the producer; and it seems to consider production, and not consumption, as the ultimate end and object of all industry and commerce.

How many of our laws, regulations, and subsidies are truly dedicated to protection of the individual and unorganized consumers, and how many to the protection of organized business interests, i.e., the producers? Whose interests are at stake in the current debate, and whose interests are getting the most attention in the media–the consumers of health care or the producers of it? What would Adam Smith the consumer advocate have to say about the shenanigans of the insurance industry?

Despite my commentary on the health care debate here, it’s not health care or the debate as such that interests me so much as the mob tactics associated with it. We have right wing pundits and entertainers calling President Obama a Nazi while encouraging the sort of mob politics the Nazis themselves used to such great effect. In this case, the end of enlightenment is the rise of the ochlocracy, or "rule of the mob." We’ve had people who might otherwise be intelligent and productive citizens showing up at meetings shouting so that others might not be heard. They’ve been acting like Yahoos, another creation of an eighteenth-century writer. In Gulliver’s travel to the land of the Houyhnhnms he encounters creatures he takes to be humans by their appearance, but finds after watching them they’re little more than bestial savages. Watching roused rabble scream and shout affirms Jonathan Swift’s belief that humans aren’t rational animals, but only animals capable of reason.

This disturbs me as a human and as a citizen, but also professionally. American reactionaries, wherever they have power, try to defund education and any other public good. They would rather send a harmless pot-smoker to prison than a smart poor person to college. With no responsible voices on the political right speaking out against the disruptive mobs, does this mean they support the rise of ochlocracy?

There are mobs of every political stripe, as history has shown, but I’m more concerned professionally by right-wing than left-wing mobs. Left-wing mobs have a tendency to destroy commercial property (as in the WTO protests in Seattle a decade ago) or else just appropriate it (as with most left-wing revolutions). I don’t have any commercial property, and am unlikely to acquire any, so that doesn’t affect me as directly. Right-wing mobs have a tendency to attack institutions of education rather than of commerce. They don’t like book-learning, but they do like book-burning.

The Right has been working hard for a couple of decades to reduce the funding of higher education, and thus make it more difficult for poor, or even the middle class, to afford college. This is insidious destruction of a society of educated and thus often critical citizens. With the active encouragement of people to join mobs and shout down opponents, and the lack of right-winge opposition to demagogic voices, how big a leap is it to imagine mobs being encouraged not just to shout down politicians they don’t like, but to start burning books and such at public rallies? If the reactionary leaders don’t like reasoned debate, how long before they direct the mobs against the the institutions most dedicated to reason and debate–our colleges and universities?

Does this seem far-fetched? Perhaps. On the other hand, one right-wing entertainer with millions of followers is ignorant or stupid enough to compare those who believe in equal rights with women to Nazis. It’s not like we aren’t living amidst millions of loud, ignorant bigots. I see no difference in principle in demagogues encouraging their followers to disrupt peaceful meetings and encouraging them to besiege libraries or disrupt the activities of teaching and learning at institutions of higher education. Both involve resistance to enlightenment, the denial of reason, and the embrace of dark, unruly passions.

But What About? and “Mere Rhetoric”

I listened to some of President Obama’s Cairo speech this morning, and based on the snippets I heard and the summary and analysis I’ve read so far it maintains his reputation as the most rhetorically effective President since Reagan, and probably since Kennedy. In fact, it reminded me a lot of Kennedy’s Commencement Address at American University in June 1963. Kennedy’s speech wasn’t addressed to his university audience so much as to the Soviet Union, and Obama’s approach today was similar, to build bridges to the potentially hostile audience through emphasis on mutual values and goals while not denigrating American values. I recommend listening to or reading Kennedy’s address if you’re unfamiliar with it, but this is my favorite bit:

So, let us not be blind to our differences–but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.

I submit that it would be difficult to find a more rhetorically effective paragraph in the annals of Presidential speeches. It acknowledges differences without threat, urges common goals while recognizing that not all of them will be met, and summarizes in brief but compelling fashion the underlying joint humanity even of political enemies. President Obama’s speech today tried to make the same points.

One difference between the speeches is in the specificity of proposals. Kennedy, for example, announced that he and Krushchev would soon begin discussing a test ban treaty, and that the US wouldn’t conduct nuclear tests in the atmosphere if other states also refrained from such testing. Some commentators and pundits have already begun criticizing Obama’s speech for not articulating more concrete proposals. He didn’t do this, he didn’t do that. He said he was opposed to this, but didn’t say what he would really do. Depending on the perspective, the list of things left out is long: he didn’t denounce Muslim terrorists or dictators, he didn’t articulate a clear solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he didn’t talk about civilian casualties in Pakistan. (Of course, there’s a raft of more inarticulate criticism. If you want to descend into the morass of what passes for common opinion in America, you might sample the comments here.)

The criticism that he didn’t address everything in one speech is a ridiculous one, and one that has been plaguing Obama since the beginning of his Presidential campaign. For one thing, it’s an example of what I recently saw referred to as the "but what about" fallacy. (I thought I’d read this in philosopher Jonathan Wolff’s Guardian blog, but I can’t find it there. If anyone knows the source, I’ll be happy to link to it.) The idea of the fallacy is that whatever claims, arguments, or assertions someone makes, instead of addressing them, it’s easier to evade them and just say, "but what about X topic you didn’t talk about?" That response appears to point out a flaw in the opponent’s position but is really just a variation of the red herring fallacy. "But we’re not talking about X; we’re talking about W," might be the best response.

The other major criticism that has dogged him from the beginning is that his speeches are "mere rhetoric," as if a speech is ever anything but rhetoric. Criticism of this sort is different from the "but what about" fallacy, but it’s still usually a nonsensical criticism mouthed by people who don’t understand how language works. Language is symbolic action. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, often through argumentation, and according to Chaim Perelman the “aim of argumentation is not to deduce consequences from given premises; it is rather to elicit or increase the adherence of the members of an audience to theses that are presented for their consent." The goal of "mere" rhetoric is to persuade, to win people to our positions, to eliminate barriers of distrust and dissent, to reduce threat because, as the psychologist Carl Rogers argued, threat hinders communication. 

Rhetoric is more than just argument, the logical appeal. There are also the emotional and ethical appeals, and Obama is a master of the ethical appeal, the appeal based on character. The character manifest in this speech, and in many of his other speeches, is of a person who understands the world is a complicated place, who recognizes difference and reaches out to the "other," who presents positive values while not dismissing those he doesn’t agree with as evil or stupid, who is so strong in his own convictions that he doesn’t need to demonize the opposition through divisive rhetoric and inane catch phrases, so balanced and calm that he doesn’t feel compelled to rise to the challenge of blowhards. It’s this rhetorical appeal in particular that so many politically motivated people in America neither have nor understand. The demonstration of hatred, the obvious unwillingness to consider the positions of others, the inability to even understand difference, the incapacity for empathy or sympathy, the unrelenting hermeneutic of suspicion, the utterly obvious willingness to say or do anything to win regardless of truth or principle – all of these traits undermine the ethical appeal and yet are rife in our political culture and manifest in many of the critics of this President and his speeches.

The problem for these critics is that they just don’t know what to do with such a politician. If you’re an overweight, multiply divorced, substance abuser, it’s hard to attack the character of a healthy man in a lengthy stable marriage with two loving children. If you’re a blowhard who knows only how to manipulate social divisions and is so rhetorically challenged that you’re considered merely an evil joke by your opponents, it’s hard to smear the character of a man who quite obviously shares none of your cynicism or passion for the complete destruction of people of good will with whom you happen to disagree. Regardless of any specific problems of Obama’s policies that could be articulated, so many of his critics just seem like spoiled, screaming youngsters compared to him. A glimmer of hope for America – seen fleetingly in some Republican reactions to the nomination of Sotomayor – is that the nuanced worldview and the balanced, measured rhetoric of President Obama may by some miracle elevate the level of political discourse in the country. It’s never been particularly elevated before, but there’s always that hope.

Politics and Academics

Since I went to bed before the big decision last night, my celebration, such that it is, consists of the glass of Macallan 12 I’m currently sipping. I say "such that it is," because though I did vote for the winning Presidential candidate and for the first time since 1992 cast a vote for president and didn’t feel soiled by it, everything is still in the same mess it was yesterday, and being somewhat cynical (friends reading this will probably say "only somewhat?") I’m not sure how much one person, no matter how extraordinary, can really accomplish with the Presidency. It seems to me that presidents can much more easily do a lot of damage than cause a lot of improvement. However, just having a president who will avoid doing more damage will be an improvement. I’m trying to feel hopeful, but my political awareness began in the mid-1980s, and my experience of politics hasn’t exactly fostered hopefulness. The thing I find most hopeful in some ways is what the fact that a black man named Barack Hussein Obama could win the Presidency says about America and how some things have undeniably changed for the better in the past forty years. As for the job itself, considering the mess he’s inheriting, I can’t help but think there’s a bit of truth in this article.

For higher education, elections seem to bring a fresh resurgence of the criticism that college faculty are too "liberal." My university newspaper has published a list of Princeton professors who gave maximum contributions to presidential candidates. The only surprising thing is that there was actually a professor who gave the maximum to McCain. However, he also gave the maximum in both the primary and the general election to Obama, and in this article explained that he donated to McCain in the primary because he was the least disliked Republican candidate. Some students complained about how this shows how overwhelmingly "liberal" Princeton is. If the research reported in this article is right, at least no one can complain about being indoctrinated with liberal dogma, whatever that is. I know the students don’t care what the librarians think, since librarians aren’t teaching them, but the Republican students at Princeton and elsewhere might be surprised that there might be even fewer Republicans among librarians than among professors. If we’re not careful, David Horowitz will be coming at us with an Academic Collection Development Bill of Rights, or something like that, arguing that for every scholarly book we buy written by a Democrat, we have to buy a book written by a Republican. Imagine how that would change the scope of library collections!

The Republican students who arrive on campus probably do feel alienated, as I’m sure do the Republican professors and librarians. The students, and indeed most critics, think it has something to to with liberal and conservative, but I’m not so sure. You might have noticed that I’ve been putting scare quotes around liberal. It’s not because I don’t think most professors and librarians are liberals of some sort. It’s just that I’m not sure the issue is just about liberal or conservative politics, but has a lot to do with Democratic or Republican politics. Liberal and conservative are shifty terms and most people don’t seem to use them in any consistent way. People seem to pick one they like for themselves, then use the other term to abuse whatever they don’t like. The paucity of political discourse in America means we don’t have many other choices.

One can argue that, for example, George W. Bush isn’t a conservative at all, and that Obama is in many ways a conservative candidate, as former long-time National Review editor Jeffrey Hart recently argued. Conservatives schooled on Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, or a number of other conservative intellectuals from an earlier generation would be horrified that a president started an aggressive war to promote democracy. People who admire the virtues of caution, tradition, and skepticism about grand rational plans one finds in Edmund Burke’s work have little use for the current Republican Party, and for a lot of traditionalist conservatives, Burke’s work formed the foundation of the conservative intellectual tradition. They would argue that the Republicans have become the radical party wanting to make the most drastic changes, sometimes against the will of the people.

There was a time when conservatives wanted to discover and develop an intellectual tradition, so they could rebel against John Stuart Mill’s description of conservatives as the "stupid party." Conservatives were alienated, but they cared about ideas and culture. That’s changed, though. In his article "The Decline of American Intellectual Conservatism," Claes Ryn argues that the conservative movement’s disdain for philosophy and the arts and a pseudo-pragmatism that led to the decline of any intellectual content in conservatism.

But had it not been for the misguided pragmatism and the related problems of conservatism here described, the chronic weaknesses of human nature would not so easily have broken through the defenses of civilization. American conservatism would have been better prepared to resist intellectual shoddiness, corrupt imagination, and a false moral virtue. It would not have had to accept so much of the blame for damage inflicted upon America and the world by self-described conservatives. (Modern Age, Fall 2007, p549)

It might be conservatism, but it might just be the Republican Party, so long considered the conservative party that anyone who votes Republican is seen as a conservative and anyone who votes against it is seen as a liberal. As Jeffrey Hart, Christopher Buckley, and others have shown this year, though, that’s just not the case. It’s the Republican Party that has changed.

As David Brooks put it recently in the New York Times, "What had been a disdain for liberal intellectuals slipped into a disdain for the educated class as a whole." In Brooks’ reading, it’s the Republican Party and its class warfare that has gone out of its way to alienate whole groups of Americans, including many of the brightest and best educated among them. Students and some other critics complain about the "liberalism" of the American academy, but they usually cite the overwhelming majority of Democrats among professors as evidence of that. If they knew and cared, they’d probably throw in the librarians. However, the explanation of why academics tend to support Democrats or liberals could be that except for a brief flowering of conservative intellectuals from 1955-1975 (or so), so called conservatives have tended to find people who devote their lives to ideas and scholarship contemptible. And the Republican Party in the last twenty years or so has become absolutely hostile to academics and intellectuals of all stripes. People who spend their lives doing intellectual work are unlikely to vote for candidates who publicly malign and mock their social group. Thus, it could be not that academia is overwhelming "liberal" so much as that it’s overwhelmingly populated with intelligent, educated people who resent the populism that considers them lesser Americans because of that intelligence and education. Maybe in the end, we all feel the same way. Regardless of how you might feel about some individual political issues, it’s hard to vote for politicians who show nothing but disrepect for your way of life, whether you’re Joe the Plumber or Jane the Professor.

Campaign Rhetoric 2008 (1958?)

Like a lot of you, I’ve been thinking lately about politics and the upcoming election. Some of this thinking has been deliberation about political issues, but not much. Rarely do I get inspired enough by any candidate to vote wholeheartedly for that person, and for me elections are usually about voting the lesser of two evils. Sometimes the lesser evil isn’t even evil, which is a nice change. Considering that I’ve been voting for twenty years in five different states and few candidates I’ve voted for have won, perhaps I’m just a jinx and should vote for the most evil candidate for a change.

We all have different evils. My top ones are stupidity, ignorance, and viciousness. I know this might make me "unAmerican" or "elitist," but I’ll come out and say that I don’t think stupid or ignorant people should be in charge of things, no matter how nice they are. I think I’m pretty smart and knowledgeable, and as a smart and knowledgeable citizen I want people even smarter and more knowledgeable than me running the government. Always I am puzzled when I read about voters who vote for candidates "because they seem like me." Do any of these voters think they’d be qualified to be President? Apparently they do. I don’t think I am, and I don’t think they are either.

In elections, the stupidity, ignorance, and viciousness come out mostly in the campaign rhetoric, and though I find practical politics distasteful for the most part, I’m definitely interested in political rhetoric. Some of the rhetoric in this campaign sounds like it was pulled from a shelf where it had rested since the fifties, dusted off, and put to use once more. Consider the "socialist" label that’s come into use recently. I guess some people think Cold War rhetoric never stales. When the word socialist is used as an attack in American politics, stupidity, ignorance, or viciousness – and perhaps all of them – are almost always present.

I’m not aware of any Presidential candidate in any major American political party that is a socialist. Is there a candidate who wants to nationalize any of the means of production, or, in the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick’s words, prevent capitalist acts between consenting adults.  Some Americans seem terribly frightened by something called "socialized medicine," but does either major Presidential candidate have a plan to nationalize the health industry? And even if our health service were truly nationalized, would that alone make America a "socialist" country? Would even Hayek think that alone would be enough to put us on the road to serfdom? Oh, I know. It’s the slippery slope. The thin end of the wedge. Nationalize health care, and next thing you know the one party state will force us all to march down Main Street in lockstep singing the Internationale.

There was a time when politicians called supporters of Social Security or Medicare socialists. The implication is that any state relief for the poor or the sick is "socialist," the only problem being that the provision of such service has nothing inherently to do with socializing the means of production or nationalizing any industries and  predates socialism in the West by centuries. Philosophically this is suspect, and historically it’s nonsense. Elizabethan England had poor relief. Was Queen Elizabeth a socialist? The Catholic Church has provided poor relief for centuries. Was St. Thomas a socialist? Any politicians trying to use the word socialist to frighten the ignorant are either too ignorant to know what socialism is, too stupid to make fairly easy distinctions between socialist and capitalist economies, or too vicious to tell the truth.

Another curious rhetorical strategy reminiscent of the fifties is the unAmerican label, as if anyone could actually define what an American is other than by citizenship. One of the candidates for office this year has spoken of "real Americans." Rhetorically, this is an interesting phrase. It involves what the rhetorician Chaim Perelman calls the "dissociation of ideas." In The Realm of Rhetoric he discusses the way some philosophers have split a term into two parts to separate appearance and reality and provide a criterion to distinguish the merely apparent in a particular term.

Term I corresponds to the apparent, to what occurs in the first instance, to what is actual, immediate, and known directly. Term II, to the extent that it is distinguished from it, can be understood only by comparison with term I: it results from a dissociation effected within term I with the purpose of getting rid of incompatibilities that may appear between different aspects of term I. Term II provides a criterion, a norm which allows us to distinguish those aspects of term I which are of value from those which are not (127).

Perelman analyzes the way Plato and Plotinus use this rhetorical strategy to "devalue the sensible world," and politicians who make this move attempt to devalue those who aren’t "real," in much the same way. Often this rhetorical move is fallacious. Philosophers sometimes call it the "no true Scotsman" fallacy, but we can call it the "no real American" fallacy. "No American would support policy X." "But millions of Americans support policy X. " "Well, no real American would support it." Q.E.D.

Both of these rhetorical strategies are contained in a comment on a blog post at the Heritage Foundation, where someone named "Dave" writes that "NO REAL AMERICAN WOULD VOTE FOR A SOCIALIST LIKE OBAMA." The all caps indicate that "Dave" is a very passionate person who wants to make sure you don’t miss his clever point. (By the way, "Dave" also thinks Barney Frank caused the recent banking crisis.)

Sloppy thinking is hardly the sole property of any one political party. Most of us are guilty of fallacious thinking about all sorts of unexamined issues. We think we’re absolutely right and everyone who doesn’t agree with us is just wrong. Sometimes we even think that people who disagree with us are not only wrong, but evil as well. Sometimes it might even be true. I’m glad the election will be over soon, because for the most part the lies, distortions, and oversimplifications of campaign rhetoric on both sides depress me. Just about the only enjoyment I get out of campaign rhetoric is analyzing the fallacies and playing "spot the stupid person." The sad thing is the stupid person often wins.

Political Limbo

Just when I get a break from the second job, along comes jury duty. Where I live, I’m desperately trying to avoid getting on a trial for a gang murder or something. After catching bits of campaign rhetoric lately, I’m not even sure I should be allowed to serve on a jury.

All week a question has been nagging me, making it hard to think about librarianship or anything else. Am I a “real American” or an “east coast elite”? It may seem a trivial question, perhaps even a false dichotomy created in the fallacious mind of a fervent ideologue, but then again, maybe it’s not. I’ve been trying to work my way through the implications, because if I’m not a real American, ordinary and hard working, then I really have no business participating in the upcoming election, and I certainly shouldn’t have to serve on a jury.

Could I be an east coast elite? Boy, that would be nice. I’d like to be an east coast elite. It’s been a dream of mine ever since I was a youngster growing up poor in Louisiana. I do live on the east coast, there’s no doubt about that. I live right in central New Jersey, about an hour from the ocean, and I’ve lived either here or just across the Delaware River in eastern Pennsylvania for almost seven years. I’m almost a native at this point, and even know what people mean when they say they’re going "down the shore."

I’m also relatively well educated compared to most Americans. I finished college and have a graduate degree or two, just like most of you. I’ve read a lot of books, including some really hard ones. Were I to attend a cocktail party (which east coast elites apparently do every day), while sipping my single-malt scotch or my dry martini, I could discuss phenomenology, post-structuralism, enjambment, the Markan priority, the fetishization of commodities, or the law of diminishing returns and more or less know what I’m talking about. I listen to classical music on one of my many local public radio stations. I can recite poetry from memory. I value education and high culture and all that sort of thing. I don’t eat meat. Yesterday I even had a latte. It was good.

Then there’s my child. She goes to a private school. Not one of those $20,000 a year private schools that populate the New Jersey landscape, but it’s still private. She’s in the fourth grade and studies subjects like Latin, Greek, history, and geography. That’s pretty elite. She reads a lot of books herself, so she’ll probably grow up to be one of those intellectual types. Plus, she’s tall and athletic and the most adorable child in the world, so real Americans would probably envy her. (I’d put up a photo, but it would just make you feel bad at how inadequate your own children are.)

There are also my political views. Unlike those real Americans, I don’t pay a lot of attention to people’s race, religion, or sexual orientation. I have no problem voting for a black man for President. I think homosexuals should actually be treated like other citizens and have rights and stuff. I think the worldview of most religious fundamentalists is overly simplistic, but as long as they’re not shouting at me or trying to forcibly convert me to their views, I don’t really care what they do. I feel the same way about atheists. “Socialized” medicine doesn’t bother me at all; in fact, I think Medicare is a good thing. Welfare? Fine by me. If we’re hard nosed about it, we can say we don’t want people starving in the streets and blocking traffic. If we’re proponents of liberal democracy, we can say that no people would consent to be governed by a state that would let them starve. If we’re compassionate, we can consider it what Catholics call the preferential option for the poor.

Also, I work at Princeton, which, you may have heard, is one of those snooty Ivy League universities. Princeton is really rich, too. You’re probably aware of that. And a lot of the students are rich as well. Over half of them need no financial aid, and the tuition and fees are approaching fifty grand a year at this point. Imagine having an extra $50K to spend every year, more if there are multiple children in the family going to Princeton, which often happens. My job, such that it is, is more or less intellectual work and requires very little physical labor. In fact, I made a vow to myself never to take the elevator just so I wouldn’t fall into the sedentary librarian’s habit of expanding too much.

On the other hand, while I work at an Ivy League university, I didn’t go to one. All my degrees are from mere state universities. One of those state universities is even in the South, which is just about unforgivable from an east coast elite perspective. Also, being a librarian at an Ivy League university lacks the cultural capital of being a professor at one. Does librarian counts as an elite profession? Considering the stereotypes about librarians in this country, I’m sure it doesn’t. Librarians are always second class citizens of a sort on a university campus. And then there’s my pay. It’s not bad as librarian pay goes, but I’m never going to be rich, and I sure couldn’t afford to send my child to Princeton. I don’t even make enough to use “summer” as a verb. So my job doesn’t qualify me as an east coast elite, even if  it disqualifies me as a real American.

And while I do live in what one of my former colleagues called “the socialist republic of New Jersey,” my neighborhood isn’t fancy or anything. There aren’t any drug dealers or coal miners that I know of, but there aren’t any Ivy League professors or Wall Street types, either. It’s just a standard, boring, middle-class kind of neighborhood. One of my neighbors does own a Hummer, but I think the Hummer might be larger and more expensive than his actual house. About the best that can be said of my city is that we have the state capital here, and that’s not saying much. I get from my modest house to my modest job in a modest eight-year-old Ford. I could be wrong here, but I’m almost positive east coast elites don’t drive Fords. We can probably take that as axiomatic.

Thus, I’m torn. Real Americans would presumably scorn my political, intellectual, and cultural habits and values and probably my diction as well, while east coast elites would disdain my state university degrees, my middling job, and my humble family background. I’m caught on the horns of a dilemma, and I’m not sure I can escape. My only hope is that I can use this argument to persuade the attorneys that being neither a real American nor an east coast elite means I shouldn’t have to serve on a jury for a murder trial. It’s not much, but it may be all I have here in political limbo.

Reds in the Stacks?

Yesterday’s post got something of an odd comment. The first part of the comment wasn’t so odd, but it ended thusly:

“I don’t know how serious you are with this idea, but I am not at all certain that the average person would care what a librarian tells them. Librarians are all communists, anyway.”

As for being serious, since my suggestion was to assign a research librarian to every twelve Americans, it’s probably obvious I was just having a little fun during the political season. It could be amusing to consider what this plan would really look like, but I’ll let someone else do the considering.

It’s the second sentence that struck me as odd. “Librarians are all communists, anyway.” Even if that were true, I don’t see how it would be relevant to the discussion, but I’m wondering what motivates the statement at all. Have I been surrounded by Reds in the stacks all along and just haven’t noticed? That might add some excitement to my ordinarily quiet library. Most of the intrigues where I work are quite banal and none are likely to lead to the abolition of capitalism. Of course, 160 years of communism hasn’t led to that, either, so what do I know.

Just speaking personally, I’m a librarian and I’m pretty sure I’m not a communist, which is a pity because I look good in red. I don’t think I’ve ever associated with any known communist librarians, and considering my past experience with self-professed communists (I was a literature student for several years, after all) I’d probably know if I did. Communists tend to be aggressively evangelical and eager to share the economic and political wisdom they have gained from, for example, teaching American literature. I don’t think any of my colleagues are communists, though I guess they might be. In general, I doubt Princeton would be the sort of place to attract communist librarians. I don’t think they’d feel comfortable around all those rich students. And it would be very hypocritical for my communist colleagues to contribute to TIAA-CREF.

I suppose a number of the librarians in the SRRT consider themselves communists, and I must have worked with some librarians from SRRT before, though none of them have ever tried to get me to join the CPUSA or anything. Perhaps I worked with the democratic socialists instead of the communists. Maybe this group of librarians have convinced my commenter that all librarians are communists, just because they’re so vocal, but if we assume that most communist librarians belong to the SRRT (not an outrageous assumption), and couple that with the fact that most librarians don’t belong to the SRRT, this at least suggests that most librarians are not communists.

I’m not even sure I’ve ever been in a political discussion with any librarians where anyone supported communism. I think being vocally pro-same sex marriage is probably as close as anyone’s come, and that’s not very close. Now it could be that I just don’t hang out in the right librarian circles (or the left librarian circles, as the case may be), in which case I’ll probably never get to know the communist librarians. Also, I instinctively recoil from anyone who wants to proselytize passionately on behalf of their cause, whether that cause is political, religious, or professional, so I’d probably steer clear of the communo-evangelists, just as I would from a librarian wearing one of those Adam Smith ties and crowing about the magic of the market. (Hey, it could happen.) It could also be that most of my interaction with librarians is purely professional, and a library committee meeting is hardly the place to discuss the dictatorship of the proletariat, unless it were, I suppose, a committee for the Communist Party Library, if such exists. But even among my librarian friends, I’ve never heard anyone say, “hey, wouldn’t a communist revolution be a great idea” or “that capitalism thing is pretty bad; let’s abolish it.”

It seems safe to conclude that most librarians are probably left of whatever counts as the political center at any given time in America, but one hardly has to advocate state ownership of all productive property or the abolition of capital to be left of the American center. Just thinking homosexuals shouldn’t be openly mocked or insisting that the rule of law applies to everyone, including the President, seems to be enough. This political labeling is always tricky, though. I know a number of Jewish librarians who are very pro-Israel, and such sentiments anger many on the left, though these librarians are mostly leftish. Even what is considered definitive of left or right is so simplistic at times. You could support social and economic equality, expanded social programs, universal health care, more civic participation, fewer aggressive wars, stronger international diplomatic efforts, increased environmental protections, the legalization of marijuana, and an end to capital punishment, but if it doesn’t bother you that law-abiding citizens own firearms, then you’re hopelessly reactionary in some people’s political ledgers.

Maybe it’s just the nature of libraries. Some people seem to think that libraries in general are communistic, or at least socialistic endeavors. Obviously we’re talking about public libraries here, not academic, and certainly not private academic libraries like mine. The stolid Presbyterians who founded Princeton wouldn’t have liked that idea at all. Were this the case, though, it seems unlikely that Andrew Carnegie, capitalist extraordinaire, would have supported them so much. If support for any publicly funded public goods marks one as a communist, then just about all Americans except the libertarian fringe are communists. That doesn’t seem very likely. There are all sorts of traditional liberal or republican reasons to support libraries and other public goods.

Maybe it’s that open access movement or the copyright issues. Those librarians who want open access to publicly funded research or who argue that current copyright laws are egregiously excessive do seem a bit pinkish in the right light. Or maybe they do. I don’t really know. I’m unfamiliar with the communist position on intellectual property.

This comment couldn’t be based on the the common stereotypes of librarians. No one thinks the little old woman with the bun shushes people because it’s too noisy for her to read the Grundrisse in peace. So it must be based on a librarian’s perception, and presumably a librarian who isn’t in fact a communist, possibly making this something of a paradox as well. I’m just wondering what led to that particular perception, because I just don’t see it. But then again, I’m probably a victim of false consciousness or something.

Everyone Needs a Librarian

I hear there’s a presidential campaign on, so I’m feeling a bit political. I just can’t help myself. With all the policy suggestions going around, I wanted to offer one of my own.

There’s an intellectual breakthrough that comes when one begins to understand that merely stating opinions, no matter how forcefully they are stated, doesn’t impress intelligent people. Politicians, of course, rarely go out of their way to impress intelligent people, and thus sometimes never reach this point, at least in public. College students accomplish this breakthrough when they realize that assertions need argument and evidence and that evidence needs analysis and evaluation. Librarians play a crucial role in this discovery. Along with the instructors, they help students not only find sources for an argument, but help them learn how to analyze and evaluate these sources. It is part of our mission to educate people in the intelligent discovery and use of information. As I survey the state of the republic, sometimes I think everyone in the country needs a librarian. I recommend this as a new public policy. Perhaps the candidates could add this to their stump speeches.

Yesterday afternoon I heard a Fresh Air interview with Al Gore marking the occasion of the paperback publication of The Assault on Reason, his book from last year decrying the disappearance of reason and logic from public discourse. (I didn’t read the book, since I usually don’t read popular books that I think I’ll most likely agree with, but I read the excerpt here.) He noted in the interview and in the book that, for example, at the time of the vote to authorize the war in Iraq, 75% of the American public believed that the war was a retaliation against Saddam Hussein because of his responsibility for the 9/11 attacks. These were people immune from evidence, analysis, logic, and reason. They all needed their own librarians to help them find sources and evaluate their veracity and worth. Then there are those people who believe Senator Obama is a Muslim. Yep, they need librarians, too.

Or let us take the “gas tax holiday” being touted by Senators McCain and Clinton as a way to provide relief to those of us feeling financial pain at the pump. I’m pretty sure there are some sources in the library that would point out that reducing prices (as a tax holiday would do) stimulates demand. Increasing demand for oil will only drive up prices more in the long run as well as increase rather than decrease American dependence on foreign oil. One of the senators thinks the lost government revenue would be made up by taxing oil companies. There are probably some good sources somewhere in the library that point out that businesses make profits by passing their overhead on to consumers. I think those people in Congress have their own librarians, but other devotees of the “gas tax holiday” need their own librarian, too, someone to help them find, analyze, and evaluate sources.

Al Gore talks about the problems of having political discourse governed by 30-second television ads and television newscasters spending the vast majority of their time giving us constantly updated coverage of the banal and insubstantial while not providing coverage of any political debate (I’m paraphrasing). I’ll have to take his word for it, because I quit watching television over 20 years ago. (I do sometimes watch some TV shows on DVD, but I’ve hardly watched a commercial television show or news broadcast during just about my entire adult life.) He rightly notes that the Internet, if it’s kept neutral, can be a great way to bring information to people, and much better than television because it’s an interactive and hot medium. To some extent that’s certainly true. Despite the ravings of Andrew Keen and Tara Brabazon, there is in fact a tremendous amount of thoughtful political analysis on the Internet if one ventures beyond the opinion pages of the newspapers.

However, we could get rid of television entirely, and that wouldn’t help the problem of irrational political discourse. For every thoughtful bit of policy analysis, there are thousands of stories about Britney Spears and the like. Pornography and celebrity news make up such a large and popular portion of the Internet because that’s what people like. Researching and reasoning about difficult issues that will have enormous impacts on their lives is much more difficult than looking at Britney flashing her pudenda to the paparazzi. With cringing trepidation, I just checked the Google entertainment news. The top story was something about Britney Spears, naturally. The second story was about somebody convicted of something to do with stalking Uma Thurman (okay, that one was a little more interesting because he was a U. of Chicago grad school dropout. I wonder if Regenstein drove him to it!). And the third story was on some celebrity engagement. I give the lead paragraph in full: “Following the news that Scarlett Johansson and Ryan Reynolds have gotten engaged, friends are speaking out to offer heartfelt congratulations on the pairs’ next step.” I found that sentence fascinating in a number of different ways that had little to do with its literal meaning, but still, it’s fluffy stuff, and very easy to digest mentally.

Gore argues that “the remedy for what ails our democracy is not simply better education (as important as that is) or civic education (as important as that can be), but the re-establishment of a genuine democratic discourse in which individuals can participate in a meaningful way–a conversation of democracy in which meritorious ideas and opinions from individuals do, in fact, evoke a meaningful response,” and that “the Internet has the potential to revitalize the role played by the people in our constitutional framework.” I agree, but I have a further suggestion. In addition, everyone needs a librarian to help them do research on important topics and learn how to analyze and evaluate the information they find, just like academic librarians do with students now. Some public librarians might argue that almost everyone does now in fact have a librarian, but fails to take advantage of this valuable resource. This just isn’t enough!

This should be done more the way we work with our writing program. Every class of twelve students is assigned a librarian, who teaches a bit about research and often meets individually with students. I propose everyone in the country be assigned a librarian, or perhaps every twelve persons. That’s the only way this thing’s going to work. The “Everyone Needs a Librarian” campaign assumes that what should be a prerequisite for engagement in democratic politics is in fact woefully lacking in this country, and proposes a solution to fix this problem. I think the ALA needs to get involved. The ALA has an Office of Intellectual Freedom. Perhaps they could also open an Office of Intellectual Rigor to address this issue. They could start on a committee. I’ll serve on it. Heck, I’ll even chair it.