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)

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.


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.


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.


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.


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. 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.

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.

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.