November 6, 2012

On the Romney Campaign’s Disdain for Facts

Kevin M. Kruse has an Op-Ed in today’s New York Times: The Real Loser: Truth. It is about how American politics may have turned a new corner thanks to the Romney Campaign’s gamble that politicians can lie with impunity and come out ahead.

Kruse says what a lot of people are thinking, but omits an important part of the discussion. Where are the journalists, and why are they allowing lies to pass for truth in the public mind? What are the responsibilities of journalists and the press in this context? What is the problem, and how do we solve it?

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August 28, 2011

My problem with Banned Books Week

Some of my colleagues in the Progressive Librarians Guild used to complain that Banned Books Week was an unfortunate distraction from the greater problem of a propagandistic media system. I shared that view and still do, but it is not the objection that I want to explain today.

My problem with Banned Books Week is one that is probably shared by some conservatives, and it has to do with the loose definition of what a “banned book” is, and what a “challenged book” is. Over time, as I have come to understand my own politics better, I have realized that what I care about is rational discourse as the basis for a democratic society. In rational discourse, as I see it, it is important to be clear about what you are actually saying, to ask critical questions with a patience for detail, and to reject strategic communication and to minimize rhetoric. The Banned Books Week project, well-intended as it may be, is a propaganda exercise that fails to model good standards for democratic communication.

Here is what I mean.

The history of book banning is a history of inspiring stories, stories of mass suppression of ideas, copies of books collected so that they can be burned, publishers incarcerated, often ultimately to no avail as the power of an idea proved greater than the power of the state or of a fascistic party. Book banning, good people agree, should be fought against, and is a source of inspiration to fight for what is right. Banned Books Week taps into people’s response to these historical narratives and aims to prevent the suppression of ideas from recurring. A noble intention and a narrative resource.

The problem that I see with Banned Books Week is that what counts as a “banned book” is actually a “challenged book,” and what counts as a challenged book is something quite different from an effort to prevent a book from being published, sold, or even made available in a library. Most of the cases of challenged books that are reported as a part of Banned Books Week are cases where a parent of a child objects to a book being a part of their child’s school curriculum, or at other times in the school’s library, on the grounds of “age appropriateness.” Defenders of intellectual freedom, to my dismay, have an unwritten policy of never addressing the question of age appropriateness, leaving it as an unstated assumption that anything selected for the curriculum by educators as opposed to by parents is automatically age-appropriate, as though educators are incapable of error.

School districts have policies in place for reviewing challenges to books on the basis of age-appropriateness. Challenged books are reviewed and evaluated by committees that are charged with that responsibility, and then the school district makes an official decision regarding the book. Regardless of what the school’s decision turns out to be, regardless of its reasonableness or unreasonableness, and regardless of the objectivity or bias within the decision-making process in a specific case, all challenges to a book by a parent get counted as an attempt at book banning.

Personally, I agree with intellectual freedom orthodoxy that says that one family should not have the right to determine what other students are taught, and this is part of what public education is. But when a book is challenged and reviewed on the grounds of age-appropriateness, it is ultimately not the family that brought the challenge that makes the decision. The decision is made by the educational institution itself. We can hope that more often than not these decisions are well-informed and based more on educational psychology than they are on pressure from an ideological community group. They may not always be. But the decision about whether a book should remain a part of the curriculum or not is ultimately made by the public institution that put the book in the curriculum in the first place, which means that book challenges happen as a part of a process that the institution puts in place in order to get feedback from the community on the curriculum. (In some other areas, we on the left are fighting for more opportunities to influence local policies to meet local needs.)

What I want to emphasize about this is that the “book banning” that is the subject of Banned Books Week is not book banning as we understand it historically but part of the cultural fight over the school curriculum. Now, I am prepared to fight hard to keep rationality and science and humanism in the school curriculum, against the theocrats who seem to be making incredible progress in rolling back not only 20th century liberalism but the values behind the Constitution itself (i.e. secular democracy). But in fighting that fight over the curriculum, what I am ultimately fighting for is rational discourse as opposed to irrationality. If I give up basic standards of rational discourse and resort to strategic communication and propaganda… well, as we said about Al Qaida during the debate over the PATRIOT Act: “They have won.”

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August 19, 2011

Suppression of science has continued, despite Obama’s Scientific Integrity Initiative

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility is coming to the defense of biologist Charles Monnett, who is being hounded by the Interior Department because of a 2006 publication that communicated alarming news about the effects of global warming on a polar bear population. Since the publication was in a peer-reviewed scientific journal and the investigators have not raised any specific questions about its scientific validity it seems to be an effort to suppress a finding for political reasons. Read more on the website of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. Thanks to Fred Stoss for sharing this information.

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December 6, 2010

Petition to support NARA’s investigation into CIA destruction of records pertaining to torture sites

Recently, the Department of Justice (DOJ) decided to not bring criminal charges against the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for the destruction of federal records: videotapes of the torture of detainees at CIA black sites. The destruction of these records is a clear violation of the Federal Records Act, which DOJ should have pursued. The decision to date to give the CIA a free-pass is antithetical to DOJ’s mission to enforce the law of the land, and sends the wrong message to agencies that may have information that, if released, would be embarrassing or reveal illegal activities.

[…]

…The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) launched an early investigation into the issue, which was put on hold for the DOJ. NARA has indicated that they will re-start their investigation in light of DOJ’s failure to take the lead. Join us in thanking NARA for its willingness to demand the CIA answer for its actions, and expressing great hope that DOJ support NARA.

You can sign onto a letter in support of the Archivist of the United States in support of this investigation. It is a positive letter, thanking him for his leadership and offering support. I think we should not take for granted that NARA is looking into this when the DOJ refuses to.

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November 17, 2010

Terrorists meeting at the Capitol Building today? Government information and alternative media

I was discussing the free press with a Russian friend once, and she told me that the main difference between Soviet Russia and the contemporary USA was that Russians knew they were being lied to, while Americans have naively believed that what the news says is the truth. Amusingly, right wing skeptics are presently doubting the US military line regarding the missile sighting on the California coast, as though today’s Pentagon is a different Pentagon from the one they backed and trusted during the Bush administration. At any rate, it does look as though Americans are in a mood to doubt the honesty of the government.

But what about the news media? If the news media were a branch of government, obviously Americans would doubt it in much the same way that Soviet Russians doubted Pravda. Paradoxically, the American news media has become less reliable at the same time that it has become popularized. News organizations are being squeezed by declining revenues and shareholder demands for higher profit margins, and consequently are weaker in the newsroom than they have been in a long time, less capable of solid investigative journalism. The result is that the news media has to trust and rely more than in the past on the products of public relations people, working for both corporations and government. PR firms and the PR departments of government are responsible for most of what we read as “news” (even more than in the past). The news media is more propagandized and filtered than in the 20th century, while at the same time more “popular” in tone, to appeal to a customer base that increasingly distrusts “elites.” New media, blogs, etc., are often cited as representing a hope for greater democracy, but when democracy means channeling corporate and government propaganda, that hope is rather pale.

That said, the diversity of new media has to be recognized, and the importance of a free press, whether it is relevant to the average person or not, is something that we become cynical about at our peril. Case in point, a post from yesterday’s Machetera blog regarding a meeting at the Capitol building today. The meeting is called “Anger in the Andes: Threats to Democracy, Human Rights and Inter-American Security.” I am not sure whether the meeting will be open to the public or whether proceedings will be publicly available, or not. The blog post talks about players from the Latin American right wing who are scheduled to be present at the meeting. I recognized some of the names and am aware of some of the historical events that others are associated with. (I blogged about a couple of them last month.) The list has quite a few known terrorists, and other baddies involved in right wing coups d’etat and assassinations. For all the Tea Partiers’ assertions that the Obama Administration is socialist, it seems our government has maintained its ties with fascist elements in Latin America. But to say that because of that (or because of the Democrats, which it regrettably needs to be objected) we are a fascist state would be to take for granted the press freedoms that allow the Machetera blog to share this news with us without fear of (ahem) surveillance or harassment. (That statement might need to be qualified, however – you can read the blog to see why. To say that we have a free press that is overwhelmed by propaganda would be to oversimplify things a bit, when American dissidents (radical or perhaps not) sometimes face consequences that don’t make news.)

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November 4, 2010

Modern art was CIA ‘weapon’

This article feels like another nail in the coffin of what we thought we knew of the past: Modern art was CIA ‘weapon’. Or a ramping-ing up of the general weirdness of the times. Here is the start of the article in the Independent, by Frances Stonor Saunders:

For decades in art circles it was either a rumour or a joke, but now it is confirmed as a fact. The Central Intelligence Agency used American modern art – including the works of such artists as Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko – as a weapon in the Cold War. In the manner of a Renaissance prince – except that it acted secretly – the CIA fostered and promoted American Abstract Expressionist painting around the world for more than 20 years.

The connection is improbable. This was a period, in the 1950s and 1960s, when the great majority of Americans disliked or even despised modern art – President Truman summed up the popular view when he said: “If that’s art, then I’m a Hottentot.” As for the artists themselves, many were ex- communists barely acceptable in the America of the McCarthyite era, and certainly not the sort of people normally likely to receive US government backing.

Why did the CIA support them? Because in the propaganda war with the Soviet Union, this new artistic movement could be held up as proof of the creativity, the intellectual freedom, and the cultural power of the US. Russian art, strapped into the communist ideological straitjacket, could not compete.

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October 30, 2010

Americans largely mistaken about Obama’s record… librarians included?

I don’t read a lot of blogs so I don’t know, but I would guess this story is being blogged like crazy: Yesterday the Washington Post reported a Bloomberg National Poll: “Poll shows Americans don’t know economy expanded with tax cuts.” The story starts:

The Obama administration cut taxes for middle-class Americans, expects to make a profit on the hundreds of billions of dollars spent to rescue Wall Street banks and has overseen an economy that has grown for the past four quarters.

Most voters don’t believe it.

A Bloomberg National Poll conducted Oct. 24-26 finds that by a two-to-one margin, likely voters in the Nov. 2 midterm elections think taxes have gone up, the economy has shrunk, and the billions lent to banks as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program won’t be recovered.

Obviously, a librarian blogger has to say, “This is an example of why it is important to teach information literacy.”

I want to ask the question, though, if those polled got the facts wrong by a two-to-one margin, isn’t it likely that among those who have it wrong there are a lot of librarians, who presumably should know better? I am just wondering, how many librarians incorrectly believe, along with two out of every three other Americans, that during the Obama Presidency taxes have gone up, the economy has shrunk, and the billions lent to banks as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program won’t be recovered? How qualified are the majority of us to teach the principles of information literacy that we so value?

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October 25, 2010

The underlying reason that the American Right will always be irrational, and a couple of ideas as to why the problem is presently so acute

As the more civic-minded among us have observed, the American Right has mostly rejected rational discourse in favor of strategic communication. There is a reason for it that has to do with more than a calculation of what will be most effective, or a fear that rational discourse will “prove them wrong,” though that is a risk for them. The reason lies in a conflict between conservatism (which I am not going to say is a bad thing altogether) and the original formation of the United States as an experiment in liberal Enlightenment ideas that had never been tried before, paired with the related development of the growth of an economic system that finally overturned all traditional values: capitalism.

By definition, conservatives are suspicious of political changes that threaten to destabilize the world as they have known it, and are often pushing to bring things “back to the way they were,” to go “back to basics,” restore things to “the way God intended them,” to save society from the arrogance, folly, and hubris of liberal humanists who believe that we have the ability to reshape things to the benefit of humankind, according to human values rather than divine ones. Conservatives tend to believe that attempts to change things deeply will only result in problems, because at root the nature of things is unchangeable (owing to God). The tendency has historically led to support for authority, strong leaders, and strong states as the forces that can promise a “return to stability.”

But, frustratingly enough for conservatives, and as Heraclitus wrote in the 5th century BC, “the only thing constant is change.” The problem for conservatives in power has always been in how to construct a reliable past that can serve as a touchstone and source of energy in opposition to those who attempt to modify the social order. Over the centuries, that problem has been solved in literature and art that put forth new founding myths and told new stories about the past (as well as through the destruction of the literature and art that carried the older ones). No great new order has been innocent of that kind of mythmaking and myth destruction. But creative falsification of the past is not as easy to accomplish in the modern world, built as it is on an epistemology of objectivity and the practical application of documented facts, which tend to hang around in a society built on a framework of documentation.

But in the United States, I would like to say, the problems conservatives face in constructing a traditional past are special, because the origins of our nation themselves imply that there is nothing traditional to go back to. Conservatives have understandable difficulty in acknowledging that the United States represents the triumph of liberal humanists who accomplished something unprecedented, bold, and liberal: the creation of a new country founded in Enlightenment ideas and the rejection of monarchy. As Charles Francis Adams wrote, “The American experiment is the most tremendous and far reaching engine of social change which has ever either blessed or cursed mankind.” What American conservatives call “traditional values” tend to be an awkward mix of social structures and practices that were the product of the industrial revolution (e.g. “traditional marriage” as we know it) and Enlightenment humanist values that trace back to the Age of Reason (i.e. individualism, capitalism), animated by religious self-certainty and fear. (If you want to look for real American traditional values that are actually consistent and coherent, by the way, look for them in Native American spirituality.)

Some conservative intellectuals try to piece together a concept of “republicanism” that conflates Republican Party values with historically recurring efforts at self-government in the form of a republic, but they ignore the fact that the republican form of government has always been tied to liberal Enlightenment phases in culture, whose political manifestation was to kick out the monarchs and overturn tradition in favor of an experimental system based on rational discourse among a civic public. The First Republic of France and the United States of America are perfect examples. The fact that there were earlier republics does not change the fact that those republics were tied to Enlightenment cultural phases, i.e., were liberal. “Republicanism” when it is intended to invoke both conservatism as we think of it in America today and the historically recurring creation of republican governments is simply an incoherent concept.

The ideas that motivate American conservatives do not cohere well in rational terms (especially as they move rightward along the spectrum), but because they carry the emotional charge of ‘absolute truth,’ ‘that which is beyond question,’ and self-evidency to anyone who fears God, they generate the kind of certainty and motivation that comes from spiritual devotion. Therefore, American conservatism can make questions of policy as difficult to discuss rationally as questions of religion.

But why does it seem so difficult to engage the right in rational discourse in these times as opposed to other times? The problem I am describing is as old as the nation, so what is happening right now that seems to be bringing this problem to the foreground? I think the answer is simply that social change has become more rapid recently, and perhaps also because some unintended consequences, not to mention failures, of late 20th century efforts at progress have begun to be realized distinctly. The difficult reality that there is no stable or legitimately desirable past to go back to only makes the problem of irrationality, emotion, and confusion in discourse more intense, as those who desperately need such a past are unable to find one that can be grounded in the kind of facts that can serve as fixed elements in a rational discussion. The result are spectacles like popular candidates for public office who angrily defend the Constitution against liberal ‘assault’ one minute and the next minute display a shocking lack of knowledge of what the Constitution actually says, and then argue that the Constitution should be changed to more purely represent traditional American values. Some on the right are calling for theocracy, claiming that it would be a fulfillment of the founders’ intentions. It is an acute problem, even if its roots are in the nature of the United States’ origins themselves.

I can think of a second reason that the problem I have described seems particularly acute, and that is the apparent failure of the Obama administration to turn things around as many had hoped. President Obama was elected on the hope that rational policy experts who are smarter than the average Joe (and had a sophisticated understanding of things that was superior to common sense) were what the country needed in a time of multiple and overwhelming perils. The Obama administration has so far failed to bring the country back to the impossible level stability and prosperity of the Great Moderation. That, I am afraid, has turned out to be the country’s unrealistic measure of the Administration’s success. Now that the President, whose election right wing conservatives dreaded, has “failed” (despite his administration’s probably saving the economy from something much worse than we have experienced), Republicans who can claim to have gone along with liberal certainties about race and good government for years feel confident in calling for white conservatives to “take our country back.” Or, as Christine O’Donnell put it, “We’re not taking our country back; We ARE our country!”

I am hoping not. I am hoping that this country’s roots in the Enlightenment are secure enough that Americans will remember that liberalism is our own deepest tradition, that the Right will lose its credibility in its claim to being ‘more American than thou,’ as people remember that America’s traditional value above all others is to break with tradition and to self-govern with rational intent.

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October 20, 2010

Christine O’Donnell is just what I’ve been talking about

Recently I have rubbed some people the wrong way by speaking frankly about the problem of ignorance in civic life and people’s lack of concern and lack of shame regarding it. I argued that we should not be trying to increase voter turnout when Americans feel so little responsibility in the way of self-education on the issues. It’s sad enough that so many ignorant people exercise their right to vote, seemingly without recognizing that with the right to vote comes a responsibility to study, learn, and think. But when a major candidate for public office fails to live up to that same responsibility, and shows the same blithe lack of shame and lack of concern, and is popular with voters, it’s heartbreaking. It is hard to believe in democracy in these times.

Here is a link to a brief item about Christine O’Donnell’s performance in a debate at the Widener Law School, during which she expressed incredulity at her opponent’s statement that the separation of Church and State comes from the First Amendment of the Constitution. A video of the debate is embedded in the article.

These are the same people who said critics of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizen’s United case were “attacking the Constitution.”

Why can’t the media acknowledge the “knowledge gap” in politics? Why the perpetual pretense of “differing yet equally valid views” on the issues?

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October 6, 2010

October 6th, 1976

Sometimes people on the left respond to the “war on terror” by saying words to the effect that “war is terrorism,” to point out that killing innocent people is killing innocent people, whether it is done by a state or by a terrorist group. The main weakness to that argument is that it has an implicit commitment to pacifism, and it is hard to maintain an absolute pacifist position in light of many historical situations in which it seems clear that not going to war would have been a terrible option.

October 6th marks an event that questions the U.S. “war on terror” in a much different way. On October 6th, 1976, a flight on Cubana airlines, flying from Barbados to Jamaica, was brought down by two bombs planted by anti-Castro Cuban exiles working with the CIA. The two terrorists in question are still alive and have been living freely in the United States. Their names are Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles. They were put on trial in a Venezuelan court. Bosch was acquitted on a technicality, and came to Florida, where he now lives. Carriles managed to be freed of the charges through political maneuvering, though he faces extradition to several countries. He is currently facing trial on relatively minor immigration charges.

The bombing of Cubana flight 455 was not their only act of terrorism. Both have been involved in other terrorist activities. Yet during the Bush administration they enjoyed official protection. There is conflict over both of them at political levels, as might be expected. Their treatment by the United States raises the question of whether stopping terrorism is the real objective, or if the issue of terrorism in itself is more of a convenient vehicle for achieving other political aims.

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September 26, 2010

Inaccuracy in Adbusters article

I am not going to spend a lot of time on this, but I want to point out an inaccuracy in an article on the Adbuster’s website (and maybe in the magazine as well, I can’t tell) titled, “Google’s Flaw,” written by Micah White. I’m not unsympathetic with White’s point about Google, but I have to come to the defense of Sanford Berman and the “leftist librarians of the 70s.” What he wrote will be quite funny who know the people he is talking about:

The idea that search engines can, or should, be neutral can be traced back to a movement of leftist librarians in the 1970s. Led by Sanford Berman, one of the first to bring social rebellion into the library, radical librarians argued that the system used to organize books was inherently biased and racist because it reflected a Western perspective. At that time, and to this day in nearly all public and academic libraries, books were organized in subject hierarchies. Berman believed that this system was deeply problematic. He wrote that, “western chauvinism permeates the [library’s organizational] scheme”. And called for a “disinterested scheme for the arrangement of books and knowledge”. In so doing, he paved the way for search engines.

Berman, and his generation of radical librarians, placed their faith in technology. They assumed that the automation of indexing, what we now call search engines, would provide a “disinterested scheme”. And we see today in the actions of the Texas attorney general, the same flawed assumption that search engines can be “neutral” or “disinterested”.

What Micah doesn’t realize is that in his concern over the commercialization of knowledge he is writing in the same tradition as the radical librarians who first set to work in the late 60s. Yes, Berman was concerned about the bias in Library of Congress Subject Headings, but his position was not to reject controlled subject vocabularies across the board. He was a cataloger, not a computer scientist, and spent his career cataloging books according to a hierarchical subject headings list that was an improvement upon LC, according to his views. Berman and others’ criticism of the idea of neutrality in LC subject headings eventually extended to a criticism of the possibility of neutrality in any system, including libraries as institutions, and supposedly neutral systems such as the Google search engine. What search engines as neutral tools can be traced back to is the positivist basis of information science itself, which had its birth during WWII and continued to be developed within a corporate/government setting. This history couldn’t be more thoroughly documented. Berman and his fellow radical librarians did not, as Micah has it, place their faith in technology (aside from a few). On the contrary, their group has been the group within librarianship that since the 1980s has offered the criticisms of our over-reliance on technology that Micah White ought to familiarize himself with, often with a focus on the problem of positivistic assumptions underlying our use of technological tools. To assert that not only were they, as a group, supportive of the technological methods that led to systems like Google but that they were the originators of those systems flies in the face of a whole body of work on the history of technology. Yes, it is true that many in the 60s generation were enthusiastic about technology, and went on to found The Well and such, but it was also obvious – at that time – that computer technology was a part of the military industrial complex and that the push for automation in libraries had a huge amount of government funding behind it. If Micah White wants to maintain his claim, he is going to have to supply a lot of evidence, because he is going against a large body of historical work.

I am posting this after contacting White and receiving a reply in which he stuck to his guns about Sandy Berman et al. being the origin of search engines as neutral tools. Perhaps it would be better for me to ignore this, but Adbuster’s is a magazine that I have always enjoyed. I subscribed to it in the 90s and still find their project interesting. But I found their anti-leftist turn less than half-baked when it originally appeared, and still do. This article distorts history in order to take a cheap shot at the library left.

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June 13, 2010

“Metric Mania”

John Allen Paulos is a mathematician who writes books about numeracy for a popular audience. The New York Times Magazine published a brief but insightful essay by him about the dangers inherent in relying on numbers without looking at how they are arrived at (my basic issue with Wolfram Alpha). Here is the starting paragraph of that article, “Metric Mania“:

In the realm of public policy, we live in an age of numbers. To hold teachers accountable, we examine their students’ test scores. To improve medical care, we quantify the effectiveness of different treatments. There is much to be said for such efforts, which are often backed by cutting-edge reformers. But do wehold an outsize belief in our ability to gauge complex phenomena, measure outcomes and come up with compelling numerical evidence? A well-known quotation usually attributed to Einstein is “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” I’d amend it to a less eloquent, more prosaic statement: Unless we know how things are counted, we don’t know if it’s wise to count on the numbers.

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November 25, 2009

Seeking an author with strengths in statistics and skepticism

There’s a book idea we’ve been kicking around here at Litwin Books, and we need an author. I don’t want to completely disclose the idea for this book, but I want to say enough to potentially find the right author. It will be a reference book that takes a skeptical view of commonly-encountered statistics and facts. I want to find an author who is good with social science research methods and able to see the problems behind factual claims across a range of issues and subject matter. I want to find someone who has these skills and has a healthy dislike for the way that public discourse is distorted by misinformation, bias, and ideology. My hope is for a book that has something to offend everyone.

Any takers? Please contact me at rory at litwinbooks.com.

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August 28, 2009

“Most People”

Yes, I know I’m supposed to be user-centered and all that, but I think the great wave of populism we’re seeing now is going to lead to bad things. Some friends say it’s a time of opportunity, that maybe the blind rage of the common man can be directed toward support of progressive policies. Perhaps, but with everyone’s attention spans diminishing and few people actually looking into details or questioning assumptions (progress to some of you out there), I tend to think that things are unraveling. And “the people” are only going to get angrier when the middle class tax increases come in a couple of years (as though there was an alternative to transferring debt to the public sector to bail out the global economy).

So as an antidote to the present populist fervor, three quotations that I hope mean something….

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to reform (or pause and reflect).
– Mark Twain, Notebook, 1904

Most people are not liars. They can’t tolerate too much cognitive dissonance. I don’t want to deny that there are outright liars, just brazen propagandists. You can find them in journalism and in the academic professions as well. But I don’t think that’s the norm. The norm is obedience, adoption of uncritical attitudes, taking the easy path of self-deception.
– Noam Chomsky, in an interview with James Peck, found in the Chomsky Reader

History is the present. That’s why every generation writes it anew. But what most people think of as history is its end product, myth.
– E. L. Doctorow, in an interview in Writers at Work (1988)

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August 10, 2009

Professionalism and attitudes toward change

Just a brief note on a topic I will return to later…

I find that librarians think of change in one of two ways:

  1. Change is happening to the profession;

    or

  2. Change is happening in the environment (social, cultural, economic, political) and the profession determines how it will change in response.

These two ways of thinking about change don’t reflect an attitude of embracing it or resisting it, but rather an attitude of greater or lesser professionalism. Embracing or resisting change is something else.

Keith Roberts and Karen Donahue summarize the characteristics of a profession as follows:1

  1. Mastery of specialized theory
  2. Autonomy and control of one’s work and how one’s work is performed
  3. Motivation focusing on intrinsic rewards and on the interests of clients – which take precedence over the professional’s self-interests
  4. Commitment to the profession as a career and to the service objectives of the organization for which one works
  5. Sense of community and feelings of collegiality with others in the profession, and accountability to those colleagues
  6. Self-monitoring and regulation by the profession of ethical and professional standards in keeping with a detailed code of ethics

I think that it is endemic of the period of deprofessionalization that we are in that library managers have begun to say that “professionalism” means performance of ones tasks according to high standards of quality (as judged by them). Thus, support staff and librarians are equally “professional” if management is pleased with their work, a move by management that undercuts the autonomy of professionals.

(I am working on a paper about deprofessionalization at the moment and will share a citation to it when it’s done.)

I think that we have to consider the context of the professional status of librarianship, or lack of it, when we look at the discourse surrounding change in the profession. The professionals who comprise a professional group share a responsibility for the nature and destiny of the profession itself. If it is controlled from the outside, it is not really a profession. That is why so many of us participate in ALA committees and other units. These committees, along with graduate programs in LIS, are where the work is done that maintains the professional status of librarianship.

If you regard change in the profession as something that we have no control over, that we have only to embrace or resist, then you are approaching professional questions with the attitude of a non-professional.

If you recognize that professional questions are not questions of choosing between predetermined options but questions of values, purposes, creativity, inventiveness, foresight, and planning, then you are fulfilling your responsibility as a professional to guide the profession through a changing environment as only its members can.

1. Roberts, Keith A. and Donahue, Karen A., “Professionalism: Bureaucratization and Deprofessionalization in the Academy,” Sociological Focus 33 no. 4 (2000) 365-383.

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