November 4, 2010
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.
October 25, 2010
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.
October 20, 2010
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?
October 11, 2010
I am very serious in the view that we should not be trying to increase voter turnout, in this or any election. Let me explain why.
Most of us have the idea that voter turnout rates are a measure of the success of our democracy. If people are “participating,” by voting, then the will of the people will really be reflected in the outcome of the election. That is an idea shared by most Americans who care about democracy, with the result that it’s accepted as a given that more voting is good and that it is important to “get out the vote.” But the idea needs to be examined in light of the basic civic responsibility of self-education and critical thinking.
For democracy to function (as we all acknowledge before moving on) the public needs to have critical thinking skills and needs to have an understanding of the issues that is not completely shallow. Yet, when is the last time you have seen a public campaign for self-education or critical thinking skills? When do you see it acknowledged that Americans tend to be relatively ignorant about the issues that affect them, and that they sometimes get fired up about? Rather than promoting self-education and critical thinking skills to a high standard, it seems that most civic-minded people would prefer to use propaganda to get people to vote a certain way, lacking an understanding of what they are doing. I find that unethical (or at least anti-democratic), regardless of the intended outcome.
Think about the voting public for a moment. Studies have arrived at the following disturbing findings about them. One fifth of them believe that Obama is a Muslim, and only 34% of them know that he is a Christian (PEW Center poll). Half of Americans aged 18 to 24 can’t find New York on a map (2006 National Geographic study). 42% of Americans don’t accept the theory of evolution (PEW Center poll). 26% of Americans don’t know what country the United States declared its independence from (Marist poll). 75% of Americans believe that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin (Barna Group). We’ve all heard these kinds of scary poll results showing the ignorance of Americans, and yet we persist in blindly encouraging people to vote without any concern for their level of knowledge or ability to think rationally about the candidates and issues they’re voting on.
I value the right of every American to vote and oppose things like a literacy requirement or other gatekeeping methods. But I oppose the practice of encouraging everyone to vote or talking about voting as though it is a civic duty. The basic civic duty is not to vote. The basic civic duties are learning and critical thinking. Regarding voting, we should impress upon people that if they do choose to vote they are assuming a grave responsibility that requires careful study and patient, self-questioning thought.
The culture we have around democratic participation currently is not working.
October 6, 2010
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.
September 29, 2010
September 22, 2010
An item in the New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” section in the last issue is about the difficulty of keeping track of a valuable information object over time: a concert ticket. How do people remember where they put it? This one has to do with a long awaited reunion show by Pavement, in Central Park. It’s what I would call a Gen X information experience.
June 13, 2010
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.
June 9, 2010
A Space for Hate: The White Power Movement’s Adaptation into Cyberspace
Author: Adam Klein
Published: June 2010
A Space for Hate speaks to the media and information topic of hate speech in cyberspace, but more specifically, how its inscribers have adapted their movement into the social networking and information-providing contexts of the modern online community. While many books in recent years have addressed the notable ways that popular internet culture and cyber trends such as blogging have democratized the community of information seekers and providers, little research to date has addressed the darker element that has emerged from that same democratic sphere. That is, the huge resurgence and successful transformation of hate groups across cyberspace, and in particular, those that promote white supremacist ideas and causes. In 2009, hate speech and white power movement organizations in the United States are on the rise once again, fueled by new issues but with familiar themes. Among them, the nomination of the first African-American president of the United States, a national economic crisis that has triggered ethnic scapegoating, and an immigration debate centered largely on illegal Hispanic immigrants. These are just some of the emerging social issues by which today’s hate groups have framed familiar messages of blame, anger, fear, resistance, uprising and action.
The author’s interest in this book project evolved from examining the powerful effects of what many media scholars commonly deem the “hypodermic needle” of mass communication – propaganda. Being the grandson of two Auschwitz survivors who documented their stories through oral and written tradition, his research in the modern day forms of hateful propaganda emanates from a desire to pursue the unanswered question of how the fever of racist sentiment can sweep over a civilized society as it has done so brutally in the past. A Space for Hate focuses on the white power movement, in particular, by using hate-based websites as a concrete and measurable field for examining racial and ethnically targeting messages in the age of information and technology. Perhaps nowhere is this phenomenon more widespread today than within the unguarded walls of cyberspace. The increasingly acceptable domain of racist and anti-Semitic expression within such commonplace websites as Wikipedia, an “information” tool, and YouTube, the younger web community’s digital hub, initially suggested the need to further research the way that cyberspace was allowing blatant hate speech to once again flourish within mainstream popular culture. That investigation led to an investigation of white power movement websites where the new face of hate, in fact, does not resemble the book burning rallies of the neo-Nazi banner but rather the popular forums, media convergence centers, and information tools of social networking websites.
A Space for Hate speaks to the interests of readers of media and information studies material by focusing on three central spheres of hate speech in cyberspace: the legal/ethical concern, the cultural context, and the information aspect, each of which leads into the main body of the study of a series of hate group websites. First, any work on hate speech must begin by addressing the ‘free speech versus hate speech’ debate that has always surrounded the issue of hateful rhetoric in the media, and is further currently being tested on new ground in the World Wide Web. Tied into the legal debate of hate speech on the web are the ethical issues of the internet space itself such as its unregulated content, decentralized and unaccountable domain, and limitless exposure to younger audiences. Second, and perhaps most relevant to this topic is the cultural youth element of cyberspace, specifically those popular trends that have allowed hate-groups to adapt and flourish often under the camouflage of a “user-friendly” social network community. Finally the book investigates exactly how these hate groups are entering into the mainstream media culture by playing on traditional formats which convey their movements as tools of information – educational, political, spiritual, and even scientific in nature.
May 7, 2010
Lawsuit Challenges Police and Secret Service Crackdown on Journalists Covering Protests at Republican National Convention
May 5, 2010, Minnesota and St. Paul, MN —Today, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) with co-counsel De Leon & Nestor and Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP, filed a federal lawsuit against the Minneapolis and St. Paul police departments and officers, the municipalities, the Ramsey County Sheriff and unidentified Secret Service personnel. The lawsuit challenges the policies and conduct of law enforcement during the Republican National Convention (RNC) in 2008 that resulted in the unlawful arrests and unreasonable use of force against the plaintiffs, three Democracy Now! journalists: Amy Goodman, Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Nicole Salazar.
Said award-winning journalist and plaintiff Amy Goodman: “We shouldn’t have to get a record to put things on the record. This is not only a violation of freedom of the press but a violation of the public’s right to know. When journalists are arrested, that has a chilling effect on the functioning of a democratic society.”
Goodman v. St. Paul seeks compensation and an injunction against law enforcement’s unjustified encroachment on First Amendment rights, including freedom of the press and the independence of the media. Attorneys say the government cannot limit journalists’ right to cover matters of public concern by requiring that they present a particular perspective; for instance, the government cannot require journalists to “embed” with state authorities. Goodman further asserts that the government cannot, in the name of security, limit the flow of information by acting unwarrantedly against journalists who report on speech protected by the First Amendment, such as dissent, and the public acts of law enforcement.
“The media are the eyes and ears of the American people—that is why there are laws to protect them,” said CCR attorney Anjana Samant. “Law enforcement and Secret Service agents are not exempt from those laws in their dealings with un-embedded journalists who are documenting peaceful protestors or law enforcement’s use of force and violence against those protestors.”
“The protests on the streets outside the convention center are just as important to the democratic process as the official party proceedings inside,” said journalist and plaintiff Sharif Abdel Kouddous. “Journalists should not have to risk being arrested, brutalized or intimidated by the police in order to perform their duties, exercise their First Amendment rights and facilitate the rights of others to freedom of speech and assembly.”
“The video of my arrest and of Amy’s mobilized an overwhelming public response,” said journalist Nicole Salazar. “The public has both an interest and a right to know how law enforcement officials are acting on their behalf. We should ask ourselves what kind of accountability exists when there is no coverage of police brutality and intimidation.”
For more information on the case, visit CCR’s legal case page.
The Center for Constitutional Rights is dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Founded in 1966 by attorneys who represented civil rights movements in the South, CCR is a non-profit legal and educational organization committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change.
April 4, 2010
Today’s New York Times has an informative little item comparing the environmental impact of producing an ipad versus that of a paper book: “How Green is My iPad?“
November 8, 2009
Welcome support for intellectuals who are making the choice NOT to go for a Ph.D.:
The Ph.D. Problem: On the professionalization of faculty life, doctoral training, and the academy’s self-renewal, by Louis Menand, Harvard Magazine, November-December 2009.
October 25, 2009
This post is a presentation of two lists of priorities – first, priorities of the Social Responsibilities Round Table (SRRT), and second, a list of the kind of issue that I think SRRT ought to emphasize instead. The first list is as complete a list as I was able to compile of the subjects of SRRT’s official resolutions from mid-2002 to mid-2005 (the time during which I was SRRT Action Council Coordinator). The second is a list of many of the important progressive issues in librarianship according to the way I personally see things. They are the issue areas that have given me my motivation as an activist and now a publisher in librarianship. Because those issues have been my priorities but not always SRRT’s or the Progressive Librarians’ Guild’s, I often felt out of place in those groups even as an insider.
First, the list of topics addressed by SRRT’s official resolutions between mid-2002 and mid-2005 (at least the ones I was able to find):
- Health insurance
- The Iraq war (a number of these)
- The war in Afghanistan
- Freedom to travel to Cuba
- Workplace speech
- Disinformation in the public sphere (this one was actually initiated by me)
- Cultural democracy as a core value
- Racist training materials used by the U.S. Military
- ALA partnerships and sponsorships
This is a very partial list, but based on my own memory I think it gives a fair representation of the scope and proportion of SRRT’s resolutions. I personally agreed with a lot of these resolutions.
The resolution on disinformation, which had to do with Bush administration tactics, arose from a discussion within Action Council in which I complained that too many of SRRT’s resolutions were not directly related to library issues or even issues of information ethics in general. In answer to the question, “What do you propose we do instead?” I drafted an earlier, unused version of that resolution. Part of the fallout of that discussion was that some members of action Council began encouraging me to try the Intellectual Freedom Round Table as a better place to pursue my priorities.
Here is my own list, not exhaustive, of the kind of issues and topics that I would like to see addressed from a progressive perspective and in an organized way. Some of them concern intellectual freedom, but most do not. They could all be said to be in the realm of information ethics, and in most cases have a political angle that can be drawn out through a bit of intellectual work.
- Privacy (of library users, web users, and citizens)
- Copyright and the Open Access Movement
- Workplace speech
- Deprofessionalization and deskilling
- Librarians’ pay and status
- “Next generation library catalogs”
- Cataloging trends
- Market effects on intellectual freedom (media monopoly)
- Academic Freedom
- Internet filtering
- Net neutrality
- Information as a public good
- Government secrecy
- Privatization of information and information services
- Trends favoring casual users over researchers
- The dumbing down of culture and of educational institutions
- Funding crises / library closings
- The decline of publishing / changes in the publishing industry
- Digitization as a funding priority
- Conflict over the foundations of the library profession
- Education 2.0 and critical thinking
- Critical perspectives on multiple literacies and media shift
- The digital divide
- The literacy divide
- The middle class bias of public libraries
- Serving the underserved
- Racism and sexism and libraries
- Capitalism and trends in the information landscape
- Library of Congress priorities
- American Library Association priorities
- OCLC priorities
- Library education and the iSchools
- Media, information overload, and the educational psychology of reading
- Critical pedagogy and library instruction
- Queer theory, information access, and information organization
- Neutrality and advocacy
- Bias in systems of information organization
- The crisis in journalism and its meaning for the public sphere
- Change in the nature of the public sphere
- The digital preservation crisis
- The role of local perspectives and local needs
- Commercialization of libraries
- Corporate funding (of libraries, of ALA)
- Indigenous knowledge and Intellectual Freedom
- Intellectual Freedom and hate literature/hate speech
- Research standards in the profession / bias in research
- Google Books settlement
First, to be fair to the Progressive Librarians’ Guild, I should say that they have often done a better job than SRRT of addressing many of these big-picture issues. Also, to be fair to SRRT, I should mention that many SRRT members are not interested in the resolutions that SRRT Action Council passes and do their work within the issues-based Task Forces that are a part of SRRT, and I have not represented their activities here.
To me, the issues on the second list have as much urgency as the war in Afghanistan, and are within a sphere which we can claim as our own by virtue of being librarians. I would like to see SRRT do more to address these kinds of issues and less to address issues that are not related to libraries. That is not to say that ALA has “no business” addressing non-library issues. I think ALA has a right to talk about the war in Afghanistan and may see the need to make statements on such issues from time to time. But I don’t think it should ever be our primary focus, not when there are urgent matters to address within our own sphere. And just because these issues relate to our professional qualifications does not make them apolitical. Part of the point of addressing these issues from a political angle would be to demonstrate the ways in which our profession is tied up with politics in various ways.
So is this a call for action? I suppose I could make it one:
- More issues of information ethics and information politics in SRRT
- More talking and thinking and writing about these issues
As always, Library Juice Press is accepting manuscripts and book proposals…
October 22, 2009
From Salon: “Is the Internet melting our brains?” “No! The author of “A Better Pencil” explains why such hysterical hand-wringing is as old as communication itself.” By Vincent Rossmeier.
From The Australian: “Specialist Pleading,” by Frank Ferudi. “ONE of the most influential contemporary cultural myths is that our era is characterised by the end of deference. … Commentators interpret the declining influence of traditional authority and institutions as proof that people have become less deferential and possess more critical attitudes than in the past. However, it is less frequently noted that deference to traditional authority has given way to the reverence of expertise.”
From the L.A. Times: “The lost art of reading,” by David L. Ulin. “The relentless cacophony that is life in the 21st century can make settling in with a book difficult even for lifelong readers and those who are paid to do it.”
From Policy Review: “Orwell’s Instructive Errors,” by Liam Julian. “The edifying commentator is also a flawed one.”
September 24, 2009
This is not library-related, but I would like to pass on a link to an article on the career of the late Polish intellectual Leszek Kolakowski by Tony Judt, in the New York Review of Books. I read a book of his in college (titled, simply, Religion) that influenced my thinking. I admired Kolakowski for his independence and depth when I read the book, and I appreciate Tony Judt’s article.