September 26, 2013
Malise Ruthven, frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, wrote the preface to the recent Litwin Books publication, Voltaire’s Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet: A New Translation. His preface is titled Voltaire and Islam, and provides an insightful picture of the great 18th century liberal’s relationship with the religion of the region Europe called “the Orient.”
Voltaire’s play has been translated into English several times, but this prose translation is less archaic-sounding, and captures the intensity of the melodramatic passions among the characters. The play itself is an enjoyable, light read. Ruthven’s preface and the translator’s introduction, which focuses on the reception that the play received among contemporaries and how it was viewed by later critics, illuminate some of the background to the way Islam is understood in the West.
August 14, 2012
In a Library Juice blog post some time ago, Rory Litwin recommended an essay by Karl Mannheim entitled “Conservative Thought.” In the essay, Mannheim argues that political groupings can be distinguished by specific “styles of thought” (though a style of thought will not be limited to politics). Styles of thought characterize more than just the subjective thinking of individuals. At the same time, they are not entirely objective. Individuals participate in a style of thought which will survive their coming and going, but it does not exist apart from the individuals. Mannheim goes on to illustrate this by describing the style of thought that made up the German conservatives of the 19th century. In essence, Mannheim was trying to answer the questions, “who were the German conservatives and what was it that made them a distinct and coherent political group?”
This got me thinking about what unifies political groupings today which led me to read George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant, Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, and Chinni and Gimpel’s Our Patchwork Nation. Each of these works examines political identities in recent U.S. politics more or less in the manner that Mannheim sought to make sense of the political identity of 19th century German conservatives. Lakoff examines what distinguishes conservatives from liberals. His attempt to discover a master trait that explains all or most of this political divide comes closest to Mannheim’s attempt to find a “style of thought” that governs German conservativism. In contrast to this, Frank examines the distinctions between moderate Republicans, conservative Republicans, and liberals. Here the similarity with Mannhiem is that Frank defines conservative Republicans in opposition to liberals rather as Mannhiem defines conservativism in opposition to Enlightenment rationalism. Chinni and Gimpel take a slightly different approach by positing and examining twelve different “nations” within the United States, each composed of counties having similar demographic characteristics. It is noteworthy that Lakoff contrasts two abstract ideological systems as does Mannheim, while Frank and Chinni and Gimpel approach the question more concretely by distinguishing specific policy positions and character traits that hang together sociologically.
There is much in each of the three works on the U.S. political landscape to recommend them. Chinni and Gimpel is perhaps best; however, each of them underestimates the complexity of political groupings within the U.S. If librarians are to understand better our patron populations and their relations to politics, we’ll need to see deeper into the body politic than any sociological assessment thus far has seen and we’ll need to be sympathetic to a multiplicity of political perspectives. We need not abandon our own political views, but to accurately understand the views of our patrons, we must see them as complex rational individuals and avoid the easy shorthand of political stereotypes.
Of the three works under examination here, Lakoff’s book is the most ambitious in that it purports to identify a master trait that distinguishes liberals from conservatives; however, in doing so, it becomes the most superficial. Lakoff believes that American politics are driven by two models of the family: the Strict Father Model and the Nurturing Parent Model. These models serve as frames for how conservatives and liberals respectively think, not just about family life, but also about politics and other spheres of life. Lakoff argues that conservatives implicitly have recognized that emphasizing the values inherent in the Strict Father Model reinforces voters’ tendency to employ these values when thinking about politics. After emphasizing this family model for four decades, conservatives have established in the electorate a way of thinking about politics that prevents voters from accepting (and sometimes even understanding) the policies advanced by liberals.
Lakoff’s theory is initially attractive, as one often can see ties between the family models and a number of Republican and Democratic political positions; however, as important as family dynamics are to establishing our world views, the idea that all of the variations within U.S. politics are rooted a single social-psychological character trait that admits of only two values overlooks the complexity of the political world in the interest of theoretic simplicity. I suspect that Lakoff’s dichotomy was both generated by and helped to entrench the Red-Blue vision of U.S. politics that has done so much to mask political reality. Mostly, the Red-Blue divide is an artifact of our two party system which requires people of quite diverse opinion to band together against a single political opponent. Were our two party system to be transformed into a multi-party democracy, the importance of the two family models might quickly disappear.
In contrast, Frank’s work distinguishes three political groupings: moderate Republicans, conservative Republicans, and liberals. Mostly, Frank examines the two Republican groups. Frank’s thesis is that the working class population of Kansas has become hopelessly distracted by hot button social issues and has been fooled into voting for moderate Republican politicians who are undermining their economic interests. Working class conservatives are trading away their economic future in exchange for lip service from moderate Republicans on social issues. While there is something to this argument, it fails to understand economic issues from the conservative’s perspective. Frank clearly is viewing the question from a liberal perspective, i.e., that one’s attitude toward the legal framework regulating economic activity should be based on how well-off that framework will make you. I suspect that this view may not be shared by the great majority of working class, conservative Kansans. Instead, they are – true to their words – “values voters,” but not simply in the sense of caring about abortion, “traditional” marriage, and prayer in school. They also bring their values to economic questions, particularly, the values of personal responsibility, self-sufficiency, respect for fair play, and most of all meritocracy.
Republican doctrine has long opposed taxes and regulation. They are seen as alien impositions on the main business of America which is, on this view, business. Taxes and regulations are merely ways by which the productive members of society are made to support and defend politically powerful, but unproductive, members. If one sees the main activity of life as making a living within the constraints of a fair system of rules, then such a point of view may seem not unreasonable. Surely, many if not most working class people in Kansas find making a living an all-consuming activity. This is particularly true of people who are self-employed or sell their labor job to job. For them, taxes (no matter how progressive) are an obstacle to getting ahead or even just staying afloat. Furthermore, regulations on businesses limit the kind of economic activity that they believe is necessary to remain in business or simply remain employed.
In addition to this, the ideology of individualism, personal responsibility, and fair play can seem to trump government assistance for the disadvantaged. Material well-being may certainly be an important value for the conservative working class, but if earning what you acquire is a greater value, then taxation, regulation, and social programs can be seen as undermining this more important meritocratic value. Living in a meritocracy might mean that one is not made as well-off as one might otherwise be, but getting what you deserve and only what you deserve seems to be important to the ideology of the working class conservative.
Of course, what liberals will find missing in this analysis is the importance of equal opportunity. A libertarian economic order provides only the legal pretense of an equal starting point for economic success. It does not recognize the unequalizing effects of such things as sex, gender, and racial prejudices, and especially class privileges; but in the case of the Kansas working class, the degree of inequality of opportunity may not seem so great as to justify liberal programs like affirmative action, housing assistance, publically financed health insurance, and food stamps. They may find their own situation is too close to the beneficiaries of public assistance to be sympathetic to transferring any of their wealth or opportunity to the least well-off. To speak productively with the working class conservatives, one might do well to speak in meritocratic terms, but to emphasize how the accidents of birth undermine meritocratic values. The liberal needs to make clear and convincing that what is preventing the working class from realizing the deserved benefits of their own efforts is not transfers of wealth to the least-well off, but systemic advantages accruing to the richest of the rich in our society. The liberal must make the case that these advantages distort meritocracy much more than social programs for the least well-off and that social programs are a way to rectify distortion of a meritocracy.
Chinni and Gimpel’s Our Patchwork Nation is motivated by the desire to avoid the Red-Blue dichotomy that Lakoff examines. Instead, Chinni and Gimpel divide the electorate into twelve distinct communities, and maps them onto the nation county by county. Hence, one county may be part of “Tractor Country” while the neighboring county is part of “Immigration Nation.” Very much is gained by this nuanced analysis, but even here, there is a tendency to disregard minority populations within counties or even majority populations. For example, “Immigration Nation” is composed of counties that have a large Hispanic population: on average, 44% of the people who live there are from Spanish-speaking backgrounds. This, of course, is enough to make these counties significantly different from others that do not have such a high percent of Hispanics, but labeling the county part of “Immigration Nation” masks the other 56%. Counties in “Evangelical Epicenter” are composed significantly of white fundamentalist Christians, but they sometimes contain a significant number of African-Americans who are the essential (though seldom the majority) element of “Minority Central” counties. All of this is simply to say that the demographic constitution of Chinni and Gimpel’s twelve communities are more complex than their labels can allow and that much more must be considered to understand adequately the electorate. In all fairness, though, a single work can only do so much. Theory can never completely describe reality, but theorize we must.
After reading Lakoff, Frank, and Chinni and Gimpel, I am led to think that Mannheim’s investigation into “styles of thought” and other sociological studies of its kind must be handled with care. The best of them might reveal some subset of features of an electorate, but they are more likely to lead one into the trap of thinking that one’s theory about political ideologies is more accurate and stable than it is. Political groupings in the U.S. may have much less to do with a shared political ideology or “styles of thought” and much more to do with a two party system that requires uneasy alliances. Applying these insights to our patron populations can help keep us from falling into the trap of serving a cardboard cutout of a patron. Instead, it may remind us to serve the patron who actually stands before us.
October 23, 2011
I ran across this essay by Karl Mannheim while looking into ideas on “styles of thought” in relation to philosophy and politics. Mannheim was one of the founders of the “sociology of knowledge,” which is an area of inquiry that some in LIS have said constitutes a good theoretical underpinning for what we do. The field of sociology of knowledge is a little too relativistic about knowledge for my taste, but this essay on “conservative thought” by Mannheim, one of his most famous, really floats my boat. I would recommend it to anyone who ponders what “conservative” and “liberal” really mean, in our time and historically. Mannheim describes the conservative mode of thought and its historical genesis through the lens of an intellectual history of Europe. Useful reading for our times.
September 24, 2011
For those who have noted, along with Jon Stewart, that in the Fox News era the media treats facts in a relative way, as a matter of political taste… This phenomenon was first described by Frankfurt School critical theorist Herbert Marcuse, in his 1965 essay, “Repressive Tolerance.” According to Marcuse, it is a problem of the media system itself. Whatever ideas it communicates, as radical as they may be, become an entertainment commodity that audiences consume. It is a pessimistic standpoint, but it does clarify the fact that there is a way to stand outside the mass media system.
I would like to use this point of Marcuse to challenge librarians to reflect on their own understanding of information literacy and how we teach about it to our students. Are you teaching students to be outside of the world of media messages as thinkers and doers? I think that critical thinking, which is the heart of information literacy, is not possible without that ability.
August 28, 2011
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.”
March 26, 2011
I haven’t been posting much, but I do have some links to share:
By Steve Coll, in the New York Review of Books: The Internet: For Better or for Worse, a review of two books skeptical of the idea of the internet as a force for liberation.
By Richard Dorment, also in the NYRB: What Andy Warhol Did, about an interesting legal dispute over the authenticity of one of his works, and the systems and actors involved.
Brian Christian writes in the Atlantic Monthly about how the push for more advanced artificial intelligence can help us understand what it is to be human (a favorite topic of mine): Mind vs. Machine…
In The Chronicle Review, an article about Sherry Turkle’s recent work on our use of computers for social networking, taking a more worried tone than she is known for: Programmed for Love…
Words for Daniel Bell, the sociologist and public intellectual who died this January, from Morris Dickstein, Russell K. Nieli, Michael Aronson, and Lindsay Waters.
Gautam Naik writes in the Wall Street Journal about enthusiasts of a new spiritual technique for the information age: Boredom Enthusiasts Discover the Pleasures of Understimulation…
Avi Steinberg, author of Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, writes briefly of his experience in the Boston Globe: Escape route.
February 18, 2011
I recommend a post by James Jacobs on the freegovinfo.info site and the comments following it for a good summary of the debate over Wikileaks within the library community.
February 14, 2011
Adam Gopnik, frequent contributor to the New Yorker, has an article in the new issue called, “The Information: How the Internet Gets Inside Us.” It’s actually a really good bibliographic essay to recommend to someone wanting an overview of this literature.
The scale of the transformation is such that an ever-expanding literature has emerged to censure or celebrate it. A series of books explaining why books no longer matter is a paradox that Chesterton would have found implausible, yet there they are, and they come in the typical flavors: the eulogistic, the alarmed, the sober, and the gleeful. When the electric toaster was invented, there were, no doubt, books that said that the toaster would open up horizons for breakfast undreamed of in the days of burning bread over an open flame; books that told you that the toaster would bring an end to the days of creative breakfast, since our children, growing up with uniformly sliced bread, made to fit a single opening, would never know what a loaf of their own was like; and books that told you that sometimes the toaster would make breakfast better and sometimes it would make breakfast worse, and that the cost for finding this out would be the price of the book you’d just bought.
All three kinds appear among the new books about the Internet: call them the Never-Betters, the Better-Nevers, and the Ever-Wasers. The Never-Betters believe that we’re on the brink of a new utopia, where information will be free and democratic, news will be made from the bottom up, love will reign, and cookies will bake themselves. The Better-Nevers think that we would have been better off if the whole thing had never happened, that the world that is coming to an end is superior to the one that is taking its place, and that, at a minimum, books and magazines create private space for minds in ways that twenty-second bursts of information don’t. The Ever-Wasers insist that at any moment in modernity something like this is going on, and that a new way of organizing data and connecting users is always thrilling to some and chilling to others—that something like this is going on is exactly what makes it a modern moment. One’s hopes rest with the Never-Betters; one’s head with the Ever-Wasers; and one’s heart? Well, twenty or so books in, one’s heart tends to move toward the Better-Nevers, and then bounce back toward someplace that looks more like home.
January 2, 2011
Folks at the Progressive Librarians Guild have put the full text of back issues of their journal, Progressive Librarian, online. Coverage goes back to issue number one, from 1990. I was on the editorial board of Progressive Librarian for a number of years, and consider them an important venue for library literature that works to strengthen the ties between the profession of librarianship and the left political philosophies that are akin to it. Back issues have been available through Proquest and Ebsco for some time, but their accessibility on the web will give a new level of exposure to the ideas there. Check it out.
October 20, 2010
“Library, Inc., by David Goldstein, in the new Chronicle Review, begins:
From industry-backed research to CEO-style executive salaries and perquisites, the influence of corporate America on universities has been the subject of much popular and scholarly scrutiny. University libraries have largely escaped that attention. Yet libraries, the intellectual heart of universities, have become perhaps the most commercialized academic area within universities, with troubling implications for the future of higher education. …[More].
September 26, 2010
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.
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.
September 3, 2010
There is a new issue of Information for Social Change, on the theme of information ethics. This issue is edited by Mikael Böök. It’s a very international collection of articles, some of them a little odd and all of them interesting.
August 18, 2010
Jaron Lanier has an Op-Ed in the August 9th issue of the New York Times, titled, “The First Church of Robotics.” It is a brief revisitation of some ideas from his recent book, You Are Not a Gadget, which was reviewed in the Times earlier this year. What Lanier has to say about artificial intelligence in information systems and its consequences is highly relevant and timely.
June 2, 2010
June 1, 2010
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Miriam Braverman Memorial Prize Winner Announced
(University of Oregon, Eugene, OR) The Progressive Librarians Guild is pleased to announce the winner of the 2010 Miriam Braverman Memorial Prize. This year’s prize has been awarded to Kristen Hogan for her essay entitled ‚ “‘Breaking Secrets’ in the Catalog: Proposing the Black Queer Studies Collection at the University of Texas at Austin.” Ms. Hogan is currently enrolled in the Master of Science in Information Studies (MSIS) program at the University of Texas at Austin School of Information; she expects to graduate August 2010.
An honorable mention goes to Steven Lorenz, School of Library and Information Sciences, North Carolina Central University, for his paper, “The Finer Points of Librarianship: Does a Basic Policy Impede Library Access?.” Lorenz’s essay makes a strong argument against library fines, identifying ways in which they can serve as a barrier to library resources, even for patrons who do not currently owe any.
Essays were submitted by library and information science students from colleges and universities in the United States and Canada. Their papers considered such subjects as open access publishing and meeting the information needs of many populations including adult learners and LGBTQ teens. Ms. Hogan’s essay will be published in the forthcoming issue of Progressive Librarian, the journal published by the Progressive Librarians Guild. She will also receive a $300 stipend for attendance at the 2010 American Library Association’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C., and an award certificate at the PLG annual dinner on June 26, 2010.
The Miriam Braverman Memorial Prize is awarded annually for the best essay written by a student of library/information science on an aspect of the social responsibilities of librarians, libraries or librarianship. The prize is named in honor of Miriam Braverman (1920-2002), an activist librarian who was a longstanding member of the Progressive Librarians Guild and a founder of the American Library Association’s Social Responsibilities Round Table. She was a strong proponent of the social responsibilities perspective within librarianship and an inspiration to younger librarians entering the field.
The Progressive Librarians Guild (PLG) was founded in 1990 and is committed to supporting activist librarians and monitoring the professional ethics of librarianship from a perspective of social responsibility. For more information, visit the Guild’s website at: http://libr.org/PLG/