Tuesday, October 17, 2006

AL Joins the Revolution

This may be the AL's last post on ALA politics, so it's going to be a long one. You might just want to wait until the next post when I discuss how library school is similar to a third grade science fair.

And why is this possibly my last post? After all, it's obvious from the statistics that nothing increases the readership of the AL like a political post or two. I guess there's no such thing as bad publicity.

Well, it's because I've changed my mind on an important issue and now choose to reconcile myself to rather than attack the SRRT/PLG assault on the ALA Council. Is it because I've been completely convinced by the thoughtful and clever Socially Ridiculous Round Table and their pet the Regressive Librarians Guild that the ALA should be taken over by political radicals and that it's a good thing? Or have I been frightened into submission by the semiliterate ad hominem attacks on the AL? That's always possible, I suppose, but here are the real reasons I've changed my mind.

First, nostalgia. I have a confession to make. I used to consider myself a radical leftist, back when I was a teenager. I read the Communist Manifesto and the Dialectics of Sex and I fell into the slack intellectual habit of thinking the world was divided between good people like me and evil people like capitalists and conservatives and men and such who made life worse for people. I too agreed with the Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach that the point wasn't to understand the world, but to change it. I too felt the comfort of such a statement, since it's a lot easier to go out and rant at people than to bother trying to understand the world. Understanding the world is too difficult, and not nearly as much fun as protesting and such. Revolutionaries are always romantic. People who work hard, treat people decently, and cultivate their own gardens aren't at all romantic. Destruction is much easier than creation.

I too enjoyed the self-righteous superiority of knowing I was on the side of the angels and the problems of the world were all caused by the evil people who just weren't good hearted like I was. I enjoyed the superiority of knowing that the problem was always other people, never myself, that the bad other people needed to examine their consciences and purify them in the radical waters I'd washed myself in. I too ignored the beam in my own eye while I picked at the mote in my neighbor's eye. I could believe the kind of statement found in the latest SRRT newsletter, that the problems caused by Katrina could all be solved if it weren't for our "mean-spirited government." I too thought the government could and should solve everyone's problems and create a paradise on earth.

I too could believe that the problems of the world were mostly caused by bad people who actively wanted other people to be miserable. Why else is there injustice, except that there must be other people deliberately being unjust? I too believed that the bad people wanted other people to be poor and oppressed, rather than believing that most of us want to end poverty and oppression but disagree on their causes and solutions. I too judged my friends by their best intentions and my enemies by their worst results. It was so comforting to simplistically divide the world into good people like me and evil people not like me, to believe that if we just got rid of the evil people everything would be okay, that if we got rid of money everything would be free, etc. It was comforting to believe that I was absolutely right and everyone else was wrong. It was comforting to believe that I had the plan for universal salvation in my little red book and I could just remake the world if the bad people would get out of the way. At least I never fell for the favorite radical rationalization--that people who disagree with you should just be eliminated, from the discussion or from the world, it doesn't matter. But I believed as all radicals believe that I didn't have to consider any viewpoints other than my own because people who didn't agree with me are just wrong. Why should I tolerate error? I could believe that people who disagreed with me did so because they were hateful, or racist, or sexist, or whatever.

Of course I grew up and read something besides radical left propaganda and realized the world is a complicated place and that people who disagree with me aren't necessarily evil or stupid. I learned that politics and economics are messy affairs and that you can't just redesign the world in your head and make everybody fit your vision. I began to believe that other people, even if they don't agree with me, are human beings, flawed and selfish like me, and that the deserve some respect. I realized that while I still think I'm right, I may be wrong, and I'm not willing to demonize, dehumanize, and crush people who disagree with me, even though I might taunt them a bit. But I still sometimes long for the comfort of that radical political simplemindedness, that sense of belonging to the group on the side of the angels. I sometimes still have the urge to join up with my brothers and sisters and march against perceived injustice! But then I have a martini and read a good book and the urge just seems to go away.

But still, there was the romance of communism and socialism! Smoking weed and singing the Internationale while wearing red tee shirts with pictures of Che on them! I never did that because I don't look good in red, but I could see where it would appeal to some people who desparately need to belong to a cause larger than themselves but can't just go to church or something. They want to be part of the Movement, man! They need a Cause to live for! And when the Marxists get tiring, there's always the romance of radical feminism, where we find out that if men just weren't such evil bastards everything would be fine, where we find the desire not just to sensitize men to sexism and to gain equal rights for women but to redesign and revolutionize the relationship between men and women the world over.

That's also where we find the motivation driving all radicals: the personal is the political. Because, you see, there's nothing outside of politics to the radical. Everything is political, which means everything should be colonized on behalf of politics. Eventually I concluded that "the personal is the political" is dangerously close to Mussolini's "for the Fascist, everything is in the State, and nothing human or spiritual exists, much less has value, outside the State." That's why the radicals have to inflict their politics on the rest of us, because there is no space outside of politics for people to gather together. Professional associations, universities, churches, every group has to fall in line, because the personal is always the political. Radicals want to remake everyone in their own image, and they don't like dissent. They like obedience or silence.

And back in the day there were great enemies of America the radical left could identify with: communists, anarchists, etc. There's just not the same romance with today's American enemies. As much as the radical left likes to blame our "mean-spirited government" for everything and rationalize Islamic terrorism as justified against the evil West, I don't see too many radical leftists smoking weed and wearing tee shirts with Osama bin Laden's picture on it. Because they know that if sharia law were ever imposed, the radicals would be the first to go. And women would wear veils and homosexuals would be stoned, regardless of their politics. There's nothing romantic about that. If you believe in freedom and equal rights for women, as I do, there's certainly nothing appealing about the Taliban. It's too bad the enemies of America today aren't out to "emancipate" everyone, because it's bloody difficult to get stoned and talk about what a great guy Osama is, though perhaps there are people who do.

Which brings me to another reason for wanting the SRRT to take over the ALA: sheer comic potential. Back when communism and socialism and the radical left were forces to be feared, when a lot of good hearted people thought they would actually save the world rather than oppress and impoverish it, when they thought radically revolutionizing sex would lead to emancipation instead of generations of children with no fathers and poor mothers, there was something romantic and persuasive about the radical left. But now it's just something to be laughed at by sensible people. There were days when the US government was so afraid of communists they were actively hunting them, but today the radical left in America is confined mostly to academia where they can't harm anyone, and their political activity consists of the supreme act of politcal impotence and irrelevance--passing resolutions.

That's what's so amusing about the ALA radicals. They get a resolution passed. Yippee! Poor sods, they seem to live for this. The ALA has spoken! Hail the ALA! The ALA opposes genocide in Darfur, thus genocide in Darfur will end! The ALA opposes the Iraq war, thus the war will end! They make a mockery of serious and tragic issues with their ridiculous proclamations. Maybe it's not funny. Maybe it's just sad. Maybe it's both. But there's enough sadness in the world, so instead of spluttering about injustice, sometimes, just to keep our sanity, we have to find the humor in the world. We have to learn to enjoy the absurdity of existence, and there's little more absurd than an ALA political resolution.

A final reason to applaud the radical takeover by the SRRT, besides the nostalgia of youth and the comic potential for SRRT absurdity, is the undeniable fact that the almost nobody gives a damn what the ALA says. Most of the membership ignore the ALA Council, even if they agree with them. Most of the active membership stay in the divisions and avoid the big show because it's so ridiculous. And outside the profession, the ALA, despite spending millions of dollars in lobbying Congress, has been singularly ineffective politically. The ALA is against the Patriot Act. Failure. Against CIPA. Failure. And these are issues which might actually concern libraries.

The ALA is against confirming Justice Alito. Failure. Against the Iraq War. Failure. Against genocide in Darfur. Failure. Alito was confirmed a few days after the idiotic ALA Council resolution. The Iraq War is still going on, more dead every day. People are still being murdered in Darfur. What's the point of these resolutions? Just to show what good people librarians are? How they dislike war and genocide? How they're on the side of the angels?

What about improving the status and pay of librarians? Failure, like always. What about promoting libraries to the public? There's been a lot of brouhaha in the bibliotek blogoshere about an editorial in a newspaper in Lawrence, KS about libraries being obsolete. (Here's the Webtamer's take on it.) There might be an ALA resolution about this editorial some day, but it's still a sad statement about the ineffectiveness of promoting libraries when ordinary citizens think they're obsolete. And it's a sad statement about the insecurity of American librarians when people can get so worked up about an editorial in, of all places, Lawrence, KS. I mean, seriously, I'm sure Lawrence is a lovely place, but does anyone outside Kansas really care what happens there? While the ALA has been spending millions of dollars on failed lobbying efforts and the ALA Council has been passing resolutions about all sorts of non-library related issues, many people outside libraries can't see any reason for their existence.

But promoting American libraries and benefitting librarians isn't as fun or romantic as being part of the movement. That's why I'm joining the revolution! Let us enjoy the nostalgia of misguided youth, the comic potential of impotent radicals, and the irrelevance of the ALA, for tomorrow we may die!


Anonymous said...

You're right, that was long - but good. Like the Port Huron Statement for the AL. (Except the PHS was just long.)
It reminded me a lot of Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, probably the greatest disillusionment story ever told. He believed one thing because that's what he had been told and it was easy to accept; then he was smacked around a bit by reality (in the form of the Spanish civil war).

Oh yeah, and I couldn't find a single grammar or punctuation error in the whole piece. You must have a hell of an editor. Very un-blog like.

Bob H. said...

Anonymous 11:18...
"A final reason to applaud the radical takeover by the SRRT, besides the nostalgia of youth and the comic potential for SRRT absurdity, is the undeniable fact that the almost nobody gives a damn what the ALA says"

I believe there was this error :-)

Otherwise, good post...

...sure I'd rather end genocide than have a 2% pay raise, but I think the ALA might actually be able to help with one and not the other.

Anonymous said...

Who knows? Someday, ALA may morph into the SRLA.

Then, instead of complaining, posturing, demanding, declaiming and fostering hate and discontent, the SRRT leadership would actually be required to lead the Association for the benefit of 60,000 souls - - - and not just for the Socialist fringe.

Anonymous said...

The Annoyed Librarian does it again. This is a brilliant and humorous treatise on the political and ethical wasteland of the SRRT and ALA's policy making board. It should be required reading for anyone serving on the ALA Governing Council and MLS students around the country.

Anonymous said...

I think you misinterpret the 11th thesis on Feuerbach. It reads: "The philosphers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it." This was written against the kind of navel-gazing, philosophical idealism that ruined German philosphy by 1845, when Marx wrote the 11th thesis. It is obviously not a denial of the need to understand the world. Marx and Engels devoted their lives and over 40 volumes to doing just that, and they created an enduring intellectual legacy in doing so. You rightly condemn your own and others'infantile leftism, but not all leftism is infantile. Just as not all rightism is smug, nasty, and ignorant.

AL said...

I'll gladly admit I oversimplified the 11th thesis to make a point, and I would definitely agree that not all leftism is infantile. I was specifically criticizing a species of quasirevolutionary radical leftism that I think has very little to offer to American politics and which definitely ignores any distinction between the political and the non-political. However, I think we would have serious disagreements about the value of Marx's intellectual legacy.

Anonymous said...

Heh. Clearly you've never visited lawrence, kansas.

Believe me, if the people HERE can't appreciate and get excited about the library (granted, ours could use some help), there's a big problem.

Anonymous said...

Sign me up too! Put me on a committee, any committee, it doesn't matter, just so I can have my name on the list of committee members. Maybe then I'll make it to the top 1/3 of the application pile at the University Library. If that's not good enough, maybe I could show some leadership potential by calling for a resolution to celebrate the birthdays of Communist leaders, or to start a "Be Kind to Dictators Week."

sassymoll said...

My husband was in library school and absolutely hated it; he's not there anymore. He's convinced that the library's day is soon to end (and the book's; he's nothing if not sweeping in his prognostications). I hope he's wrong, especially about books. I love books, which is why I wanted to be a librarian. (Silly me!) As usual, you're absolutely right. The ALA is what's obsolete.

Anonymous said...

I thoroughly agree with your critique of "radical" leftism, but I don't believe everyone on the left is radical. I also think great concern should be given to the radical right (as opposed to conservatives), as well. I think ultimately, the absurdities of such political movements such as the New Left and neoconservatism is that both are bound in Ideology. As long as every judgement, really every human activity, is critiqued through the black and white filter of an Ideology, radicalism will always be a drain on our social and political lives. I think both parties have some soul searching to do in this regard. Anyway, I really appreciated this diatribe (in the good sense).


AL said...

Soren, I agree completely. My criticism has always been aimed at the political ideologues who judge everything through politics and who allow no domain outside of politics, and thus feel compelled to force their politics on everyone in every situation, including the ALA. There are certainly right-wing ideologues, and I have no more sympathy with them than with the left-wing ideologues.

Anonymous said...

I think you miss the previous commentator's point about the enduring nature of Marx and Engels'intellectual legacy. It's a fact that has nothing to do with any one person's value judgments regarding that legacy. The body of Marxist and Marxist inspired literature is enormous and still growing--any librarian who's even awake should know that. The fact that you build your critique of the radical left by referring to two well-known Marxist texts shows an implicit recognition that Marxism is part of the intellectual stock in trade of any educated person. Globalization in particular has breathed new life into Marxist thought and political movements around the world. Get the corporate, mainstream media cliches out of your head--aka the rational, non-extreme center that you think you represent--and find out what's happening in the world. History didn't end with the fall of the Berlin wall, Marxism didn't die, and neither did the socialist movement. All infantile, teenage-rebellion leftists give up as soon as they graduate high school or college. But the people committed to a leftist vision of a better society have learned, evolved, and continued the fight. And you know darn well that on the whole what we are fighting for now will become the reasonable mainstream view of some other annoyed but comfortable middle class librarian of the future. :)

AL said...

On the contrary, I didn't miss the point, I disagreed with it. I know about Marxism. I also know about alchemy and Ptolemaic astronomy. A topic can be interesting as an object of historical investigation without being in the least intellectually respectable. If the anti-globalization movement has revitalized Marxism, so much the worse for critics of globalization. Far from expecting that any Marxist inspired revolutionary politics will be the mainstream of the future, I instead expect that whatever victories it might win will end in disaster, once again leading sensible people to realize what nonsense Marxism is. But there'll always be the fringe of the adversarial culture saying, "No, that was just the 'actually existing' implementation of Marxism. It's never really been tried. In the future, things will be different!"

Lenard said...

Sorry AL, but you did miss the point, and then you missed it again. That Marx's legacy endures, not just as a matter of historical interest, but as a living intellectual and social current is a fact. And this fact is independent of anyone's value judgments about it. The distinction between fact and value is another point you seem to miss, or at least attempt to obscure. You're way too glib and dismissive, AL. If you ever seriously looked at the question you'd at least have an idea of the influence Marxism has had on social phenomena that you probably think are as sane and middle of the road as public education and the progressive income tax. C'mon AL, stop beating up on yourself and others just because you went through a commie phase when you were young. Peace.

AL said...

I'll have to concede your points. To my charge that Marxism is nonsense, you've presented arguments about how historically influential and currently inspirational Marxism is. I will thus concede that Marxism is influential and inspirational nonsense. Somehow I don't think this concession is going to make you happy, though.