Monday, November 27, 2006

Unpacking Some Gibberish

Last week someone posted a long quote supposedly from an email to our dear friends at the Social Responsibilities Round Table from an SRRT member and probably an AARP member as well. One statement from the quote struck me as particularly silly, and I'd like to share that silliness with you. Here's the quote: "It is a position on the right side of the political spectrum to suggest to members of a democratically governed organization that pursuing their views is wrong." This is part of the justification for the SRRT and others trying to take over the ALA and have the ALA make political pronouncements that have nothing to do with libraries.

The quote doesn't really sound silly on the face of it, I know. But bear with me. Let's unpack this gibberish, as my dad might say, and see what sort of nonsense lurks beneath.

As an aside, we could take up the question of whether the ALA is truly a "democratically governed organization." In some ways it is, but it's certainly true that the system can be gamed. I wonder how much the SRRT folk would want the following question put up before the entire membership for a vote: "The ALA should further the interests of libraries and librarians and not make statements about partisan political issues that have nothing to do with either." If the SRRT folk really want a full participatory democracy, then they would want such questions put before the membership. But I suspect they prefer the sort of democracy of small meetings and back rooms, knowing full well that most of the membership will never turn up in force to greet their imbecilities with protest because most of the membership and just about everyone in the rest of the country doesn't care tuppence what the ALA Council says.

To begin, let us note that there is actually no criticism at all involved in this statement, even though it's meant no doubt to be a critical statement. Suggesting such a thing isn't wrong, but "a position to the right side of the political spectrum," which is a very wordy way of saying "politically right wing." This means nothing in itself, and is empty of critical thought. To any rational person, the obvious response would be, "So what? Is it right or wrong, that is the question." But to those who approach politics more with their emotions than their reason, this statement is already working its magic. "Oh my goodness, 'on the right side of the political spectrum'! I better shut my brain down then!" Of course those actually on the right side of the political spectrum might just riposte, "Better than being on the wrong side of the political spectrum!" That's neither here nor there, though. I'm just noting that there's no criticism involved here, just political sniping designed to evoke the emotions of those not on the "right."

Let's try to simplify the statement somewhat to clarify what are probably the author's intentions. That gobbledygook about "on the right side of the spectrum" doesn't mean much except in the tiny mind of the speaker. But I would suggest that for the speaker, this is akin to saying something is bad or wrong. It doesn't actually say that, but I'd be willing to wager a groat that the speaker would in fact interpret that way and count on his audience in the SRRT to interpret it the same way.

So what exactly is it to be "on the right side of the political spectrum"? "To suggest to members of a democratically governed organization that pursuing their views is wrong." ( I won't even ask how exactly views can be pursued. "Oh, there's a view! Let's go pursue it!") To even suggest to such members that pursuing their views is wrong is somehow right-wing, and thus as we know a BAD THING. Notice the way that the speaker here is trying to deflect any criticism even before it begins by poisoning the well against any critic. So it's somehow bad when I, for example, suggest that that the SRRT folk and their ilk are trying and often succeeding in getting the ALA to make irrelevant political pronouncements. I shouldn't even suggest such a thing. How dare I! Any suggestion that the SRRT folk might be wrong is just bad! And thus they don't even have to meet any arguments with a critical or thoughtful response, because it's bad to even criticize them. How convenient.

Now for some of us, suggesting that people are wrong to pursue their views isn't right or left, it's just democratic. That's what democracy is about. You have a view you want to pursue. I think your view is good or bad, right or wrong. If I think it's a bad or wrong view, then of course I think you're wrong to pursue it.

But wait, the AL has certainly gotten a lot of vicious responses from various SRRT folk, from Cranky Marxist Dude on down to Snipey Fellowtravelling Dude. And all I'm doing is pursuing my views as a member of a democratically governed organization. Does this mean that Cranky Marxist Dude and indeed the alleged writer of the bit of nonsense we're examining today are on the "right side of the political spectrum"? Apparently it does, because they've certainly done a bit more than just suggest that I'm wrong to pursue my views. They've sniped at me in their nasty little totalitarian way a number of times and implied that criticizing them isn't just bad or undemocratic or right-wing, but in fact is a sign of hate-mongering, fascist, violent, something-or other. I don't take such attacks seriously, because they're obviously the result of intellectual slackness and perhaps mental imbalance, but still I think their criticism of the AL could certainly be classified under the category of "suggesting to members of a democratically governed organization that pursuing their views is wrong."

I suppose here I should come clean. All this rot about democracy doesn't impress me at all. Democratic governance is a peaceful method to change regimes, but when it come to pursuing political goals I prefer principled politics to democratic politics. But according to the logic of this gibberish, then pursuing views democratically somehow justifies any old sort of idiocy. Anyone "pursuing a view" within a democracy is somehow beyond criticism, except of course by those benighted folk on the "right side of the political spectrum."

Let's consider some counterexamples, though, to see how "right-wing" such suggestions can be. What if a group in the ALA tried to bring forth a resolution that all racial minorities should be expelled from the ALA? According to the logic of this particular SRRT nitwit, to even suggest to this group that pursuing their views is wrong would be "on the right side of the political spectrum." But would it be? I don't think so. I think it would just be humane good sense to say to racists that pursuing their racist views is just wrong. Perhaps some of the radical democrats at the SRRT would disagree with me, though, and just say I was some old right-wing reactionary.

Or what if a group within ALA pursued a policy of instituting IQ tests for ALA membership and requiring a high score before allowing a person to join that august organization? While such a test would possibly weed out a lot of the SRRT, and thus have at least one positive side effect, I suggest that it would not be "on the right side of the political spectrum" to oppose such a group or to suggest that it was wrong of them to "pursue their views."

As much as the SRRT person quoted above would apparently support the institution of racial or intelligence qualifications for ALA membership as long as those qualifications were reached by democratic means, I would not. Besides just being wrong, such positions also have the disadvantage of having nothing to do with libraries. The SRRT folk are always trying to put debates in terms of right and left. I prefer to put the debate in terms of right and wrong.To suggest that some members of the ALA are wrong in pursuing their views isn't "to the right of the political spectrum." It's just good sense.


anon7 said...

Exactly so. The "tyranny of the majority" is precisely what the Supreme Court protects us from when it has the last word on matters Constitutional. Or, at least, that is the presumed intent of the authors of the U.S. Constitution.

The ALA, as far as I know, has no such structure. Maybe it does and I just don't know it--I find the web site to be very difficult to navigate. Maybe it needs one.

tomeboy said...

Frankly I can't discern any difference between ALA and the SRRT cadre. Seriously.

I'm convinced publicly perceived partisianship will ultimately marginalize our profession. (I would say the same if ALA was chock-full of Rethuglicans) Latte Marxists, most likely tucked safely away from any tax paying stakeholder, continue to hold the coat for Anytown Public Library.

We are stewards, not activists.

contrarian librarian said...

The quote AL dissected so well is from former Library Journal editor John Berry. He wrote it to the SRRT on May 26, 2005.

Bottom line: the SRRT is motivated and animated by politics, not principle. They violate ALA's own code of ethics and misuse membership funds.

Privateer6 said...

That's why both the wife and I refuse to join the ALA. If we are going to spend money joining an organization, we want SOME benefit out it. Lately ALA has done NOTHING for libraries or librarians.

You are incorrect in stating "publicly perceived partisianship will ultimately marginalize our profession," as the profession is already marginalized. Think about, the general public does not know what is required to become a librarian, i.e the MLS, MLIS, MIS, ad nauseum, and do not think of us as professionals like teachers, lawyers, etc. While the NEA and ABA have established standards and work to improve the condition of their members, ALA goes for the political issues.

Anonymous said...

I can remember calling ALA in the 80s, just so I could experience someone being rude to me. -annoyedfortoodamnlong.