Monday, March 12, 2007

Privacy Versus the SRRT

I was reminded of the value of privacy so many librarians claim to espouse while reading a post at Library Juice last week that had Rory Litwin engaging in a little revisionist history. From the LJ post: "The Council sessions of the ALA Midwinter Meeting in Seattle in January were interpreted by many as a defeat of the idea that Council should address 'non library issues,' [note the scare quotes] as resolutions aimed at defunding the war in Iraq and impeaching President Bush were voted down by wide margins."

It may be a secret to Litwin (since I have no idea if he reads the AL), but it's no secret to you that I am one of the "many" who interpreted the SRRT ass-kicking at Midwinter as a defeat of the idea that the ALA Council should address non-library issues. I don't know if that defeat will ever be permanent, but it was definitely a defeat of this idea, with at least one brave Councilor publicly questioning the relevance of these issues. Perhaps the idea will resurrect its slimy head, but it was still no less a defeat.

Litwin goes on to say claim that "in fact, Council’s interest in issues like this tends to move in waves, and the primary reason these resolutions did not gain ground this time may be that Council members are tired of this type of issue after a number of years of addressing them in Council floor debates that were lengthy, emotional and difficult."

Yes, the primary reason may be fatigue, and it may be that the Councilors are starting to make more refined moral and political judgments. Perhaps the more refined moral and political judgments are themselves the result of long, emotional, and difficult debates. Time will tell.

He confesses: "I share the same fatigue, and personally do not regret the present mood of Council - as long as it does not lead us away from dealing with those issues that are outside of the immediate technical concerns of librarians but within our wider domain (issues of intellectual freedom, information ethics and information policy), and as long as we don’t close the door on 'non-library issues' completely."

I can follow him a certain distance, but no further. I have never argued that the ALA should not address wider issues relevant to librarianship (such as intellectual freedom). I may disagree with some stances taken by the ALA, but often as not I don't. I think the ALA claims about so called "banned books" and public pornography are wrong and based on intellectual confusion and dubious moral reasoning, but nevertheless they are proper areas for ALA involvement. These issues are where the librarianship and citizenship meet, and where librarians enter the public arena armed with authority and expertise, at least theoretically.

But non-library issues are non-library issues, and any issue that the ALA address that has nothing to do with librarianship belongs in a different domain. The ALA speaks for the profession of librarianship, and librarians as professionals have no particular competence to address non-library matters. Any political sputterings issuing from the ALA about non-library issues are the irrelevant opinions of some frustrated librarians. Librarians that think they have something to say qua librarians about non-library issues are similar to what Ortega y Gassett called "learned ignoramuses," referring to professors or experts who think that because of their expertise in one field they have some authority in any other field. We we speak as librarians about library issues, we have authority. We when speak as librarians about non-library issues, we're just blowhards. The SRRT types want the ALA name behind their irrelevant political statements because they know that everyone else would take their political opinions even less seriously if they just stated them in their own name.

Litwin tries to argue that the ALA should still address these issues because of "strong precedents," the primary strong precedent being the SRRT's battle to turn the ALA into a socialist propaganda machine for the past 35 years. But precedents have to be rational to be defended. The SRRT was wrong then, and it's wrong today. Before 1954, the US had a "strong precedent" of legally enforcing racially segregated education. Is that an argument that it should have continued or that we should return to it today? It is if you rely on precedent and not reason or morality.

The ALA is an association for people sharing one interest--librarianship. That's all ALA members necessarily have in common and the only area of competence for the association. There are other associations for addressing political issues. If you want to change the world, go join one. More power to you, and I hope you make our world a better place. It's possible that I myself support some of these associations. But having the ALA make declarations about non-library politics is about as noteworthy as having your local bowling league or chess club make declarations about politics. That's nice, but who cares?

"It seems," Litwin notes, "there is general weariness toward the 60s generation’s persistent connection of the professional, the personal, and the political, and a desire for perspectives that place humanity above efficiency to go out to pasture so that we can continue moving our society ahead at its increasing pace. I think this sentiment is at work where people insist that we should never address 'non library issues.'"

Well, that's certainly one interpretation, and a limited and self-righteous one to be sure. I for one am certainly tired of aging hippies trying to relive the glorious days of their youth protesting the Vietnam War while smoking pot and telling everyone how they're so morally perfect and everyone who disagrees with them is so evil.

The part about how these self-righteous totalitarians "place humanity above efficiency" while people like me, who protest the politicization of every sphere of life, are somehow the opposite, is just balderdash. It has absolutely no connection to my politics or ethics, and every connection to self-righteous, purblind dogmatism. The assertion that I'm doing anything so that "so that we can continue moving our society ahead at its increasing pace" is so absurd I'm not even sure how to respond. That may fit the frustrated trendsetters, but it has no relevance to me. I'd be happy to slow the world down, but not so we could enter some totalitarian nightmare beloved of the SRRT.

And I'm always suspicious when people start talking about how much they value "humanity." It's usually those people who don't value any actual human beings. I don't place efficiency above human beings. But if you collapse the distinction between the personal and the political, or between the professional and the political; if you leave no space for human action that is not saturated with politics; if you collapse these distinctions and then try to force your political views on everyone else, then you might not be valuing efficiency over humanity, but you're certainly valuing something over humanity. You're valuing you're own ego and your own ideology and your own self-righteous dogmatism over the actual human beings who make up our world.

The collapse of the distinction between the professional, the personal, and the political is characteristic of totalitarianism, whether it's of the right-wing fascist variety or the left-wing communist variety. Some of my readers have persisted in attempts to label my politics. I'm allegedly one of the "conservative" librarians, implying that my opponents are somehow "liberal." I've noted many times that I think these labels are next to useless in this debate, but I can say that there's nothing "liberal" about the SRRT and its ilk. Any political view that rejects the separation of a personal or professional domain from politics is a deeply illiberal view. The totalitarians know this, and many of them are honest enough to call themselves "progressives" or "radicals" rather than liberals, but make no mistake. There is nothing liberal about collapsing the distinction between the personal and the political; it has led to horrors in the past and easily could again.

Which brings me to the issue of privacy. (I'm sure you were wondering where that went.) The ALA and most librarians claim to respect the privacy of library users. And privacy is a liberal value, based on the liberal values of individual autonomy and tolerance, born in the horrors of the European wars of religion. Liberals value privacy because of the belief that people should be allowed to think and believe what they like without interference. The political claim most at odds with the liberal value of privacy is the leftist claim that the personal is the political. Privacy is the separation of the personal and the political; it is the the assertion that there is a personal sphere that is always separate from the political. Liberals believe in separating the personal and the political. Other political ideologies don't.

How much privacy can we have if the personal and the political (and by extension the professional) are intertwined? Not much. If you value privacy, then you will not believe that the personal is the political. You will specifically believe that the two are not identical, and that there is a separation of the two absolutely necessary for peace and justice. If you believe that the personal is the political, then you believe that what you do in private is the business of politicians. That's exactly what leftists and "progressives" have been arguing since the 1960s, but there's nothing "liberal" about it.

The SRRT types aren't liberals, and they know it. They don't value privacy, because they believe the personal is the political. They value the political, and for them politics is about organizing, controlling, and manipulating people until they get their way. Leftists and "progressives" always value ideology over privacy and individual autonomy.

How does this apply to the ALA and the battles over non-library issues? It's relevant because the ALA is yet one more domain where the radicals and the "progressives" want to collapse the distinction between the personal and the political, and between the professional and the political. For them it doesn't matter that people come together in the ALA as librarians, because librarianship isn't important compared to their own political and ideological struggles. The claim that the personal is the political is never taken to mean that therefore politics is something we confine to the home and not appropriate to discuss in public. No, it always means that the "progressive" political ideology trumps your right to privacy, and that your personal and professional concerns are not important. Only politics is important.

The ALA and a lot of librarians complain about the government snooping and spying on innocent citizens. I don't like that either. But don't think that just because some group is antagonistic toward the US government or the current Presidential administration that they are any more interested in your privacy or autonomy than the FBI is. The SRRT isn't interested in your privacy and they're not interested in your personal or professional autonomy. They're interested in collapsing the distinction between the personal and the political that sustains the liberal value of privacy and they're interested in shoving their politics down your throat.

Other than that, I don't know what they want.


Anonymous said...

i'm in the choir to which you're preaching to, but i still have to say, agreed.

and i, too, follow your commentary/positions to a certain point and stop. but this is *your* blog with *your* opinions/thoughts/remarks and i truly respect that aspect of this arena through which you're positing your cybermind (vis. librarianship, that is).

Anonymous said...

You had me up to this:

Leftists and "progressives" always value ideology over privacy and individual autonomy.

Silas said...


AL said...

Well, you can leave that part out then, but the basic argument still holds. Privacy is a value that requires a separation of the personal and the political. You can believe that the personal is the political, and you can value privacy, but you can't do both and remain intellectually consistent.

Anonymous said...

People are intellectually consistent?

Anonymous said...

one cavil: the leadership, and ideological direction, of SRRT stems from the PLG. A more classic Leninist strategy we'll never see in our time.
hence the reprise of Cato.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with your point that one cannot simultaneously believe that "The personal is political" and in the liberal value of privacy. I think the problem here is that you're conflating two different definitions of "political".

The liberal value of privacy is about individual freedom of intimate association and expression (within a specific sphere) free from *state* interference. It's about protecting people from the government, because it comes from an older tradition of analysis that recognizes the government as the primary threat to liberty.

"The personal is political" is about recognizing *non-state* sources of power, like patriarchy. It's a more recently developed type of analysis that looks to threats to liberty from social structures and ideologies and the way they play out in our intimate lives, not just from the government.

Those are not inherently incompatible positions. You can run into contradictions if you focus on bringing in too much state power to solve the problems uncovered by observing the personal is political, but that's not a necessary consequence. For example, inequitable distribution of housework leads to women being disempowered in the workplace. If women solve this problem by figuring out how to get their own husbands to do their fair share, they can develop their economic power (and thus political power) without once violating liberal privacy.

Yay progressive liberalism!

Anonymous said...

It's the distinction between valuing the natural rights of the individual and placing the individual's privacy in a framework of "the state." Neither can be perfectly consistent, but it's all about the premise--does the state grant rights or does the individual cede rights?


AL said...

""The personal is political" is about recognizing *non-state* sources of power, like patriarchy. It's a more recently developed type of analysis that looks to threats to liberty from social structures and ideologies and the way they play out in our intimate lives, not just from the government."

I think you have a good point, but I think that equating the personal and the political is saying more than this, unless we broaden the "political" to include all relationships whatsoever, which is what those who say the personal is the political do. If "political" comes to mean not just government, but any relationship at all, then "political" has become a slippery term that can be used not just for analysis, but for oppression itself. If the personal is the political, then what you do in private is the business of government, whether that's watching hard core pornography or not doing your share of the housework.

If the results of "patriarchy" are political, then of course they're the concern of government, and there have been plenty of people who have advocated government action to rectify gender inequalities fostered by patriarchy. If the personal is the political, that is a natural step. That might all be very good, but it serves to undermine the traditional liberal right to a private sphere free of political interference.

Let's take the case of pornography, and argue, as Catherine MacKinnon or Andrea Dworkin might, that hard core pornography is inherently demeaning to women and is the result of patriarchal oppression. The personal is the political, which means that what you do in private has political implications that are within the domain of regulation. If hard core pornography is harmful to women and the personal is the political, then under the assumption that discrimination against or harm to women is a bad thing, such pornography should be banned.

I haven't made any such argument about pornography, but equating the personal with the political is inconsistent with the traditional liberal value of privacy and is the first step toward totalitarianism. You may in fact find a mild totalitarianism pleasurable, but it's certainly different from the liberal separation of the personal and the political.

Greg said...

To Anon's comments at 12:37, the right of privacy is not just a 'state' issue. It is a question of the majority versus the minority. The state may be a form of majority but it is not the only form. Otherwise what you're saying is a large group of people can browbeat a smaller group of people into anything as long as they don't call themselves a form of government.

anon at 12:37 said...

The kind of censorship advocated by Dworkin, MacKinnon, et al. was exactly what I had in mind what I said:

"You can run into contradictions if you focus on bringing in too much state power to solve the problems uncovered by observing the personal is political, but that's not a necessary consequence."

What if, instead of bringing the state into it, feminists with those kinds of responses to pornography organized a boycott of hotel chains that offered porno pay-per-view? (If they allied themselves with the other end of the political spectrum, they might actually have an effect.) I would call this political, because it's collective action designed to change power relations (in this case, between men and women). But it's perfectly consistent with a liberal free market, and doesn't require any coercive state power at all.

(I should say now that I'm as opposed to this school of thought as you can get while still being a feminist, but I think it's an interesting example.)

Overall, you're right that people who see oppressive power at work in a wide range of situations tend to get lazy about solutions. This really frustrates me - when they're this mad at the current administration, can't they see the risks of asking the state to solve everything? But it doesn't mean they're wrong that there are larger structural institutions that affect our daily and intimate lives.

And Greg, my point was about the classically liberal concept of privacy. Your point about majority oppression by non-state actors is exactly why I think we also need to recognize how the personal can be political.

Stephen Denney said...

I generally agree with your point. To me, the main point is that the ALA is basically a professional association representing some 65,000 members, whose political views may range across the spectrum but who *generally* share certain values based on free access to information and intellectual freedom. The ALA council, on the other hand, is made up of individuals who receive around 2,000 votes in the annual election, in the case of SRRT members, many of the votes are bloc votes. So I see a possible gap between the views of ALA council and ALA membership based largely on ALA voting apathy.

One problem I have with your labels -- privacy as a "liberal value" vs. the leftist notion of the personal being the political -- it seems in our society, liberals are considered leftists. And from the liberal view, there might be some rightists who would treat the personal as the political as well.

AL said...

Good points. I would argue that not all leftists are liberals, though. Obviously "liberal" is a slippery term, but many socialists and other "progressives" deliberately disassociate themselves from liberalism when amongst themselves. And you note that many rightists would treat the personal as the political as well. You have no argument from me on this.