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.