May 2004

Michael Farrelly

library rakehell

The Culture Wars

I woke up one morning not too long ago and realized that in the “culture war” being waged by conservatives I am nothing short of a terrorist insurgent.

I am not armed with rocket-propelled grenades, chemical weapons or even a vaunted dirty bomb.

Rather my library science degree, framed and hanging on a wall in the back room of my mother’s house, is the weapon of mass destruction they fear the most.

Librarians and liberalism is an odd mix. We are a profession often viewed as a sedate group of knitters and cat lovers. Librarians like quiet and calm, we enjoy crossword puzzles and reading the classics on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Librarians are button-down types. How did we become the epitome of all that is liberal and wrong in America to so many people?

There’s a very simple answer. We read and encourage others to do so.

The neo-conservative movement in America runs on ignorance and snap judgments. Rush Limbaugh has built an entire career out of telling people “what to think." Sean Hannity, Michael Savage and Ann Coulter all make their bread and butter filling the airwaves with half-truths, presumptions and sketchy information.

They are not conservatives in the true sense. They don’t want a smaller government that is less federal and more state-centered. In fact, the bloated deficit of the Reagan-Bush era and the return to that deficient under Bush the Younger speaks for itself. Neo-conservatives build their movement on the vitriol of the common man. White, middle-class Protestants who see a future that is multi-racial, more inclusive and less religious are the backbone of this movement. Play on the fears of people and you will always win. Notice the language neo-conservatives use. “Get American back,” or “Return to our roots,” or Newt Gingrich’s famous quip about “bringing back the 1950’s.” Let us return to a time when African-Americans could not vote, women were unable to break out of strict gender roles, homosexuality was a mental illness and being any religion other than protestant limited your life options.

Oh yes, and those meddlesome librarians have to go back to stacking books, damn it!

Take for instance an article by Mona Charen. Ms. Charen writes:

“Asked during a television interview what she would do if a child were accessing pornography on a computer right in front of her, a representative of the ALA said, 'We believe parents need to educate their children about how to use the Internet responsibly.' If one more libertine instructs me on my duty to raise my children, I think I'm going to scream. Even the best parent is not present with his child every minute of the child's life. “

Essentially the rage, and rage is to the neo-conservative movement what fuel is to your car, is directed at the American Library Association for asking parents to supervise their children’s use of the Internet when in the library. If you have a minor child alone in a public space you technically have an abandoned child. Libraries struggle with “unattended child” policies when parents dump their children off and go shopping for high-end merchandise. So, to protect children from the evils of the Internet, neo-conservatives want parents to abrogate their personal responsibility to civil servants? Again, remember these people are not real conservatives.

Another conservative columnist puts forth, “A Shakespeare character famously said, 'Let's kill all the lawyers.' This gibe has lost none of its relevance through the centuries. But today we might reply to that acerbic line, Sure -- but only if we can kill all the librarians next.' Librarians have recently let down their hair -- usually wrapped in a tight bun, of course -- to become some of the most vocal opponents of the Bush administration and the USA Patriot Act, prompting Attorney General John Ashcroft to take a public swipe at them. Librarians now constitute one of the country's main centers of thoughtless and unreconstructed leftism. It is the sort of ideology that you expect to find among naive college students and destitute Latin American peasants. But librarians?”

Besides the racism and invention of unnecessary new words, (“leftism” boggles the mind) Lowry is typical of the neo-conservative ethos that hates those damn librarians for opposing the Bush administrations sweeping surveillance package, the USA Patriot Act.

Now this column, and many more to follow, could be filled with reasons why you should fear and fight the Patriot Act. The inherent compromising of not only the rights of free expression, speech and due process not withstanding, there’s also the disturbing fact that this wish list came from the Justice Department only a month after the attacks of 9/11. Most Americans were in a state of panic and shock and the Justice Department took the time to eviscerate the constitution. In a third world country we would see this and be appalled by the timing.

As for filters, I can tell you simply and plainly that no librarian in their right mind would allow a child to view pornography. There’s a very simple filter that requires no threatening legislation, no act of congressional oversight. You simply walk over and ask the child, usually looking at something almost laughable like or, and ask them if their parents would like them viewing that. Either the walking over or the comment will solve the problem instantly. It's illegal for children to view pornography and you are intervening with subtlety rather than zero-tolerance fascistic nonsense. But what about the adults viewing objectionable material say the neo-conservatives? What will we do about them? Privacy screens on computers work wonders. In addition any person making a show of what their viewing, and believe me that this does occur in libraries, is disturbing other patrons and will be asked to leave on those grounds. Simple, homespun solutions to large issues, isn’t that the American way?

There is a bitter twist in all this librarian hatred. Librarians are all for freedom of expression no matter what is being said. A good library has Bill O’Reilly’s latest screed in its collection along with Al Franken’s histrionics. Michael Moore’s bombast should be as readily available as any Nazi propaganda film. There is an equality of ideas, good and bad, within a library. Librarians don’t agree with everything on their shelves. I hate a great many of the books that I hand out to patrons every day. A child photocopying pages out of a book on the Rwandan genocide and laughing with his friends about this is appalling to me, but he has the right to be a complete twit.

Anyone who hates a librarian simply for their profession should be immediately suspect no matter their political orientation. Opposition to libraries is opposition to an informed populace.