Free Speech and Free Societies, Pt. 2

I’ve not watched the Charlottesville news coverage thoroughly. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I know whatever everyone else knows. Fascists brought assault rifles to a “peaceful” political rally to protest the removal of a statue to a traitorous slave owner. A counter protest congregated. Tensions mounted and boiled over, and one fascist drove his automobile into a crowd of counter protesters injuring nineteen and killing one. This same tactic has been used by fascists in London, Paris, and now Barcelona (among other places) by anti-Western Islamic fascists and now these American fascists are emulating them.

Even though I’ve not consumed much news coverage about it, from what I can tell, the counter protesters, especially Heather Heyer, are being portrayed as heroes in this story, and the fascists and the villains, no little because they caused the injuries and death, but because their philosophy is so disgusting to most — but not enough — of us. In both the cases of Ferguson and Charlottesville, the protesters who stood in support of equal justice and freedom are the heroes. In the case of Charlottesville, I’d even include the counter-protesters who fought back against our fascist enemies as heroes. The two sides there were in no way equally responsible or equally immoral. 

In theory, my dedication to the Constitution and its principles, not to mention the ideals of librarianship, must allow for groups like these fascists to exist. One typically can’t kill an idea, anyway, which is why the “War on Terror” was always doomed to fail. In practice, though, we cannot allow them to persist unchallenged and must point out the failures of their worldview at every instance. Removing statues cannot “destroy history” because history does not exist in statues, but books, artifacts, and records. If you are really interested in preserving history you should go to college and study history, archaeology, and anthropology, not defend artwork depicting the glories of failed insurrectionists.

To bring this all back to librarianship and the main theme of this blog. What is the role of librarianship in a world where hatred and fear seem to be getting a stronger hold everyday? What positive influence can I have in my current position? It’s not like this just started happening this week or two years ago. I’ve been seeing its rise since the ascendancy of Barrack Obama in 2008. Since then, Charlottesville has been inevitable. The rhetoric of Donald Trump only accelerated it.

I am not Scott Bonner, and I have never had to use my library as a triage for my community’s ills. In the world of publicly funded university libraries I have been shielded from the immediate impact of these ugly parts of our culture. For nearly ten years I’ve gone to work with people of all races and backgrounds on both sides of the desk and have never had to be concerned about a social uprising on my campus.

Did I witness racism in these settings? Certainly! I witnessed racism at UMSL when the (now retired) Associate Dean and another librarian said that we shouldn’t schedule two of our few black employees together because they were “too loud.” I witnessed racism when a Lebanese coworker (a Baptist who whistled Hymns regularly, also now retired) spent the better part of an hour having a telephone conversation in Arabic, then stopped to read aloud an antisemitic joke in English. Afterward, I confronted him about that he laughed it off by saying “we’re all Semitic!” as if that erased the racist — and truly ignorant and inaccurate — joke about Jews and their religion.

In the second instance, I first confronted the perpetrator, and not finding satisfaction in his response I went to our boss. In the first instance, because it originated from the Associate Dean, we felt powerless and only acted to protect the two student workers.

Luckily, I don’t have to completely forge this path on my own. Librarians act as heroes of the the constitution and social justice everyday. We are guided by the American Library Association’s (ALA) Code of Ethics to help us, especially Article I,

  1. We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.

Now, the Code of Ethics is not fundamentally a social justice statement, but principles of social justice make an appearance here: “service to all library users,” “equitable service policies,” “equitable access,” “unbiased…responses to all requests.” These and other principles in the ALA’s response to the Charlottesville protest.

Seeing any segment of the population as being unworthy of our services is fundamentally against contemporary librarian values and duties. The connection between the cowardly police officer who shot Michael Brown and the evil fascist who ran over Heather Heyer is that they both saw their opponent as less than human. They both saw their opponent as a creature undeserving of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and an impediment to their own.

In less than two weeks my library will be filled with people of all races and philosophies from all over the country (mostly Nevada and California) and any number of countries. I fundamentally could not do my job if treated any of them any differently because they talk funny, or wear a hijab, or believe Christ rose from the dead, or are blind, or are indeterminately gendered. I know how to do my job well and I know how to be kind to people, but that feels so insufficient right now. Maintaining the status quo doesn’t feel like enough because the status is not quo. What more can I do? What else is there that will help heal my country and myself? I’m asking.

Related Post

Free Speech and Free Societies, Pt. 1

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