Monday, December 26, 2016

The fundamental dignity of human inquiry

Years ago, I came up with this phrase to describe why libraries matter: they are institutions dedicated to the recognition and support of the fundamental dignity of human inquiry.

Curiosity is responsible for all the real gains in the quality of human life. What causes disease, and how can we prevent it? How can we build comprehensive and sustainable systems to deliver clean water and energy, to move goods and services to markets, or to educate the young? Human beings ask questions, and in the fearless pursuit of answers, they can find their way to the things that make human life enduring and worthwhile.

That end - a life in which people are free to explore the universe around them, to stand unafraid, to build rather than blunder and destroy their way through their days, to live with dignity and purpose - requires at least three things.

First, we must have the freedom to express what we know or think we know. This is what we mean by “free speech” -- the right to think, say, and write what we will. We have to declare the hypothesis before we can test it. (And a hypothesis doesn’t have to be religious, scientific, or political; it can also be emotional.)

Second, we must have the ability to access the expressions of others. Whether we read fiction or non-fiction, we build the scaffolding of our understanding on the explorations of others.

Third, there must be systems of social interaction that ensure reasonable safety and fairness. The “rule of law” provides predictable rules that balance individual liberty and collective well-being.

But there are threats to this attempt to lead lives of greater wisdom and peace.

Some of those threats come from within. Who hasn’t awoken in the wee hours cringing at the memory of his or her arrogance or cruelty? Those nights mark the painful process of developing a conscience. Too often, we are heedless of the damage we do to others when we make statements we later realize are careless, willfully ignorant, bigoted, or actively malicious. We are free to speak, but speech has consequences. Learning isn’t always pretty, and not all of our desires are positive. Over time, I believe we should strive to be kinder.

Other threats come from the powers in society around us. The school principal or board removes a book that tackles big and important issues (Beloved, by Toni Morrison, which explores the realities and legacy of slavery) using a small and irrelevant excuse (there’s too much sex). Often, probably most often, this attempt to prevent access to other’s expressions comes from a desire to shield and protect. But that effort also diminishes the dignity of inquiry, treating even 16 and 17 year olds as toddlers. At other times, the desire is more overt: government officials lie about the purposes of their programs, and corporate leaders deny access to the records of their deals. Why? Censorship, secrecy and deception are tools to better control the minds of others, to divert them from truth, lest they rebel against their keepers.

We are living at a moment in our history when these two factors - the exercise of human dignity and inquiry on the one hand, and the increasingly blatant and authoritarian efforts of entrenched power on the other - are coming into increasing conflict.

I do worry that the election of Donald Trump, and his rejection of decorum, of civil liberties, of fairness, of charity, of international thoughtfulness, may lead us to war. There are some key flashpoints for potential global conflagration. Among them are the ruthless pursuit of oil, political and religious conflict in the Middle East, racial and national tribalism, the status of Taiwan, the number and availability of nuclear weapons, the importunities of corporate financial speculation, or simple confidence in democratic processes. Trump has weighed in on all of them, in ways that are consistently destabilizing and corrosive.

Even more troubling to me is that such a person could gain, if not the majority of popular vote, the confidence of some 62 millions of Americans who actively chose a leader whose history and likely policies (even likelier seeing his cabinet picks) have been demonstrated repeatedly to injure and impoverish them.

I was raised with an idea of America in which we were heroes. In World War II, we stepped into a conflict against a megalomaniac who launched his power from a platform of bigotry. We turned the tide.

It breaks my heart even to imagine it, but what if, on the world stage, the United States of America is now poised to be, not a hero, but the villain, the initiator of war, and shameless exploiter of those least prepared to defend themselves both within our borders and without?

What next?

I believe, as citizens, we have both rights and responsibilities. At present, compromised though it is, we still have the right of intellectual freedom: free speech, and access to it. We still have, equally compromised, the right of privacy.  I believe it is my responsibility to advocate tirelessly for these rights.

But I also have the responsibility to exercise them. I must support the mechanisms of investigative reporting (by actively supporting free presses). I must speak up on behalf of people I believe to be threatened. I am obliged to support the political causes that maintain in my judgment the American dream I still subscribe to: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

That dream is obtained not by passive acquiescence to the culture around me, but by intentional action on behalf of peace, fairness, compassion, and the dignity of human inquiry.

Hate speech

My daughter lives in Berlin, with her German national husband. Germany has something called Volksverhetzung, which translates to “incitement of hatred.” Here, we would call it hate speech. In Germany, it’s illegal.

According to Wikipedia, “the law requires that said speech be ‘qualified for disturbing public peace’ either by inciting ‘hatred against parts of the populace’ or calling for ‘acts of violence or despotism against them,’ or by attacking ‘the human dignity of others by reviling, maliciously making contemptible or slandering parts of the populace.’”

Many Germans are wary of hate speech. Hate speech preceded Nazism. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that the more frequently people hear attacks on some group, the more likely eventual violence against them might be.

Such laws are not unique to Germany. In the aftermath of World War II, similar laws were adopted in many nations in Europe, Scandinavia, the United Kingdom, Africa, India, Asia, and Australia.

In the United States, the First Amendment has been held to offer broad protection for most kinds of speech. The few exceptions are libel, immediate threats to public safety (shouting “fire” in a crowded theater), and “fighting words” (an immediate incitement to violence where such violence might reasonably be construed as likely).

It’s clear to me that the political speech of Trump during his campaign gave a lot of cover for hate groups - encouraging David Duke to run for the Louisiana Senate, for instance, and explicitly endorsing Breitbart messages. But Trump may be part of a larger coarsening of public speech. It’s hard to see Milo Yiannopoulos’s crude and racist Twitter attacks on Leslie Jones as a celebration of political opinion.

Yet, hate speech has also been defined by some as merely questioning a system of religious beliefs. Is saying that one does not believe in Christ’s virgin birth an insult to Catholicism? Is wondering about the effects of a verse in the Koran hate speech against Islam? Should there be criminal consequences? In some parts of the world, there are.

Political criticism of a regime has also been cast as hate speech. That’s a handy tool for tyranny, too.

As is always the case with censorship, it comes down to “who decides?”

I do not endorse speech whose aim is to harass or frighten people. Jesus wasn’t the only smart soul to state the Golden Rule: do unto others as ye would be done by.

It’s possible to express even difficult political or religious opinions without being a bully. Even when we can't be kind, we should be polite.

Nonetheless, though I condemn hate speech for the ignorant malice it represents, I oppose even more strongly the idea that the government should punish what people think and say, rather than what they do. Government policy, like library policy, should concern itself with behavior, not with opinions.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Huck Finn and the intelligence of minors

When my daughter was 14 years old, she wrote a paper for school about an old controversy: complaints about the novel "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." It was so good, I persuaded her to submit it to the Colorado Libraries magazine -- and they accepted it. It came out in Fall, 2002, v28 no3.

Huck Finn is in the news again, most recently in Accomac VA, where, along with To Kill a Mockingbird, a parent is seeking to have the books entirely removed from a school. The incident reminded me of my daughter's essay - and I reprint it below because I think she nailed the issues. Maddy's essay, to me, is proof that of course minors should be allowed to read anything they can understand - and they understand plenty. They are certainly up to the challenge of reading American classics.


River Banks

by Madeleine LaRue

If you squint your eyes, and look real close, you might see that shape out there on the river. See it? It's just on the horizon, and from here it looks like it don't have a care in the world. Just a-driftin' down the river, real quiet and peaceful-like, and now, as it's gettin' closer, you can tell it's a raft, and you can see two blurry figures. One is a young boy, and he don't think much of sivilization. No sir, he's happy on the river with his best friend, a runaway slave. But he don't look like a slave, you say. He's happy; they's both happy, and they's both free. And what better place to be free than on the river? But, wait... who's that there on the banks? Yeah, they's the ones. They's shoutin' at the boy, callin' him a racist; and at his friend, callin' him submissive; and callin' them both a bad example. And do you hear that snort of laughter? Well, sir, that's a Mister Mark Twain, and like the boy on the raft, he ain't one to care what other people think abouthim.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (whose title character is, of course, our hero on the raft, and which was written by our friend Mr. Mark Twain) was published in 1885 and instantly became a controversy. Most of the modern complaints (at least the ones you hear about) are of racism. Huck, Jim, Twain, and darn near everyone else in the book has been accused of being a racist at one point or another.

But before the racism dilemma, there were other obstacles. On March 5th, 1885, when Huck was still fresh off the presses, the Concord Public Library Committee decided "to exclude Mark Twain's latest book from the library. One member of the committee says that, while he does not wish to call it immoral, he thinks it contains but little humor, and that of a very coarse type. He regards it as the veriest trash. The librarian and the other members of this committee entertain similar views, characterizing it as rough, coarse and inelegant."

No mention of racism was made at all. In fact, for quite some time, the major objections to Huck were his "immorality" and his grammar. The book, the CPL Committee said, was "more suited to the slums than to intelligent respectable people."

Why all the fuss about grammar and not a peep about the "n-word"?

Yes, the "n-word," which (as defenders are endlessly reminded) appears 215 times in Huckleberry Finn. Michelle Malkin points out in her essay 'Hey, Hey! Ho, Ho! Huckleberry Finn Has Got to Go!" that "Censors ... are too busy counting Twain's words to understand them."

So what did he mean? That question can be answered a few ways. First, it was simply the way people talked in the nineteenth century. Twain's novels, like any other writer's, reflected the speech of his time. In Nat Hentoff's essay "Huck Finn Better Get Out of Town by Sundown," he quotes a schoolman who remained unnamed: "Good Lord, Twain spends three quarters of his book trying to make clear what a damnable word 'nigger' is, because it shows the whites who used it didn't see, didn't begin to understand the people they were talking about."

The people, or more specifically, one person, they were dealing with (to paraphrase Russell Baker) was the only gentlemen in the river of society's worst. The people Huck and Jim encounter on the raft are dishonorable, crude, arrogant, and ignorant... and hold the one kind soul-"Nigger Jim"-"beneath contempt" and in scorn.

While the king and duke rob, and the Grangerfords dispute, and Pap abuses, Jim cares for Huck, guards him all night, calls him honey, loves him as no one else would.

Jim is clearly the most honorable and most admirable character in the novel. He shows humanity where others show brutality, delivers kindness though he receives cruelty. And through all his suffering, he gently guides Huck to all his crucial decisions. When Huck realizes the nastiness of his trick on Jim on Jackson's Island, it's because Jim tells him so-"Dat truck is trash; en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren's en makes 'em ashamed." And Huck is ashamed, so ashamed he apologizes to a slave-something otherwise unheard of. Jim forgives him.

And Huck's ultimate decision-to tear up his note to Miss Watson and declare "All right, then, I'll go to hell!"-is because of Jim's love. His epiphany is the realization that Jim's friendship is more important than society's ideals.

At least, that's how I see it. But black administrator John Wallace (who has been trying to get rid of Huck Finn in his school district) said, "You want to know why it's so important to get rid of this book? We are always lamenting that black students don't learn or progress as well as whites. Well, if you give them this crap about themselves, how are they going to feel good about themselves?" He also recalls studying Huck Finn when he was in school, and flinching every time the word "nigger" was mentioned.

The simple fact that "nigger" appears in the novel at all is often the only complaint. There have been cases when a new version of Huck was requested, nigger being replaced with "black" or "slave." Michelle Malkin offers the best answer to this request: "Whitewashing the word 'nigger' out of the book's dialogue would have played into the hands of those who prefer to sanitize history than [to] confront it."

Isn't it better to learn from history than to ignore it? Or will whitewashing it, like Tom Sawyer and his fence, make all the problems go away? Out of sight, out of mind.

Or not. For even as educators and parents demand the removal of the word "nigger" from Huckleberry Finn, the students (who, since they're the ones who will be reading the book, should have a say in the whole matter) have proven they're not as thick as some people think. "Do you think we're so dumb that we don't know the difference between a racist book and an anti-racist book?" That quote came from a Brooklyn eighth-grader interviewed by Nat Hentoff. An African American eighth-grader.

Obviously, though, many people feel they shouldn't have to read, hear, or see Huck Finn-or anything else that offends them.

Do people have a right not to be offended? Well, according to the Constitution... no. You have the right of free speech. . . but that means listening to what everyone else has to say, too, even if you disagree with it.

However, just for the sake of argument, let's say we do have that right not to hear. On that principle, since I can't run as fast as other people in my P.E. class, I shouldn't have to go to P.E. Seeing other people beating me in races offends me and is damaging to my self-esteem. And I couldn't draw to save my life, so I shouldn't be subjected to the humiliation of art class. Come to think of it, the probability of my being offended in school is so high, that I probably shouldn't go at all. See what kind of world that would be? A boring one, that's what. "If we try to banish works that some people feel are painful," says Jill Janows, "we'll be left with nothing to teach. The question is how to teach, and how to teach successfully-with respect for all students as well as for the works being taught."

Nat Hentoff agrees with her. He feels that, if there are ill feelings to the novel, the teacher's job is to channel those feelings to the issues Twain himself was against namely, slavery. J. Whyatt Mondesire makes a valid point when he says, "You're not going to learn anything by closing your eyes and not reading."

So there they go again, a boy and a slave, back down the river. It was a different river then, you know, 'cuz a river, well, it's like history, and history don't always flow the same way. And it sure don't always flow smooth. Yessir, you got lots of rapids in that river. But to that boy and that man down there, a few rapids don't matter. They've been there before.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Max's first storyboard: a Halloween Story

My son is now wrapping up his undergraduate degree in digital design. These days, his work is very sophisticated. But even when he was still in elementary school, he had that eye for telling image.

For instance, here's a little storyboard he did on index cards, in pencil. It's a funny narrative. But what amazes me is that he was able to capture real emotion and intent in just a few lines. He clearly delineated panic, dismay, determination, bravery, utter deflation (when his hair goes from up to down), fear, and more. I wish I could tell you what year it was. I want to say that he was in fourth grade. I love it, and particularly that he described noticing something by saying that he "heard it with my o[w]n eyes." He was visually oriented even for sound.

Oh, and what was the problem, really? A little colony of mice got into the kitchen. It took us several months to catch them all.


One of the graphics I've used through the years is called the "pyramid diagram." I've also called it "chasing the library patron." It presents an image that shows how to build the market share of libraries, expressed as a percentage of households with an active library card. Here's the image (and clicking on it makes it bigger):

(This uses the now defunct Douglas County Libraries logo, which I quite liked.)

The basic idea is the base of the pyramid is what most public libraries in America do: open their doors, and offer a collection, reference services, a children's program, public classes and workshops, computers, and meeting space. In exchange, about 30-50% of the service area households will find them, often without any further efforts. (And usually because of early childhood experience with the library.)

The next level is Public Relations, in which libraries get their branding act together, send out graphically consistent messages to their community about those core services. When patrons go through big life changes - pregnancy, birth, career change, major consumer purchases, illness, retirement - they discover the library message and connect. The outreach activity of PR is one way, and can garner another 5-15% of households.

The next level is marketing, which focuses more on exploring the needs and interests of the community through various surveys, interviews, and demographic analysis (and so two-way), then developing appropriate library responses. This can gather another 5-15%.

Next up is community reference: a focused outreach that answers questions that never would have been brought to the library, but affect the community at large. This strategic outreach to groups actually working on big community projects can gather another significant share of the population. Is it as high as 15%? I'm not sure.

At the top is some percentage - I don't know what it really is, either - that simply isn't and won't be interested in the library. Those folks may enjoy other benefits, such as a more literate community, with higher median wealth and lower crime. But they doesn't know that and don't care.

Anyhow I think I've had links in the past to this image at Now a search for and pyramid might get people to it.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Huck Finn, again

I spoke Friday at the Oak Park Public Library. They were having a staff development day (from about 8 a.m.-2 p.m.). My topic was Intellectual Freedom.

Among other things, I talked about the history of the Library Bill of Rights. It was created in 1938 by Forrest Spaulding, then director of the Des Moines Public Library. I've written elsewhere about some of the parallels of that time to today.

When I finished my talk, I got a couple of interview requests from the Christian Science Monitor and the New York Times. The issue was Accomac, Virginia, where a parent called for the removal from school curriculum and library both the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and To Kill a Mockingbird. Why? Because of the presence of what would now be considered racial slurs.

On the one hand, I was sitting in the one time home town of Ernest Hemingway, who said, "“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” Huck Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird, are genuine and undisputed classics, which seems to mean that they have the power to keep infuriating one generation after another.

There's more to those books than just the use of a few phrases. On the other hand, the use of the N-word is indeed offensive language today, and I quite understand the awkwardness for a person of color having to hear it in the classroom.

So I said several things:
  • The book doesn't have to be read aloud in class. We can be sensitive to changes in the times without trying to suppress books altogether.
  • There is an historical context to the book. I'm sure that most teachers set that up, and the use of language is one teaching point.
  • Classics should be taught, but classics aren't the end of literature. They constitute something like a minimal exposure to writing. Teaching such books can be coupled with other books, written by black authors of the time, or contemporary authors.
The truth is that literature, and human experience, is more than just the writing of dead white people. Free speech means an openness to new classics, not censorship of the old.

At any rate, I found the director, board, and staff of the Oak Park Public Library to be forward thinking, highly competent, intelligent, and fun. I appreciated the opportunity to spend some time with them. And it's clear that we're going to need smart, passionate, and proud librarians in the days to come.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Broken links

So I've merged my blog and my website. Many of these older entries (which I'm combing through) refer to things on the web that yield nothing.

Newer bloggers know this: put the content in the post, not as a reference. So I apologize to folks who look for scintillating content that just ain't there no more. As of today, I am smarter. (You take your wins as you can.) - Welcome

In November of 2018, I left my position at ALA in Chicago to return to my Colorado-based writing, speaking, and consulting career. So I'...