Random Thoughts on a Rainy Day, Part II
What is it about the rain that brings this out in me? Is it because it seems so gloomy and causes me to be gloomy? Maybe it is because I am feeling gloomy, coming down with flu symptoms. Perfect timing, as I am preparing to attend a conference in one of the most beautiful settings on earth: Hawaii. This happened once before and I wrote an essay at the time with the same title as this one (http://www.sheldensays.com/Com-twenty-nine.htm). So this is part II.
Part of the reason for my gloom today is that there are a lot of horrible things going on in the world that create both gloom and doom for millions of people. The situation in Iraq shows no sign of improving, despite the lofty statements of King George and his henchmen who are constantly proclaiming that “we are turning the corner” or similar absurd statements. It is beginning to look a lot like Vietnam all over again.
Then, too, I read with disgust Bush’s proposed budget, seemingly cutting everything except the Pentagon and various “security” interests. Of course, expenditures on the crime control industry continue unabated.
Two items in the news that are at first glance unrelated but upon further study are in fact much related. I am speaking here of the controversy over Ward Churchill’s essay about 9/11 called "Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens," and the cutting back of funding for libraries. How these are related should become clear shortly.
Churchill, a professor at the University of Colorado, has always created some controversy over his writings, many of which have been critical of our treatment of Native Americans (he has claimed to be part Cherokee, which some people dispute – perhaps this is a red herring) and the FBI’s infamous program called COINTELPRO, among many other topics. He was scheduled to be a speaker at Hamilton College in New York. That’s when the trouble started.
All over the country there is a very concerted movement by right-wing groups to rid the country – especially universities – of “leftist” thinkers. Led by people such as David Horowitz and more recently Newt Gingrich, they apparently want to “cleanse” the country of “evil” thoughts. They claim that the nation’s universities are overrun with leftist professors who “brainwash” their students with their narrow “anti-American” views. This seems little more than a modern version of McCarthyism. (See my commentary on this subject: http://www.sheldensays.com/campus_reaction.htm.)
So a group of conservative students protested his appearance (scheduled for this Thursday, February 17.) Why are so many people upset about an essay posted on the web the day after 9/11? I’m not sure why, but apparently it was something Churchill said in that original essay – or the conservative interpretation (perhaps misinterpretation is a better word) of what he said. In his essay he contrasted people like stockbrokers, lawyers and government employees who died in the attacks with Nazi “technocrat” Adolf Eichmann for their role in supporting, at least indirectly, U.S. actions abroad which, as Churchill (and many others, myself included – see my essay by going to this web site: http://www.sheldensays.com/understanding_september_11.htm) pointed out, created a situation where some sort of response was one day inevitable. It is what the CIA has called “Blowback” (which was the title of an excellent book by Chalmers Johnson, whose interpretations of 9/11 mirrors Churchill’s; see also the writings of Noam Chomsky). Although he never said it, the media have accused him of comparing even the janitors and similar workers at the World Trade Center of being like Eichmann.
Following the incident at Hamilton College, the corporate (and right-wing dominated) media went into hysterics and Churchill was castigated all over the place, with some insisting that the governor of Colorado have him fired from his university position. Naturally, right-wing pundits like Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly had a field day.
What does this have
to do with libraries? Ward Churchill himself gives part of the answer during an
interview with the Boulder Weekly. In this interview he stated that “the
American public has long since convinced itself that it can act however it wants
in the world for personal benefit, for profit, for whatever, or have it done in
their name, and claim innocence and impunity from any consequences at the same
Then he challenged that notion, saying that “You're not innocent if you're a participant, if you support it, if you embrace it, if you vote for it, if you revel in it, if you celebrate it. You're complicit, just like the Germans.”
For views like this he gets accused of being “anti-American,” with some saying that since he is a professor being paid by their taxes, he should not be saying these things. His response to this is to say that “I've spent the entirety of my adult life in full-fledged opposition to this [referring to U.S. atrocities], and I've never deviated for a moment, and that said, no, I am not innocent, because I have not been successful in reaching your brain-dead self and making you act in a different way... This applies to me just as much as to anybody else. It applies to my family.” (My emphasis.)
He has not been successful in reaching the “brain-dead.” And here’s where libraries may come into play., although perhaps not directly. The success of Amazon.com, Borders and Barnes and Noble notwithstanding, it is a simple fact that people don’t read much anymore. Also, they don’t engage in critical thought. If more people read and engaged in some critical thinking then they would not put up with the Pentagon “newspeak” which is perfectly demonstrated by the phrase “collateral damage” and Madeline Albright’s statement while U.N Ambassador and eventually Secretary of State under Clinton about the 500,000 Iraqi children that had died as a result of economic sanctions, and stated it was “worth the cost.”
As I ponder this situation on this rainy day, I remember something I used to do on rainy days as a kid: I would read, either at home or at the local library, within walking distance of my house. This morning I read with keen interest a story in the Los Angeles Times titled “Pop.: 1 Plus 5,000 Volumes.” (See the “In the News section of my web site.) This is a story about the smallest town in the country that has a library, Monowi, Nebraska. A 71-year-old woman is the only resident now. For many years she and her husband – who passed away two years ago – yearned to have a library. According to this article, “Elsie's late husband, Rudy, read them endlessly. He farmed and tended bar, he ran a grain elevator, he delivered gas to filling stations, and when the town was down to just him and Elsie, he served as mayor too. But he always found time to read — science fiction, history, the classics — anything but a Harlequin romance.”
Now she has the library, with about 5,000 volumes crammed into a small house. Not too many people come by, but some still do and borrow books on the honor system. “Across the Great Plains, towns that have long since lost their schools, their banks and all hope of a future still keep their little libraries going. Volunteers open them for a few hours a week, waiting for readers to come down deserted Main Streets.” Yet, all over the country most large cities have either cut back funding or shortened the hours they are open or, as in the case of Salinas (pop. 150,000) are proposing closing all of their libraries.
I don’t know if the severe cut-backs in library funding has contributed to our collective ignorance about world events (including the sordid history of American involvement in foreign countries over the past 100 years or so, which has resulted in literally millions of deaths, far greater than the number who died on 9/11) or the inability to think critically, but it has to be seen as one factor. Given the relentless propaganda of the right-wing (especially via television) and the socialization from the public school system, the public library is probably becoming irrelevant as a countervailing force.
I must admit that I rarely go to the library any more, mostly because I have access to a computer and the Internet and have the money to spend buying books (and even get many books free from publishers – one of the perks of being a college professor). The people who are hurt the most are those who cannot afford a computer, and hence cannot get on the Internet, and of course cannot afford to buy books. For these people, public libraries are their only source of information. Will they all be closed someday?
More than this, however, an important part of our cultural and intellectual heritage is slowly disappearing. Increasing numbers of people get most or all of their information about national and world events from television news. It is quite ironic that right-wingers like David Horowitz claim that all these “leftist” professors are engaged in “propaganda.” One of their own techniques is to pick out anecdotal evidence – often wild, unsubstantiated stories – about a particular incident on a college campus and then claim that this represents all professors at all colleges.
Perhaps more than anything else, the declining importance of libraries, and the real possibility that they may soon go by way of the horse and buggy, is symbolic of the anti-intellectualism that seems so dominant in today’s society. People who read and do serious scholarly work (aided in no small part by books) and arrive at conclusions that go against conventional wisdom are too often punished. The case of Ward Churchill is but one example among many.
Then again, perhaps what I have said here is just a reflection of the gloom I feel on this rainy day in Las Vegas. The sun is starting to come out now, so my gloom may disappear and I won’t notice how bad things really are.