Evidence Based Librarianship?

I have this naive, idealistic notion that librarians, moreso than the members of most other professions, should be particularly scrupulous about facts.  My idealism is often tested.  The latest disappointment comes from the rising tide of hysteria in the biblioblogosphere over Sarah Palin's attempts to ban books when she was mayor of Wasilla and for trying to fire the city librarian for failing to do so.  But a careful reading of the facts reveals no evidence for either of these charges.

The fullest account that I'm aware of is in the Anchorage Daily News, but even a careful reading of the Time magazine article, which appears to be where most people picked up the charge, gives a subtly different picture.

Palin clearly inquired of the librarian, at least three times, what her position would be if she were asked to censor books.  The librarian was aghast at the very suggestion.  Given Palin's background, I think it is reasonable to assume that if a case had arisen where a citizen wanted something removed from the library, Palin would have supported it.  My guess is that her questions to the librarian were intended, at least in part, to get an idea of how big a fight she'd put up and what kind of process was in place.   But there is no indication that an attempt to ban or censor anything ever actually occurred.

Palin definitely tried to fire the librarian, as she did other city officials.  She did fire the police chief.  Both the librarian and the police chief had publicly supported her opponent in the mayoral election.  The police chief had nothing to do with banning books, and Palin backed down on firing the librarian.  Did the librarian's response to the inquiries about banning books add to Palin's concerns about her "loyalty"?  It certainly didn't do her any good.  But there isn't any evidence that it was the primary cause for the attempted firing.

Palin's speech on Wednesday was a breathtakingly cynical array of exaggerations, misleading statements and outright lies.  There are lots of good reasons to be opposed to her election as Vice-President, and I would not want to be misinterpreted as trying to defend her.  But I suffer from this quaint devotion to the facts and it's hard for me to see how claiming that Palin attempted to ban books and then tried to fire the librarian for failing to do so is any different than claiming the Michelle Obama hates America or that Barack is going to raise everybody's taxes or any of the other ridiculous claims that set democratic supporters frothing over the terrible misdeeds of Republicans.

If those who support Obama can't do any better than that, one could almost be forgiven for sitting this election out.  I won't, because I think the issues are too important, but I'm often not much happier with those who are supposedly on "my side" than I am with those on the other.


Campaigning in Alabama

It's going to be a long three months.  As I approached the ramp to the interstate this morning I was behind a big white pickup truck that had a very large sign plastered on the tailgate:

Obama promises to raise your taxes, limit our oil supply, and appoint liberal activist judges.  Vote John McCain

There's a bit of truth to the first charge, if it's me or somebody in my tax bracket who is reading the sign.  But it's not me that the sign is directed to -- most of the people in Alabama who read that sign would actually have their taxes cut under Obama's current plans.  I'm not sure where the charge about oil comes from and of course he certainly hasn't "promised to appoint liberal activist judges."  What I'm always curious about when I see things like this is whether or not the driver of the truck knows that these are lies or has been hoaxed into believing that they are true.  Or whether or not he cares.

And Dick Cheney is in town today for some kind of top secret fund raiser.

I hope there's a martini in my future.


Honesty In Government

It's sort of creepily fascinating that even the announcement of the AG's resignation comes with a scattering of little lies.  According to the NYT, Gonzalez calls my president on Friday to resign.  Bush balks a little and tells him to come down to Crawford for lunch on Sunday.  At lunch, Gonzalez gives him the official letter and Bush accepts it.  And yet,

As late as Sunday afternoon, Mr. Gonzales himself was denying through his spokesman that he was quitting. The spokesman, Brian Roehrkasse, said Sunday that he telephoned the attorney general about the reports of his imminent resignation “and he said it wasn’t true — so I don’t know what more I can say.”

What in the world is one to make of that?  I can understand not wanting to preempt the official announcement Monday morning (although it would worry me if they thought it was still a secret when Gonzalez went to the microphone), so maybe you don't want poor Brian to confirm it.  So make him unavailable.  Go for "no comment."  Why flat out lie?  Is there any purpose being served with it?

No.  It's just that the "reckless disregard" for the truth is so deeply ingrained with these guys that lying comes naturally.  Even when it's pointless.  (Bush did the same thing when he fired Rummy, explicitly denying it after the decision had been made, and then justifying his lie to the press corps a couple of days later in a tone that indicated he was puzzled that anybody would think he should've told the truth about it).

Personally, I think the reason they waited until this week to make the announcement is that the Daily Show is taking the week off.  Froomkin is on vacation.

Decades hence, when the historians look back on the calamity that was 43's administration I'm afraid that it won't be the Iraq war that distinguishes it as particularly remarkable in the history of our young country.   That war is symptom and emblem of the deeper rot. 

The sheer incompetence of the president and his crew still astonishes me.  I can tolerate political differences, priorities that might be different from mine.  But my president's inability to accomplish much of anything, his serial misreading of his own constituency (the Harriet Miers nomination and the collapse of his social security proposals being prime examples), and his insistence on putting his confidence in people who are very clearly out of their depth angers me more than any policy dispute I might have with him.

But alas, the one thing that they have been good at is eroding the balance of powers that is at the heart of American democracy.   To think that only a decade ago, the United States, despite all of our bluster and blundering, our rude manners and pathetic cultural insularity, was still seen around the world as an example of hope and that "beacon of liberty" that speechwriters like to talk about.  Now there are very few countries in which a majority of the people do not see us as doing more harm in the world than good.

Theoretically, I suppose, we might, over time, be able to repair our reputation.  I'm not terribly confident, but if the democratic president to come can bring in a coterie of really smart professional diplomats and cabinet leaders we might be able to restore some confidence.  What I don't think can be repaired is the damage that's been done to the balance of powers.  The unitary executive view of the presidency (exemplified in the liberal use of signing statements), the extreme reliance on executive privilege, the bizarre transformation of the vice-presidency into a powerful office that functions as its own fourth branch of government, and the insistence that civil liberties must always give way in the face of perceived or imagined security threats are likely to be maintained.

Every president has tried to expand their sphere of power and to limit the abilities of Congress and the Supreme Court to rein them in.  None have been as successful as this one.  And since the Supreme Court is now stacked with supporters of the unitary executive, as the various relevant suits make their way up to the high court, the imperial power of the presidency will eventually be upheld.  And it would be naive in the extreme to believe that if Obama, or Clinton, or Edwards or whoever else might rise to the top over the next eight months comes into office with that power that they're going to give it up.  They'll believe that they will never misuse it.  But Bush believes that, too.

That's the saddest part of all.  I actually believe that Bush thinks that everything he does is for the good of the country.  He may be contemptuous of the American people, he may not have any clear understanding of what American democracy is actually about, he may be woefully ignorant of geopolitical realities, but he believes deeply that he is doing the right thing.  In the face of that, why should anyone be bothered by a few lies.


Participatory Democracy

Whenever the pundits decry the nastiness of modern attack ads, I can comfort myself by recalling that political campaigns throughout history have always been foul.  Read the Philadelphia newspapers from the late 1700s or scan the cartoons of Thomas Nast or Honore Daumier and tell me that the scurrilousness of the attacks, one side upon the other, is any more repellent now than it has been in 250 years.

Notwithstanding that historical perspective, I approach this election cycle more disheartened than I recall ever being.  There is a recklessness to the political rhetoric that is in keeping with the growing disregard for truth that has been a hallmark of the current administration.  The recent Kerry gaffe is a good example -- no one who took the time to read the transcript and the context of Kerry's remark could have misunderstood his intent -- but that didn't stop the White House from trumpeting the claim that Kerry was insulting the troops.  He foolishly handed them a club, and they had no compunctions about using it.

I don't mean to imply that Democrats are blameless in this mess -- a quick scan of campaigns across the country should quickly disabuse anyone of that.  What the Republican strategy of the last six years has made clear is how completely one can get away with a reckless disregard for the truth in political advertising -- and as that has become clear, politicians of all stripes have been eager to embrace the strategy and avoid what they see as the primary mistake of the Kerry presidential run, in failing to quickly, and head-on, confront the swift boat veterans. 

It turns out that when you lie about your opponent, the only people who are outraged at you are the partisans who weren't going to vote for you anyway.  The lies will help to energize your own base (whether or not they perceive them to be lies) and they may help to sway some of the undecided voters who are trying to weave their way unsteadily through the rhetorical muck.  There really isn't any down side.

My president's administration has been singularly inept (he hasn't even been any good at managing the things that I agree with him on -- immigration policy being one), and nothing that happens today is going to change that since he has made it clear that, while he is no longer "staying the course," (indeed, he has never taken that approach!) he is still surrounded by people who are doing a damned fine job and he'll stick with them as they make some minor tactical adjustments.

If the Democrats do take control of one or both houses of congress, this won't change.  The incoming politicians will not be much different from the politicians they are replacing, or from their Democratic colleagues who are already there -- quite willing to pander to the fears and emotions of the electorate, all too willing to support legislation that further unbalances the separation of powers for fear of being called soft on terrorism, and generally quite lacking in the sort of visionary leadership that we are so desperately in need of.

The reputation of the United States is in tatters and its standing in the world may never have been lower.  Our ability to influence world events in a positive direction is practically nonexistent, and the notion that we provide a shining example of democracy to the rest of the world is widely considered to be a tasteless joke.  We have ceded to the presidency a degree of independent power that the constitution was explicitly intended to prevent, and no future president, of any party, is ever going to be willing to give that back.   The current makeup of the Supreme Court insures that the theory of the unitary executive, and all that the Bush administration has drawn from that, will be firmly upheld when those challenges finally get that far.

This fundamental restructuring of the presidency, which has been a goal of its architects for nearly twenty years, will be the primary legacy of this administration.  Changing the party that controls Congress is going to do nothing to roll it back.


Happy Mother's Day

In "Lookin' For A Leader" from his new album Living With War, Neil Young sings: "America is beautiful / but she has an ugly side."  Nowhere is this more starkly demonstrated than in our disgustingly high infant mortality rates.

Save The Children has just released a report on the State of the World's Mothers 2006 which includes these facts:

  • Infant mortality in the US is 2.5 times higher than Finland, Iceland and Norway, and about 3 times higher than Japan
  • Among industrialized countries, the US is tied for 2nd to last place with Hungary, Malta, Poland and Slovakia
  • Within the US, the infant death rate is highest in Washington DC
  • The rate is 3.4 times higher for blacks and 1.5 times higher for Hispanics than for whites

The depressing thing about this is that it isn't new.  It's not as if something has suddenly gone wrong and with the release of these figures there'll be a sudden national outcry and the energy and will to fix this.  We've always been at the bottom of the heap.  It's just never been a priority.

Infant mortality is a matter of poverty and education.  It's not complicated.  Obviously, the US has the resources to fix this problem.  But in Congress yesterday they're arguing (although not very hard -- the Republicans held a victory rally on the steps of the capitol before the vote was actually cast) about extending the tax cuts on capital gains, as if that's the most critical economic problem we're currently facing.  I don't know if Kanye is right that my president doesn't care about black people, but it's quite obvious that as a nation we don't really care about poor babies needlessly dying.

When Katrina hit, America was shocked to find out that New Orleans was populated by poor black people who didn't have the resources to evacuate.  It'd be a wake-up call, some said.  After seeing those pictures, we wouldn't be able to turn away from that reality.  We'd be forced to mobilize the national will to deal with the horrifying poverty that we had suddenly become aware of.  Of course, that didn't happen.  The news reports quickly devolved into the usual partisan finger pointing and posturing and after a few weeks we got bored and moved on.  Pretty pathetic.

Truly, it baffles me.   I'd like to think that it's a matter of ignorance, that most people in the United States simply assume that because we are the richest and most powerful country the world has ever seen, our children must be the world's healthiest, and as this latest report gets it's brief mention on page A26 of a few newspapers, it'll seize the national imagination and action will be demanded.

Not a chance.


The Arrogance of Conquerors

I'm babbling into my phone as I practically stagger down the street...  "I'd say it was one of the best that I've ever seen...  Except that they've each been one of the best I've ever seen..."

Lynn is laughing as she listens to my exuberance, "You always say that..."

I've just left the Shakespeare Theater Company's performance of The Persians, and, as is always the case when I walk out of the Lansburgh Theater I'm feeling quite overwhelmed by what I've just been a part of.

I've never been much of a theater goer.  Because of Marian's love for Broadway musicals, I've seen quite a few of those in the last decade (both in New York and on the road).  On the few occasions when I've seen a "straight" play, done professionally, I've enjoyed it tremendously, but it's just not something that I generally make time for, or even think much about when I'm travelling and looking for things to do.  But a couple of years ago, as I was getting out of the shower, there was a story on NPR about a new production of Cyrano de Bergerac.  I first saw a tv version of the play when I was in my early teens and it had a profound effect on me.  I've seen every version I could (including Steve Martin's marvelous Roxanne), and read it several times.   So I perked up at the radio story and was thrilled to find, at the end of it, that they were talking about a production that was about to open in DC and that it would be playing while I was there on my next trip.  I immediately got online and ordered a ticket.

It was one of the deepest, richest artistic experiences I've ever had -- right up there with seeing Branford and Ellis at Blues Alley, or walking out of the Whistler retrospective a changed man...  Since then, whenever I'm going to be in DC I look to see if there's something playing at the Shakespeare Theater, and if so, I get a ticket.  Doesn't matter what the show is. 

So this time it was The Persians.  The very beginning of the western theater tradition.  2500 years old.  And absolutely contemporary.  Bob Mondello has an excellent review in the DC City Paper that really gets into the details of the production.   I was too busy being dazzled by the theatrical effects to be as analytical about it as Mondello, so I'm grateful to him for explaining some of the stagecraft that was being used to pound me into emotional submission.  When I read his description of that final heartbreaking moment between Xerxes and his mother I wept all over again.

The play is only 75 minutes long, without intermission.  So there's none of the build & release of tension that one expects in a modern play.  It's just build.  As I practically stumbled out of the theater wiping the tears from my face, I wasn't even sure why I was crying.  They sure weren't the sentimental movie tears that Lynn & Marian tease me about -- this was something much deeper, a complexity of emotions mixing sorrow and anger and fear and astonishment and empathy and horror.  Maybe standing up on my theater seat and howling would have been a more accurate expression of the pounding in my brain & chest. 

This production would be as powerful and moving even if we weren't seeing it played out in front of us in the news every day.  The parallels between the arrogance of the Persians and the blind hubris of my president and his crew of blinkered fanatics couldn't be clearer.  2500 years.  Our politicians learn nothing.

The scholars have a few theories on what Aeschylus was trying to do with this play -- risky business to do something like this in front of the Athenians only a few years after the real events took place.  The one I find most compelling is that Aeschylus was beginning to see in the Athenians the same arrogance to power & grandeur that had led Xerxes to overreach.  It was a warning.  He won first prize in the competition.  And the end of Athens played out just as he might have foretold.

I try to listen to the little imp on my shoulder who tugs at my ear and warns me of my own hubris.  I've learned to be grateful to it -- saved my ass more than once.  I might have to ask sometime if it knows whatever happened to W's imp.  Did he never get one, or did it just give up a long time ago?  When the hubris imps gather in the Cloud 9 bar on their days off, do they look down at W & Condi & Rumsfeld & Cheney and shake their little impish heads in wonder?  And maybe there's even a bit of admiration at how willfully blind & foolish those humans can be, even with all of the horrifying examples of their history laid out before them.


Terrorism and Democracy

"... democracy yields peace and the best hope for peace in the Middle East is two democracies living side by side.  So the Palestinians had an election yesterday, the results of which remind me about the power of democracy."  So says my president at his news conference yesterday.  He continues to beat the drum that by bringing democracy to the Middle East, he will eliminate terrorism.

Quite coincidentally (since I'm several issues behind), I've just finished reading an article in Foreign Affairs pointing out that, on the basis of the actual evidence, "the data available do not show a strong relationship between democracy and an absence of or a reduction in terrorism. Terrorism appears to stem from factors much more specific than regime type."   The overwhelming victory of Hamas in the Palestinian election neatly underscores that point.

More striking than this rather unremarkable conclusion, however, is some of the polling data that the article presents on public opinion in the Middle East.   While there is general support for the notion of democracy, and a general belief that it can work in the Middle East, there is intense dislike of US policies.  The US is viewed most favorably in Lebanon, where 32 percent of respondents claimed to have a somewhat favorable or very favorable attitude toward the United States.  In Saudi Arabia, that response was 4 percent.  Four percent!  No wonder we're not so enthusiastic about promoting democracy in Saudi Arabia -- any democractically elected government there would be actively hostile to US interests.

W and his crew are so filled with righteousness that they've never been willing to look deeply into the causes of the intense dislike around the world for the US, and they blithely ignore the fact that in the past five years they have intensified that dislike manyfold.   As long as W continues on his present course (and I see no reason whatsoever to think that he will change one bit), he will continue to inflame those that hate the US.  But then, he's not really a "cause and effect" kinda guy -- I'm sure he sees himself as more of a "vision" kind of guy.  Those pesky facts musn't be allowed to get in the way.


Politics and Professionalism

I get annoyed when conservative commentators get hostile when a musician or an actor takes a liberal political stand.  Whenever that happens, the Limbaughs and O'Reillys are sure to fulminate about the perverseness of celebrities daring to have political opinions.  The irony that their political opinions make them celebrities seems to escape them.  And it almost seems like cheating to point out that Ronald Reagan was a professional actor who would never have achieved the prominence he did if he hadn't leveraged his celebrity.  Actors are as entitled to be passionate about politics as anyone else -- but because they're individuals, not as actors.

Same with librarians.  As Marcus notes in a recent post, we tend, as a group, to lean left.   I don't know why.  One might speculate, I suppose, that a commitment toward freedom of information is bundled up with a host of other beliefs that push one toward a more liberal political bent.  But "liberal" and "conservative" have become such confused hot buttons these days that I'm hesitant to take that very far.  Leave it as an empirical fact.

But it isn't universal.  Individual librarians run the full gamut of the political spectrum, and I know Republican-leaning librarians who have found themselves in uncomfortable situations when they're with a group of their peers who are enjoying some convivial Bush-bashing without realizing that not everyone at the table shares the same views.

How we deal with that is complicated.  Politeness among colleagues demands that we be sensitive to the views of others when we gather together.   It doesn't mean, however, that we don't get to express political views -- as individuals.  We just shouldn't be surprised if everyone at the table doesn't feel the same way.

As librarians, it's a different issue.  We may have a professional stake in the Patriot Act or copyright legislation.  It is probably not an issue for librarianship whether or not Sam Alito is confirmed as a Supreme Court justice. 

But the lines aren't always clear.  When we gather at conferences, we gather as librarians, but that doesn't mean that we check our individuality at the door.   If my president were to be impeached (let me indulge in fantasy for a moment), I would oppose any attempt on the part of the Medical Library Association to take a position on whether or not that was a good thing.  But if I were in the audience when a speaker made positive comments about it, I would certainly cheer.  Those opposed are more than welcome to boo.


Barbarians

A letter in the Birmingham News refers to the death penalty as "a necessary deterrent" and calls the fact that some innocent people will be put to death "a minor oversight in the larger picture." 

There's been quite a bit of chatter about the death penalty here recently since the News, which has a moderately conservative editorial stance, ran a several part series about capital punishment back in November, and is now calling for an end to the death penalty.

Since we live in a time when facts are malleable, and subservient to one's preferred beliefs, it comes as little surprise that the letter writer reverts to the "necessary deterrent" claim, despite the fact that the News series laid out in detail the lack of evidence for any deterrent effect.  A belief in deterrence is one of the cornerstones of death's emotional appeal. 

There are two arguments against the death penalty -- call them the pragmatic and the moral.  The pragmatic argument is very simply that we know that there is no perfect system and that despite all of our checks and balances, we will put some innocent people to death.  Despite W's insistence that he knows that every person he executed while Governor of Texas was guilty, the evidence is clear that this is impossible, given the number of executions.  When faced with the innocence argument, death penalty proponents often pull out some particularly egregious case where there is no doubt about guilt and the crimes were particularly gruesome and awful -- "Surely," they say, "this man is evil and should be put to death?"  This is, of course, an irrational response.  The argument is not about any particular case, but about whether or not we can create a  system that insures, without fail, that only those sorts of cases will end up in the executioner's chair.   The flood of DNA evidence cases in recent years makes it clear that many people have been wrongly convicted -- and it is the law of numbers that therefore some of those who have been executed must have been wrongly convicted.   We cannot design a system that is foolproof.

The letter writer's argument is at least logical -- it's okay that some innocent people get killed.  In the "big picture" it is more important that we kill the evildoers.   The families of the victims need "closure".  "Justice" must be served.   This is Old Testament justice -- an eye for an eye. 

In the fables of vengeance, whether they be folktales or modern novels or movies, the embittered hero, whose loved ones have been brutally murdered or whose lives have been otherwise destroyed, devotes his life to seeking vengeance against those who have wronged him.  The result is always the same.  The hero achieves vengeance and discovers that it does nothing to resolve the hurt and that he has become irretrievably damaged himself; or, something turns him in time and he finds spiritual healing only with the realization that vengeance itself is soul-destroying.

This is the crux of the moral argument -- that when we, as a nation, take it upon ourselves to exact that sort of vengeance, we are corrupting ourselves.  The civilized nations in the world have come to this conclusion -- that it is barbaric for the state to take upon itself the right to put its citizens to death.   (That so many fundamentalist Christians favor the death penalty is just one of the ironies here that is hard to get one's head around).

The news stories surrounding another execution always feature the family members who have waited so long for this day to come.   They believe that they can only have peace when the one who has wronged them has been put to death.  Given the way our system works, they have waited for years for this.  The desire for vengeance has filled their nights and their days, twisted their lives forever since the day of their loss.   I grieve for them, and wonder what their lives will be like in the weeks to come -- will they find peace after all?  Or will they still wake up at night, full of pain and loss, realizing with horror, finally, that one death cannot account for another?

But maybe it is healing for some of them.  I can't say.  In a society where someone can refer to the state-ordered execution of the wrongly convicted as "a minor oversight", we are all barbarians.


Semi-Intelligent Design

Modern Europe and America have thus been divided, politically and ideologically, into three camps.  There are liberals... There are Marxists...  both are rationalistic, and both, in intention, are scientific and empirical.  But from the point of view of practical politics the division is sharp.

The third section of modern opinion, represented politically by Nazis and fascists, differs philosophically from the other two far more profoundly than they differ from each other.  It is anti-rational and anti-scientific. ... It emphasizes will, especially will to power; this it believes to be mainly concentrated in certain races and individuals, who therefore have a right to rule.

When Russell wrote those lines in his History, it was 1943, and he was living in the United States.  He believed that the US represented the great hope of rational, liberal thought ("liberal" in the philosophical tradition of Locke and Hume, of course, not in the narrow political sense in which it is currently used).  He was wrong.

The battle over Intelligent Design is profoundly about what knowledge is.  It isn't science, it's metaphysics.  The battle is about whether or not we believe that science, as it has been practiced over the last four hundred years, is a legitimate method for understanding the world, or if, in fact, it is dangerous because it may lead us to question metaphysical and religious truths.  To insert Intelligent Design into science classes, is to undermine the very notion of what scientific knowledge is.

As a metaphysical theory, it was pretty thoroughly debunked back in the 17th century after Leibniz, its last great proponent.  It is amusing to turn to Russell again, when, just before explicating Leibniz's arguments he says, "it is well to realise that modern theologians no longer rely on them."  When it is closely examined, it is such a lousy theory.  What intelligent designer would have created human bodies that are so frail, weak and subject to so many failures?  The frightening thing about intelligent design is what it reveals about the nature of the creator -- I'd rather believe it's some half-crazed crackpot  imp run amok than to think that an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful deity made such a botched job of it.   In order to make the theory of intelligent design internally consistent, you have to address the problem of evil, and you cannot do that without resorting to a clearly religious argument of some sort.  To proclaim that Intelligent Design is science is to reveal oneself to be intellectually dishonest or profoundly ignorant.

What I found most striking in Judge Jones' decision in the Pennsylvania case was his pointing out that the evidence clearly showed how the proponents had intentionally lied.  But I guess I shouldn't be surprised.  Why should someone who believes that science and rational thought are dangerous and even evil feel bound by normal conventions of truth and falsity?  If God requires a little deceit in order to move the flag of faith forward, why should any true believer hesitate?

For those who adhere to W's worldview, science is a tremendous threat.  It leads children to think for themselves, to examine evidence, to develop an argument along logical lines, and to go wherever the facts lead.  But that assumes that there are objective facts to discover.  And as our president's minions have pointed out, the "fact-based" world is outmoded.  What our president's partisans admire so much is his unshakeable will -- clear evidence of his right to rule.