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The Violence of Ideas

Donald Trump isn't a racist.  Not in any conventional sense.  He's far too narcissistic, self-centered and opportunistic for that.  While the current crop of white nationalists proclaim loyalty to some mythical idea of whiteness, a tribal affiliation with an imaginary west European identity, Trump's only loyalty is to himself.  Hardly a white supremacist, he's a Trump supremacist.  He loves those who support him, belittles those who oppose him or are insufficiently loyal.  He surrounds himself with rich, white men because those are the people he knows.  He has no racial or tribal loyalty.  His sympathies lie with the white supremacists, not because he shares their dream of an ethnically pure state, but because their vision of the individuals who should be running things embodies how he sees himself.  His recklessness and lack of any ideology make him all the more dangerous.

His most recent comments, calling out the "bad dudes on the other side" highlights how he supports and empowers the alt-right.  By focusing on violent acts committed by people on "both sides" and then making bland statements saying that he opposes "hatred, bigotry and racism in all forms" he sidesteps any specific criticism or condemnation of the people and organizations leading the alt-right charge, while also giving comfort to those who claim that Black Lives Matter supporters (among others) are engaged in hatred, bigotry and racism.

The murder and beatings that occurred in Charlottesville are horrible.  But focusing on the violence deftly turns attention away from the ideas.  What should be even more shocking is that a mob of people bearing torches marched in support of the profoundly un-American idea that power in this country should be held only by those who exemplify a particular vision of white nationalism and who explicitly reject the principles of equality that the nation was founded on.

There's no acceptable justification for the violence perpetrated under the Antifa banner.  It is wrong morally and it is self-defeating tactically.  But I recognize that those who are willing to engage in it do so because they feel that the threat posed to American values by the alt-right is so severe that drastic action is justified.  They believe that the attempt to spread those ideas is an act of violence itself and that it must be prevented by any means necessary.  I believe they're right about the seriousness of the threat, but wrong about the tactics that can be used to oppose it.  But focusing on the violence, without examining the ideas behind it, risks equating their ideas with the ideas of those who are explicitly seeking to destroy an America that is built on the principle that every person has equal value.  This should be repugnant to every American patriot.

If the people who came to participate in the Unite the Right march had been as mild as lambs their presence should have horrified Americans just as much.  Spencer's manifesto, "The Charlottesville Statement," was written specifically to crystallize and advertise the views of the alt-right in advance of the march.   It is explicitly racist, explicitly anti-Semitic.  It proclaims the existential necessity of defining the state along racial and ethnic lines.  The people who came to march were not there to debate what we should do about statues celebrating Confederate war heroes.  They were there as part of a movement that seeks the end of a country built on democratic values.

How best to govern a nation founded on the principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution has been the substance of political debate since the beginning.  The ideas of the alt-right are not part of that debate.  They are an explicit rejection of those principles and a rejection of the two and a half centuries that the nation has struggled to live up to them.  They are fundamentally anti-American.

But Trump's focus on the violence and the "bad dudes" implies that these ideas are just as worthy of consideration as any others.  After all, he says they are held by "some very fine people."  That the President of the United States can't find it in himself to fiercely and unequivocally reject and condemn those ideas is profoundly terrifying.  I don't think it's because he shares that ideology.  They just give him the adulation that he craves.

Donald Trump isn't a racist.  It's much worse than that.







Metadata 2020: Calling On Everybody

I wonder when I first heard the word.  I suppose I understood “metadata” as a fancy term for the cataloging I’d learned in library school, or the indexing I’d done at NLM.  A trendy, computer-y word for a very old concept.  Here I’d been “applying metadata” for all of my professional life and hadn’t even known it! 

These days you can’t take a step and a half in the world of scholarly communication without tripping over the word.  And there’s another word I see cropping up more frequently.  Metaphorically, we speak of that world of scholarly communication as an "ecosystem".  Where scientific knowledge once existed in discrete bits and the scutwork of scientific research was laboriously unearthing the connections between them in order to establish frameworks and platforms on which to build new discoveries, we now see an interconnected system of articles and data and loosely defined “research outputs.”  Or at least we see the potential for such a system.  Its infrastructure is metadata. 

The Metadata 2020 initiative is a crucial step in moving the community from the metaphorical image of what an ecosystem might be to a vibrant, effective, usable and efficient system of interconnection.  I use the word “community” advisedly, because the critical foundational insight of Metadata 2020 is that progress and realization will require a broad community effort.  As a librarian, I may think of metadata as derived from traditional tools for describing books & articles.  But a publisher sees it differently.  A data scientist has their own approach and sensibility.  The people working for funding agencies have their unique angle.  We all have different priorities regarding which flavor of metadata we think is most important.

As Ginny Hendricks points out, each of the groups that cares about metadata has approached it in their own way, developing approaches to solutions that meet their own needs.  Great progress has been made, but as long as we continue in this piecemeal fractured fashion we'll fall short of the interconnected vision we all should share.

The goal of Metadata 2020 is to bring these various approaches into closer alignment, to foster the necessary conversations and collaborations.   You can sign up here to receive occasional news and updates.  You have an important role to play.

Imagine a world in which you can move from reference to reference, object to object, gathering new insights, discovering new connections and new collaborators, revealing unanticipated patterns, all without running into the roadblocks and blind alleys and rabbit holes that waste our time and deliver frustration.  If you've bothered to read this far, you know how important this is.  And you almost certainly have expertise to contribute. Make it happen.




Grateful to young black men

Funny things, stereotypes.  You have a few encounters with people and decide they typify everybody who shares their characteristics.  So you make quick judgments about people you've never met.  If the stereotypes get deep enough under your skin, and you meet people who don't match them, you decide that they must just be exceptions.

When Lynn and I travel by car, as we did recently on our two week trip to Wisconsin and back, we stop every couple of hours for gas, or a sandwich, or a restroom break.  And there I'll be, unfolding Guido, my 3-wheeled walker, from the back of the car, struggling my way to the door of the gas station or rest stop or McDonald's (McDonald's being my default because the restroom is always in the same place and there's usually a handicapped parking place near the door nearest to it.)

People are generally lovely.  I can manage most doors myself, but often there will be someone who'll notice and hold one open for me.  And most consistently, that someone will be a young black man.  It's so consistent, in fact, that as I'm making my way toward the building, if there's a black dude coming up behind me, or about to exit the place, I feel myself relax a bit, because I'm sure he'll get the door.  Certainly, many of the other people who might be around are likely to help.  But I don't count on them the way I've come to count on the black guys.  

I have a theory about this.  If you know that your skin color and your sex strike a visceral fear in a large segment of the population, and that because of that fear they see you as a threat, and that because of that threat you are a target and are vulnerable, you pay attention to everyone around you.  You're exceptionally alert, because your life might depend on it.  You got the talk from your Mom or your Dad or your grandmother or the uncle who took you under his wing.  You don't make a big deal of it.  Much of the time maybe you don't even think about it.  It's not a conscious thing, it's just part of how you carry yourself.  So you're going to notice the old white dude with the black hat and the scraggly white beard struggling his way toward the door.  It takes less than half a second to see that you're probably safe from him and because you were raised right, of course you're going to wait and hold the door.  Maybe you're even going to pick up your step to get past him to get to the door first.  You probably won't make eye contact, you don't really think about it.  It's just the right thing to do.  When he looks at you and grins and says thank you, maybe you'll give him a quick nod.

I certainly don't mean to minimize the extraordinary kindness and helpfulness of so many people that we run into.  My affliction offers me wondrous opportunities daily to marvel at the generosity of people.  But the fact remains that for many people I'm invisible.  They're not unkind or neglectful when they let the door swing back at me or when they push past me in a way that almost knocks me down.  They'd be chagrined if they noticed.  But they don't need to notice.  

I'm never invisible to the black guys.  I'm grateful for that.  But I know it's because they can't afford the risk.