October 20, 2006


When the Pigs Become Their Masters

...At the conclusion of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the swine in the story—which become the “leaders” of the barnyard as the plot progresses—turn into the oppressive humans who were at first their sworn enemy when the story began. Before arriving at their final incarnation, the pigs incrementally illustrate various forms of hypocrisy and stealthily cover their tracks by altering the list of their sacred commandments to fit their needs.
...In an idealistic sense, librarians are keepers of information whose knowledge management skills should be free of bias and absent of subjectivity with regard to the dissemination of that information. While it’s important to hold beliefs, it is even more important for librarians to set aside those beliefs in an effort to deliver whatever the patron wants or needs, provided that the information is accurate if it is marketed as objective, and does not promote anything that is blatantly questionable (e.g., pornography, promotion of illegal acts, etc.).
...The aforementioned idealistic view is nothing more than idealism, considering my recent discovery that there might be more pigs in transition in the real world than previously thought.
...A few days ago, while conversing with two acquaintances who both work in libraries, I heard a story that not only gave me chills, but also made me realize that the free flow of ideas and the dissemination of diverse viewpoints is something that might be of little importance to some who are in the same field as me.
...The first person, who shall be referred to as “A,” asked the second person, “B,” if and how B handles patrons who come to the library in search of books by politically conservative authors, most notably Ann Coulter.
...Person B responded that her library makes it a point to avoid purchasing books by conservative authors. If patrons happen to stop by the library in search of such books, Person B explained, with a sly smirk, that patrons are informed that the library has a limited budget and they simply were not able to buy any more books that year. Hence, that particular book—Coulter or anyone else who might be part of her ilk—would not be added to the collection.
...Since the implementation of the Patriot Act, librarians all across the country have feared possible repercussions for offering books or material that might dissent from the ideas espoused by the current administration. A common rallying cry among those of us in the library science field has become that of free thought, free speech, open dialogue, and viewing anything that might stifle diverse opinion as being a threat to not only us as librarians, but to the American citizenry as a whole. On multiple occasions, Hillary Clinton has been lauded for reminding us of Thomas Jefferson’s notion that dissent is the highest form of patriotism.
...Must we fear some left-leaning librarians as much as right-leaning politicians? Have we entered an era of library McCarthyism where librarians will pick titles simply because they affirm the librarian’s personal beliefs, regardless of whether or not the author facilitates discussion on pertinent topics? Will we see it become commonplace to have librarians decide upon works—from monographs to periodicals and everything in between—not because of their popularity or intellectual value, but because of their ideological leanings?
...If so, what does that say for us as librarians? Moreover, what does that say for the potential of censorship, simply by way of the librarian who might be handling the book purchasing?
...I personally find quite a few political pundits from both the far-left (e.g., Al Franken, Michael Moore, Bill Moyers) and far-right (e.g., Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh) to be full of hot air and intellectually questionable—if not intellectually devoid. Does this give me the right, as a librarian who will be ordering the books, to pick only those with whom I agree? Supposing that the majority of my views are libertarian in nature, should I purchase only those books that support what I believe and cast aside anything exclusively conservative or exclusively liberal?
...Is it censorship if those of us in taxpayer-funded libraries single-handedly determine what our patrons read simply on the grounds of personal political viewpoints? Or have I been too idealistic for too many years, and now I am suddenly realizing the amount of power that I might hold in the coming years? Perhaps this is also the first time that I have realized just how much power other librarians have been holding for a long time.
...No matter the answers to those questions, those of us who are working as librarians have no right to talk about the virtues of dissent, diverse viewpoints, or tolerance of differences if we, ourselves, are not willing to lend actions to those words.
...Limited viewpoints are one thing, however, while another issue—which no doubt would be “censorship” to some—is that of not offering books that are sold under the guise of being informative but have elements of inanity and even outright inaccuracy.
...As an example, I would offer A Necessary Evil by Garry Wills (New York: Touchstone, 1999), which was written to describe the history of distrust of government by segments of the American populace. It not only makes foolish connecting of dots, but promotes the notion that the United States Constitution was a carefully-crafted document written with precise language with the exception of one part: the Second Amendment. For Wills, the idea of the Second Amendment being supportive of private gun ownership has had its historical origins “spread and distorted in a wondrous way” (252).
...Wills offers a section on vigilantes—who are traditionally skeptical of government—and begins by explaining that vigilance groups rely upon the use of the Second Amendment to defend their right to private gun ownership in order to commit their acts (223). The list of pro-Second Amendment organizations listed by Wills illustrates an odd evolution. The first “vigilante” group that he uses as an example is the South Carolina “Regulators” of the 1760s (225). By the end of the chapter, however, we find the Ku Klux Klan (230), fascist supporters of Senator Joe McCarthy (236), backwoods Montana militias (240), and madmen who bomb abortion clinics (237). What?! Supporting the right to bear arms is the first step to becoming a racist authoritarian with a penchant for bombing abortion clinics?
...At other times, Wills seems to suggest that people who want small, efficient government actually want no government whatsoever. Law professor Richard A. Epstein, reviewing the book in Reason, called Wills’ logic “a cute verbal reductio ad absurdum” (56). I would argue that such an assessment is too kind.
...Epstein also pointed out that Wills throws around the name of philosopher John Locke, but unfortunately does not know anything about Lockean theory, as evidenced when the philosopher’s name is attached to situations that do not have any Lockean themes (56).
...Perhaps the most telling sign of Wills’ work, however, is his use of data on eighteenth century probate records from pseudo-historian and author Michael Bellesiles (Wills 29). In 2002—three years after the publication of A Necessary Evil, in Wills’ defense—Bellesiles was forced to resign from his professorship at Emory University and was stripped of the prestigious Bancroft Prize by Columbia University when it was discovered that he falsified the aforementioned probate data on gun ownership in his book Arming America (“Shot Down” 3). In The New York Times Book Review, Wills wrote that Arming America “has dispersed the darkness that covered the gun’s early history in America” (“Fire at Will” 29). That might have been true if Bellesiles’ data had been true.
...Nonetheless, Bellesiles’ falsification of data did not bother those who shared his political views. A five-page essay by Jon Wiener in The Nation showed that Wiener was more offended by those who discovered the fraud than by Bellesiles’ academic dishonesty. Wiener’s estimation was that Bellesiles’ overall message was more important than whether or not the message was even true. He ultimately concluded that since “no proof of invented documents” was found, Bellesiles must be innocent (32).
...Wiener is accurate in suggesting that no proof of invented documents was found, but Bellesiles was not suspected of inventing documents; he was accused of falsifying data—inventing some numbers and consciously omitting others. A committee composed of scholars from the University of Chicago, Harvard University, and Princeton University released a 40-page report explaining that Bellesiles’ work contained “exaggeration of data” (Katz, Gray, and Ulrich 17), “egregious misrepresentation” (18), and “evidence of falsification” (19). In fact, a search of the 40-page investigatory document failed to turn up the term “invented document” anywhere. According to the report, Bellesiles admitted to excluding data on gun ownership because the probate data in question “showed a disproportionately high number of guns” (18). The author did not want to see such high numbers, and in response simply ignored them. Regarding Bellesiles’ research, the committee stated: “Every aspect of his work in the probate records is deeply flawed” (18-19).
...Wiener’s Nation piece included a quote from Michael Kammen, past president of the Organization of American Historians and supporter of Bellesiles, which might have inadvertently illustrated the situation better than anything else. He stated that Arming America had “inescapable policy implications” (32). Indeed, the book does have inescapable policy implications, but would those who want certain policies changed be willing to live with knowing that the end result stemmed from fraudulent means?
...Obviously that question has been answered by both Michael Bellesiles and Jon Wiener.
...In 2005, Wiener continued defending Bellesiles’ dishonesty in his book Historians in Trouble, which highlighted Wiener’s firm belief that a vast right-wing conspiracy was really what brought Bellesiles down. In January 2005, George Mason University’s History News Network Website published a description of Wiener’s book, written by him, in which he said that the Bellesiles incident “demonstrated the power of an organized political group on the right to target a historian they identified as an enemy and raises the question of the appropriate sanction for error.” Perhaps Wiener is forgetting that the investigating committee was comprised of scholars from prominent universities—not members of the gun lobby or Republican National Committee.
...It appears that some people are simply unwilling to accept what actually occurred: Conservatives may have discovered Bellesiles’ academic and intellectual deception, but they certainly did not force him to perpetrate it; he did so under his own volition. In addition, such vehement defense by Wiener should raise the ire of his fellow liberals; it sounds as if he is asserting that falsifying data is an acceptable practice among left-leaning historians and that the real travesty is when right-wingers discover the fraud. Is this really the image that Wiener wants to project?
...In the end, we must stay diligent with respect to the books that we, as librarians, purchase and remember that our role as information managers cannot and should not give way to our more primitive urges of affirmation. Refusing to purchase a book for illogical conclusions and factual errors is one thing; refusing to purchase a book for ideological differences is something else. If we allow such an event to occur, we are no different than Michael Bellesiles, Jon Wiener, or George Orwell’s pigs in Animal Farm.
Works Cited
Epstein, Richard A. “Assault with Blunt History.” Reason 32.1 (2000): 55-60.
Katz, Stanley N., Hanna H. Gray, and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Report of the Investigative Committee in the Matter of Professor Michael Bellesiles. 2002. Emory University 15 Oct. 2006 http://www.news.emory.edu/Releases/Final_Report.pdf.
“Shot Down.” The Weekly Standard 23 Dec. 2002: 3.
Wiener, Jon. “Fire at Will.” The Nation 4 Nov. 2002: 28-32.
——. “Historians in Trouble: Why Some Get Nailed.” History News Network. 3 Jan. 2005. George Mason University. 16 Oct. 2006 http://hnn.us/articles/9229.html.
Wills, Garry. A Necessary Evil. New York: Touchstone, 1999.