Now They’re Coming For The Library

I have tended to laugh when enraged Rightwing parents demand that schools and/or libraries “ban” book X or Y–in our digital age, access to that material is generally a click away. And that’s in addition to several organizations pushing back with offers to send a free copy to any kid who makes a request.

As a parent, I learned early that if you want to get a child–or especially a teenager–to read something, the most effective thing you can do is tell them they can’t.

But there are some more insidious ways to subvert American libraries, and I recently came across an article highlighting one of them.

The article began by pointing to the great value of America’s public libraries

“There aren’t many truly public places left in America,” Jennifer Howard writes in Humanities Magazine. “Most of our shared spaces require money or a certain social status to access. Malls exist to sell people things. Museums discourage loiterers. Coffee shops expect patrons to purchase a drink or snack if they want to enjoy the premises.

“One place, though, remains open to everybody,” she continues. “The public library requires nothing of its visitors: no purchases, no membership fees, no dress code. You can stay all day, and you don’t have to buy anything. You don’t need money or a library card to access a multitude of on-site resources that includes books, e-books and magazines, job-hunting assistance, computer stations, free Wi-Fi, and much more. And the library will never share or sell your personal data.”

It’s evidently the fact that libraries are “public” that most irritates the Right. The article takes an in-depth look at the private company currently pushing a privatization agenda, adding the current political assault on history, diversity, and racial justice to the purported glories of privatization.

That’s what what happened in Huntsville, Texas, where the city council voted to outsource the Huntsville library’s operations after some residents objected to a book display themed around Pride Month.

Lest you shrug and think “well, of course– it’s just Texas,” think again.

According to the article, a one-time software company called Library Systems & Services (LS&S), backed by  Argosy Capital Group, a private venture firm, has doubled its size and in the past decade has taken over 17 library systems in five states. It runs over 80 branches, and is now the nation’s fifth-largest library system.

So what happens when the private sector takes over a public good–in this case, the public library?

When LS&S takes over, it receives a set fee from a local government. The corporation gets control over the collection, services, and programs. Most important, it takes over staffing. Librarians at these facilities are no longer public servants; they serve at the pleasure of LS&S. Although it has been building its portfolio since the late 1990s, LS&S has met with little competition; its CEO likes to brag that it boldly goes “where angels fear to tread,” namely, into local fights with committed activists who love their libraries and librarians. The LS&S proposal to privatize the Prince William County, Maryland, library would have achieved its promised savings by laying off 20 percent of the staff, trimming benefits, and cutting pensions. The library trustees said the proposal was “unfair to employees” and rejected it.

The American Library Association has outlined numerous issues surrounding privatization of libraries: “quality of library services, loss of local community control, governance, loss of control of tax dollars, and collection development.”

The ALA also pointed out that privatization often leads to the loss of community involvement with foundations, nonprofits, and Friends groups.

During the pandemic, local public libraries served as community hubs providing a variety of services; in addition to other services, they distributed more than 2.5 million free, at-home COVID-19 test kits. Forgive me if I don’t see a for-profit, private operator doing that–or providing the other numerous free services that our local library provides–everything from access to computers for poor kids whose homes lack them, to help with tax returns. (Somehow, I doubt these privatized libraries host Drag Queen story hours, either–and I’m sure that’s one reason proponents support them.)

Citizens depend upon their public libraries for access to information–all sorts of information, whether their neighbors approve of that information or not.

Wikipedia identifies five fundamental characteristics of public libraries: they are supported by taxes; they are governed by a board to serve the public interest; they are open to all, and every community member can access the collection; they are entirely voluntary, no one is ever forced to use the services provided and they provide library and information services services without charge.

Wikipedia says “Public libraries are considered an essential part of having an educated and literate population.” Precisely what the Right doesn’t want.

Behavior Versus Identity

Last Sunday, I was a guest in an adult class at St. Luke’s United Methodist church.  The class wanted to discuss the recent, disturbing rise in anti-Semitism. (St. Luke’s is one of the local churches in my “good guys–actual Christians” column.)

The format was informal–Q and A– but I did begin by suggesting that, before embarking on discussion, it was important to distinguish between hatred and ignorance.

As I explained, when I was young, growing up in one of only 30 Jewish families in Anderson, Indiana, most of what I encountered was ignorance:  I was asked things like “Do Jews have tails?”  and “Do Jews live in houses like real people?” But there was also animus: in third grade, a playmate informed me that “My parents said I can’t play with you because you’re a dirty Jew.”

It’s also important to distinguish between criticisms of Israeli actions/politics and anti-Semitism. Criticizing Israel’s government or policies is not anti-Semitic (plenty of American Jews are appalled by Netanyahu). That said, criticisms of Israel grounded in longstanding anti-Jewish tropes are anti-Semitic.

In the United States, citizens are supposed to be judged on our behavior, not our identities. Today’s polarization is to a great extent a fight between Americans who want their countrymen to live up to that principle and those who defend negative stereotypes based on religion, sexual orientation and skin color.

Anti-Semitism is hatred of Jews because we’re Jews.

In The Nature of Prejudice, Gordon Allport’s seminal book about the roots of bigotry, published in 1954, Allport pointed out that most  prejudices come from ignorance–the relatively unthinking acceptance of what “everyone knows.” Jews are “sharp” businessmen, blacks are lazy, women are emotional and illogical. Most people aren’t emotionally invested in these negative social stereotypes, and Allport thought the misconceptions would erode once there was greater familiarity and more contact.

Allport’s great contribution was to distinguish between prejudices that were simply an outgrowth of widely held–albeit inaccurate and unfair– social attitudes and those that were central to an individual’s identity. He found that most people who expressed bigotry against blacks or Jews (then the most frequent targets) were not invested in their negative opinions –they had simply accepted common stereotypes about “others,” and they could be educated to change what were essentially casual beliefs they had never really examined.

But there was, he found, another category. It was much smaller, but also much more troubling. These were individuals that Allport—who founded the discipline of social psychology—described as invested in their bigotries. For whatever reason—bad toilet training, lack of parental affection, abuse—their belief in the inferiority of designated “others” had become absolutely central to their personalities. Education and contact would have no effect at all on their attitudes.

Allport recognized that we all have a fundamental human desire for status and upward mobility, and that desire makes a certain amount of what we might call “identity-based one-upsmanship” inevitable. He also recognized that such prejudices are heightened during times of rapid social change.

As the Roman Empire crumbled, Christians were more frequently fed to the lions; in the forties and fifties, whenever the cotton business in the American south slumped, lynchings increased; when forest fires swept across Maine in 1947, many citizens blamed the Communists. As Allport put it, “whenever anxiety increases, accompanied by a loss of predictability in life, people tend to define their deteriorated situations in terms of scapegoats.”

In other words, we want to blame our anxieties on someone or something we can identify—we channel our aggressions against an outsider, an “other.”

Of course, there are many numerical minorities that are not usually chosen as scapegoats. Why this group and not that one?  Allport notes that the nearest thing to an “all-purpose” scapegoat is a group that has a degree of permanence and stability. So while a few Macedonians in Lexington, Kentucky (assuming there have ever been any) might exhibit cultural differences that arouse majority hostility for a time, there really isn’t any basis for a good, persistent mythology about Macedonians in general, and even if there were, the next generation is likely to be so Americanized as to be indistinguishable from others who live in Lexington.

Jews, blacks and gays, however (along with women) have always been around, and probably always will be. And in all likelihood, we’ll all continue to be sufficiently different to be useful for scapegoat purposes.

Undoubtedly, there will always be emotionally-unhealthy people who need someone or something to blame for the disappointments in their lives. My conversation with the lovely folks at church last Sunday reminded me that there are also a lot of good people “out there.”

At times like this, that’s comforting to know.

 

 

Well, Give Them Points For Honesty

Readers of this blog may be tired of hearing my periodic rants about the GOP’s war on public education. If so, they need to skip today’s meditation.

I have my own suspicions about the real reasons for their animus. As political scientists and educators have repeatedly pointed out, public schools are constitutive of a public; in a rapidly diversifying population, public education is one of the few remaining “street corners” where differences in background, religion and ethnicity can be honored under an over-riding philosophy of governance. Public schools are where we can at least make a stab at attaining e pluribus unum–out of the many, one.

That lofty goal is what the war on public education is really about.

Granted, some of the GOP’s privatizers see voucher programs as a way of killing off the hated teachers’ union, and others evidently just despise anything government does–convinced by arguments from ALEC and the Koch’s network that the private sector does absolutely everything better than government, despite decades of research confirming that voucher schools fail to improve educational outcomes.

But at its base, the war on public schooling is a war on the way most of us understand America’s Constitutional philosophy and aspirations.

Living up to those aspirations requires knowing about the country’s past successes and failures. It requires civics education that emphasizes an important element of citizenship–the American principle that the law should treat citizens based upon their behavior and not their skin color or religion.

Those principles– and others that flow from them–are currently considered “woke” by America’s White Christian Nationalists. That’s the real basis of their attacks on the institutions supporting them, and sometimes, in unguarded moments, they admit it.

The New Republic recently reported on “School Choice Week.”

It’s National School Choice Week, that annual right-wing P.R. campaign to defund public schools that pretends to really just care about the children. But this year’s NSCW comes with a twist: Amid conservatives’ outcry over history lessons on race and LGBTQ rights and awareness in schools, some proponents of the “educational freedom” movement are pitching it as an antidote to the supposed indoctrination of students by leftie teachers and administrators.

In an interview on Tuesday with Fox News host Harris Faulkner, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott framed “school choice” as a way for parents to give their children a proper education free of woke lessons. “ABC, not CRT—it’s that simple,” said Scott, referring to “critical race theory.” “We need to teach the basics of education. We don’t need to teach people that, because of the color of your skin, you’re an oppressor or a victim.” (Scott introduced a resolution on Monday to officially recognize National School Choice Week. He was joined by many Republican senators, including Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, and Rick Scott—and a lone Democrat, Dianne Feinstein.)

The Educational Freedom Institute, and the Center for Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation argue that “school choice” can “help level the playing field” in the struggle between “conservative families” and “progressive teachers” who want to “proselytize” in the classroom

Attacks on public education are getting a second wind from reactionary resistance to  the progress of Black, Brown and female Americans.

“Families should not be stuck in an education system that actively undermines parental rights and ideologically grooms children,” argued Kaylee McGhee, a deputy editor at the Washington Examiner, on Monday. “They deserve the freedom to yank their students out of a school that disrespects their values and send them to one that better fits their needs.”

But McGhee gave the game away later in her piece—that “school choice” is really about forcing school districts to align with right-wing ideas of education, or otherwise wither away from a lack of resources.

Ironically, the great majority of people who embrace Ms. McGhee’s “values” are largely rural–and  as I’ve repeatedly pointed out, most rural areas are too thinly populated to support private or religious alternatives to those “woke” public schools. In their zeal to fight accurate history instruction that they inaccurately label CRT, and to ban books of which they disapprove, GOP lawmakers are draining resources from existing schools in rural areas–rural folks only option other than home schooling.

As the linked article notes, what’s missing in these diatribes from McGhee, Scott, and others is any actual concern for the nation’s children– the 90% of students who remain in public schools whose funds are being diverted in the name of  “educational freedom” as well as the children whose parents believed the marketing and put their kids in a fly-by-night voucher school that went out of business.

This fight has never been about the quality of education. At least now, some voucher proponents are admitting it.

 

 

Misinformation Matters

A good friend of ours, originally from Canada, left his faculty position in Indianapolis and moved to Ottawa to assume a position as President and CEO of the Council of Canadian Academies, or CCA.

Knowing my preoccupation with media and misinformation, he has shared some intriguing research from an expert panel appointed by the CCA. That research delved into the effects of misinformation on science and health, going beyond the typical hand-wringing over the extent of misinformation and its potential harms, and looking instead at the nature and extent of quantifiable damage done by widespread dissemination of patently wrong information.

As a news release explained

Considerable and mounting evidence shows that misinformation has led to illness and death from unsafe interventions and products, vaccine preventable diseases, and a lack of adherence to public health measures, with the most vulnerable populations bearing the greatest burden. The Expert Panel on the Socioeconomic Impacts of Science and Health Misinformation estimates that misinformation cost the Canadian healthcare system at least $300 million during nine months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021.

While combatting misinformation is a complex and long-term challenge, the report details several measures that have shown promise. Ensuring that accurate health and science information is widely accessible and is communicated honestly, understandably, and by trusted messengers can help insulate people from misinformation. Identifying, labelling, and debunking misinformation can also be effective, as are measures that better equip individuals to sort through the increasingly complex information environment, particularly the promotion of critical thinking and media and science literacy in school curricula.

You can access the entire report here.Some of the findings struck me as particularly significant, especially the description of when, why and how people come to accept what the panel calls “misinformation” and I would probably label conspiracy theories and lies.

Misinformation is designed to appeal to emotion and–as the report notes–intended to exploit our “cognitive shortcuts.” We are all susceptible to it, especially in times of crisis.

Science and health misinformation damages our community well-being through otherwise preventable illnesses, deaths, and economic losses, and our social well-being through polarization and the erosion of public trust. These harms often fall most heavily on the most vulnerable.

The research found a number of outcomes directly attributable to the spread and acceptance of misinformation; they included: Illness, poisoning, and death from unsafe health interventions and products; Illness and death from communicable and vaccine-preventable diseases; money wasted on disproven products and services; susceptibility to further and potentially more insidious forms of misinformation; increased healthcare and societal costs; and Inaction on or delay of public policy responses.

Misinformation contributes to a lack of adherence to public health measures and to vaccine hesitancy, which can result in vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks, increased healthcare costs, and elevated risk to the health and well-being of vulnerable populations. Misinformation also amplifies social divisions, which have resulted in overt conflict and violence, often directed at racialized communities. Furthermore, the consequences of science and health misinformation are not borne equally — for instance, negative health impacts during the COVID-19 pandemic have been found to disproportionately affect the well-being of racialized and other underserved communities, exacerbating existing inequalities.

Where possible, panel members put numbers to these generalized descriptions, estimating that widely circulated misinformation about COVID-19 had cost the Canadian healthcare system “at least $300 million in hospital and ICU visits between March 1 and November 30, 2021.” That number did not include the costs of outpatient medication, physician compensation, or long COVID.

And for obvious reasons, the panel was unable to estimate what it called “broader societal costs.” Those included such difficult-to-quantify effects as “delayed elective surgeries, social unrest, moral injury to healthcare workers, and the uneven distribution of harms borne by communities.”

The negative consequences of misinformation are–obviously–not confined to citizens of Canada. In the absence of credible, trustworthy information that is widely trusted and accepted, it proliferates. In the U.S., political data confirms the harm: the MAGA folks who rejected vaccination (evidently believing it to be some sort of nefarious liberal plot) died of COVID in far larger numbers than the independents and Democrats who trusted the science.

The question is: what can be done to counter the confusion and reduce the damage sowed by purveyors of propaganda and inaccurate information? One answer is clearly education, especially science education.  (That conclusion supports concerns over the metastasizing  voucher programs that are sending students to private, predominantly religious schools–many of which have been found to teach creationism in lieu of science).

When citizens don’t inhabit the same evidence-based reality, both individual and social health are compromised–sometimes fatally.

 

I Rest My Case

Okay-I probably won’t really “rest my case” so long as Indiana lawmakers continue to prove my point–but I thought I’d give readers a smattering of information about the government produced by Indiana’s gerrymandering. 

First up: we’ve recently learned that Indiana State Rep. Jim Lucas will offer an amendment to the state budget bill–and it’s a doozy. Lucas wants to provide a $2000 tax credit for any Hoosier citizen who purchases an automatic or semi-automatic gun in the next two years.

You read that right. At a time when the proliferation of weapons more suited to war is facilitating daily mass shootings, Lucas wants to encourage people to add to their arsenals. 

Our daughter occasionally looks at Lucas’ Facebook page, and reports that it’s a fetid swamp of racism, anti-Semitism, pro-Trump conspiracies and–of course–“Second Amendment” devotion. Lucas was quoted defending his proposal by saying

“I am very concerned about the safety of our Hoosier families during this next national election period”, said Rep Lucas. “In a circular logic that makes perfect sense to me, our system of elections is breaking down and every citizen needs to be prepared to defend themself from the angry, armed mobs I anticipate we will see”, Rep Lucas said.

Indiana doesn’t keep all of its wacko extremists in the General Assembly; we send more than our share of theocrats and culture warriors to Washington. I’ve mentioned Jim Banks before; currently representing Hoosiers in the House, Banks now intends to run for the Senate seat being vacated by yet another culture warrior, Mike Braun, who wants to be Governor. 

Banks recently emphasized his anti-choice credentials in a radio interview.

Hoosier congressman seeking to represent Indiana in the U.S. Senate is expressing support for reducing abortion options in other states.

During an interview on Fort Wayne’s WOWO-AM radio, U.S. Rep. Jim Banks, R-Columbia City, responded favorably Thursday to a suggestion by host Pat Miller that more needs to be done to restrict abortion in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 24, 2022, Dobbs decision repealing the right to abortion established in 1973 by Roe v. Wade.

“Our work as a pro-life movement is far from over,” Miller said. “If a young lady can hop in a car in Fort Wayne and in an hour and a half she can be in a place in Michigan, or in just under three hours she can cross the line into Illinois, and achieve what she was (un)able to do with abortion clinics here in Indiana, the fight is far from over.”

Banks subsequently denied that he wants to impose travel restrictions on Indiana citizens (someone who had actually read the Constitution evidently pointed out that such a restriction would likely be struck down), but re-affirmed his support for a national ban modeled on the one passed by Indiana’s legislature, currently embroiled in a challenge pending  before Indiana’s Supreme Court.

Banks has been busy in the House of Representatives.  According to State Affairs,  Banks recently formed the “anti-woke” caucus.

Earlier this month, he formed the “anti-woke caucus,” explaining at the Claremont Institute, “This utterly un-American doctrine would be comical were it not so powerful and it is powerful because it is enforced not only by every major national institution. It is promoted and funded by the federal government itself.”

Shades of Ron DeSantis…

Then of course, there’s the ongoing saga of Todd Rokita, Indiana’s current Attorney General, who is positively frantic to prove that no one can outdo him when it comes to pandering to the deplorables. I’ve previously posted about Rokita’s tenuous connection to ethics, conclusions that have recently been corroborated by a court decision confirming that his constant PR efforts violate Indiana law.

Rokita has been in the news most recently for his vendetta against the Indiana doctor who performed an abortion on the ten-year-old rape victim from Ohio.  He also made news by defending Kanye West,after West’s anti-Semitic comments hit the news, tweeting

“The constant hypocrisy from the media is at an all-time high. They have now gone after Kanye for his new fashion line, his independent thinking, & for having opposing thoughts from the norm of Hollywood.”

I could probably devote several other posts to Rokita, but he is so widely despised (even by members of his own party) that it hardly seems worth the trouble.

I don’t for a minute think these extremists represent the average Hoosier, but thanks to the GOP’s chokehold on Indiana elections, they’re what we get.

I’ll just end with a great quote from comic Jim Gaffigan.  

“I’m from Indiana… In Indiana it’s not like New York where everyone’s like, ‘We’re from New York and we’re the best’ or ‘We’re from Texas and we like things big’ it’s more like ‘We’re from Indiana and we’re gonna move.’”