by Mark Y. Herring (Dean of Library Services, Dacus Library, Winthrop University)
In politics, as in most things in life, it depends on whose ox is being gored, and that goring often is colored by our biases. The goring may not even fall along party lines. If the matter isn’t about you, about your interests, or about someone who you are interested in, you are as likely to dismiss it as you do the sunrise.
This point was recently driven home to me by a fake news story about the Super Bowl Champions visiting the White House. It ran a non-story, a story that did not happen by focusing on those who were not going to the White House rather than on those who did. In the end, they got it wrong, making it seem that there was a protest vote against the President when, like almost every year since this silly event has been going on, there were about the same number who show up every year. The last time the Patriots were there, 36 appeared with Obama; this year, 34 appeared with Trump. No news here.
But the story sparked a point in my mind about biases. If I’m a Republican, I cannot let a Democrat look good. Likewise, if I’m a Democrat, I cannot allow anything good to pass about a Republican, and especially this Republican. For those of us in the business of ferreting out the truth for folks, or at the very least, truthful information, this becomes critically important to avoid. It isn’t so much that fake news has emerged; the fact of the matter is that this is the first year people have begun to pay attention to it, but, alas, only in a party line, biased way.
As librarians, we cannot afford to take sides. We have to remain as neutral as is humanly possible while at work, as partisan as we want to be after hours. A trend is mounting, however, among some librarians, mainly but not exclusively younger ones. They believe that now is the time to draw a line in the sand, to take a stand, to unseat this President; and that is not only a really bad idea in general regardless of who is in power, but also a terrible idea for the profession. Although he did not always follow his own advice, Francis Bacon is pertinent here: “if a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.”
Not to compare small things with great, but a book that recently came out, drove home this point to me even more. Clara Bingham’s Witness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year America Lost Its Mind and Found Its Soul (Random House, 2016) is a collection of hundreds of interviews with sixties revolutionaries. It’s a movement I know a little about since I lived through a good part of it. While the peace movement was bustling right along and gaining tremendous momentum, a combination of biases within the movement, and an undisciplined view that it had to be all or nothing, blew up that missile as soon as it began gaining altitude.
For example, women involved in the peace movement soon discovered, as the movement gained musculature, that they were important as … only women who got coffee, ran errands, and took dictation. Of course, the free love aspect also proved advantageous … to men, who could walk away when they pleased. Women, on the other hand, were stuck raising children, or having abortions, alone. Add to this the all-or-nothing attitude of the Weathermen, and disaster loomed. Once they blew up Sterling Hall (aka, Army Math Research Center) on the campus of the University of Wisconsin, killing a married graduate student and father of three children, Robert Fassnacht, the movement tanked, and quickly. Most movement members saw it coming; some got out, others did not. It’s not a stretch to say that internal biases killed everything.
I see the small but vocal group of librarians wanting to “do something” making a similar mistake on a smaller scale culturally, but a potentially more massive one professionally. Professions that are typically apolitical should remain that way. It serves no one to draw a line in the sand because more often than not that alienates that part of membership on the “wrong” side of that line. Our membership needs to remember that in whatever library we work, we serve everyone: Democrats, Republicans, the far right, the far left, the alt-right, the alt-left, Libertarians and Independents. Assigning ourselves to one side or the other will only force the snubbed side to make a decision against us. If my patrons know I am decidedly and very publicly left wing and fiercely anti-Trump, how can they ever trust anything I say about him, his presidency, or the right in general, even (and especially) when I speak truthfully?
It’s helpful to remember that our funding comes without partisan colors. It remains green from whoever has the will to fund us. In tough times that are sure to become tougher still, this may well be the most important thing about which we can remind each other.