Totalitarianism At The Bard Library
Greetings from LaGuardia Airport. I had to make an overnight trip to New York, and am now on my way back to the Great State of Louisiana, which is experiencing its coldest weather of the winter right now. I snort at Louisiana cold, because Your Working Boy stood at the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 27th today, waiting for an Uber, and observed that it was 19 degrees. Sometimes I miss living in New York, but one thing I never, ever miss is a New York City winter. Look at this post-Covid loony driven by the cold to a fugue state. At least I got to wear the ushanka I bought in St. Petersburg in 2019. Not much opportunity to do so in Louisiana, you’ll be shocked to hear.
Anyway, if you don’t subscribe to Bari Weiss’s newsletter Common Sense, you are really missing out. From today’s TGIF news roundup by Nellie Bowles, there was this:
It’s always fun to check up on what’s going on in academia. Here’s an announcement that showed up in the Bard College library newsletter (Bard tuition, $57,498 a year):
In keeping with campus-wide initiatives to ensure that Bard is a place of inclusion, equity, and diversity, the Stevenson Library is conducting a diversity audit of the entire print collection in an effort to begin the process of decanonizing the stacks. Three students, who are funded through the Office of Inclusive Excellence, have begun the process which we expect will take at least a year to complete. The students will be evaluating each book for representations of race/ethnicity, gender, religion, and ability.
So, to paraphrase this library announcement: three Bard students, chosen and paid for by the Office of Inclusive Excellence, are tasked with reviewing every book in the Bard library to evaluate how well it adheres to their moral standards. Facing outrage from library-fans, Bard quickly retracted and rewrote this announcement and clarified that the audit was more high-level analysis of each book and author.
Still I like to imagine these students marching through the stacks, pulling every spine, reading every page to examine for “representations of race, gender, religion, and ability.” Does Charles Dickens dehumanize someone with a limp somewhere? I bet he does. There’s some nasty ableism in Beowulf. Was Aristotle a feminist? This could take a while. Also, I think I kind of want to be on this committee.
The term decanonizemeansexclusion of a person’s name from a list or catalog. It’s a term most commonly associated with the church, who decanonizes to demote a saint who’s on the outs.
“Our library collections, because they are written mostly by straight white men, are a physical manifestation of white men ideas taking up all the space in our library stacks,” she writes, asking her readers to pause and think about that in her essay, Whiteness as Collections. Or watch her talk with the University of Michigan on the “‘Ordinary’ Existence of White Supremacy in Libraries.”
The announcement about decanonization came in a cheery library update. It wasn’t the top item. It’s just there between an alumna to be honored and a local cleanup effort. Decanonization is a casual, business-as-usual sort of activity, hardly anything to pay attention to or ask about.
When I wrote to ask about the announcement, Bard officials explained that this was all a big misunderstanding. Nothing the library newsletter had about this effort should be taken literally, they told me.
“It will help us understand and answer questions about representation in our collections and build a more inclusive collection going forward,” wrote Betsy Cawley, the director of Bard libraries. “Nothing is being removed, recategorized, or replaced.”
Decanonization is not decanonization at all. Judging each book does not mean judging each book (“an earlier brochure entry suggesting that has been revised”). It is just a fact-finding mission to learn more, not to remove anything.
In some cold upstate New York panic, they retracted and rewrote the whole thing. “The erroneous entry has been removed,” the school tells me now.
Regardless, if any Common Sense-readers would like to read books that three Bard students deem offensive, please turn yourself in to the local police station.
This is insane. It’s good that Bard retracted it, but it is a scandal that this kind of anti-intellectual, illiberal lunacy ever saw the light of day in the first place. I know you must be tired of hearing this, but what Bard undertook to do is Totalitarianism 101. Totalitarian regimes always try to control the memory of history and culture, for the sake of manipulating society to affirm its ideology. From Live Not By Lies:
In his 1989 book, How Societies Remember, the late British social anthropologist Paul Connerton explains that there are different kinds of memory. Historical memory is an objective recollection of past events. Social memory is what a people choose to remember—that is, deciding collectively which facts about past events it believes to be important. Cultural memory constitutes the stories, events, people, and other phenomena that a society chooses to remember as the building blocks of its collective identity. A nation’s gods, its heroes, its villains, its landmarks, its art, its music, its holidays—all these things are part of its cultural memory.
Connerton says that “participants in any social order must presuppose a shared memory.”[i] Memory of the past conditions how they experience the present—that is, how they grasp its meaning, how they are to understand it, and what they are supposed to do in it.
No culture, and no person, can remember everything. A culture’s memory is the result of its collective sifting of facts to produce a story—a story that society tells itself to remember who it is. Without collective memory, you have no culture, and without a culture, you have no identity.
The more totalitarian a regime’s nature, the more it will try to force people to forget their cultural memories. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the role of Winston Smith within the Ministry of Information is to erase all newspaper records of past events to reflect the current political priorities of the Party. This, said the ex-communist Polish intellectual Leszek Kołakowski, reflects “the great ambition of totalitarianism—the total possession and control of human memory.”
“Let us consider what happens when the ideal has been effectively achieved,” says Kołakowski. “People remember only what they are taught to remember today and the content of their memory changes overnight, if needed.”
As Kolakowski says, no library can contain all books. Some authority has to decide what goes in, and what stays out (or gets thrown out). A college library should be both as broad and as deep as possible. Even the idea that “decanonization” or “decolonization” is something worth considering ought to be forcefully rejected.
It would be worth knowing how many of these gatekeepers — librarians — in institutions and communities around the country are quietly going about the work of censoring their collections to make them conform to a radical Left point of view. The American Library Association is ferocious in defense of LGBT books on library shelves — see this statement — but as far as I can tell, has said nothing at all about “decanonization” of libraries. The ALA said:
We are committed to defending the constitutional rights of all individuals, of all ages, to use the resources and services of libraries. We champion and defend the freedom to speak, the freedom to publish, and the freedom to read, as promised by the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.
We stand opposed to censorship and any effort to coerce belief, suppress opinion, or punish those whose expression does not conform to what is deemed to be orthodox in history, politics, or belief. The unfettered exchange of ideas is essential to the preservation of a free and democratic society.
Libraries manifest the promises of the First Amendment by making available the widest possible range of viewpoints, opinions, and ideas, so that every person has the opportunity to freely read and consider information and ideas regardless of their content or the viewpoint of the author. This requires the professional expertise of librarians who work in partnership with their communities to curate collections that serve the information needs of all their users.
So can we expect to see an ALA statement condemning the decanonization and decolonization of libraries? I wouldn’t hold my breath. Last month, the ALA announced that it is selling through its bookstore a new book advocating decolonization of libraries. Excerpt:
The demand to decolonize the curriculum has moved from a protest movement at the margins to the center of many institutions, as reflected by its inclusion in policies and strategies. Numerous libraries and archives are responding to the call to critically examine their historic legacies and practices to support institutional and societal change. “Narrative Expansions: Interpreting Decolonisation in Academic Libraries,” published by Facet Publishing and available through the ALA Store, explores the ways in which academic libraries are working to address the historic legacies of colonialism, in the context of decolonizing the curriculum and the university. It acknowledges and explores the tensions and complexities around the use of the term decolonization, how it relates to other social justice aims and approaches, including critical librarianship, and what makes this work specific to decolonization.
In fact, there are a number of articles on the ALA site pushing decolonization. There are links to two different ALA webinars explaining to librarians how to decolonize. There’s no way around this: the American Library Association favors censorship, but only of non-progressive books, or of books that progressives for whatever reason find to be objectionable.
You cannot argue with these people. What you can do, though, is learn about what these people are doing to libraries, and pressure officials to stop them, including threatening libraries with defunding. Again, I agree that not every book can or should be in every library. A high school library is not the same thing as a college library, for example. We can and should discuss where to draw the lines. But it appears that many library staffers are eager to surrender their responsibility to administer and curate libraries for the entire community, instead turning them over to leftist agitators and propagandists.
It is a shocking, even disgusting, abdication of scholarly responsibility. This is what you get when nearly the entire intellectual class has capitulated to ideology. Jerry Coyne, the prickly atheist scientist who is no friend of the Right, comments:
Bard’s denial is hilarious: if this is not about censorship, what is it about? How can you “build a more inclusive collection going forward” if you don’t pick and choose books for the library based on how “inclusive” they are? I don’t believe their denial at all. After all, there are 400,000 books to sniff through!
And what bothers me most of all is that, traditionally, librarians have opposed this kind of Pecksniffery, pushing back against people’s wish to keep this and that book out of the library. In the past librarians were the most vigorous and treasured defenders of free speech, blocking the doorway between the censors and the books. That doesn’t hold any more.
By the way, Sofia Leung is not listed as a librarian at Bard College at all, nor does her c.v. does mention that position (perhaps Bowles didn’t mean to imply that). The head librarian at Bard and her email address is here. Bard’s president has an email address here, and I’ll be writing to both of them. …
If anything should anger people, even if they’re woke, it’s this kind of implied censorship. Removing books from libraries is just as bad as burning them: it removes access to the WRONG IDEAS.
Let Bard hear from you if you see this as an especially egregious violation of free speech and academic freedom.
Indeed. If it’s happening at Bard, it’s happening elsewhere, or it soon will. Be vigilant! Publicize this. Take back our libraries from these totalitarians.
UPDATE: A riff on the Bard story appears in the Substack newsletter of journalist David Rieff, a man of the Left whose father, Philip, wrote The Triumph of the Therapeutic, which, as you know, is a canonical text of this blog:
Thus, the radical librarian Sofia Leung writes that what is wrong with libraries is that they are mostly filled with books, archives, paneers, etc. “written by white dudes about white ideas =, white things, or ideas, people, and things they stole from People of Color and then claimed as white property.
One thing to be said for Leung is that she has the courage of her fanaticism. “Libraries filled with mostly white collections,” she writes, “indicates that we don’t care to hear from People of Color themselves, we don’t consider People of Color to be scholars, we don’t think People of Color are as valuable, knowledgeable, or as important as white people.”
This view only coheres if you believe that a scholar writing on physics or geology, say, is not really writing about these subjects but writing out of and in the interests of their race. Libraries, in Leung’s view, are not sites of knowledge, but rather, as she puts it, “sites of whiteness.” She does further: “library collections continue to promote and proliferate white with their very existence and the fact that they are” – I am not making this up – “taking up space in our libraries.”
In this vision, all knowledge is racialized. For Leung libraries as presently constitute are a reifications of White Supremacy. The fact that some of the greatest libraries in the history of the world have been in the Islamic world and in China and Japan does not detain Leung, anymore than the history of private property outside the Euro-American world seems to have detained Harris. Leung even puts “knowledge,” ie the knowledge to be found in US libraries, in inverted commas. The “authoritative” is a bogus category in this view – a way of maintaining White Supremacy.
In short, the binary of white and non white is what really matters, and – one assumes – until there is equity, Leung and those who think as she does will keep insisting that knowledge as a category does indeed need to be kept in quotation marks. Only someone schooled in the therapeutic understanding could possibly believe this. And that’s the problem: the therapeutic is, as I have written before, the lingua franca of contemporary America, and, indeed, of the entire Anglosphere. In this Leung’s view is, as the old saying goes, as American as apple pie.
I am encouraged that actual left-wing intellectuals like David Rieff and Jerry Coyne are speaking out about this atrocity.