Archive for Occupy Wall Street

The People’s Library

“Nazis destroyed books to ‘purify’ German culture. Bigots do it in the name of God, or Allah. What’s Bloomberg’s excuse? ‘Hygiene’?”

— Salman Rushdie, via his Twitter account, 16 Nov. 2011

“If corporations are people, tents are definitely speech.”

— Ben Chappell, prof. of American Studies, University of Kansas (via Eric Michael Johnson [@ericmjohnson on Twitter], who credits @rmmilner and @docfreeride as his sources), 15 Nov. 2011.

The term “fascist” is used too often and too loosely in American political discourse. Mayor Bloomberg is not a fascist. However, in ordering the destruction of a library, the mayor’s actions evoke the symbolism of fascist and other totalitarian regimes. One expects that he did not intend a metaphoric alliance with such groups. Indeed, he wisely ordered the books to be thrown in the dumpster, rather than having them set on fire.

But Salman Rushdie — who knows a thing or two about the destruction of books — is not wrong when he hears parallels between Nazis’ attempts to “purify” culture via the destruction of books that (they alleged) would pollute minds, and Bloomberg’s claim that he’s acting to promote “the health and safety of the public.”  That was his explanation for the Tuesday 1:30 am attack on Occupy Wall Street, and the destruction of its library.  And you can see the appeals of his rhetoric: who would argue against “guaranteeing public health and safety”?  Unfortunately for the mayor, evidence contradicts his rhetoric.  Though Mayor Bloomberg worked to prevent reporters from covering the raid (for their own safety, he alleged), too many people were able to capture the event on film.  Looking at those images, the chaos and violence of the assault does not resemble either “health” or “safety.”

Occupy Wall Street Library (after)

Which is precisely why Mr. Rushdie’s parallel gains symbolic force.  As the mayor’s predecessors (fascist and otherwise) have done, Mr. Bloomberg uses language to mask ideology.  In a delightfully Orwellian use of language, he claims the twin goals of “guaranteeing public health and safety, and guaranteeing the protestors’ First Amendment rights” but, since (he said) the former outweighed the latter, “inaction was not an option.”  In other words, he needed to attack peaceful protesters in the middle of the night, while they slept, because they posed a danger to the public.  This sounds a bit like George W. Bush’s doctrine of preemptive war: the protesters may pose a danger, and so Bloomberg had to attack them before they did.  It also echoes the U.S. Army Major in Vietnam who, speaking to a reporter in 1968, said, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

The accidentally fascist overtones of the mayor’s purposefully thuggish order may be the greatest gift he could give the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Not only is the violence of this nighttime attack likely to galvanize the Occupy Wall Streeters, but it may also persuade others to join them. When you wage war on a library, you wage war on all who read, write, and think. When you attack books, you attack democracy.  And when you do these things, people fight back.

As Ben Chappell observes, “If corporations are people, tents are definitely speech.” And libraries are both.

The Occupy Wall Street Library (before the raid)

Image sources: “Urgent: Raid of Occupy Wall Street” (Occupy Wall Street Library, 15 Nov. 2011); “Occupy Wall Street Library Removed as NYPD Evicts Protesters” (School Library Journal, 15-16 Nov. 2011).

Leave a Comment

Senseless Violence: The NYPD Destroys Library. UPDATE #3

Occupy Wall Street Library (before) Occupy Wall Street Library (after)
Occupy Wall Street Library (before) Occupy Wall Street Library (after)

“I cannot live without books; but fewer will suffice where amusement, and not use, is the only future object.”

Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 10 June 1815

“Knowledge is power.”

Thomas Jefferson to to Joseph Cabell, 22 January 1820

“Let me conclude by thanking the NYPD, FDNY, and the Department of Sanitation for their professionalism earlier this morning. Thank you.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, 15 November 2011, after the NYPD and the NY Sanitation Department evicted Occupy Wall Street, destroying 5000 books.

“Apparently the NYPD have destroyed the donated library at #ows – I don’t think you need a metaphor, but crushing 5000 books might be one.”

— Simon HB (@norock on Twitter), 15 November 2011

 UPDATE as of 5:30 pm Central Time.  All of the Library has not been destroyed.  It’s being “held captive” by the City.  Here is a photo, courtesy of Mayor Bloomberg’s Twitter account (and The Observer).

Occupy Wall Street Library: "Property from #Zuccotti, incl #OWS library, safely stored @ 57th St Sanit Garage; can be picked up Weds"

UPDATE as of 11:30 pm Central Time: Occupy Wall Street Library asks, “And where is the rest of it?”: “We’re glad to see some books are OK. Now, where are the rest of the books and our shelter and our boxes? Nice try guys, but we won’t be convinced until we actually have all our undamaged property returned to us.”

UPDATE as of 12:30 pm Central Time, 16 Nov. 2011: Occupy Wall Street Library reports “that their claim that the library was ‘safely stored’ was a lie.”  About half of the books are missing; many others are damaged or destroyed.  Initial reports that books were thrown into dumpsters seem, in fact, to be accurate.  And this blog’s initial claim that the NYPD destroyed the library is also accurate.

Books from Occupy Wall Street Library.  They were damaged during the NYPD raid.

Image sources: “Michael Bloomberg Destroys a Library to Shut Down Dissent in New York City” (Irregular Times, 15 Nov. 2011); “URGENT: Raid in Progress” (Occupy Wall Street Library, 15 Nov. 2011); OWS Library Safe and Sound; Held Captive By City” (New York Observer, 15 Nov. 2011); “UPDATE: State of Seized Library” (Occupy Wall Street Library, 16 Nov. 2011).

Comments (2)

Little Rebels, Little Conservatives, and Occupy Wall Street

Tales for Little Rebels, edited by Julia Mickenberg and Philip NelThe headline reads “Occupying children’s minds: ‘Radical children’s literature at Wall Street protests.'”  Featured prominently is Julia Mickenberg’s and my Tales for Little Rebels.  After reading the piece (though, not, I suspect, the book itself), one commenter, writing under the name of “forcerecon2,” worrries that Tales for Little Rebels represents “the indoctrination of our children.”  Coming from the left but also opposing indoctrination, Occupy Wall Street organizer Kelley Wolcott writes in response to the suggestion that children of OWS protesters read Tales for Little Rebels: “I think that we should provide teaching related services that DO NOT have an agenda, and treat children in a respectful way that allows them to explore their own ideas about what is fair or not fair without imposing an adult agenda.”  Though the stories contained in the book are more sympathetic to Wolcott’s point of view than to forcerecon2’s, both statements convey only a partial understand how literature works.

All children’s literature is political — from Dr. Seuss to The Poky Little Puppy to Left Behind: The Kids.   All stories bear the influence of the world in which they were produced; some display that influence more prominently, and others more successfully mask ideological assumptions.  There are no stories “that DO NOT have an agenda.”   Yet, if children’s literature serves a socializing function, predicting its effectiveness on children is a tricky business.  Child readers might embrace the message, or resist it, or … even forget all about it.

It’s true that Tales for Little Rebels does include some stories written by people who wished young readers to adopt a very specific, often quite sectarian, view of the world.  Caroline Nelson’s “Nature Talks on Economics” — one of the stories that inspired the coverage on The Daily Caller and Fox Nation — does harbor such aspirations.  In that tale, revolutionary chick cries, “Strike down the wall!” and liberates itself from the “egg state.”  A lesson about nature becomes a metaphor for revolution.

However, in and of itself, this story provides little evidence that Tales for Little Rebels is a tool of indoctrination.  First, it’s but one of 44 stories on subjects ranging from peace to the dignity of work, from the power of the imagination to opposing bigotry, from environmental protection to finding strength in organizing — stories that would be quite apropos to the OWS protesters, incidentally.  It would be truly remarkable for one story to manage to indoctrinate those who read it.  Taken in context with other literature or read in a socialist family (as “Nature Talks on Economics” very likely was done, originally), it stands a stronger chance — but only if the child hearing the story identified with the values of his or her parents.

Which brings me to my second point: children are not passive beings, empty receptacles which people can fill with ideas.  They’re certainly affected by the culture in which they live, but they’re also capable of thinking for themselves.  Indeed, we hope that some of the stories in Tales for Little Rebels nurture that kind of critical thinking — Ruth Benedict and Gene Weltfish’s The Races of Mankind, which uses science to challenge racism, or Oscar the Ostrich, in which the birds defeat a would-be fascist by taking their heads out of the sand, and speaking out against him.  Though, of course, children may fail to get these messages.  Tales for Little Rebels includes a scene from Revolt of the Beavers, a play in which beavers liberate Beaverland from a tyrant, and redistribute the wealth.  When an NYU Professor of Psychology interviewed hundreds of child audience members about lessons the play imparted, they told him they learned things like “never to be selfish,” and “beavers have manners just like children.”  Not exactly what (I imagine) the play intended to teach.

That brings me to my third point — a point which I’m going to borrow from Philip Pullman, since he’s far more articulate than I am.  Just because an author intends for readers to receive a certain message from a work, there’s no guarantee that the story will turn out as the author intends:

whatever my intention might have been when I wrote the book, the meaning doesn’t consist only of my intention. The meaning is what emerges from the interaction between the words I put on the page and the readers’ own minds as they read them. If they’re puzzled, the best thing to do is talk about the book with someone else who’s read it, and let meanings emerge from the conversation, democratically.1

And that’s the best message to take away from this conversation — and it’s what I think Wolcott means when she encourages “Treating children with respect and allowing them to explore their own ideas.”

Tales for Little Rebels contains a range of opinions from people on the twentieth-century left.  Though Julia and I expected that most of the stories would resonate with contemporary progressives, we also deliberately included some stories that would not (notably “ABC for Martin,” which we nicknamed “the Communist ABC”).  We didn’t want to whitewash history by excising stories that may be embarrassing to those on the left — so, those stories are in the book, too.  But they’re in there along with introductory material that invites readers to think critically about them.  We didn’t create the book hoping that it would encourage everyone to adopt a particular “party line.”  Rather, we hoped that it would encourage readers of all ages to think, to ask questions, and to understand that the world in which they live is not a given.  People can change it.  They can change it.

_____________________

1. Philip Pullman, “Intention,” Keywords for Children’s Literature, ed. Philip Nel and Lissa Paul (New York University Press, 2011).

Related content (updated 19 Nov. 2011):

Comments (10)