There's a certain cultural institution that many of us hold dear, as
one of the primary loci of modern democracies: the public library.
The institution of public libraries open to anyone in a community is
of course a relatively recent development.
I grew up in an incredibly small town in rural Iowa, middle of the US.
Farming---originally family, now mostly factory. No library in my
town (village) of 600. Yet there was a larger city nearby, a nexus
for all of the other rural communities within an hour to an
hour-and-a-half radius. That city had a library.
A Carnegie Library.
Andrew Carnegie---steel magnate extraordinaire---provided monies for
approximately half of all libraries existing in the early twentieth
century. This library in this small rural city was an absolute
lifeline for someone like myself, as well as for many others. I
wouldn't be doing what I do today without its existence. Those who
grew up in rural areas probably have similar stories, of libraries
providing a certain wider outlook on the world beyond the myopic one
furnished by the remoteness of one's surroundings. The library can be
considered only one aspect of my development, but I would argue an
absolutely necessary one.
Andrew Carnegie was also ruthless and involved in some of the most
notorious man-made disasters and labor disputes in the US of the
late-nineteenth century, the Johnstown Flood and the Homestead Strike
among them (remember Henry Frick and Alexander Berkman?)
So let's place ourselves in late-nineteenth, early-twentieth century
America. We know about Carnegie's great amassing of wealth. We're
anarchists, let's say, and Berkman is still in jail because of his
actions against Carnegie's businessman Frick. Carnegie announces his
plans to give money away for the construction of libraries. We know
the importance of reading and of books as part of our own development.
The question is this: do we write a tract denouncing Carnegie's
library plan as of a piece with the further intrusion of the Captains
of Industry into public life?
I mean this question only rhetorically, as this is one of the meanings
I ascribe to the word "complex" in this discussion. Carnegie's
actions, taken from the beginning of his life to his end, cannot be
fit into a simple framework. Nor can the effects of those actions.
Who knows how many young people have had similar experiences as mine
as a result of his libraries? Who knows what it was like to live
without a family member as a result of Carnegie's henchmen in the
Homestead Strike? What sort of "control" does Carnegie still exert
over his libraries, a hundred years hence? Thinking on the timescale
of a hundred years or more is not something we commonly do precisely
because it is impossible to predict what might happen---for
progressive ideas or not. This is part of my second meaning of
"complex", tying into the work of complexity theory.
Modeling---always a dangerous enterprise---becomes such a wicked
problem when we begin to grasp at these sorts of dynamics. Major
actions that transform the squares of thousands of small communities
around the US can lead to all sorts of small and impossible-to-predict
This is not to say that we do not "take a stand", that we instead
partake in infinite deferral, forever rooted to one place and one type
of behavior in fear of creating an effect, of affecting the world.
Yet it does not mean---in my opinion at least---that we can
immediately denounce, for example, Koch. As the Carnegie example
demonstrates, older and modern "captains of industry" have continually
played an oversize role in the development of our public and cultural
institutions in the US. Would I wish this otherwise? Of course. Is
there (was there?) the political will to do this, to provide the
funding necessary for these institutions? Seemingly not. Is there
any way that Kickstarter is going to raise $35 million for the
Smithsonian? I don't believe so. Is it possible that some kid, forty
years hence, will enter into the Koch wing of the Smithsonian, become
fascinated by the fossils there, and later discovers something that
re-writes the story of our planet as it pertains to climate change?
Sure. Is it possible that some young dancer, as a result of attending
a ballet performance at the Koch Theater, says "to hell with this en
pointe" and begins developing a new form of dance that causes us to
rethink our relationship to our bodies? Of course.
All these are hypotheticals. One may argue the opposite answer to
mine. And I think that would count as legitimate disagreement.
The challenge, I believe, is how to articulate a course of action that
does not immediately reduce this complexity, that does not _itself_
get lost in the webs of complexity. This is much more difficult than
coming up with a powerful slogan (which is already difficult in and of
itself). It will certainly fail focus group tests. It won't be
talked about on the evening news. It won't make you any friends in
groups that feel like they already have the answer. How does one take
a principled stand against the repugnant policies of the Koch Bros.,
while also holding out the possibility that their philanthropic
actions just _might_ cause some positive change in the world? And
that this change might be _exactly opposite_ to what they intended?
(I wonder sometimes if "they" (mega-philanthropists of conservative
persuasion) realize this, that their activities might actually be
providing the seeds for progressive, radical change at some point in
the future? Temporality is a funny thing: we seem to want
instantaneous change, yet know from the lessons of history the
absolutely horrendous situations such rapid change has produced.
Perhaps certain events in the world, certain tendencies, might cause
us to speed up our actions. Yet there is nothing we can do, I
believe, to "make everything right" for everyone everywhere who needs
it within the space of our short lifetimes. It might be depressing,
but I think it behooves us to consider these struggles on the scale of
centuries, not years or even decades.)
It also means, on the one hand, setting the boundary lines for
oneself, of deciding the situations where you personally reduce the
known complexity to something simple because you find the action so
repugnant. But it also means understanding that others will draw
their lines differently, and figuring out how porous your lines short
be in order to take part in that much ballyhooed term "solidarity".
Returning to my "rhetorical" question: how would one write a tract
that denounces the actions of Carnegie Steel in the Homestead Strike,
that calls for the release of Berkman, while simultaneously suggesting
that the libraries potentially set the stage for the "democratization"
of education in hitherto ignored areas of the US?
That challenge is still with us.
On 05/04/2012 11:15 AM, Brian Holmes wrote:
> On 05/03/2012 04:40 PM, Sascha D. Freudenheim wrote:
>> My point is that I don't think over-generalizing from Conard's
>> absurd comments is necessarily very helpful. He's one guy. He's
>> entitled to his opinions, however ignorant we think they are. But
>> there are people with significantly more complex relationships to
>> the world(s) of ideas, art, culture, and wealth. Koch is one of
>> them. I don't agree with most of his political views, but he is
>> evidence that there are people whose motivations as part of the
>> 1% are not as simple-minded as Conard's--and not as simple as the
>> rest of us often assume.
> You know, Sascha, I am afraid you are the very example of the
> person whose opinions should no longer count in intellectual
> debates. Because you are unable to take a stand. You are unable to
> even see the ground you are standing on.