Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for January 10th, 2007

Librarians are dangerous people

Posted by metaphorical on 10 January 2007

Addendums appended

What do these two books have in common?

  • The Ezekiel Option by Joel C. Rosenberg
  • The Last Jihad by Joel C. Rosenberg

Obviously, they have the same author. And when ordered together via interlibrary loan, they place you on a government “Watch List,” according to Jane Ellen, a blogger in south central Montana.

A post of hers yesterday, “Libraries are dangerous places,” is getting a fair amount of attention. According to Ellen, who is apparently an Episcopal priest, the librarian in Joliet, Montana, received the books, “but they came with a letter informing her that because she had ordered them, she had been placed on a ‘Watch List.’ Pursuant to recent policy, with due respect for concerns with the requirements of the Patriot Act, she will have to appear in person in Billings before she will be permitted to order any more books.”

Joliet is northeast of Yellowstone; if you’re leaving the park, it’s about a half hour past Red Lodge, one of my favorite towns on Earth. For the last 50 years or so, Red Lodge has held an annual Festival of Nations, celebrating the seven diverse nations whose immigrants most of the local white population descends from. Clearly the whole area is a hotbed of ethnic and religious intolerance.

The idea that ordering any book in the world makes you a dangerous person not only insane, it’s probably backwards. Book readers, by and large, aren’t violent extremists. But to watch out for the librarians would be lunacy of two or three more orders of magnitude.

On Dave Farber’s interesting-people list, Rich Kulawiec suggests “every librarian in every library in the United States request a copy of these books (even if they already have one).” Good idea.

Added 11 January 2007: Andrew, in his comment, is right to note a bit of skepticism is in order. Generally, this isn’t how the Patriot Act is supposed to work. Moreover, the librarian isn’t supposed to tell anyone other than supervisors, colleagues, and their lawyer about an FBI demand for patron records—the Patriot Act specifically enjoins them from any other disclosure.

Still, we know generally that library records are in fact being turned over to law enforcement in accord with the Patriot Act. Back in June 2005, the NY Times reported:

Law enforcement officials have made at least 200 formal and informal inquiries to libraries for information on reading material and other internal matters since October 2001, according to a new study that adds grist to the growing debate in Congress over the government’s counterterrorism powers.

It’s quite possible we won’t know any more about this case, even if the facts are as stated in Jane Ellen’s post. The librarian in question may clam up, particularly if the note was a forbidden one, a courtesy of one librarian to another. I hate to say the facts of the case don’t matter—the facts do matter, always. But another fact that matters is that we’re invading the private space of libraries, librarians, and library patrons, we need to insist that that space be sacrosanct for the free exchange of ideas between writers and readers.

Added 13 January 2007: The librarian in Billings has confessed that her story wasn’t true.

Turns out, after some… awkward conversation, that the story was, as my grandmother would have said, “not stitched out of whole cloth.” The paper she had been holding was something else entirely. No letter, no trip to Billings necessary, no upset husband (well, there is a husband– yes, I have seen him– but he is not upset about the letter because there is no letter to be upset about).

Why she felt the need to spin this tale to us (there were 3 people near the circulation desk, counting me, participating in this conversation) I do not know.

When I was young, nothing like this could have been true.

Posted in Orwell, politics | 2 Comments »

The cattle culture and its long shadow

Posted by metaphorical on 10 January 2007

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the U.N. report, “Livestock’s long shadow,” that describes the horrific environmental consequences of what Jeremy Rifkin calls “the cattle culture.” I mentioned Rifkin in that post, but I don’t think his essential contribution to this debate is appreciated enough. Without Rifkin’s book, Beyond beef : the rise and fall of the cattle culture, I suspect there would have been no Howard Lyman on Oprah, no Fast Food Culture, no Supersize Me.

I hadn’t looked at the book much since I first read it, not long after it was published in 1992. Every year I chose one big summer nonfiction book. I would read it over a single long July weekend spent with my friends Chuck and Gretchen at the annual Winterhawk bluegrass festival in upstate New York, just west of where the Catskills give way to the Berkshires. Looking over the book, I shouldn’t be surprised at how well it holds up—how well Rifkin had already learned the lessons that the U.N. would try once again to teach, a decade and a half later.

Our picture of cattle is formed by images like the bucolic beasts grazing in fields alongside highways; the reality of industrial beef couldn’t be more different. I don’t think I can do better than to let Rifkin talk to us in his own words. Here then are just a few snippets from chapter 27, “Ecological Colonialism.”

Still, in all of the ongoing public debates around the global environmental crisis, a curious silence surrounds the issue of cattle, one of the most destructive environmental threats of the modern era. Domesticated cattle are responsible for much of the soil erosion in the temperate regions of the world. Cattle grazing is a primary cause of the spreading desertification process that is now enveloping whole continents. Cattle ranching is responsible for the destruction of much of the earth’s remaining tropical rain forests. Cattle raising is indirectly responsible for the rapid depletion of fresh water on the planet, with some reservoirs and aquifers now at their lowest levels since the end of the last Ice Age. Cattle are a chief source of organic pollution; cow dung is poisoning the freshwater lakes, rivers, and streams of the world.

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Posted in animal-rights, journalism, politics, technology | 2 Comments »