10.2002a FYI France Essay: "'Everything has not changed...' : a reply to François Lapelerie"

by Jack Kessler, kessler@well.sf.ca.us

Originally published in French in Bulletin des bibliothèques de France t. 47 n. 6, pp. 112-115 (December 2002) ISSN: 0006-2006 -- online in French as, "'Tout a changé : la censure d'Internet dans les bibliothèques publiques américaines", at,

http://bbf.enssib.fr/bbf/html/2002_47_6/2002-6-p112-kessler.xml.asp

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"Everything has not changed..." :
a reply to François Lapelerie

by Jack Kessler, kessler@well.sf.ca.us

San Francisco
September 10, 2002

 

To: the Editor, le BBF --

I will be happy to add "lobbying", and even "spiritualism", to any laundry list of defects which may have influenced the recent rise of censorship and other bad things, over here in the US, as François Lapelerie encourages me to do in his letter to the BBF t. 47, n. 4 pp. 111-112. The list is longer than that, even -- so much, about modern US politics, society, culture or the lack of it, might be folded in as well. Two problems, though:

1) In my article in t. 47 n. 2, I was trying to identify only major influences, on the specific problem of library Internet censorship -- not minor contributions, and not more general US problems which have only peripheral concern with that particular issue.

I believe, myself, that "lobbying" and "spiritualism" -- the two major concerns of François Lapelerie in his letter -- play minor roles, if any, in the US library Internet censorship question. I even feel that these are not major issues in general US society today. This is in spite of the thought of François Lapelerie, and many others, that they do have central importance: Time magazine agrees with him -- so do many television talk shows -- quite a few people do feel that the US literally is run, now, by the evils of "campaign finance" and the dark dangers of rising religious "spiritualism".

But I do not. We have had venality for a very long time, in this country. It is a recurring tide, which ebbs and flows with the political season, as it does in any nation. In the US it happens to be flowing faster and more widely, and more deeply, now, than it has for many years perhaps. But I share the possibly-blind faith, of most US Americans I believe, that the venality tide will ebb again as issues change, reactions set in, new generations of political activists and politicians emerge, elections are held...

And yes, to the astonishment of François Lapelerie, all this for "même au plus petit des citoyens américains, de faire un recours contre toute loi, meme votée par le parlement, même paraphée par le Président"... In the US we have plenty of laws providing for this, and a full superstructure of non-governmental organizations which can find "standing to sue" -- lots of "small" libraries, and librarians, are members of the American Library Association, and other "small" and often very impoverished citizens are members of other groups which join in such suits, such as the ACLU / American Civil Liberties Union and the EFF / Electronic Frontier Foundation -- and our "class action" lawyers always will find the plaintiffs, anyway, even if the associations and organizations miss them.

And no, US Americans who believe that, "ils ont les hommes politiques les pires qui puissent exister... les plus intelligents sont hommes d'affaire..." are not numerous -- and recently their numbers are much-diminished, in fact. We have some very bright and able hommes politiques and femmes politiques here in the US, François Lapelerie -- not all, but some -- as do you in France. But our politics recently has become extremely difficult. As in France, perhaps moreso, we have a legal system to which we turn for solace and real aid, when we most despair of our politics and our politicians -- that, really, was the central and I think encouraging message of the piece which I wrote.

The political system over here in the US is not perfect, but none is. Ours does have wonderful self-correcting mechanisms built into it which already are at work tearing down the "campaign finance" problem: the press, for example, is one of the most important elements in this self-correction process here in the US -- and the best evidence that progress is being made on the problem is that there has been so much publicity, that people all the way over in France have learned so many minute details about it. One of the best curatives for fungi and bacteria and microbes of any sort is the harsh glare of bright light.

So while the alarm of François Lapelerie at current US "lobbying" is entirely justified, I think, I do not feel that this problem has had an impact on library Internet censorship directly. We have general venality concerns, in the US, as other places do -- but I do not see that these have played any central role in this one issue. And I do feel that the venality problem will recede -- not disappear entirely but ebb, like an inevitable ocean tide, with a certain amount of effort already under way and also simply with the passage of time.

Likewise for the more difficult problem of US "spiritualism", which François Lapelerie is very correct in finding alarming, I think: this trend has received much attention in the US press, an analysis which must sound very strange in foreign ears. More than "lobbying", any rising US "spiritualism" certainly might have a direct on library policies and content, and on pressures to censor the "evil" Internet. But it doesn't -- yet -- I believe.

We do have a few religious extremists in our US government now. These are very dedicated men and women, who agree with the extremists outside who put them there, and who already are using "faith-based" arguments -- arguments which cannot be governed by reason, as David Hume and the Enlightenment proved to most of us so long ago -- to counter fundamental social measures in areas such as abortion and education.

But I have seen no evidence myself that "spiritualism" -- fundamentalist Christianity or "faith-based" programs or any other -- has played a direct role in library Internet censorship in the US, so far. The hearts and minds of the legislators and law enforcement officials involved may well have been influenced by such a trend. But we see into those hearts and minds at best imperfectly, and there never is any telling exactly how they might have been influenced: there is as much a reaction against a "spiritualism" trend as there is one in favor of it, perhaps -- we may not know the exact proportions, on this sort of calculation, until very much later if ever.

More important on the censorship issue than any such spiritualism trend, I believe, have been the underlying tendencies which I identified in my article: la protection de l'enfance, le terrorisme, la "technophobie", la peur de la "nouveauté". Even if some legislators and officials oppose or are apathetic about a rising "spiritualism" tendency -- this is more my own reaction, for example -- they still would hold strong opinions on the four issues which I identify, which I suggest are more generally and more directly and more deeply involved in the censorship question, in fact.

"Spiritualism" may be underlying all of this -- or overlying it -- as François Lapelerie suggests. He is not the only one to have suggested this trend recently, in the US: Time magazine, again, agrees with him. But this is too simple, I myself believe.

The US contains over 288 million people now, and has been in continuous operation as a political entity for over 200 years, with political and general cultural traditions which extend back several hundred years earlier. Most of our people, furthermore, are immigrants -- and most of those are of very recent origin -- the great-grandparents of nearly everyone one knows came from some other country, and some strange set of political ideas, personal values, religious convictions.

In the US we have Asians and Latin Americans and Africans -- that is the majority, currently, among the 34+ million in my own state of California -- and we have Europeans here of every religious stripe and political persuasion, from Italian and Spanish Catholics to German and Swedish Protestants, lowchurch and highchurch Episcopalians -- we have weird homegrown hippies and yes a few Satanists probably, Orthodox Greeks and Russians, recently lots of Muslims, Nestorians from Jordan, Copts from Ethiopia, Buddhists, Hindus -- we have freethinkers over here of every conceivable type, and some good French Catholics, and Huguenots...

So it is very unlikely, to me, that the entire US ever could become dominated by any one tradition, or single way of thinking, in any "spiritualism" or any other sense -- at least not for long -- things here are far too enormous, and too messy, for that.

Whether the fact that we are nearly all immigrants might lead us in such a single direction? Well, yes, there has been great speculation about that -- by many, including but not just David Reisman. My own thought, though, is that this speculation often has been desperate: lacking any other common strands, to unite generalist thinking about "the entire US", writers very often have retreated to our "nation of immigrants" -- our "melting pot" -- as being one such common strand, perhaps simply because of their inability to identify any others. This does some among them an injustice, I realize, but it is something to think about for anyone who would reduce the US to any single set of distinguishing characteristics.

So just as I do not feel that rising US "spiritualism" has had any direct effect on recent library Internet censorship here, I do not even believe that any spiritualist trend really plays a major factor in anything that the US is doing at the moment. I am not familiar with the source which François Lapelerie cites, Daryush Shayegan, "La Lumière vient de l'Occident". But Time magazine, once again, and the television talkshows, do give ample coverage periodically to "spiritualism in American life".

There are mainstream periodicals here, besides Time, which offer "spiritualist" articles occasionally -- and of course there are many non-mainstream periodicals in the US, as there are in France, which are entirely dedicated to the "spiritualist" theme. And there are books -- countless books -- and now Websites which seem even more innumerable.

But this always has been the case. There is a segment of humanity, anywhere, which feeds off of this sort of thing. And there is a large segment which cherishes doubts -- doubts which in times of stress cause those folks to lean in spiritualism directions. But there is another segment -- I myself believe even larger than the other two, in the US case at least -- which is too busy doing other things to bother with too much spiritualism: they are, instead, earning a living, raising teenagers, diapering babies, taking picnics to the beach, finding cures for cancer, building new political institutions, Saving the Planet...

Since Tocqueville, this latter "pragmatic" streak has fascinated foreign observers of the US. So I would suggest, to François Lapelerie and others who are worried about us now, that this pragmatism -- more than anything, and certainly more than our immigration status or our spiritualism-- for a long time has been and still is our single unifying characteristic, here in the US, if we really have only one.

François Lapelerie is right to be worried. I am as well. Spiritualism does not attract me, personally, as I find that without Reason I am unable to think about a thing much less discuss it with others -- I read Hume and was convinced by him, long ago in school. From time to time I do worry that rootless immigrants, faced with uncertainties, might fall back simplistically on the fundamentals of the old religions which they had left behind -- one of our greatest US thinkers, John Dewey, had that fear and wrote his seminal The Quest for Certainty (1929) about it.

But then I remember how my own great-grandfather would insist on speaking his broken English, and always was so proud of the "American name" with which the Ellis Island immigration officer, stumbling over the unpronounceable Hungarian, had endowed him -- "Alois" had become "Louis" -- French, in fact... although over here that instantly became "Louie". US immigrants left "The Old World" pretty firmly behind, in most cases -- relapses were rare, even in religion, and memories faded firmly with the first generation.

The great-grandchildren do not remember, in most cases I think. Our immigrants were largely refugees, moreover -- consciously fleeing and rejecting the traditions which they left behind -- so that Old World spiritual values were one of the primary evils which motivated US American citizenship in the first place, and would not be values to which we would willingly return. Would we find it necessary to invent others, then? That certainly has been the suggestion of many writers. But those suggestions, again, are not recent. Critics have been saying that of the US for a long time -- throughout our history in fact -- nothing new, and nothing uniquely accounting for anything recent. I think myself that, regardless of what magazines say to sell issues, reinventing spiritualism is less important to US Americans nowadays than going on picnics...

And these evils do not percolate down directly to an issue so immediate as library Internet censorship, I believe. For example, the same senator who has led the fight against "campaign finance" corruption is a leader in the fight for Internet censorship, in fact. Like France, the US is a complicated place.

 

2) I also was more interested, I will admit, in influences on library Internet censorship which are generalizable to non-US situations. The threat exists elsewhere, after all, and not just inside the US. Both of the factors to which François Lapelerie points -- "lobbying" and "spiritualism" -- he appears to consider unique to the US. That is of course debatable.

He is aware that there is venality in other countries: although his example of my own suggestion that French librarians "régler les questions épineuses 'en interne', d'user de la flatterie et de la persuasion" is a curious one -- I meant only that, in France, librarians appear to favor diplomacy over US-style confrontational politics -- diplomacy so often is more effective, after all, and does not, or does not always, require the placing of one's hand in someone else's pocket... French librarians, from the point of view of California and many other places, certainly may be considered "exotiques", as François Lapelerie suggests -- francophilia is alive and well in many places on the planet, still. But no one ever has thought of the French as being "primitifs".

As for "la flatterie", well, Molière perhaps gets credit for that image of French technique -- although he also taught the world that France employs more than any one subtle technique to achieve a desired end -- and in any case, as with venality, no one nation has a monopoly on the use of flattery in its politics. And I did say "de la persuasion", as well...

Likewise with "spiritualism", François Lapelerie is concerned with characteristics which are uniquely US American. While I personally would disagree with him about the extent and significance of any rising US "spiritualism" tendency now -- irrespective of the support which such a view enjoys from Time magazine and other such sources -- more to my immediate purpose was distinguishing that, and other specifically-US sociological trends, from more general causal factors which contribute, anywhere I think, to a rise in the tendency to censor: my four factors, la protection de l'enfance, le terrorisme, la "technophobie", la peur de la "nouveauté" -- these are tendencies which are universal, and might motivate censorship in France, or in Sweden, or in India or China or anywhere else.

More important than the US, then -- more important than France -- more important than any national characteristic or situational approach, are the fundamental fears and irrationalities which motivate censorship. These are alive and very active, now, in the US -- perhaps the result of the stress imposed by "September 11", perhaps not.

The most general point of what I wrote is that these same fears, so shaking the US now, might as easily arise elsewhere. Not US "spiritualism" or US "lobbying" as François Lapelerie suggested, I believe, but definitely the worries of a parent, the tragedies of terrorism, and perhaps most fundamentally of all the fears of the new. We have great experience with the last, in the US -- we take undue amounts of pride in our national ability to innovate, and to both enjoy the fruits of innovation and accommodate its risks -- but now we ourselves, and other nations, perhaps are learning the mixed blessing which comes with taking civilization forward a step or so too rapidly. Among the risks, perhaps, are both what happened on September 11, and the library Internet censorship reaction supposedly formulated in response.

As François Lapelerie and I hope all of your readers understand, I meant my title "Tout a changé" in an ironic sense only: "tout n'a pas changé" indeed -- these are very old problems. In the case of Internet censorship, the biggest among them, I myself believe -- the fear of the new -- is a problem as ancient and as difficult in France as it is in the US, and as it is anywhere else as well:

-- Machiavelli

 

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