“The McCarthy period was a way to shut off dialogue. The life’s blood of this country is an open and robust dialogue, a rational political dialogue, where everybody’s free to say what they believe, why they believe it, and to persuade their neighbor to their point of view. That is the way we move forward in our society.”—John Henry Faulk
When I was a journalism undergraduate, I did a paper on the famous case of John Henry Faulk v. AWARE, Inc. This blacklisting case gained some notoriety when attorney Louis Nizer successfully sued a right-wing organization (AWARE, Inc.) whose main purpose in the 1950s was to investigate and, frequently, to irreparably smear and destroy the reputations and careers of those who were working in television and radio.
Vincent Hartnett, the director of AWARE, published a directory of ”subversives” called Red Channels that controversy-averse television and radio stations would use to politically “clear” its entertainers and writers. Those listed in the book were mostly guilty of, at some point in their lives, having made statements or backed causes that the hypervigilant or paranoid associated with left-leaning or even outright revolutionary political organizations. The directory was used by media outlets to make hiring and, in the case of CBS and John Henry Faulk, firing decisions.
As far as I can tell, the directory was based mostly on anonymous and often exaggerated tips from people who had known some of the entertainers at earlier points in their lives. These entertainers, being artists and idealists, may have done no more than sign a peace petition or stand in the back of some campus meeting 15 years earlier. Some of the tips were accurate, but no doubt rooted in personal animus, jealousy or political disagreement. Faulk was targeted for winning a union election against Fanatical right-wingers and “Red baiters,” if I recall correctly.
The case was historic because Faulk and Nizer won a settlement in the millions of dollars and ruined the reputation and malignant business model of Hartnett and other blacklisters who had, with the smug self-assurance and indefatigable self-righteousness that Fanatics always carry with them, destroyed the lives and careers of so many.
The Faulk case hints at a nightmarish world of anonymous personal destruction and social paranoia, to be sure, and those of us who grew up in an era in which people still had at least distant memories of McCarthyism and blacklisting might recall history professors showing “Point of Order” or “Fear on Trial” or video of some portion of HUAC proceedings as an historical warning.
As recently as the 1990s (when I was in library school), librarians were still patting themselves on the collective professional back for “resisting the blacklist,” and thwarting other forms of intrusive Cold War-era investigation, with Herb Foerstel’s 1991 monograph Surveillance in the Stacks as a popular source of assigned readings. “Fortitude” and “courage” and “good soldiers” are words Foerstel used to describe the librarians of the McCarthy era. Many librarians and the American Library Association itself did, in fact, resist, but the record was far from perfect.
A more believable and uncomfortable truth has trickled out in time, with the “heroic librarian” narrative being tempered by more context and research.
Stephen Francoeur’s 2006 paper “McCarthyism and Libraries: Intellectual Freedom Under Fire, 1947-1954″ has this revealing passage:
“Finding evidence of librarians giving in to pressure is a much more challenging task than locating sources on librarian resistance. The actions of librarians who did remove books were usually done out of the public eye. Although the evidence analyzed for this essay does not offer clues about why librarians failed to leave documentary traces of their having given in to pressure, one can make some informed guesses about why this the case.“
In other words, the “librarian as resister of McCarthyism” narrative is easier to keep alive than the “librarian as censoring collaborator” narrative, as those cases in which librarians did not resist or collaborated outright were (in)conveniently not recorded, but with enough digging–as Francoeur did–it becomes apparent that there were fewer Zoia Horns in the Cold War era than library school students were led to believe. Some librarians collaborated with censors, for reasons that may never be fully understood. Presumably, ideological agreement with the Blacklist played a part for some, but fear of job loss was probably the main reason. Wrote Francoeur:
“It is fair to suggest that librarians were, at least in their public actions, more unified in resisting pressures on library collections than they were in protecting librarians from being dismissed or investigated. During the McCarthy era, a librarian could lose a job not only by refusing to remove challenged library materials—as was the case with Ruth Brown, who was fired from the Bartlesville Public Library in 1950 after she refused
to take the Nation and New Republic off the shelves—but also for failing to cooperate with a loyalty oath program or background investigation.”
“We protect the rights of individuals to express their opinions about library resources and services”–from: ALA’s “Libraries: An American Value” (53.8)
With that historical groundwork laid, let’s fast forward 60 years or so to the summer of 2020. It was a tense time in America, the reader may recall, as footage of a blase’ Minneapolis cop (white) kneeling heavily on the back of a writhing, screaming, gurgling, handcuffed detainee (black) was constantly on the news as well as everyone’s social media feeds. This medieval scene of torture and death by peine forte et dure (the face-down detainee, George Floyd, died right there on the pavement) ignited a society already frustrated and enraged for various and sundry reasons, notably the social paralysis of the COVID-19 pandemic and popular reaction on behalf of roughly 50% of the voting population to a decidedly and gleefully divisive President.
America’s political leadership class at the time did next to nothing memorable to make the national situation better, but instead seemed to delight at opportunistically fanning the flames of racial and social discord. In some cities, what started as peaceful protests devolved into riots, destruction and death. Black Lives Matter, an organization founded in 2013, had as its stated mission that summer to resist police brutality and protest systemic racism. As the aforementioned riots made news, “BLM” became a sort of catch-all, heat sink or scapegoat deserving of (depending on one’s point of view) loyalty, support and donations or suspicion, fear and disgust.
It is notable that trying to find a neutral and objective analysis of Black Lives Matter as an organization is almost impossible despite it being almost ten years old. Ideological disengagement seems to be (predictably) impossible. Judging from information popularly available, one is forced to take the organization at face value with its claims and aims and methods as completely within the norms of civilized discourse and political action or to reject them all as completely disingenuous and corrupt or, at the very least, questionable. BLM is either above reproach or beneath contempt, depending on who one asks (or what one reads). In all fairness, the protests I saw with my own eyes that summer were perfectly peaceful and respectful, and the only hints of violence seemed to come from dodgy-looking, hyped-up white people that the BLM organizers did not seem to like being there and seemed to be trying to keep under control. BLM representatives themselves seemed organized unto élan from what I myself witnessed.
During the early summer of 2020, the organization’s publicity profile exploded in prominence and, for some, it wasn’t quite settled–and not clear–whether or not Black Lives Matter was a political organization or maybe even an upstart political party (the Office of Special Counsel would declare it officially “non-political” for the purposes of Federal employees that July). On its own website, Black Lives Matter refers to itself as “an ideological and political intervention.” As of this writing almost exactly two years later, what’s left of Black Lives Matter as a public-facing organization appears to be comfortable being exactly that–political, complete with PAC.
Despite this lack of clarity back in first days of June of 2020 when the news out of Minneapolis was still fresh and the protests were at their high-point, energy-wise, the Association of Bookmobile and Outreach Services–a 501(c)3 non-profit affiliated with fellow non-profit American Library Association–forwarded the following message to its LIST-serv on behalf of the American Library Association (all original links included, but special emphasis in the text is mine):
From: firstname.lastname@example.org <email@example.com> on behalf of President ABOS <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Sent: Monday, June 8, 2020 1:48 PM
To: ABOS-Outreach Google Group (Listserve)
Subject: [ABOS-Outreach] Fwd: ALA Libraries Respond – Black Lives Matter
Since 2016, ODLOS has maintained the Libraries Respond page – a resource for addressing current social justice issues. Our newest installment is Libraries Respond – Black Lives Matter.
The library profession suffers from a persistent lack of racial and ethnic diversity that shows few signs of improving. In 2018, just 6.8 percent of librarians identified as Black or African American. Many people are feeling helpless, but there are many ways we can center the voices and experiences of Black library workers and the Black community, support the broader Black Lives Matter movement, fight against police violence, and further the cause of racial justice.
This resource provides key definitions and concrete tools for library workers on how they can be involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, from resources on educating yourself to critically examining library policies.
Please do not hesitate to get in touch (email@example.com) if you have any questions or resources you recommend for this page.
Amber Hayes Outreach and Communications Program Officer, Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services American Library Association 225 N Michigan Ave Suite 1300 Chicago, IL 60601 P: 312-280-2140 or 800-545-2433 ext. 2140 E: firstname.lastname@example.org www.ala.org/diversity
Pronouns: She, Her, and Hers
Dissent and “Potential Consequences”
“In these and other situations, you should and probably will feel an ethical obligation as a professional to speak out and make your library values known. You will have to use your professional judgment as to when and how to do so, and you must be prepared to accept any potential consequences.”–ALA’s “Speech in the Workplace Q & A”, #5
The reader will note that “Black Lives Matter” was capitalized in that original email twice and that it preceded the word “movement,” both times. One of the subscribers to that bookmobile-service LIST-serv was Ron Kelley, the manager of the bookmobile for Flagstaff Public Library, which served families throughout Coconino County, including indigenous people of the Navajo Nation. Kelley, who came down firmly on the side of interpreting the capitalized Black Lives Matter as a political organization with political aims, took exception to having the professional organization of bookmobile and outreach librarians forwarding the ALA’s message encouraging its members to “support” or “be involved in” it, especially in the midst of what appeared to him to be widespread civil unrest supported by the organization, if the news media was to be believed. The ABOS/ALA email went out just two weeks after George Floyd’s death. The next day, Kelley wrote the following in response:
On Tue, Jun 9, 2020 at 11:13 AM Ron Kelley <RKelley@flagstaffaz.gov> wrote:
ABOS Friends and Associates,
The propagandistic posting below, apparently forwarded from the current president of ABOS, about the Black Lives Matter organization is extremely unwise. Overt politicization of this list-serv will destroy this forum. Do members want a political battlefield, strong-armed by ALA-sanctioned propaganda, or an open exchange forum for outreach improvement? Or, truly, in the heart of our festering Culture Wars, are only dictated political perspectives permitted about library outreach programs in these discussions? Such ham-handed, totalitarian directives are apparently endorsed by ABOS, as well as the ALA, to the obvious exclusion of other views. Will this ABOS discussion group kick out (censor) individuals who advocate for a non-political forum?
It’s an old adage that is increasingly under attack: Libraries should provide aid and information to ALL who seek it and not function as a politicized, prejudicial Advocacy Factory.
Diversity? Inclusion? 82% of American librarians are women. Why no interest in gender diversity in this genre of workplace? Or is the presumption here that of the usual “social justice” template, that all males are innately oppressors, naturally affluent, born cursed, and they don’t like “women’s work?” Or are men relatively illiterate? Which stereotype suffices to righteously ignore this glaring stat about women’s dominance of the library world?
Here, below, are some Black authors with alternative perspectives on the Black Lives Matter movement, and/or beyond. I’ve read/viewed some of this material, but not all of it. I formally endorse nothing, I do not know all of which every individual advocates, but recognize that the fundamental purpose of a library is to provide a broad range of information/materials for ALL patrons, and a wide realm of fact and opinion, not solely bending to a favorite, dictated ideological line. A much-needed “diversity of viewpoints,” perhaps the greatest diversity of them all, cuts across race, class, and gender.
Libraries – and this discussion forum — should remain apolitical. ALA — and ABOS, apparently now in tow by the neck — adheres to one-dimensional thought in heralding a single political view while implicitly dismissing/censoring other perspectives, something akin to Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, or Orwell’s masterpieces. Ignoring some strains of thought — and relentlessly highlighting, and overtly advocating for, others — is a discrete form of censorship, as any librarian knows in collection development.
Library workers are supposed to be informed. They ought to be readers, and open wide the doors to ALL visitors, not shut – or narrow — them.
And a librarians’ job should be to serve their communities’ respective needs, not to manipulate information and tell people what to think.
The ALA email below solicits activism in the Black Lives Matter movement and offers “resources on educating yourself.” In this regard, do you think that this grossly prejudicial email would dare to encompass the following?
A few ALTERNATIVE BLACK VOICES, with samples of their works:
Taleeb Starkes: Black Lies Matter: Why Lies Matter to the Race Grievance Industry
Candace Owens: Blackout: How Black Americans Can Make Its Second Escape from the Democrat Plantation
Jesse Lee Peterson: host of the video program “The Fallen State.” His video interview with members of Black Lives Matter is, by his own word, “amazing.”
David Clarke: Cop under Fire: Moving beyond Hashtags of Race, Crime and Politics for a Better America
Keith B. Richburg: Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa
Erik Rush: Negrophilia: From Slave Block to Pedestal – America’s Racial Obsession
Jason L. Riley: Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed
Larry Elder. (You Tube Interview: Black Lives Matter, Racism, pt. 2 — A Conservative Perspective)
Conti, Faryna, Stetson: Black and Right: The Bold New Voice of Black Conservatives in America
There are many more alternative Black perspectives, but they are not popularly heralded by those with vested ideological devotion to Marxism, post-Modernism, and/or, generally, the “social justice” narratives of the political Left, i.e. the likes of the American Library Association. The ALA has long since failed – by conscious political design – to be an objective arbiter of what is or is not “fake news.” (See, for example, its endorsement of the prejudicial and partisan ideology of “critical librarianship,” which rejects the aims of an objective neutrality. Examine also what brand of individual speaks at the ALA’s conventions, both national and sectional. And who/what is forbidden its forum.)
For a broader critical perspective about the “Identity Politics” avalanche in our times, see, for example:
Heather MacDonald: The War on Cops
Heather MacDonald: The Diversity Delusion
Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning: The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars
Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt: The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure
Michael Rectenwald. Springtime for Snowflakes: Social Justice and Its Postmodern Parentage
Jordan Peterson. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life was a recent bestseller, but he catapulted to fame for resisting “politically correct” mandates in Canada. Peterson is prolific throughout the internet, but one of his most famous interviews was with “progressive” journalist Cathy Newman.
Other valuable reading, per the new enforced political orthodoxies that are sweeping our society in the bitter Culture Wars, must include:
This is an online academic organization with a membership of nearly 4,000 scholars, who are concerned about “enhancing viewpoint diversity,” i.e., breaking the totalitarian tone metastasizing throughout university culture, including censorial intolerance to alternative perspectives, and the enforcement of groupthink shepherding.
Of course there are others throughout ABOS, and beyond, who recognize the truths here I state. But we live in a New World climate of fear and intimidation wherein objectors to ardent propaganda are bullied into silence. Few speak out to resist for concern of the inevitable avalanche that will be wrought upon them: systemic smears (see Sheryl Atkinson’s The Smear: How Shady Political Operatives and Fake News Control What You See, What You Think, and How You Vote), censorship, threats, intimidation, and attacks upon views that don’t tow the “correct” Party Line – the one that dominates when all others are sufficiently purged.
George Floyd endured an atrocity and justice will be served. But there are many commentators, with an abundance of facts and statistics about crime, Black and White alike, who argue that the “systemic racism” charge is bogus. Read and listen to voices other than the ones that are Hell-bent upon insulating us all from our abilities to make up our own minds – and that is only WHEN a full range of information is provided for a genuinely informed democracy to function.
I remind you that, amidst the current — literally riotous — hysteria and our collective memory lapse, this used to be the purpose of a library.
Keep politics out of the workplace. Please go riot on your own time.
So here was someone pushing back against a message he disagreed with, in lengthy and clearly adversarial terms. It really wasn’t badly-written, either, objectively speaking, regardless of content. According to Ron, his message went largely ignored on the LIST-serv itself, with a few notable exceptions. Some of those exceptions took the time to discuss the content of the email in meetings among themselves, and then to call and email Ron’s employers. Ron was subsequently fired, with the contents of one complaint email cited in particular. Ron was kind enough to be interviewed via email about it, and I present his words exactly as I received them, with minor adjustments to punctuation, etc. for clarity. Ron supplied certified, FOIA-discovered copies of all documents.
AL: What is your background? What are some pertinent facts about you that you would want known?
RK: My background before being a librarian is unusual.
I have a degree in Anthropology. I spent 4 years in the graduate cinema program at UCLA. I ended up switching over to “art” photography at that institution and have an MFA in that subject from UCLA’s art department. (The MLS degree came much, much later as a way to put bread on the table).
I have had 2 full-year overseas Fulbright fellowships, basically as a visual ethnographer — one in Israel (where I documented the indigenous Muslim Arab Bedouin, as well as immigrant Ethiopian and Russian Jews). The other Fulbright was in Poland. I [run] a Youtube channel and a one-hour documentary (just finished) [can be found] there about the mountain highlanders of southern Poland (where my maternal grandparents came from).
I was the principal editor of Irangeles: Iranians in Los Angeles (University of California Press) and the associate editor for Sojourners and Settlers: the Yemeni Immigration Experience in America (University of Utah Press). These volumes included articles, interviews, and photographs by me.
A book was published in Great Britain featuring some of my photographs from Israel.
Sponsored by UCLA’s Near Eastern Studies Center, I also did a comprehensive project about Muslims in metropolitan Los Angeles. This never found a publisher, [but I] interviewed around 130 Muslims from around the world, as well as converts. I visited over 40 mosques and Islamic Centers in the LA area. A book, Muslim Communities in North America (State University of New York Press) features an article I wrote about my findings.
My own “social justice” pedigree also includes the fact that in 1991, during the Persian Gulf War, I flew to Iran, alone, to photograph Kurdish refugees for an American relief agency. (This cost me $3,000 out of my own pocket).
During my Fulbright Fellowship in Israel, I recorded videotape material for a 2-hour film about the many injustices the indigenous (Arab Muslim) Bedouin face under Israeli rule. The historic Bedouin story is similar to that of the American Indian. (This effort cost me $25,000 out of my own pocket). The story of that documentary film is here.
In 1990, I landed a blow for workers’ rights when the Los Angeles Times published a piece I did about working conditions in an academic library during the rush to get printed catalog material into the computer/digital system.
I was also once a Contributing Editor (glorified free lancer) for the far left newspaper the LA WEEKLY. I was even once, briefly, a news cameraman for a TV station in the midwest.
[I run] a web site: The Underground Library Free Thinkers Association
Also, I’d appreciate mention that I have a Youtube channel called ROCK THE CLOCK.
AL: Upon re-reading the LIST-serv exchange from June of 2020, your response was quite lengthy and some would say strident in tone. What was your point and what were you hoping to accomplish?
RK: “Strident?” The word I would use would be “passionate.” I was/am sick – like so many people these days — of sociopolitical flags being waved in my face. My background is in the arts where one speaks from the soul (in this case, an exhausted soul), not a dumbed-down, filtered language from, say, a committee of cautionary bureaucrats.
The “point” was for someone (me) to have the guts to speak out against the dictatorial wave that is sweeping the library world, and so much else. My central argument was in defense of the traditional notion of library neutrality (a position now under siege), i.e., one of the purposes of a library is to provide a broad range of information access for the public to make up their own minds about events of our day. The library has no business telling people what to think – about anything, as an advocacy beach head for sociopolitical causes. It should provide a wide range of information – and the tools – for people to examine all sides of an issue and make up their own minds. You must trust this open process, that people are not categorically dupes and fools who cannot come to, say, their own ethical – or any other kind of — conclusions. That’s the foundation of a genuine democracy, is it not?
The alternative – being told what to think, even by LIBRARIANS (!) — is frightening. Dangerous. There is a history of such societies that decide for you correct moral/ethical ways to think, and there’s an entire “social justice warrior” spectrum and legacy in that regard, strangleholds from Mao to Hitler. As different as they are, those guys wanted to – and did — get rid of library neutrality too.
My aim was to create debate and discussion at the ABOS list-serve. Even beyond. But the
opposite happened. I was attacked and my response was literally censored by those who run the ABOS enterprise. To this day I remain silenced. Banned. Ostracized.
AL: Did you get any indication from anyone of direct pushback? In other words, did anyone try to reach out to you directly to let you know that they thought you were wrong or that they disagreed? Did anyone seek to engage you on the matter?
RK: I was smeared and defamed, publicly, by, as I recall, about 8-10 “library professionals” at the list-serve. There could have been more, but these were the ones I saw. Some were deleted by the list-serve moderator. Others were left to remain, at the time. I saved some of them for future reference. I haven’t yet posted them at my web site, but I will. I was
called a “hater,” “hateful,” etc. Astoundingly, librarians were also dictating what was acceptable reading, per the issue of Black Lives Matter. At least one demanded that if my comments were allowed to stand, she would leave the list-serve. A former ABOS president framed me as a kind of moral leper. Many of these were personal attacks. Again, my singular response to all of them was censored by ABOS; I was not allowed to
reply. I wanted to defend myself.
In secret, a handful of librarians contacted me in support (at some risk, per their email comments in my home library’s files). Only one individual supported me publicly at the list-serve. This individual was a RETIRED librarian so she had no threat to her livelihood
and career for speaking out.
No one debated me, then or now. There is not even a hint at dialogue, ANYWHERE. On the contrary. I have no forum really, to express my “intellectual freedom.” Behind my back, in the shadows, two individuals (of probably hundreds at that list-serve) contacted
my home library, apparently with the hope that I would be fired. And they succeeded.
I filed a Freedom of Information Act request to the City of Flagstaff Human Resources department after I was terminated. I learned that TWO individuals had complained to my home library. One was Cathy Zimmerman, who was then the head of ABOS. Her comments were by phone, so I don’t know exactly what was said, but I did learn something important: Zimmerman apparently passed along to my bosses some of her personal emails, apparently to underscore the severity of the ruckus I had caused for some and the need to discipline me.
Zimmerman said this in a personal email to [Alison] Trautmann, a librarian who had demanded at the list-serve that ABOS do something against my posting (or she would quit the list-serve):
“I appreciate your patience. I do not think that Outreach in general shares his views. We spend too much time serving those who are in need. He has been moderated on the listserv. And I see that many outreach folks are not happy with him for his ‘rant’… ABOS does not support Mr. Kelley’s view. I would ask that you be tolerant right now while we work on the issue he has created on this list-serv.”
Zimmerman declares that I had been “moderated” (censored) from speaking further at the ABOS discussion group. Yes, that’s true. And she posits that “I do not think that Outreach in general shares his views” and “ABOS does not support his views.” So what? There you have it. What Zimmerman is stating is that there is a correct way to think at the list-serve and incorrect thinking will not be tolerated. THERE WILL BE NO DEBATE, OR DISCUSSION, about missives from Thought Central – the American Library Association. The Party Line WILL NOT be challenged. Opinions like mine will be, at minimum, “moderated.” How is this anything other than the antithesis of “intellectual freedom” at an “ALA-affiliated” library discussion group?
Another surprise in the FOIA material was my discovery that the ABOS “Executive Board” had scrambled to silence me behind the scenes. These people had held an [interstate] “Uber call” to discuss my posts (the second one — my defense to smears — censored). One email contributor, Brooke Bahnsen, the ABOS treasurer, emailed to the others: “Yes. I’m available at 7:30. You can also turn ‘recording off’ in the UberConference mode – so we can talk freely.”
“Talk freely!” Talk “freely!” What, one can only wonder, was there to hide, that dare not be part of public view? Why would such a posture be desired for an ABOS Executive Board meeting?
(NOTE: On July 26, 2022, Cathy Zimmerman politely declined to be interviewed, but speaking on behalf of the ABOS and its leadership, she stated that they have no further comment on this matter.)
The other complaint came, by email, from a stranger named Mike Schull, a librarian at Hancock County Library in Indiana. Neither of these people ever contacted me personally, debated me, sought dialogue, or anything else. I have had no communication with these strangers, in any form, ever… I would have never known who they were if I hadn’t filed the Freedom of Information Act request.
It is important to read what Mr. Schull sent to the director of my library, because this is
iconic to the censorial issues at-hand. And this is exemplary of how some – no, many —
LIBRARIANS view free speech and intellectual freedom in our times.
Mr. Schull wrote this:
As a member of the Association of Bookmobile and Outreach Services (an affiliate of the American Library Association), I was surprised and frankly horrified to see the below e-mail pass through the ABOS list-serv this morning. It has certainly been addressed by several members in the last couple of hours acknowledging that “black lives matter” [sic] is not a political statement but a moral one, and pointing out that we are members of a diverse organization serving a diverse public. Though I wouldn’t normally take the time to forward what I consider to be an extremely misinformed and misguided rant, I do feel that since this e-mail was sent by an employee of your library’s outreach department through library e-mail (on work time?), that it is worth bringing to your attention.
Directing library professionals to dubious sources by extreme (and mostly discredited) voices like David Clarke, Candace Owens, and Jordan Peterson and concluding with, “Please go riot on your own time,” after receiving a straight-forward ALA-sanctioned statement from the Office of Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services? This is troubling, angering, and quite frankly not how I would think you would want your library
reflected within the greater library community.
Schull’s last line was used in the formal city documents to fire me. I have analyzed each sentence in this censorial dictate at my own web site and, for sake of brevity, won’t delve into those details here. Suffice it to say that Mr. Schull reveals a mind-boggling
intellectual bigotry, especially for a librarian, per his dismissal of a range of popular authors that are obviously not in step with his own views and ideology. He clearly plays an ardently censorial role at the gates of his own library. With commentary like this above, how could he not? But I think that there is an entire ARMY of librarians like him scurrying about now, it is close to being the norm, and that’s why he can get away with such dictatorial commentary. This is an ugly paradox.
(NOTE: Mr. Schull did not respond to a July 25, 2022 request for comment or a July 31, 2022 follow-up request.)
There is freedom (ironic, no?) to herald such naked intellectual prejudice in the library world today, from the American Library Association on down. But there is no freedom to respond to it.
AL: How were you informed that your email was going to be a workplace issue? Was it mentioned specifically in any disciplinary proceedings?
RK: At the height of the pandemic, when most library personnel were working at home, I was called to a meeting by the director of the library (who has since left after two years here for a library directorship in another state). I was not told why I was supposed to come to the meeting. The meeting was only me and the director. I was directed to sit down at a table. He turned on a cellphone, set it down, and his superior – the head of a [City] division called “Fiscal Vitality” – proceeded to read through the phone the text of a “termination paper” to me. That was how I learned I was being fired. There were no “disciplinary proceedings” leading up to the decision to fire me. The director demanded my keys to the building and bookmobile and escorted me from the building. (I picked up my personal possessions a few days later at City Hall, where someone had delivered them).
I was immediately suspended and told that I could defend myself to the City Manager a week or so later. This conversation was also by phone. That day I itemized a list of documented hypocrisies, violations of city protocols, and injustices within the Flagstaff Library and City (some posted at my web site) and I was fired, by a letter through snail mail, a week or so later. Among the comments by the City Manager in the final termination letter was that I “raised my voice” and “had no remorse.” More reasons to fire me, apparently.
AL: Were you given any indication of from whom complaints had come or how many were received? Were they people who live in the community you serve? In other words, were you allowed to “face your accusers” or was it all anonymous?
RK: All anonymous. Again, I had to fight to find out even who my “accusers” were. I did this via the Freedom of Information Act. According to these documents, there were only two complaints: from Cathy Zimmerman and Mike Schull.
These two from a list-serve of probably hundreds of people. Both were strangers to me and I never had an exchange of any kind with either of them. My firing has absolutely nothing to do with the actual “people who live in the community I serve.” I ran the Flagstaff Public Library bookmobile for 9 years, alone. I served the Navajo Nation, rural areas, a number of schools, and three nursing homes. I instituted a monthly multicultural performance program, too. And on and on.
Over the years, I dealt with probably thousands of people throughout Coconino County, the
second largest county in America. I gave hundreds of dollars away to people out of my own
pocket, to those “down on their luck.” I got three grants, from my own initiative, to get materials in service to the Navajo community. There was never a complaint about me from the people I served. In fact, I used to get cookies and little gifts from a wide range of people who appreciated the bookmobile service.
By the way, a consequence of me getting fired is that I was the only person left – after earlier retirements and such by bookmobile aficionados – to defend the value of bookmobile service and the vehicle has since been completely dismantled. The evil paradox of my firing, per the supposed purpose of library “outreach” and, in fact, ABOS itself, is that the bookmobile is dead after a history that was decades long.
AL: Have you decided upon any sort of legal action? What is the nature of that, if you are free to share?
RK: I am involved in a lawsuit against the City of Flagstaff.
AL: You cited a fair number of sources in the LIST-serv message, some of them by conservatives. Were they works you yourself had or have read, or was your point merely to underscore that alternative viewpoints on questions of racial and social justice exist?
RK: Of the people I cited, I have read (or watched) works by Jordan Peterson, Candace Owens, Taleeb Starkes, David Clarke, Keith Richburg, Erik Rush, Larry Elder, Heather MacDonald, Jesse Lee Peterson, Bradley Campbell/Jason Manning/, Greg Lukianoff/Jonathan Haidt, Michael Rectenwald … In other words, I have experience with at least some material of almost all the individuals I cited.
AL: If you could say you learned anything from your experience–or would want other library workers to learn something from it–what might that be?
RK: I have learned that we live within a climate of censorial fear. People are afraid to speak against the Tidal Wave that is engulfing us. I have heard from a few of them. And I have learned, in my struggle for “intellectual freedom,” that there is none. I have found myself like David against a TEAM of Goliaths – against the ALA, ABOS, my library, the City of Flagstaff, an indifferent or hostile media, and on and on. And I have struggled alone. There is no support to do what I am doing. I have fought for two years to get attention to my case (particularly in the library world), to mostly no avail.
I’ve written an article for American Libraries and I never even heard back from them (except a routine acknowledgment that they received my piece). Library Journal rejected my emailed submission in literally 8 minutes (!), only reading my cover letter. The ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom has never replied to my multiple queries (to different people on staff there). I’ve received strong support from a former editor at a VERY prominent library journal who bemoaned the “de-platforming” of alternative views (i.e., views that don’t conform to “woke” propaganda) at her publication. (Why do you think I dare not mention her name?)
My personal experience has been Hell, and I have learned that most people are cowards.
Cowards, yes, but I cannot blame them. Your career is at stake. Your livelihood. Your reputation. This cowardice is well-considered and when also your family and such rely upon your job and income, I understand this kind of moral collapse. I once got an email from a library worker asking if there is some organization in existence, per libraries, to resist the onslaught that befalls us all. I told him that, no, there is nothing. And I added that if you are afraid to speak or do anything in your own home library, that is the foundation of the answer to your question.
AL: Finally, the ALA and ABOS made clear in that List-serv exchange that the “Black Lives Matter movement” was an organization they were comfortable officially encouraging members to be “involved in.” Would your feelings about that have been different if another organization–say, the NAACP or the Urban League–had been recommended?
No. Your question implicitly asks which type of organization I personally like – this one or that. I don’t think that’s the role of a librarian, to “curate” what has value to the public based on my own belief system, particularly in the socio-political realm. Why don’t some libraries endorse, say, the National Rifle Association? Where are the posters in library lobbies for the “pro-life” anti-abortion movement? After all, once you advocate for one particular cause, where does it stop? Why should it stop? Precedent has been set for more and more advocacies. Which “causes,” then, get pushed on library visitors? And which don’t? It is really a question about the fashionable ideology that happens to be in power at the time, in our era, isn’t it? The dangers of this advocacy stuff seem evident.
Of course, this is a very long discussion because librarians do make selections of sorts all the time. And that is where disguised censorship can play a role, say, in Collection Development. Or taking books off the shelves. Since I was fired, as noted at a Flagstaff Library Board meeting, my former library has instituted a new policy for weeding out books: “Employees are to take cultural, local, diverse, and historical impacts in mind when choosing items for deselection.”
There is your gaping wide tool for staff (i.e., personal) censorship, albeit disguised as something benevolent. And, since I was canned, there is even a directive to library employees who interact with the public to jettison terms like “Sir” and “Madam” for the Newspeak language of “They” and such. In other words, the stage is actually being set that a Flagstaff Public Library worker could actually get fired – like me – if someone complains about being addressed as “Sir” or “Madam.” Let us presume that the staff worker might be allowed three such mistakes before they are dismissed as, say, incorrigible. Or, more certainly (?), they deserve termination because of their respective expression of “unprofessionalism.”
Of course, what the Castro District in San Francisco should have in a library is different than what the Amish in Pennsylvania might want. But I think the job of a librarian is to select a wide range of ideological materials (if the subject is politics or social issues) and merely make them available for individuals who visit a library. Everyone can then make their own decisions about sociopolitical issues, when they have a broad range of facts and perspectives. When I ran the bookmobile, with a limited budget, if I selected a left-wing volume of some kind, or, conversely, a “conservative” tome, I consciously tried to balance it with a counter-political perspective in another volume. There were strong-willed people who visited the bookmobile who were sometimes ardent from a variety of social and political perspectives. And I needed to accommodate everyone.
Yes, I have political views about things. As do you or anybody else. But I wasn’t there, running a bookmobile, to put up posters and proselytize anybody to follow what I wanted the world to be. In the end, in essence, that stance of – or, rather, the argument for — neutrality got me fired. Any other take on my dismissal is smokescreen noise. Some people were offended by the tone or stance of my comments at the list-serve? Why doesn’t my own declaration of offense – and those of others who contacted me in secret — count for anything?
In essence, I think my story reflects the proverbial “canary in the coal mine.” But few know that such a canary even exists. And this caged bird is not unknown because of oversight. My story is invisible – and I am systemically silenced and ignored — because of strategic, censorial will. My posture of open resistance to a kind of library totalitarianism is a threat to what is fast becoming the status quo.
“The speech environment in a library as a workplace may vary according to the organizational hierarchy and an employee’s place in it, the organizational culture, and the personalities that make up that culture.”–ALA’s Speech in the Workplace Q&A, #3
“To have what is the equivalent to Big Brother and the Thought Police as a presence in the library is just not permissible in this country… Librarians cannot accept the role of informants.”—Zoia Horn
I’ve written elsewhere about so-called cancel culture, and how the First Amendment applies in Ron Kelley’s case or how his lawsuit may come out I’m not smart enough to say. I’m no First Amendment or labor attorney, just an obsessive. Yes, he used his work email to compose and send the message, and its content was not toeing the de facto ALA-acceptable party line and his message was contentious and aggressive–“passionate,” as he puts it– in tone. He had even been disciplined at work for his communication style before, according to court documents. These are fair considerations.
But whether or not one thinks the contents of Ron Kelley’s 2020 email to the LIST-serv were “unprofessional” or problematic in some other way or if his firing was within the bounds of labor law or allowable as per the First Amendment, the ethical question hangs: was the group effort to discipline him and the outcome of that in proportion to whatever offense was given? Was what Ron Kelley wrote so transgressive, somehow, that he deserved to lose his job and the far-flung library users of Coconino County to lose bookmobile service, if one can entertain that the two are related? Is it really possible that justice was done? Was the fly of one person’s individual opinion–a fly which a non-Fanatic might have been able to brush away from their field of attention– so bothersome that it needed to be swatted with a sledgehammer made from a combination of inopportune historical moment (rife with emotion) and self-righteous indifference to (or denial of) the reality of one, non-abstract, actual fellow human in the same field of endeavor? Did anyone involved consider a personal and direct response, like: “Hey, Ron. Cool it. Some of us disagree with you and we think you’re making a giant ass of yourself on a professional forum”?
Ron Kelley says nobody opposed to his view engaged him directly. Why not? This is something I wonder. Why did those most bothered by his message make the (certainly conscious) job-threatening jump to contacting higher-ups? Fanatical intolerance, a vigilante spirit and professional organizations which arguably inspire and encourage them must all be said to have played a part. Of course, the distance and anonymity afforded by Internet communication were in the mix, too, no doubt. It’s intoxicatingly easy to take action against a name on a screen in moments of annoyance.
The most disappointing consideration for me is that despite my disagreeing with Mr. Kelley’s tone, I think he made some well-written points I fundamentally agree with regarding our profession’s by-now constant and theatrically politicized discourse AND, even if his tone was challenging or unpleasant, he wasn’t making his case in a forum that would have easily fallen under the eye of anyone but his fellow librarians (unless they saw to it as they did). This wasn’t a letter to an editor or a speech to a city council or a talk at the Rotary Club. He was writing to his fellow librarians and he thought he could trust his fellow librarians to tolerate his viewpoint, however harsh-sounding or unorthodox, but he couldn’t and they didn’t. And, as opposed to what raised MY eyebrows, the historical record seems to show that it wasn’t his tone that bothered his accusers–at least one of them made that perfectly clear in the FOIA-discovered email I cite in this writing. What bothered them was WHAT he said and the sources he cited, and they wanted him punished for it.
In his book Naming Names, Victor Navasky categorized the four general self-soothing mindsets of those who cooperated with the House Un-American Activities Commission. They are:
- “Nobody was really hurt or put in physical danger by what I did;”
- “I was afraid for my safety and that of my family, so I caved;”
- “I was doing my duty;”
- “They got what they deserved.”
These were rationales that people came up with to excuse themselves for giving into coercion by the intimidating and menacing powers of government, so they can perhaps be forgiven for manufacturing justifications.
But what of people who VOLUNTARILY and FREELY and without any such coercion set out to discipline, damage or destroy someone else–someone perhaps far from them, geographically? Some research into the inner calculus of people who gave tips to the East German Stasi might be more illustrative than looking at the bullying involved in McCarthyism. But, using Navasky’s four-justification analysis, it would be interesting what other rationale Ron Kelley’s LIST-serv Star Chamber might possibly come up with other than “He got what he deserved.” I would suspect that, for those bothered by Ron Kelley’s “angering” words, that would be the end of the conversation. To them, Ron Kelley was a ranting reactionary, and he got what was coming to him, professionally. All subsequent consequences are his fault, not theirs. They may even become further angered at the ridiculousness of someone daring to question their motives.
As Eric Hoffer said of how True Believers, ideologues and Fanatics justify and double down on such attempts at interpersonal destruction: “There is perhaps no surer way of infecting ourselves with virulent hatred toward a person than by doing him a grave injustice.”
Related reading: The Five Species of Syndicate
Related reading: The Cancel Culture Checklist
Related reading: East Germany Thrived on Snitching Lovers, Fickle Friends and Envious Schoolkids