The Professional is the Political

We stand at an awkward moment for everyone who means well but doesn't want to rock the boat. It has been possible, in fact it is still possible if you don’t look too closely, to pretend that things are bad, but no more bad than a standard deviation or two of badness. If you’re white and relatively financially comfortable, like me and most of the people I know, you could easily say to yourself “Well, this is terrible, but we’ve been through times like this before and things have worked out OK.”

Spoiler alert: we have not been through times like these before and things will not work out OK.

We are in fact at a moment of crisis; a moment at which choosing to assume that things will probably be OK, because they’ve always been OK (for you) until now, means choosing complicity in crimes against humanity. It means turning a blind eye to the destruction of the America that you believe in. This will not be a thing other people did. It will either be a thing you resisted, or a thing you helped to do.

Organizations like the American Library Association find themselves on the horns of a dilemma right now. Their membership is overwhelmingly anti-Trump and opposed to his policies, but their non-profit status makes it dangerous for them to adopt positions explicitly in opposition to any particular officeholder. They’ve been used to believing that administrations might be more or less sympathetic, but you can always make a case for how your values align with their values, and the profession will ultimately benefit.

Spoiler alert: your values do not align with Trump’s values in any way. The Trump administration is founded on contempt for everything libraries represent, and no amount of attempted appeasement will make a dent.

I was struck by a statement made the other day by Nancy Beaumont, executive director of the Society of American Archivists — “We advocate on behalf of the profession. We take no position on political issues.” (UPDATE: Since publishing this I’ve learned that Nancy Beaumont has said that she was misquoted in the piece. Nevertheless, I think the statement represents the stance of others in the profession, even if not hers, and needs addressing.) I understand the thinking behind saying such a thing, but I’m here to say that this is the falsest of dichotomies. Everything we believe as a profession, all our most fundamental values, are political beliefs because they are under political attack.

In the abstract, you might not think that the effect of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to prevent the reflection of solar energy from the Earth’s surface was a political issue — but it is unambiguously a political issue, because those politically opposed to acknowledging scientific facts such as that one have made it so.

In the abstract, you might not think that protecting the right of American citizens to stay informed and participate fully in the electoral process was a political issue, but there are absolutely political forces working to thwart that right, and they will assault any institution that stands in their way.

There is no longer, if there ever was, any distinction between the values that librarians and archivists consider essential to their professional identity, and “political issues”. Those values are under profound political attack, and we must respond in kind or see them obliterated. The time has come to stop pretending that we can make any such distinction in our advocacy. To do otherwise would be to betray everything we profess to believe in.

UPDATE: I’ve created a place to collocate statements of professional organizations about these issues: The Profession Responds.