American public libraries: importance of, threats to, opportunities for

By stancutler,

Short Essays by Stanley Cutler

#1 Why I Joined Up

     Our library is a beautiful, iconic place on the 8700 hundred block of the avenue. I was there last week when a whole bunch of second-graders from Jenks School walked in through the front door. They were quiet, as if in church, marching in single file, wide-eyed and well-behaved, around the checkout desk, through the collection, past the computer workstations, to the Community Room way in the back, where Cynthia and Alyssa Kreilick would read aloud from their illustrated book.
Some neighbors had persuaded me to go to an evening meeting of Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library. The morning the kids showed up, a few days later, I was wondering whether I was wasting my time. I was at the library for a follow-up chat with folks who want to persuade the Mural Arts Society to decorate a wall. And then the kids came in and reminded me. If the library fails, our American community loses a vital organ. Preserving the library, honoring its purpose, making it better as America evolves, are efforts worthy of my time and yours.
I felt a joy as the children filed by, all clean and tidy and serious-faced, so beautiful, our future. At the library, we are on our very, very best behavior. To be in such a wonderful place is our right. And it is a privilege that we honor lest we be un-welcome there. I needed to be reminded.
I lead a seminar group focused on media and politics. We discuss how the ways we communicate influence how we vote, the news we seek, and the state of our culture. A historian in the room told us a surprising fact about literacy in America; we were once the most literate country on the planet. Common Sense, read by half the American colonial population, summarized in the Declaration of Independence, was a hot spark of the Revolution. Uncle Tom’s Cabin energized caring Americans and legitimized the Civil War for universal freedom. Our Presidents were enlightened men who regarded love of knowledge as proof of character. We are Americans because we can read. America is America because of the written word.
The tides of technology and economics are relentless. Our public schools, community newspapers, and public libraries anchor us to our finest heritage. In the 21st Century, libraries, public schools and newspapers are threatened as never before. We have a duty to do whatever we can to empower the institutions of literacy, to stand for them against the tides.
Another idea I heard at the meeting was to place a regular column of library news in the Chestnut Hill Local. As you can see, the editors and publisher have agreed. This is the first installment. We will keep you posted about what folks like us are doing.
The title of Cynthia and Alyssa Kreilick’s book is “Lucha And Lola”. As the kids filed quietly out to return to Jenks, I could tell that they’d had a great lesson. (By the way, of 220 Philadelphia public schools, only 8 have Librarians. Jenks is not one of them.)

#2 The Most Valuable Real Estate in Chestnut Hill

    Not For Sale: Top of the hill property on the 8700 block of Germantown Avenue.  It’s a single-floor building with twenty-foot ceilings and more than three-thousand square feet of hardwood floor. The interior has beautiful natural light from enormous mullioned windows. The place was built in 1909 and has been regularly upgraded and carefully maintained. What’s it worth?
The property comes with a few extras. A 1980s addition, paid for with donations from the Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library, features a spacious community room that is unused most of the time. We, the folks who live in Chestnut Hill, could use it as a forum. We could take and offer courses on fascinating subjects. It would be a non-political, non-commercial space where we could be at our best. How much is a place like that worth?
Smart phone technologies, portable internet in our pockets, have been infused into our society as profoundly as books. The free public library was once used like the internet is used in the 21st Century. The library didn’t do some things nearly as well as the internet. The internet retrieves stuff so much faster, forcing us to absorb information far more rapidly and in smaller chunks. Haste makes waste. The library’s operating system, its infrastructure, functions differently. In so doing it adds value to mindful experiences. What’s that kind of infrastructure worth?
You cannot put a price on the library because it is far more than real estate. Its enormous value is not mercenary, cannot be privatized. Privatization is the scourge of public service and good government. Schools, hospitals, clinics – all offloaded to the faster-better-cheaper crowd. I abhor the privatization of schools. I worry about the libraries. The City Government, budget after budget, feels pressure to cut the funding. We understand. But…
We, the Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library, are advocates for the Free Library system founded by Benjamin Franklin. We will also be heard. We argue for more funding. We argue for improvements. We argue on behalf of our American heritage. You can join us at   https://chlibraryfriends.org/

 

#3 Our Assets

     Let’s focus on two exceptional Chestnut Hill assets: 1) the people of our community and 2) the branch library on Germantown Avenue. We achieve a beneficial synergy that enhances the value of both when the two are merged. How do we do this?

     What makes us exceptional? Are we not the same as every other citizen of Philadelphia? Yes. Like everyone else, we care about our families, work hard, root for our teams. Like everyone else, we pay the bills, manage our emotions, deal with health problems, worry about crime and decadence and selfish politicians. In the most important sense, our humanity, we are exactly like everyone else. But we are, in general, better educated than folks in most communities.

Chestnut Hill

Education Statistics

Philadelphia County

Education Statistics

No High School 119 2% No High School 64,476 10%
Some High School 134 2% Some High School 143,490 22%
Some College 813 13% Some College 163,090 25%
Associate Degree 398 6% Associate Degree 54,134 8%
Bachelor’s degree 2,227 35% Bachelor’s degree 129,832 20%
Graduate Degree 2,672 42% Graduate Degree 93,129 14%
num household adults sampled 6,363 num household adults sampled 648,151

(www.point2homes.com/US/Neighborhood/PA/Philadelphia)

     The largest cohort of adults in Chestnut Hill are people with graduate degrees. So what?

     Many of us have time on our hands. Some are retired. Some work part of the time. We are a community of talented, experienced, well-educated people. We, the Chestnut Hill Library Friends, believe these assets can be put to good use. We are talking to you.

     Are you an educator, either active or retired, who wants to give a lecture on the most important things you know? Are you a creative professional, a writer or artist, who wants to share your work? Are you a business professional who has learned secrets of success that you think everyone ought to know? Are you an expert on a fascinating topic? Are you none of these but have ideas worth sharing? Package your ideas (i.e., presentation, lecture, demo, talk) and deliver it at the library at 1:30 PM on a Tuesday afternoon.

     We, the Chestnut Hill Library Friends, will be hosting a regular program in which local folks deliver their best ideas to their neighbors. We are looking for people to fill our schedule. This is a call for proposals. Send your idea to  programs@chestnuthilllibraryfriends.org

#4 We, the Users

     Those of us who grew up in Philadelphia used the Free Library System a lot. Before there were so many media clamoring for attention, we had a robust media infrastructure that was integral to our community. But it was communal – not commercial. It was free, it was ours, and it did an amazing job. The Library was like our internet, where we physically (not virtually) went for entertainment and enlightenment, a place to and from which we walked with pounds of books. We were hooked on the library – in no small measure because we had to keep going back to return the books. What a gimmick. We live in a different Age.

The mission of the Free Library of Philadelphia is to advance literacy, guide learning, and inspire curiosity. Its vision is to build an enlightened community devoted to lifelong learning.”

     Here’s a bit of irony, I downloaded the FLP’s mission statement (above) while in my snug office on Highland Avenue. It took me thirty seconds to put “FLP Philadelphia mission” as a Google search and copy it from the FLP home page. Ta-daah! Back in the day, I would have had to walk to the library and look it up.

     Please notice that the word ‘book’ does not appear in the statement. We keep the books because they are a terrific medium of communication, superior to electronic media in many ways. But there are other ways the FLP’s resources can be used “to build an enlightened community devoted to lifelong learning.”

     Let’s be loud and energetic advocates for the Free Library of Philadelphia in general and for our Chestnut Hill branch in particular. Let’s do so because we love books and because we are advocates for learning, literacy, curiosity, and because we want to live in a community devoted to lifelong learning.

     When you think of the great building on the 8700 block of the avenue, understand that it is not just a valuable book collection. Much more should happen there if it is to fulfill its purpose. We will use this column to put forward your ideas (and mine) about how we can energize the library, rejuvenate it as a public media center with a communal, enlightened mission.

     What does that mean? What’s a public media center? How does it work? Our library is unusual because it has a spacious community room that is unused most of the time. Should it be an adult education center? Should it send as well as receive? Can it be used to learn technology? Is it a podcast site? Is it a classroom or a lecture hall? Is it all of these or none of these? I think it’s up to us to decide. That’s, in part, what these essays are about. The Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library welcome your ideas at   programs@chestnuthilllibraryfriends.org.

#5 Turn the Lights Up

      It is hard to persuade City Council and the Mayor’s Office to adequately fund the Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP). Because of staff shortages, our local branch is not open on Saturdays and opens late on weekdays. Our organization, the Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library, works alongside other Friends groups citywide as advocates for more resources, but it’s an uphill battle. If we, with your help, are to succeed, we need to prove the FLP’s relevance and contributions to the community. Do libraries matter? Should we invest in them?
Here are a couple of sample line items from The Mayor’s proposed fiscal year 2019 budget of $4.69 billion. (https://www.phila.gov/finance/pdfs/Operating%20Budget/FY19 )

• Free Library: $41 Million (.87%, less than nine-tenths of a cent for every dollar)
• Fire Department: $259 million (5.5%)
• Office of Innovation and Technology: $66 million (1.4%, 5% more than  the FLP, which must invest in technology innovation of its own to satisfy 21st  Century requirements)
• Parks and Recreation: $69 million (1.5%)
• Police: $709 million (15.1%)
• Prisons: $256 million (5.5%)
• School District: $ 176 million (3.8%)

      Only 9 of our 122 public schools have a librarian, so the FLP contributes scarce resources to augment the Public School System’s woefully underfunded allocation. We have to remind City Hall of its obligation to the children – to the future.

      Societies evolve around media, whether rock paintings, books, or digitized content. The ways we communicate define us. I worry about a society of people who fixate on personal media, who prefer virtual interactions to real ones. Media technologies, in our commercialized society, encourage communities of strangers. Churches, mosques and synagogues fill the void for some of us. But the religious meeting places, like the public places, are also shrinking in the Cyber Age. My “church” is the library. I want it to flourish, not wither. I want to invest more in the FLP, not less.

      Our public institutions rely on taxes and the enlightened allocation of money by elected officials. It’s as if politicians are like businessmen who believe that the only way to measure value is the bottom line. By definition, free libraries are an expense that returns intangible value.

      What’s happening to the FLP is symptomatic of profound cultural change, a powerful tide of personalization enabled by profit-driven media industries. The media ecology that terminates on a flat screen is occupied by each of us – alone. If we have a question, we ask an artificial intelligence like Siri or Google or Watson. Using our cyber media devices, we buy and sell stuff. We stay electronically connected with our personally-selected circle, “friending” and “unfriending” our virtual communities, “following” or “un-following” Tweeters, only incidentally connected to our neighbors. We, Friends of The Library, resist devotion to the personal at the expense of the communal, to the pursuit of individual benefit at the expense of commonwealth. We pay taxes for a reason.

      Free public libraries are essential elements of enlightened communities. The lights are going out. If we are to save public libraries, we have to fight. Convincing politicians of the Free Library’s value, because many of its rewards are intangible, requires us to be outspoken champions for the common good. Join us at https://chlibraryfriends.org.

#6 Chestnut Hill Tradition

Before there was a Witches & Wizards Weekend or a Garden Weekend or an Arts and Crafts Fair on the avenue, there was an event called Caroling at the Créche. 66 years ago, some neighbors found a patch of ground in front of a rundown mansion where no one objected to Christmas statuary, a nativity scene – a créche. The spot was a likely address for a nativity scene – at Bethlehem Pike where it intersects Germantown Avenue. The Wharton family estate sold the property in the mid-fifties and the lot has been zoned for commercial use ever since.  Since the 1990’s, it’s been owned by different banks. Nowadays, it’s a Santander.

Legend has it that those 1952 folks were powerfully motivated by the Germantown Avenue retailers, whose commercialization of Christmas was too crass for their liking. Those were tough times for the merchants because there was no place to park, so people were driving to suburban stores. It was the beginning of the retail crisis that obliterated the great downtown department stores. Chestnut Hill’s merchants responded to the crisis by agreeing to connect their back-alley properties as parking lots.

The original créche builders thought it would be nice to gather there with their friends and neighbors to sing carols on a weekday evening before Christmas. On Monday, December 17th, it happened again, for the 66th time. Sometimes it snows or sleets or blows bitter cold or does all three at once. No matter, there will be a caroling at the créche every year. It’s a thing.

By happy coincidence, the library is only a block away from the intersection, a fine place to retire for hot cider and neighborly camaraderie. If you missed it this year, stop by next year for the 67th iteration. The singing’s pretty good, backed by some talented local musicians. The Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library put out a nice spread in the Community Room to reward the singers and listeners alike. The Friends also start their Christmas book sale at the after-party, so you can pick up some great reading material after the songs. (BREAKING NEWS: you don’t have to wait until next year to buy our used books – we do it almost every Monday afternoon, year-round.)

This year, it was a dry, breezy evening with the temperature in the mid-forties. Starting at 7:30, about 75 of your neighbors sang with joy and enthusiasm. It was fun.

The Friends wish to thank the merchants who generously supported the event with their delicious donations. Baker Street Bakery, Barry’s Buns, Bredenbeck’s Bakery, Cake, Cheese Shop (The), Evergreen Cheese, Fresh Market, McNally’s, Roller’s Restaurants, Santander (musician space), Tavern on the Hill, The Night Kitchen, Top of the Hill, Weaver’s Way, and Zipf’s Candy. And special thanks to Friend of The Library volunteer Marlene Sider for coordinating the whole affair.

Visit https://chlibraryfriends.org/

 

#7 NEW AND SPECIAL AT THE CHESTNUT HILL LIBRARY

Some of us enjoy the seasonal changes that drive others to warmer climes during the winter months. Sure, we gripe about shoveling snow and icy roads, but it’s all part of the rhythm of life in our part of the world. This winter, we can look forward to something a little different, a program to brighten the intellectual life of our community. The Friends of the Library are offering adult programming in the community room of our FLP branch at 8711 Germantown Avenue. These (free) presentations are the first offerings, the initial steps toward the establishment of a robust, year-round adult learning center at the top of the hill. Join us.

Philadelphia’s Great Trees (Wednesday, January 16  at 6:00 PM) Arborist and author Ned Barnard presents highlights from his new field guide to our urban woodland, published in partnership with the Morris Arboretum.   Ned, a resident of Chestnut Hill, previously authored “New York City Trees: A Field Guide for the Metropolitan Area” and “Central Park Trees and Landscapes.” He also wrote five children’s books for Readers Digest: on fishes, birds, frogs, foxes and butterflies.

Cyber Age Politics: News Industry Reform (January 22 at 1:30 PM) Political communication is theater and rhetoric through media. In this entertaining slide show, local author Stan Cutler explores our polarized  condition, the commercialized news industry and Federal regulation. He is the author of “Two Philadelphia Political Conventions: 1948 and 2016”,  six novels, an ex-PSU Communications prof, a retired IT guy, and popular teacher at Main Line School Night & Golden Slipper.

Civil War Medicine: What Went Right (January 29 at 1:30 PM) The extraordinary levels of battlefield carnage during the Civil War demanded a new, scientific approach to medicine – previously an art. Documentary film maker Carole Adrienne presents a compelling slide show from the 4-part series she is developing for PBS to premier on WHYY.

Chimpanzees, Jane and Me (February 5  at 1:30 PM) Scientist Bill Konstant tells stories about training chimpanzees in America, being inspired by the work of Dr. Jane Goodall, and helping to ensure the survival of chimpanzees in their native Africa.  He shares insights from a forty-year career as a wildlife preservationist on four continents – personal experiences with the world’s most endangered and interesting animals.

We are in the early stages of program development for the Spring and Fall Adult Programs, actively seeking ideas from local experts (educators, artists, writers, professionals, business people, etc.). If you have ideas or skills you would like to impart to your neighbors, please send us a proposal through our website. https://chlibraryfriends.org/suggest-programs.

 

#8 Challenge and Opportunity

The Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library have organized a series of presentations for your edification and enjoyment; our schedule is at the end of this column. It’s a varied and unique lineup of thoughtful local presenters. We hope you were there for the first one, when our neighbor, arborist author Ned Barnard delivered a presentation on Philadelphia trees. There will be 3 more in the winter series. You should come. As important, you should consider proposing a presentation, a workshop, an exhibition, or a course of your own.

We have two assets: a spacious public room with presentation technology and a population of highly educated people, many of them experts with a lot on their minds. You may be one of those people. There are time slots still available on the Spring program calendar. Go to our website’s Contact page at  https://chlibraryfriends.org and explain your idea. We are open to more than presentation suggestions. Would you like to run a workshop? Would you like to teach a course for adults? Would you like to host a panel discussion or demonstrate your talent or deliver podcasts? Be creative. We’re in an early phase of a project to establish the library as an outstanding center for lifelong learning. We would like to hear your ideas.

When the most advanced medium of communication was print on paper, public media centers (PMCs) were called libraries (from libros, Latin for book). Societies change when new media of communication come into use. The media revolution we are now experiencing is a challenge and an opportunity for public libraries.

The challenge is that people rely less on paper books and more on electronic devices and the internet. The opportunity is to use a public space that exists, as stated in the Free Library of Philadelphia’s mission statement, “To advance literacy, guide learning, and inspire curiosity. Its vision is to build an enlightened community devoted to lifelong learning.” These are lofty aims that the Chestnut Hill community is well-suited to achieving. If you want that kind of resource in Chestnut Hill, get involved.

 

# 9 High Attendance for Presentation

Around a hundred neighbors went to the library for a slide presentation about Philadelphia trees by authors Ned Barnard and Catriona Briger. Afterward, pleased to have learned so much, most folks lingered for hot cider, cookies and friendly conversation.

It was an auspicious event, like an opening kickoff or the top of the first inning. Our public media center, the branch library on Germantown Avenue, opened the community room for the first presentation to take place there since the drop-down projection screen broke years ago. No one can quite remember the last time it worked. New board members of the community association learned that there was no digital projector or sound system either. Thankfully, there are eighty comfortable chairs. To mount the current series of four presentations, the volunteer Friends of the Library rented equipment. (

The Free Library of Philadelphia owns and operates the precious resource, our public media center (PMC), the library at the top of the hill. But the City Council won’t appropriate enough money to afford repairs or capital improvements. When new Board members of the volunteer association were elected in the Fall, they learned that there had not been an Adult Librarian at our branch for over a year; that library hours had been drastically curtailed. Shame on City Council and the Mayor. This is important business.

The FLP is a media infrastructure, a City agency chartered to “To advance literacy, guide learning, and inspire curiosity. Its vision is to build an enlightened community devoted to lifelong learning.” Apparently, our elected officials see the branch library system as just another payroll in the portfolio. It’s hard to measure the FLP’s benefits – an enlightened civil society – so the bean counters who whisper in the politicians’ ears allow an essential infrastructure to wither.

It’s a new age. The rate at which cyber media technologies are being introduced is forcing rapid social change. The public needs to assert its rights in the face of this maelstrom. We have to be unmoving, stalwart against the changes. We want and shall have an enlightened democratic society. We shall have a public center in Chestnut Hill that serves all of us. Certainly, our children need the library. But learning doesn’t stop when we graduate. In fact, the older we get, the more we learn! Ned, who just co-authored a beautiful, terrifically organized guidebook on tree spotting, is a septuagenarian. The audience was an older crowd, lively and energized, eager to participate in public learning. (To find out more about our project, perhaps to join our volunteer group, go to https://chlibraryfriends.org).

 

#10 Volunteers Plug Budget Gaps

I was supposed to deliver a slide presentation in an hour, in a mild panic because there was so much light in the Library’s community room that images I wanted to project onto the screen were barely visible. The four high windows can be covered by five-foot by seven-foot translucent shades that are supposed to be controlled from a switch panel in a utility closet. It took a while to find the switches and discover that they don’t work. No one remembers the last time they did.

The community room is big enough to serve as an auditorium for an audience of 100 neighbors. It used to have an electrically-controlled partition across the middle, also out of order. The walls are generously lined with storage closets for books, art supplies, and the miscellaneous remnants of forgotten programs. The motors embedded in the window frames function as locks that prevent the shades from being adjusted manually – even if you could reach them. The three other shades have been in the down position for a long time. I’m guessing that the one nearest the screen has been open since the turn of the 21st Century.

There are 54 Free Library of Philadelphia branches. Since the drastic 2008 budget cuts, money to adequately support the already woefully underfunded system has not been restored. The FLP has barely enough money to pay the dwindling number of professional librarians. Many branches are closed on weekends and open late during the week. Repairs? Maybe. Capital improvements? Nope. Despite these handicaps, the branches thrive because our librarians are dedicated and because people use the libraries all the time. The politicians would have to deal with a lot of angry citizens If a branch were to close.

The buildings are old. Ours dates back to 1909. Librarians fear the next clogged toilet, leaky faucet, broken window, busted thermostat or inoperable water fountain. The FLP will send someone to do the repair – next week, or next month, or whenever. Across the city, civic associations called Friends of the Library pay for minor repairs or do them themselves. In other words, an essential component of Philadelphia civic life is deteriorating. City Government does not value the system enough to meet its current or future obligations.

Because of the problems in the community room, the Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library  (https://chlibraryfriends.org)  paid for the rental of a screen and projector for the current speaker series. But we need a permanent solution. We need to upgrade the facility for different kinds of presentations, for streaming media, to conduct classes and hands-on workshops. We have accepted proposals from vendors to provide and install the equipment. We’re going to pay for it from donations.

My talk on politics and news industry reform went well. It was the second one in our winter series of four presentations, the first to be delivered in the daytime. We reversed the room, moved the screen to the end with the shades closed, turned the chairs around, spun the cart that supported the portable projector, and moved the table with the cookies and the urn of hot cider. If we buy a ceiling-mounted projector, it will face only one way. Somebody’s going to have to fix the shades. If we fix the partition, we can double the number of program offerings.

 

 

# 12     Mrs. Bryce Harper Invited to Attend a Chestnut Hill Library Event

The Harpers are house hunting,  looking for a Delaware Valley neighborhood where they can “dig roots” and raise a family. Our neighborhood ought to be on their list, don’t you think? We are a baseball friendly community with sand lot games at the Water Tower and a youth league. In case you’ve somehow escaped the media hype, the young man, Bryce Harper, just agreed to receive $330 million dollars to play for the Phillies until the year 2032, the most money ever promised to a baseball player. Icing on the cake, because we’re inside the City limits, the Harpers can save $5 million in wage taxes as Philly residents over the life of the contract.

As it happens, the Chestnut Hill Branch Library’s Spring Speaker Series begins with a baseball talk by local data scientist Lindsey Murdah.  Lindsey has been poring over baseball statistics for sixty years and has come to some fascinating conclusions. Mr. Harper will be in Clearwater that day, but his wife Kayla could come, meet some of the neighbors and check out the neighborhood. Mrs. Harper, this is your invitation.

We received so many offers to speak in our series that we had to divide the season in two. There will be a Tuesday afternoon series of five presentations, every other week at 1:30 in the community room at the back of the library at 8711 Germantown Avenue. There will also be two discussion events at other times. Here’s the Spring Calendar.

THE SPEAKER SERIES (TUESDAYS AT 1:30)

  • March 12 BASEBALL: THE NUMBERS GAME – Lindsey Murdah, former statistics professor reveals the truth of the numbers and implications for the Phillies’ 2019 prospects
  • March 26 TRUTH VS. FAKE NEWS IN THE TRUMP ERA – Peter Lewis, former NY Times editor and Stanford journalism professor, discusses the risks and challenges facing American citizens in the unstable media environment of the moment
  • April 9 MEDICAL MARIJUANA – Wanda Beilenson, pharmacist in State of PA marijuana dispensary
  • April 23 WHAT HAPPENED TO THE LENAPE? – Claude Epstein, former Stockton Professor, expert on impacts of European development on Delaware Valley’s native people and natural resources
  • May 7 MUSIC AND MEMORY, Marja Kaisla, concert pianist and educator, reveals latest findings on the remarkable power of music to inhibit the symptoms of dementia

THE DISCUSSION SERIES

  • March 20, Wednesday, 6 PM – EARLY LITERACY, Christine Heimer,  primary teacher with forty years of experience explains ways to turn children into avid readers
  • April 11, Thursday, 1:30 PM – THE NOVELS OF ELENA FERRANTE: SECRETS OF THEIR POWER, Karen Bojar reveals hidden dimensions of the sensationally popular Neapolitan Quartet. Karen is a former CCP literature and women’s studies professor, NOW executive, and City Committeewoman

 

# 13  Mayor’s Budget Proposal Shorts Libraries

Last Monday, a bitter cold day, we had to cancel the “Advocacy Café”. We had promoted the event in this space as a workshop for volunteers to learn ways of persuading the Mayor and City Council to adequately fund the Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP). We had to cancel the event because the furnace quit and the lights only worked in spots, forcing the library to close. It took until Tuesday afternoon before the library could reopen. The irony is painful.

Healthy organizations invest in preventive maintenance because it is cost effective, cheaper and better in the long run than equipment replacement and repairs. When organizations fail, it often starts with a reduction in maintenance spending. Our Library infrastructure is a network of 54 branches, the enormous, ninety-year old Parkway Central building, and six computer hot spots. The fact that all 60 facilities are open to the public most of the time is remarkable, a significant achievement that has required sincere dedication by the FLP’s workers. I thank them.

Our branch in Chestnut Hill was built 110 years ago and has been retrofit countless times. The building usually functions well, it is still a warm, welcoming place. But it is vulnerable to all the ills that result from inadequately resourced preventive maintenance. The FLP has never recovered from the funding crisis of 2008. Between Fiscal 2008 and 2010, the Free Library’s income from local, state and federal sources fell 19%. Every budget since then has used the 2008 allocation as a baseline.

Year after year, City allocations fail to rise. Library hours are shortened, salaries flat-lined, staffing levels reduced, less spent on inspection and prevention. Less than 1% of all City spending in the 2018-19 General Fund was allocated to the FLP. The FLP asked for an allocation of $63 million from the City’s FY 2019-20 operating budget. In last Wednesday’s budget presentation, the Mayor proposed an allocation of $50 million, still under 1% of the City’s total operating budget and far short of the FLP’s minimal needs.

Unscheduled shutdowns occur all over the city for reasons like the one that closed our branch last Monday and Tuesday. The day when branch libraries will be closed permanently because they are so badly deteriorated that money will no longer be available to repair them is not far off. What kind of enlightened society allows its libraries to fail? What kind of government assigns so little value to libraries? What kind of future are we creating?

 

 

# 14 Local Library Acquires New and Old Technologies

Last Tuesday, a local data scientist and baseball nut, Lindsey Murdah, delivered a talk to a gathering of similarly deranged neighbors in  the library’s community room.  So, the cumulative value of the bases loaded provides the ultimate statistic for the addled mind. Assuming you’re not among the addled,  I’ll skip the details and tell you that we all learned a lot and met a new bunch of geeks. We, The Friends organization, provided boxes of Cracker Jack and bags of unshelled peanuts to heighten the mood. We wanted to play “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” on our rented sound system as the room was filling, but we couldn’t quite get the technology to work.

The technology! Libraries are media technology hubs, free places devoid of commercial pollution where citizens can access books, the internet, the Free Library’s vast multi-media collection, or gather for music, lectures, workshops, seminars and so on. A piano is music technology. Thanks to local restaurateur John Egan (Tavern On The Hill), we now have one. We intend to use it for sessions on music appreciation and performance.

Books and pianos are objects that are esteemed for their humanity, their ability to transport us in personal, emotional ways.  I love the internet. I also enjoy the experience of paper books and live music. In fact, given the choice, I prefer tangible media to their digitized forms. As you may have noticed, more and more people prefer the cyber versions. So be it. The Library is there for all of us.

Soon, we won’t have to rent what we need for digitized presentations like Lindsey’s. We are in the process of acquiring a permanent suite of high-tech audio-visual equipment. The installation should be finished sometime in May. In the meanwhile, we’re renting the technology we’re using for the Spring program (below). We are excited about the experts we’ve lined up, all local folks with fascinating knowledge. Join us – the rented technology works. Next time, music will (probably) be playing as you’re coming in.  And go to   chlibraryfriends.org     . It’s a cool website of interest to everyone in our neighborhood.

 

# 15 Library Hosts a Discussion of Fake News

The Free Library of Philadelphia prohibits the use of its facilities for political purposes. This is a good and necessary rule. But how can we abide by the rule when literacy itself is under attack by a political force? The President is antagonistic toward everything The Library is for.

I do not work for The Library, I am merely a “Friend”, one of hundreds of Philadelphians who are organized to support the institution as a civic responsibility. Donald Trump is the elephant in our room, a politician who has made literacy and civil discourse political issues.

Last Tuesday, local journalist Peter Lewis delivered a talk on fake news to an audience of fifty in our branch library’s community room. Peter put the concept into historical perspective, concluding with the 21st Century collapse of local newspapers and the disturbing prospect of an America without them.  The big crowd was fully engaged, voicing opinions and posing serious questions following an excellent  presentation. Audience members advocated school curricula emphasizing critical thinking, for a more forceful FCC, for more librarians in Philadelphia schools, for using the library to train young reporters and other innovative ideas.

The concept of evidentiary truth is the bedrock  of academia, science and law.  The big turnout for Peter’s talk indicates that many neighbors, like me, feel that the President’s style of rhetoric disdains the concept to such an extent that he poses a unique threat to our form of democracy. It was a congregation of citizens who revere Enlightenment values. I can’t think of a better use for an American library’s community room.

 

# 16 Trump Intends to Eliminate Public Libraries

 In Trump’s proposed 2020 budget, there is zero funding for the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), a federal agency that provides library and museum grants, policy development, and research. Defunding the IMLS would effectively end all federal funding of public libraries. His budget also cuts funding to the Department of Education by 10%, including all support for the Innovative Approaches to Literacy program.

Public libraries are hybrids that need multiple funding sources.  The Free Library of Philadelphia, for example, relies heavily the Philadelphia Library Foundation’s endowment and annual fund drives. Small donations from groups like ours, Friends of the Library, are used to fill in gaps and supplement professional staff with volunteer services. Without political support, these supplementary nutrients will have to increase  significantly in the 21st Century if public libraries are to thrive.

Worldwide, libraries are evolving, adapting to new media technologies and the social changes that accompany them.  Budgeting authorities in every country and at every level challenge public library administrators to prove that they are not obsolete repositories of media that people no longer want or use. What’s a library for? Why is it important enough to allocate scarce resources?

Readers have an affection for libraries – a nostalgia recalling memories of happy childhoods enlightened by the magic of the written word. Because digitized content can be delivered more quickly and cheaply than print on paper, libraries now provide unlimited, free access to digitized media. Is that enough? We, absent any public support, have that access through devices in our pockets and desks.  So, what’s at stake?

Everything that people like Donald Trump hate. Our library is a non-sectarian, apolitical, non-commercial place dedicated to ideas, community and the freedom to learn. The Trump budget is more than the equivalent of a massive book bonfire, it’s a calculated attack on American civic life. He is against public libraries. He thinks they are unnecessary. Do you?

 

# 17.5 Where Are the Leni Lenape? 

Seventy people came to the library branch on Germantown Avenue on April 23rd  to hear Claude Epstein’s presentation about an intriguing Philadelphia mystery – what happened to the people who lived here before white men? In elementary school, we learned that folks who called themselves the Leni Lenape were a peaceful society who…?   What else? Oh yes, William Penn’s son, Thomas, cheated them out of a lot of land in the early 1700s.

We have seen movies featuring Apaches, Commanches, Cheyenne, Iroquois, Seminole,  Mohicans and Inuits.  But what about “our” Indians? Why aren’t they neighbors? Where did they go? Are they okay? Why are there no Lenape reservations?  Poof! Vanished! Perhaps they are mythical, like leprechauns.

Apparently, these questions have occurred to many of us, which is why we ran out of chairs last Tuesday, why late-comers had to stand in the back.  In itself,  that’s remarkable. A couple of months ago, when we started the Friends’ of the Library Speakers Series, we didn’t know whether anyone would show up on a weekday afternoon to sit still for a speaker.  We put out a call for local experts to propose presentation ideas, not knowing whether anyone would offer. That was just last December. Now, it seems, we have our answers – many people in our community are hungry for intellectual stimulation and there are a good number of us with fascinating knowledge they want to share.

Professor Epstein’s talk provided some of the answers to the Lenape mystery. In a nutshell, they moved west and assimilated with other groups. We learned details of why they moved – a sad story of war and real estate, of commerce and inhumanity, of technology and change.   We had some out-of-towners, too. Somehow, word got out beyond Chestnut Hill. Strangers, experts on the Lenape, showed up and augmented Professor Epstein’s excellent presentation, offering their insights during the Q & A.

Four hundred years from now, will Philadelphians wonder what libraries were like? Will these learning centers  have disappeared like the Lenape long houses and the log cabins of the Forest Finns?  Will the gracious Carnegie Libraries, like our gem on Germantown Avenue, be buried rubble?  Iron tools profoundly changed Lenape society. Cyber technologies are having as profound an effect on us. What will become of libraries?

Trump and Putin Share a Worldview

By stancutler,

Suddenly, news outlets and headlines portray the President of the United States as an agent of Russia’s Czar. His performances at the NATO Summit and Helsinki meeting with Putin cannot be explained as anything but attacks on NATO and the EU, Putin’s Eurasian competitors. Speculation, for the moment is “why?”. Answers range from blackmail over sex tapes, to financial kompramat, to recruitment by the GRU. All or any of this may be true, but there is also an ideological affinity between Trump and Putin that could explain a lot. Putin and Trump are white nationalists.

The underlying theory of Trumpism and Putinism is that white countries are under attack from a wave of darker people from the south, particularly Muslims. It’s a crusade. As in olden days, Jerusalem is the symbolic prize. Binyamin Netanyahu shares their worldview and has cultivated relationships with the Russian oligarchs as assiduously as he has with the Republican Party. The recent declaration that Jews have more rights in Israel than non-Jews is of a piece with the racist cloth worn by Putin, Trump and their white nationalist counterparts in every European nation. White nationalism is on the ascendant.

This is not a secret. The Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church has declared holy war against Islam, doing so at a podium with Vladimir Putin at his side. Steve Bannon, the Patriarch of American white nationalism, has described the world in the same existential terms. Bannon was the ideological guru during the final months of Trump’s campaign, and he continues to operate as an advance man for Trumpism. From Viktor Orban in Hungary to Boris Johnson in Britain to Marine LaPen in France to Donald Trump in the USA, the message is the same; white nation states are being attacked, existentially threatened by waves of Muslim/Mexicans, victimized by naive and misguided politicians who acquiesce to non-white minorities. While there may be other factors compelling Trump to speak as Putin’s agent, it should not be forgotten that he and Putin have much in common – white nationalism, devotion to oligarchy, and disdain for democratic values.

If one wonders why Republicans, particularly Evangelical Christians, are willing to overlook Trump’s many sins, one need look no further than a shared religious-racial identity. For those who still support Trump, his actions are laudable manifestations of his role as the champion of victimized white Christian America. This they know – no matter what he says or does, he can be trusted to be doing it for the greater good, white dominance and defense of the white Judeo-Christian homeland.

There is an alternative perception underlying the world order that Trump and Putin are trying to destroy. Until the last few election cycles, liberal values of common humanity and multi-nationalism dominated political rhetoric in Western democracies. Obama, of course, exemplifies all that they oppose. Putin and Trump realize that the morality of secular humanism is antithetical to the morality of the white nationalist tribalism that motivates their followers. Trump’s tweets and Putin’s internet trolls attack secular humanists in the universities, media and left-leaning political parties. They do this, obviously, to manipulate public perceptions of them and of their purported enemies.

Are the institutions of democratic governance capable of effective resistance? The utter failures of our Congress to impede the white nationalist march are deeply troubling and suggest that the answer is ‘no’. Adding more Republicans to the Supreme Court will result in legitimization of racist policies for a generation. Journalism is withering under the onslaughts of technological revolution and Trump’s aggressive antagonism to truth.

There are two related shreds of hope. First, anti-Trumpists may vote in great numbers this November and, by so doing, break Republican legislative majorities. Secondly, Robert Mueller’s investigations may provide enough evidence to prosecute Trump for high crimes and misdemeanors sufficiently egregious to warrant his impeachment. But, even if such facts are revealed, a Republican majority in the House of Representatives is unlikely to undertake the prosecution.

DNC Made a Bad Business Decision 2016

By stancutler,

The world wonders how Trump managed to beat the odds and win the 2016 Presidential election. An important element of his victory, perhaps the decisive piece of the puzzle, was the relationship between the giant technology companies and the Trump campaign.

Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter assigned full time staff to assist candidates during the 2016 primary and general elections. They organized their political staffing along partisan lines, Republican and Democratic, hiring former campaign workers with technical savvy and partisan leanings. As company employees, they offered enthusiastic customer service by directly manipulating the social media levers in response to events – crafting new messages and variations of the same messages with a few keystrokes.

The well-heeled Clinton campaign relied on in-house staff to strategize and implement its media campaign. In mid-summer 2016, Trump’s short-staffed and cash-strapped campaign rented an office space in a strip mall near the San Antonia airport, designated it as their social media hub, and invited the tech giants to locate teams there for their mutual benefit.  Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter quickly staffed up in San Antonio where they worked hand-in-glove with the Trump campaign until election day.

Having partisan teams favorably disposed to the success of the candidates was smart business. The tech giants had three motives. Foremost, they wanted to capture as much of the $2 billion dollar quadrennial expenditures for Presidential campaigning as they possibly could. The collaboration was a resounding success for the campaign and the companies. The Trump campaign spent $70 million on social media ads soliciting contributions and received $250 million in return.

Second, they wanted to promote their advanced products in the political space. In July, before and during the DNC Philadelphia Convention, they rented floor space in the re-purposed Power Plant on 2nd Street to show off their analytics platforms. These evolving technologies count user statistics and organize them as informative graphics. How is the ad you put up ten minutes ago doing? What topics are trending? What are Facebook users “liking”? How’s that tweet doing with veterans?

Microsoft did not send a team to San Antonio, but they deployed partisans to assist the candidates during the primary and general election campaigns by providing back office support, ensuring that the campaigns had fully functional, high-volume social media infrastructure. Microsoft also captured vital information for the candidates, second-by-second likes and dislikes of thousands of demographically identified viewers as the candidates were talking during the debates.

Google teams played a major role. If you did a Google search including a candidate’s name and one of hundreds of campaign-related topics, Google displayed ads that were specifically tailored to the search you had entered, and fresh content that was continuously updated by the campaign in response to the analytics.

The third motive, as a Facebook employee told a North Carolina University research team, was the development of working relationships with political campaign staff. The companies hope that the relationships will be leveraged as lobbying advantages in future government affairs, connections to legislators who will vote on media regulation. Given the ways of Washington, this is pretty smart strategy.

The Trump campaign was floundering in early August 2016, coming in a very distant second in every predictive category without exception. Thereafter, with the help of partisan teams from Google, Facebook and Twitter, the Trump campaign ran 40,000 to 50,000 variants of digital ads every day.  On the day of the third presidential debate in October, the campaign ran 175,000 ad variations. The cost of running a social media ad is ridiculously low in comparison to a TV ad, pennies to dollars. With almost as many voters relying on social media news feeds for political information as those watching TV news, investments in digital ads pay off in a big way.

The Democratic Party made quite a few strategic mistakes in 2016, not least of which was choosing a candidate with a lot of negative baggage. But perhaps their greatest mistake was relying on a huge internal team for social media expertise. In the final months of the campaign, there were simply outplayed by the tech giants.

_________

Citation: Daniel Kreiss and Shannon McGregor, Journal of Political Communications, October 26, 2017, available via Taylor & Francis Online

Einstein’s God

By stancutler,

Dear Richard,

Awhile back, I mentioned that I was reading Walter Isaacson’s wonderful biography of Einstein. You asked whether it was true that Einstein believed in God. I responded that I’d have to finish the reading the book because Isaacson had not yet addressed the question. I’ve finished the book, and the answer – sort of – is “yes”. According to Isaacson, whose book is well worth your time, Einstein had an abiding belief that everything in the universe makes sense according to mathematical laws, that there is an awesome unity to all real things in the universe.

He famously said, “God does not play dice,” by which he meant that a fundamental principle of quantum physics was impossible. In the 1920s, experimental physicists had proven that a sub-atomic particle could be measured as mass (having weight) or as a wave (having energy) – but not as both. There were some astonishing findings that still have not been disproven. Until an observer measures one or the other – not both – the quantum has an undeterminable identity as either a wave or a particle, and that it is only the act of observing that determines which it is. Einstein would not believe this, and spent most of his life arguing against the idea.

Einstein characterized his way of thinking as being nothing more than intense curiosity. In his struggle to disprove the indeterminancy of quantum physics, he presumed that everything in nature behaved as it did for a knowable reason. He adamantly believed that there is an awesome ordering of things in the universe that may not be superficially apparent, but is absolutely there. He believed that his drive to make sense, his curiosity, was akin to religious fervor. He was awed by the universe, driven to know how it actually worked, always presuming that there was an underlying simplicity that could explain all of it. He characterized this as a “unified field theory,” meaning that gravity (mass, particles) and electromagnetism (energy waves) were not separate phenomena, but somehow obeyed the same rules, an ordering that could be understood if he worked hard enough at the math. He failed. But, until his dying day, he was convinced that the secret would eventually be discovered. He had faith.

His notion of God was Creation itself. He was awed by reality. He loved nature walks and solo sailing in a little boat. He loved music, parties, and sex. He never ceased to be amazed by gravity, electromagnetism, space and time. The rules of Newtonian physics are real. His contributions to physics added another layer to our understanding of reality: the simple relationships between energy and mass (E-Mc2) and the inseparability of space and time.

And he was intensely moral. I was interested to learn how much of his vitality was expended on a unified theory of international politics, how very much he cared about his fellow man. He had been composing an address to be delivered at the 7th anniversary of Israel’s founding in 1956 when he died. It began, “I speak to you today not as an American citizen and not as a Jew, but as a human being.”

He considered fascism to be a normal, evil political tendency, a common species of nationalism, that could only be suppressed by intelligent people who held freedom of thought and speech as an overriding moral imperative. At fourteen, he had rebelled against Prussian discipline by insisting that his parents take him out of the prestigious German school and place him in a Swiss academy that welcomed individual initiative.

He was outraged by the silence of the German intelligentsia during the Nazi era. He was outspoken and outraged by McCarthyism, by how it reduced thoughtful people to timid bystanders fearful of expressing their beliefs. During his entire adult life, he advocated the creation of a supranational world government. After atomic weaponry was invented, he argued even more passionately for a mechanism that would obviate the power of nationalism to wreak horror, even to destroy mankind. “Nationalism is a disease,” he said.

But he was also a realist. Fully aware that Israel was a nationalist endeavor, he supported it as a practical necessity in a world of anti-Semitism. In the 1920s, he’d been a pacifist. After the full horror of the Hitler regime became apparent, he supported American rearmament and, during the fight for Israel’s independence, the necessity of the IDF. But, he warned, the true moral test of Jewish identity would be peaceful co-existence with the Arabs. Even in the 1950s, he was alarmed by the attitudes of many Israelis toward non-Jews, particularly the Arabs.

Anyhow, it was a really worthwhile read and I commend it to your library. (Einstein: His Life and Universe, Walter Isaacson, 2007, Simon and Schuster Paperbacks)

Is the Internet a Public Utility ?

By stancutler,

Last week, the Trump FCC overturned net neutrality regulations. Predictably, the Commission decided to allow internet companies to vary their service depending upon variable pricing. Henceforth, market forces alone will govern the internet.

Of the five Commissioners who authorize FCC policy, the two Commissioners who are not of the President’s Party are powerless by design. By law, no more than three of the Commissioners can be of the same political party, but those three are selected by the President subject to Senate approval. The other two are selected by the Senate minority. So this recent ruling is 100% Republican, with both wings of the Party bowing low to money. No surprise there, that’s the Republican creed.

The consequences of the decision will resonate throughout society, altering the media ecosystems in which people learn, conduct business, socialize, seek entertainment, and express themselves. The interconnected institutions of democracy – politics and government – will necessarily change as well.

Last week’s decision is the wrong answer to a fundamental question; should communication media be regulated as public utilities or are they merely a form of marketplace? In a marketplace, ethics adjust to financial motives. A public utility is regulated to ensure that the benefits of the service are shared equitably by the population as a whole – for the public’s welfare. With regard to media companies, I believe that other moral imperatives are more important than money, that the public interest is paramount.

The FCC was established in 1934 to prevent monopoly ownership of communications infrastructure. At the time, the civic risk posed by monopolistic media was unquestioned. Since the law was updated in 1996, big telecomm and media conglomerates have been permitted to join forces, resulting in profit-driven behemoths like Comcast, Disney, and cable news networks.

In 2014, the Obama FCC ruled that financial incentives could not influence the speed or volume of data provided to consumers. This is net neutrality – everyone who uses the internet gets the same service. Thanks to the Republican Party’s FCC, that will no longer be the case.

The effects will be significant. Obviously, the behemoths will have even greater influence as they reap profits from corporate customers. And those rich media sponsors will have influence in proportion to their ability to pay. Just as obviously, the smaller media companies will be disadvantaged. But that’s the marketplace outlook, independent of other social concerns. What will be the effects on public discourse and our democratic institutions? Does the public benefit from a purely profit-driven media environment?

I don’t think so. The decision tilts the marketplace in favor of the big, established companies. Fewer startups will succeed. In the zero sum world preferred by the Republican FCC, it’s right and natural for smaller companies to suffer as the bigger ones prosper. These smaller platforms are important components of social justice and cultural diversity. For example, the actions of the  Ferguson Police Department were exposed through social media, the events ignored by legacy news outlets until the hashtag started trending. Small online video services provide platforms for targeted entertainment, disseminating innovative content rejected by mainstream outlets. Secure messaging platforms, catering to small political groups, companies like Ceerus and WhatsApp, are essential to activist groups who can fearlessly organize without gatekeepers blocking them.

The loosening of anti-monopolistic media regulations has already had disastrous consequences. The 1996 changes, by enhancing the reach and power of media conglomerates, and by abandoning political fairness as regulatory criteria, degraded American politics. Primary election campaigns became reality TV. The 2016 “debate” shows were designed and produced to maximize viewership on commercial channels and to burnish the image of the Republican and Democratic Parties. A self-serving Debate Commission, composed of Party representatives and network executives, established the format and rules, but no public voice was represented. Serious debate was virtually impossible in the structure they devised. Trump, a reality TV star, flourished in that environment. Now he is our President.

The interests of media companies have superseded public interests. It’s past time to re-examine the proper role of government in media matters. Media companies play a fundamental role in a democratic society, a role so important that they should not evolve solely for the selfish benefit of their stock holders. The public has a greater stake.

Fake News is a Conspiracy Theory

By stancutler,

The 35% to 40% of Americans who support Trump believe in a conspiracy theory. They believe that the mainstream news companies are controlled by a cabal whose leaders have reduced America to an international patsy with a victimized citizenry. Trump, on several occasions, has declared “the fake news media” as the “true enemies of the American people, among the most dishonest people on the face of the earth.”

People who believe in conspiracies discount facts that contradict their grand notions of how the world works. If you are a Holocaust denier, for example, the thousands of pages of Nazi documents, the photographs, and the testimony of thousands of eyewitnesses are fake. They believe that Jewish people promote the fake Holocaust narrative to further their interests to the detriment of all others.

Last May, Rich Higgins, a National Security Council (NSC) staff member, wrote an essay that is frighteningly reminiscent of Hitler’s Mein Kampf.  I have a copy of the memo because Higgins proudly disseminated it to people outside the government. One of them sent a copy to Foreign Policy, a news web site that published the complete text. I found it so remarkable that I made a copy that I’d be pleased to share. (Curiously, the 8-page text has been removed from the article and is no longer available through the Foreign Policy website.)

According to Higgins, Trump is conducting an all-out information war against the enemies of the people: Mainstream Media, Academia, Cultural Marxists (secular humanists), The Deep State (non-elected government), Global Corporatists & Bankers, Republican Leadership (elected government), and Islamists. Like Hitler, Higgins urges an unrelenting propaganda war to legitimize an alternative narrative and to discredit the entrenched manipulators of public perception. Higgins urges Trump to attack the media relentlessly by controlling the daily news cycle, else his mission will fail. He declares information warfare – not governance – as the President’s most important task.

The “Fake News” concept is more than a convenient way to deny the truth, it is an essential element of a worldview. If the news is “real”, then Higgins’ alternate narrative cannot be believed. There is more to the information war than ‘breaking news’ and ‘new information reveals”. The stunning manifesto, written in the bowels of Trump’s White House, is as clear as Mein Kampf. It is an alternative narrative absolutely antagonistic to the way I see the world.

This is not politics as usual. As a few intelligent Republican Senators have said, “This is not normal”. Relegating universities and news companies as “fake” is an attack on, the nature of evidence, the basis of Reason, the foundations of civilization. This is the real news, this is what’s happening before our eyes in 2017 – a deliberate, managed effort on the part of the Trump Administration to change the way we know the truth. The Higgins memo is a strategy for winning the information war. The war is not a possibility, not something that could happen. It is happening now.

Trump’s choice to lead the NSC was General Michael Flynn, a maniacal pro-Russian, Christian (anti-Islam) crusader. When his speeches were published by the media (NYT, WP, CNN, ABC, NBC, etc.), Flynn was replaced by General H. R. McMaster, a militarist less rabid than Flynn. To ensure that Flynn’s concepts continued to influence NSC policy, Trump insisted that the alt-right theorist Steve Bannon occupy a seat at NSC meetings. Last June, when General H. R. McMaster learned that Higgins had sent his memo outside the government, he fired him. Trump, according to Foreign Policy, was furious. In July, Bannon left the NSC to run Breitbart News and lead the campaign against non-Trump Republicans in 2018. I don’t know what happened to Higgins, but I’ll bet you that he’s working with Bannon.

Bannon will be far more destructive in his current role than as a glowering presence in meetings as Trump’s alter ego. The 2018 elections will be a war for leadership of the Republican Party. Should Trump’s candidates win, which seems likely under Bannon’s management, America will be in even deeper trouble. Conservatism is rational. Progressivism is rational. Trump’s view is paranoid. He believes that America is a victim, that HE is a victim. Of whom? Of people like me.

 

 

The Dis-United States of America

By stancutler,

Inline image 1

Americans are more likely to define themselves by political party in 2017 than ever before, a trend that began in the mid-1990s. This trend is dangerous because it makes civil discourse more difficult as time passes. Alarming studies by the Pew Research Institute show American attitudes clustering around political party affiliation as never before. We are socially separating as Republicans and Democrats to an unprecedented degree. We find the “others” more different, more infuriating, more wrong, than ever before.

When populations divide along partisan lines, emotions are more easily triggered. Fewer people remain neutral and dispassionate when considering public matters. Where you stand politically becomes an element of your identity, the way you differentiate yourself from “those other people”, those human beings with whom you have ever less in common.

In 21st Century America, party affiliation tends to drive rhetoric down to matters of values and identity, things we take very personally, and away from the loftier realms of logic and reason. If differences of opinion are discounted as typically partisan, resentment is generated and we are driven farther apart.

There is so much disturbing about our current political environment. Underlying all of the incivility and nonsense that dominates the 24-hour news cycles, is our need to understand issues in binary ways, as contests. Even traditionally non-political news like mass-shootings and natural disasters are being presented through the lenses of partisanship. Where do you stand? Who are you as an American? Encouraged by these commercially-driven “realities”, Americans are increasingly separating as Republicans and Democrats.

This is not an issue of the political moment. Rather, it is a social trend already a generation in development. The Pew studies show that divergent attitudes on every issue are more likely to cluster around party affiliation than any other personal or demographic characteristic. This graph, developed four years ago, will show an even more extreme divergence when Pew publishes its 2016 findings. The 2012 version shows that other elements of identity – race, education, religiosity, income and gender – are pretty much as they were during Reagan’s second term. What has changed significantly is the degree to which partisan identity is a predictor of one’s attitudes about everything else. “Party” is now the most telling demographic.

There is nothing good about this rearrangement of America. It has already played a significant role in the dysfunction of our state and national governments. Not only are the politicians incapable of stating attitudes that offend their voter bases, we the people are more than ever likely to blame members of the other party for bad news. Social media enable ever more partisanship as people are drawn to the echo chambers of the like-minded.

How can we have rational elections if we don’t recognize each other as fundamentally the same? We are all human beings driven by the same needs, all of us American, all of us the same under the skin. But those similarities decrease in importance when we see those with whom we disagree as “not my kind people”. More than ever, my kind of people belong to my political party. There can be nothing worse for democracy which depends, above all else, on the quality of political discourse.

The commercial and political incentives that stoke the flames of partisan polarization are enormously powerful. The political parties and the commercial media depend fundamentally on a polarized, competitive perception of affairs. Would we even listen to a candidate who values civility and decorum above winning?

 

Politics, Government & Weather

By stancutler,

NOAA image of Hurricane Irma, 9/5/2017

COMPOSITE RADAR IMAGE, CROSS-SECTION, HURRICANE IRMA, SEPTEMBER 5, 2017

Hurricane season is an annual reminder of how small we are. Even if we are not in harm’s way, the satellite images of Earth’s atmosphere in motion inspire awe. This year, with its massive storms, I’ve been thinking about the technologies that allow us to see the weather before it happens.

The benefits of these technologies are undeniable. In 1900, a powerful hurricane struck the same Texas coast as Harvey, causing the deaths of between 8,000 and 12,000 people. Harvey’s final death toll is likely to be under 100.  This remarkable alteration in our relationship to the planet is the result of seeing it from orbit. Governments at all levels prepare emergency and relief services on the basis of satellite data and images. Satellite observations shown on TV convince millions of civilians to take precautions as storms approach, precautions that protect property and save lives.

And, of course, extreme weather gives politicians opportunities to promote themselves. They don’t mention the scientists, engineers, and government workers responsible for these wonderful technologies, they’re much more concerned with demonstrating their compassion and leadership. Even though no laws require elected officials to show up at storm-damaged locations, they always do. Cynically, I don’t think they show up as much to comfort the population or to assess the problems as to be in front of the camera.

Of course, there are risks. G.W. Bush’s “You’re doing a helluva job, Brownie” comment in New Orleans hurt him when it became apparent that FEMA, the agency Mr. Brown headed, was totally unprepared to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The most famous case of weather hurting a politician was the New York City blizzard of 1969, when the residents of Queens shouted, “Get away, you bum,”  when  Mayor John Lindsay came to inspect conditions in his limousine. He’d been seen as a Presidential hopeful, but he was never able to escape the stigma of his handling of the storm, in particular that moment when the residents of Queens chased him away.

Weather satellites require years of research and development and billions of tax-payer dollars. Most Americans do not know that these observing platforms in space belong to them – not The Weather Channel or Accuweather. NASA and NOAA give away the data and images for free. You can find more pictures, videos, charts and graphs online than on TV, anytime, without having to endure the advertising surrounding the TV shows. Commercial broadcasters reproduce what they get for nothing and sell the airtime to advertisers.

Weather information is enormously profitable because all of us are always interested. The weather segments of news shows reliably attract the greatest viewership, even more than the headline segments. The TV personalities who stand in front of the weather maps are typically the highest paid among the members of on-air news teams. It helps if they are as interesting to look at as the maps.

When Congress passes a budget, it authorizes expenditures for satellites. The National Weather Service (NWS) gets its data from the satellites of a sister agency within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In the 2018 budget, Congress is being asked to allocate $1.2 billion for the continuation of NOAA’s two satellite programs, one polar-orbiting and the other geostationary. These two systems provide all of the data we see on TV or get online, as well as the raw material for research in hundreds of universities, real time forest fire data, volcanic ash data, wildlife tracking, search and rescue missions, soil moisture measurements, and many other civilian uses.

By far, the Department of Defense (DOD) outspends NOAA on satellites. But we don’t know by how much because the allocation is deliberately unknowable, hidden within the Department of Defense’s $60 billion “black budget” for military intelligence. DOD’s entire 2018 budget request is $621 billion dollars. Within that larger budget, there are dozens of secret line items that might well hide more satellite costs. We just don’t know. In comparison, NOAA’s $1.2 billion allocation is peanuts.

We do know that the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps each has its own constellation of weather satellites, measuring exactly the same phenomena as the civilian observatories. Why not share? In 1993, a joint DOD/NOAA weather satellite program was initiated by the Clinton Administration as a way to save billions. DOD dropped out of the program in the mid-2000s, unwilling to cooperate with the civilians, ostensibly for national security reasons.

NOAA is the oldest scientific agency in the US Government, established by President Jefferson in 1807 to map coastlines. In 1878, weather data collection was added to its mission as The Coast And Geodetic Survey. In 1970, the older agencies were reorganized as NOAA and given the additional mission of observing weather from orbiting satellites. As an indication of the political stakes involved in this kind of science, President Nixon put NOAA inside the Department of Commerce, where it remains. All of that NOAA data, going back to 1807, is archived in Asheville, North Carolina. That’s why we can categorize the 1900 hurricane as a 4 and how we know the extent to which it flooded the region. Far less, by the way, than Hurricane Harvey because there were still wetlands to absorb the deluge.

It’s much more challenging for politicians to address climate than weather. It’s not just that the issues have become hotly political. Climate doesn’t offer eye catching photo ops – no streets filled with debris, no suffering people in shelters to attract the cameras. Civilian satellites, NASA’s and NOAA’s, measure “radiation budget”, how much sun energy enters the atmosphere in comparison to the amount radiated back into space. These measurements indicate, without doubt, that the earth is warming in proportion to the amounts of carbonaceous gas we add to the air.  And because we have satellite measurements of the atmosphere’s chemical composition, we know that burning carbon fuels is the cause. Some politicians just don’t care.

Americans Suffering from 21st Century Battle Fatigue

By stancutler,

Since Trump’s inauguration, we have been at war. We may not want the war, but Trump does. The battlefields are the media of communication. At stake is control of the American Government in an epochal contest for the future of civilization. The daily assault on our credulity and attention is a calculated tactic in the war.

I am not reading tea leaves, not guessing by piecing together bits of evidence. Theorists in the Trump Administration publicly espouse total communications warfare.  According to statements by thinkers like Stephen Bannon and Stephen Miller, the 2016 Presidential campaign waged by Trump was to be the first in a perpetual series of belligerent acts, his Presidency, if won, to be an extension of that horrible campaign, the most vicious in modern American history. In better times, a Presidential election provided citizens with relief from the rhetoric. As far as Trump is concerned, the war has just begun.

I encourage readers to access a memo written by a senior member of The National Security Council, Rich Higgins, before he was fired by General H. R. McMaster in May. The memo was reproduced in full by the highly-respected Foreign Policy blog,
http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/08/10/heres-the-memo-that-blew-up-the-nsc/.

It is a remarkable document. It articulates the alt-right ideology completely and comprehensively.  Higgins is correct in so many ways. He accurately exposes the various channels of communication used in political warfare. In one sense, the document is rational and astute – even brilliant. But it is an evil manifesto because its author believes that people have a malleable moral center that can be influenced by controlling the daily news cycle. He (and presumably Bannon, Miller and Trump) does not acknowledge an absolute distinction between political right and wrong, between good and evil.

Rich Higgins Alt-Right Theorist

Rich Higgins, Alt-Right Theorist

Higgins unabashedly espouses the legitimacy of racism, xenophobia, sexism, nativism, militarism, etc.. According to him, people (like me) who consider such attitudes morally repugnant are duped victims of “cultural Marxism”. They are convinced that people who speak of Trump as illegitimate, corrupt and dishonest do so because they are misguided, because they have been persuaded by “pseudo-publicity” (fake news). They give no credence to the notion that people have deep-seated values that are impervious to the news cycle.

Higgins provides a list of entities that collaborate and inter-operate against the Trump regime. This is sickeningly reminiscent of Hitler’s worldview expressed in Mein Kampf. The list includes governments participating in international trade groups like the EU, their citizenries, Academe, news organizations, urban real estate owners, the “deep state”, Islamists (non-Christians), traditional Republicans, Democrats, and others. These powerful groups are THE ENEMY. Higgins does not agree to disagree with us according to the norms of a democracy. Rather, he justifies a crusade and invokes the norms of total war, a moral climate in which countless harmful and evil actions are justifiable in order to win an ultimate victory. To an amoral theorist like Higgins, polarization (our enemies vs. us) is a good thing and democracy be damned. This is war!

The Foreign Policy article explains that there is a power struggle within the White House. Higgins’ firing reflects the National Security Council (NSC) Chief H. R. McMaster’s more traditional worldview – fewer enemies, diplomatic tactics, decorum. McMaster fired Steve Bannon’s man Higgins when he read the memo and wants to fire the people to whom the memo was circulated.  Trump and Bannon have said no to further dismissals. Bannon, who McMaster recently ousted from the NSC,  is conducting a  propaganda campaign on the alt-right internet hoping to incite anti-McMaster sentiment.

That’s interesting, inside-baseball stuff. But Trump is Commander in Chief in this 21st Century war, and his daily tweets and on-camera statements are clear evidence that he fully embraces the wartime tactics and strategies espoused by Higgins, Bannon, Trump Junior, and Stephen Miller. I suspect that General McMaster himself has not been fired because the Department of Defense and the United States Senate still hold considerable power in Washington.  Firing McMaster would be seen as an attempted coup d’état by the two institutions who remain capable of thwarting some of Trump’s agenda.

Higgins believes that controlling the daily news cycle in a perpetual campaign is the primary function of Trump’s Presidency, an overriding objective that supersedes any other. We can expect daily outrages for the foreseeable future. (Aargh!) Ideological Trumpists consider the distinctions between campaigning and governing to be inconsequential and counter- productive. They do not care whether their governing decisions are harmful so long as those decisions can be represented as consistent with the racist, chauvinistic, sexist, militaristic, etc. memes to which their voting base adheres.

The anxiety and tension we suffer these days is a form of battle fatigue. Be prepared for much more of the same.

A TIME FOR CENTRIST RHETORIC

By stancutler,

We’re in the early months of the 2018 political campaigns. Yes, it’s sad. The times when campaigns only lasted a few months are over. Seventeen months before the next election, I’m already thinking about the political wars to come. My hope is that  Americans elect enough people to Congress to reverse the effects of Trump’s 2016 victory.

How should Democrats and sensible Republicans conduct the upcoming campaigns? They will have to win seats in districts wherein a substantial number of voters seem unshakably devoted to “their” President? How do you reason with people who resent reasoning? How do you persuade those who refuse to recognize the difference between a fact and an opinion? Are there campaign strategies available to anti-Trump candidates that could work? And did the 2016 campaign provide indications of how to win the next one?

Classical Rhetoric is a venerable academic discipline that describes the problem space as a sort of Venn diagram with at least three overlapping domains: the speaker, the message and the audience. As the campaign progresses, I’ll be writing from a Rhetorical perspective, as someone who analyzes public persuasion as communication. (I used to teach the discipline at Penn State.)

When I consider any audience, let’s say Trump voters, I imagine that each of the individuals in it has a hierarchical belief system. The foundation of the hierarchy is Identity. A winning candidate is perceived by a majority of voters as a personification of group identity. This level is illogical, by definition it is impervious to reasoning. Trump’s appeals are pandering – their effect is to amplify the self worth of individuals as belonging to a just and powerful group – “the best” of all groups – good ol’ fashioned hard-working patriotic Americans. Trump does this by mocking and belittling The Others, those who “are not us”.

Part of the genius of the Trump phenomenon is recognition that his overbearing executive style, perfected over 14 seasons of The Apprentice, his macho shtick, his ethos, seems Presidential. His supporters will stay in his camp for as long as they perceive him as a winning champion on their behalf. They dismiss his personality flaws as inconsequential. They cannot be dissuaded by a Chuck Schumer lecturing about the consequences of pending legislation. Why? Not because Schumer is illogical, but because he is perceived by Trumpites as challenging to deeper levels of their belief systems. If Trumpites were to agree with Schumer, no matter how logical his positions, it would constitute a betrayal of their identities.

I am, by no means, suggesting that candidates running in 2018 copy the Trump playbook. But they have to craft and deliver messages that seem as all-American as Trump’s, and they have to exude absolute certainty in their ability to succeed as the voters’ champion. This is not a new playbook, it is why any successful candidate wins an election.

So, assuming that candidates can come across as all-American and confident, how can they communicate sound ideas in ways that win elections in districts with many Trumpites? I think they have to simplify. They have to remember that they are not in classrooms or courtrooms. They have to be entertaining. They should glorify their vision for America and their districts. They should say what they are for in a loud, clear and dignified manner. They must make voters feel better about themselves for believing in them. And they must not present themselves as Trump antagonists.

Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders do it, but both are flawed. My sense is that Warren is too “holier than thou”, a teacher’s pet, a goody-two-shoes. Younger versions of Sanders could win. But both may be too left-wing for the right-leaning American electorate. We need American Emmanuel Macrons.

Macron is a highly-trained public servant with experience as a senior government official. It was certainly an advantage that he was 39 years old, articulate and physically attractive. In the French elections, Macron’s most powerful opponent was Marine Le Pen, the champion of the “true French” much as Trump is the champion of “true Americans”.

Many 2018 American candidates will be tempted to run against Trump. But Macron demonstrated that such a strategy would be ineffective, particularly in pro-Trump districts. Macron did not campaign against Le Pen, he did not present himself as a polar opposite, but rather as a pro-business centrist. We desperately need candidates who know that there are more votes in the moderate center than on the polar extremes.

Macron did not publish a Platform until a month before the first of the two Spring elections. And then he devoted only a single day of his campaign to defending it in a structured public forum. It is always better to describe problems afflicting the audience rather than specific solutions that are easily attacked as unworkable or unrealistic. On the campaign trail, he avoided the wonky weeds of policy. He did not exaggerate the problems, he did not try to scare people into voting for him. Rather, he emphasized goals – a vision. People voted for him because they wanted to make France great again. 2018 American candidates would do well to follow his example.