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Number 14:

Uncle Frank’s Diary
Number Fourteen

What’s Left of Iraq’s Libraries?

The clock was striking 13 as I passed the Ministry of Truth on my way to the office, thinking about Uncle Frank’s recent profane tirades unbecoming a librarian of genteel tastes. It’s disturbing, especially in public. People stare, and cover their ears, and move away with their lips curled and their noses wrinkled. What can I say?

Not being a librarian of genteel tastes, I have no idea. I drove into work today with a home-made tape blasting the Ramones (Rocket to Russia) and the Sex Pistols (Never Mind the Bollocks) on the A side, and John Coltrane (A Love Supreme) on the B side. By the time I got out of the car, I felt ready for almost anything, as long as it came with a good bass part. It could be the late Dee Dee Ramone’s machine-gun attack, or Jimmy Garrison backing Coltrane. Don’t matter to me none, as they say in Flint.

I’m not sure, however, if anything can prepare me for the daily deluge of dreck on “the news.” If you believe “the news” from our glorious mass media, the U.S. attack on Iraq really didn’t trash large chunks of that happy nation’s cultural infrastructure. Sure, a handful of artifacts went AWOL from the museums, but most of them will turn up on e-Bay, and no doubt those who buy them will return them to the people of Iraq as a public service. And anyhow, you had to laugh when Rumsfeld made that hilarious joke about how if you’ve seen one old pot, you’ve seen ‘em all. What a card!

Getting Past the Smokescreen

On the other hand, if you take the trouble to work past the Casa Blanca’s PR smokescreen, and the mass media’s lazy reporting, you might learn that the bombing and bashing and the blood-dimmed tide of anarchy we unleashed in Iraq did, in fact, do a spot of bother on the Iraqi people’s cultural assets.

A report from the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions dated May 1 notes substantial damage to Iraq’s libraries: the National Library looted and burned; the National Archives looted and burned; the Al-Awqaf Library at the Ministry of Religious Affairs, also L & B;  the Central Library at the University of Baghdad, with a collection of some 600,000 items, burned; the Library of Bayt al-Hikma, a center for social science research, completely destroyed; the Central Library of Mosul, with a collection approaching a million items, looted & burned; and so on. See for yourself at:


Nabil Al-Tikrite has posted a lengthy and detailed situation report on “Iraq Manuscript Collections, Archives & Libraries” that reinforces and amplifies the information in the above document. See it at:


But It Coulda Been Worse!

According to credible accounts, then, grave damage has been done to Iraq’s libraries, but librarians, archivists, and kindred spirits everywhere can be proud of their colleagues and sympathizers in Iraq. Without their diligent work to protect library collections, the situation would likely have been much worse. The Boston Globe reported on May 13 (“Rebuilding Iraq; Library’s Volumes Safely Hidden”) that bibliographic rescue workers may, before the trashing of the National Library, have tucked away as much as 90 percent of the library’s holdings, both off-site and within the facility itself. Globe writer Patrick Healy quotes one National Library guard who said he watched over the library with pride.

“I know the value of books, that’s why I’m protecting them,” he said. “They are beyond value. Priceless.”

As priceless as Donald Rumsfeld’s jokes about museum artifacts. How is it that a humble Iraqi guard demonstrates a more enlightened attitude toward cultural treasures than does the U.S. secretary of defense? One would think…

Uh, wait a second. There’s a disturbance here… Uncle Frank wants to say something.

Something About a Rat’s Ass

“Goddamn right I do! I mean, hell’s belles, did it ever occur to you that these guys simply do not give a rat’s ass about books or libraries or museum collections or any of that kultural krap? When do you think Field Marshal Rumsfeld last read a book? Huh? What do you think, he spends his free time with the short stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne? You think maybe he’s pondering the deep meanings of “The Minister’s Black Veil”? You think he’s outlining his vacation plans for studying the Egyptian sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago? He doesn’t care! None of them do! It doesn’t mean squat to them!”

That is, I am afraid, probably true. Karl Rove is no doubt studying the films of Leni Riefenstahl for ideas on presenting Boy George in heroic campaign video, but aside from such practical applications, their grasp of the meaning of art is a little limited.

“Limited! Godalmighty! There’s that baboon’s ass Ashcroft throwing sheets over nude statues! ‘Limited!’  These guys are complete idiots! Barbarians! It’s a wonder they don’t confiscate crayons from kindergartners, just in case the little bastards draw something that someone thinks isn’t nice!”

He’s not done, folks…

“And you librarians, you tend your tidy desks and charge out books, and answer questions, and have reading hour for the kiddies, and study contracts with online vendors, and fantasize about getting your grinning mugs on the cover of Library Journal, and go about your business as though everything is what it was, when the truth is that… that…”

Uncle Frank is sputtering, now.

“The truth is that the fascist bastards are planning to pull down the foundations of the life that you lead. They aim to destroy it. You think they have no respect for foreign cultures? Hell, Boy, they have no respect for their own! Do you think it’s simply an odd happenstance that in a country governed by enemies of public schools, we see public schools so short of money they have to close before the normal end of the school year? This while that sanctimonious twit in the White House prattles about ‘leaving no child behind’? Give me a break!”

Well, there may be some connection there, but it really owes more to the vagueness of the economy…

Mr. Jesus Goes to Washington

“Shit fire! That’s what a Southern boy I used to work with said when things went really wrong, and he must be saying it a lot, these days. Ain’t nothin’ vague about it, Jack! It’s intentional! They want the public schools to fail! They want to destroy Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid. And you know why? Because all those entities are contrary to their insane faith in… in faith! Faith in their precious Lord and Savior Jesus H. Christ and His eternal endorsement of free-market capitalism! These people are just plain nuts! They are out of their tiny little minds!”

I look around to see if anyone is listening. This is getting a little embarrassing.

“I’m trying to be calm,” he says. “Look. The only things these people have that pass for ideas are praying to Jesus—they all fancy themselves upstanding Christians; look at that pious show Bush puts on, praying in public with his little weasel eyes squeezed shut, like God’s gonna whack him if he peeks—cutting taxes, and going to war. That’s it. Oh, yeah, and making sure that all women get pregnant and have babies, whether they want them or not, or can afford to feed them or clothe them after the fact. Jesus, taxes, war, and babies, in a tasty capitalist growth medium.”

“I’ll tell you what, man, if Jesus came to Washington, some of these sanctimonious ‘Christians’ would find their sorry asses kicked into the Potomac. What are there, maybe three Christians in the United States? One in Kentucky, one in North Dakota, and two in Oregon. OK, that’s four. Four, then. That’s gotta be about it. All right. I’m done. I’m outta here.”

And not a minute too soon, I’m afraid.


Graphic by Karen McGinnis

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Number 15:

Uncle Frank’s Diary
Number One


What Would $100 Billion Buy on the Library Market?

Oh, these are fine days and times. The Liar in Chief and his flunkies on Fox News spin interpretations of reality that make the logic of Alice in Wonderlandlook transparent. The economy “recovers” without adding jobs; the U.S. takes legal actions to prevent its citizens from obtaining affordable drugs from Canada; Bush Regime propaganda mavens claim that the proliferation of attacks on U.S. and “friendly” native targets in Iraq proves that we have the terrorists right where we want them (does anyone remember John Cleese’s turn as the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail?); Jen and Bennifer are either getting married or they aren’t, or something like that, as if anyone gives a rip in hell; and dark chocolate is better for you than jogging.

Well, well. Uncle Frank just don’t know what to make of it all.

But let’s try to find some sense in it—at least in the dough we’re kneading up for incineration in the oven of Iraq. The most common estimate for what the U.S. will spend in Iraq over the coming year is $100 billion, give or take (mostly give) a few billion. $100 billion is for most of us (certainly it is for me) a meaningless number. In an attempt to reduce it to something comprehensible, I have determined what library-oriented items $100 billion would buy, based on the latest average prices and costs reported in the 48th edition (2003) of The Bowker Annual, and on what I think are some reasonable estimates. I’ve rounded some figures here and there to avoid nitpicking.

p.s. Thanks to the swell calculator on my computer, with enough spaces for really big numbers. My pocket calculator wouldn’t cut it.

Paying for Librarians

Average starting salary for librarians, 2001: $36, 818.

      Add 25 percent for benefits:                     9,204

      Total for a beginning librarian:                $46,022

$100 billion would pay salaries and benefits for approximately 2.2 million beginning librarians.

Paying for Library Clerks

Assume a “generous” starting salary of $25,000 for a library clerk

      Add 25 percent for benefits:                6,250

      Total for a beginning library clerk:       $31,250

$100 billion would pay salaries and benefits for  3.2 million beginning library clerks.

Paying for Student Assistants

Assume a “generous” $8/hour for a library student assistant; that student assistant would earn, at 10 hrs/week, $4,000 over a 50-week period.

$100 billion would pay 25 million student assistants $8/hour, 10 hours a week, for 50 weeks.

Paying for Public Library Buildings

From July 1, 2001 to June 30, 2002, there were 212 U.S. public library building projects. Their average cost was $3,716,981.

$100 billion would pay for 26,903  public library building projects, each costing $3,716,981, with enough change left over to put up a couple of nice toolsheds.

Paying for Periodicals

The average price of a U.S. periodical (excluding Russian translations) in 2002 was $282.

$100 billion would pay for subscriptions to 354.6 million  periodicals at $282 each.

Paying for Books

The average hardcover book in 2002 cost $59.80.

$100 billion would buy 1.67 billion  hardcover books at $59.80 each.

Paying for Paperbacks

The average mass market paperback cost $6.48 in 2002.

$100 billion would buy 15.4 billion mass market paperbacks at $6.48 each.

Paying for Library Budgets of Small-town Libraries

The average overall budget for U.S. public libraries serving populations from 25,000 to 49,999 in 2003 is $1,868,000.

$100 billion would cover the budgets of  53,533 such libraries.

Paying the Budget of a Major Big-City Library

The Chicago Public Library’s 2003 budget is $96.5 million.

$100 billion would cover the budgets of 1,036 libraries like the Chicago Public.

Paying for Clones of the Building Where Uncle Frank Would Hang His Hat, if He Had One

As a local note, $100 billion would build approximately 5,000 libraries like the one where I work.

So what does this all mean, brothers and sisters? I leave it to you. Pass the dark chocolate, please; my body chemistry requires adjustment.


Graphic by Karen McGinnis

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Number 1:

Uncle Frank’s Diary
Number One

Says Schroeder, “We have a very serious issue with librarians.”

“If Schroeder and the AAP have their way, the balance will be gone, and we’ll be living in a world that no one concerned about the principles of either political freedom or publishing in a democratic society wants to see. If librarians stand by and let it happen, we’ll deserve all the bad press we get.”Librarians don’t get much bad press. They don’t need it. The stereotypes surrounding the library profession are sufficient to do the bad job on them. Why, my old alma mater, the University of Michigan School of Library Science, doesn’t even use the dreaded word in its name any more. It has become the “School of Information.””What are you studying in graduate school, Son?”

“Uh, I’m studying information, Dad.”

Today’s most intense career-building librarians are busy distancing themselves–at least in their PR efforts–from anything that smacks of such antiquated fuddy-duddyism as books, paper, glue, human interaction, reading rooms and such. They’re working hard to disavow their history, in hopes of being seen as serious information professionals who pirouette across the Internet, going where no bun-becoiffed, sensible-shoed librarian, male or female, has gone before. They are, shall we say, with it.

Me, too. In fact, I’m seldom without it. I write this at the end of a day in which I spent almost all my time with my head stuck in a computer monitor. Get it off, get it off! None of that patron-izing nonsense for this 21st century former book guy! Let’s see, did I communicate face-to-face with a single library user today? No, I did not. Success! I did e-mail like crazy, I did online searching, I answered questions–and all without once lowering myself to the dismal level that requires talking and listening to another person. I did it all on my PC.

Today’s librarians are trying hard to be seen as up & at-’em techno wizards, cutting edge, cyberspace aces, and so on. Sometimes the effort bears fruit. Sometimes the fruit proves a little sour, such as when librarians get blamed for poor innocent youth stumbling across feelthy pictures on the Internet when they’re supposed to be using the lib’s webstations to work up reports on, oh, how they spent their summer vacations.

I spent my summer vacation downloading smut at the public library.

But, OK, librarians are starting to look pretty smart and in the forefront, in spite of those old stereotypes. And they should look pretty smart, because they are, most of them. So just when librarians are looking smart, who comes along and paints ’em up as the evil of the evil, the enemies of truth, justice, and the American Way?

Why, Pat Schroeder, president of the Association of American Publishers.

In a now-notorious article in the Feb. 7 Washington Post (“Pat Schroeder’s New Chapter”), staff writer Linton Weeks let Schroeder have her way with librarians, who, as Schroeder sees it, threaten the livelihoods of publishers and authors. But especially publishers.

Says Schroeder, “We have a very serious issue with librarians.”

In Schroeder’s view of the publishing world, librarians are busy giving away the farm that poor publishers work so hard to tend. “One library buys one of their journals. They give it to other libraries. They’ll give it to others.” Pretty soon, by golly, those nefarious librarians will drive Elsevier, Bertelsmann, and other hand-to-mouth mom & pop publishers straight to the poorhouse. “Libraries have spent all this money on technology,” Schroeder contends. “They don’t have any money left for content.” So, basically, they steal it.

Schroeder, a retired 12-term U.S. Representative from Colorado, wants to be darned sure that publishers get the money they have coming to them. None of this freebie library stuff on her watch!

The main problem with Schroeder’s observations is that they are all wrong. Libraries do not pass around free copies of periodicals to one another. In the tight guidelines that determine interlibrary lending procedures, what goes from one library to another (and ultimately to a specific library user who has requested it) is a copy of a periodical article. Under the strict copyright compliance rules that American libraries follow, only a very limited number of articles from a specific periodical may be freely passed along in this manner over a specified period. Libraries exceeding the allowed quantity must pay for the privilege.

Schroeder’s contention that libraries have blown all their bucks on technology at the expense of content is equally off the mark. Yes, for sure, libraries spend ever-increasing chunks of their budgets on technologically related purposes. However, this technology itself often embodies content. In the library where I work, we have a small roster of hardcopy periodical subscriptions, barely over 1,000 titles. Through our subscription to a number of full-text online databases, our users can turn to over ten times that many periodicals in electronic form. Have we sacrificed content for technology? I don’t think so. We have simply changed the way we obtain content.

Schroeder’s terrible fear that libraries and librarians are exploiting hapless publishers is, in any case, a curious take on the relationship. If there is a genuine source of exploitation in the overall scene, it lies with publishers, particularly those who produce academic journals, who rely on free labor (in the form of academicians toiling in what continues to be a publish-or-perish environment) to produce articles for journals priced at extortionate rates–journals that academic libraries often must buy to satisfy program accreditation requirements.

Such journals–which, again, pay nothing (zero, zip, nada) to their contributors–can cost into several thousand dollars for a single annual subscription. Yes, friends, those vile librarians are shaking down powerless publishers again! Ain’t it just criminal?

Two explanations come to mind for Schroeder’s characterizations of interlibrary transactions, library technological developments, and the library-publisher relationship. The first is that she is ignorant of the rules and the realities. Schroeder has been president of the AAP since 1997, and is nobody’s fool. It defies belief to entertain the notion that she does not know what she is talking about. The other explanation is too obvious to bear discussing.

Why does this matter to the independent press?

In an open, democratic society that depends for its political health on the free public flow of information and opinion, libraries serve as a vital conduit in that flow. They make it possible, through their national networking, for citizens everywhere to obtain the materials they need to make sound decisions about the choices facing them.

Thanks to interlibrary lending, a car mechanic from a northern Wisconsin village can go to his little public library and request a copy of an article from a medical journal owned by only a few major research libraries in the Midwest. A Kentucky sharecropper can request an article from an agriculture journal that no library within hundreds of miles owns. A North Dakota homemaker can ask for a copy of an article from In These Times, or Dollars & Sense, or some other alternative periodical.

Most of the time, these folks won’t have to pay anything for the articles when they arrive. They support their local libraries with their taxes; that’s sufficient. As it should be. An informed public is the first line of defense against tyranny. The same dynamic that allows these individuals to pursue their unique informational needs at little or no personal cost is the one that helps create a climate of freedom for publishers, that helps make it possible for American publishers to flourish. The situation that we have serves everyone involved.

Pat Schroeder hates it, evidently, because too often people can read or see something without ponying up some dough for the privilege.

Speaking of dough, the Post reports that Schroeder makes a modest $370,000 a year for her AAP work. Although small, that sum is undoubtedly a welcome supplement to the income of a retired U.S. Congresswoman struggling to eke out an existence. With her first AAP check, I understand that Schroeder could afford a set of used Mel-Mac dinnerware at a nearby Sally’s. The colorful plastic pieces would no doubt brighten the drab surroundings of her congressional pensioner’s quarters.

The AAP and Schroeder want to make sure that the Wisconsin mechanic and the Kentucky sharecropper and the North Dakota homemaker pay their dues, as Schroeder has paid hers.

In spite of my opening remarks here about librarians, this one included, spending much of their time with their heads stuck in their computer monitors, one must acknowledge that change happens. There is, I believe, a healthy balance to strike between the traditional bookperson’s work and that of the cyberspaceperson. Although I have too many days when the computer seems to have a lock on my sensibilities, I try to seek that balance.

There is also a healthy balance between pay-as-you-go reading and everything-free-for-all at all times. We have had a reasonably good balance in that regard for several decades. If Schroeder and the AAP have their way, the balance will be gone, and we’ll be living in a world that no one concerned about the principles of either political freedom or publishing in a democratic society wants to see. If librarians stand by and let it happen, we’ll deserve all the bad press we get.

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Number 16:

Uncle Frank’s Diary
Number Sixteen


Drop the Almanac, Pal, 
and Spread ‘Em!

Uncle Frank’s in trouble. He’s an almanac user.

Not that he wasn’t in trouble before, but now the fit is really going to hit the Shan.  Surely you’ve seen the news: On Christmas Eve, the FBI alerted 18,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide about the threat posed the Homeland by (gasp!) almanac users. The geniuses at the Hoover Building want law officers everywhere to be on the alert during traffic stops, donut breaks, and high-speed chases on the Fox Network for people carrying these dangerous weapons of mass statistics.

Especially worrisome are almanacs “annotated in suspicious ways.” You know, the ones bearing idle marginalia along the lines of  “lb butter & doz. eggs,” or “Alice 231-5566,” or “Bush Sux.”

Talk about suspicious—and these people are.

“All right, Buddy, out of the car! Drop the book! Put your hands on the roof! On the roof, I said!”

The paunchy, balding librarian does his best to comply with the officer’s gentle encouragement. He knows his crime: driving while almanacked. There’s no denying it, and no escape. The copy of the World Almanac spread eagled on the passenger seat is all the proof necessary to demonstrate his ill intent. And wait until the authorities get a load of the annotations. God in heaven, and all’s wrong with the world.

Roadmap to Ruination

According to the bulletin the FBI Seekers of Evil sent out, “Terrorist operatives may rely on almanacs to assist with target selection and preoperational planning.”

You bet. Practically any almanac has tons of info useful to those of the terrorist persuasion. Just thumb through one at random. You’ll see lists of big cities, sports stadiums, airports, data on condom use, beer consumption, television ratings, best-selling records, you name it: If it’s done in the USA, it’s all there, a virtual roadmap to the destruction of the American Way of Life.

Small wonder that in his last address to the world, Osama bin Laden gloated over capturing a cache of 2004 almanacs. Even now, his operatives are busy distributing them to cells everywhere. Without almanacs, these guys wouldn’t even be able to find North America. With them, they’ll be driving truck bombs into your attached garage while you’re concentrating on America’s Most Moronic Celebrity Interviews on Fox. Count on it.

All right, all right, everyone knows this is ridiculous. Everyone, that is, except the aforementioned bright lights of legal intelligence at The Hoove, and John (Lost the Senate Seat to a Dead Man) Ashcroft, and everyone else in the most feckless administration since Harding’s.

But is this weird fixation on almanacs not also ominous? If the Bush Gangsters are addled enough to believe that these annual guides provide some uniquely valuable grist for terrorists—stuff, for example, that they couldn’t look up readily with Google—why would they not identify other publications as at least equally indicative of menace?

Selections from the Terrorist’s Book Club

Like a good portion of the books in the reference collection some 50 feet from where I now sit, and that anyone could consult simply by walking into the library and asking for help at the reference desk. What could a terrorist do with theCRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics? How about the Encyclopedia of Infectious Diseases, or the Handbook of Toxic and Hazardous Chemicals and Carcinogens, or the Encyclopedia of Guerrilla Warfare? I’m betting that a conscientious, thoughtful terrorist could find some inspirational reading in any of those books, among many others freely accessible in countless libraries.

And the FBI is worried about almanacs?

“The full force of Homeland Security all across this nation is at work to keep you safe,” Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge recently said.

Wow. It certainly fills me with a peaceful, easy feeling to know that Sec’y Tom and the boys have caught on to the lurking dangers of almanacs. I mean, these guys are doing a first-rate job!

And how long will it take them to catch on to the multitude of other avenues that terrorists could employ to obtain worthwhile information? Not just books in the reference collection, but like, oh, daily newspapers? Can we really consider ourselves safe when everywhere we look, we can see signs that people—strangers!—are finding out details about what’s going on in our own hometowns simply by shelling out 50 cents for the local newsrag?

Sooner or later, the agents of security will awaken to all they’ve been missing: that free flow (although not as free as it once was) of information that makes livin’ in the USA more fun and better for your health than living most other places. When they do wake up, and realize that the almanac scare is only a warm-up, a practice toss, better keep your reading habits to yourself.

They’ll be watching you. And taking suspicious notes.


Graphic by Karen McGinnis

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Uncle Frank’s Diary

Uncle Frank’s Diary

Grant Burns (Uncle Frank) Archives

Number 28 Uncle Frank and the Dupes of Hazard

Number 27 Bad Books! Bad, Bad Books!

Number 26 Book Awards and the Best Writers of Their Generation: Too Many of Both

Number 25 So Let Her Die, Already

Number 24 Mourning in America

Number 23 Darker than Black: The Pod People Prevail

Number 22 The Bush Gang: Creating Their Own Reality

Number 21 Glory Days: Boy George as High-School Jerk

Number 20 Conventional Whizzdom: Fear Itself

Number 19 The Passion of the Crust

Number 18 Exploiting Experience: Politician and Poet, Two of a Kind

Number 17 Uncle Frank Goes to the Library, Almost

Number 16  Drop the Almanac, Pal, and Spread ‘Em!

Number 15 What Would $100 Billion Buy on the Library Market?

Number 14 What’s Left of Iraq’s Libraries?

Number 13  And Oil Has Nothing To Do With It.

Number 12  Nausea.

Number 11  I’m Going to Dig a Hole.

Number 10 Who Needs Librarians? Let’s Get Some Trained Monkeys.

Number 9 Taking Candy from Strange Websites

Number 8 Uncle Frank Comes Back Mad

Number 7 Uncle Frank Takes a Trip

Number 6 9-11: We Didn’t Make Them Do It

Number 5 The Night I Prayed for Castro, and  What Happened Then

Number 4 Publishing on Demand: Good Deal, or Fool’s Errand?

Number 3 Books and Toasters: Who Ya Gonna Trust?

Number 2 To Breath Is to Judge: An Attempt to Think Calmly

Number 1 Says Schroeder, “We have a very serious issue with librarians.”

Number 17:

Uncle Frank’s Diary
Number Seventeen


Uncle Frank Goes 
to the Library, Almost

I meant to go to the library the other day, specifically, on Saturday, January 17, 2004.

I had a bunch of stuff to look up. Being an orderly librarian, I had my look-up stuff neatly noted and stacked in a pack of 4 X 6 index cards. Nobody had better accuse this librarian of having a 3 X 5 mentality! I’m beyond that—an inch in either direction—but with the payload still small enough to fit my inside coat pocket so I don’t have to lug around some clunky old briefcase, backpack, or cord-handled shopping bag with my junk in it, like the rest of those weary researchers.

My goal: The Detroit Public Library. I had to be in Detroit anyhow, that day, so it would be easy to slide by the DPL to score some books. On the 16th, I double-checked the library’s Website. Yup, no problem: In spite of tough budget times, the DPL maintains Saturday hours. Good for it. And good for it, too, for keeping in its fiction collection some books that are mighty hard to find elsewhere. Those are the ones I wanted. My gratitude ranneth over.

A Confusion of Dates

The 17th dawned (“gloomed” would be more accurate) with a howling wind, flying snow, and warnings on the radio about dangerous roads.

No problem. Uncle Frank eats dangerous roads for breakfast. But I had to double-check an item in the DPL catalog…. I fired up our faithful Chinese computer, and Netscaped to the DPL homepage.

And goggled (not Googled) in disbelief at the prominent message on the page: The DPL would be closed—that’s KLOSED, with a kapital K—on Jan. 17 for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday.

Was somebody messin’ with Uncle Frank, or what? Jan 19 is the holiday (for government workers, if no one else). Jan 15 is MLK’s birthday. So why was the library closed on the 17th? Huh? Are you telling me, in sincere sincerity, that MLK would think it a good idea to close a library, any library, on any day, in his name? That he would want to deny people, of whatever hue, a day’s opportunity to pursue truth, justice, and the American Way in the nation’s libraries? Or even that he’d want to deny the poor wretches of the street—the winos, the headcases, the homeless and lost—a chance on a rotten winter’s day to warm their pitiful hides for an hour while nodding over a newspaper in the library reading room?

I hardly think it.

Curious Celebrations

Yeah, well… Closing libraries–denying access to seekers of truth as a function of “celebrating” MLK’s legacy–is only one of the odd phenomena attached to his memory. Another rapidly burgeoning manifestation of curious celebration is the “a day on, not a day off” movement. In this well-meaning homage to King, organizations around the country encourage their members to put in a day, or a half-day, of volunteer work at some local social service agency. One might, for example, sort incoming clothes at a Salvation Army facility, or help prepare meals at a soup kitchen. Presumably this activity honors King and his principles.

How, precisely? Where in MLK’s work (I have searched, without finding) does he advocate helping perpetuate the status quo by volunteering to work in the organizations that help maintain it?

Organizations like the Salvation Army and soup kitchens and homeless shelters are indispensable crutches for the very social system whose abuses and injustices they seek to ameliorate. They are part and parcel of the problem; they do nothing to address the underlying causes that necessitate their existence.

Which is not to say that there is anything wrong with volunteering to work in such places. I’ve done it myself, spending Saturday mornings in a soup kitchen in a poor neighborhood in Flint, Michigan.

No, there’s nothing wrong with such work–but to engage in it thinking that one is somehow responding to MLK’s radical analysis of American life is errant. Such volunteer efforts work nothing but cosmetic relief. MLK’s philosophy, focusing on racial and economic justice, non-violence, anti-militarism and anti-imperialism, addresses fundamental American assumptions and behaviors, not secondary matters such as volunteering to sweep the shop floor after the daily American routine of capitalist greed, abuse of labor, exploitation of the poor, corporate welfare, and global arrogance has strewn the quotidian human wreckage across its surface.

Boiling It Down to Pap

America is gifted at boiling down great ideas to sentimental and non-threatening stuff. To pap for the masses, as one of my long-ago bosses liked to say. MLK’s radicalism, which challenged the nation to look into its soul and change its evil ways, has been diluted to a pallid shadow of its original substance. (And has also, such a surprise, been appropriated and warped by the political Right as an excuse not to pursue the very kinds of systemic cures that King advocated.) What can one expect? When MLK’s own family sells the rights to his image to corporate advertisers, why would we anticipate any other outcome?

If MLK were still with us, can anyone doubt what his positions would be on the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the systematic abuse of the nation’s poor, the contempt for human rights endemic in the Bush administration, or any number of other actions that spring from the nation’s fundamental assumptions about itself?

In his lifetime, the state saw MLK as its enemy. His hounding by the FBI as a “threat” to the country is common knowledge. But, to be sure, MLK was a threat. He threatened the business-as-usual attitude that makes American imperialism, and soup kitchens in Flint, Michigan, possible and necessary. If he were alive today, the state would still see him as its enemy, for the same reasons it did in 1968.

And good-hearted volunteer work, regardless of whatever temporary relief it affords those crushed by the system that King opposed, does nothing to change that system. It does not honor King’s memory by taking up his work; in an inescapably dreary sense, it capitulates before the forces of darkness that King sought to dispel.

A Day Off, Not a Day On

In my sputtering dismay at finding the Detroit Public Library closed on the day I had planned to visit,  I sent an inquiry to the library’s e-mail reference address, suggesting that it might not be such an apropos idea to close the place to honor King’s memory. I received a polite reply informing me that the closing was the result of a labor agreement, part of an arrangement, apparently, to assure that everyone would get a day off for King’s birthday. The DPL main library would be open on the 19th, its branches closed.

Anyone can understand wanting a day off, not a day on. I think it could be better managed; a skeleton staff could probably keep just about any library open; those reporting for duty could take off a day of their choice at a later date. No? Probably not. That would be too complicated. It might even, oh, of course it would—prompt some people to claim that not closing the libraries on this occasion would show “disrespect” to King’s memory.

I’d like to see MLK’s reaction, if he could know that libraries are closing in his name, and that volunteer work is being passed off as an inspired response to his message.

I think he would say that some people have missed the point.

By a mile or two.


Coming Soon: I Hate Him! I Hate Him! I Hate Him! (In which Uncle Frank Struggles to Express His True Feelings About George W. Bush)


Graphic by Karen McGinnis

Uncle Frank’s Diary Home

Number 2:

Uncle Frank’s Diary
Number Two

To Breath Is to Judge: An Attempt to Think Calmly about Nicholson Baker’s Book, Double Fold

“Essentially, then, Baker suggests that every publisher send the Library of Congress a copy of everything it produces, that LC catalog all of it, and never throw it away. Why? Is it true that everything is worth saving? Probably not. A great many books are not worthwhile. They are junk the moment they come off the press. They are junk today, junk tomorrow, junk forever.” 

Those librarians! They’re always ending up on someone’s liste de merde. If the local American Family Association operatives aren’t reaming them out for letting Dick & Jane ogle the nasty Web sites down at the P.L., then Pat Schroeder of the Association of American Publishers is characterizing them as pirates running amuck among pitiful, helpless giant publishers (seeUncle Frank’s March essay). If the AFA and the AAP take a break, that doesn’t mean rest for the wicked: It means that Nicholson Baker has his sharp pen unsheathed, and is going after some librarian hide.

Think of it: My sister-in-law once said of my work, “That must be a restful profession.” Oh, yes. We librarians read French novels and sip Michigan wine, and recite aphorisms of the Enlightenment. We’d sip French wine to go with the novels and the aphorisms, but we can’t afford it. Said sister-in-law will soon find out just how restful is the wonderful world of the library worker: She herself is putting the final touches on her library degree at Indiana University. I fear that this may somehow be my fault, but am afraid to ask.

Nicholson Baker, as by now everyone who reads knows, thinks that the destruction of America’s publishing heritage is the fault of librarians. His extensively researched new book,Double Fold (Random House; 370p. $25.95; ISBN 0-375-50444-3), takes librarians to task for what he considers their misguided efforts to save the village by destroying it. In this case, the village consists of thousands of books and newspapers published after 1870, the date generally used as the point from which publishers largely abandoned high-rag content paper for paper with a much higher wood pulp content.

Back in the day, high-rag paper helped assure a long, happy life for books, provided they did not become the targets of religious or political zealots intent on purifying the available literature by setting fire to it, or by bugs looking for sustenance. The shelf life of good paper can be astonishing.  If you ever get a chance to handle books produced in the first two or three centuries of modern printing, you will find their paper remains wonderfully supple, firm, and resilient–like my abs, if only I could bring myself to do those exercises I see on the infomercials during insomnia bouts.

Commerce being what it is (crass, soulless, grasping, clutching, and heedless of long-term damage wrought by the short-term quest for profit), most publishers eagerly switched to the widely available and cheap high-acid content wood pulp paper in the second half of the 19thcentury. As Baker points out, this development was far from all bad: It enabled publishers to crank out more product at more affordable prices.

Acid Trips

Thanks to its chemical content, this paper often came down with a bad case of acid indigestion that a trainload of TUMS couldn’t quell. Although books from previous centuries endure almost oblivious of the passage of time, a great many post-1870 books turned yellow, and sometimes brittle, in a few decades. The higher the acid content, the quicker these unpleasant changes occurred.

Partly in response to what they saw as the unsettling prospect of vast numbers of books crumbling away to uselessness, librarians in the nation’s major research libraries began looking for ways to preserve the intellectual content of these materials. They began microfilming the books. Sometimes the microfilming entailed taking the books apart to enable a good image capture. Once apart, the books were off to the pulp yard. As anyone who has worked with acid-eaten books can testify, once these babies are in pieces, there is no putting them back together. The preservationists sometimes felt that the only way to save the books was to destroy them–as physical artifacts, if not as works of intellectual content.

Pass the Marshmallows

Major microfilming projects have helped give some assurance to the continued existence of this intellectual content, even though the original packages in which it greeted the public may be doomed–or, alas, sacrificed in the filming. Nicholson Baker is seriously aggrieved about this sacrifice. For Baker, it amounts to something morally akin to burning Joan of Arc at the stake, and toasting marshmallows in the blaze.

His outrage, I acknowledge with regret, appears to possess considerable justification. Throughout Double Fold, Baker refuses to accept at face value any of the arguments put forward by preservationists whose tactics include the destruction of the objects of which they are purportedly the stewards. He argues, persuasively, that doctrinaire thinking about preservation has led to the needless slaughter of newspapers and books that, given modest maintenance and reasonable storage conditions, could survive intact–and usable–for many decades to come. Keep your old volumes in a dry place, with the humidity not too high. Keep them out of the light, keep them properly shelved, and they will last.

My grandfather, a casual scrapbook keeper, routinely cut out articles from local newspapers in the early part of the 20th century. These articles, mounted in dimestore scrapbooks, never received any care except for their storage in a dark closet. The clippings hold up to this day, readily readable. If cheap paper so casually maintained can hold up for close to a century, one must trust that it could persevere far longer in proper institutional settings, where temperature and humidity can be controlled, and where Grandpa won’t inadvertently toss his wet overshoes on top of the pile. Baker’s investigations testify to this point.

Good Old Books

There is something, even for a rational man or woman, transcendently human about holding in one’s hands a good old book that many other men and women have handled and read, in previous decades, in previous centuries. A sensitive soul feels a kinship with these departed readers, and senses a link to their reactions to the book as a physical entity, to the language of the text, to the ideas and images therein.

I like old books. I like them better than new books. Given a choice between going to a second-hand bookstore or a “first run” bookstore, I will usually choose the second-hand store. I like old books because they have soul, and new books do not. Some new books will eventually have soul, but none have it upon first publication. Please do not ask me to explain this. I know book soul when I feel it. This knowledge is one of my concessions, as one who likes to think of himself as a fairly rational man, to the irrational.

My first gig in the bookworld was as an apprentice in a hand bookbindery that specialized in repair and conservation of old and rare books. I worked in a shop where I learned how to sew books together on cords, how to make hollow-back spines, how to bring dried out leather bindings back to life with careful application of the proper unguents, how to repair damaged paper with Japanese tissue and paste, and any number of other slow, painstaking tasks of the hand binder’s craft. I dwell on this business to help assure readers that my career has not been devoted to wanton abuse of the innocent vehicles of intellectual property.

I have paid some dues to the historical body of the book, and, in fact, left my blood on some of its representatives while learning the needlework. I am pleased to see that Ellen McCrady, my old tutor in the crafts of the book, and presently publisher of the Abbey Newsletter(http://sul2.stanford.edu/byorg/abbey/) on the preservation arts, is one of the experts to whom Baker turns for guidance on technical issues.

Microfilm Gorge

Baker writes, “microfilm is a brain-poaching, gorge-lifting trial to browse.” He is correct. Digital versions of print materials are better, generally, and have advantages in their capacity for online searching, but they, too, have shortcomings–not the least of which is that digital conversion often involves the same sin as microfilming: destruction of the converted object.

Furthermore, the preservation of intellectual content that the microfilmers claim is far less than perfect. Some of Baker’s most disturbing passages concern the loss of value in the filmed versions of turn-of-the-century newspapers that featured elaborate artwork, including excellent color printing. Microfilming savages this work, rendering into murk the labor of long-dead artisans. Baker also observes that the varying content of different daily editions of a given newspaper is lost through the slash-and-film school of “preservation.”

The title of Double Fold describes what has become a standard test in the library business to determine the vitality of a book’s paper: grasp a corner of a page, and fold it back and forth. The sooner it breaks, the worse the paper, and the more likely a candidate is the book for microfilming, or digitization.

Baker does not condemn microfilming and digitization out of hand: He asks, simply, that these activities, which are crucial to wider dissemination of the materials ordinarily owned only by research libraries, not result in the physical destruction of those materials. As Ellen McCrady often said when I struggled with a new binding or preservation technique, “First, do no harm.”

That may not be a bad dictum to follow. If more librarians in the preservation game had followed it over the past half century, librarians in general would not today be getting touchy, defensive, and embarrassed over Baker’s screed. They could read their French novels and sip their Michigan wine with cleaner consciences.

Junk Today…

All that said, there remains something about Baker’s preoccupation with preserving every blessed thing that doesn’t rest easy on the mind. In one of his closing recommendations, he urges that the Library of Congress “lease or build a large building near Washington, and in it they should put, in call-number order, everything that they are sent by publishers and can’t or don’t want to hold on site.”

Essentially, then, Baker suggests that every publisher send the Library of Congress a copy of everything it produces, that LC catalog all of it, and never throw it away. Why? Is it true that everything is worth saving? Probably not. A great many books are not worthwhile. They are junk the moment they come off the press. They are junk today, junk tomorrow, junk forever.

Consider the Nancy Drew mysteries, or the Bobbsey Twin adventures, or the Hardy Boys, or (my personal favorite as a child) the Tom Corbett, Space Cadet series. Even now, a substantial bookcase at my house is chiefly occupied with supporting a large quantity of these books.

What good are they? Rearrange their words, give them all another name, it doesn’t matter: You’ve read one in the series, you’ve read them all. These books follow a formula so rigid that the author could have written them in his sleep. Or her sleep. And probably did. Sure, let’s save two or three as examples of their times and sensibilities, but why 20 or 30? There is nothing in any of them not in all the others. As works of literature, they are worthless. As windows on their prime times, they are relentlessly repetitious.

Yes, there are collectors out there willing to pay serious money for such books in fine condition. Their willingness rests not on the intrinsic value of the books as art or literature, but on an ersatz value our culture likes to assign to worthless objects because they are hard to find. One sees this phenomenon in operation at any “antique” store.

Do we really want to save forever a copy of every piece of junk published, simply because someone, somewhere, might think it useful?

We Don’t Wanna Go Down in the Basement

My grandfather followed that practice. He saved everything. His basement was and still is a wonder of objects gathered and hoarded over a lifetime. Most of it was just plain damned junk. Literally. The old man brought it home with him from the local junkyard. Twenty years after his death, his family still hasn’t been able to get shut of the bulk of it. The task of culling the worthwhile from the dreck is so overwhelming that no one wants to tackle it.

It may not be a good idea to invest the nation’s resources in creating and maintaining a storage facility that does for published materials what my grandfather’s basement did for the contents of the village junkyard. For that matter, if we save all the books, newspapers, and magazines, what defense could we offer for not saving everything else? Every piece of sheet music, every compact disk, every computer program, every godforsaken bit of published cultural debris that has its moment of fame?

We would, lord help us, have to make sure that we saved Herman’s Hermits’ unutterably moronic “Henry VIII,” and Whitney Houston’s bellowing bombast, “I Will Always Love You.” Not to mention every ill-tempered, posturing rap tune that takes Oedipal offenders to task. Please, no. Make them go away. Let us have some mercy on our descendants, if not on ourselves. Let us at least leave a record (written, sung, whatever) that suggests we were not as crude and tasteless as we know we are.

A Word from ’68

Perhaps the most memorable utterance I ever heard came from a Marxist philosophy professor in whose class I wrestled with the heavyweights of existentialism in the spring of 1968. During a discussion of Camus, someone in the class was griping about people like Camus being “judgmental.” The prof, ordinarily a very humane and gentle sort, turned his pale blue eyes on the student in an uncharacteristic glare, and slowly uttered, in a voice devoid of warmth, the following statement:

“To breathe is to judge.”

This observation filled me with a new light. Its absolute truth, possibly the only absolute truth of our existence, cut to the heart. Yes: To breathe is to judge. Refusal to judge is an abdication of one’s fundamental human responsibility. Saving everything, simply because it exists, is such an abdication.

That is why responsible librarians don’t save everything, and it is why pleas that the Library of Congress, or someone or something, hang onto everything published, everything recorded, just in case, have the ring of fear and neurosis. It is the fear of making choices, the fear of decisions, the fear of letting go, the neurotic need to cling to the past and its detritus.

We have to choose. Saving everything, regardless of its merit, is not a choice, but an obsession.

Uncle Frank is going to get rid of those Nancy Drew books.

Uncle Frank’s Diary Home

Number 18:

Uncle Frank’s Diary
Number Eighteen


Exploiting Experience:
Politician and Poet, Two of a Kind

A few mornings past I slogged downstairs at 5 a.m. I couldn’t sleep. I made a cup of instant, then sat on the couch in the living room with Dave the Cat. Dave snuggled up against my side and tucked his head under my arm. I turned on the TV and flipped around the cable news channels to see if it would be safe to go out that morning.

The George W. Bush World Trade Center ad came on, the one with actors pretending to be firefighters, pretending to be among the people that Bush pretended he would support when he pretended that his administration would be unstinting in its efforts to help New York City recover from the WTC attack.

There’s no pretense about the Bush Gang’s eagerness to retain and expand its power, or about using New York City and the memories and images of the WTC disaster to further the Liar-in-Chief’s ambitions to win, at last, a presidential election.

When asked why real firefighters didn’t appear in the ad, a Bush flak said it was because actors were cheaper and easier.

Well, sure. Everyone knows that the men and women who risk their lives running in and out of burning buildings are ‘way overpaid, anyhow. Why would a busy Bush operative want to waste time tracking down a couple of firefighters just for the sake of authenticity, and give the greedy schmucks an opportunity to make even more dough for easy work?

The Bush Gang is full of people pretending to be what they aren’t, so fake firefighters fit right into the scheme of things.

Nevertheless, many think the Bush WTC ad a little on the crass side. A little exploitative. A little vile. A little loathsome, base, opportunistic, crude, and cruel. Families of WTC victims, in particular, tend to moderation in their delight at the piece.

A Tale of Two Ads

Out on an errand at lunch, I made the mistake of turning on the car radio. I punched the button for WJR from Detroit, long ago one of the nation’s great mainstream radio stations. WJR once relied on home-grown talent and a community focus; now it serves as a brainless relay station for the likes of the ineffable Laura Schlessinger and America’s favorite junkie, Rush Limbaugh.

I caught Limbaugh in mid-guffaw.  He was roaring in amusement over some pathetic guest’s contention that John Kerry’s Vietnam-based ads are qualitatively different from Bush’s WTC exploitation trip.

This is the standard Righty line on the ad flap: Bush’s use of World Trade Center imagery is the same as Kerry’s use of Vietnam imagery. What’s your problem, huh?

The problem is that it isn’t true. Kerry’s ‘Nam ads exploit his own direct experience, and capitalize on his own heroics. Bush’s WTC ad exploits other people’s experience, and attempts to capitalize on other people’s heroism and suffering. Kerry takes credit for what he himself did; Bush takes credit for what others did.

One would think that even Rush Limbaugh would be able to see that. Maybe the Oxycontin’s effects linger longer than we previously thought.

The ad flap reminded me of a line I came across in Nietzsche many years ago. Most of what Nietzsche wrote leaves Uncle Frank baffled, but this statement came through loud and clear: “Poets treat their experiences shamelessly: They exploit them.”

Politicians do the same thing. But at least those with a shred of integrity exploit their own experience. Unlike George W. Bush, they don’t appropriate someone else’s as though they had a peremptory right to it.

Still Coming Soon: I Hate Him! I Hate Him! I Hate Him! (In which Uncle Frank Struggles to Express His True Feelings About George W. Bush)


Graphic by Karen McGinnis

Uncle Frank’s Diary Home

Number 3:

Uncle Frank’s Diary
Number Three

Books and Toasters: Who Ya Gonna Trust?

“What reader, what librarian, would concede a speck of credibility to a review service whose reviews have been paid for by the publishers and authors whose products are being reviewed?”

Books or Toast

Would you buy a toaster because of a glowing review of the appliance paid for by the toaster’s maker? Not very damned likely, eh? Me, either. Be warned: There’s a parallel plan afoot in the book reviewing world, and one wonders whether the plain good sense that most breakfast fans exhibit in buying a new toaster will hold in readers’ book buying plans under this scheme.

You may have heard of the reviews-for-hire plan hatched by ForeWord Magazineof Traverse City, Michigan. Through its new review service arrangement with OverDrive, Inc., ForeWord will charge $295 to publish a book review in its online spinoff, ForeWordreviews.com. Reviewers themselves will receive $50 for a 400-word review.

The ForeWord plan is a hair-raising departure from traditional book reviewing. What reader, what librarian, would concede a speck of credibility to a review service whose reviews have been paid for by the publishers and authors whose products are being reviewed? Speaking of breakfast, would anyone trust aConsumer Reports article on toasters if GE, Proctor-Silex, Norelco, and other toaster manufacturers paid the magazine to evaluate their appliances? If that’s what it came to, I’d toast my muffins on a fork over a stove burner rather than buying a toaster “reviewed” for its manufacturer’s fee.

I would also rather read the back of a cereal box than spend money for a book based on a “review” for which its publisher paid the review medium.

Librarians Won’t Buy It

The most dedicated readers of book reviews on the planet are probably librarians. To be good stewards of their often constricted acquisitions budgets, librarians must choose carefully when they buy books. Individual librarians have their own favorite review sources, but some major sources are widely used and trusted. They include such magazines as Choice, for academic libraries, School Library Journal for school librarians, Booklist and Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, the New York Times Book Review, and several others for general book buying guidance.

Depending on the library and its collections, as well as the special interests of given librarians, many other more narrowly focused sources of reviews also come into play. One of my favorites is the Journal of American History, which includes in each issue an excellent, lengthy book review section. Back when theTwilight Zone magazine was publishing, I always looked forward, as an aficionado of fantasy and horror, to its reviews in that genre.

One common practice of all these review sources is that they do not charge publishers for reviews. Publishing reviews for hire would rapidly demolish any credibility a publication enjoyed as a source of honest, objective reviewing. The analogy is obvious but fitting: Charging publishers to review books is a form of prostitution. In this case, the John is the reader gulled into believing that the hired review is on a par of trustworthiness with those appearing in the kinds of sources I mentioned above.

Reviewers Risk Their Reputations

Over a 15-year span, I wrote several hundred book reviews for the Sunday edition of a daily newspaper. The paper paid me for the reviews. The review editor would have gone into apoplexy if a publisher suggested to him that the paper take money to run reviews of its books–and that publisher would never have seen another of its books on the paper’s review page.

The paper didn’t pay me handsomely, but enough for some welcome pin money at the end of the month. The ForeWordreviews.com reviewer pay is better, even at a modest $50, than what most newspapers pay for reviews, yet what self-respecting reviewer will sign on to work in an environment that to any outside observer makes it appear that reviewers are taking money from the publishers whose books are under review?

The vested self interest of ForeWordreviews.com in producing positive reviews of the books at issue will be so inescapable that no one thinking critically would trust those reviews. Reviewers who appear to take publishers’ money to review books will surely find themselves objects of suspicion. Not only will their stature as honest book reviewers suffer; their trustworthiness as writers of anythingwill come into question.

Curiously (tellingly?), the ForeWord folks apparently do not plan to publish the hired reviews in their traditional review organ, ForeWord Magazine. In response to a question in the ForeWordreviews.com FAQ sheet, it sounds as though a firewall will stand between the purchased reviews and the reviews that appear in the magazine. As of Noon on May 21, the answer to the FAQ question was ambiguous enough that one could not specifically rule out the possibility of an online review turning up in the magazine, but that was the impression that emerged from between the lines.

The ambiguity of the response to a question that could have been answered with a simple “yes” or “no” may have been intentional, or it may have been the result of careless writing exacerbated by a reluctance to be candid. If the firewall exists, one must wonder why the ForeWord crew feels compelled to impose it.

In any case, publications worth consulting for their reviews do not take money for publishing them. That isn’t reviewing: It’s advertising. There’s a place for advertising, but it isn’t in the review columns, and readers should never fear that it might be lurking there in disguise.

The Lure of Easy Money

Back in my book reviewing days, I felt obliged to read the books I reviewed from start to finish. This was not always a pleasant task, but I did not think it fair to the writers, the publishers, or my readers to knock off a review based on a quick reading of a book’s first 50 pages and a skim through the conclusion. Some reviewers work this way. I couldn’t make myself do it. Sometimes that bogged me down in what seemed interminable reading; if the compensation I received for reviewing such books had been broken down to a per-hour basis, it would have been pathetic.

On the other hand, I tried to keep in mind the first reason I wrote reviews: to communicate ideas about books to a reading audience. The first reason was not to make money, and a good thing it wasn’t. Sometimes digging ditches would have been easier and more lucrative.The lure of easy money has a very strong appeal. It is easy to see how a reviewer working under a publisher-pay-for-review system could be tempted to produce numerous reviews based on shallow reading and puff writing tempered by an occasional “critical” comment, just enough negative seasoning to help maintain an illusion of objective distance. An experienced reviewer can write a credible-sounding 400-word review, either negative or positive, while sound asleep. There’s nothing to it, if the objective is to get the thing done fast–and out there on the street to pick up the loot.

A Wise Publishing Decision?

As strongly as I urge reviewers to shun this lure, and encourage librarians to disdain reviews-for-hire, I question publishers willing to sink their promotion budgets into the pay-for-review regime. Yes, they’ll fool some of the people a lot of the time, but they’ll do it at the expense of their credibility, their integrity, and their public image among knowledgeable readers as upholders of certain valuable traditions in publishing. No publishing tradition is more valuable, for all its flaws, than a reviewing system that allows readers to assume with reasonable confidence that the reviews they read do, indeed, come from the unbought, unbossed minds and hearts of the reviewers.

As short-story writer Dennis Loy Johnson observes in his May 21 column in his Web site MOBYlives (www.mobylives.com), it is quite likely “that ForeWord won’t get much business from the publishers it claims it means to serve.” More likely customers for this dubious service may well be self-published authors, many–probably most–of whom are naïve about how book reviewing works. The same poor souls who pay vanity presses to put out shoddy versions of their books will line up to pay to have their shoddy books reviewed by a source that few readers will trust.

It’s a cruel prospect, all right.

Maybe it doesn’t matter to the hired review folks that many readers will actively avoid books promoted through a hired-review regime. Maybe all that matters is how many people they can persuade to get serviced with such reviews.

And maybe that’s living in the U.S.A. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean we have to take it lying down, pretending that we enjoy it and think it a good idea. As Winston Smith might have said, this is a doubleplusbad idea. It may make money, but it is hard to see how it could contribute anything worthwhile to writing, publishing, reviewing, book buying, or reading.

Now, if you’ll excuse him, Uncle Frank will go brown a piece of toast over the stove, and eat it while reading the back of his Cheerios box.

Uncle Frank’s Diary Home

Number 19:

Uncle Frank’s Diary
Number Nineteen


The Passion of the Crust: Uncle Frank Stays Home from the Movies

Have you seen Mel Gibson’s new movie? What’s the title… The Passion of the Crust? No, that’s the name I’m giving the pizza joint I’m opening soon. I’ve been a home-made pizza baker for decades. The secret to a good pizza is the crust, and the secret to the crust is the dough. The dough: It is risen! For Easter, we’ll be turning out pizzas in the shape of a cross.

     Yes, the Passion of the Crust will be a parlor of miracles. Bring in a gallon of water and we’ll turn it to wine for you while you wait for your order, and with a handful of breadsticks feed the hungry multitudes. With sauce, all things are possible.

     But back to the movies: The Passion of the Christ. That’s it, the one that gives happy viewers a chance to watch a gang of sadists beat the crap out of someone pretending to be Jesus for a couple of hours before killing him.

     This is someone’s idea of a good time? Not mine. I was there in 12th grade history class when someone brought in the 8 x 10 glossies of Mussolini and pals, photos taken after Il Duce’s former subjects vented their frustrations on their erstwhile leader. Very glossy, very up-close. Uncle Frank wanted to hurl. There are some things I don’t want to see, including Mussolini’s battered carcass and Mel’s latest movie, even if I know, in the case of the movie, that all the bloody details are just make-up and special effects.

Food for Gore, and We Don’t Mean Al

     What are we supposed to do, eat popcorn and Jujubes while savoring a long evening of mutilation?

     “Hey, Honey, get me the bucket-sized popcorn, would you? With extra butter? Torture always makes me hungry.”

     Saddam Hussein was the same way. Especially when the festivities took place outside. Outdoor air stimulates the appetite when the blood starts to fly.

     So I’ll skip the movie. The TV trailers have been sufficient to slake my taste for blood. I think I’ll stay home and watch something on Animal Planet.

     My aversion to this sacred carnage is clearly in the minority. Entire churches are arranging special showings of the film for faithful Christians seeking just a closer walk with Thee. Sorry, with Him. They’re a-thirsting to bathe in the Blood o’ the Lamb; they’re up for the vicarious misery of the Stations o’ the Cross, keen on the Crown o’ Thorns, ready to shed a tear for the precious heavenly Son o’ God, wracked and torn in his extremities, and everywhere else.

     Dang. Don’t it just make you feel… exalted?

     This is, I believe, the kind of phenomenon that led to that useful exhortation, “Get a life.”

Religious Doofuses

     Jesus, and I say that in apostrophe*, what a bunch of credulous doofuses we Americans are. We’re so overstuffed with grade-school religiosity that it oozes out our pores. We’re bloated with literalistic biblical twaddle; awash in superstitious flapdoodle; always eager to sign away our rational faculties for the promise of a harp and a cloud in the eternal firmament. How else is it possible to explain why that well-known nitwit, Pat (the Reverend) Robertson—who is on record as supporting the enlightened belief that dinosaurs and human beings once cohabited on the planet—appeared on the Fox network to offer his “thoughts” on Gibson’s film? How else is it possible to explain why NPR threw away valuable airtime on a lengthy discussion of this dumb flick?

     Hello out there: It’s a movie, fer chrissake. A movie! A length of film replicated many, many times to be shown systematically around the country for the explicit purpose of making money. That’s m-o-n-e-y. Do you think Mel is going to donate his profits to the Little Sisters of Misery’s annual pancake breakfast fund? With maybe some left over for the Lutheran Ladies’ Aide Thanksgiving mitten drive?

Not a Trace of Doubt in Their Minds

     According to 2001 Gallup polling, 45 percent of Americans consider themselves “born again.” In the same poll,  an astounding 63  percent of respondents  believe that religion can answer all or most of today’s problems. A like number, 63 percent, said that religion currently has too little presence in public schools.  But wait, there’s more:

     The Harris Poll (Feb. 26, 2003) found that 90 percent of Americans believe in God; 84 percent believe in the survival of the soul after death; 84 percent believe in miracles—they’re bringing their gallon water jugs to Passion of the Crust; 82 percent believe in Heaven, 31 percent in astrology, and 27 percent in reincarnation. Here’s a link to that depressing poll:


      All of these beliefs are beyond testing. That’s what makes them “beliefs,” rather than knowledge. Like religious adherents in general, most Americans don’t want to know: They want to believe. And they do, regardless of anything resembling rational argument.

He’s Watching You, Too

      So here we are, Jesus fans: drifting through the endless maw of space, the rest of the universe rushing away from us at ever-increasing speed (for good reason, no doubt); convinced, believing, persuaded, that God in Heaven is so wonderfully interested in our inane, witless doings that He keeps His lidless eye trained on us, unblinking, even when we go to the bathroom. (Don’t bother to shut the door. It won’t help.) He’s always watching! He cares! The Good Lord won’t give you anything you can’t handle!

     Never mind that a tidal wave can wash a couple of hundred thousand innocent schmucks out to sea, as happened in the former East Pakistan in 1970, as though they were no more than sand fleas on a beach. Of course, they weren’t Christians, most of them; had they seen the Light o’ the World in time, God would no doubt have distributed life preservers. Or maybe would have directed the ocean’s force against some more deserving nation of pagan losers. God’s eye is on the sparrow, and on you, too! Be not afraid! All ya gots to do isbelieve, brothers and sisters!

Uncle Frank Believes

      Uncle Frank does. He believes we’re so afraid of what we don’t know that we’ll concoct and subscribe to any crackpot, untestable religious fantasy as long as it promises us an out, and gives us an excuse not to work for the truth.  He believes that humanity made God in its image: vain, jealous, petulant, violent, vindictive, arbitrary, cruel and irrational. That’s us. That’s our God. And “Christians” have made Jesus this sweet deity’s personal agent.


Look at America’s true believers: making public policy in accord with religious principles; restricting on the grounds of supernatural dogma medical science—stem cell research, for example—that unfettered could hasten improved therapy for and prevention of a raft of hideous diseases; ranting and raving about the terrible threat of homosexual marriage on the basis of biblical interpretation; carrying on like lunatics over “liberal” judges’ “taking God out of the public schools”; trying to give an idiotic pseudo-science, creationism, equal time with the study of scientific evolution in high school biology classes; with their peculiar notion of God on their side, aspiring to deny  women the right to control what happens to their own bodies.

     And sniffing in disdain at the Taliban and other fundamentalist Muslims who base their laws on twisted interpretations of the Koran, and, with God as their co-pilot, fly hijacked airliners into tall buildings. Geez, what a buncha heathens. Meanwhile, religiously rapt Americans line up to wallow in Filmmeister Mel’s exercise in sadistic piety.

     Pass the pizza, Honey. Here comes the good part. You go, Jesus.

*Apostrophe: The direct address of an imaginary person.


Graphics by Karen McGinnis

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Number 4:

Uncle Frank’s Diary
Number Four

Publishing on Demand: 
Good Deal, or Fool’s Errand?

There are other avenues to publication, too, and this is the matter at hand: publication on demand. This does not mean that one gets one’s novel or epic poem or political diatribe published by showing up at an editor’s desk and saying “I demand that you publish this book!”

Librarians everywhere probably received copies of the flyer that came my way the other day. It was hard not to notice: “GET PUBLISHED NOW,” it said in all caps in stark black, white, and red. “You Can Be a Published Author,” the face of the flyer said at the top in smaller type. 

As I held the flyer in my hands, I expected to see Ed McMahon materialize at my door, telling me that I was already a winner (provided none of the 43 million other contestants didn’t get the prize instead). Yup. I could be a published author. It sounded swell, although I think there might be better ways than the one the flyer suggested.

Alternatives to the Mainstream

From time to time, breaking into the usual run of humdrum reference questions raised at a college library reference desk (“Do you have the APA style manual?” “Where are the books?” “Can I get change for the copiers?” “What does my prof mean by this assignment?”), comes the stray inquiry about getting one’s story or novel published. 

I like to field those questions. There’s something delightful about taking a neophyte author in hand and revealing the tools of the trade most useful to a beginner.

One of the great services of the small press, as most readers here well know, is that it provides a reasonably accessible means of publication for writers for whom the mainstream press proves an unlikely haven. It is especially receptive to new writers, and to those who for whatever reason cannot or will not write according to the commercial formulas that help assure the kinds of sales that mainstream publishers need to keep their balance sheets acceptable to the cartels that run them.

I bear no ill will, by the way, toward authors who master and use those formulas. In a recent stint of jury duty, I needed a book to entertain myself during the sporadic breaks and lengthy delays in the proceedings. The night before my first day of service, I bought a used copy of Stephen King’s novel, Gerald’s Game. The picture of a pair of handcuffs on the cover somehow linked with my upcoming civic exercise. 

The book was fine; it took my mind off the old, ill-padded chairs in the jury room, to say nothing of the tragic and depressing example of human misery revealed in the trial on which I served. I admired especially King’s facility with the tools of suspense, characterization, and pacing. 

(It gave me pleasure to see some positive comments on King in B.R. Myers’s incendiary assault on contemporary literary prose, “A Reader’s Manifesto,” in the July-August Atlantic. The last time I discussed King was with a professional consultant with a graduate degree in English. I told her I admired King’s work ethic. She told me he was “nothing but a hack.” I had an opportunity later to read a report she composed; she had trouble making her verbs and subjects agree in number. But I reckon she knows a hack when she reads one.)

I admire any writer able to hold a reader’s attention for the length of a novel. That’s hard work, whether conducted at the high end of the scale by the truly serious, or at the pop entertainment end. Uncle Frank would do it if he could.

The most likely source of a publisher for my disconnected works (or yours; I’ve a hunch that I’m not the only librarian around whose bottom desk drawer contains an unpublished novel or two) may well be in the small press, where there are many brave and adventurous editors willing to take a chance on writing that does not fit the requirements of such outfits as Doubleday, St. Martin’s Press, or Viking.

The On-Demand Route

There are other avenues to publication, too, and this is the matter at hand: publication on demand. (Sometimes Uncle Frank takes forever to get to the point. He can’t help it.) This does not mean that one gets one’s novel or epic poem or political diatribe published by showing up at an editor’s desk and saying “I demand that you publish this book!” Many writers have no doubt tried this tactic, to no good effect. I haven’t tried it yet, but I have been meaning to do so. Just because it hasn’t worked for anyone else doesn’t mean it won’t work for me. Those other authors probably didn’t bang on the table, and backed down when security was summoned. I won’t make those mistakes.

“Publication on demand,” as librarians generally know, means that the publisher keeps a master copy of a work, in print, on film, or in a computer file, and produces a single copy from the master when someone orders (demands) it. A company of longstanding service in this regard familiar to most librarians is University Microfilms.  U Microfilms maintains a huge file of doctoral dissertations, and will be glad to whip out a paper copy for any customer willing to spend about $30 for the service. 

A new kind of publish-on-demand entity has sprung up recently, and it has me a little concerned. 

At the bottom of the above-mentioned flyer, in black print, I saw the legend “iUnivers.com/The New Face of Publishing.” My attention secured, I flipped the flyer to study the backside. On the flipside, in bright red print, I learned that “In just about two months, you can be a published author!” Whee! Such a deal they offer: For $99, authors can submit a manuscript via the iUniverse Web site, and have the thing stored in the iU files, waiting for some eager buyer to order a one-off copy.  

iUniverse is affiliated with Barnes & Noble.com.  iU’s URL (www.iuniverse.com/publishyourbook) takes one to a page in the B & N Web site headed “PublishYourBook.” There one finds details on the various plans that iU offers. None of them entails any editorial review. 

Authors who can’t bear to see their divinely inspired verbiage sullied by cranky editors correcting mistaken verb tenses, misspellings, or gross inconsistencies could find this their meal on wheels. Nothing comes between the pure expression of the author’s voice and the eyes of the readers, if there are any.

Roll Your Own Promotion

There’s the other rub. In addition to absence of editorial assistance, authors who sign up with iUniverse will enjoy next to nothing in the way of the traditional promotional services provided by conventional publishers, including small publishers. Advertising in trade journals? Forget it. Copies of books sent out to review media? Uh-uh. Announcements mailed to libraries? Nope. iU does promise to secure a listing in Books in Print. That’ll help a lot, considering that no one is likely to consult Books in Print for a book whose existence has been noted nowhere. 

The marketing labor, as iU plainly states, will rest in the author’s hands. As anyone who has done it knows, book promotion, even on a modest scale, is time-consuming labor, and not cheap. If no one does it, the book might as well lie in a vault in Antarctica, because no one will know that it exists, not even the penguins that waddle above it, in spite of a listing in Books in Print. As the iUniverse flyer says, “You write it, you promote it, we do everything else.” 

Writer’s Club Press of Lincoln, Neb., is one of the iU imprints. A search of OCLC’s WorldCat for Writer’s Club Press as a publisher and Lincoln as place produced records for 48 books from the press. Of these 48, 37 were owned by not more than two libraries. None of the books appeared in as many as 10 libraries’ records. In contrast, Brad Leithauser’s novel A Few Corrections, just published by Knopf, already appears in over 300 library catalogs.

 Hmm. Looks as though some authors with dreams of fame, riches, and influence are not following through on the “you promote it” angle.

Does Anyone Notice?

I noted the first dozen books in the Writer’s Club group of 48 published in the year 2000, and checked the Gale Group’s Book Review Index for citations to reviews. As librarians know, if a book published in the U.S. fails to turn up in any review sources covered by BRI, its existence has gone generally unobserved. Not one of the dozen Writer’s Club books I checked receives a single review citation in either 2000 or 2001. Oh, but it’s early! Why, the reviews could come pouring forth in late ’01 or in the first few months of ’02.

They could, but I’d bet otherwise. (By the way, Gale sure isn’t wasting space taking into consideration the eyesight of middle-aged readers: That’s mighty teeny print in BRI.)

It’s easy to argue that authors choosing this publication route are looking for nothing but the satisfaction of handing a few copies of their books to family members and friends. That’s a harmless if inane indulgence of personal vanity, and friends and family are under no obligation to read the stuff. They can always lie when quizzed by the authors about what they thought of it:

“Oh, I thought it was… it was very interesting, dear. Very… thought-provoking.”

It’s harmless, but it’s also pointless. The only good reason to write is to communicate. Presumably, one’s friends and family already know one’s ideas reasonably well. The task, then, is to spread them around among a wider circle of readers. Whether the iUniverse publish-on-demand program is going to do very much to widen that circle is a dubious matter.

Which is not to say that the iUniverse approach is necessarily ill advised. It could work, and it does offer a genuine route to putting into print writing that may be worthwhile, but simply can’t find a home another way. Making it work would be another matter. Persuading people to read a book published this way would require tremendous after-writing effort on the part of the author, and it is unlikely that most authors turning to iUniverse will have the knowledge, experience, or time required to make their effort productive.

To say nothing of money.  iU does provide some marketing advice–the “simple marketing plan” described in its “Author Toolkit” refers to a $20,000 marketing budget (that’s pretty darned realistic, don’t you think, for a first-time novelist working part-time in a bookstore, library, or restaurant whose “office” is a bedroom closet in a two-room apartment?)–but how many authors will follow through on it? Judging by Book Review Index, the answer is not encouraging.

Which brings us back to where we started: the small and independent press. There are good reasons why a writer, any writer, has an advantage in publishing through a traditional publisher–the kind of place that employs editors and proofreaders and such. (Of course, at many small publishers, the editor is the proofreader and such.)

Any writer can profit immensely from independent editing. Only nitwits believe that their work is too good for editing, and even the best writers make bad mistakes. Once a manuscript has been through a few drafts, the bad mistakes are probably embedded for good (and for bad) unless an editor who is not the author, and not closely related to the author, can examine the work. 

Then there’s that promotional work. Some writers have an aptitude and a taste for it. Some would rather go in for a root canal. Writing a book, even a bad book, is taxing; many authors would rather do anything after finishing a book than think about it, including thinking about selling the thing. They simply are not equipped temperamentally to pursue a demanding marketing program.

Pack a Lunch and Wait

Real publishers do marketing. If they don’t, they go out of business. So, librarians, if you or a patron have a book but don’t have a publisher, why not head for the latest edition of Dustbooks’The International Directory of Little Magazines & Small Presses? There you’ll find good self-descriptions of book publishers, including what they want, how to send submissions, & whatnot. The current Writer’s Market also covers many smaller presses. 

New writers should try to hook up with people who will pay attention to what they’ve written, rather than simply treating their work like one more widget that just dropped off the end of the assembly line, to be thrown into a package and filed in the warehouse, or on a floppy disk, until someone, somewhere, decides to order it.

On the other hand, you can send your book out for on-demand publishing, and sit back and wait for the orders and the royalties to roll in. But pack a lunch, and take something to read, because you’ll probably have a long wait. It will probably be a lot longer than Uncle Frank’s recent jury duty. And don’t expect Uncle Frank to lend you the 20 grand for your marketing budget.

Uncle Frank’s Diary Home

Number 20:

Uncle Frank’s Diary
Number Twenty


Conventional Whizzdom: Fear Itself

“Come on out of there, Uncle Frank! We know you’re in there!”
Muffled groans.
“Lemme alone.”
“You can’t hide any longer!”
“Go away. Just go away.”
“The terror alert’s off the charts!”
More groans. 
“I gave at the office. Go ask the Girl Scouts.”
“You’ve been in hiding too long, Uncle Frank!”

Stumbling into the Light

Sometimes it’s hard for Uncle Frank to stand up and be counted. Nevertheless, he hauls himself to his feet, lurches across the room, opens the door, and stands leaning against the jamb, one hand over his eyes. The room behind him is in disarray, the blinds closed, the curtains drawn. A discarded pizza carton lies on the floor, next to a half-consumed bottle of Rolling Rock. A television plays a test pattern.

“There’s too much light out here,” he says. “I was watching Fox, and right about the time Bill O’Reilly started telling me the spin stops here, something clicked off in my head. So I switched to CNN, but it was the same thing there. Blondes with big lips and tanned thighs laughing with the sports guy. Joking about Kerry.  So I switched over to MSNBC, and it was the same thing there, Chris Matthews hollering at someone. I turned on the local radio, and Sean Hannity was complaining about how the liberals run the media. I turned on C-SPAN, and sat there for half an hour watching an empty table with a microphone on it.”

Uncle Frank took his hand away from his eyes and blinked.

“Then Brian Lamb came on and conducted an entire interview without moving his mouth. It was weird. Too weird. I turned back to CNN, and George W. was trying to talk. ‘Listen,’ he said, so I listened, but he didn’t say anything except ‘gonna’ and ‘uh,’ so I went to bed and stayed there. Jesus. I’d rather readMallard Fillmore* than follow this crap-ola.”

Conventional Spawn of Satan!

Who can blame Uncle Frank for hiding under the covers? He feels dreadful about it, but he’s working hard to bring himself back to a semblance of citizenship. To borrow from the Bushian lexicon of lucidity, he’s, uh, listen, he’s gonna wok the vote.

That’s right: If you donno know how to do it, he’ll show you how to wok the vote.

(That’s fer you old timers out there who remember Rufus Thomas.)

But after all this, nothing gets Uncle Frank up and at ‘em like a purported insult from the ever-hilarious Ann Coulter. You’ve probably seen the news of her brief, fleeting employment by USA Today. USAT hired her to furnish her uniquely partial and imbalanced brand of commentary on the Democratic convention. She wrote one column, and got canned. How’s come? She opened her piece by referring to the gathering in Boston as “the Spawn of Satan convention.” Really. Check it out:


The USAT editors thought that was going a bit far, so they dumped her. Awww, shucks. If Joe McCarthy could see her now.

Frankly, Uncle Frank, a liberal-progressive-godless-socialist Democrat, is flattered to know that he stands lumped with the Spawn of Satan, in AC’s purported worldview. He considers it a badge of honor.

But poor Ann: How can any thinking person take her seriously? Does anyone believe that she believes what she says? Surely no woman in her right mind could subscribe to the assertions Coulter utters. Assuming that neither Fox News nor USA Today hires people not in their right minds, then only one conclusion remains: Ann Coulter says what she says for money. What a fresh concept! She knows the clientele, and bends to meet their tastes, regardless of her own.

There’s a word for such behavior, but we won’t use it here.

A Little Trick with Old Nick

So dear Ann did not enjoy the Democratic convention all that much. Too bad. Uncle Frank found it occasionally agreeable, Spawn o’ Satan type that he is. He’s looking forward to the Republi-cant convention, too, when—to follow through on Ann’s alliterative attack—the Bastards of Beelzebub will bask in the bosom of fear in New York City.

How many times between now and the Repub-fest do you think the Bush Gang will ramp up the terror alert level? (And, of course, Howard Dean is taking heat for suggesting that just maybe the elevated alert has some fuzzy link, maybe, to the Bush Gang’s ambition to deflect attention from Kerry, and to stoke a gullible public’s anxiety about changing commanders in the middle of a war.)  Today the malefactors are targeting financial centers; what will it be tomorrow? As one threat segues into another, who will pay attention, even if, for a change, the fear-mongers accidentally tell the truth?

Remember Attorney General Lord o’ the Flies Ashcroft’s excited announcement a month or so ago that the authorities had tracked down a terrorist plot to destroy a major shopping center? The “terrorist” nabbed in this operation is apparently a delusional headcase, with neither tools nor a plan to carry out his “attack.” Haven’t heard much about this guy lately, have we? Or about what a breakthrough in the famous War on Terror his indictment represents. “No specific mall was targeted,” reported CBS News in the following June 16 story. “No explosives were in hand. And it is unclear that the alleged terrorist had the wherewithal to do it.”


Who needs objective evidence when it’s so easy to wave the flag of fear? George W: He da man. He’s out there trying to scare you out of your vote, this clueless, lazy, dimwitted, tongue-tied tool of the Cheney-Wolfowitz-Rumsfeld-Perle neocon cabal, with nothing to sell but fear itself.

Uncle Frank don’t buy it, pardner. Don’t you, either. It’s poison.

*Mallard Fillmore, by Bruce Tinsley, conceivably the unfunniest comic strip in the history of the universe, not excluding Nancy or Family Circus. Uncle Frank reads it daily in hopes of discerning a subtle and revealing intelligence within its ostensibly, and perhaps deliberately, cretinous comedy. You think I’m exaggerating? Look and see:  http://www.kingfeatures.com/features/comics/mallard/about.htm

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Number 5:

Uncle Frank’s Diary
Number Five


The Night I Prayed 
for Castro, and What Happened Then:

A Meditation Prompted by a Current Controversy

Librarians who pay attention to such things may recall–from the recesses of their World Trade Center-preoccupied noggins–seeing recent coverage of the “independent library” question in Cuba.

The story of anti-Castro libraries, or “libraries,” cropping up in Cuba in defiance of state sanctions has appeared in places ranging from American Libraries to theWashington Post, as well as in some hot on-line exchanges about the matter. According to an article by David Gonzalez in the June 6, 2001 New York Times, there are approximately 60 such libraries in Cuba.

As most things do for the ever-solipsistic Uncle Frank, the controversy awakens sleeping memory banks. Let us go back, back into the dim recesses of a more innocent time…

Back when I was a kid, when everything was still in black and white, I regularly watched the Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday evening. This was well before the Beatles, in the days of Eisenhower and U-2 flights over Russia and anxiety about a possible nuclear “exchange” over a couple of islands–Quemoy and Matsu–that you’ve probably never heard of unless you’re of a certain age. I recall praying, as an eight-year-old, I believe, that we would not blow up the world over those two islands. As you’ll soon see, I was just a prayin’ fool in those days.

Sometimes Big Ed featured some pretty good material, not the least of which was a pre-bloated Elvis. Sometimes he put on some hopelessly lame acts, most notably “the Italian Mouse,” Topo Gigio.  I hated that stupid puppet–and Ed had him on all the damned time! The circus acts were also a complete waste of my family’s 17-inch Admiral TV’s screen, but it was a variety show, so nothing lasted very long. The worst swill in show biz (viz., Topo Gigio) might give way to something wonderful.

Fidel Meets Big Ed

From time to time Ed went a little off the wall, by 1950s American television standards. One night in 1959, he ran a filmed interview with Fidel Castro and his fellow revolutionaries as they hunkered down in the Cuban hills, before their upcoming push to kick dictator Fulgencio Batista and his goons off the island. (Imagine the bizarritude: It’s the height of the Cold War, and here’s Fidel Castro on the Ed Sullivan Show! Holy moley, what next? Beaver and Wally quoting Trotsky?)

At the time, my chief reading (aside from what I had to do for 7th grade, which wasn’t much, and much of that I didn’t do with any enthusiasm) consisted of Madmagazine (nearly at the apex of its goodness–nothing like the poor thing it has declined to in the present day), the Sporting News, and science fiction. Somehow, though, I had come across some disturbing coverage of Batista and his reign, possibly in the Reader’s Digest. (If it’s in print, I’ll read it. What the hell, eh?) When Big Ed ran the interview with Fidel and the boys, my ears perked up and my eyes widened.

“Wow,” I thought, or something like that. Here are these bearded guys up in the mountains, and they’re out to free the Cuban people from a rotten dictator! Cool! The Sullivan coverage was very positive. The audience applauded when the interview was over; the Sullivan audience always applauded the film clips.


“Imagine the bizarritude: 
It’s the height of the Cold War, 
and here’s Fidel Castro on the
Ed Sullivan Show! 

Holy moley, what next? 
Beaver and Wally quoting Trotsky?”

Oh Dear God, Have a Cigar: My Hero Just Had a Revolution

I was knocked out. I went to bed that night, my heart astir with revolutionary fervor. I couldn’t sleep, thinking about the brave Fidel and his men in their struggle against the loathsome Batista. So carried away was I that, by God, I prayed for the success of the revolutionaries! I lay right there in my bed, a touching testament to the efficacy of Sunday school, and sent my best wishes for their triumph Heavenward.

God answered my prayer. I admit before you now that I, a pre-adolescent idealist romantic acting on the life-long exhortations of my patriotic, Christian tutors, am (as far as I know) singularly responsible for facilitating the Cuban Revolution through my invocation of Divine Will. Yes, you can petition the Lord with prayer!

As we all know, the U.S. did not respond with good grace to Castro’s ascension. Something about the new Cuban government nationalizing corporate properties didn’t sit well with freedom-loving Americans. When our hostility to this sort of thing led Cuba to lean on the Ruskies for support, we went berserk. JFK and the best and the brightest nearly got us all killed at the high point of our pique over the Cuban-Soviet dealing. If you weren’t there, or weren’t old enough to pay attention, in that run of dark days in October of ’62, you can’t imagine. We were getting ready to kiss our buns good-bye. General anticipation held that they would soon be toasted, fried, poached, and barbecued.

Some clever diplomatic correspondence kept us out of the fire, but ever since that point, U.S. policy toward Cuba has shown a complete absence of enlightened self-interest, to say nothing of basic humane consideration for the Cuban people. By seeking to isolate Cuba, and indulging in a breathtakingly stupid, vindictive obsession, the U.S. government has helped provoke the worst in the Cuban government, and has, almost without a doubt, helped insure that the point at which Cuba enjoys true democratic life will continually recede with the horizon, at least until some vague day after Fidel shuffles off to his eternal reward–which will probably have him sharing hot seats with fellow people’s giants Mao and Stalin.

The Revolutionary Good Life

Fidel is a tyrant, and has been most of his career. He can’t stand criticism. He’s a control freak with an extensive enforcement network to help him maintain rigid authority. Bad things happen to those who publicly question him or his policies. The Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonpartisan, nonprofit org founded in 1981 (http://www.cpj.org/index.html), this May included Fidel for the seventh time as one of the ten worst enemies of the press in the world. He joins such insults to basic notions of journalistic freedom as Iran’s Ayatolla Khamenei, Liberia’s Charles Taylor, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Fine company, indeed. Here is some of the CPJ’s take on Fidel:

“Fidel Castro’s government continues its scorched-earth assault on independent Cuban journalists by interrogating and detaining reporters, monitoring and interrupting their telephone calls, restricting their travel, and routinely putting them under house arrest to prevent coverage of certain events…. Cuba is the only country in the Western Hemisphere that currently holds a journalist in jail for his work. Bernardo Arevalo Padron continues to serve a six year sentence for reporting critical of Castro and the Communist Party.”

Trying to recruit followers in opposition to the Cuban government is a sure ticket to trouble. Amnesty International’s 2001 report on Cuba notes that Fidel’s functionaries keep hundreds of people imprisoned for political reasons. Cuba conducts kangaroo-court trials of its political enemies, employs the death penalty with vigor (maybe the Cuban officials could contact George W. for some pointers), and, when in the mood, subjects prisoners to cruel and inhuman treatment.

Any government that tries to control what its citizens read is evil.

There is but one legal political party in Cuba, Fidel’s. According to Amnesty International, in the period covered by its report,  “Individuals and groups peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly continued to face repression.” There was “serious escalation in repression during the closing months of 2000.” Living the good life under Fidel, those who attempt to organize meetings, express views or form organizations opposing government policy are subject to short-term detention, interrogation, threats, intimidation, eviction, loss of employment, restrictions on travel, house searches, house arrests, phone bugging and physical and verbal acts of aggression carried out by government supporters.

Authoritarian governments never have a problem finding sociopaths eager to help carry out “support” for official policies. It’s nice to know that gainful employment is available to those who would otherwise find it difficult to make ends meet.

Independent Libraries, or  Outlets for U.S. Propaganda?

Curiously, authoritarian governments also don’t have a hard time finding sympathetic observers abroad. A good bit of the verbiage on the “independent libraries” is sympathetic to the official Cuban position: These libraries and the people who run them, or attempt to run them, are enemies of revolutionary enlightenment. The major point of concern for a number of U.S. librarians who support official Cuban libraries seems to be whether the “independent library” movement is truly independent, or whether it is simply one more arm of the counter-revolutionary octopus encouraged by  U.S. policy.

The chief point of those who support the independent libraries is that Cuba’s official libraries are not free; they cannot offer the reading public all points of view, particularly those of a political stripe. Official Cuban libraries are, on one level, tools the dictatorship employs to help control the reading, hence the thinking and political behavior, of the Cuban people.

Are They, or Aren’t They?

Some critics of the independent libraries attack them because they are not “real” libraries run by “real” librarians; those assembling collections of forbidden literature are not positively sanctioned and certified by the authorities. Well, honestly: Uncle Frank is shocked.

There is something a little disingenuous about arguing that only “real” librarians can assemble “real” libraries in an authoritarian state, or anywhere else, for that matter. Countless private dwellings and other facilities on the planet contain what over the centuries people have called “libraries.” Some have been very impressive libraries. Some, little dinky libraries. Although the great majority of these libraries were not, and are not, built by professional librarians, it strains reason to suggest that they do not deserve to be called libraries.

One fears that only a self-conscious professional snootiness (a quality, alas, not unknown in libraryland) would permit a librarian to sight down his or her uplifted nose and declare a collection of literature “not a library” because it does not occupy an officially-approved library building, or because no professional librarian had a hand in its creation, or because it is not impressively large.

Perfectly Clear and Precious

The U.S. government (or at least some of its leading advocates of retro-think) is eager to provide financial support to the independent libraries. With U.S. money at their disposal, these facilities would more easily spread their message.
So what? If the ideas thus advanced did not reflect the values of the Cuban people, they would fall on dry ground and quickly wither. Can it be that after four decades of Fidel, the virtues of the revolutionary government are not perfectly clear and precious to those who enjoy them daily? What, then, do Cuban officials fear from these pitiful “independent libraries”–run by people who are not even (gasp!) real librarians–and why do their U.S. critics worry about the sources of their funding? Is it possible that the Cuban government and its U.S. friends do not enjoy complete confidence that the Cuban people share their faith in the fruits of the revolution? That Cubans might want to try other possibilities in the political orchard?

That is terribly hard to imagine, unless one reflects on the observations on Cuban political and intellectual life put forward by such groups as Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Sometimes I suspect that the romantic notions of noble rebellion that I entertained the night I saw Fidel and the boys on the Ed Sullivan Show are much the same as those animating today’s defenders and admirers of the Cuban regime, regardless of the subtopic (libraries, health care, literacy, whatever). I will not apologize for having been naïve at the age of 12, or for having prayed for Fidel’s success. Batista was a thug, and deserved to go down. What is Fidel today?

“Don’t follow leaders; watch the parking meters.” 

Bob Dylan said that. (He didn’t say that Fidel’s time has expired.)

Any government that tries to control what its citizens read is evil.

Uncle Frank said that.


Graphics by Karen McGinnis

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Number 21:

Uncle Frank’s Diary
Number Twenty-one

Glory Days:
Boy George as High-School Jerk

“Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.”   George W. Bush, Aug. 5, 2004

Is there a Freudian in the house?

     Any practitioner of the classical psychiatric trade would find a world of revelation in the Weasel-in-Chief’s most egregious slip of the tongue. From a man who has wistfully remarked on the advantages he would enjoy as dictator* of the United States, assurances that he is doing his best to wreck the country are surprising only to the extent that they are so public. What, one wonders, has George W. Bush said in private that, given the light of day, would turn even a few of his loyalists against him?

     George W reminds me vividly of an old high school classmate, whom I’ll call Ron Clark. (If your name is Ron Clark, I’m not speaking of you; I’m talking about someone else.) Ron Clark epitomized the worst of high-school snot-nosery, clubbiness, jock-jerkery, and contempt for those not favored with election to the ruling circle of adolescent rotarianism.

     Ron was a starting guard on the basketball team, a position of such regal and rarified influence that it infected his gait with a perpetual loping swagger, and his lip with a curling expression of condescension toward his inferiors. His inferiors included everyone, particularly males, not a part of the above ruling circle, and many who occupied it.

Rights of the Nobility

     To all appearances, Ron believed that his transient success with a basketball imbued him with certain inalienable rights, chief among them the right to act like a complete baboon’s ass, and to get away with it.

     Ron was a naked cheat. During closed-book exams in our European history class, presided over by a not terribly alert instructor, Ron sat at his desk in the back of the room with his book open in his lap, looking up the answers. Not a student in the room didn’t know that Ron was cheating, but no one said a word to the instructor.

     You don’t rat out the starting guard on the basketball team; not unless you’re eager to make the ordinary misery of high-school life all that much more unpleasant. Ron smirked and mugged and cheated his way through class, confident that no one had the guts to call him on it. As far as I know, no one did. I sure didn’t.

     Ron employed an entourage of not-very bright but well-muscled sycophants who were adept at intimidating anyone Ron found an annoyance. Ron didn’t have to do his own dirty work—except the dirty work that gave him special pleasure. Like aspiring fascists everywhere, Ron found his favorite targets in those with unusual physical characteristics. He considered it the height of good fun to call mocking attention to some classmate’s awkwardness, acne, dumpy clothes, crooked teeth, overweight, large ears, or other distinguishing marks of a superficial and meaningless nature. His taste for torment was unquenchable, and he had a deadly ability to home in on his victim’s most vulnerable point.

A Shared Expression

     I hated the guy. He seldom directly bothered me, but I hated watching him pull his bullying, mean, dishonest, arrogant, smug act, day after day, and—as far as I ever knew—never pay any consequences for it. That smug expression of which George W is a master is the same one that settled on Ron Clark’s face whenever he asserted his nasty notion of superiority in the face of some hapless classmate, left writhing in humiliation before Ron’s appreciative, or at the least, acquiescent, audience.

     I saw Ron Clark in George W. Bush the first time I watched Boy George on television. The difference between the two is that Ron Clark was a passable high-school basketball player. George W. Bush has never been good at anything, except selecting a family in which to be born. True, he operates at a level of sophistication well beyond Ron Clark’s. Instead of a couple of broad-knuckled toughs at his side, he relies on thugs like John Ashcroft, Dick Cheney, and Antonin Scalia to carry his message to the people.

     But no matter. The essence of Ron is the essence of W: the condescension, the assumed superiority, the pleasure in pushing people around, the pure contempt for those who do not kowtow to his eminence, or who struggle to survive materially in a world in which he has never known the meaning of real struggle.

Careers Different in Scale, but the Same in Nature

     Ron Clark, I trust, went on to a career of small things: stealing from his employer, perhaps, or cheating his customers, or both; abusing his wife, beating his kids, borrowing money from friends and not repaying it. If he lives yet, he is well into middle age, and no longer a prince of the basketball court. It is unlikely that any audience applauds him, or that any retinue of hangers-on hoping to benefit from his reflected fame is willing to do his dirty work for him. Ron Clark is, I have no doubt, little more than one more pathetic has-been whose glory days ended with his high-school graduation.

     By any measure of justice, that should have been George W’s fate. Instead, this prissy, sanctimonious bully occupies the most powerful office on the planet, and devotes himself, as he says, to thinking of new ways “to harm our country and our people.”

     I never believed anything Ron Clark said, but this is one statement from Boy George that I think I shall take at face value.



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Number 6:

Uncle Frank’s Diary
Number Six

9-11: We Didn’t Make Them Do It

I read the news today. Oh, boy.

Are we picking up at all from our emotional dragging following 9-11? For Uncle Frank, the sky has not been as blue, the sun not as bright, and ordinary tasks often more tedious than usual. 

Although the progress of the war seems to be going well, the B**h Administration on the home front is practicing the same old threadbare Republican corporate welfare. Our great hero Attorney General Ashcroft appears happy to shred the Bill of Rights and dance on the pieces if it will help expedite the hunt for terrorists–this when he isn’t preoccupied with ripping the marijuana joints from the hands of California cancer and M.S. patients. Now there are some real threats to the public weal! Tom Ridge, minister of the Fatherland Security Office (oh, wait, sorry: that’s “Homeland” Security) appears completely clueless about how to achieve such security, and Secretary of Health Thompson looks equally adrift in the face of the bioterrorism specter.

Nevertheless, the war is going as well as things can go when they involve blowing up people. It is heartening to see ordinary Afghan citizens rejoicing in freedom from the Taliban as the noble, self-anointed sons of the Prophet abandon one city after another. Women are showing their faces, children are flying kites, and men are ogling pictures of movie stars: activities all outlawed by the religious perverts, funded by Osama bin Laden, who terrorized that miserable land for the past seven years.

As for Osama, my Swedish-American mother had a way with words, and I’m terribly sorry that I cannot recall how she said it in her original tongue. Nevertheless, Osama, if you’re reading this, let me give you the English translation of my mother’s Swedish imprecation: “Kiss me where I’m highest when I pick up sticks.”

I hope that isn’t too subtle for anyone.

Coffee and Carnage

Most days I go down to the kitchen at about 5:45 a.m. to feed the cats and to make coffee for my wife and me. I take the coffee upstairs, and we sit in bed drinking it while talking about the day to come, and the world at large. Generally  the cats mosey up to join us. 

In the first weeks following 9-11, our early-morning coffee talk dwelled on the current unpleasantness. We talked about anthrax, laser-guided bombs, and the question of retrieving portions of any of the passengers aboard the airliners that destroyed the World Trade Center. I guessed that there is nothing left of them but random molecules. A nearly 600-mph impact exacerbated by exploding jet fuel would almost surely atomize flesh and bone.

Such talk is unenjoyable but necessary, as is reviewing the events endlessly. We all carry in our heads mental movies of the WTC attacks. How many times have you seen the second jet slice into the building like a red-hot poker into a side of Velveeta?

As I go through the day, Sept. 11 is ever-present, a steady background drone in my mind that often leaps to stage front and center. When I realize that I have gone any length of time without thinking about it, I remark on the fact, so unusual is it. A week or so ago, while making the morning coffees noted above, I looked at the clock on the stove. It read 5:35. I realized that I had been up and conscious for five entire minutes before remembering Sept. 11.

Five minutes of unawareness: a prize of sorts.

Hauling the Newsjunk

On my commute, I listen to the news on NPR. When I reach my office in the library, the first thing I do, after checking my e-mail to see if there is any urgent university business I must tend, is to spend a few minutes with the war news in the New York Times online. 

One of the pluses of being a reference librarian is that anything one knows about the world makes one better at the job. I think the Big U can indulge me a little here.  After my mainline news fix, I go back to my e-mail to see if there’s an update from AlterNet (http://www.alternet.org) , the alternative news service. If there is, I scan the synopses, and click on the links that look most interesting or provocative. I’m then likely to take a look at my favorite site that rounds up critical news coverage of the Bush Gang, Jerry Politex’s  Bush Watch(http://www.bushwatch.net/).

As the day goes on, I return to the news on the Internet several times to check on latest developments. If business is slow during my shift at the reference desk, typically 3-5 p.m., I may drop in on some foreign papers through News & Newspapers Online, a great site provided by the Walter Clinton Jackson Library of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (http://library.uncg.edu/news/ ).

Yes, I’m a news junkie–and there’s plenty of junk to haul these days.

Let’s Not Make Excuses for People Who Try to Kill Us

Not the lightest of it is the curious response of many people on the political Left to the Sept. 11 attacks.  I do not understand it. I do not grasp the logic behind what is trying to pass as a peace movement.

Several facts stand painfully clear in the bloody light following the attacks: Osama bin Laden and his henchmen really want to kill Americans. They want to kill all Americans, and intend to try to do that, to the best of their ability. They would be glad to kill Americans who support the bombing of the Taliban; they would be glad to kill Americans who advocate nonviolence.  

It makes them happy to see us die. They want to kill your father, your mother, your brother, your son, your sister, your husband, your daughter, your friends, your coworkers, and just about everyone else you know. Anyone for whom this is an open question–do they really want to kill us?–has not paid attention.

Another fact that seems inescapable and undeniable is that the men who destroyed the World Trade Center and who flew into the Pentagon chose their actions from their own free will. We Americans did not make them do it. Yet how often do we see arguments from the Left implying that we did, in fact, make them do it through our ill-conceived foreign policies? 

Yes, of course, the U.S. has made many inexcusable choices in its foreign policy. It is, nevertheless, third grade playground logic to contend that the events of Sept. 11 were the “fault” of the U.S. The “We made them do it” argument has as much merit as the claim that a woman was raped because she was  “asking for it” by being in the wrong part of town after dark. Worse than illogical, such a line of thinking patronizes others by denying them free will. The men responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks made choices. At any time, up until the last moments, they could have chosen to do other than what they did. They freely chose to commit mass murder.
Everyone Has an Answer

Many critics of the current campaign deride the U.S. for its reliance on Middle Eastern oil. They point to our embarrassing cooperation with the oppressive governments of oil-producing states. What realistic alternative do they suggest? Are they themselves ready to pay for the consequences of life without this oil, so that the U.S. can be morally pure? Do they believe that the U.S. has the power to change these societies?

So many observers have good and certain answers. Such noted authorities on global strategy and moral philosophy as Fox “news” man Sean Hannity, the round mound of Christian virtue William (“On to Baghdad!”) Bennett, and the always-prescient Cal Thomas know exactly what needs to be done. They are all so much smarter than Uncle Frank; their answers must certainly must be well taken. On the other side of the fence, critics of U.S. behavior like Noam Chomsky (who is probably smarter and knows more than anyone) are equally certain of other relevant truths.

Uncle Frank sure wishes he were clever enough to feel such confidence in the products of his cogitation. Grasping and hoping, groping and thinking “Well, maybe…” is such a poor substitute for knowing for sure. W.B. Yeats had something to say about that in “The Second Coming,” but Hannity or O’Reilly or Chomsky or Mona Charen or any of those geniuses could have helped him say it better, probably.

On the Other Hand, Who Cares?

Everyone has an opinion, including opinions of aggressive indifference. I watched a portion of a television interview with several Egyptian women describing their responses to 9-11. One young woman succinctly summed up her feelings toward the WTC victims: “Who cares?” she said. None of that sappy “We’re all in this together business for her. “Who cares?”

I suspect that most Americans would not react with similar indifference to the mass murder of some 5,000 Egyptians. They would most likely, at the least, shake their heads, and say something about the event being a damned shame. Few would utter a remark as cold as the question “Who cares?” Most would care enough to dwell briefly on the terrible thought of 5,000 souls blasted and burned into oblivion while going about their daily business.

True, identifying with people on the other side of the planet presents some challenges. Distance is an effective buffer of anguish over the suffering of those one has never met. Some readers may recall the tidal wave that in December of 1970 swept to their deaths some half-million or so residents of what was then East Pakistan. The event’s remoteness, coupled with its overwhelming magnitude, made it impossible for most Americans to express more than pro forma regrets. Hearing of the event was like hearing about a catastrophe on Mars. However superficial their sense of that natural disaster, what Americans learning of it would have said of the pathetic victims, “Who cares?” Such a statement marks one as bereft of the most ordinary sense of shared humanity, the sense that, regardless of our differences, we all really are “in this together.”

The Bosom Serpent

Twisted religion, of course, is the bosom serpent of the present conflict. The Taliban and bin Laden raise religious perversion to an art form, but consider all the conscientiously self-professed “Christians” (Bennett, Thomas, Falwell, Robertson, Bush, et al.) who make much of the teachings of Jesus, until the chips are down and it’s time to live up to their professions. Ah, but then the dicta of Jesus–including turning the other cheek should one’s enemy swat the first–lie cast aside like so much detritus. Oh, the smarmy hypocrites of a shallow faith!

In spite of the ministrations of many years of Sunday school, Uncle Frank, faithless to the core, has never been sufficiently good or patient enough to follow the teachings of Jesus. On the other hand, he has not claimed to do so, particularly in the aftermath of egregious physical insult to his person, family, friends, or fellow citizens. Therefore, when he observed a sign outside a bowling alley advising that we “Bomb the Bastards!” he was inclined to say “Good idea,” without soiling his religious wraps.

Blame Casual Sex

So many bizarre notions float to the surface in troubled times. The “family values”-fixated columnist Maggie Gallagher, an “affiliate scholar” at the Institute for American Values, thinks casual sex is a big culprit in what she sees as the strategic contest between Islam and the West. Really. Casual sex, she contends, has undermined the West and weakened it before the selfless warriors and dutiful procreators of Islam.

A number of the bravehearts who destroyed the WTC refreshed their energies in the heart of the Great Satan by frequenting American prostitutes. Some of them spent their last night (before moving on to the pure company of the famous Celestial Virgins) partying with hookers, and arguing their prices. Ringleader Mohamed Atta enjoyed lap dances in strip clubs, and then argued about his bill. But maybe the selfless suicidalists pursued these passions earnestly, and not casually at all. Or maybe being in the U.S. infected them with bad family values.  Maybe it’s Mickey Mouse’s fault that they felt compelled to purchase erotic gratification.

What a relief it must be to enjoy the largesse of the Celestial Virgins! We’ll have to ask Maggie Gallagher about that. She would know, being an affiliate scholar, and all.

Watch Your Tongue!

In times like these, it helps to take care with one’s words. As George Orwell pointed out in his classic 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” our language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” Too many observers of the scene, both professional and lay, treat language carelessly, with effects that confound one’s efforts to think straight.

William Raspberry, a prominent liberal columnist whose work I often enjoy, recently wrote a generally sensible column on the need to understand that criticism of U.S. tactics in the struggle against terrorism does not mean that the critic is un-American or sympathetic with mass murderers.  In that column, however, Raspberry referred to “the carpet-bombing calculated to render the Taliban vulnerable to its Afghani enemies.”

Raspberry wrote this weeks before the U.S. employed anything resembling carpet bombing in Afghanistan, yet he suggested that it was already a going deal.  Loose language provokes mistaken thinking, and people on the Left and center are no more immune from carelessness than those on the Right.

This Is Not Vietnam

I believed by early 1967 that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was an exercise in base criminal stupidity. I thought it was self-destructive, cruel, pointless, and doomed to failure. I believed that several of those responsible for its perpetuation, including Robert McNamara, should have gone to jail for crimes against humanity. I considered the U.S. war in Vietnam the most inexcusably moronic action ever undertaken by the nation, worse, in its own way, than the introduction of slavery or the quasi-official program to exterminate Native Americans. Thirty-four years later, I believe these same things about that wretched, unforgivable war. 

Afghanistan is not Vietnam, but I fear that some of today’s peace activists confuse the dynamics of the two. Genuine U.S. interests were not at stake in Vietnam. Today, those interests are very obviously at stake in the struggle against terrorism. 

During the Vietnam War, personal self-interest influenced the anti-war positions of many individuals. Why not? For those whose understanding of the war led them to regard it as an absurdity, and vicious to boot, opposition to the war very rationally featured a strong element of self-interest. 

How does the self-interest of today’s peace advocates measure up? I have the uncomfortable feeling that an absence of good faith is at play. That the desire of the comfortable not to be afflicted with inconvenience, obligation, or possibly worse, leads some of these advocates to adopt positions not in keeping with what they know in their hearts to be true, i.e., that their nation and their fellow citizens’ lives–and, indeed, their own–are under direct threat by foreign enemies, and that a “peaceful” response will be welcomed by those enemies with further assaults and murders of the innocent.

To be blunt: I detect the fetid air of intellectual mendacity in the present peace response. 
What’s Your Sign?

Many front yards in my neighborhood have sprouted signs with the statement that “We do not support violence against innocent people.” The signs depict an American flag and a moon and crescent.

How touchingly considerate. Presumably those of us in the neighborhood without such signs do support violence against the innocent. Or maybe we have a sense that the situation is a little more complicated than the sign-planters imply. For that matter, not to overlook the ubiquitous American flag-waving folk, the situation may be a little more complex than one that can be improved with an easy display of patriotic enthusiasm purchased at K-Mart for $12.95. For the record, we don’t have a sign in our yard, and we don’t have a flag, either.

Who, by the way, are the “innocent” against whom the U.S. is committing violence? The Taliban? The Taliban are a gang of pathological thugs who, aside from their broad-based inhumanity and willing sheltering of and cohabitation with murderers, for years waged a merciless campaign against half the population of Afghanistan in their quest to reduce the women of that nation to a status that would have been execrated even in the Dark Ages. 

The Taliban treated Afghanistan’s women only marginally better than the Nazis treated the Jews. Afghan women could not attend school, learn to read, see a doctor, work outside the home–and those who stayed at home were often forced to paint their windows opaque so that they could  not be seen from the exterior. It was a wonderful life for women in Afghanistan. I am sure Afghan widows reduced to begging for bread would not want us to disturb their pleasant peace by bombing Taliban troops.

Lies, Lies, Lies

In his essay, Orwell also wrote that “All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, the language must suffer.”

Would anyone argue that today’s general atmosphere is anything but bad? Not to mention full of lies. Those in authority are undoubtedly lying to us. Those in political authority always lie to the public. They lied about the accuracy of “smart” bombs during the Gulf War. They lied about the effectiveness of the Patriot anti-missile missile. (Subsequent revelations have shown that the Patriot missiles didn’t work, although the American public was led to believe that they picked off incoming Scuds like cherries from a low-hanging branch.)

Lies, lies, lies. They’re par for the course. But not everything is a lie. 

Even absent the WTC and Pentagon attacks, one might well argue that the U.S. had a powerful obligation to intervene forcefully in the Taliban’s continuing atrocious treatment of women. I’ll not pursue that argument here, but those who advocate peace and non-violence in the Middle East might want to reflect on how a peaceful response to the Taliban’s brutalization of women would persuade those thugs to adopt an enlightened, humane, or even milder, view of the rights of women. I do not believe for a moment that it would.

So we bomb the Taliban. Inevitably, some bombs have gone astray, killing those the Taliban have been oppressing, or those who have been courageously seeking to aid the Afghan people.  We are engaged in a hideous endeavor. We must grieve for those whose lives we take mistakenly, and must recognize that the possibilities of ghastly outcomes are many, including the possibility (if unlikely) that some other state–some think Egypt–is responsible for harboring and encouraging the Sept. 11 culprits.

In Philip K. Dick’s memorable 1962 alternate history, The Man in the High Castle (available in the Vintage 1992 edition; ISBN 0679740678; $12), the United States lost World War II, and Germany and Japan divvied up the country right down the middle. What would have been the fate of the U.S. in WW II had counterparts of today’s non-violence and peace advocates persuaded the American government to refrain from armed action in the wakes of Pearl Harbor and the Nazi seizure of Europe?  One suspects that Dick’s novel would not have been an alternate history, but a story based in fact.

Military action is often ugly, cruel, dangerous, and messy. It also, alas, sometimes becomes the best choice, if not the only choice, under particular circumstances. And it does have the power, on occasion, to solve serious problems. War ended slavery in the United States. It defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. It earned American independence from England. It has its uses.

What Do We Do Until Things Fall Apart?

The universe tends toward disintegration. Things fall apart. In all probability, existence can look forward to an eternity of small bits of rubble drifting aimlessly through the cosmos. Humanity pursues its pitiful, vain, self-important absorption in its affairs as though its choices bear ultimate consequence. There is no reason to think that they do. In the long run, nothing matters.

We, however, are in it only for the short run. In the short run, sometimes one must act, and so must nations, or be unable to wrest even a moment’s self respect from the absurd soup of existence.  One thinks of the courageous passengers who refused to let the hijackers have their way, and forced their aircraft to crash in a Pennsylvania field rather than let it be used to destroy even more innocent lives.

Present future choices may not prove as lustrously obvious as those before that airplane’s passengers. The United States has reached a critical moment, and what it should do is not altogether plain. Those on the Left, like all  conscientious citizens, must pay attention, reflect, and criticize carefully and publicly. But blaming the U.S. for the existence of terrorism, and for the events of Sept. 11, is irrational and condescending.

“We didn’t make them do it,” says Uncle Frank. 

I think he’s right.

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Number 22:

Uncle Frank’s Diary
Number Twenty-two

Creating Their Own Reality

The Bush Gang, however, consists of true believers who will never accept objective reality that does not correspond to their preconceptions or their fantasies.

I had a less than delightful telephone conversation with a professor while I was working the reference desk yesterday. It reminded me of the remark journalist Ron Suskind recently attributed to a Bush Gang functionary critical of the way Suskind and his reportorial ilk see the world. “We’re an empire now,” the funk said, “and when we act, we create our own reality.”

     The prof at our branch campus had discovered that she could not obtain online access to a number of journals available to faculty through the main library’s electronic roster at our mother campus. There is a simple explanation for this fact: The two libraries are essentially separate in their administrations and budgets. What one buys or subscribes to, the other does not own. The central campus has far greater financial resources than the branch, and can offer reams of resources that the branch cannot.

     I attempted to explain this routine economic reality to the prof. I said that vendor contracts sometimes make it impossible for the central campus to offer the resources in question to the branch without the branch coughing up prohibitive compensation. Vendors can be funny that way: They tend to insist that they get paid for what they offer.

     The prof was not moved. She insisted that it was illogical for her not to have access to all the resources offered to central campus library users. Again, I tried to tell her—I did, in fact, tell her—that sometimes, in spite of the central campus library’s best efforts on our behalf to bring us in on its coat-tails, the vendor nixes our access.

     This line of explanation went nowhere with her. I may as well have recited Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky” (which, by the way, I can do, if anyone cares to hear it). Or, I could have related the starting line-up of the 1968 Detroit Tigers. Or nonsense syllables. It would have all been the same to her, because she knew what she wanted, and at that moment no information that ran counter to her desires could dent her firm view of the situation.

     She was busy creating her own reality, a reality in which she had equal rights with her faculty colleagues on another campus, regardless of objective fact. I was simply an obstructionist annoyance seeking to deny her these rights.

All Mimsy Are the Borogroves

     Those who follow the create-your-own-reality school carry an impenetrable shield around their heads. No fact that does not correspond to their wishes and their preconceptions can filter through to sully the pure fantasy that composes their view of the world. We have seen this phenomenon demonstrated time and again by the Bush Gangsters, their media shills, and by ordinary citizens who ought to know better.

     Last night I briefly watched a shouting-heads debate on CNN among several characteristically loud-mouthed participants, right and left. During the generally moronic exchange, some radio talk show host of whom I had never heard—and I can’t remember his name—asserted that the 380 tons of high explosives this week reported stolen from an Iraqi munitions dump were, in fact, “weapons of mass destruction.”

     Say what? WMDs are nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. They are not conventional explosives, whether the convention is black powder, dynamite, or plastic. No matter: It suited radio talkguy’s forensic purposes to characterize the stolen munitions as WMDs. See? Saddam really did have WMDs, so the U.S. invasion of Iraq took place on sound principles.

     There is no fact-based argument that can contend with the reasoning advanced by those who create their own reality. Facts are irrelevant to them. What is, is what they imagine. If objective reality does not conform to their vision, no problem: They insist that the reality is something else, and proceed as if it were.

That’s Nuts. N-u-t-z, Nuts.

     Ladies and gentlemen, these people are crazy. I mean that literally. They are absolutely, stark, raving insane. They are also far more dangerous than a university professor honked off over being denied a privilege she believes (nay,knows) is her right, mere fact notwithstanding.

     I am confident that the distressed prof will eventually accept the objective reality of her condition and find ways to work through it. I do not think that she is crazy. Under pressure to research and publish, she has simply given herself up to a temporary indulgence in the product of wishful thinking compounded with a dose of self-righteousness. She’ll get over it.

     The Bush Gang, however, consists of true believers who will never accept objective reality that does not correspond to their preconceptions or their fantasies. As with the lunatics of fanatical Islam, or any other pathological worldview, the world they see is one that they manufacture between their own ears. There is no arguing or reasoning with those who create their own reality. There is only hope that one can either get out of their demented path, or deny them the power to follow it.

     This coming Tuesday, Uncle Frank is going to cast his vote hoping to achieve the second option. He hopes that you will join him, and help drive the madmen from the White House.

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Number 7:

Uncle Frank’s Diary
Number Seven

Uncle Frank 
Takes a Trip

Uncle Frank’s been to London, to visit the queen.

No, he hasn’t. He hasn’t been anywhere that gives him an excuse for his long failure to provide fresh fodder in this space. One thing and another have conspired to quell his customary compositional regularity, such as it was. In spite of my efforts to help, I have not been able to find, in local drugstores, patent medicines that claim to relieve the cramps and bloating of columnist’s block.

This embarrassing silence may owe to the cold and the dark, to the sodden squish of wet shoes in midwinter, to the nights that begin early and linger late, to one more false promise of a spring that refuses to enter the stage, to that old ennui of snow and ice we Midwesterners know so well.

Or, it may originate in something darker, colder, and longer lasting than mere winter.

A few days ago I took the train to Chicago and back. It was a long day, but worthwhile. I read Steinbeck’s Cannery Row on the coach, looked out the window while listening to the wheels hum on the welded rail (long gone the clickety-clack of the old jointed rail days), and observed my fellow passengers in their curious manifestations of the human condition.

Steinbeck would be 100 years old this year. I don’t know if he ever wrote of Chicago, being mostly a California sort, but I think he would have liked the city. His sympathy with the ordinary man and woman would have served him well on its crowded sidewalks.

The train pulled into the grand old Union Station shortly after noon, giving me a good six hours to do whatever I would before boarding for the return trip. My first act was to dispense with my plan; the day was too unaccountably pleasant (sunny and in the 40s) to spend riding buses to one spot and another. I lit out on the streets, afoot.

Patriotic Barriers

I went first to the Sears Tower, a few blocks north of the train station. The weather looked good for a view from the observation deck on the 103d floor.

Signs of the post 9/11 mindset met me directly. Now protecting the tower one finds innumerable concrete blocks, each a couple of feet high and maybe as long as an NBA center. All these blocks sport a cheerful nationalistic motif. Painted in bright red, white, and blue horizontal stripes, they insist that the passerby notice them and reflect on their meaning.

We know what they mean. They mean that the authorities have taken concrete steps to thwart car bombers, and believe that gussying them up in a guise reminiscent of the American flag will lend that certain something to the atmosphere.

It does, it does. I would have preferred the discreet charm of unadorned concrete, gray, unassuming, content to melt into the background. Red, white, and blue it was, however.

I felt so patriotic as I skirted the perimeter formed by the colorful barriers.

Once upon a time, visitors to the Sears Tower simply walked into the lobby, bought their tickets to the observation deck, and headed on up to see the view. Oh, yes, the program required attendance at a grossly overloud slideshow puff piece on the city narrated by Oprah Winfrey, but that was it.

Now: Take off your coat. Slide it, and any packages or other objects you may be toting, through the x-ray machine. Now please walk through the metal detector. Step back, please. Do you have any keys in your pockets?

And so on.

Oh, it’s good; it’s good to know that Precautions Are Being Taken. I am no more eager than the next gawking tourist to be blown through the glass of the tower’s observation deck by some earnest suicide bomber straight out of Conrad’s The Secret Agent. (If you have not read that book, you’ll find its portrayal of the terrorist bomber unsettling.)

He Went to the Door, But He Couldn’t Get In

On the other hand, that is the word: unsettling. This is not the E-Z access to cultural landmarks that American democracy has afforded us up to now. Other notable buildings in Chicago’s downtown core present a similar dukes-up readiness to take on the bad guys, and leave the good guys wondering whether it might not have been better to visit Galesburg in the springtime, or maybe just stay home.

 Sometimes finding an open door is a major challenge. I walked almost the entire circumference of the Prudential Building, another high-rise monument, before I found what was apparently the only exterior door still in service. All the rest were locked. Once inside, I came upon what confronts the visitor to so many major buildings: a phalanx of guards, signs demanding identification, and an evident willingness to take the careless traveler in hand and show him the way, the truth, and the light of America’s New War.

That’s what they’re calling it, anyhow. Apologies to Lou Reed, but this isn’t the beginning of a New Age. It’s the beginning of something else, and something worse.

Open Your Eyes and Look This Way

Something akin to this constricted psychology also reared its head on the train. Hankering for a cup of coffee, I set off to the cafe car, or so I thought. I went the wrong way, and blundered into a coach occupied only by two train personnel. One of them very crisply inquired about my intentions. Smooth-spoken as always (especially before my morning coffee), I attempted to account for my presence in this forbidden zone.

“Uh, I was, uh, is this the way…?”

“You’re going the wrong way,” he said. “The café is at the other end.”

I may have resembled a man desperate to wrest control of the train from the engineer before I revealed my true nature: a man desperate for some caffeine to clear his befogged brain.

In either case, my chances of reaching the train’s controls did not look promising. Consider the fact that a few years ago on the same route, I moseyed freely up to the cab, stood directly behind the engineer, and chatted with him for several minutes as we sped down the track. No one questioned my intentions then (which were nothing but those of a curious traveler and son of a railroad man). 

That was back when we lived in an open society. We don’t live there, any more. The doors are closing. The gates are coming down. The locks are clicking shut. Names are being taken, and it won’t be long before retinas are being scanned.

Open your eyes and look straight ahead, please.

A Visit to the Old Library

Is it any surprise that when I visited a library in Chicago, I went to the library that used to be, instead of the library that is? I had intended to stop by the new (or almost new) public library on South State Street. Something led me instead to the old Chicago Public, now a cultural center. I walked up the old stairs and into the lobby, where I found at one side a museum devoted to the history of broadcasting. Incredibly, admission was free, and no one searched me or x-rayed my belongings.

After wandering among the old radios and other exhibits, I went back out to the central part of the former public library and climbed the stairs to what must have been the main reading room. Such attention to detail graces this old building, erected in the 1890s: The ornate ceilings, the painstaking decorative flourishes (are those semiprecious stones embedded in the walls? They certainly look like it, and they’re everywhere. The time that went into cementing them in place would be unimaginable today.)

Coming back down the steps from the reading room, I thought of the countless thousands—the millions—of readers whose feet had pressed upon these stairs, whose hands had touched this marble rail over the building’s life as a library. How many of these readers were immigrants, come to America to make new lives for themselves in this land of hope and—for all its flaws and obstacles—openness of a kind known nowhere else?

Not a Faceless Crowd

When I walk through the streets of a big city, I like to study the faces and listen to the voices of the people around me. It isn’t polite to stare, of course, but you will find, if you try it, that looking at faces on a busy sidewalk is really very easy. Most of the people going by are so caught up in their own business that they do not notice the one observer in the crowd who is looking into their eyes and thinking about them as individuals, and wondering what their faces reveal of their lives.

So many faces, such variety, young and fresh, old and weathered, black, white, brown, yellow… some smiling, some laughing, others concerned, preoccupied, or otherwise engaged in their inner lives. I love to watch them.

And listen to them. Within the space of a few blocks, I heard languages that I recognized, and others whose identity I could only guess. Spanish, Chinese, Russian… to embrace such a cast of characters going peacefully about their business: Only a great city could do that.

And only a great nation can find the courage to remain an open society in this troubled world. Uncle Frank is not sure that the United States will be able to do that. Given a choice, he would probably not mind attending the opening of the old Chicago Public Library, and going on from there. Maybe it would come out another way the second time through.

Here, There and Everywhere in Libraryland

Speaking of openness, it would be hard to find a librarian anywhere who has worked harder or more productively to make library collections more easily accessible to the average citizen than Sanford Berman. Berman, longtime head of cataloging with Minnesota’s Hennepin County Library system, devoted his career to making the library catalog an aid, rather than an obstacle, to people trying to find materials on topics of their concern. For decades, Berman battled to bring catalog language—particularly subject headings—into harmony with the way most library users think when they go hunting for something.

Berman finally ran terminally afoul of his administrative superiors back in 1999. Details of the unseemly circumstances of the cataloger extraordinaire’s ouster (all right, “retirement”) from the HCL are available in a nice archived article in the Minneapolis City Pages.

According to Rory Litwin in an item in Library Juice for March 7, HCL plans to scrap the original subject headings that Berman and crew created over some 25 years, and to replace them with something close to straight (i.e., frequently non-intuitive, obscure, user-hostile) Library of Congress subject headings.

Librarians who continue to argue for clarity and accessibility in their libraries’ catalogs will always owe a debt to Berman, regardless of what goes on in Hennepin County. Uncle Frank hopes that librarians in general do not succumb to the retentive psychology that encircles national monuments with red, white, and blue barriers by being afraid to open their catalogs to transparent language.

Bygone visitors of the old Chicago Public would have welcomed Berman’s hand in their efforts to penetrate the library’s riches. Let us trust that the retro move apparently afoot in Minnesota is no more than a temporary setback, and not something darker, colder, and longer lasting.

Illustration by: K. McGinnis

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Number 23:

Uncle Frank’s Diary
Number Twenty-three

Darker than Black:
The Pod People Prevail

And next election, we can just cut to the chase with a proposal that would require all gays to be tattooed with identifying marks on their foreheads. Or maybe they could be forced to wear pink triangles. There’s an idea for you: Someone should try that.

They look like Americans, but they’re not.

     Not any more, they aren’t. Like the victims of the aliens in Jack Finney’s classic science fiction novel The Body Snatchers, the majority of the American voting public has willingly exchanged its soul for the empty promises of happiness and security proffered by a malignant entity. This entity’s only true objective, like that of Finney’s space invaders, is the expansion of its own power.

     Playing expertly on popular fears and prejudice, relentlessly feeding and stroking the worst attributes of the electorate, the Bush Gang has succeeded in overturning FDR’s noble maxim. They only thing they have to count on is fear itself, and the count came out in their favor.

     My wife and I bought a couple of bottles of Fin du Monde ale the day before the election. For those of you who have sworn off French, that’s “End of the World” ale. We thought it would be a fit beverage for watching the returns. When yesterday evening came, however, we could not bring ourselves to watch. Our gut feeling was that ugliness was afoot. We would not willingly watch it. We went to bed early, the ale untouched.

Looking Bad; Looking Worse

     I tossed and turned, and had bad dreams. At 2:30 a.m., I went downstairs and turned on CNN. Things looked bad. I turned it off, went back to bed, and resumed tossing and turning. At 5:30, I got up and returned to CNN. Things looked worse. Things looked ugly.

     Many years ago I knew a librarian, a head cataloger, who had a bit of a temper on her. On the occasions when she stormed into the periodicals office where I worked as a clerk, we minions did our best to assume poses of subordinate invisibility. She would yank open a drawer in the periodical cardex, glower, and slam the drawer shut again.

     “Shithell&damn!” she would say, and stomp out of the room. She uttered  her trio of  expletives as though they composed a single word. It was one of her favorites. In her memory, I uttered it shortly after 5:30 this morning. It helped, a little, but not much.

     In this election, the only value that finally counted was fear: fear of foreigners, fear of alien religion, and fear of gays. Nothing can stand up to fear when the “leader” urges his followers to be even more afraid than they already are, and convinces them that only he can protect them from the things they fear. Everything else—the environment, the economy, personal health, civil liberties, democracy in America, you name it—is  beside the point. Recognition of this fact, and action on it, gave the Bush campaign an evil brilliance. No appeal to reason could stand up to the fear it sowed.

Fear Factors

     The so-called war on terror, of course, was fear-factor number one. Bush exploited it zealously, but fear of homosexuality appears to have come in a close second. Bush’s remorseless posturing over a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage helped encourage voters in 10 states to approve discriminatory proposals in that vein. Here in Michigan, fearful voters enshrined bigotry in the Michigan constitution. Our proposal’s marvelously vague language can be read to outlaw not only same-sex marriage, but civil unions and health benefits for the same-sex partners of public employees.

     This proud step forward in the annals of our state’s civil rights is the work of ever-energetic “Christians,” led by that happy redoubt of sexual enlightenment, the Catholic Church. The Church, oh precious Jesus, believed that constitutionally-sanctified bigotry would be a swell way to assure the propagation of home, family, zygotes, and all that.

     Oh, there’s celebration in Heaven, now. The cherubim are dancing in glee around God’s foot-stool. And next election, we can just cut to the chase with a proposal that would require all gays to be tattooed with identifying marks on their foreheads. Or maybe they could be forced to wear pink triangles. There’s an idea for you: Someone should try that.

Darker than Black

      The only potentially positive outcome residing in this debacle is that it enhances the possibility that the Bush Gang, like the Nixon administration, will have to face the consequences of its corruption and venality while still in office. Justice couldn’t strike a more deserving bunch—but with the nation tripping over its own feet in its rush to embrace a uniquely American fascism, what are the chances of the public’s showing any sustained interest in holding these crooks and con artists to accounts?

     Who cares about truth and justice when one is busy being afraid? Afraid of foreigners, afraid of other people’s religion, afraid of other countries–(“France is our enemy!”)—afraid of gays, afraid of anyone who isn’t like us.

     I have a clue for these folks: Uncle Frank isn’t like them.

     Neither are many others. One of my librarian colleagues came into my office this morning so distressed about the election that he had tears in his eyes and could barely talk. Another came to work dressed all in black. “If I’d had anything darker than black, I would have worn it,” she said.

     The pod people have spoken.


     That about covers it, don’t you think?

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Number 8:

Uncle Frank’s Diary
Number Eight


Naked at Noon: 
Uncle Frank Comes Back Mad

Uncle Frank went away, and he came back mad. He is, as one of my high school pals put it from time to time, seriously P.O.’d.

Uncle Frank, my accidental alter ego, surfaced one day during my long, otherwise solitary commute. He appropriated my middle name, and my status as an uncle to a scad of nieces and nephews.

He’s a testy, demanding sort. When I want to listen to an oldies station, or turn off the radio and roll down the windows to enjoy a pleasant spring morning on the back roads, Uncle Frank insists on turning on the NPR news. Loud.

And commenting on it, often in language that would embarrass your average Rap artist. This morning he made me listen to Juan Williams interviewing some White House legal functionary. First he chewed out Williams, then he went after the White House guy. I saw that he was in a very bad mood.

“Uncle Frank,” I said, “Don’t you think you should count to ten and think happy thoughts, and maybe meditate for a few minutes before you say anything further uncouth? I mean, look on the bright side of life, and all that? What would your mother say if she heard you talking that way?”

“My mother’s dead,” said Uncle Frank. “And if she weren’t, this business with the FBI and the CIA and for all I know the Girl Scouts and those geniuses in the B**h Gang ignoring terrorist intelligence from their field agents would kill her.”

All right, all right: I’m letting Uncle Frank go, because I can see that he wants to rant.

Uncle Frank Spews

What is this krock o’ krap, he wants to know, with Attorney General Ashcroft, the B**h administration, and the May 30 unleashing of the FBI? We’re going back to the golden days of COINTELPRO’s wanton spying on law-abiding American citizens, citizens who happened to support civil rights, or who opposed the war in Vietnam, or who simply got on J. Edgar Hoover’s bad side.

What it is, aside from the thrashing of a gang of sanctimonious, self-congratulating screw-ups caught with their pants around their ankles in the middle of a fire alarm, is yet another step toward the full realization of the world Orwell warned us about in 1984.

In retrospect, one’s admiration for the good taste and intelligence of the voters of Missouri in electing in November 2000 a dead man to the United States Senate instead of John Ashcroft should be going off the charts. Ashcroft, whose idea of patriotism consists of composing and singing bombastic, smarmy songs about America being too young to die, and whose idea of protecting the nation from evil entails draping nude statues in the District of Columbia, responds to the criminally stupid failure of his regime’s upper administrative functionaries (including himself) by turning loose FBI agents in the street to engage in the kinds of totalitarian domestic surveillance banned in the U.S. since the days of Gerald Ford.

You remember Ford, right? The former U.S. representative who let the despicable crook Richard Nixon off the hook? Who once advocated the impeachment of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas because the literary/art mag Evergreen Review (which occasionally ran features with photos of lightly clad women) published an essay by Douglas?

During one of Ford’s fugue phases, his administration clamped down on the kinds of abusive investigations the FBI pursued under J. Edgar Hoover (perhaps the Bureau’s greatest director ever to wear a dress). Now, with most sentient Americans—aside from the administration mouthpieces who pretend to give the “news” on the Fox network—searching for their dramamine as they reel in nauseated astonishment at revelations of the ineffable ineptitude of the nation’s “intelligence” apparatus in response to warnings about last September’s terrorist attacks, AG Ashcroft kicks out the jams blocking everyday agents’ access to the stuff they need to know to Keep Us Safe.

Fire Their Asses, Says Uncle Frank

Uh-huh. Having read the accounts that have been everywhere, even in the mainstream “liberal” media, showing how thoroughly the boss-types in D.C. bungled the intelligence passed on to them by competent, hardworking, thoughtful agents in the field, you might think that a responsive commander in chief would call AG Ashcroft and FBI Director Mueller into the Oval Office and fire their sorry asses.

“Uncle Frank, Uncle Frank,” I pleaded when I read this. “That’s no way to talk. People will think you’re indelicate. They’ll mistake you for someone indifferent to the refined tastes of sensitive librarians and impressionable youth. Your reputation as a man of discretion and gentility will suffer.”

“Shove it,” he said, and went on.

After canning these creeps, B**h should address the public on television, apologize in his most abject manner for the hideous failures of his chiefs, and promise that he will install at high management levels officials at least as conscientious and capable as the men and women working the field.

Are you kidding? That ain’t the way the federal bureaucracy works.

What we get instead, in the Ashcroft, Mueller, and general B**h administration heinie covering, is this retro move to reinstate the unaccountable, unchecked FBI powers that disgraced the Bureau under The Hoove and that compromised the basic civil rights of every law-abiding citizen in the country.

In a blistering essay in the June 3 New York Times, conservative columnist William Safire accuses Ashcroft and Mueller of fabricating alibis, “posterior covering” (the Times is a tad timorous in the language department), and, in general, of perpetrating a “fraud” on the public in the disemboweling of longstanding provisions against federal spying on American citizens.

Mere ass covering is the most benign interpretation of our leaders’ behavior. Far more sinister is their using the terrorist threat as a convenient excuse to shape the government according to their own fascist preferences for the long haul. AG Ashcroft reportedly read Arizona agent Ken Williams’s warning memo about Osama bin Laden preparing functionaries for terrorist operations in American flight schools only a few days after 9/11. Ashcroft knew, and knows, that conventional surveillance achieved its objectives before 9/11. Ken Williams didn’t need superpowers: He relied on hard work and his own smarts.

The difference now, surveillance fans, is that the means of intelligence gathering have advanced far beyond the primitive techniques available to J. Edgar’s domestic snoops. Electronic measures, notably computer monitoring, make the methods current during the FBI’s hounding of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ernest Hemingway (poor old Ernie: Everyone thought he was nuts when he said the FBI was after him—but he was right) positively quaint.

The Ashcroftian edict of 3/30/02 makes these tools even more readily available, and threatens Americans’ religious, political, and intellectual freedom. It will lead to the invasion by surveillance of churches, libraries, associations, businesses and online behavior without probable cause, without basis for suspicion, and without evidence of criminal activity on the parts of those being monitored.

Roasting Civil Liberties

It’s not as though the infamous USA/Patriot Act wasn’t sufficient to put personal privacy on the grill. Almost all of the 50 states have laws on the books making it illegal for libraries to squeal to legal authorities on borrowers’ reading habits without a court order. Doesn’t matter. The USA/Patriot Act gives the FBI and local law enforcement access to citizens’ library records—including Internet use. Oh, you don’t use libraries? You buy all your books from Amazon? My, aren’t you the secure one. The FBI would never, ever think of using its new powers to requisition the data in your Amazon account, would it?

As so many say so earnestly, if you have nothing to hide, you have no problem. If you feel otherwise, you probably don’t love America. Otherwise, you wouldn’t mind the authorities stripping you naked at noon in front of the Lincoln Memorial, just as a little random check to make sure you haven’t secreted some plastic explosives in your nether bits.

But hey, 9/11 changed everything, didn’t it? Just say the Pledge of Allegiance, sit down, and shut up. And don’t believe for a moment that anything you think, do, or say is not the proper business of Mueller and Ashcroft.

Uncle Frank hates these bastards.

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Number 24:

Uncle Frank’s Diary
Number Twenty-four

Mourning in America:
Uncle Frank Deals with It, Sort Of

So Uncle Frank was lyin’ awake at 4 a.m. today, thinkin’ about the goddamn war. Turn over this way, turn over that way, it’s still there, like a cold wet spot on the sheet. Sleep is impossible. Get up, pull on some socks, go downstairs, turn on the television. There’s the CNN insomniac-hour anchor, lookin’ like she’s about 23 years old, unlined, perky, perfectly made up, eyes the size o’ saucers glowing in her unwrinkled, flawless face.

     Christ. I don’t want perky, perfect and unwrinkled at 4 a.m. I want to see a news anchor who reflects my own perspective of the moment: aggravated, haggard, and disheveled. I want someone, I don’t care whether it’s a man or a woman, whose appearance and tone match the gruesome, inhuman stories oozing out of the tube. I want someone with a suitable scowl, a whiskey & cigarettes rasp, and a big cup of coffee from which he (or she) takes regular long drinks, preferably in the middle of a sentence.

     At 4 a.m. I want to see a newscaster who looks like he’d just as soon stomp on my instep as read me the news. Remember Hughes Rudd? He did the morning news on CBS back in the ‘70s, and was just about right for the job. He usually managed to sound as though he thought everything he was reading was nothing more than part of the tracking record of a crazed species committed to self-destruction. Which, one suspects, it was.

     The war, the splendid little war. It won’t go away.

     How do you deal with it? Do you sign on with the yellow-ribbon support-our-troops brigade? What does that mean? Cheer and shout as they’re sent off to be blown up and maimed to feed the idiot-in-chief’s delusional claptrap about freedom being “on the march”?

     You can try to ignore it, repress it, deny it, look the other way. You try that. It won’t work The war’s enormity will blindside you at bad times.

Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad

     Like when you’re driving. On the way to work a few days ago, I was listening to a good interview with my old favorite, John Fogarty. He sounded relaxed and in good spirits, talking about his first CD in several years, “Déjà Vu All Over Again.” He gives a fascinating account of the nearly mystical way in which the title song came to him, and it’s worth a visit to the NPR site to hear his interview with Scott Simon: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4178668

     “Déjà vu” is a powerful antiwar song, made doubly so by the grief and weariness that mark it throughout. This is no political rant, but a deeply humane, soulful response to Fogarty’s terrible sense, as he wrote the song, that we were about to do the same damned thing, all over again, that we did in our gloriously stupid exercise in Vietnam. “The song is about the sorrow and utter waste of war,” says Fogarty in the interview, “especially the effect on families.” Yup:

     Day by day we count the dead and dyin’

     Ship the bodies home while the networks all keep score…

     Day after day, another mama’s cryin’

     She’s lost her precious child to a war that has no end…

     It’s like déjà vu all over again

96 Tears (Or Thereabouts)

I started getting glum as soon as the song began; when the line about “mama’s cryin’” came, I started sobbing. I  blubbered my way along the freeway until the song ended. I do not recommend this as a good way to drive in heavy traffic. The tears blur up your vision, and your attention wanders while you’re trying to find something for nose-blowing purposes. I finally found a napkin left over from a McDonald’s drive-by. Drive-through. Whatever.

     I thought, Jesus, where did this reaction come from?  But I knew: It’s been there all along. About as well as anyone else, I can intellectualize the whole wretched business, and keep the tears at bay. It’s more acceptable in red-blooded America to express anger than grief, and sometimes anger is the right emotion—but sometimes, you just gotta cry.

     Today, in my office, I went to the NPR site and found a link to “Déjà vu.” I played it, and had the same reaction.

     Hey, Uncle Frank! How come you cryin’ in your office?

     Can’t help it, Pardner. There are just too many mamas’ precious children dying for nothing but a fool’s fantasy to do otherwise.

Uncle Frank’s Diary Home

Number 9:

Uncle Frank’s Diary
Number Nine


Taking Candy from Strange Websites:
Do Not Be Fooled, Boys & Girls!

The Web is part of the solution to the huge challenge of organizing and making accessible the bewildering array of information, opinion, and art humanity cranks out with such fervent dedication. It is also part of the problem when it helps people root their lives in scurrilous “information,” ill-conceived ideas, and bad art.

“That’s what I want! That’s just what I need! Where can I get that?”

I sag, I sigh, my head falls upon my hand. Fortunately, my elbow is propped on the reference desk, or my head would thunk down onto the oak veneer.

Why the dispirited reaction? Yet another student has leaped to conclusions about what will serve the needs of the term paper she is writing when I help her with some preliminary searching in the library’s online resources.

Time and again, when I show students how to do some basic searching on their topics, they jump with a naïve faith and enthusiasm at the first catalog or index entry that looks as though it might be useful. Seeing a promising title in a list of 14 is good enough:   

“That’s the one! Just tell me where it is!”

What of drawing up a list of possibilities, and examining them, and comparing them, to see what pans out?

Are you kidding? Who has time for that?

“Yes, well,” I say, “that might be good. But it might be helpful to look at some of these other items…”

My voice trails off. I know the light of instant conviction in a student’s eyes; I know that I am trying to talk reason and caution to someone who is certain that the truth is at hand, in that one title that turned up in response to our little search. I might as well suggest to a true-believing Christian that God may not have a keen personal interest in his conduct or fate.

Lost in the Unfettered Web

And this is online searching not in the chaos of the Web, but in the relatively rigorous confines of the library’s catalog or other automated research systems—ProQuest, Lexis-Nexis, and so on. If that God in which so many are so trusting really troubles her/him/itself to monitor the activities of countless human beings (what a colossal bore that would be: “Whoa, that’s only the millionth time I’ve seen that happen in the last half hour!”), surely he, she, or it alone can imagine the phenomenal absence of critical intelligence that prevails on both sides when students go head-on into the unfettered Web.

Mere easy plagiarism is probably the least of the traps waiting there for careless students—and Web-based plagiarism is often pretty easy for teachers to track down. More ominous is the way the Web facilitates a timeless habit of students: doing the least possible to meet the demands of the assignment, even without copying someone else’s work.

Indifferent student research did not begin with the advent of Web browsers, of course. Uncle Frank knows: He wrote several papers, back in the pre-computer day, that did not raise beads of earnest, scholarly sweat on his forehead, and that he is glad have long since been consigned to oblivion.

The Same Old Laziness, or Something New?

So what’s the difference between lazy research on the Web and lazy research the old-fashioned way, with books and periodicals? Isn’t it the same old slovenliness exercised in a different venue?

I think maybe not. I think there is something qualitatively different about goofing off on an assignment via the Web, and goofing off by putting minimal effort into using periodical indexes, and book catalogs, and actually handling in the flesh a few journals and a book or two.

Yes, yes, the truly inspired uninspired student can fake a book report on Moby Dick (speaking of colossal bores) with the Classics Comics version and the Cliff Notes commentary, but—assuming that a student does do a teeny bit of work—looking up an article, however painfully, in Humanities Index, and checking out a book of Melville criticism (“We have to, the teacher’s making us”), some engagement takes place with something resembling systematic scholarship. The “system” comes, if not in the student’s own approach, then in the conscientious orderliness of the periodical index, in the intellectual discipline of the book catalog, and in the use of library materials presumably present at the scene because of a librarian’s or a prof’s selecting them in accord with thoughtful principles.

Rub up against this sort of thing even a little bit, now and then, and it leaves a mark worth wearing. Better, even, than a sunflower tattoo peeking out from above the rear waistband of your low-rider jeans.

But the Web at large? Yow. With no rules of entry, no standards, no review, no correction, no nothin’, the Web is a terrific source of useful and democratic content. It is also a terrific source of mindless drivel, worse than television at its most vapid. For every student who comes to me (and this happens) at the reference desk complaining that an entire afternoon’s search “on the Web” led to nothing useful, how many students decide that the twaddle they located with a search engine is good enough? I fear that the number is high.

The danger of the Web for naïve students lies chiefly in their assumption that because something is on the Web, it is therefore worth the space it occupies. They have faith when they should be skeptical. In 1977, a student could pick upHumanities Index in the same sort of faith his or her peer of today Googles the Web. The difference is that the faith the student of 1977 placed in that index was in at least some ways warranted. Inclusion in that periodical index connoted a journal’s achieving certain standards of utility and respectability.

Indiscriminate Groping

Sure, one could gripe about the decisions index editors made, but there were, at the minimum, considered decisions that affected research results—not simply the indiscriminate groping and grabbing that characterizes many “information” catches made on the Web. On the Web, the biased, the uninformed, and the agenda-ridden greet the innocent and the trusting.   It’s like watching little boys and girls climb into the cars of strangers who offer them candy. But try to tell a student pressed for time and not much interested in hard work that the candy at that Web site has arsenic in it!

In a particularly poisonous development, many (maybe most) search engines list high in their results pages the sites of outfits that have paid for such consideration. The Federal Trade Commission this June, reporting the results of an inquiry prompted by the consumer watchdog group Commercial Alert (http://www.commercialalert.org/), indicated widespread failure of leading search engines to be candid about their inclusion of paid advertising in search results.

Google is up-front about this practice and notes the sites that are sponsored entries. Others are not so forthright. At least when you’re watching television, you can usually tell the difference between the programs and the commercials. On the Web, what you’re led to believe is the “good stuff” resulting from your search may, in fact, be the stuff that somebody paid to have you see.

Isn’t that sweet?

Getting Untangled

A growing number of libraries are working to equip students and other users with some basic healthy skepticism about Web reliance. Where I work, our Web home page provides a link to a “Tips for Students” page that includes a section on critically evaluating Websites, with further links to other libraries’ efforts on this front. (The World-Wide Web Virtual Library maintains a page with many useful links to Website evaluation guides:http://www.vuw.ac.nz/~agsmith/evaln/evaln.htm).

Educators in general are becoming increasingly concerned about students’ casual reliance on the Web. In her piece “Point. Click. Think?” (Washington Post, July 16, 2002, p. CO1), Laura Sessions Stepp writes in a balanced way on the topic, citing both Web traps and advantages.

“The Internet makes it ungodly easy now for people who wish to be lazy,” Stepp quotes one Iowa librarian. At the same time, with some focused teaching, students can learn to distinguish between worthwhile and worthless (or worse) sites.

An old twist on an even older progressive homily notes that if you’re part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. The Web is part of the solution to the huge challenge of organizing and making accessible the bewildering array of information, opinion, and art humanity cranks out with such fervent dedication. It is also part of the problem when it helps people root their lives in scurrilous “information,” ill-conceived ideas, and bad art.

Sometimes it makes Uncle Frank’s head hurt, and makes him want to join Nick Adams, watching the trout in the river from the railroad bridge at Seney. They can be very satisfying.

More satisfying than the Web, any day.

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Number 25:

Uncle Frank’s Diary
Number Twenty-five

So Let Her Die, Already

Terry Schiavo is dead. That’s D-E-A-D. Let her corporeal package follow her spirit into death. Do not humiliate the memory of her person by using her body for ideological profit. Do not be so squalid. In the Schiavo case, we are watching a hideous, blasphemous obscenity perpetrated by fools and con artists.

Uncle Frank just got back from the dark side of the moon. He was working on a book, to the exclusion of most normal activities, including reading the news and carrying on about it here. He sent off the manuscript a few days ago, and can now return to the joys of the world as we know it. Lucky lad!

     His first question on rejoining the multitudes: “How’s the war going?” He likes to ask the obvious questions. You can check out of the human scene for any length of time, and assume on your welcome back that some war is going on, somewhere.

     His next question: “What the hell are those morons in Congress doing getting involved in the Terri Schiavo case?”

     I’ll tell you what: They’re busy demonstrating their firm commitment to egregious moral posturing, because they know the nation’s religious rubes can’t tell the difference between good faith and blatant cynicism. The occasional rite-to-lifer who can tell the difference doesn’t care, because in the purely Machiavellian world of American fetal fetishists, the only thing that counts is securing the objective, by any means necessary.

     (Hmm. That last phrase has an odd echo, does it not? But let’s leave that for another outing.)

Look, Dick, Look: See the Living Corpse

     The fetishists know that a legal decision keeping TS on the tubes (feeding and cathode ray both) will enhance their arguments on behalf of Dick and Jane Zygote. “Life” being “sacred,” and all that, you know. Except for the thousands of innocents that these same heavy thinkers countenance being annihilated in places like Iraq, but why look for consistency?

     Schiavo is dead. Oh, sure, her autonomic nervous system chugs on, but the person she was has been dead for years, and, the fantasies of her fan club notwithstanding, she ain’t comin’ back. I saw one of her family members on TV recently; according to his quaint, unutterably selfish point of view, TS is merely “disabled,” and can “improve” with “therapy.”

     Damn right she’s disabled. You can’t get much more disabled than suffering massive, irreversible brain damage. The conflux of organ and spirit that once made TS the person she was is gone with the wind, over the hills and far away, hi-yo Silver. Schiavo no longer exists. All that’s left is a jointed apparatus, once useful for the late TS to get around in, but now naught but an inadvertently-animated sack of bone and meat suitable for nothing but exploitation by the idiotic (the rite-to-life dreamers), the terminally cynical (those conscienceless creeps in Congress), and ghouls like Larry King “Live,” who just can’t show enough clips of TS’s mindless body lolling on its hospital bed, grinning its empty, meaningless grin, staring its empty, awful stare.

     If this sight does not make you want to scream in rage at the grotesque manner in which this woman’s remains are being exploited and insulted, you have a thicker skin than Uncle Frank.

See Spot Twitch

     Would you treat the body of your dog or cat the way those responsible are treating TS’s remains? Put the gaping, twitching, blindly-staring carcass on display for the sick voyeurs of Larry King and for the sentimental, readily-duped practitioners of “faith” (Oh, yes: She’ll “improve” with “therapy.” As they say in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in response to an assertion beyond blivethood: “You betcha, eh?”). Would you treat Fluffy’s or Spot’s mortal remains thus so that truly loathsome men and women in Washington could use the ghastly images to help assure their reelection?

     You would not treat Fluffy or Spot this way. You would say, “That’s sick, Uncle Frank. I would never do that. It’s worse than sick. It’s evil!”

     And you’d be right.

     Is there, at long last, no decency left in this nation? Are Americans so morally and politically depraved that they are willing to stand back and watch their elected “leaders” and the self-congratulating religious pious make a corpse dance in public like a marionette for the sake of advancing their personal agendas?

That’s Dead. Dead. Dead. Deal with It.

     My mother died eight years ago this month. She died in peace and privacy, in her own bed at home, with my father at her side. Her dying image did not appear on CNN. Her life could have been prolonged, for a limited time, by the insertion of a feeding tube. To what end? A more protracted coma? For what purpose? So that the people who cared for her would not have to grow up and let go, not have to acknowledge that death has its day, always, for everyone?

     Terry Schiavo is dead. That’s D-E-A-D. Let her corporeal package follow her spirit into death. Do not humiliate the memory of her person by using her body for ideological profit. Do not be so squalid. In the Schiavo case, we are watching a hideous, blasphemous obscenity perpetrated by fools and con artists.

     Stop it. Please stop it. Stop it before Uncle Frank has to go back to the dark side of the moon—not to work on a book, but because he just can’t stand to watch this shit no more.

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Number 10:

Uncle Frank’s Diary
Number Ten


Who Needs Librarians? 
Let’s Get Some Trained Monkeys!

The matter, as is usually the case, devolves to money. It costs a lot less to exploit a clerk than it does to exploit a librarian. An OCL reference clerk earns about $22K a year. A librarian starts at $31K. Presumably savings in fringe benefits augment the $9K difference when the system sheds a librarian.

What a week.

My car is laid up in the shop with a shot intake manifold gasket. Judging by the speed at which things are happening, they’re manufacturing a new gasket from recycled asbestos siding at a sweatshop in Guatemala. It’s due in, oh, some day. I’m driving a borrowed car (my son’s) to work.

He’s really happy about that. Or maybe he doesn’t care: The back brakes are out of whack, so that when I step on them at low speeds they lock up, and the car bounces up and down like a lowrider from one of Uncle Frank’s bad dreams. I can lay a patch in the driveway at three miles an hour.

But that’s better than falling off my bike, which feat I accomplished the other night. I hit a spot of loose gravel just as I began to turn. The bike went one way; I went the other, into the asphalt pavement. I laid several patches of hide on the road. The right side of my body looks as though someone has been practicing on it with a power sander. My wife took one look and insisted that I start wearing a helmet.

A helmet? Real librarians don’t wear helmets.

But she insisted, so I bought the baddest looking black helmet I could find, took it home, and modeled it for my wife.

“You look like a Dutch policeman,” she said.

All right. So I’ll wear the shades with it. Maybe that will help.

Forward, into the Future!

Maybe Uncle Frank will wear them when he busts into the Orange County Library in Orlando, Fla., to take names and kick sand.

Real librarians have apparently been taking it on the chin at the OCL, and not by pitching over their handlebars and doing face melds with the roadway. Library management is reportedly replacing them with clerical workers. Staff writer James Miller notes in his Aug. 16 Orlando Sentinel piece (“Library accused of using clerks as librarians”) that since August of 1999, the number of OCL librarians assigned to work with the public has dropped from 73 to 64. In the same period, the non-librarian staff grew from 203 to 214.

Miller says that system Director Mary Anne Hodel sees the staff transformation as “leading the library toward the future.”

Well, sure. Everything leads toward the future, one way or another. According to Director Hodel, who has been on the job since this past January, “It doesn’t take a librarian to show someone how to use the Internet. What matters is service—whoever provides it.”

Hmm. If she feels that way about it, maybe she could enlist the help of some of OCL’s constant patrons. Every library with public Web access has them: the folks who arrive shortly after the library opens in the morning, cement themselves to a chair, and stay at a computer as long as they’re allowed to fool around in their chat rooms, email, Neopet pages, and what-not. Some of these individuals really know their way around the Web, or a part of it, and would probably be glad to help others for nothing. Then the library could get rid of a whole bunch of regular staff.

It’s Not About Service; It’s About Money

The matter, as is usually the case, devolves to money. It costs a lot less to exploit a clerk than it does to exploit a librarian. An OCL reference clerk earns about $22K a year. A librarian starts at $31K. Presumably savings in fringe benefits augment the $9K difference when the system sheds a librarian.

(Now you know who’s standing in line to buy those obscene SUVs that Detroit cranks out: reference librarians with large wads of dough—of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing variety—hanging from their pockets. Most of them aren’t like me, driving an ’87 Buick Century to work out of ersatz identification with the working class.)

There’s nothing new or unusual about this tactic. At a local library system I used to visit, clerical staff were habitually referred to as “librarians,” while no degreed librarians were in sight.  Libraries in general would be in big trouble without their clerical workers, but calling a clerk a librarian is like calling a hospital orderly a doctor. Assigning a clerk to perform traditional librarian services—reference work, original cataloging, collection development—is like handing an orderly a kit bag full of operating tools and sending her into the OR to perform surgery.

At that same local library system, by the way, I occasionally found the “librarian” clerk’s pre-adolescent daughter on “duty” at the information desk while her mother tended something else. Is this service, or what?

It’s “Women’s Work,” Anyhow, Right?

At the root of this crummy business lies the traditional under valuation of “women’s work.” Professions that have been dominated in numbers by female practitioners—teaching, librarianship, nursing—have always been grossly underpaid in relation to the education required to master them, and the skill and judgment their members have been expected to exercise.

Through history, women have come cheap (through no fault of their own), and the libraries of the world have not hesitated to take advantage of the fact. If they can take advantage by paying highly-educated practitioners humble wages, all to the good of the institutional economy; if they can persuade their clientele that they don’t really need these well-trained practitioners, that a clerk with a high school diploma and a year’s experience can do “just as well,” then why keep those “expensive” librarians on the job? Dump ‘em, and fill their places with even-worse-paid clerks expected to function at levels of responsibility far beyond their training and education.

Hell, let ‘em put their 12-year-old kids at the reference desk, the way they did in my old neighborhood. A trained chimp could check out a book, right? And be glad to work for peanuts. Or bananas.

And many library patrons would think it “cute.”

Such a deal for the budget keepers!


How Do You Know What’s Good if You Don’t Know What’s What?

Ronald Harbert, president of the OCL board of trustees, has asked patrons to alert him to “shortages of service” occasioned by the library’s staffing plan. How do library patrons know when they’re receiving inadequate service, beyond egregious examples? People who are not expert library users can easily mistake earnest but uninformed and inadequate service as passing muster, just as someone who knows little or nothing about medical procedures can assume that a careless doctor’s diagnosis and treatment are on the ball.

It’s the same all over: As expenses rise and municipal budgets erode, managers struggle to fill the holes while papering over the resulting shoddy public service with happy talk. The selfless heroes in the Michigan legislature not long ago saw to it that they received pay raises of almost 40 percent. These same ascetic public servants, annoyed over tuition hikes, are busy telling the state’s public colleges and universities—which they have been underfunding for years—to “tighten their belts, like everyone else.”

Uh-huh. Like everyone else.

Like libraries that send amateurs to do professional work. Go ahead and use those libraries, but leave your helmet on when you enter. That way, it won’t hurt so much when you swat your forehead in frustration over the inept service that results from trying to do things on the cheap.


Graphics by Karen McGinnis

Uncle Frank’s Diary Home

Number 26:

Uncle Frank’s Diary
Number Twenty-six

Book Awards and the Best Writers of Their Generation:

Too Many of Both

I don’t know what won. Or who won. I don’t care. And it doesn’t matter. . . How can it matter, when in a nation that cranks out close to 10,000 works of fiction every year, the judges who pick the NBA winner for fiction read a few hundred such works in their grueling struggle to find the most deserving?

It takes Uncle Frank some time to get around to chewing on a topic publicly, now and then. He likes to gnaw on it in private, like a dog with a rawhide bone, then, when the thing is good and droolish, he hauls it into the living room and drops it at your feet. Ick.

     He’s been gnawing at the notion of book awards for a long time, and not just book awards, but the whole business of book reviews.

     Not to pick on the National Book Awards, which surely are not much dumber than the rest, but the last go-‘round in the NBA fiction award battle was pretty characteristic of the whole enterprise of giving awards to writers for their books.

     As you’ll recall, the selection of the five finalists for the award raised a ruckus owing to their geographic, sexual, and commercial uniformity. The five favored litterateurs were all women, all from New York City, and none of them, I think, had cracked 3,000 copies sold of her belovedly brilliant-but-obscure book.

     The worst of these categories is the geographical. The American book biz has been provincial forever, with New York City and Boston the hubs of writing, publishing, reviewing, and reflection on those three activities. These are the “National” book awards? What kind of “national” perspective derives from drawing all your finalists from the same big city?

Oh, Desolation!

In a larger sense, though, so what? Once one recognizes that the National Book Awards ritual is basically nonsensical, it is impossible to care what gets nominated, or what wins. I don’t know what won. Or who won. I don’t care. And it doesn’t matter. (Jack Kerouac, Desolation Angels: “I don’t know, I don’t care, and it doesn’t matter anyway.”) How can it matter, when in a nation that cranks out close to 10,000 works of fiction every year, the judges who pick the NBA winner for fiction read a few hundred such works in their grueling struggle to find the most deserving?

     That’s what they do, and then announce the one work of fiction published in the United States in a given year that really, really deserves honor above all the rest.

     Please: Is anyone willing to join Uncle Frank in calling this practice idiotic? Vast reams of fiction, ranging from hideous to magnificent, roll across the country every year. Most of it, regardless of its merit, disappears from view without a whimper. The National Book Award judges are oblivious of it. Is it conceivable that maybe, just maybe, somewhere in the 9,000 books they didn’t read, there might be one just a hair better than the one they decided is the cream o’ the crop?

     Oh, I think so. Now, if the judges openly admitted that they haven’t a clue as to what the best book in the country is, but are picking one they pretty much like to sort of represent all the deserving, and maybe more deserving, books that neither they nor 99.99 percent of the reading public will ever scrutinize, that would be tolerable, maybe. But they don’t do that: They act as though they know what they’re talking about when they make their choices.

     They don’t know what they’re talking about. Statistical reality guarantees it. They should be embarrassed to pretend that they do know.

     But please, don’t let me pick on the National Book Award judges. They’re no worse offenders in this vein than other award awarders, or book reviewers, either. In the New York Times Book Review of November 14, the lead review on Alice Munro’s Runaway said that she “has a strong claim to being the best fiction writer now working in North America.”

Pass Me the Doritos

What? What is the reviewer saying? How can he possibly make such a preposterous, uninformed assertion? Oh, I’m sorry: He has read the other many thousands of books published in the past year, and the year before that, and before that. He has also found a way to read all the manuscripts completed but never submitted to publishers, for whatever reason, that are languishing in the bottom drawers of writers of whom we know nothing, but whose labor over their books they probably considered “working” while they were engaged in it, rather than watching TV or sleeping or eating nacho cheese Doritos and drinking beer and watching squirrels run around the back yard—all of which are probably more worthwhile pursuits than picking book award winners.

       The world is just full of people who want to tell you what’s the best, and what isn’t worth your time. Remember when would-be cultural dictator Harold Bloom worked himself into a stupid snit over Stephen King’s nabbing a National Book Foundation medal for “Distinguished Contribution to American Letters”? Bloom thinks King is a low-rent hack.

      Which must explain why Bloom once edited a collection of criticism on King with the imaginative title, Stephen King (Chelsea House, 1998). Bloom’s introduction to the collection is marvelously patronizing. He obviously despises King’s writing, as he apparently does most of the reading public. King is symptomatic of the Decline o’ the West, blah blah blah. Not that the Bloomster is above cranking out a book to capitalize on King’s popularity, but hey, he doesn’t have to like it while he’s doing it. If you read his intro, you’ll swear that he was grinding his teeth throughout the wretched ordeal.

Blooming Poseurs

     Bloom and the National Book Awards are all part of the same kultural stew that brings us every pompous “critic’s” estimation of what the good stuff really is. Want a little pointless entertainment? Look in online databases and search engines for phrases like “best writer working,” “best writer at work,” and “best writer in America.” You’ll be surprised how many best writers there are. I fooled around with this sort of searching a while back. Here’s some of what I found. Why don’t you just kick off your shoes for a barefoot romp through the best writers in America?

     Jerry Sullivan, in the Buffalo News (March 3, 2002), thinks that Andre Dubus is maybe “the best American writer of his generation, period.”

     Keith Pandolfi, of the Times-Picayune (Feb. 10, 2002), says that Richard Ford “is arguably the best American writer working.”

     According to Rheta Grimsley Johnson in the Atlanta Constitution (July 21, 1999), Walker Percy is “possibly the best American writer of the 20th century.”

     But Jim Coyle (Toronto Star, May 10, 2001) says that “The best writer working in English today is Tom Wappel.”

    Cal Thomas (urp!) contends that Martha Williamson is “the best writer working in television” in his syndicated blovation published in the Grand Rapids Press, July 23, 1999.

     On the other hand, Jamie Portman reported a month earlier in the Vancouver Sun (June 25, 1999), that actor Rob Lowe considers Aaron Sorking “the best writer working in any medium today.” Does that include pastels and charcoal?

     A year earlier (May 1, 1998), Ted Cox, of the Arlington Heights, IL, Daily Herald, claimed that Darin Morgan is “the best writer working in television.” Maybe Morgan, Sorking, and Williamson could slug it out for the championship belt in a WWF extravaganza.

     It goes on. The “best writer in America” was, according to Greil Marcus, the late Lester Bangs, wrote Nicholas Lezard in The Guardian (Sept. 6, 2003). I’ve always admired Marcus, and used to laugh myself silly over Bangs, but really…

     Jonathan Franzen “is just about the best writer in America now,” says Maya Even, according to Rebecca Rose in the Financial Times (June 21, 2003).

     In the Washington Times (June 18, 2000), Ronald Radosh reports that Nat Hentoff considers Norman Mailer “the best writer in America.”

     Annie Proulx is “maybe the best writer in America,” says David Thompson ofThe Independent (London), May 30, 1999.

     Apparently Proulx has eclipsed Thomas Williams, whom Stephen King declared “the best writer in America,” according to Joseph Coates in the Chicago Tribune, back on May 24, 1992.

     Alice Munro (yup, her again) beats ‘em all, of course, because she is “the best writer working today,” in the opinion of Lily Thayer in the Citypaperonline, Dec. 19, 2001.

     Unless, as John Leonard argues, “the best writer working in America today” is Toni Morrison (cited in Books for the Journey Toward Wholeness, Unitarian Universalist Association, May, 2002).

     According to www.readings.org, The San Francisco Examiner has called Tim O’Brien the “best American writer of his generation.” Actually, I think it was more likely someone working for the Examiner who said that. I don’t think theExaminer has ever said anything. Newspapers don’t talk.

I’m almost done… two more:

     Lorrie Moore is “the best American writer of her generation,” according to Nick Horby in the Sunday Times (London), as quoted in www.fairfieldweekly.com. Yeah? Better keep her away from Tim O’Brien.

    And finally, someone in Vanity Fair said that Nicholson Baker is “the best American writer of his generation.” That was quoted in Rare Book Review, www.rarebookreview.com. Keep him away from O’Brien and Moore, unless you want to see blood on the walls.

Boy, there sure are a lot of best writers, aren’t there? Makes you kind of want to drop your pen, unplug your word processor, and go out in the back yard and feed the worms. I mean, if all these people are the best, what’s a shmuck like you doing thinking you have a right to intrude on their turf by composing so much as a grocery list?

     The one thing that all these bestowers of “the best” have in common, of course, is that they, like the book award awardsters, don’t know what they’re talking about. But it sure makes you sound pretty smart to announce to the world that you know what “the best” is, huh?

     Let’s make a deal: If you read a book that you really like, tell us about it. If you read a book that you really hate that you think deserves attention because of the threat it poses civilization through its badness, tell us about it. But don’t tell us that the good book is the “best,” or that the bad book is the “worst.” You don’t know. I don’t know. Uncle Frank doesn’t know.

And it doesn’t matter, anyway.

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Number 11:

Uncle Frank’s Diary
Number Eleven

I’m Going to Dig a Hole, 
Crawl in, and Pull in the Dirt After Me

The idea of going back into the past doesn’t seem so bad just now. Back to simple days, when your television offered maybe four channels if you were lucky, when “web” referred to duck’s feet, and the presidential candidate who tallied the most votes won. Imagine such quaint times!

When I Woke Up that Morning…

The past was on my mind when I woke up the day after the latest election.  The domestic enemies of America, in disguise as the Republican Party, were mugging all over the landscape. Trent Lott was grinning ear-to-ear on the front page of the New York Times. Tom (“The Exterminator”) DeLay was getting ready to take over the House. The Bush Gangsters, so eager for war that they can hardly contain themselves, were looking forward to a glorious new dawn of neofascist court appointments, corporate welfare, union bashing, gutting of the Bill of Rights, repealing Roe v. Wade, and “preemptive” war around the world. War will be peace, freedom slavery, and ignorance strength.

Yes, the “Party of Lincoln” is having a major testosterone experience while Old Abe gags in Political Heaven at the sight of his perverted descendants.

The night following the election, our dear animal friend, Fred the Cat, had a heart attack and died in my arms on the living room couch. He had been struggling with his heart condition for several months, and was holding on OK with a daily smorgasbord of meds, but the election was apparently too much for him. I knew I shouldn’t have let him watch the returns; now he’s out in the back yard, under the forsythia bushes. Fred was a good and brave cat, but his heart could not stand up to the predations of the GOP.

Got to Get Away

Longing for escape to an earlier day, I accompanied my wife on a visit last Saturday to my old high school, in a small town in a neighboring county. I had not set foot in the old school in nearly 40 years (38 years and seven months, to be pointlessly precise). The opportunity for the visit came in the form of a crafts bazaar advertised in the paper. If you have ever attended a crafts bazaar, you know the scene: A vast array of ducks, cows, pigs, sheep, ducks, and bunnies either carved from wood or stitched and woven into fabric, stretched down the hallways as far as the eye could see, with occasional tables of high-calorie food tended by middle-aged women in theme sweatshirts (Christmas, Thanksgiving, Hallowthanksmaseve). Almost everyone in sight was overweight.

While my wife went searching for the perfect holiday table decoration—we ended up with something in ceramic that looks like a dead pheasant lying on its back with dried flowers sprouting from its belly—I went wandering the halls of my youth.

I could not get much further from Election 2002, could I? So I thought.

Hiding Out in the Library

 I wanted to see if I could enter the library. In one of the great achievements of my high-school career, in the second semester of my junior year I arranged my schedule so that I had hour-long study halls, back-to-back, at the end of the day. To say that I was an indifferent student in high school seriously understates it. I was not indifferent. I was hostile. I hated the athletic clique that ran the place. Save for the one taught by a great American history teacher (where are you now, Mr. Floro?), my classes bored me senseless; with a handful of fellow misfits, I began the day with little hope of anything but the clock advancing to the hour when we would be released from our daily pedagogical torment.

My back-to-back study halls redeemed the afternoon. I went daily to the wonderfully-large new library and signed in at the reference desk. (The sign-in sheets, I imagine, were scrutinized in the principal’s office in the endless quest to apprehend those bold enough to bust out of the joint on a pretext). From there, I slipped to the far back of the library, behind a waist-high range of shelves holding reference books, to a single-student study table near the large window-wall that overlooked the school’s front yard.

It was a great place for a misfit. When I sat down at my study table, I was all but impossible to see from any other point in the room. Close at hand were many racks of paperback books, of all sorts.

How often did I use my study halls to, like, “study”?  Rarely! Maybe that’s why I ended the year with a D- in chemistry. Instead of “studying,” I rampaged through those paperback racks.

I was a readin’ fool. This stuff was soooo much better than anything I was supposed to read for my classes. I was reading science fiction, history, novels, short stories—I even plowed through a good chunk of Darwin’s Origin of Species. All of this for fun. And it was fun. It didn’t help my chemistry grade, but did I care? Apparently not.

Goin’ Back

On the Saturday of the bazaar, I found the library. I felt that I was having an out-of-body experience, so odd was it to walk once again through the doors that had so long ago been my entryway to a better world. The first thing that struck me about the place was how little had changed. The furniture looked the same, for the most part. The light still entered the room from the big south windows the same as it had nearly four decades earlier. The quiet was the same.

The next thing that struck me was how much had changed: Computers were everywhere. Row after row of them. It’s good to know that my successors in the old school have access to all those great goodies on the Web.

But that’s not what I was after. I moseyed toward the back of the room, where I used to sit and read surreptitiously. The same reference shelves were still there. And, incredibly, some of the same little tables remained where I sat engrossed in everything from Darwin to James Thurber to Mark Twain. The tables look a lot older, now, a little banged-up at the corners. (So do I.) I walked up to one of those tables and touched it.

Time flowed from the wood through my hand, into my heart.

And I remembered the book I read here that affected me as much as any other at the time. It was Sinclair Lewis’s novel of a fascist takeover in the United States, It Can’t Happen Here.

I stood there with my hand on the table, feeling a little sick.

In Lewis’s story, published in 1935 and now out of print, a popular fascist—pandering to fears of crime, poverty, welfare chiselers, and the “liberal” media—wins the presidential election of 1936, with the help of a sympathetic religious broadcaster in the mold of Fr. Coughlin.* He gains control of Congress and the Supreme Court, and is then off to the races, with concentration camps for his enemies.

In It Can’t Happen Here, I thought I was reading a gripping treatment of a threat that had come and gone. I thought, boy, we came close, didn’t we? I didn’t realize that, while I avoided studying chemistry, I was seeing the developing political reality of my own middle age foreshadowed.

It is happening here. George W. Bush, the lying, conniving, war-mongering, wildly popular “president,” with Field Marshals Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rice, Rumsfeld, et al., and their shills at the Fox Network and on talk radio, are bearing out the future that Sinclair Lewis anticipated nearly 70 years ago. The fascists are taking over.

We don’t need to go back to the past. It’s right here and now. Sinclair Lewis would not be surprised. Neither is Uncle Frank. Even now, he’s packing a few things for camp.

*Father Coughlin, AKA “The Fighting Priest,” was a nationally popular political radio ranter in the 1930s who got his start in Detroit. He eventually wore out his welcome with his anti-Semitic broadcasts in the early years of World War II. Coughlin is a precursor of religious media blowhards like Pat Robertson, and of such secular windbags as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.


Graphic by Karen McGinnis

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Number 27:

Uncle Frank’s Diary
Number Twenty-seven


Bad Books! Bad, Bad Books!

(Conservative “Scholars” Reveal the Worst)

If the panoply of human folly and stupidity does not occasionally leave you weak in the knees, longing for the company of animals, you cannot be living in the same world that I am. It is possible, sometimes, to carry on more rational exchanges, and achieve more constructive results, with a dog or a cat than with the members of one’s own species.

Oh, Them Awful Books!

Consider, for example, the recent announcement by that redoubt of Righteousness, Human Events Online (www.humaneventsonline.com/), regarding the “Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries.” This exercise in literary dopiness (its similarly-dopey companion is “10 Books Every Student Should Read in College”), aims to identify the books that have wrought the most havoc in the period in question. The list was compiled by “conservative scholars” and “public policy leaders.”

Is it worth anyone’s time to dwell on the titles that these “scholars” and “policy leaders” find so dangerous? No. Why would you care what these people think? Consider the individuals on whom Human Events relies for fodder:

  • “Family values” gangster and “Christian” activist Gary Bauer
  • That prominent model of conservative temperance and dignity, Ann Coulter
  • The Moonies’ own newspaper, the Washington Times
  • Fox “News” blowhard, Bill “Shut Up!” O’Reilly
  • Phyllis “Back to the Kitchen” Schlafly
  • and that peerless pillar of journalistic integrity and courage, Robert Novak

I mean, really: Would the opinions of people who trade what passes for thought with the likes of such folk be likely to stimulate your desire to know the content of conversations between said individuals? If you saw Bauer standing on a street corner engaged in chit-chat with Coulter, would you want to run up to them and listen in?

I thought not. So why would you care what books their like-minded pals—I’m sorry, their “policy leaders”—think are bad, bad, bad books?

Free, Affluent, and Living Out of a Shopping Cart

Anyhow, there’s the list of 10, and with each listing comes a shallow annotation purporting to present the entry’s badness in succinct fashion. Here’s some of what the “policy leaders” say about Marx’s work, Das Kapital. Old Karl was all wet, you see; he “could not have predicted 21st Century America: a free, affluent society based on capitalism and representative government that people the world over envy and seek to emulate.”

Hey, really. Free and affluent. They’s rich people busy being free everywhere you go. I see them daily. I saw one the other day being escorted from the library where I work; she had what were apparently all her possessions in a grocery cart, and two campus safety staff members were gently guiding her back out of the building. Like happy Americans everywhere, this woman is enjoying the fruits of capitalism and representative government. (That’s the government that legislative heroes like Tom DeLay rig up through gerrymandering while they prattle about spreading democracy around the world.)

I trust that this woman is savoring her freedom and affluence while she sleeps outside on the ground. Shoot, it’s summer; it doesn’t get that cold.  Indeed, people everywhere “envy” and “seek to emulate” life in these United States. They all want to push grocery carts full of stuff. That’s because we’re number one!

And plenty subtle about it, too. That’s another reason why everyone loves, envies, and wants to be like us: because we wear our superlative superiority so very gracefully, and never give the impression that we think another culture, another people, another way of seeing the world, is not quite up to the snuff we snort.

Gosh, but we’re modest; modest, and proud of it. And rightfully so. Jesus loves us but good, don’t you think?

Number One with a Bullet

What sorts of books turn up on the Inhuman Events pick-to-click list? Number one with a bullet in the back in the must-read ranks is the Bible. What,Huckleberry Finn you were expecting? Crime and Punishment, maybe?

According to the “scholars” who wave the Bible in yo’ face, it is “a volume that has been virtually banned in public schools by the United States Supreme Court.”

What do they mean by “virtually banned”? You can’t, like, look at it on a computer? Buh-loney. The Bible is readily available free, in full text, on the Web. Nearly any schoolboy or girl in America with access to a computer in the school library could Google up a version of the Bible and sit there reading it without a problem. Why, they could start at the beginning and bore themselves silly with all that begatting business in Genesis, and keep it up, if they wanted, until they finished Revelation and all its cwazy symbolism. And if they got tired of reading the blessed thing on the computer monitor, they could probably find the book in the flesh on the library shelves and sit down and read it the old fashioned way, one begat at a time.

Then they could go home and ask Mom and Dad to explain begatting.

I’m not sure how that works out to being “banned,” but I reckon the geniuses atHuman Events know better than I about such things.

And Now for a Really Harmful Book!

Speaking of the Bible, has it not occurred to the HE gang that the “good book” might readily lead an alternative list of “most harmful books”? Consider the misery and death and ruined lives tied through history to this document. The Crusades, the Inquisition… torture, perversion, child abuse, the subjugation of women, encouragement of superstition and magical thinking, denial of scientific fact… why, when we’re tallying up black marks against books, the Bible bids fair to be the leader of the pack.

So, yeah, I look forward to getting home tonight so that I can talk to my cats, Dave and Wally, Jr. They make more sense than the people at Human Eventsand their book lists.


Graphic by Karen McGinnis

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Number 12:

Uncle Frank’s Diary
Number Twelve


When I enter my office in the morning, the first thing I do is to look at the telephone to see if the voicemail indicator light is blinking. It has been blinking a lot, lately, and most of the time the message—delivered in a gasping, wheezing voice—is from a reference librarian calling in sick. The flu bugs are goin’ around, and we’re juggling the reference desk schedule trying to maintain some semblance of reliable service. Hey, I told (begged, pleaded, cajoled) everyone to get a flu shot last fall. What, aren’t my nagging skills up to the job?

But there’s sick… and there’s sick. If you’re fortunate, you get past the flu in a week or ten days, or about the same length of time it takes to fill a somewhat trickier than usual interlibrary loan request. Then there’s the sickness of the soul that comes from paying attention to life in these here United States, a disorder that ranks with that of the main character in Sartre’s Nausea—the most depressing novel I have ever read. If you ever start feeling a little bit too good about things, read Nausea. It will settle your hash into a cold lump in the bottom of your gut. But then, so does the general run of events in these days and times.

Lies, Lies, We Can’t Believe a Word He Says

What am I talking about? Oh, well, you know: Most everything. I could start with the way George W. Bush blatantly lies about the affirmative action program at my alma mater, the University of Michigan. With total disregard of fact, Bush, as you may have noticed, recently characterized the school’s efforts to achieve some reasonable representation of minority students as a “quota” system.

Has this man no shame? Is no lie too egregious to utter for the sake of shoring up what the political pundits like to call his “base”? (By the way, “Al Qaeda” means “base,” in case you were wondering.)

The University of Michigan’s affirmative action program is not a quota system by any stretch of the most fevered imagination. It involves assigning “points” to applicants based on various characteristics. The maximum number of points an applicant can attain is 150. An African-American applicant receives 20 points for being born that way. Children of alumni get a few points for being born that way. Athletes get points. Good grades earn more points than mediocre grades, and so on.

The sorely afflicted white upper-middle-class, from which UM draws most of its students, gets honked off about minority group members receiving such special consideration. It ain’t fair, they whine. Except they don’t say “ain’t.” Why should a black kid from a crummy downtown high school get such a cushy advantage in a college application?

Invisible Points

What the whiners prefer to ignore are the invisible “points” the white children of privilege accrue simply as a consequence of the accident of birth. Being black is worth 20 points on the UM admission scale. How many “points” is it worth white applicants to have been born into affluent families? To have attended excellent suburban public or private schools? To have enjoyed for years the benefits of supplemental lessons in music, art, sports, and other activities? To have had lifelong access to first-rate health care? To have had opportunities for travel and other forms of cultural enrichment that are totally alien to the average inner-city kid? To have known from an early age that they are expected to complete college, and to take their places in the professional class?

The University of Michigan’s admissions policy entails a modest effort to help minority students overcome centuries of institutionalized racism, and to try to give the student body of the university some meaningful (dare I use the awful word?) diversity. 

Those who claim that racism is merely history, that as a society we have “gotten over” that little bout of dyspepsia, I would invite to spend some time prowling the back streets of Detroit with me (yeah, I do that from time to time, taking pictures of the ruins), and try to account for the condition of that city without acknowledging the continuing reality of racism. And then join George W. Bush, that self-made man who never had an advantage in his life that he didn’t earn through his own hard work, in bleating about how “unfair” the University of Michigan’s admissions policy is.

Do You Copy?

Thanks. I feel better now. I’ve been steaming about Bush’s defaming my old school since the day he uttered his big lie. One of his big lies. Now I can move on–to questions of money.

If you work in a library supported to any extent by public funds, you’re probably dealing with the same sorts of happy matters as our crew. How do we provide service with money that doesn’t exist? Thanks to a decade of fiscal mismanagement by the administration of former governor John Engler, the state of Michigan is searching for pennies at the back of its socks drawer, and is slicing and dicing the budget from top to bottom.

Well, yes, according to news I heard while shaving this morning, our state legislators are all getting fixed up with new photocopiers, at $12,000 each. We wouldn’t want the poor dears at our state asylum for the helpless to have to share a machine down the hall, would we? Nevertheless, the rest of us who rely in some way on public funds are trying to live with an austerity that promises to be here for some time to come. At my library, we’re looking at cutting hours of service, canceling periodical subscriptions, laying off student assistants and assigning their work to librarians, not filling open positions, and trooping off as a group to the commercial blood donation facility down the street.

OK, we’re leaving the last one for next year’s budget, which will probably be even worse than this year’s. And you know what? We’re lucky. We’re not in California. Thanks to donors who recognize the value of education, we also have endowment income that allows us to provide a healthy roster of online databases for our users. Things could be a lot worse, and in many libraries they are.

George W’s plan, of course, will fix everything. Tax cuts for the rich. That’s the ticket. Oh, and a nice war, too. And some patriotic new legislation that will help the Ashcroft Brigade nip un-American activities in the bud.

Nausea, anyone?

Graphic by Karen McGinnis

Uncle Frank’s Diary Home

Number 28:

Uncle Frank’s Diary
Number Twenty-eight


Uncle Frank and the Dupes of Hazard

Is it not obvious that the Bush Gang is the most inept, most dishonest, most delusional, most profligate presidential administration in American history? Its crimes and stupidities make those of the Clinton, Reagan, Nixon, Johnson, Harding, and Grant administrations look like the puerile work of schoolyard shakedown artists.

Is it not obvious that the American mainstream media are hopeless? Runaway brides! Jacko! Pretty affluent white girls gone missing! (Day 497!) Hannity, Matthews, O’Reilly, Limbaugh! It is as if the ghost of William Randolph Hearst has seized control of all the television networks, the entire radio spectrum, and most newspapers, to paint the whole nation a dripping yellow, the yellow of sensation, of infectious discharge, of purulent prurience and untrammeled idiocy.

Drop Your Gs and Woof Like a W

And there be prissy-lipped Boy George, smirkin’, droppin’ his Gs from every other verb, tellin’ us to “look” and “listen” before he utters yet another inane bromide that would insult the intelligence of a not terribly gifted dog. Blahblahblahblahblah, ad infinitum.

What is left to say? What is left to do? What, precisely, is the point?

Why, that is, bother?

I know people who simply cannot, could not if their lives depended on it (which they may, in fact) acknowledge that B.G. and the Gang have ever miscalculated, misled, or failed to think through to the consequences of their actions. These true believers—who give every appearance of reasoned thought in other areas of their lives—have willingly gouged out their own eyes rather than own up to seeing what lies (and what lies they are!) before them.

Oh, Daddy! Please Don’t Kill Us!

What motivates them? Profound fear of blacks? Hatred of paying taxes? A hard-boiled fetal fetishism? A naïve and sentimental love, God help us, of Jesus? Do they turn to Boy George because he gives them hope that:

a) He’ll keep the blacks out of the neighborhood.

b) He’ll cut their taxes, just like he does the taxes of all those big corporations.

c)      He’ll make sure that every zygote blooms into a pwecious wittle baby; not one little bundle o’ stem cells in a Petri dish will be crying “Oh, Daddy, please, don’t kill us! We’ll be good! We’ll clean our plates! Dishes! Whatever!”

d)     He’ll put God, damn it, back at the center of American life.

e)      He’ll kill them heathen bastards in the Middle East.

Honestly, how can anyone take these people seriously? I was watching that bowtied twit Tucker Carlson on some show or other a short while back. He was arguing with a hapless guest about the next Soup-ream Court appointment. TC professed amazement at the idea that there are some good reasons to place a woman (you know, one of those people what ain’t got a prominent Adam’s apple) on the court.

Is it possible that Carlson is as complete an idiot as his expressed incomprehension would suggest? (Gosh, let me see if I can think of why it might be a Good Thing to have a couple of women, in a nation whose population is more than half women, on the Supreme Court to help decide on legal issues that affect women in ways powerfully out of proportion to the way they affect men. Oh, geez. Help me out here, would you? I’m really struggling with this one. Me & Tucker, we have a problem here.)

Or is Carlson thoroughly and utterly cynical, pretending to amazement that he does not feel for the sake of ratcheting up the rhetorical heat of his lame-o program? Or is it possible that he is both thoroughly and utterly cynical, and a complete idiot as well?  

Uncle Frank reports; you decide.

Media Morons

Not to single out Carlson, although I just did, for an extra helping of Uncle Frank’s Special Hot Sauce of Opprobrium. He’s merely one of the mainstream media-moron gang. They’re everywhere.

Don’t it just make ya weary? It made me call up the blessedly divine James Dobson of Croak Us on the Family, to ask him for some of his inspired guidance. He oughta know from guidance, given that he’s bright enough to compare stem cell research to Nazi medical experiments.

“Hey, Jim, I been feelin’ all out of sorts with this criminal bunch o’ fools wreckin’ the country….  Yeah, you know, Bush & Cheney and all…. Oh, I mean, lying us into a war, spending the kids into debt, getting what they want by scaring the crap outta people and throwing their weight around like a buncha mobsters…. & all that dopey booya about religion—I see that Boy George thinks ‘intelligent design’ oughta be taught as an alternative to scientific evolution. What I want to know is, if the design is so all-fired intelligent, how come a dimwit like W is in the White House, huh? What’s intelligent about that?”

The Divinely Blessed Father Dobson hung up on me. I guess I don’t qualify for divine counsel. Jesus probably hates me, too. I should get one of these buttons:http://www.stickergiant.com/page/sg/PROD/g555.

Maybe you’ll have better luck with the Right Hand o’ God. You can ask the Most Holy Blessed Jimbo a question right here:  http://www.family.org/

So, You Know—You Know?

But getting back to the point: Why bother? When we are all the pathetic dupes of a hazard beyond our power to control, even to influence, why not just lie back and take it like the targets we are?

I’m not advocating defeatism or nothin’ like that, but Uncle Frank kind of wishes that it would all just go away, you know?

You do know, don’t you.

Graphic by Karen McGinnis

Uncle Frank’s Diary Home

Number 13:

Uncle Frank’s Diary
Number Thirteen

And Oil Has Nothing to Do with It

On toppled statues of Saddam Hussein, happy Iraqis deliver the ultimate local insult as they beat on the face of Saddam’s graven image with the soles of their shoes. How can one not feel good for people who have escaped the bondage of a thug?

Even if one doubts, as I do, that a desire to liberate Iraq played any real part in the motivations of the Bush Gang’s invasion. Considering the willingness of a long line of U.S. administrations to countenance the inhumanity of dictators around the world, provided the creeps kowtowed to American interests of the moment, the yapping about “liberation” that we hear from the administration and from the pimps for war in the media is unconvincing. Whatever liberation flows from this adventure is strictly of the epiphenomenal sort: It is the smoke, not the fire.

In Bed with the Evil Ones

If we found freedom of the oppressed our guiding light, why did we, in years past, provide aid and comfort to such masters of oppression as Fulgencio Batista (Cuba); the Somozas (Nicaragua); the Duvaliers (Haiti); Pinochet (Chile); Ngo Dinh Diem (South Vietnam); Mohammed Zia Ul-Haq (Pakistan); and so on? Murderers, torturers, thieves, drug runners, the U.S. has been in bed with all of them, willingly.

The pious pap about liberation erects a false front for the masses’ disorientation. It helps assuage the consciences of those who confuse “reality” with Survivorand its ilk, and who think they’re seeing “the news” when they watch the Fox network. It helps convince them that their or their neighbors’ or their friends’ sons and daughters in the military died in a noble cause, rather than to help the con artists and warmongers who populate the Bush Administration pursue a political agenda hostile to the most fundamental tenets of democracy, inimical to the best traditions of American life, and that further diminish American security in a world alive with people who hate and fear us. (Gee, I wonder why?)

It helps convince them that killing thousands of Iraqis—most of whom were themselves helpless victims of Saddam Hussein and his goons—can be excused by some greater good of freedom won for the survivors. It helps persuade them to accept the Bush Gang’s big lie that diplomacy could not have worked, that time had run out, that U.S. patience was very reasonably at an end—when, in fact, the Bush machine clearly never intended any route but war to obtain what it wanted in Iraq. What it wanted, aside from assured access to the oil (would this invasion have taken place if Iraq’s chief export were peanut oil rather than petroleum?), was to put in place a government that would bend to American interests.

I’m sorry: to the interests of a small minority of Americans.

As history has shown, however, the bigger the lie, the more ready the eager crowds are to believe it. Despite the child’s assurances, a mother won’t believe that her adolescent daughter has cleaned up the mess in her room, but she’ll believe that a U.S. invasion of Iraq—a country that never threatened this nation—has nothing to do with either oil or George W. Bush’s messianic conceit. Go figure, eh?

Escaping the World in War

One source that can help the figuring is a recent book, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (PublicAffairs, 2002; $23; ISBN 1586480499), by the veteran war correspondent Chris Hedges. Hedges draws on his direct experience in contemporary war zones to base his observations on the role of the media in war (they sell out); on the way the public—that’s us—finds heightened purpose in the focus and camaraderie of war, as opposed to the dreary banality of daily life; on the addiction to war so common among its correspondents; and on the nationalist mythology that plays such a significant role in international conflict.

I question Hedges in some places, and his concluding remarks on dealing with the problem of war may be tied too closely to his own experience to achieve the universality at which he aims. Nevertheless, his book leaves a lingering undertow of ideas, many of them very troubling. I finished it shortly after the Iraq invasion began, and found its brooding presence intruding in my mind again and again as I watched and read coverage of the carnage.

A piece from Hedges, “The Press and the Myths of War,” is one of the highlights of the April 21 issue of The Nation; it comes partly from the book, and partly from Hedges’ response to the invasion. Reading it will provide some of the sense of the book—but it is not a substitute for it. You can go to the essay (while the link works) at:


A paperback edition of the book is apparently imminent, if you want to save a few bucks by waiting.


Graphic by Karen McGinnis

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