The Librarian, the Banker and General

One of my earliest memories is sitting on a little wooden chair with a row of giant Dr. Seuss books, spines aligned revealing their titles, seated neatly on the half-height bookcases at our local public library. Once a week my mother and her friend Ramona, who was the playground teacher/arts and crafts person at our local elementary school, would take me so I could choose the books I wanted to read during the next week. I liked Dr. Suess books a lot, and books about the sun, even though I didn’t understand much of what they said.

I’m told that I was reading before I entered kindergarten, but I have no memories that are in relation to time or place, to know for myself. I do remember first grade, sitting in circles, reading books out loud with other children, being so bored and laughing at “see Spot run! Run Spot, run!” repeated over and over again. I also remember being told by the teacher that I cannot tell the other children what the words are; they must figure them out for themselves. It was a frustrating process for me. It was an exercise in patience.

It was largely my mother’s fault, I am certain. I remember her taping the written name on everything in the house. I remember the sounds of letters, and struggling to understand why “th” or “ough” was the way it was. I remember when sounding out letters became more than just that — when the words started forming their associated objects in my mind, and reading comprehension began. I can only presume that is what made Spot running and running so boring to read.

Today I was reminded of this by a Seattle Times article about a huge jump in library use by the public. They attribute people’s more frequent library visits to our economic downturn. I would be interested to know what types of books are being checked out. We are known to be one of the most literate places in the country, and our King County Library System is second only to Queens Borough, NY in use. Nationally, 68 percent of Americans now have a library card.

Even more surprising, at least to me, is we are reading more actual literature. The article claims that for the first time in 25 years, more of us are wanting to read something substantial. Half of us, in fact. If you look at 18-24 year old people, the increase is even more substantial. This is very good news, considering the vast majority of university degrees are currently in business. My hope is that people are beginning to question, and are seeking answers, that focusing alone upon business and money simply cannot provide.

Social sciences come in second to business, with around half as many undergraduates. That is an interesting group of people, whose powers can be used for good or ill by the predominantly business world. The same holds true for the third and fourth place disciplines of education and psychology. It is interesting noting that our society, characterized by its dominance by business and marketing, produces people educated mostly with degrees in business, psychology and broad social sciences. Our education is dominated by business, and then the disciplines of studying the mind, and the society, and back to education.

Most surprising to me is that philosophy majors, though a tiny minority, have been slowly yet steadily increasing. These are the people trained to think beyond any given discipline. They question everything, and seek answers. Possibly this trend reflects what people are doing on their own, by reading more literature. We attribute the invention of the public library system to one of our country’s founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin. What we might forget is that many of our founding fathers were also deep into the philosophical writings and ideas of the time, that were wandering about in Europe. These philosopher’s critiques of their own cultures, and their ideas for better ones, could be played out and realized in our nascent America, which was not burdened by the traditions and power structures firmly established in their European societies. And this, our founding fathers did.

But as with all free things, some one, some group, or some prevailing purpose or idea will seek to take ahold. For us, this is money. It is money, at the cost of us caring for one another. It is a monstrous industry grown up around war and destruction — of control, painted in the guise of “security”. It is the pursuit of money, where all else is secondary, even life.

There is no way I can express how happy it makes me, learning that people are reading more. How happy I am that they are seeking alternate ideas and perspectives. How happy I am, that it matters to them.

Thousands of letters were sent to families of soldiers who died, and these letters were signed, looking like a human, by a computer. Each letter named this family’s son or daughter, “John Doe”. For some reason, the Pentagon said this horrified them. But what is the difference? Nobody from the Pentagon saw or signed the letters, anyway. The soldiers are John Doe, even if the names were right. I suppose you could say, it is the efficiency of business.

Our President in a national interview claimed that one of the greatest successes of his Presidency, looking back, is the triumph over Al Qaeda in Iraq. When reminded that there was no Al Qaeda in Iraq until he attacked it, his response was, “Yeah, so what?” In the meantime, millions of people are dead and crippled in horrific ways, while a very few others become even richer, and our government and economy go bankrupt.

And by example, Israel, which was created a few years ago forcibly on Palestinian land, subsequently locks the Palestinian people into walled-off areas where their food, medical supplies and power are all controlled by Israel. The Palestinian people elect, legitimately, through a democratic voting process, Hamas to be their government leaders. We and Israel refuse to recognize the outcome of this election because Hamas is not a supplicant to the Israeli will. Instead, we kill thousands of Palestinians. It is true that Palestinians have fought against Israel occupying their land. It is not ethically correct for them to kill Israelis for this. Nor was it ethically correct for Israel to be established there in the first place. Nor is it ethically correct for Israel to do what they are now doing, to the Palestinian people. Nor is it right for us to say to Israel, we are behind you 100%.

War is easy. It is also highly profitably for the few correctly-positioned people. High short-term gains. It takes a lot of money to be elected. When we take into account emergency and supplemental spending, the United States is giving around $1 trillion dollars each year, into the military/industrial complex. This is more than all other nations on Earth, combined. At the same time, we are the only wealthy and industrialized nation that does not provide health care to its citizens, yet we pay more per capita for health care than any of them by far, to insurance companies and hospitals.

I wonder what might happen if we took even half the money we spend on destruction and spend it, instead, on the constructive, both here and for other people around the world. This might hurt the oil industry, and the pharmaceutical industry. And if we provide ourselves with cheaper universal health care, we would certainly hurt the medical insurance industry. But maybe George Bush’s wisdom isn’t really all that far off: “Yeah, so what?”

Move beyond the psychologists and sociologists. Look at the true images of war and death. Find out why so many of our soldiers are committing suicide. Find out why so many Israeli soldiers are. Imagine why our own soldiers, thousands of killed young men and women, are never seen, nor the many, many thousands more that have been mutilated, yet still live. Move beyond the business people and look at what a war economy means. Move beyond the business people and look at care and compassion, only for those with money, really means.

It is hopeful, believing that people are questioning. We stand on the brink of so many possibilities that science and technology have brought us. Just imagine what we might be capable of, if we can bring our more pround sense of humanity into this future. A future that instead values life over all.