That’s What Libraries Should Do

Filled with ideas (image from

On Saturday morning, I worked my monthly volunteer shift at our tiny little library. I turned on the lights, checked the heat pump, turned on both computers and logged into the circulation system, put out the flag and turned the CLOSED sign over to OPEN.

The library’s only open for two hours on Saturday, from 10 to noon, and we had six patrons over the course of two hours. Including me, since I took out two books. I renewed a book, handed out and recorded an interlibrary loan, checked out two DVDs and a book, and handed out six boxes of COVID antigen tests that we got from the state’s Department of Health. But two other things presented themselves as miniature life lessons.

The first was that our librarian stopped by to take the trash and recycling to the transfer station, and to drop off the mail she’d just picked up. And she said, “Do you read graphic novels?”

“Not as something that I seek out, but I’ve read some really wonderful ones. Why?”

She walked over to the new books, and picked up a copy of Gender Queer, the graphic memoir by Maia Kobabe that first came out in 2019 and has just been re-released in a wonderful hardcover edition. She said, “This is a really wonderful book, it helped me understand someone’s experience who’s nonbinary, and asexual.” And then she smiled, and said, “It’s been on the top ten list of challenged books. Whenever the list comes out, I try to make sure that the Library has all of them.”

We don’t talk about this nearly enough, it’s a dangerous thing to say. But one of the foremost functions of education is to take children away from their families. To show them the diversity and wildness of the world, to keep them from being locked into their parents’ molds. Whether you grew up in a brokerage-funded Manhattan penthouse or a fundamentalist ranch house in Amarillo, your parents can only show you one way to live.

There are others.

And the role of school, and the role of a library, is to give kids access to the others. To let us see a broad array of possibilities from which we might choose, any of which might make sense in a given set of circumstances. To let is know that if we feel like a misfit, there are lots of misfits, that we’re not uniquely broken. I learned so many things from libraries, and from bookstores, that my parents would have liked to “protect” me from. Things that I needed to know.

Our homes are little worlds. Our books are big worlds. And the big world is contentious, and won’t reflect all of our values all of the time, and our kids need to know how to navigate that, too. The alternative is a binary: you’re either with us or against us. It’s a closed fortress with the drawbridge up tight, peering out through the keyhole at the enemy hordes.

I’ve now read that book, and I also think it was absolutely terrific. And scary, and illuminating, and uncertain, and honest about being all of those things. Intending to be all of those things.

Thank you to Maia Kobabe. And thank you to our librarian, and all of the librarians who teach us to not be afraid of the world.

The second thing I learned was a simple comparison. I was looking at the poetry to see if we had anything by Robert Hayden, the author of one of my very favorite poems ever. We didn’t. But because we’re a small library, the poems (Dewey 811, American Poems in English) are just adjacent to the essay collections (Dewey 814, American Essays in English). And I stumbled across an essay collection I hadn’t known about, Ursula Le Guin’s 2017 No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters. Le Guin was one of our wise elders, like Jane Jacobs and Barbara Ehrenreich, always able to think broadly abut the world, able to be generous and sharp simultaneously. Writers who afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.

And because we’re a small library, about six inches away from the essays of Ursula Le Guin were the essays of David Sedaris. Snarky, petty, utterly self-absorbed, not a second’s generosity available for anyone. I know which writer I aspire to become. And the adjacency was its own lesson.

Then, this afternoon, a related third lesson. A friend was doing her own volunteer shift at a local arts gallery, and knew that there wouldn’t be swarms of visitors on a 90-degree July afternoon. So she took my most recent little collection of short stories to keep her company for her three hours. Partway through the afternoon, she texted me:

The first story, “Loyalty,” is lyrical and stunning with its generosity and wisdom. Pretty amazing. On to “My Cupcake Pal.”

Then a little later:

In a world of partisanship and division, your stories are a refuge. People are kind and caring.

I’ll take it. That’s another thing that stories can do. As Le Guin says, “The direction of escape is toward freedom. So what is ‘escapism’ an accusation of?” Refuge matters in a storm.

Crime and Punishment

It’s fine to be there, if they agree that you should be
(Image by Michael Dziedzic, via Unsplash),

The concept of consent and non-consent is at the heart of almost all criminal and civil law. The exact same action can be a socially agreeable interchange when mutually consented to, and a crime when done without the consent of one or more parties.

If I take money from someone, it’s a gift or a loan if they’ve offered it, and a theft if they haven’t.

If I take something from a store, it’s a purchase or a promotion if they’ve offered it, and shoplifting if they haven’t.

If I enter someone’s house, it’s hospitality and welcome if they’ve offered it, and trespassing if they haven’t.

If I take money from someone’s bank account, it’s an automatic payment or a Venmo if they’ve offered it, and fraud if they haven’t.

If I hit you, it’s within the rules if we’re boxing or playing hockey, and an assault if we aren’t.

And if I introduce an organism inside your body—one that will certainly make you sick and uncomfortable, and could well kill you, as it grows… and that you’ll legally be required to feed and protect for the next two decades—well, that’s pending parenthood if we’ve agreed, and a wildly violative assault if we haven’t. Someone who does that without consent ought to expect to go to prison for a very, very long time.

The writer Gabrielle Blair has argued the case, far better than I ever could, that every single unwanted pregnancy is the result of what she calls “irresponsible ejaculations.” And her argument relies entirely on the idea of consent, and the notion that women are worthy of being full participants in questions of consent.

Let’s talk about consent as it exists within sexual relations. It’s been ignored far more often than honored, but even when we do think about it, it shouldn’t be treated as a single yes/no question; it’s a whole series of ongoing deliberations, each of which is as important as the one before, with decisions that must always be mutual. Let’s take a simple example, a kind of flowchart of consent. In every case, the only acceptable answer (from every participant) that allows things to proceed is “yes,” preferably “yes, please.” Anything shy of that means that you stop, right that instant. If “yes,” and ONLY if “yes,” then you go on to the next question.

  1. Do you want to have sex?
  2. With this person or these people?
  3. This kind of sex?
  4. Under these conditions?
  5. Now that we’re underway, we still good?
  6. How about this next idea?

At any point along the way, what had been consensual can become nonconsensual, and things should come to a temporary or complete halt. It’s a whole continuum of agreements, each of which matters.

Now, what question is missing there? Oh, yeah. Do you want to have a baby? That’s an entirely independent question. You can have sex without having babies, and you can have babies without having sex. So the idea of consent over becoming pregnant is its own completely separate negotiation, one that women have been and will be criminalized for and men can just blow off. “Sowing your wild oats” is a long-honored tradition among men, leaving acres and acres of invasive plants behind them.

The law is filled with deliberations over what consent means, and under what circumstances it can be requested, offered, and relied upon. Children, for instance, cannot be considered to give consent (the age of legal adulthood in sexual relations is actually called “the age of consent,” but kids also can’t join the Navy or take out a car loan because of the same principle, that they can’t fully understand the implications of their choices). Someone who is intoxicated or drugged, who is asleep or incapacitated, cannot be considered to give consent. Acquiescence in the face of threat or violence cannot be considered to be consent. Power relationships (teacher/student, coach/athlete, supervisor/employee) make consent dubious at best, wound up as it is with all sorts of other necessary considerations—do you want to keep your job, get a promotion, be on the team, get a good grade? Any religious community that claims that women are inherently subservient to men has abandoned any interest in questions of consent. So any pregnancy that occurs under any of those conditions cannot meaningfully be thought to have been consensual.

We need to stop criminalizing women for men’s behavior. The nonconsensual causing of a pregnancy should be a felony.

Now, because I’m an essayist, I know enough that I should address some of the counterarguments that I might be able to predict. So here we go.

Consent can’t be proven. It’s just “he said/she said.” That’s true, and no different than lots and lots of court cases that are framed around disagreeing interpretations (and sometimes outright lies). He said I could borrow his truck. He signed the software licensing agreement. He should have known what he was getting into. He moved in a threatening manner. I was fearful for my safety. That’s what the legal system is set up to investigate and address, in its own flawed and human way.

Why should some young man have his life and his future ruined because of a single mistake? Good question, and I’d always prefer mercy to punishment. But why are we not asking exactly this same question on behalf of women? I mean, if somebody in this equation has committed a crime and is culpable for bearing responsibility, let’s be clear about who it was. And don’t even get me started on “fathers’ rights” when it comes to protesting a girlfriend’s abortion. Someone who has committed a crime has no legal claim to the proceeds.

Who are we, to play God? Great question. Who are we, to decide to have a child at all? Who are we, to invade a country, punish a crime, choose a college, have our kids vaccinated or not, buy a diesel pickup? There is no decision, either made or avoided, that is not a decision, with moral weight and collective impacts. We have to take responsibility for our own complicated and difficult choices, and the ways those choices affect others. And we have to expect that we won’t always agree with others, or even that we’ll always be convinced that we got it right ourselves.

Every life is God’s will. Well, this has three problems. Problem One is that even across Christian denominations, there are Biblically supported disagreements about whether abortion is justified and under what circumstances. Catholic doctrine still holds that contraception is violative of God’s will, too. (Cue Monty Python here.) Our dinky little town has half a dozen Christian clergy members who live here, who have wildly different positions on abortion among them from the same book. And then we move further to include Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and innumerable others, where the diversity is even broader and just as carefully argued, though from different source material.

Problem Two is that the whole notion of “God’s will” becomes completely circular and self-justifying. Was it God’s will that twenty-one people were murdered at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas? No, that was the presence of evil. Oh, okay, so the causing of an unwanted pregnancy is the presence of evil, then? No, that was God’s will. I mean, when God aborts fifteen or twenty percent of all pregnancies Himself, we’re outside any human understanding of what He thinks was a good idea. And again, it lets us off the hook for our own critical thinking and decisionmaking; someone already told us the answer.

And Problem Three is that, as I argued a few days ago, faith and doctrine have no basis to impinge on civil government. Religious liberty means everybody’s religious liberty, regardless of their faith or absence thereof.

It’s easy to think of this argument as a satire, as a Jonathan Swift “modest proposal” that simply points out our boundless hypocrisy. But if I were a member of a state legislature, I’d sponsor a bill tomorrow that would make the unwilling imposition of a pregnancy a serious crime with serious consequences. It would have at least three good outcomes. It would increase women’s autonomy over their bodies, behaviors and lives. It would be morally instructive to men that a hit-and-run pregnancy is not a trivial event. And it would cause the need for abortion to plummet almost instantly.


The pleasures of not knowing
(Image by Marija Zaric, via Unsplash)

Scene 1: Nora and I volunteered to help out a few years back at the funeral service for the son of a town acquaintance. We didn’t know them well, had never met the son, but it’s what you do when your neighbors need you.

We were partway through the setup. Nora decided to go up to the sanctuary to hear some of the service while I finished laying out comfort food down in the community room. She told me later about what she’d heard upstairs. About how all of these hard-working people with remarkably difficult lives got to hear again that heaven awaited. That there was a guaranteed destination at which you would be identifiably your own self, but with all of your imperfections washed away, surrounded by all the very best versions of all the people you knew here. She talked about what a comfort that image would provide.

Scene 2: When I was a kid, I was raised within the American Lutheran Church, the sort of mildly-lefty, social responsibility church that emphasized feeding the poor, comforting the lonely, caring for those you don’t especially like. We heard a lot about “seventy times seven,” about the parable of Mary and Martha, about the Beatitudes. One of the most important moral lessons I ever learned was Luther’s assertion that it is equally a sin to give offense and to take offense. My very first realistic career aspiration was that I wanted to be a Lutheran pastor, to bring those comforts and generosity of spirit to others.

Then for junior high school, my parents sent me across town to a Lutheran K-8 school, but different Lutherans, those of the Missouri Synod, what I think of as the Lutheran Church’s Southern Baptist Outreach Wing. Generosity was gone, community was gone, and it was all about one’s own salvation, or lack thereof. It was the most remarkably self-centered theology I could imagine, drawn not only from the same Bible as the ALC churches, but from the same Martin Luther commentary on the Bible. Wildly different destinations from the same origin.

When that school ended after 8th grade, a new school, Muskegon Catholic Central. Now the Bible had extra books, and five more sacraments, and Purgatory, and saints and bingo and the veneration of Mary, and the priest got all the wine at communion. And after a couple of years of that, I informally converted to anthropology, fascinated by the vast variety of stories people tell themselves to make it through a difficult world.

But when I became an academic and a college teacher, I realized that I had fulfilled that first pastoral career, in a secular form. I got to read difficult, important texts, and think carefully about their meaning. I got to write, and do public speaking. I got to listen to people in emotional or material crisis, to encourage those who had lost courage for themselves.

And after The Adjunct Underclass came out, dozens of people reached out to me with their own stories of academic shame and failure, and I wrote back to them or talked to them. All of them. And one day, after a long call that Nora had heard one side of, faintly, from downstairs, she said “it sounds like you’re doing academic chaplaincy.”

Same job, different title.

Scene 3: Bumper stickers, at their best, are aphorisms with adhesive on the back. About forty years ago, I saw one that I hold close. Radical Agnostic—I Don’t Know, and Neither Do You.

Scene 4: I was working at the Town’s transfer station a couple of months ago, helping people unload their trash and recycling and running the compactors over and over from 6am to noon. Probably saw a couple of hundred people.

One of them was relatively new to town, had moved here to be with his son and grandkids. His son was in the church-incubation business, traveling into heathen regions like Vermont and trying to establish good Bible-based churches. Whatever that means. Snake handling is Bible-based, too, if you want it to be.

Anyway, he wanted to know whether I was part of a church community, and whether I’d be interested in coming to service. And I said, no, I’d grown up in the faith but had left it behind. And he was crestfallen, a little, but pushed further anyway for a few more minutes.

That’s a remarkably uncomfortable place to be. I understand that he’s doing me a favor, that he wants to save me from the flames. I get that, and in fact, I appreciate it. But I have no parallel interest in changing his thinking. If he’s comforted, then he’s comforted; I have no reason to want that to be gone from his life, to challenge his certainty. So we come into the conversation with asymmetric goals. He wants me to be like him: I want him to be like him, too, and to leave me out of it.

Nora and I have often talked about the traits of people that we find most enjoyable to be with, and foremost among them is curiosity. We love to spend time with people who see the world and ask questions, who want to understand someone else’s reasoning, who grow from the interchange and gradually become different people because of their interactions.

One of the great joys of academic life is that we’re paid to not know things. To live right on the very outer edges of what’s understood, and to step off the edge into the unknown. And it strikes me that curiosity and faith may be asymmetric and possibly incommensurate impulses. One is about the joy of not knowing, and the other is about the need for certainty. One is open, the other closed. When someone else’s faith tells me how to live, then we’ve entered into a form of colonialism in which one foreign power has dominion over everyone’s options.

I was reading a couple of days ago about why religious freedom, and religious neutrality, were so important to the attendees of the Constitutional Convention. And one of the core reasons is that they were still defending their own little state turf. They’d gotten to be rich and powerful men by having dominion over one or another of the Royal land grants, New Jersey or New York or New Hampshire, and the whole idea of States in the United States came because they weren’t about to cede that power. But each of the states at the time had pretty different religious communities at their core. Lots of them were Anglican, because duh. Maryland was Anglican, too, but they were more tolerant of the Catholics than the others. Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut were Congregational; Pennsylvania was Quaker. And the writers of the constitution recognized pretty quickly that if they wanted there to be a United in the United States, they had to get past those denominational certainties pretty firmly.

The alternative is Northern Ireland during the Troubles, when every trash bin or parked car might be your death. The alternative is the Sunni and the Shia, the Hutu and the Tutsi. There are hundreds and hundreds of Christian denominations in America, all of which would claim to be “Bible-based,” all of which look askance (or aghast) at the practices of the others.

In every theocracy, it’s not only the heretics who have to watch their backs. It’s the insufficiently or incorrectly devout. If the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod ran the nation’s government, the American Lutheran Church would immediately become an oppressed religious minority.

I hope that we can be brave enough to embrace uncertainty, and the curiosity that accompanies it. To admit that we just don’t know, but that we still try. To stand on principles like generosity and comfort and mercy and welcome, even as we know that we can’t even get those exactly right in every circumstance for all people. The alternative will be unthinkably cruel to all but those handful who have embraced the one true way.

The Ruthlessness Gap

No, he’s not in the mood to listen right now
(image by Nick Bolton, via Unsplash)

Angry men with lots of guns who believe they know exactly what god wants… that’s always worked out well, right? Afghanistan, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen. Are those our aspirational countries? Because that’s the track that a lot of us have chosen.

We’re going through a lot of turmoil as a nation right now. And for those of us who are afraid, well, we should be. But I think we should understand why.

When someone’s default position is to be inclusive, to consider alternatives, to be empathetic, that’s just not an attitude that leads toward immediate and decisive action. It’s a deliberative position, one that acknowledges that we will never have full and complete answers but need to act anyway, always amending our course and our destination alike, but always in the service of making life kinder and more merciful to more people.

When someone’s default position is to know exactly and eternally what the right answer must be, there’s an innate ruthlessness to that stance. They’ll cut your throat and not think twice about it, knowing that they’re doing holy work. So those of us on the side of inclusion and mercy will inherently face a ruthlessness deficit when it comes to political combat. See, for instance, the sidelining of Merrick Garland for Brett Kavanaugh. That was just a political car-bombing, violence for the sake of the win. Its ruthlessness took half of us by surprise… but not the other half. It was an act of terrorism, the political strategy that inherently flows from ruthlessness.

In 1996, the linguist and philosopher George Lakoff published a book called Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know that Liberals Don’t. Lakoff’s research was motivated by the idea that our behavior is governed (often invisibly) by the metaphors we use to make sense of what’s around us. And he argued in this book that we are torn between two unspoken models of parenthood—what he called at the time the “strict father” and the “nurturing mother.” Social conservatives emphasize moral strength and moral obedience; social liberals emphasize nurturing, empathy, fairness and protection. The strict father leans toward reward and punishment for individuals; the nurturing mother leans toward the idea that mistakes are inevitable but that the fallen can always be welcomed back to the family.

The strict parent acts fast, with a belt or with his fists, to correct your errors. The nurturing parent sits you down on the couch for a two-hour talk about your choices and the alternatives you might have considered. The first has two benefits for its practitioners: certainty and immediacy. The fact that it’s also cruel, and raises people who perpetuate that cruelty, is irrelevant.

As has been said way too many times, and far too accurately, in the past five or six years: the cruelty is the point.

The fundamental blessing of America, the thing that has made us great (and the thing that marks all of the advanced economies and free people of the world) is exactly that we are a secular nation, always amending our course toward “a more perfect union.” The Founding Fathers (to use a particularly loaded metaphor—we might instead call them the original Washington elites, enormously wealthy, more than half of them trained as lawyers) were among the most well educated and secular men in the Colonies. They knew that they did not want to replicate the Church and Crown of England, in which the King was not installed by his people but ordained by God. They went out of their way, over and over, to ensure that common people could be heard, that we had the right to autonomy over our selves and our homes, that we needn’t be subservient to any person or faith, that the power of leaders was always harnessed. They wrangled endlessly, and not one single one of them believed that the Constitution they had brought forth was either permanent nor perfect. It was an act of human relations, and thus by definition messy and contentious and negotiated and incomplete.

If we believe that America will always be messy and contentious and negotiated and incomplete—that in fact those are our highest strengths—then we’ll always be able to push forward.

The alternative to this openness is ruthlessness, aiming only for the victory regardless of cost. The alternative to this openness is theocracy, in which one specific reading of one specific book must be the ruling force for us all. The alternative to this openness is oligarchy, in which wealth is its own justification for power.

More tomorrow.