Each week, the Sunday Post highlights a few articles we enjoyed this week, good for consumption over a cup of coffee (or tea, if that’s your pleasure). Settle in for a while; we saved you a seat. You can also look through the archives.
Call Me American, Abdi Nor Iftin’s just-published memoir about his experiences as a child during the civil war in Somalia and his long journey to the United States, should have been a feel-good story. As Rich Smith reports, the book’s own journey has been one of conflict rather than celebration, with events cancelled first in Portland, Maine (where Iftin lives) and now at Seattle’s Town Hall. A surprisingly complicated story about representation, community pride, and the very different sensitivities of the literary and development sectors.
In an e-mail, a spokesperson for Town Hall says they canceled because the organizations they'd partnered with for the event pulled out, including "a notable Somali organization" that didn't want to participate "in something they see as dividing their community."
Town Hall had hoped to "facilitate a conversation in partnership with Forterra [a conservation organization] and representatives of the local Somali community," according to their spokesperson. But Forterra, who had served as the liaison between local Somali communities, pulled out after receiving complaints about Nor Iftin.
Meanwhile, in the same week that Harper's published a self-serving account of social and professional ostracization by John Hockenberry, the New York Review of Books has an issue about #MeToo devoted entirely to men, including a defense of Jian Ghomeshi by ... Jian Ghomeshi. Slate's Isaac Chotioner asked editor Ian Buruma why.
Was there a gender breakdown during the discussion?
I would say not necessarily just in this particular case. I would say that on issues to do with #MeToo and relations between men and women and so on, there isn’t so much a gender breakdown as there is a generational one. I think that is generally true. I don’t think our office is in any way unusual. I think people over 40 and under 40 often have disagreements about this.
How old are you?
Recently the Ballard branch of the Seattle Public Library installed bars across the concrete blocks outside its doors that are meant to deter homeless people from sitting, sleeping, or otherwise taking refuge near the building. As Seattle’s homeless population grows, the city’s library system has struggled to define how service to this and other marginalized groups fits into its mission — especially how to balance it against service to other stakeholders.
Finding that balance, though hard, could be critical to the survival of libraries as an institution. As sociologist Eric Klinenberg tracks in this essay, the value libraries provide as a civic commons is much harder to duplicate than their most familiar service (access to books and other media). A library that protects its most privileged patrons at the cost of others is less valuable — and more at risk.
As recipients of public funding, Seattle’s libraries are vulnerable to public opinion. Given a choice between supporting our libraries’ ability to serve the broadest possible range of citizens — or putting them in the crossfire of one of our most virulent debates about public policy — what will we choose?
The openness and diversity that flourish in neighborhood libraries were once a hallmark of urban culture. But that has changed. Though American cities are growing more ethnically, racially and culturally diverse, they too often remain divided and unequal, with some neighborhoods cutting themselves off from difference — sometimes intentionally, sometimes just by dint of rising costs — particularly when it comes to race and social class.
Libraries are the kinds of places where people with different backgrounds, passions and interests can take part in a living democratic culture. They are the kinds of places where the public, private and philanthropic sectors can work together to reach for something higher than the bottom line.
Here’s another from the “yes, this is really hard, but seriously” pool: in Philadelphia, people have been smuggling drugs and other contraband into prisons inside of books, so the prisons are barring book donations to prisoners.
The Department of Corrections isn’t trying to ban books. They’re just trying to limit how prisoners lay hands on them — through channels that the prison controls. As a byproduct, prisoners may no longer have access to free books, instead paying for them from wages of less than a dollar per hour.
Critics see the DOC rules as part of the same "war on books" — and they are hoping to achieve the same reversal here. To that end, they’ve already set up online petitions and planned a day of action for Friday to flood state officials and lawmakers with phone calls. Organizations including the Pennsylvania ACLU and the Pittsburgh-based Abolitionist Law Center that have sued the DOC successfully in the past said they are evaluating the situation.
"We’re already starting to get a lot of complaints," said the Abolitionist Law Center’s Bret Grote. "It was only a few days into this in which it became clear to me that this is almost certainly going to result in years of protracted litigation, and it’s going to become a defining moment in the future of prisons in this state."