The big talk of the town right now within the American archivist profession is that a major listserv, known as Archives and Archivists, or A&A, is being shut down at the end of 2017. A&A is administered by the Society of American Archivists (SAA), and has been in existence for well over two decades. SAA is a membership-supported (i.e. dues-paying) organization, though non-members have long been able to subscribe to A&A. A&A has such a longstanding notorious reputation within the profession that it has its own derogatory nickname that’s been in use for years – #ThatDarnList (almost always hashtagged because it’s most frequently deployed on Twitter, where’s it’s been in use since at least 2009).
Why is A&A so notorious? Simply put, because A&A has a long track record of being a hostile environment for many archivists – especially women, people of color, and young/early-career archivists. Many archivists have written about this, these links from the last few years give a good overview:
Lest you think this problem has been brought on by “snowflake leftist social justice warrior” millenials who eat too much avocado toast and complain about unpaid internships, A&A has had a bad reputation way before anyone coined the term millenial. Things apparently got pretty wild in 1992-1993. Don’t believe me? Well go back and read these two pieces from American Archivist.
Like many other archivists, I’ve cheered the recent decision by SAA Council to end the listserv. I left active subscription to A&A a few years ago and have not returned. I have personally encountered the hostile atmosphere of A&A, and it’s become increasingly embarrassing to see how bullshit on the listserv comes off to new archivists and information professionals who are adjacent to archives. Archivists claim to be professionals, but judging from the listserv, it’s hard to see where some of our fellow archivists could actually claim any sense of professionalism. A&A has not been a good resource for years – many of the most knowledgeable people in our field left it long ago. In fact, the toxicity is now so notorious that it’s getting written about outside of our field. Somehow I don’t think this is the kind of public awareness that the Committee on Public Awareness had in mind.
One of the larger conversations provoked by the shutting down of A&A is the question of staying professionally involved. According to the #thatdarnlist hashtag, many of the subscribers to A&A are now concerned about losing access to this source of information about the profession. I’ve encountered a similar sentiment on a regional archivists listserv, and I find it strange. More on that in a forthcoming post.
This is an annotated version of the lectern copy of my opening keynote at NDSA’s Digital Preservation 2017: Preservation is Political in Pittsburgh on October 25. You can watch the recording here.
There is something I didn’t tell people in my formal talk, but I want to share here. Prior to my keynote, the last time I was in Pittsburgh was when I drove up the day after last year’s presidential election (after having worked the entire day as a poll worker in a Cincinnati suburb), because I was on an environmental panel for the Association of Moving Image Archivists annual meeting that was being held in downtown Pittsburgh. During our AMIA panel, everyone said, “Well I did all my preparation a few days ago, who knows what will happen to the EPA or Paris agreement now?” So it felt like things really came full circle for me to be asked back to Pittsburgh, a city that I love and a city that has such strong environmental and cultural ties to my beloved hometown of Cincinnati, but the site where, among archivists, I processed much of my immediate post-election grief and shock. And so it was a profound and moving experience to return to the same location, a year later, to speak in such a public way about one of the topics nearest to my heart. I am so grateful to the NDSA/DLF organizers for that opportunity.
When I wrote this keynote, there was a lot I left on the cutting room floor. Since I am only planning on revising a small part of my keynote for subsequent publication, this is my main opportunity to throw back in those bits as footnotes, and additional thoughts about the weird times we are all living through. The main text is the lectern copy I used during the keynote itself. The images are the slides I presented in Pittsburgh. Following the lectern copy text are a list of sources, and my extra bonus content annotations.
THE NECESSARY KNOWLEDGE
In 1889, an item appeared at the bottom of the Pittsburg Dispatch. Just a few lines long, and sandwiched between reports of train accidents, it read:
Health officer Bradley, of Allegheny, has started a crusade against the doctors who have not reported their cases of typhoid fever, and threatens to fine them $50 for their neglect. There is both an act of the Assembly and a city ordinance requiring these reports, and blanks have been to sent to all the city physicians.
The Act of the Assembly had been in place for years, and it would be expanded as the death tolls rose. Pittsburgh had a disproportionately high number of typhoid cases, and this modest notice foreshadowed the struggles that link environmental protection, public health, and recordkeeping in a way that American society struggles with to this day.
The lack of consistent morbidity reporting by physicians, despite their legal requirement to do so, reflected part of the long transition to government vital record keeping. Record keeping had expanded as government responsibility grew for public health matters. Public health matters were becoming urgent as industrialization and city crowding endangered the health of Pittsburgh’s air and water. As typhoid fever cases accumulated, the requirements regulating reporting and other measures went from half a page of legal guidance, to nine pages of guidance 2 decades later.
25 years after enough death records were issued, researchers established horrifying links between the health of Pittsburgh’s rivers and the health of those who drank from it. Pittsburgh is bounded by the Allegheny to the north, the Monongahela to the south, and both converge to form the headwaters of the Ohio River. Recordkeeping alone had not reduced the prevalence of typhoid, but it provided clear and convincing evidence that river pollution was to blame for the disease. No one could simply write it off as the fault of squalid tenement living or of tainted milk. The primary culprits were political and corporate leaders who had allowed the rivers to be used as a dumping ground, and neglected to create large-scale water treatment facilities. No one could say exactly how much was dumped in the rivers, but everyone knew that industrial waste of iron and steel mills, tanneries, and slaughterhouses, and the human waste of communities upstream from Pittsburgh, had seriously compromised local water.
With sufficient death records to establish links between the water supply and typhoid fever, the picture was stark. Pittsburgh had one of the highest typhoid fever death rates in the United States, far higher than any other major city. Reformers pointed to other cities with successful water management systems, where typhoid fever deaths were a fraction of Pittsburgh’s. During a nine-year period following the health commissioner’s threat to fine doctors, the death toll was between 104 and 130 per 100,000 people, while cities like Washington and Philadelphia had close to half this rate (Wing, p. 66). After four years of political delays, during which an additional 1,500 deaths stacked up, Pittsburgh’s water filtration plant finally went into operation.
This assessment was part of a several thousand page study on Pittsburgh at the turn of the century. Carried out by dozens Progressive Era social researchers, the work of the Pittsburgh survey was published in six volumes between 1910 and 1914, and it covered dozens of topics, including women’s working conditions in sweatshops, the status of orphans and foster children, and steel worker unionization after the deadly Homestead Strike.
Pittsburgh, the home of US Steel and the cradle of Andrew Carnegie’s wealth, was a showcase for the fallout of America’s Gilded Age. One of the frequently occurring motifs of the Pittsburgh survey is a city coated in soot, dust, and grime.1. This grime was inescapable, from factories where workers were directly exposed, to homes where the dust settled inside the walls. The grime was the inevitable outcome of a city that was the steel capital of the world.
Progressive Era reformers drew explicit connections between the wastes of industrialization and public health in ways that ranged from the graphic exposure of books like The Jungle, to the less-visible work of improving the kind of medical and municipal recordkeeping that we now take for granted. Bureaucratized recordkeeping, such as death certificates, were increasingly widespread by the Progressive Era thanks to advances in increased literacy, the emergence of professions, and the role of the state in controlling public health. However, early recordkeeping was inconsistent, presenting issues for researchers. The Pittsburgh surveyors reported challenges accessing and making sense of municipal and corporate records. Surveyors researching workplace injuries relied on coroner’s and hospital records, as only some employers were willing to share their records. Even then, available records omitted pertinent information, or were illegible. Others investigating public sanitation records noted that while violations were often recorded, prosecutions were rarely initiated.
The typhoid surveyors didn’t just draw on death records to establish links between the city’s water supply and typhoid fever, they also created their own records as part of a case study assessing the disease’s economic impact to over 300 families. This work was carried out under the charge of a local settlement house nurse named Anna Heldman, whose existing relationships with local families was viewed as a critical asset for data collection (Wing, pp. 72-74). The surveyors found that there were significant income losses due to sickness from the contaminated rivers. This echoed a problem we continue to struggle with, which is that environmental pollution disproportionately impacts poor communities.
But perhaps what the typhoid fever investigators did best was making records visible in ways that humanized the blandness of statistics. An exhibit of some of the survey’s findings were exhibited at the Carnegie Institute, and the walls featured a frieze depicting over 600 silhouettes of men, women, and children. These represented the area’s typhoid fever death toll from the previous year, and the borders of the published report were similarly decorated. To illustrate the entire 25-year long death toll, the surveyors superimposed a line starting at the courthouse and ending near a filtration plant on the Allegheny River. The line represented an end to end body count of more than 7,422 citizens who had lost their life to typhoid fever, or according to their measurements, a death toll equivalent to almost 6 miles long.
As the field work of the survey started in 1907 (Butler, p. 4), a child was born 14 miles northeast of Pittsburgh (Souder, p.24). She grew up seeing the smokestacks along the Allegheny River, where a century later, a bridge was renamed in her honor on Earth Day. She transformed the US environmental movement through the publication of a book that shook the country and exposed the hubris of unquestioned technology.
Rachel Carson attended the Pennsylvania College for Women, located in Pittsburgh’s East End, and today known as Chatham University (Souder p.26).2 She studied biology, and went on to become an information specialist for what eventually became the US Fish and Wildlife Service (Souder, p. 5). There she summarized scientific research into information for the public. Before writing her most famous book, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson publish highly-regarded and wildly popular books about the ocean, making her a household name well before she turned her attention to pesticides.
Published in 1962, Silent Spring has been called “a beautiful book about a dreadful topic” (Oreskes & Conway, p. 216). Carson shined a spotlight on the indiscriminate applications of popular post-war insecticides like DDT, which was starting to show up in the food chains of insects, fish, birds, mammals, and eventually within the bodies of humans. A counterweight to corporate boosterism of better living through chemistry, Silent Spring painted a horrifying portrait of lifeless rivers that previously teemed with fish, silenced backyards that used to host busy bird feeders, and agricultural workers who fell in fields. Carson showed that indiscriminate use of pesticides could not be isolated to a single area or species. Chemical toxins accumulated in the bodies of non-target species with profound consequences. A bird might die from DDT or its chemical cousins by eating contaminated worms, by ingesting DDT itself, or by starving to death as the insects it ate were wiped out during a spraying campaign.
Rachel Carson knew about the dangers of widespread pesticide applications for years. As a Fish and Wildlife employee in the late 1940s, she edited reports on the division’s tests of DDT (Souder, pp. 7-8). The main regulatory law affecting pesticide use at the time was the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), but it was primarily a registry and labelling law overseen by the US Department of Agriculture. FIFRA was not expanded to examine toxicity on wildlife and public health until 1972 – the same year that the US banned use of DDT (EPA, “FIFRA” & “DDT”).
To write Silent Spring, Carson relied on her well-honed approaches of pursuing correspondence with field experts, reading staggering amounts of scientific literature, and working closely with librarians. In a nod to the enduring importance of librarians’ labor to her writing, she acknowledged that “every writer of a book based on many diverse facts owes much to the skill and helpfulness of librarians” and specifically thanked Department of Interior librarian Ida Johnston, and National Institute of Health librarian Thelma Robinson for their help. Carson drew on everything from Audubon Club bird watcher reports to Congressional hearings to federal agency reviews to research studies in international journals of medicine.
Carson was not the first person to raise the alarm about the danger of pesticides (Carson, p. 31, 170). But what set Carson apart was her ability to synthesize many bureaucratic reports and scholarly scientific findings into a form that resonated with the public – and compelled regulatory action. She knew that the accusations she lodged against pesticide practices were incendiary, and she took enormous care in documenting all of her claims, insisting that the publisher include a fifty-page guide to her sources. This wasn’t just to ensure scholarly rigor – after all, Silent Spring was a book for a general audience – it was to proactively address the very real concern that Carson and her publisher might be the target of a libel suit.
What happened to Rachel Carson next was a blueprint of attacks that have been replicated against researchers whose findings turn out to be very inconvenient to industries and their government enablers. When Silent Spring was published, corporate interests came for Carson with a viciousness that feels both dated and alarmingly contemporary at the same time. She was castigated for her lack of an advanced degree, her suspicious love of animals, and for being just another hysterical spinster. Carson took care in her measured prose to note that she was not opposed to all pesticide use, but that her opposition was to the unrestrained way in which they were used with scant attention paid to existing safety studies.
Eight years after Silent Spring was published, Richard Nixon signed a reorganization plan that created the Environmental Protection Agency, consolidating responsibility for dozens of existing environmental laws – including FIFRA – into one agency. Many of these laws were expanded to require significant new record keeping responsibilities to document pollution emissions, and assure citizen’s right to know about potential toxic exposures. The EPA’s original charge included the mandate that it “[gather] information on pollution” to “strengthen environmental protection programs and recommend policy changes.” (Nixon, p. 5). One of the greatest underrated legacies of the EPA’s creation is that it has enormously expanded the amount of environmental information available to the public through monitoring, reporting, and permitting record systems3. We do not often think of the creation of records as a victory, but effectively addressing pollution without those records is incredibly difficult, as we can see in today’s Pennsylvania landscape.
Shortly after President Trump announced he would pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement, he stated “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris” (Woodall, 2017).4 While the city of Pittsburgh has made notable progress towards a fossil free future, it is also in the center of the Marcellus Shale region, the largest U.S. natural gas field and which covers three-fifths of Pennsylvania, as well as parts of Ohio, West Virginia, New York and Maryland (EIA, 2017a). For the last four years, Pennsylvania has been the nation’s second-largest natural gas producer (EIA, 2017b).
Much of this growth has been due to the expansion of hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking. Fracking has been around for decades, but it was not widely deployed until the early 2000s (EPA, 2016; Congressional Research Service, 2015a). Fracking is a process where large amounts of water, sand, and chemicals are injected into deep wells to fracture, or crack open, rock formations to release oil and gas deposits. Fracking’s immediate environmental risks come from potential links to earthquakes, methane leakage, and water contamination. Many of the rural residents in the Marcellus Shale region have complained that fracking operations have contaminated their water supplies.
Fracking poses documented danger to water supplies. But establishing a conclusive link to hold energy companies accountable is difficult because of an absence of industry and governmental records 5. The oil and gas industry claims there is minimal risk, because fracking happens in rock formations below any groundwater supplies. However, there are many other routes to water contamination, including onsite chemical spills, failures in the underground pipes, and improper waste disposal. Contamination of well water, a common water supply in rural regions, is especially difficult to prove because there are often no baseline water purity records prior to fracking. Furthermore, many industries avoid full disclosure of their fracking chemicals by claiming confidential business information (Congressional Research Service, 2015b; EPA, 2016).
Regulation depends on reliable record keeping. Regulations mandate what records will be created in order to ensure health and safety. Industries with potentially serious environmental impact are often not regulated until there is significant public outcry. There is often spotty documentation, at best, on early environmental impacts of new technologies, leaving citizens without the information they need to to prove pollution claims. The problem is worsened by regulatory agencies that struggle with underfunding and an inability or unwillingness to exercise their enforcement powers. It is further compounded by politicians hostile to environmental regulation. These issues can be seen in recent failures of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection to regulate fracking.
In 2014, the Pennsylvania Auditor General audited the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), reviewing their performance in monitoring and investigating fracking’s effects on water supplies. This is a huge issue because if you think fracking has contaminated your water supply, you have to start by making a complaint to the DEP, which then triggers an investigation. The audit found failure after failure in both DEP’s regulatory responsibilities and its record keeping practices (Pennsylvania Auditor General, 2014). When citizens filed complaints, they did not consistently receive a final letter stating the conclusion of an investigation, inspection records were kept inconsistently, there wasn’t independent verification of industry’s self-reported waste, records were not organized in a way to answer simple big-picture questions such as “How many complaints were related to impacts on water supplies?” and DEP routinely cited confidentiality concerns as an excuse to block access to public records. The Auditor stated he could not conclude whether “public health is being threatened by the gas industry” because “their record keeping is so poor” (Hurdle, 2014). The findings of the state auditor are similar to what much of the scholarly literature on fracking says – that the dangers to water are known, but no one knows quite how widespread it is because state and industry record keeping is so inconsistent. Although the DEP has recently improved some of its online public records access – including crucial citizen complaint records – finding and making sense of the records is notoriously difficult.
Dissatisfied with the status quo, activists have filed numerous public records requests in order to assemble information in a manner far more accessible and comprehensible to the public. The Pittsburgh-based Public Herald literally went to DEP regional offices to scan thousands of citizen complaints which they’ve mapped and made available on their website, publicfiles.org.6
In each of these regional stories, reliable record keeping has been essential to documenting the links between pollution and polluters. When industry and government roll back regulations that require reliable record keeping, we’re quickly on the road to pollution without polluters, in which we know that water and air is being contaminated, but we lack the reliable evidence to document exactly who that polluter is.
Last year’s keynote by Bergis Jules, was titled “Confronting Our Failure of Care Around the Legacies of Marginalized People in the Archives.” Bergis called for us to “[acknowledge] our willful ignorance around the histories of marginalized people of color and to allow new knowledge to affect how we do our work.” The failure of care is a theme that comes up time and again when one considers how injustices perpetrated against the land, air and water are inseparable from the injustices perpetrated against marginalized peoples. Pollution of air and water disproportionately affects poor communities and communities of color, and yet with all our knowledge about this reality, we have failed to embed the concept of care into the way we approach environmental information and record keeping.
What does care look like in an environmental record keeping context? It looks like record keeping that recognizes that impacts to the environment are inseparable to the impacts on our bodies and communities.
While I was preparing for this keynote, I ran across an intriguing example of what this looks like in a story from the Allegheny Front, a website dedicated to regional environmental journalism. The story profiled a local summer youth employment program in which teenagers are working in the predominantly black neighborhood of Lincoln-Lemington on lead poisoning (Holsopple, 2017)7. The neighborhood has older housing stock which means a higher likelihood of lead paint, and like many cities with aging infrastructure, Pittsburgh is grappling with serious lead concerns in its water lines. There is no safe level of lead exposure for children, but the CDC has established what is known as a “reference level at which the agency recommends public health actions be initiated” (CDC, 2017). The reference level is anything above a blood lead level of 5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL). In 2013, 7.5% of tested children here in Allegheny county had blood lead levels above the reference level, and several thousand more children have some level of exposure above zero (Allegheny County Health Department, 2015). The Allegheny County Council recently passed mandatory lead testing for one and two-year old children, and the law will go into effect on January 1 (Deto, 2017). A councilman supporting the legislation stated, “Lead testing gives us information, and without information we can’t assess the problem that we are facing” (Boren, 2017).
Over the summer, the students in the youth employment program mapped buildings in the neighborhood, talked with residents about their lead exposure mitigation strategies, and conducted surveys in cooperation with the Allegheny County Health Department. The students spent 3 days in Flint Michigan talking to activists and community stakeholders there.
I recently spoke to Denise Jones, who served as the project’s director 8. She noted that while there was much quantitative data, there was little qualitative detail. The Health Department might be able to say how many houses were built with lead paint or had lead service lines, but it didn’t have information on how caregivers employed various strategies to keep their children safe. Knocking on doors, clipboards in hand, these students filled in the care-based details that are all too often missing from records that rarely account for how our environments impact our lives.
Preserving and making environmental information accessible is essential if we hope to bring any eventual accountability to power, because the legal and cultural context we live in requires documentary evidence in the form of trustworthy data and reliable records. Polluters know this, and it’s why rolling back regulations that document who is polluting and how is often the first line of attack in what they call bureaucratic red tape – but the documentation that that red tape creates is essential to building legal cases and moral claims against polluters. A disturbing number of today’s attacks on federal environmental protection involve attacks on information.9 Some of these have rolled back proposals for industry to increase its monitoring and reporting of methane. Methane has even more heat-trapping potential than carbon, and methane leaks are highly associated with fracking. Industry claims natural gas is a cleaner fuel than coal, but methane leaks undermine that claim. If we don’t require record keeping for methane emissions, it’s hard to determine the extent of our current contributions to greenhouse gas emissions.10
I often think about how many libraries have an uncomfortable inheritance of what the Gilded Age steel industry wrought on air and water, and on the bodies of its workers. Andrew Carnegie made his fortune from steel and he made it here in Pittsburgh, and it was his philanthropy to over a thousand communities that nearly doubled the amount of public libraries in the United States.11 Many of our libraries and archives we work in are deeply tangled in fossil fuels – from institutional endowments invested in BP or Exxon, foundation-funded projects seeded from the money of oil and gas barons, preservation of our digital content on coal-powered servers, and reliance on fossil-fueled transportation to come together to dream of a better future. Environmental information is critical to our ability to meet the challenges that lie ahead, and I believe as information professionals we have an ethical obligation to incorporate environmental care in our professional practices.
I’ve been working around these issues of archives and the environment for a few years. The profession knows we need to do something, but we’re not really sure what it is. Should we rewrite our disaster plans to incorporate climate change? Should we put rooftop gardens and solar panels on top of our buildings? Should we incorporate the environmental footprint of cloud storage into our contracts with digital preservation services? Ideally we would all answer Yes to them – and yet they avoid the critical question of environmental information.12
Before we can ask “What should we do about environmental information?” we must answer, “How do we as a profession develop an ethic of environmental justice?” Because we can’t sustain the issue of preserving environmental information for the long haul until we make caring about the environment a very normal and routine aspect of our personal and professional lives. People arrive at an ethic of environmental justice through different routes, but at its core, it depends on cultivating a sense of care and duty for the places in which we live and work, and understanding how environmental degradation compounds existing injustices.
In the archives profession, the “archivist as keeper and caretaker” trope has been thrashed for its implications that archivists are passive agents worshipping at the altar of neutrality. But as multiple archivists have recently asserted the importance of ethics of care in our profession, I would like to think we’re on the way to reclaiming archivists as caretakers in the best and most feminist sense of the word – that to care for something is a profound act of great importance, it’s essential to our ongoing existence, and it is the bedrock for preservation 13. To ensure that information is preserved so that it can be used by citizens for a safe and healthy environment is the opposite of passively keeping information – it is to assert that preservation of information, preservation of the earth, and preservation of public health, are very closely linked.
As we saw after the election, many decentralized efforts took place to address concerns over access and preservation of federal environmental data on websites like the EPA/DOI/NOAA/NASA. In some of those efforts, librarians and archivists played an active leadership role, while other efforts barely had any librarians or archivists present. Why was this? I suspect it is because for many of us, we do not have environmental justice incorporated in our sense of what it means to be an information professional. This information may be invisible to many of us most of the time, but if you like to breathe clean air and drink clean water, you should care very deeply about this.
As I’ve laid out, effective environmental protection depends on environmental information. That space is where we as information professionals most strongly bring our talents. So to return to the question, “What should we do about environmental information?” we need to identify the unfolding threats to its preservation and accessibility, from local to international stages. It’s not just at the federal level, and it was a problem long before the current administration, and will be longer after it. If we’re not given a seat at those tables, to paraphrase Shirley Chisholm, then we need to bring a folding chair.14 We need to assert that we, as information professionals, deeply care about environmental information, especially if we also claim that we care about the communities we serve.
Just as there is not a single solution for climate change, but multiple paths to transitioning to a fossil-free future, there are multiple ways we can work towards ensuring environmental information is preserved and used:
We can get involved in groups working on federal environmental data issues, many of which are represented within the DLF community
We can become friends with scientists and journalists to organize around our common interests
We can help citizen science projects with data management and preservation plans
We can teach local environmental activists how to find and use environmental information
We can surface new sources of environmental information in our collections, such as weather and ecological data from diaries
We can prioritize local environmental topics for our collection development policies
We can demand that industries voluntarily disclose more information about their environmental impact
We can interrogate the appraisal and retention decisions of regulatory records to ensure records are retained long enough to support the public interest
We can fight back against deregulation that rolls back reporting and monitoring recordkeeping requirements
The balance of power concerning the creation and access of environmental information has favored polluting industries for far too long. I’m gravely concerned this imbalance is becoming more severe, at the exact moment when crises of climate change, ecological collapse, and environmental injustice are becoming too urgent to ignore any longer. Whether we identify as librarians, archivists, curators, records managers, or some other branch of the information profession family tree, all of us can – and need to – contribute to preserving environmental information and ensuring its usability.
Rachel Carson lamented in Silent Spring that the evidence against pesticides was stacking up, but far too many people chose to ignore it.
She wrote, “Much of the necessary knowledge is now available, but we do not use it. We train ecologists in our universities and even employ them in our governmental agencies but we seldom take their advice. We allow the chemical death rain to fall as though there were no alternative, whereas in fact there are many, and our ingenuity could soon discover many more if given opportunity.”
Rachel Carson wrote those words more than 50 years ago, and yet it feels as if it could describe our world today. We need to build an alternative world, rooted in advice and ingenuity. We have the necessary knowledge. Now let’s use it.
The other night I did the one thing before bed you are DEFINITELY NOT SUPPOSED TO DO which was to watch a terrifying news clip:
I had been off the grid a couple weeks ago when the original editorial ran in the Washington Post. The News Hour guest and editorial writer is a Department of Interior employee named Joel Clement, who was working at a high level with Alaskan Native villages on adaptation issues, and was reassigned by his supervisors to an office that collected oil and gas royalties. He believes this was retaliation against his climate adaptation work, and filed whistleblower complaints. The PBS News Hour reporter asked Clement what we were all thinking: “Don’t you think it’s a little ironic you’re now in an office receiving fossil fuel payments when your previous work was exacerbated by the use of fossil fuels in the first place?”
One of the major things that has always horrified me in addition to the unfettered racism, misogyny, bigotry, and incompetence of Donald Trump, was that I do not trust this man to protect the safety of the people who live here on the most minimal public safety measures. One of the examples I pointed to was Trump’s castigation of fire department officials for enforcing fire safety limits at his rallies. A man that would disregard the safety of his own supporters by trying to bully his way out of fire safety codes was the clearest sign to me that this guy transgressed all normal definitions of sinister, that he was a fucking madman, that the potential body count of Americans on his watch – even those on his side – did not factor in to his outlook.
From disregarding fire safety codes – one of the most important public health measures that keep people alive – it’s not a far leap to shrugging off loss of health care for millions of Americans – another public health measure that keeps people alive. Millions losing their health care would result in many preventable deaths. We know this. Everyone knows this. Stop pretending anyone doesn’t understand this. Anyone who claims cuts to healthcare won’t result in thousands of preventable deaths is getting a paycheck that would frame a GoFundMe for chemo as the ultimate expression of liberty. Today we’re at the point where knowingly putting one’s supporters into a position where they may die is the standard operating principle not just of Donald Trump, but the entire Republican Party.
Republican leadership and Trump can claim until they’re blue in the face that of course they don’t want people to die, and basically folks, you know the drill from here: what terribly offensive liberal paranoia! How dare you claim that the Republican Party is seemingly okay with letting folks die in the streets, this is just more evidence that leftists are the real fascists! This is where looking at the concept of slow violence is critical. Slow violence means reconceiving of the speed at which violence is inflicted, particularly violence that may not register right away or is less visible than, say, a terrorist attack. In the words of author Rob Nixon:
We are accustomed to conceiving violence as immediate and explosive, erupting into instant, concentrated visibility. But we need to revisit our assumptions and consider the relative invisibility of slow violence. I mean a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous but instead incremental, whose calamitous repercussions are postponed for years or decades or centuries. I want, then, to complicate conventional perceptions of violence as a highly visible act that is newsworthy because it is focused around an event, bounded by time, and aimed at a specific body or bodies. Emphasizing the temporal dispersion of slow violence can change the way we perceive and respond to a variety of social crises, like domestic abuse or post-traumatic stress, but it is particularly pertinent to the strategic challenges of environmental calamities.
So sure, if the GOP ultimately succeeds in repealing the ACA, bodies won’t be dropping in the streets overnight. But by associating violence with the short-term and the visible, we let those who would let people diein the long-term disassociate themselves from any form of violence and long-term accountability. And here is the problem: these assholes are really fucking good at playing the long game.
Where playing the long game with slow violence gets really scary, like, planetary-millenia level scary, is climate change. To state the facts in case anyone has missed Al Gore 1.0 or 2.0, climate change is real, climate change is primarily caused by consumption of fossil fuels, climate change is already wreaking havoc on plant and animal systems and the people who depend on these resources, and the folks who have contributed the least emissions historically speaking are the ones poised to suffer the most. Slow violence is sort of the defining experience of climate change – if you’re honest with yourself, the warning signs are everywhere around you, particularly if you live near a pole or near a coast. But because there isn’t a stark “before” and “after” timeline, climate change manifests itself as a slow violence, aided and abetted by those who benefit from fossil fuel extraction.
Upton Sinclair once said “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” And of course, this is the only logical explanation for why the right-wing is committed to not just inaction on climate change, but doubling down on fossil fuel extraction and shifting from denial of climate change’s human basis to handwaving away the effects under the guise of “well, if it’s really happening, we’ll figure it out! Or build a colony on another planet!”
For those of you who aren’t up on your climate change policy definitions, what you’ll often hear are two words – mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation is about reducing the use of fossil fuels, adaptation is about building infrastructure and creating policy to help people deal with the inevitable effects of climate change – a certain level of environmental disruption which is already assured, even if we dramatically reduced our fossil fuel consumption immediately. For many people – myself included – these aren’t two opposing paths but joint paths we need to quickly make progress on.
Recall that one of the major objections of the Republican Party to the Paris Agreement was their opposition to contributing money to international adaptation efforts – money that would assist Pacific Island nations who are quite literally threatened by drowning. They are open and upfront about this, as you can see from this Heritage Foundation quote:
One step that Congress should take is to refuse to authorize or appropriate any funds to implement the Agreement, including the tens of billions of American taxpayer dollars in adaptation funding to which the U.S. will commit itself annually.
On the domestic front, a major thing adaptation efforts have going for them is the requirement of serious infrastructure upgrades. Ah, infrastructure! One of those things that always sounds good on paper, but no Republican can seem to find the moral courage to actually fund. Infrastructure is like cute babies, extremely useful during campaign season, but coming in with a lifetime budget for care that no one really wants to fund 100%. Add to the fact that many of the US communities on the frontlines of climate change are Native communities, and this becomes not just a matter of budgetary kicking the can down the road, but yet another example of blatant environmental racism.
When I watched that clip above, I realized that this administration’s indifference to climate change isn’t just surface-level, it isn’t just photo ops exploiting coal miners as we pull out of the Paris agreement, it isn’t just denial that allows the Republican Party leadership to keep chowing down at the fossil fuel capitalism trough, and it isn’t just attacks on Pacific Island nations’ adaptation efforts. It goes very, very, disturbingly and systematically deep to parts of our government the vast majority of us – even people tuned in to climate change policy – can’t comprehend.
To attack domestic adaptation efforts transcends even the normal expectations one would have of American capitalist climate change denialism. One can see how adaptation can actually be embraced fairly cynically to serve fossil fuel interests – “well, maybe the sea will rise, but we don’t have to reduce our extraction as long as we build a giant sea wall one day!”
Instead, attacking adaptation efforts is from the same slow violence playbook as attacking people’s healthcare: we know that this will result in deaths. And the Republican Party is going down this path anyway, fully aware of the consequences, not giving a damn. The long game of slow violence may teach discipline and persistence, but it is based in the purest forms of evil ever wrought upon the world.
Someone in library/archives land used to do a periodic review of their life’s work on their website, and while I can’t remember who it was, it’s an idea I’ve been meaning to do for a while. I maintain a detailed yearly activity report for my day job, but no one really sees that beyond a few people. I thought it’d be nice to maintain a public record of what I’ve been busy with that includes not just my salaried work, but the work I do at home and in my local community, which are as much a part of my identity as being an archivist. Sorry (not sorry) that this is long, I’m a busy gal.
Work at UC: A lot of the records management work I do has dramatically shifted in the last several months after I put out the first university-wide general records schedule. It’s been an invaluable resource, and it’s spreading greater awareness of records management obligations at my institution. As a records manager, I frequently get asked to step into interesting roles concerning compliance at the university (like serving on search committees in the administrative side of university life, or reviewing procurement proposals for information systems). I always appreciate that I have a window into higher education administration, because it’s a perspective I don’t think many faculty often see.
I also took over the reins of our library’s Digital Preservation Policy working group recently, and it’s been an exercise in realizing how many digital preservation policies at other institutions are a) based on this model and b) are focus-format driven as opposed to content-driven (I cannot be convinced that format alone should drive appraisal and preservation decisions). I’m kind of throwing out the play book and drafting our own policy, because I want it to serve areas of the library that include both central and decentralized approaches to digitization and born-digital work, and also comprehensible to people who are not digital professionals. Later this summer, I hope to finally write down the workflows I’ve started putting in to place for handling incoming born-digital materials within my unit.
I was recently accepted to ALI, and my practicum proposal is to develop a better method for acquiring student archives, since our university archives is very administration-focused. I’m really excited about spending a week in Berea with a bunch of smart people.
Work in the profession: I’m moving up into Chair this year for SAA’s Records Management Section. I think we’re one of the more active SAA sections, thanks to the recent leadership of recent chairs, especially Beth Cron and Brad Houston. I’m also serving as the Midwest Archives Conference 2018 Chicago Conference program committee co-chair, along with Daria Labinsky. We’re working on getting the CFP out before SAA, and I’m confident it will be an amazing conference.
I’ve been the Resident Caretaker of ProjectARCC (Archivists Responding to Climate Change) since the November presidential election, and for a while was hosting standing monthly conference calls where people could dial in and share what environmental cultural heritage stuff they were working on. I also tried to coordinate a thing called Project mARCCh to get librarians and archivists to turn out at the March for Science and People’s Climate March. Fellow #AdventureArchivist Stephanie Bennett and I marched together in the People’s Climate March in DC which was exactly the form of group therapy and group exercise I hadn’t realized I needed so badly.
People frequently ask “What is ProjectARCC doing about this?” and I have to explain that ProjectARCC isn’t really a cohesive organization right now, but a leaderless entity that people can have the freedom to do whatever they want with, as long as they aren’t assholes about it. For example, I’m seriously considering launching a podcast under the ProjectARCC banner. For the time being though, a couple of us occasionally check the blog and social media accounts. So when folks ask, “Would ProjectARCC consider doing XYZ?” I typically encourage them to write up a plan and go for it. (NB: people are far more likely to suggest things than to follow through on implementing them).
What I’m writing/researching/editing/speaking about:
My main solo writing project at the moment is trying to tease apart the way in which records and the legal emphasis on documentary forms were (are) an integral part of white colonial settlement of American land, pre-and post-Revolution land tenure, and the dispossession of indigenous lands. So I’m learning about things like surveys, land titles, and treaties, all within the context of American history between the 16th-19th century. I quickly realized that I have a shockingly limited understanding of native history, and I’m kind of worried about fucking this up as a non-native white person. So I’m trying to take my time, go slow, and prioritize reading as much material by native writers and scholars as by white historians. The very rough draft will be the paper I give at SAA (Session 107) and I am planning to send off a manuscript by September.
Work continues with my Penn State colleagues on mapping archives’ exposure to climate change. Ben Goldman and I were awarded an SAA Foundation grant to begin building a comprehensive data set of archival repository location data. The museum community is way ahead of the game with the Museum Universe Data File, but there is no analogous data set for archives. Capacity to do spatial analysis of archives is severely hindered without such a data set. The data set we’ve been using for our mapping work comes from OCLC, but it way overrepresents research-institution based archives.
I’ve been speaking a lot this year, which is great because I LOVE doing it, but it’s also a lot of work. I generally do not give the same talk twice (because it’s boring, and because jetting around to give the exact same talk is an appalling waste of fossil fuels), which means whenever I’m asked to do one, I’m writing a new talk, slide deck, etc. I’m really proud of the talks I gave at PASIG and as part of the Beinecke Speaker Series.
I made my first foray into non-academic writing recently, and published this piece about experiencing weird weather as a Midwesterner in Belt. I’ve long admired Belt for providing an incredible outlet for regional writing, and good gravy did it feel good to get paid for my words after only experiencing the gift economy of academic writing. All praise to fellow archivist Stacie Williams who helped me navigate the world of freelance writing.
At home: My husband and I recently bought a beautiful 1930s brick cottage in one of Cincinnati’s old streetcar suburbs. My two main criteria were “must be on a direct bus line to work” and “not in a flood zone.” Transitioning from renting to first-time homebuyers has been a wild experience that provokes a lot of hand-wringing about The Future, permanency, and economic security. Cincinnati has always been my home, and it feels good to put down some permanent roots as I enter my 30s. Our friends are really important to us, and a huge priority in finding a house was enough space for our friends to come over and just hang out. I have a bit of a yard now, and am trying to figure out a long-term plan for landscaping and gardening. We’re considering replacing the front lawn with native plants because a) fuck mowing and b) pollinators need all the help they can get.
In my local community: For the last couple years I’ve been involved with a local Planned Parenthood supporters group, and I’m not exaggerating when I say the women in the group are critical to maintaining my sanity. Ohio has been in dire straits for years now with regards to reproductive healthcare, and it’s probably only going to get worse. We’ve had a noticeable uptick in volunteers and requests for tabling since the election. I’m winding down my 2-year stint at Secretary for my Toastmasters club. I say No to a lot of requests from my local faith, civic, and activist communities in order to protect my non-work time for the decompression I need plus time with my husband/parents/friends. I don’t really feel guilty about it anymore but it does feel kind of weird to be saying No to otherwise very cool projects on a regular basis.
Self-care: I’ve been good about waking up to go to the gym early, but I’m still working on getting to bed early enough every night. But…surprise, somehow I have been doing way less hiking now that I’m not going out once a month like I did last year when I section-hiked the Sheltowee Trace. I’m getting a little squishier around the middle than I typically prefer, and I really miss the forced highly oxygenated focus of being in the woods all day, so I’m planning to re-hike the ST again next year. A friend and I backpacked in a state forest right after the Paris Agreement withdrawal, and it was incredibly therapeutic to sleep in the woods where the wind sings you to sleep and birds wake you up in the morning. It was also a good dry run for a backpacking trip a friend and I have planned in Yosemite next month (yes, we got a permit!!!)
What I’m currently obsessed with: I recently went to the Georgia O’Keefe exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum and it was mind-blowingly great. I didn’t know she sewed many of her clothes, and in my dream world, some woman-owned clothing business would reproduce and sell the beautiful white tunics and shirts she made so I can have a Georgia O’Keefe wardrobe.
I also recently discovered The Effort Report podcast, which features two professors talking about academic work life. The episodes get super into the weeds, and the perspectives are heavily STEM-skewed (a good example is this actually-quite-interesting episode on indirect costs), but the topics are great: time management, research productivity, and prioritizing the various forms of work demanded in a research institution. And in important food news, I finally tried some Albanese gummy bears and they are next level.
Between late March and mid-May, I attended three conferences (Chicago, Omaha, New York), marched in one protest (Washington DC), and gave one invited talk (Yale). I’ve always been a pretty good trip packer, but after all this travel I have it down to a science. Now I feel the need to help people save themselves from their worst packing instincts.
I have always been a light packer (I once traveled an entire week in frigid December Berlin with just a purse and a small duffel bag), and my experience section-hiking a 300+ mile trail last year made me even more ruthless about packing. Hikers take a lot of pride in finding ways to shave ounces off their load, and not bringing home anything they didn’t use at least once (and preferably multiple times) on the trail. I try to apply the same philosophy to packing for any personal or business travel, especially if it involves flying.
Flying is a totally unbelievable hellscape, and packing lightly is one of the few things within one’s increasingly narrow window of control I can make choices about that helps me maintain some notion of sanity. I have the same packing practices whether I’m on vacation or work.
Like IUDs, packing lightly is one of those things people tend to obnoxiously evangelize without realizing it’s not possible for all people (folks with medical equipment, parents with small children, etc). So I should preface this by saying when I pack, I really only have to worry about myself. Whenever I travel with my husband, the most entangled our packing gets is sharing a bottle of contact lens solution.
Start with good luggage
Buy the best luggage you can possibly afford, and if you have the physical ability, choose a squishy bag that can convert into a backpack instead of a roll-aboard. I am a big fan of a smaller squishy bag because the gate agent rarely makes you gate check it, you can jam it into the smallest overhead bins, it’s easier to make a mad dash across an airport terminal with something on your back than dragging behind you, and roll-aboards are almost too much room.
Bad luggage eventually becomes demoralizing if you travel often. A few years ago the handle on my crappy roll aboard totally fell apart on the D.C. Metro right before SAA. There are good carry-on rolling suitcases out there, but I prefer to save them for super long trips where I don’t want to do laundry, or road trips. My main MO is to bring my main bag for clothing and shoes, and a smaller everyday bag for my “daily” items. Since I often do not stay at the conference hotel, the everyday bag has to contain my electronics, a water bottle, notebooks, a couple snacks, and room for a light sweater and be light enough to carry for a 15 minute walk from my hotel.
It’s expensive as hell, but I finally started buying good luggage and bags primarily for my work travel. I really like Tom Bihn (and it’s made in the USA), and I’m currently using the Western Flyer and the Co-Pilot.
Join the cult of packing cubes
Packing cubes seem like total bullshit until you start using them to corral your clothes (basically anything that can be rolled up like a burrito) and then you NEVER. GO. BACK.
They are like some combination of Felix the Cat’s bag of tricks plus the Chronicles of Narnia wardrobe where you can somehow keep on squeezing things into them that you can’t otherwise squeeze into the intimidatingly narrow space of a small squishy space of your main clothing bag. I have a set of them, but I usually just use 1 or 2.
Because a huge part of my travel experience is informed by “How much will TSA make my life unpleasant at the airport?” Packing cubes have the additional advantage of preventing the indignity of having your underwear catapult itself over some germy inspection table the second you start unzipping your bag.
Unless it’s made of paper, pack everything else in pouches or ziploc bags
Just like packing cubes corral all your clothing, you need to corral your other gadgets, tchotchkes, geegaws, and flotsam. I have little zippered pouches I use for makeup, snacks, pencils, cords and chargers, and essentials (wallet/phone/transit card). I store my shoes I’m not wearing in drawstring cloth bags so they don’t get grossness over other stuff. I use two ziploc bags for toiletries (dry and TSA-screening). That bag on the bottom comes from archivist Allana Meyer’s shop where she donates proceeds to the SAA Mosaic Scholarship.
If you must be separated from your suitcase, pack a toothbrush and clean pair of underwear in the bag you keep with you.
Once upon a time, I got caught in an awful delay/red-eye/layover mess that almost led to me missing a friends wedding. I didn’t have access to my main luggage, and not being able to change at least one article of clothing or brush my teeth made the entire experience that much more miserable.
You don’t need as many outfits as you think
If you are smart about what you pack, immediately hang up your clothes to air out, and hand wash the ones that get stinky, you can often get away with 4 outfits even if you’re at a conference for a week (your plane outfit*, a work-casual outfit, a work-work outfit, and a dressy work outfit). If you really need to, at some point you can do laundry. Many hotels have a washer/dryer, you can find a laundromat, or you can use drop-off service.
Let me explain the plane outfit. This is what you wear from leaving your house to your destination and vice versa. This should strike some combination of comfy enough in case you suddenly find yourself in airport purgatory, flexible enough that if you have to sprint to your gate you can, quick enough to delayer and deshoe at security, but also protective enough that you don’t feel even more violated if TSA pulls you out for a pat-down.
I wear skirts and dresses for probably 3/4 of my waking hours, but I always wear jeans and sneakers when I go to an airport. Once in a while TSA selects me for state-sanctioned bodily assault an enhanced pat-down, and I shudder to think of how much more invasive this would almost certainly be in a skirt.
This is actually what my fully packed suitcase looks like:
Rethink what electronics you really need to bring
Laptops are heavy. I’ve stopped bringing mine because it’s not worth the weight. When I’m at a conference, I don’t need that much computing power. And depending on where you fly, you might be restricted from traveling with one anyway.
Are you tired of me talking about TSA yet? Well so am I. You probably know that airports are the new testing ground for how much bullshit the combined powers of capitalism, policing, and surveillance can get away with, whether we’re talking about your right to travel in the first place, your right to not be shamed for your body or groped by some blue-gloved stranger in a uniform, or your right to privacy, especially the privacy of your digital life.
So far, it seems like most of the searches of people’s digital lives are taking place in the context of international flights, through CBP. CBP currently has the legal right to search your personal digital effects due to the greatly expanded powers for doing searches within areas of the US border (PSA: if you want to protect your digital privacy while traveling internationally, this guide from the EFF can help) To be clear, CBP is a different agency from TSA with different policies and procedures, though they are both part of the Department of Homeland Security. That said, my personal experiences with TSA are so abysmal that it would not surprise me if they begin to push for expanded power to search people’s digital lives even for domestic travel.
For the last few months, I’ve been traveling with minimal digital data whenever I have to fly. If you do any kind of activism, or are friends with any activists, please consider carrying only the minimal data you need when you travel lest you find yourself in a situation where the Fourth Amendment no longer seems to apply. You may also want to consider having dedicated travel devices, like a Chromebook or a pay-as-you-go mobile phone.
Even if you don’t use cash at home, pack small bills for tipping housekeeping
If you didn’t know you were supposed to tip housekeeping every night of your stay, I’m here to inform you that you really need to do this, no excuses. If you can afford a hotel room, you can afford $5 every day for the people who clean up after you. Especially because those people are usually women who work for shockingly low wages and literally do back breaking work. Tip every day, not just at the end, because you may have different housekeeping staff at the end of your stay than at the beginning.
Books are the devil unless they are the size of Oxford Very Short Introductions, bring magazines instead.
I like to bring a trashy magazine along with something that’s a little smarter. I’ll let you guess which one I usually finish first.
Pack frou-frou items that make you feel at home (for me, it’s a bathrobe and face masks)
If you aren’t packing a full-length fluffy bathrobe, most knit or silk bathrobes pack down pretty small, and are a really nice item to have around when you want to lounge in your hotel room. My skin always looks like shit when I fly (or maybe just when I go to New York), so I like to pack some bourgie face mask stuff I can put on after I get back to my hotel room. It’s a good excuse to splurge on one of those super creepy mummy-esque sheet masks. I avoid wearing them at home lest I scare the shit out of my husband and cat.
Pack something that offsets a tiny amount of the disposable culture of travel
Travel involves a horrific amount of trash. I always pack my small Nalgene bottle and a coffee mug. I also have this cute little set of reusable bamboo flatware I toss into my snack bag.
You are only allowed to overpack one thing, so choose wisely. I choose a couple extra pairs of clean underwear.
(I was honored to join Jarrett Drake and Bethany Wiggin at an event titled “Fierce Urgencies: The Social Responsibility of Collecting and Protecting Data,” hosted by the Beinecke Speakers Series at Yale University on May 4. Here is the copy of my talk + slides. Thanks to Hillel Arnold and Ben Goldman for helping me navigate my way to coherence as I wrote and rewrote my talk, and the Yale organizers who put together an important and compelling day.)
On April 2, curators of an archive in Canada walked into their repository to find a massive disaster unfolding. Water was pooling at the bottom of the storage area floors, and the curators realized with horror that some of the records in their care were lost beyond all hope. How could this be?
Predictably, it was an HVAC issue. The repository in question was the ice core archives at University of Alberta in Edmonton.[i] Scientists drill ice cores from glaciers in order to obtain historical climate records, and then the cores are split up into segments and stored in repositories that are so cold they require some serious protective clothing to enter. Ice cores are important, because they contain vital information about our planet over hundreds of thousands of years, including how levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have changed over time. This enables climate scientists to establish that not only are we experiencing increasing presence of greenhouse gas emissions compared to what we would expect based on past records, but that it has anthropogenic causes, that is, caused by human activity.
There is scarcely any place in the world that will not be affected by climate change. Whether our archives and libraries collect information about the environment scarcely matters, climate change will affect you as a practicing archivist, librarian, or curator, because it will also affect you as a citizen of the world. In many places, climate change has already started to impact archival work, even if we don’t realize it. And frequently we don’t realize it because archivists haven’t fully grappled with our professional relationship with the environment.
I find the story of the melting ice cores poignant and sad because not only did some of these ice cores come from glaciers which are rapidly melting and may not be around long enough to obtain replacement samples from, but because it also illustrates the astonishing gap between the way different fields conceive of the very concept of the record. Because of the information embedded in natural objects like ice cores and tree rings, scientists refer to them as proxy data or proxy records,[ii] and they are a vital part of climate science, since reliable written records on the weather and climate only go back a few hundred years.
However, if we look at how the American archival profession defines data, records, and archives, it becomes clear that we archivists think of records as something created by, for, and about humans. For example, the SAA glossary of archival terminology barely creates intellectual space for the idea that a record could be created by any process except human activity, or that archives would exist for any capacity beyond how they reflect our relationships with human institutions.[iii] Anything from the natural world may be considered data, and historically we have tended to leave data to other professions.
It has added to my growing conviction that the construction of archives as the product of human activity stymies our understanding of our work and its meaning in the larger environment around us.
Environmental metaphors permeate an incredible amount of archival literature, but the reality is that archivists have constructed “archives” as an almost entirely human enterprise.[iv][v][vi] And you will notice that when we do use environmental metaphors in our literature, it is frequently in a negative light. For example, in the 1987 English translation of German archivist Hans Booms’ work, one finds phrases common to the archival literature, like
● “archivists have made unsuccessful attempts to staunch this flood of information” or,
● “The mountain of data competing for storage also begins to grow at a more rapid pace”
When we use environmental metaphors in this way, it is almost as if we are replaying frontier narratives that imagine that environments are inherently wild and out of control, and that humans must subjugate them to serve our needs.
The unfortunate reality is that whether we want to think about our relationship with the environment or not, eventually climate change will force us to confront that relationship.
Even seemingly benign events may be a canary in the coal mine for the future. While coastal sea level rise and dramatic hurricanes capture our most apocalyptic fears, less obvious effects of climate change – like the intensification of Midwest thunderstorms over the coming decades – can lead to highly localized but incredibly devastating outcomes. In my city of Cincinnati, we experienced a taste of this over the past August when a spectacularly intense thunderstorm parked itself over our city, and overwhelmed the local storm water system. This led to flooding in neighborhoods that no one ever recalled flooding before, because of their distance from our local rivers. And yet this is the exact same thing climatologists are warning us will happen hundreds of miles inland. That August storm particularly affected a local institution, and their archivist told me recently it was only by luck that some their collections weren’t damaged in a room that flooded, thanks to being on tables that day.
I believe that there will be a point in our near future in which archivists will have no choice but to adapt to climate change in the way we perform our work. The challenge is whether we do it in a way that reinforces the very problems at our door, or in a way that puts us on the right side of accountability, justice, and community responsibility. In order to begin preparing for long-term adaptation, we need to ask a lot of questions we would probably prefer to put off.
What are some of the risks in a changing climate we might face? It depends on where you are:
● Some may face immediate collection evacuation risks, prompted by wildfires, floods, and hurricanes
● Some may face long-term relocation decisions due to sea-level rise and coastal erosion, or if a weather event is so devastating, rebuilding is inadvisable or impossible
● Some may face increasing infrastructure and preservation costs when current HVAC systems can’t keep up with future increases in temperature and humidity
I suspect some archivists will find themselves being asked difficult questions one day from institutional risk managers who know nothing about archives or libraries. The insurance industry is already taking a cold hard actuarial look at the reality of underwriting certain areas. When our institutions and repositories can no longer have insurance, or afford insurance premiums for areas increasingly vulnerable, what difficult decisions will we have to make about how, when, and where to steward our collections?
What about problems that are likely to be so big that they cannot be resolved at the local institutional level? Will we be ready to meet these challenges profession-wide? These questions are becoming painfully relevant for many. Australian archivist Matthew Gordon-Clark has written about the legal and cultural struggles that will almost certainly arise with determining how the larger archival community should aid in the question of national archives from Pacific Island nations.
Many of you may know that here at Yale, there is a fantastic group of researchers who study the communication and rhetoric around climate change. The researchers periodically study how Americans think about climate change, and I think these stats are fascinating – 70% of us think CC will affect future generations, a slim majority think it’s already affecting the US, but only 40% think it will affect us personally. How do we make sense of this? It’s not as if we’ll have a clear red line from which we can say “Now climate change is affecting us.” We need to assume it already is, and act accordingly.
The Society of American Archivists Core Values states, “Underlying all the professional activities of archivists is their responsibility to a variety of groups in society and to the public good.” It is my strong conviction that professionally and morally, archivists have to step up and connect the dots between the public good, and climate justice. And we have to do it in a way that recognizes climate justice is fundamentally intertwined with struggles for economic, racial, and gender justice.
Across the globe, frontline communities – poor folks, people of color, and indigenous people – will face the most severe effects of climate change, despite generally contributing the least emissions. You will note that historically, these are also communities that are underrepresented among archivists, and with whom we do not have a historically good relationship with across the board, and in many circumstances, have even aided in their oppression through description, acquisition, or access practices.
Many of these communities either face barriers in accessing the types of records needed to substantiate their claims of environmental injustices, or have difficulty getting those in power to take seriously the evidence and documentation their communities have gathered together in the absence of official records.
There are currently no comprehensive governmental programs in place in the US to aid coastal frontline communities who must move in order to sustain their cultures and community. This is already a reality for several indigenous communities, particularly along the Gulf Coast[vii] and Alaska.[viii] Our society’s failure to help these communities move is not just an abdication of responsibility for physical safety and wellbeing, but also yet another way in which the cultural heritage of vulnerable communities is marginalized and threatened.
I want to raise a cautionary note. I fear our profession sometimes suffers from a “Document, Collect and Preserve it, and they will come” mindset – either that if we gather material, we will ensure new groups of users will come to find our archives relevant, or that if we help preserve documentation documenting injustice, it will help people come to their senses. To return to my earlier conviction that archivists need to grapple with our relationship with the environment, I don’t think simply collecting about the environment is the answer. We need to completely rethink how to integrate climate change adaptation into our existing work, from appraisal to processing to preservation, because collection and documentation alone does not produce justice.
So how is it that we have all this knowledge, but emission levels keep moving up?
Knowledge, on its own, is not enough to move policy. The reason that emissions are increasing is because we have a worldwide system in which vast and moneyed fossil fuel interests have historically been motivated to attack knowledge and expertise on the one hand, while behind the scenes influencing policy through buying their way out of any moral obligation to do anything about it. It is the reason ExxonMobil has joined the ranks of tobacco and the NFL in trying to cover up its own internal research showing how bad their product is (#ExxonKnew), but unlike cigarettes and traumatic brain injuries, their own coverup of documentation in the quest for unfettered profits could hurt everyone and everything alive on the planet now and in the future.
So as one of my friends recently said to me, so what do archivists do? Besides dismantling fossil-fuel dominated crony capitalism, I have three suggestions, starting at home. And I emphasize the phrase “at home,” because while climate change is a global phenomenon, it will have highly localized problems and therefore calls for localized responses:
1. Start talking about it to anyone who will listen, and when you’re not talking, listen to the perspectives of front line communities in your area. Is there something as an archivist you can lend your voice and skills towards?
2. Ask what your institution is doing for adaptation to climate change. You may find out that it’s “in the future.” Figure out how to be at that table once the future arrives, and start taking steps internally within your repository towards adaptation, so when the unthinkable becomes inevitable you’re ready
3. Building professional solidarity with other professions, like journalists and scientists, who are committed to truth-telling.
Science historian Naomi Oreskes has talked about this gap between knowledge and policy: “It’s a cliché to say that knowledge is power. It’s not true actually. Knowledge is knowledge. In our society, knowledge resides in one place, and for the most part, power resides somewhere else. And that disconnect is really the crux of the challenge we face right now.”
Friends and colleagues, let us hope we can rise to the challenge ahead.
Record: 1. A written or printed work of a legal or official nature that may be used as evidence or proof; a document. – 2. Data or information that has been fixed on some medium; that has content, context, and structure; and that is used as an extension of human memory or to demonstrate accountability. – 3. Data or information in a fixed form that is created or received in the course of individual or institutional activity and set aside (preserved) as evidence of that activity for future reference. – 4. An instrument filed for public notice (constructive notice); see recordation. (http://www2.archivists.org/glossary/terms/r/record)
Archives: Materials created or received by a person, family, or organization, public or private, in the conduct of their affairs and preserved because of the enduring value contained in the information they contain or as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator, especially those materials maintained using the principles of provenance, original order, and collective control; permanent records. (http://www2.archivists.org/glossary/terms/a/archives)
[iv] There have been a handful of notable archivists who have drawn out some of the conflicts between archival theory and an environmental perspective. Candace Loewen: “…[W]e need to move beyond the search for the obvious “human” element in records to a search for records of value to humans and to the planet as a whole. Perhaps we have been too “human-centered” in our approach to appraisal; in documenting human activities and institutions, the earth itself has been relegated to second place. We have neglected the earth, what Hugh Taylor calls “planetary evidence,” and by doing so we have done a disservice to humanity, to ourselves.” Loewen, C. (1991). From Human Neglect to Planetary Survival: New Approaches to the Appraisal of Environmental Records. Archivaria, 33.
[v] Erik Moore: “In order to gain a sense of the whole system and the trophic dynamic running through the archival ecosystem, archivists should refine archival theory by incorporating ecological models. Since the 1980s, a handful of archivists have done just that. Their work has been for the most part cumulative, but to date has not substantially moved archival theory and practice in North America beyond the focus of intrinsic and instrumental values to a more integrated systemic value.” Moore, E. A. (2007). Birds of a Feather: Some Fundamentals on the Archives–Ecology Paradigm.
[vi] Hugh Taylor (2000 Reflection to “Recycling the Past”, originally published in 1993): “…I believe it is necessary to develop an attitude and a mindset which sharpens our awareness of what we have gotten ourselves into and hence to value those sources which are seeking either to record past disasters as a cause of future comparisons, or, through scientific research, to help us towards the way out through a greater understanding of the breadth of natural complexity. I have been musing in a philosophical way about this subject for some time, and I am anxious that more archivists join in the debate now that I am laying down my pen.”
This is the third year I’ve done a Lenten social media fast, where I cut myself off from Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. With a couple of exceptions I feel OK about, I haven’t purposefully pulled up or logged in to any social media platform services except when really necessary (i.e. I had to get in touch with someone and had no clue how to reach them through phone, email, or snail mail). And unlike past years, this year I really, really, REALLY haven’t missed social media except for a couple of fleeting moments where I thought “Hmm, wonder what archivist twitter thinks about this?” or “Hmm, this would be a really cute picture of my cat to post.” I think 2016 was the year of binging on The Internetz during the election, and in the wake of the (Electoral College) election of (Popular Vote Loser) the 45th President, I needed a fucking break. And this third fast I have felt so unbelievably free and liberated. Let me count the reasons why:
*It feels GLORIOUS to not instantly know what a shithead Trump and his merry band of mediocre white guys are. I still pay attention to the news, but there’s only so many times you can refresh the NYTimes and Guardian apps, whereas Twitter has an endless hot take firehose. Sometimes I do feel behind on the scary shit going down, but the stuff that is truly heinous usually makes it on to my radar in multiple ways (e.g., the passenger that United dragged off the plane), whereas the stuff that is more of a viral outrage du jour (e.g., a tone deaf advertising strategy) sort of shambles onto my radar once or twice before mercifully receding into the viral trash heap. I’m pretty good with the trade-off of not knowing INSTANTLY about everything in order to be able to sustain a slow burn outrage over the truly long-term bullshit that will affect us for decades, like changing the tax code, court cases, and the gutting of environmental and science programs.
*I have far too many shitty experiences with men on social media, including some men I actually know and (used to) respect who act like assholes when there’s a screen between us. I’ve often thought about setting up a folder I share with selected people (i.e. other women) of screenshots titled “Men Explain Things To Me,” but hey, living well is the best revenge. I have been semi-doxxed, insulted, harassed, and had my work erased on every social media platform I’ve ever had an account on, except instagram (probably because I mostly post pictures of my chubby alien cat and trees from my hikes). A lot of what Lindy West said in this interview resonated with me. (Also, in general I love the Twitter quitter genre)
Given that post-election there is emerging evidence of a rise in aggression against women, why should I spend my time in spaces in which women are devalued at best and actively harmed at worst? Shit, who knows when the nukes are going to start launching. I might as well spend my screen time liking instagram photos from my hair stylist who makes me and other curly-haired women around this city feel like goddesses rather than dealing with men who make me feel awful.
*And on the flip side, sometimes I can be the asshole on social media. I like not worrying if I put my foot in my mouth or offended someone because most of what I share on social media is, by default, a first draft. And often it’s a shitty first draft that ends up requiring an apology, slice of humble pie, or deep and exhausting introspection.
*My attention span returned. I can actually sit down and read long and involved complicated books and not get distracted after 5 pages. It’s amazing.
*Unlike that time I tweeted about the Ohio legislature rushing through some totally bullshit abortion legislation and it got retweeted like 2,000 times, I enjoy the feeling of not worrying that something I tweet will go viral and I’ll have to babysit it in case anyone starts making actionable threats.
After my first two social media Lenten fasts, I went right back to my normal interwebz habits. This year I’m putting some protocols in place once Lent is over, because I think I need it to recalibrate my relationship permanently with social media, especially to mentally handle an unending terrible news cycle, and continuing to focus on projects that ultimately bring me joy and meaning, rather than succumbing to an unending exercise in passive horror scrolling.
Ultimately, speaking only to my own personal experience, social media is very similar to alcohol in that it can quickly become too much of a good thing. A few years ago, I dialed back my alcohol consumption, because I didn’t like the way I acted when I drank too much, and dealing with hangovers is a ludicrously stupid waste of time. I have a set of protocols to keep myself in check, and as a result I now enjoy alcohol responsibly without turning into an asshole juggling hangovers and guilt. Similarly, I’ve found that when I’m on social media too much, I don’t like the person I turn into.
I’ve honestly entertained deleting all of my social media accounts entirely (so tempting!) however I’ve noticed that despite my repeated pleas to get my friends to holler at me about upcoming social justice-y type events (whether we’re talking local activism, or library/archives professional stuff), it somehow hasn’t taken, and the vast majority of these things are primarily shared on social media. But I don’t feel lonely – the folks I’m closest to I either see in person, call, email or text back and forth with on a pretty regular basis.
So… I’m trying to figure out what a recalibrated social media experience looks like. I’m not breaking the fast until the protocols are in place. I honestly don’t know what the answer is yet. Maybe it’s logging in once a week to do a brief check-in on upcoming events and actions, maybe it’s deleting some accounts, maybe it’s setting up a metering system to charge myself for social media use (this is probably more tracking than I want to do, but I love the concept – like a micro-tithe to the EFF or something for every time I login to twitter!) And given that social media is designed to be addictive and the favored delivery method via smart phones captures a disturbing amount of our waking hours, I realize that uh, there’s a reason why we hear a lot more about people quitting altogether than saying “Here’s how I use social media less than I did before.”
I don’t really know what the long-term answer is, beyond “whatever works for me,” but I know that this fast was really necessary, and was the reset button my brain desperately needed. I am trying to heed the words of Wendell Berry:
When they want you to buy something they will call you. When they want you to die for profit they will let you know. So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute. Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing. Take all that you have and be poor. Love someone who does not deserve it.
During college, I spent a semester abroad in Britain, attending the University of Sheffield, and living in an old house full of students from England and Wales. I was the only American, and it was in 2006, when the Bush administration followed every American abroad with an embarrassing shadow. I will forever be grateful for my time in Sheffield, for the many things I learned inside and outside the classroom. Perhaps one of the most curious things that living for several months in Britain taught me was a new appreciation for America and my American citizenship, something that was often hard to feel in the throes of the Bush administration’s “You’re either with us or against us” calumny that denied the creative imagination that patriotism could be about love for something that can never be tried in a court of law or legislated away. Being the proxy for endless questions about the insanity of the Bush administration during my time abroad helped me discover that my patriotism is a deep and abiding love for the diverse peoples of America, the food of America, the music of America.
I am still in Facebook contact with a handful of my old housemates. When Brexit came down the pike, many of them were devastated, because their work and career plans were dependent on the assumption of continuing close ties with the EU. It was awful and I felt helpless to watch their reactions online. Several months later, it was my turn. I asked a friend of mine who works for the Guardian if he could give any post-Brexit advice for us terrified Americans, and he said he was hoping we wouldn’t screw up our election. Well, fuck.
Last year, two major cases went to the Supreme Court that made me realize how quickly I felt like my rights were being held hostage above a massive federal abyss: the Friedrichs case and the Whole Women’s Health case. This was also happening against the backdrop of the death of Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia. The former could have potentially gutted public sector unions across the country. The latter would have been yet another blow against abortion rights by legitimizing the shenanigans of the Texas state legislature.
As someone who has been committed to abortion access since I was a teenager, and as a public sector union member, these cases terrified the shit out of me. It felt like my rights were hanging on by the thinnest of threads, and the truth is… they were. They still are. They probably will be for as long as I inhabit my female body and live in a society in which the presence of capitalism is so ever present it becomes invisible. I was able to catch my breath when Friedrichstied the court, and the Whole Women’s Health case was decisively reversed, but those feelings have always felt like temporary victories rather than long-term assurances, even when I had hope that Clinton would win (for the record, I thought she would win, but if she did, it would be by the slimmest of margins – which I guess is a kinda sorta true, but painfully absurd, version of how it played out).
I have been trying for weeks to write follow-ups to my immediate post-election post, and I have several half-finished drafts waiting in the wings. Indeed, I think it’s safe to say the majority of the US, if not the world, now has their own version of standing at the edge of the abyss, wondering how far and how devastating the drop will be.
The thing that concerns me above everything else about this new administration is I do not, for one second, trust the new President to protect us from threats foreign and domestic. We know at some point a terrible tragedy will take place during Trump’s administration. If it lasts as long as 4 years, we’ll likely have several. It could be something predictable that the United States seems desperately in denial about ever doing anything about, such as a school shooting with a gun that was more easy to obtain than healthcare, or a devastating hurricane that breaches infrastructure we have deferred maintenance on for far too long because billionaires have more right to shelter their income than pay their fair share to public works. Or the tragedy may take the form of something that will be used as an excuse to erode our civil liberties even further under the guise of protection. We only have to look at the many ways the language of patriotism was coopted by the Bush administration in the wake of 9/11 to justify erosion of American civil liberties.
Even in the total absence of any tragedies, we know going forward over the next 4 years that the onslaught on the rights and liberties of those who call America home will be relentless. Before inauguration day, the GOP signaled that they will not take seriously the safety and security of the American people, by setting the stage to repeal the ACA before an adequate replacement has been shown to the public, and by supporting the nomination of a man who is grossly unfamiliar with the dangers of lead contamination. These are just two examples of dozens, but let’s be clear: these examples alone have the potential to gravely affect the health and mortality of millions of American women, men, and children.
Perhaps the most noxious preview we received of how little the new administration gives a shit about basic safety was the under-discussed example of Trump whining about fire code requirements and disgracefully calling into question the competence of fire safety officials that restricted attendance at his rallies because of safety codes. Building safety code requirements only exist because of tragedies in which far too many people have died needless deaths. At the time, many people laughed about Trump just whining because that’s what he does, right? For me, knowing my Cincinnati-area history of local fire and crowd control tragedies, it sent a chill down my spine. That Trump would compromise even the safety of his own supporters during a rally says everything about his regard for the safety and security of the rest of the American public he is now charged to protect.
Tons of people since 11/8 have written numerous guides about how to fight back, how to resist, how to continue fighting against the enormous odds. These are good resources, and I recommend that every patriotic American take inspiration and more importantly, action from these resources. I will continue to do all of these things as well. I also want us to be real: no adults are left in the building who are coming to save us. The Democratic party will not save us, Silicon Valley won’t save us, universities won’t save us. If we’re lucky, local and state governments will do what they can, but even this remains to be seen. We have to rely on ourselves to be patriotic citizens that protect each other from whatever comes that almost no elected leaders or public figures have shown the courage to do so far.
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In recent days, there have been a spate of broadcasts and articles on “here is what historical precedent/constitutional law/the Magic-8 ball on my desk tells us about what to expect from a Trump presidency.” I understand this, and for a minute I was consuming this media as desperately as I refreshed 538 through the campaign. But the problem is we are in truly uncharted territory, where the historical past can only tell us so much about what to expect from the future.
I spend a lot of my time thinking about how we can learn from the Earth, and in particular, what Americans can learn from our relationship with the American landscape. And I had a pretty epic realization the other day, the kind that immediately made me look for the beer with the highest ABV in the fridge: Donald Trump is a lot like climate change itself. Historical data only gives us a baseline to measure how radical things are getting, but it can no longer provide us accurate predictions of the future because what has taken place is so unprecedented. This is why flood insurance maps/flood predictions get so politicized – they are based on historical flooding data, but historical data is no longer predictive of a world with a 2C temperature increase. But regardless of how unthinkable and terrible Trump and climate change is, this is really happening, and as things get underway, it seems to have a scary effect of accelerating things faster than we thought. We can predict things will be bad, but the timing of when shit will hit the fan and how bad it will be, or if we’ll only actually realize it hit the fan in retrospect, is part of what makes all of this so gut-wrenching.
I have a lot of thoughts about the many directions of fallout from this election. I don’t think I’m going to do a good job of unpacking all of them in one go, but here are my hot takes on everyone else’s hot takes, and I won’t even make you pay a subscription for my blog (but I always welcome a beer next time you see me if you like what I write).
First, a quick word on hot takes in general: A diagnosis is not a cure. A diagnosis is not a cure. A DIAGNOSIS IS NOT A CURE. Right now, I’m seeing too many postmortems and not enough “…and here’s how we win elections again and fight like hell in the mean time.” I don’t know about y’all, but nihilism is not a solution (and it sure as hell ain’t a cure). In fact, I strongly believe nihilism is one of the most weaponized forms of oppression that people internalize far too much. Fuck nihilism, do whatever you need to do to be rested and ready for the road ahead. I’ll be back with more writing in the coming weeks.
Back to the title of this post:
How I’m Handling Existence At The Moment:
I don’t think it’s an accident that the vast majority of people who were checking in on me within the first couple of days after the election were women. Women know how to do emotional labor, and lord did the women in my life deliver it over and over as soon as it became clear what was going on. It really sucked to go from feeling like I was serving democracy by working the polls on Election Day (I definitely now feel entitled to my strong opinions about how elections are administered), to taking the express rocket into the post-election hell mouth. For the first 36 hours or so after the results I was dealing with physical symptoms of something (panic? shock? not totally sure but my blood literally felt cold and I felt like the skin on the back of my arms was going to peel off). I also had to drive up to Pittsburgh the morning after the election for a conference, and mostly made it there safely thanks to distracting podcasts and a long phone call with my best friend.
For friends and colleagues who reached out to me: thank you, thank you, thank you.
Why are we obsessed about the white working class and not the white McMansion suburbanites?
Ask yourself why coastal media outlets are so obsessed with profiling the poor white people who voted for Trump and not the similar numbers of middle- and upper-class white people who did the same. I have some theories, they involve two things: 1. White people acting like a six-figure salary and a college-degree makes them immune from racism and related dubious-political choices, 2. These same media outlets don’t want to piss off their subscriber base.
A word for those who want this election to be permission to write off the Midwest and South forever: you’re telling me that women, people of color, and LGBTQ folks who live in the middle of the country don’t matter.
You want some progress from flyover country? Send the folks in the South and the Midwest who are DOING. THE. DAMN. WORK. some help, money, or prayers, or STFU. I really, really, really need the national Democratic party leadership to not abandon the Midwest right now, because my reproductive rights will literally depend on it the second Roe is overturned at the federal level and bullshit trigger laws start taking effect. I don’t want to have to get on an airplane if I ever need an abortion (something that is already a reality for a lot of women in this country).
Do you know how hard people in places like Texas and Ohio work on things like reproductive access? Harder than you can possibly imagine. We work our tails off because it’s not abstract, it’s not theoretical, it’s very, very real. I’ve been a part of a supporters’ group affiliated with Planned Parenthood for a couple of years now, and people who do not spend time in this area have not a damn clue how bad things already have been for years now.
I don’t need condescension right now from Midwest ex-pats who live in coastal areas that say things like “Ugh, I’m so glad I don’t live there anymore.” I don’t need people to engage in narratives that erase the diversity of the Midwest by trying to say we’re all homogeneous and parochial white people. I REALLY don’t need bullshit secession fantasies
For those of us fighting the good fight right here at home, we need your money, we need your organizing strategies, and if you’ve ever thought about moving, or boomeranging back, to the Midwest, I can’t think of a better time to come here and help us. We need all the help we can get. And assuming we don’t all perish first in nuclear war, you know you’re going to want to be in a state that has access to some of the best freshwater sources on Earth when climate change really fucks things up.
Where are the geographers?
I really need some good, county-by-county breakdown on WTF happened in Midwestern counties that went Obama-Obama-Trump by the political geographers out there. I’ve read probably a dozen theories by now, but much of it is highly speculative (as well as lazy, uncritical, and self-serving), and there has been precious little comparison of in-migration/out-migration demographics (i.e., did the eligible voter population change in the last 4 years in a way that favored Trump), how voter restrictions might have affected the populations in those particular areas, how gerrymandered legislative districts might have affected turnout for the national ticket, etc etc.
Because I haven’t seen any articles from anyone who seems to know what the hell they’re talking about when it comes to Ohio political geographic analysis, I went and looked at the counties that Democrats have carried in the last several elections (2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, 2016, disclaimer: I have not verified wikipedia’s sourcing of county return data against official state elections sources). While this is very quick and dirty, non-scientific, non-rigorous analysis, here is what I found. Basically from 2000-2012, Dems consistently carried an average of 17 counties per general election – in other words, most of these were reliable Democratic counties that we won despite whether it was Bush or Obama who won the White House. This year? We only got 7 counties (out of 88). I wish a political geographer would dig into this, but this is why I am losing my goddamn mind lately about the state of the state party.
We have been asking too many “why” questions during this election. In my opinion, going forward, we need to be asking more questions that start with “where.” The where matters, because as we all learned the hard way, a national election is not won by “how many votes did someone get?”, it’s won by “where are the states that deliver us 270 electoral votes.” I think the electoral college is horse shit as much as the next lefty, but until that changes, we need a geographic analysis for every single aspect of our organizing. We need to start asking questions like, “where are the counties that we can flip back from Trump? where are the precincts that suffered the most disenfranchisement, and how do we prioritize those precincts for voter registration the next election? where are the most brazenly gerrymandered districts? where are the union halls that we need to make sure the candidate actually shows up to visit if they give a damn about winning labor’s vote?”
The GOP has been building their party up for 40 years and we were asleep at the wheel
We have so much ground to make up because of breathtakingly incompetent leadership who walked away from the 50 State Strategy to concentrate on easy wins or galas or whatever else makes the Democratic leadership confuse schmoozing donors for actual organizing. Meanwhile, not only was the GOP doubling down on the Gospel of the 1%, they rarely left a contest uncontested, turned gerrymandering up to 11 following the 2008 election, all while marinating in decades worth of propaganda from Lee Atwater to Jerry Falwell to Karl Rove.
Maybe the Democrats haven’t completely lost their moral compass, but I sure as hell wish we’d figured out how to win more races in the meantime. Because right now the GOP has an unbelievable lock on both state and federal governance.
Right here in Ohio, we have a habit of throwing promising leaders, who are often young, under the bus. We did it a few years ago. Then the Party came back for more humble pie this year, outdoing itself by cutting down P.G. Sittenfeld in order to back a candidate who had a compelling millennial outreach strategy that involved telling his younger opponent that politics isn’t like playing Little League. Meanwhile, the “it’s their turn” establishment Democrats get their asses kicked at election-time, and people freak out about who the next generation of leaders will be. Sound familiar?
No matter where they are in life, people feel like their vote doesn’t matter and that’s a problem
Look, I tried to warn y’all about this idea that voting is an individual act of conscience, and how dangerous this ideology is, especially when it comes to turning out the vote. And what’s happened is because we keep acting like voting is this individual declaration of intent or some personal branding signal, then of course when you’re on the losing side, it’s going to feel like your vote didn’t matter.
Some of you may know that I did some voter registration and canvassing for Clinton in the area near where I live. I also served as a poll worker on election day. The areas I canvassed for the Clinton campaign were mostly low-income neighborhoods, and the residents are predominantly people of color. One day when I was doing voter registration, a young black man told me he doesn’t vote because he doesn’t believe it matters. The area where I served as a poll worker was in an area that was middle to upper-class, with predominantly white residents. During my very long day checking people in to the voter registration book and issuing ballots, some older white people also grumbled and said “None of this matters anyway, our votes won’t count.”So folks, this is where we’re at: no matter where they’re at in life, tons of people in my own corner of Ohio feel like their vote doesn’t matter. This is true across the country. How do we get people to recognize that their vote does matter, at least in the herd immunity position I’ve argued from? Do we highlight stories where razor-thin margins show just how much one’s vote counts? We have these stories in abundance from local and state elections. Again, I feel like the focus on the top of the ticket has really hurt politics overall – of course in a national election, your vote has less “weight” simply because of volume. On the other hand, local elections mean your vote has much greater weight.
When my husband and I were encountering friends during this election season who simply couldn’t be convinced to turn out for Clinton, we at least implored them to still show up to vote, and vote for the down-ballot tickets. But this is never a message that official get out the vote machinery will say – it starts with “Vote for (Presidential Candidate) and oh, also, by the way, for these down ballot issues and candidates”. I suspect people’s brains click off after they decide “well I’m not voting for the President, so why bother showing up at all?” This would have to be confirmed by comparing overall turnout numbers with how many people voted a blank race at the top of the ticket. I hope someone does it.
Either way: even though this election has global implications that I fear will reverberate for decades, nothing has brought home for me how much local politics matters than this one. And that’s where I plan to put an enormous amount of my work in over the coming years.
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