Here at Every Day Should Be Tuesday I have a little tradition. Every Monday night I put my daughter to bed, pour myself a drink, think about finally writing my review of Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer, and then write something else entirely to post on Tuesday. I’ve been trying for the last hour to convince a screaming baby that, truly, sleep is the best life choice, so my tolerance for MALARKEY is at critical levels. Unfortunately, there is a lot of MALARKEY going on in the bookish world at the moment.
Let’s see if we can tie three distinct controversies together thematically. First, an academic economist argued that libraries should be replaced by Amazon bookstores. Second, James Gunn was fired for a series of awful, awfully old tweets. Finally, people are ANGRY about WorldCon.
The library article was originally posted to Forbes, a once proud magazine which is now Medium with better branding. The author of the post is an economist, but his argument did not make a lot of sense, as I remember. And I have to remember it, because the original post has been deleted. Which hardly facilitates scandalous discourse. But the gist was that libraries are no longer necessary because Amazon has started opening brick-and-mortar stores and because people are now free to loiter in Starbucks to their hearts’ content. Um, okay. But, uh, we’ve always had bookstores. And coffee shops. It isn’t even clear yet that Amazon is any good at bookstores, no matter how good they are at selling books. And the brilliance of Starbucks is convincing people to plunk down upwards of $10 for something that should never cost over a buck, not in inventing any sort of physical space.
I poked fun at the story initially, as is my wont. But as I have stated elsewhere, but for reading, I would not be where I am today. For a poor kid in a rural area, books were an education just waiting to be picked up, and the books at the library were a free education. Now, I always viewed the library with a skeptical eye. After all, you had to give the books back. It seems a petty cruelty to give a poor kid a book and then take it back. And so I have the poor-kid-done-good’s aversion to getting rid of things, most especially books, and I largely avoid libraries these days.
So I am hardly an expert on libraries, and especially on modern libraries, which have had to adjust to a very different world. But I do know that libraries make an oddly shaped political football (although, to be fair, footballs themselves are pretty oddly shaped). They are public institutions, and thus subject to the roving gaze of the local anarcho-capitalist. But they hardly make for the most tempting target (or the most tempting totem for the anarcho-capitalists’ statist counterparts). Robber barons played a large role in expanding the public library system. Andrew Carnegie alone helped finance over 2,500 of them. They are an excellent example of subsidiarity in action. Subsidiarity is the idea that social issues should be addressed at the lowest level possible. It is closely associated with Catholic Social Thought, but subsidiarity is implicitly an important principle in the design of both the United States and the European Union. Public libraries are typically run by local governments, with ample private assistance both in volunteer hours and donations. By providing meeting space and events, public libraries also play a key role in facilitating the sort of little platoons on which civil society relies.
Now, if we had to rely entirely on government libraries for books and meeting space? Whew boy.
The other scandal du jour of the weekend (yeah, yeah, I know what “du jour” means) was Disney firing James Gunn, director of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, for a series of terrible tweets from several years ago. The tweets are below (I wasn’t kidding that they are terrible).
First, let’s be clear about the legal framework. The First Amendment is, by its own terms, limited to government action. It reads “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press” (the Supreme Court has subsequently read this to include the other branches of the federal government and, relying on the Fourteenth Amendment, to include state governments as well). On the employment law side, the default rule is employment at-will. An employer can terminate an employee for any reason, and an employee can leave employment for any reason, unless an exception applies. Basically, the exceptions are where an employment contract, a union contract, or a civil rights statute applies. Federal civil rights laws do not protect political expression; some state civil rights laws do (not at issue here but frequently so).
So Disney was entirely within its legal rights in firing Gunn. He presumably has a contract, but they will either pay out his contract, settle for some lesser amount, or rely on some contractual out (which will presumably lead to a dispute). But that is only a legal matter if and when one side files a lawsuit claiming breach of contract. There is no First Amendment or civil rights issue. And that is as it should be. Disney is the party in the best position to judge whether they should continue employing Gunn. It is their money that will be flowing into Gunn’s pockets. It is their money that will be at risk if he continues to make movies for them. And the profits from any movies he makes for them will flow into their pockets. They also have the best information. They are the ones with easy access to his HR file and to his company emails.
Which is not to say it is purely a private matter of no public concern. Expressive values do not end with the First Amendment. The First Amendment is limited to restricting the government on the basis of a judgment both that the state is a unique danger to fundamental rights and that the state is not competent to police even serious infringements of expressive rights by private parties (outside of the claims provided for under the common law). But expressive values are not the proper lens through which to view the issue.
It’s pluralism. Our system cannot function without a recognition that people hold divergent views and will continue to do so. Neither the CTRL-Left nor the ALT-Right has any answer to the fact that the people they despise exist in large numbers and will continue to do so. The American experiment cannot continue without acceptance of that. I am not saying that Gunn’s tweets weren’t dreadful. The idea that you wouldn’t buy a sandwich from a guy because he votes Democratic is batty. It isn’t sustainable, and it is irreconcilable with capitalism. For all the teeth-gnashing over the impersonal nature of capitalism, that impersonality stripped a huge amount of discrimination out of our system. Orthodox views should not be relevant to the purchase decision. If a guy openly advocates for pederasty, yeah, you probably shouldn’t buy his stuff. I am not saying that it is of any concern that people take issue with Gunn’s tweets or that it is of any concern when a private company fires someone for that sort of thing. It IS of great concern when a private company does so at the behest of a high-tech lynch mob.
A mob is the party in the worst position to judge whether Gunn should be fired. Nor is it enough to say that it was the right mob or that the wrong mobs already roam the virtual streets. Any sort of mob is illiberalism. The mobs, regardless of tribe, are the enemies are the liberalism system (in the classical sense) and must be confronted. (Thankfully, as Mark Twain observed, mobs are full of cowards.) The mobs won’t stop with Gunn because, to them, it was never about what he said. It was about power and striking an enemy.
Which brings us to Worldcon. I’m old enough to remember when the gatekeepers raising the Worldcon drawbridge on the Puppies were heroes. Today, we have always been at war with the gatekeepers of Worldcon.
There is a Worldcon controversy. This is the least offensive statement in this section, because there is always a controversy at Worldcon (just kidding—all statements are offensive to bigots). The controversy this year this week is over a dress code, panel selections, and bio errors. That’s it. I won’t get into the details because, to be honest, they don’t matter. Which isn’t to say that nothing at issue is an issue on the merits, but rather to say that the merits aren’t at issue. This is about power.
I went to Worldcon a few years ago in San Antonio. I had a great time, attended some great panels (and parties!), and met some great authors. It was also obvious that it was a dying con. The average attendee was geriatric to say the least. Worldcon has failed to grow while the field has dramatically. The Puppy campaigns were the best thing that could have happened to Worldcon.
Tribes only combine to combat an outside threat. Prior to liberalism, that was essentially the entire story of nation-states. They were the product of tribes combining to protect themselves from the threat of other neighboring tribes. Or the product of conquest. The Worldcon tribes were able to combine to fight off the external threat of the Puppies. The influx of fans was a potential boon to a dying con itself, sure, but it was a threat to the factions making up the con, who faced dilution of their influence.
The story of this Worldcon controversy is one of tribalism. Once you have abandoned principles and adopted the mantle of tribalism, everything is a fight for resources. Any concession is merely a sign of weakness by the other side, inviting further attack. The details don’t matter because, if it wasn’t this, it would have simply been something else. Tribalism is committing to a never-ending cycle of raids. There is no end game. Which is all to say this only matters as a cautionary tale. The relevance of the con and the Hugo Awards is the theft of a remnant of what once was. It has no substance of its own.
I guess they didn’t kick the right people out after all.
 “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.” – Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France