Sunday, January 21, 2007

Al Gore at SLA

Former Vice President Al Gore has been hired as the opening session keynote speaker at the SLA annual conference in Denver this June.

Since losing to George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election, Gore has become a popular commodity on the speaker circuit. With a new book out this May and the attendant publicity campaign, we'll be seeing a lot of him during the runup to the primaries--will he or won't he run, etc.

Recently Gore spoke at the Learning Annex Real Estate & Wealth Expo. In case you're wondering, he spoke on "leadership." No doubt the gig paid well, but if I were looking for a speaker on leadership, a politician might well be dead last on my list. Gore ran into heavy criticism last year for giving a speech in Saudi Arabia claiming that Arabs in the USA suffered "terrible abuses" since 9/11. This year, in addition to SLA, Gore will speak at the Phi Theta Kappa Convention in April and at the American Institute of Architects National Convention in May, among many other engagements.

Gore's Speech

What will Gore discuss at SLA? One hopes for a few words directly pertaining to the role of librarianship--collecting and providing access to information, and the future of the internet.

With the release of his new book shortly before the conference, one can expect the bulk of his speech will address his standard laundry list. I feel comfortable in predicting he will say what he has always said: he will state the case for a politically liberal position on policy issues that are hotly disputed in the public arena. And he will attempt to persuade his audience to believe that the facts support his position and contradict his opponents.

Gore is an evangelist for the standard liberal viewpoint that man-made global warming is threatening the future viability of the planet. Conservatives generally disagree with that hypothesis. At this stage, it's a matter of personal belief. The science is not in, but the politics are. No scientist can say with any certainty that global warming is caused by man or is part of a natural process (the recent politicization of The Weather Channel notwithstanding). That is the debate, and it is ongoing, regardless of what Gore may or may not say in Denver.

The Assault on Reason, Indeed

"The Assault on Reason," Gore's new book, promises to explain how "the public arena has grown more hostile to reason," and how solving problems such as global warming is impeded by a political culture with a pervasive "unwillingness to let facts drive decisions." But this is the hoary pout of frustrated politicians, isn't it? The reason I can't get my way is because my opponents won't listen to the truth or the facts, which are all on my side. The title itself intimates a hit job on the political right, supported by carefully chosen statistics. Well, one can hope it isn't that bad.

As a librarian, I consider it a waste of my time to listen to politicians sermonize on science because they are out of their league. A politician qua politician is bad enough; but a politician qua scientist is just about unbearable. I would consider it insulting if he actually did that and veered off-topic with a speech highlighting his theories of global warming and the like, instead of focusing on some aspect of information. Like all politicians without the appropriate academic credentials, Gore has a superficial understanding of science and isn't qualified to voice any final pronouncements on its behalf, or, God help us, behave like an evangelist for the cause célèbre of the day. Gore draws paychecks from Apple and Google; with any luck, his comments will revolve within their circles.

ALA Lite

ALA, the American Library Association, infamously has tilted to a precipitous degree to far left politics--to the detriment of its role as a national library association. Any position that strays away from neutrality is not in the best interests of the librarians or the library profession itself. How different is SLA from ALA? Bill Clinton was invited to speak at SLA in 2005, but eventually backed out. Now Gore is coming. No Republican or conservative politician on a comparable level has been seen at the annual conference as a counterweight. If a steady parade of liberal lawmakers marches through the conference, the association can't pretend to be politically nonaligned, and it won't be viewed that way, either. SLA can only diminish its name and reputation if it continues on this course. An association defines itself to some extent by its choice of guests (for example, if the keynoter at every SLA annual conference were a communist, that would tell the world a lot about it).

The press release about Gore's appearance seems to go beyond mere marketing promotion and suggests SLA agreement with his positions. If SLA intends to be a lite version of ALA--meaning unmistakably liberal in its politics on a smaller scale with a smaller membership, it would then make sense to enfold SLA within ALA because the raison d'être for its existence (and its continued viability) becomes problematic the more it shadows ALA.

The invitation to Gore, and the absence of any conservative politicians, raises a few uneasy questions about SLA and how it views itself. Perhaps the list of speakers to be invited to the 2008 conference in Seattle will answer them.

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