Why Is New York City Planning to Sell and Shrink Its Libraries?

Defend our libraries, don't defund them. . . . . fund 'em, don't plunder 'em

Mayor Bloomberg defunded New York libraries at a time of increasing public use, population growth and increased city wealth, shrinking our library system to create real estate deals for wealthy real estate developers at a time of cutbacks in education and escalating disparities in opportunity. It’s an unjust and shortsighted plan that will ultimately hurt New York City’s economy and competitiveness.

It should NOT be adopted by those we have now elected to pursue better policies.

Friday, May 31, 2019

A Flourish of Stories About So-Called Philanthropy Being Used As A Guise For Diminishing The Public Commons– That Includes Libraries

There’s a bouquet of new stories blossoming about how what wealthy and powerful individuals and corporations would have us accept as `generous philanthropy’ is actually money deployed as a force to seize influence, diminish the public commons, control public discourse, and supplant the narratives in our culture about what is truly for the public good, who is doing good and who isn’t.

If this sounds familiar to fellow library defenders, it could be because of information we have previously supplied about, for instance, who is one the boards of our NYC libraries and their private sector conflicts of interest (Brooklyn Public Library Trustees- Identified + Biographical and Other Information Supplied), and how readily the board of “charitable” institutions like libraries are getting off track (Why Nonprofit Boards May Stray From Their Core Missions And Obligations To the Public- Considered Generally And Particularly With Respect To Libraries).

It might also be because you recall what we have written recently respecting these themes talking about Anand Giridharadas, author of  “The Elite Charade of Changing the World” (we've written about him before).  Now, in yet one more very valuable interview by “On The Media” you can hear Giridharadas (who says “that “giving has become the wingman of taking. Generosity has become the wingman of injustice. Changing the world has become the wingman of rigging the system”) address these theme again.  See: On The Media-  How Philanthropy Lets Rich People Off the Hook.

The “On The Media” story was generated after “philanthropic” pledges from wealthy individuals in France for repair of Notre Dame Cathedral.  It’s quickly been noted that these same individuals who were seeking acclaim for their “charity” as they readily unearthed cash for the cathedral have been saying they can’t afford to pay taxes and claim that they currently pay too much in taxes.  There was even a synchronous effort made to get their taxes lowered still further: In effect, through the treatment of their ‘charitable’ deductions, to have the government pay for restoration of the cathedral while the wealthy got credit and naming rights.  (There is fear that in order that this can be done more ostentatiously, those jostling into the limelight might even restore the cathedral with an anachronistic glass ceiling via, perhaps, Norman Foster who was involved in the NYPL's Central Library Plan.)

Giridharadas seems to be getting better and better at his interviews, sharpening his expression of the issues if not his analysis itself.  In his “On The Media” interview he speaks about what people should be skeptical about when the wealthy “give” enumerating three concerns:
    . . . One, is this giving single individuals or companies way too much power over public life? Number two, are these problems better solved by government? Where you have accountability, where you can throw people out in an election if they don't solve the problem and the right way. Number three, is the money that is being used to solve these social problems also culpable in the creation of these social problems?
On the subject of why Mark Zuckerberg’s “philanthropy” is problematic Giridharadas says:
I actually think journalists and regulators would have had way more aggressive scrutiny on Zuckerberg over the last 10 years [absent Zukerberg's `philanthropy']. So I'd be willing to lose whatever schools and disease programs Facebook has funded in exchange for having a healthier democracy where Facebook is in check. And I really do think in so many cases there's a link between these things. And a lot of these billionaires really understand that doing this giving buys you reputational space to keep doing the things you need to do to make money.
“Reputational space to keep doing the things you need to do to make money”: That obviously applies to the NYPL awkwardly renaming the 42nd Street Central Reference Library and putting on it the name of Stephen A. Schwarzman (as we have written before). . .                                              
. . .  Stephen A. Schwarzman is the head of the Blackstone Group (and the highest paid CEO in the country- the first $1 billion CEO).  Many are familiar with the fact that the 42nd Street Central Reference Library has awkwardly been renamed after Schwarzman, who, is not exactly about spreading the wealth or being magnanimous to the common man or general population.  He wants the poor to pay more taxes, while he pays, along with others in the hedge fund industry, an exceptionally low rate in taxes due to the carried-interest tax loophole, from which he personally benefits.  He has opposed that loophole's repeal saying repeal would be akin to the German invasion of Poland. And Mr. Schwarzman has also been leading the Trump administration’s initiative to privatize America’s public infrastructure. Mr. Schwarzman is a trustee of the NYPL.  
The “On the Media” story also mentions, for context, the Sacklers, the family that controls Purdue Pharmaceuticals.  Like Schwarzman they like their name up all over the place.  "On The Media" mentions how “in the face of mounting public pressure,” including dramatic protest demonstrations at the Guggenheim Museum, “Britain's National Portrait Gallery, New York's Guggenheim and the UK'S Tate Galleries have announced that they will no longer accept their money.”

That brings us to a recent FAIR Counterspin radio segment about activist work to reclaim our museums and public institutions from so-called wealthy philanthropists creating “reputational space” for the questionable things they continue to do while influencing public discourse narratives.  See: Amin Husain on Decolonizing Museums, Nikole Hannah-Jones on School Resegregation, May 10, 2019.

FAIR’s Counterspin text describing the show's segment reads:
This week on CounterSpin: If someone makes lots of money by, say, knowingly and cynically exacerbating opioid addiction, is it OK as long as they give some of that money to an art museum? Cultural institutions are important sites of public conversation, but the public doesn’t have much say in who gets to lead that conversation, or the stories they tell. Activists are asking us to talk about what that means, and what it would mean to change it. We’ll talk about accountability for cultural institutions with Amin Husain, core organizer with the group Decolonize This Place.
The Counterspin segment begins with a quick reference to the New York Museum of Natural History not allowing its museum space (its Hall of Ocean Life) to be used for a gala event by the Amazon ecosystem-destroying Jair Bolsonaro, the fascist president of Brazil (newly in charge in that country after a soft coup that imprisoned the former president and popular candidate Lula during the election and still holds Lula incommunicado).  The segment then proceeds to its central topic: Protests being organized concerning who is allowed to be in command of the resources of public cultural institutions like museums.  The Counterspin discussion with Amin Husain, of Decolonize This Place cites as a prime example, how Warren B. Kanders is on the board and vice-chair of the Whitney Museum.

Kanders is the owner of the Safariland Group that sells what it calls “non-lethal solutions,” which means that it supplies tear gas used against asylum seekers at the U.S. boarder, against the Furguson protestors, in Baltimore, by the repressive governments in Egypt and Turkey, plus the Safariland Group supplies lethal bullets used against Palestinians.  Mr. Husain points out that, at the same time Kanders is on the board, the Whitney is putting on exhibitions that “define what protest is” and what our art is.  Husain discusses how there is a “whole other economy going on” in museums and similar institutions based on the “one-percenters” determining what “aesthetics and culture” are, but notes that with people like Kander on the boards of such institutions they are not accountable to the communities they “claim to serve,” which raises questions about what these environments are “hospitable” to, even, as the Whitney, for instance, self-promotes and self-defines itself as a “progressive” institution.

Program host Janine Jackson commented about the “confused view of wealth” when people “make their money off misery,” while it is expected to somehow “all balance out” if they use that money for things like museum thus making these institutions “in some sense money launderers.”  Husain noted something else ingrained and related that the defines culture in the art world: How wealth finds a “home” as the art world creates a parking place, a repository for wealth, plus it creates a medium of exchange for great, often stolen, wealth (e.g. the $91 million Jeff Koons rabbit) while furnishing the wealthy with the benefit of tax write-offs.  Money is often being hidden this way.  Meanwhile, Husain notes these institutions are supposed to make rich people look better while they are engaged in ‘philanthropy that’s not really philanthropy.’  He said these institutions need to stop getting a pass on “pretending to be something good, but actually advancing something bad.”

Husain and his protestors are targeting the leadership of these institutions, not the employees, who often share these same criticism and concerns– Over 100 staff members of the Whitney joined in signing a letter calling for the removal of Kanders.

Fittingly, given that Counterspin is a media watchdog program, there was some discussion about the too frequently skewed, somewhat “containing” reporting of these protests by news media– An analogy was also made to how corporately-owned news media, like institutions such as museums, often purports to be serving the public, when it actually isn’t.   

Husain spoke about how these culture-defining excursions can be exclusionary and biased, saying it is important to be conscious how these institution are “not neutral” in ongoing public justice fights and dialogues.  He rhetorically asked how can you summon people in to spaces at the Whitney to speak out against fascism when there is someone like Warren Kanders on the board.  Husain concluded saying that challenging such leadership at these institutions was part of changing the nature of the conversation.  The public, he said, needs to reclaim these institutions.

Now, let’s progress more directly to the subject of libraries, starting with a Carnegie library.  Would the Whitney be better of if, rather than having to deal with Safariland Group associations, Apple just slapped its logos on the Whitney property?. . .

. . .  A new article up in the Boston Review makes the point that Andrew Carnegie’s style of giving, for instance, when he donated libraries all over this country (whatever questions his style raised), was far less problematic than what is going on now with the modern style of “philanthropy.”  The article’s case in point is Apple’s takeover of the Carnegie donated Washington Public Library.  See: The Boston Review: Apple's Newest Store and the Perverse Logic of Philanthro-Capitalism- The Apple Carnegie Library embodies recent developments in philanthropy that should trouble us: the uncritical valorization of philanthro-capitalism and the privatization of public goods and public spaces. Benjamin Soskis, May 21, 2019.

Benjamin Soskis, the article’s author, says: “The Apple Carnegie Library betrays the core goal of Carnegie's giving: to create fully public institutions. . .” and that Apple’s approach to an expensive physical restoration of the building “was not merely architectural.”  (“The library’s marble façade now glows, as do the two Apple logos that flank the entrance like totemic laptops.”)

Soskis observes:
It is true that plenty of knowledge will be diffused on the screens sold there. But in two fundamental respects, the Apple Carnegie Library embodies recent developments that betray the principles that animated Carnegie’s giving: the uncritical valorization of philanthro-capitalism and the privatization of public goods and public spaces. Carnegie’s philanthropy was certainly not unimpeachable—it was often warped by his own ego and eccentricity—but we don’t need to idealize it in order to admire elements of it, especially his library campaign. Indeed, reexamining that campaign should help us appreciate the problem with using Carnegie’s philanthropic legacy to promote the opening of an Apple store in the shell of Washington’s old public library.
He contrasts the Tech industry’s self-promotional furnishing of benefits with Carnegie’s ideal of truly public institutions:
    . .   Apple, and the tech industry more generally, has embraced a particular approach to philanthro-capitalism, one in which the products and services they profit from are presented as powerful forces for good themselves—today’s tech products forge social networks and connections, offer ladders for the aspiring to rise, and, yes, diffuse knowledge.

    . . . . Fundamental to Carnegie’s library campaign was the idea that they be fully public institutions—that is, democratically supported and tax-funded. In order for a town to receive funding to construct a Carnegie library, it needed to provide the site of the building, as well as an annual appropriation of 10 percent of the construction costs, in order to cover maintenance and upkeep, staff salaries, and books. . . .
Soskis’ analysis, citing Carnegie own words, that a man of wealth must consider himself “a mere trustee and agent for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience, and ability to administer” tracks that of Carnegie biographer David Nasaw.

Nasaw at BPL
Speaking at the Brooklyn Public Library (of all places!) Mr. Nasaw made this point precisely, that Mr. Carnegie was actually very different from many of the wealthy today.  Saying that Carnegie had a lot in common with Senator Elizabeth Warren, Nasaw said that Carnegie was a  proponent of the “dangerous but cogent belief” that the wealthy hold their wealth “in trust for the benefit of the public.”  Carnegie did not believe that he should die possessed of wealth that he had not directed toward the public benefit (he actually failed to give his money away fast enough because of the rate at which it was coming in).  Nasaw said that, although, Carnegie considered himself to have a superior ability to administer and direct wealth, he viewed his ascendance to wealth as somewhat accidental, the luck of his being where two rivers converged at Pittsburgh where iron ore and coal for smelting were also plentiful.

We should mention that David Nasaw was also a co-plaintiff with Citizens Defending Libraries in two lawsuits seeking to stop the NYPL “Central Library Plan” selling and shrinking libraries and getting rid of books and librarians.  That plan was being funded in part, by Mr. Schwarzman, the ostensible reason his name was put on the 42nd Street library that it put in jeopardy.

Using Apple’s ambitions as example, Soskis’ speaks about the erosion of the public commons as private sector branding takes over:
    The Apple Carnegie Library is one of thirteen that the company has recently opened and introduced as “town squares,” shifting attention from the stores’ commercial purposes to their civic ones. . . .

    . . .  The “town square” label is an impressive branding effort, but no amount of rhetorical silting can hide the erosion of public space that has taken place on Mount Vernon Square. The Carnegie Library Apple store—let us call it that—is fundamentally a commercial venue, run by a corporation accountable to its shareholders. And it arrives on the scene when actual public libraries are both starved for resources and dramatically expanding their own civic functions . .
Soskis is thus echoing concerns raised by two prescient librarian authors of books we have written about before: John E. Buschman “Dismantling the Public Sphere– Librarianship In the Age of the New Public Philosophy” (2003) and Ed D’Angelo  “Barbarians at the gate of the Public Library: How Postmodern Consumer Capitalism Threatens Democracy, Civil Education and the Public Good” (2006). Each of those authors cite back to the concerns of Henry Giroux, who in a cover blurb endorsed D’Angelo’s book.  (One source to hear interviews with Giroux is the Project Censored Radio Show, a recent segment of which was an interview with Citizens Defending Libraries co-founder Michael D. D. White about the dismantlement of libraries.)

Our near final stop on this series of stories about so-called philanthropy as a guise for diminishing the public commons, including libraries, is our report on the Brooklyn Public Library’s May 22nd `charity’ gala honoring the private Ratner/Prokhorov Barclays basketball arena and the Nets basketball team.  See:  As The Brooklyn Public Library Holds Gala At The Barclays Arena Honoring Nets And Barclay’s Arena, Citizens Defending Libraries Is There With A Message: End Faux Philanthropy; Take Less And Don’t Sell Our libraries!

Citizens Defending Libraries was leafleting outside the gala.  Our chant (borrowing a bit from Mr. Giridharadas) was: “Put a stake in faux philanthropy: Take less and don’t sell our libraries!”

There was much that was especially troubling about the gala.  Linda Johnson, the president on the Brooklyn Public Library said when she arrived in her position at the BPL that turning libraries into real estate deals was her biggest priority. Topping the list for those deals: Two libraries next to Forest City Ratner property, including Brooklyn’s second biggest library.  The Ratner organization headed by mega-subsidy collector Bruce Ratner created the “Barclays” arena as part of the ill-famed Atlantic Yards eminent domain project.  The dots to be connected concerning library sales, the real estate industry and Ratner are myriad.  The latest connection: BPL president Linda Johnson has literally shacked up (in a Brooklyn Bridge Park apartment) with Bruce Ratner.

Yes, that, indeed, is the background for the BPL “honoring” (i.e. advertising) the private basketball arena.

The BPL’s press release for the event made several points about how this public commons is  “partnering” with arena.

In our flyer that we handed out we made the point that a huge amount of tax dollars had been diverted into subsidies for the private Barclays area while city public libraries were simultaneously starved.  Specifically, what was spent on the Barclays and sports arenas was “a sum more than one-third greater” than “the city committed for capital improvements to the its 206 branch libraries and four research centers” even though those libraries serve “roughly seven times as many people a year as attend baseball games.” (That’s not to mention that the teams are getting an additional $680 million in subsidies spread over 40 years.)

A basic point of the flyer that we handed out that evening is that we the taxpayers pay for our libraries, that "NYC Public Libraries Are Mostly Public Tax Dollar Funded," and that when taxpayer money is diverted into huge subsidies for projects like the private Barclays arena and then the BPL is induced to use our publicly funded libraries to advertise that private arena, it's not charity, and our public tax dollars are being stolen to support private interests. . .

Plus, as essentially all of the stories above observed, this amounts to a dismantlement and privatization of the public commons.

This `philanthropically' funded dismantling of the public commons is not the way it has to be: We make these rules up.

In a May 2017 interview, Jane Mayer, author of  “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right,” (it’s on another “On The Media Segment,” recently reprised) said that a lot of what we are looking at today in terms of the working of modern day politics is “set up as sort of an arm of `philanthropy.’”   That includes, as noted at the beginning of the interview segment, a general deployment of philanthropy to support the “preservation of capital for rich people.”  That includes, for example, concerted and well funded efforts to ensure we keep polluting the atmosphere with fossil fuels creating climate catastrophe.

It's all the result of rules created in 1916 to allow the wealthy to get tax breaks for giving money to charities.  It's money that is supposedly to serve the `public good.'  See: Dark Money and the Rise of Conservative Orthodoxy, May 31, 2019.

From the very beginning the danger of this was understood, in a way that it too little spoken about today.  Mayer says that when the Rockefeller family wanted to set up the first of these big philanthropies, the Rockefeller Foundation:
 it was incredibly controversial. There was bipartisan opposition from across the board. All of these congressmen and senators said, this is an undemocratic thing, to have a rich family be able to spend its money on public policy and get a tax deduction. They saw foundations as unaccountable to anybody but the super rich and playing a undemocratic role in the midst of our democratic society.
Stephen A. Schwarzman in Jane Mayer's book
The previously mentioned Stephen A. Schwarzman makes an appearance as one of the powerful billionaires in Mayer’s “Dark Money” book as a class warrior agitating to have the poor pay more in taxes and for the wealthy, like himself, to pay less, including through tax loopholes that make his own real estate exceptionally low.  Schwarzman, of course is the man who hopes to get a pass on “pretending to be something good, but actually advancing something bad” by having his name on the NYPL’s 42nd Street Central Reference Library.
(PS: For more about how money is being used to so that the public doesn't get what it wants, but should, see- Everybody’s Realizing It Now: The Political Establishment Is Not Willing To Give The Public The Things The Vast Majority Of Americans Want And That We Could Easily Have)

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