August 8, 2010


In what strikes me today as one of the saddest stories to be found on the web (hey, just because my own life is a series of shit fits doesn't mean I overlook the suffering of others) is that the town of Camden, New Jersey, is about to close down all of its public libraries due to the lack of public funding.

It strikes a personal note for two reasons.

One, of course, is the fact that I once went to Camden, in 1993, and even back then – the first time I had been exposed to something I had never seen before, despite all of the poverty here in Germany, it was still hidden, still behind little windows and a certain stiff-upper-lip mentality of us poor people here.

But in 1993, in America, I saw the future of the Western world. Abandoned buildings, boarded up, just miles away from lush suburbs with patios and BBQ grills and friendly, often arrogant white people. A stretch of Beirut after heavy bombardement, transported to the East Coast of the United Sattes and close to the sparkling towers of Philadelphia.

City of Brotherly Love, indeed.

I walked through Camden on foot to observe.

And saw the despair that now is spreading quietly and rapidly through our societies, unknown, hiding underneath the surface of shopping malls and Starbuck's coffee shops, never to be looked at by those on their travels from suburbia to work, always on the go... go...go...

... until they themselves break down on that road to nowhere. And their houses fall apart, no longer possessed, but re-possessed, their own dreams being boarded up, bought and sold, cut into trenches and given to derivates.

If you are an avid reader of this blog, you will know that I was piss poor as a child, and when I had to go to war with my high school, my ammunition was that what was found in our town's public library. But it wasn't all that I found there. I found a tattered, old 1960s version of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? there, long before it got turned into a considerably worse movie. I found Anais Nin there who told me about women and sexuality. I found Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius novels there, the pages like yellowed teeth and with a mouldy smell. And children's books, like Alice in Wonderland and Wind in the Willows and little Jan, the Swedish teen detective who solved crime years and years before Wallander was born, all of which helped to escape the grim realities of my life for a few hours here and there, when I was lying on my floor, my legs raised high and dangling over my chair as the books before me opened up worlds of possibilities.

If it hadn't been for the public library, I would have been lost. I wouldn't have been able to teach myself, through words and pictures and thoughts so brilliant they sparkled in the dark that was every day. I took out thirty to fourty books each week, and when I brought them back, before finding more, I would sit at its tables, pulling out magazines and reading the articles, all of which was Pre-Google, Pre-Internet, Pre-Anything, when all you could rely on was the public library, if you were poor.

Not that much of it has changed. Even with the advent of computers and the web, poor people all around the world, the ones who wish to learn, who wish to know, who wish to be better, who have nowhere else to go, the public libraries are their intellectual and spiritual home.

It's a place where children are still being read stories of dragons and monsters and brave little toasters that find their way home.

It's a place where you can log on and through free email addresses can look for jobs, for information, for a way out of your misery, even if it is only for a little while, as the world outside waits for you, colder and darker than you have left it.

It's a place that is silent, and in today's world of constant chatter, that alone makes it a cathedral of thought, both deep and shallow, both high-brow and low-brow.

They are in danger, these cathedrals. They are being shut down all over, cut down, taken down, and with them, the last, final, best hope for poor people to participate in any kind of intellectual debate.

It is with malice, with forethought that they are being shut down. As we have always enough money for the military, for tax cuts for the rich, for gated communities and private and public security officers that widen the divide between us and them.

A public library is more than a building. More than a place.

It's a symbol.

Of a society that still believes that information, that shared thoughts, that faith in the human spirit is a right to all people.

But then, we don't believe that anymore, do we?

Not really.

Not when politicians talk about putting people on welfare in small building blocks (if they are lucky), not when there are over 100,000 homeless veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who are lucky to find a dry place to sleep tonight, not when people are struggling to find a job that exploits them, that makes them not enough money to even rent a decent apartment, not when our democracy, our faiths and beliefs are belittled and betrayed every single day.

We have no money for these things.

And so we sure have no money to give the poor at least the fighting chance, that most elusive option of educating themselves, when the system has already failed them and us alike.

Because we don't want them smart.

We want them compliant.

We want them quiet.

We want them to be out of sight.

So that we can still dream it.

With our eyes closed to the world and to our realities.

That American Dream that has been sold to the world.

While those who sold it to us...

... sell us down the river.