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Politics

Toronto is outraged. Rob Ford is suggesting that we close, or worse, privatize libraries. *gasp*.

Let me start by saying this: I think closing libraries is a terrible thing to do. We must ensure that people have easy access to books in their own communities. I am not putting this under debate.

Privatizing libraries is a whole other matter. Knee-jerk fears of capitalism aside, what exactly is wrong with privatizing them? Privatization generally means more money available, more efficient administration, and more accountability to the customers, i.e. those paying the fees. The Toronto Star says that:

A recent contract offer to San Joaquin County in California promised up to 47 per cent longer hours, 21 to 34 per cent lower costs, and $800,000 more spending on books and materials.

And that “Circulation, library visits, and library programs all continue to increase,” in Riverside, California. Both the Star and the Globe and Mail (notably, papers on two very different ends of the political and quality spectrum) both report that Riverside made a profit of $80,000 from privatizing the libraries, and both generally present privatization as a positive influence.

The only objection that I’ve seen that has made sense to me is that privatizing libraries would mean limiting access to books. This is a valid concern, but there must be ways around it. Paid memberships are not necessarily a given – the library could make money through advertisement, or by raising late fees. If they are a necessity, then there are ways to open access up, like making payment necessary only for taking books out, not reading in-library. The important thing here is how, not whether we privatize.

Another good objection is that libraries are community hubs. But this does not necessarily need to change in a privatized situation. Indigo runs more, and better organized and advertised, author readings, and many of the places that do end up being community hubs are actually private: think local coffee shops (lets not forget that indie coffee shops are still for-profit, and unlike your beloved hipster coffee place, libraries could still potentially be free places to gather). People in communities with privatized libraries seem to agree, according to the Globe and Mail:

Priscilla Donovan was hired by LSSI in Leander, Texas, to run the town’s library four years ago.

“As far as I know everybody’s really happy – most people have no idea [that it’s privately run]. It’s still a library. We don’t wear LSSI uniforms or anything like that,” she says.

On the other hand, libraries which are somewhat privately run, such as University libraries, are in my experience better managed, have much larger collections, and shorter waits for highly demanded books.

So, besides being the Big Bad Capitalist Wolf, is privatization really a bad thing?

Tamil CP24

Protests have always made me nervous, but Toronto’s recent Tamil protests a bit more than usual. They’ve been able to gather massive amounts of participants – by CP24’s estimate, Wednesday’s protest was to have had 100,000 attendees, although I don’t think it actually reached those numbers – and have managed huge disruptions, from forming a human chain through the downtown core a few months ago to Sunday’s impromptu blockade of the Gardiner Expressway.

Peaceful protests are great, but unfortunately it doesn’t take much to change a peaceful protest into a deadly one – especially when so many people are involved. Just how real this concern is was shown on Sunday when, in CP24’s words, without prior warning “protesters overwhelmed a handful of police officers on bikes…and swarmed onto a downtown Toronto highway.” What if someone had been hurt? Or what if these kinds of numbers had been gathered for a more polarizing issue, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Are our police prepared to deal with (God forbid) violence on such a large scale? Canada’s usual lacklustre attitude to security, as well as the “handful of police officers on bikes” do nothing to reassure me, for one. There was a much larger police presence on Wednesday, but the fact that it was a reactionary, rather than proactive, measure worries me.

The protests also raise another question: to what degree do protesters have a right to disturb Canadian civil society for the sake of a conflict in which Canada is not directly involved? On the one hand, it’s important for NGO’s and protest groups to be able to get Canadian society off of its collective behind to stop massacres, and disrupting pedestrian and motor traffic in the downtown core is a great way to get the message across. On the other hand, the peacefulness of Canadian society (among others) is what sets it apart from places like Sri Lanka, so isn’t disturbing that peace therefore counterproductive? Shouldn’t we keep stable and peaceful countries stable and peaceful, while helping others become more so?

So far the protest has only been a nuisance, but one with a penchant for unplanned detours. Sunday’s fiasco was repeated again on Wednesday when the protest, which should have been confined to Queen’s Park,  spilled into the downtown core. Added to this is the use of the Tamil Tigers flag: although the protesters claim that it is nothing more than a nationalist emblem, it nonetheless brings with it a mental association as violent as the two crossed rifles in its design. This protest is clearly too volatile and potentially threatening for comfort, and while these questions apply to more than just the current situation, the time to answer them is now.

Last week, Reuters reported (here and here) that the government of Rwanda has formally accused several top French officials of involvement in the 1994 genocide.
This is an exciting idea. Imagine the Industrialized world being held accountable for its actions in Africa. This would be a huge step in protecting Africa from the foreign interests that constantly become entangled in its affairs and aggravate its conflicts. Imagine if the nations who insist on training or supplying arms to forces conducting genocide could actually be held responsible. It wouldn’t end Africa’s conflicts, but at least they could not take place on quite such a massive scale, and foreign interests would be unable to prolong them. It was not for moral reasons, after all, that Russia and China blocked a UN resolution to impose sanctions on Zimbabwe following its July elections.
Of course, this whole issue is hopelessly convoluted with political motives. The move may be in retaliation for France’s 2006 call for Rwanda’s President to face similar charges. There are also doubts as to whether the tribunal responsible for the latest accusation was truly unbiased (see the articles for more details).
Unfortunately, I think this is also completely impracticable. First of all, it is impossible to put the top officials of the world’s most powerful nations on trial. There is simply too much economic and political power involved.
Secondly, where do political or economic interests cross the line from interests to aids to genocide? China recently acquired rights to export ivory from certain parts of Africa. If this is one of the reasons why it refuses to support sanctions against Zimbabwe, does that make China responsible for the political murders that go on there? I’m tempted to say that direct involvement – say providing arms or training troops – is worthy of punishment, but I can see how this could become an area of contention in the courts. Of course, the courts would also be the ones to create the precedents for where to draw the line. Any thoughts?
And what would be the political implications of threatening economic interests in the region? After all, the protection of economic interests is the biggest reason that countries become involved in the affairs of others in the first place. If we make it dangerous for a countries to invest in the region, would they even be willing to help? I don’t know enough about the economic relationships between Africa and the rest of the world to be able to discuss this, but my gut reaction is that the Industrialized world’s involvement would decrease.
Still, an interesting idea. The fact that this accusation is even being made is a step forward in itself.