Politics And The Google Economy

While I’m anxiously working to better fit libraries into the Google Economy, a few paragraphs of Barry Glassner’s The Culture of Fear, got me thinking about its role in politics.

Glassner was telling of how a 1996 article in USA Today quoted the National Assocation of Scholars{#242} saying that Georgetown University had dumbed down its curriculum and dropped Shakespeare{#778} requirements. Of course, nothing could have been farther from the truth, a point confirmed by the Georgetown’s dean. In fact, more, not fewer Shakespeare classes were required, but this correction ran only as a letter to the editor some time after the falsehoods of the first story had taken hold in popular culture.

That’s how it came to pass that Robert Brustein of the American Repertory Theater was quoted saying “most English departments are now held so completely hostage to fashionable political and theoretical agendas that it is unlikely Shakespeare can qualify as an appropriate author.” Political Correctness, was then and remains today a contentious issue on university campuses. The NAS{#242} and other groups had been so successful controlling media reportage on it throughout the 1990s that Brustein and many others could get quoted without being asked to offer evidence or qualifications for the claim. Still, University of Chicago grad student John Wilson looked into the claim.

Here again, the facts (as collected by Wilson and repeated by Glassner) contradicted the hype. The MLA data showed that 97% of English departments at four-year colleges offered at least one Shakespeare course and almost two thirds required Shakespeare courses for English majors. Further, the MLA online bibliography cited nearly 20,000 works related to Shakespeare, more than three times as many as for James Joyce, the runner up, and 36 times the number for Toni Morrison.

In short, the old bard was getting as much attention as ever, but as before, the correction never received the recognition it needed, and the falsehoods, not facts, shaped public opinion.

So the challenge to those who care about truth is to make it available and linkable online. It wasn’t so long ago that Googling “jew” returned a hate site as the top hit (I’m linking to the Wikipedia article to help correct this). Credit goes to David Rothman for pointing out this aspect of the Google economy to me, but now Google uses their sponsored link slot to link to an explanation:

If you use Google to search for “Judaism,” “Jewish” or “Jewish people,” the results are informative and relevant. So why is a search for “Jew” different? One reason is that the word “Jew” is often used in an anti-Semitic context. Jewish organizations are more likely to use the word “Jewish” when talking about members of their faith.

This certainly isn’t the first time people have noticed that similar search terms yield very different results. During the 2004 election, it became clear that conservative news sources used full names, so searches for “George Bush” or “John Kerry” were skewed with a very conservative bias. Meanwhile, searches for just “bush” or “kerry” were more neutral. So it should be easy to understand why Googling “political correctness” reveals pages of conservative blather, but it’s impossible to find any links that suggest Shakespeare classes have actually been cancelled or requirements dropped (searching for “shakespeare classes cancelled” mostly reveals registration data that shows Shakespeare classes full and registration for them closed).

There’s no real satisfaction in those last points. Being right (but ignored), or winning the battle long after the fact have little effect on public opinion. What might help, however, is having a large collection of online linkable resources. Political arguments today include battles fought in the blogosphere, where links and Google rank are essential. Imagine the argument today: a conservative blogger complains about Georgetown, but a comment links to the English department’s program requirements and class schedule showing a full complement of Shakespeare classes. Well, that’s how it might work if conservative sites allowed comments.)