For the first time in forever (maybe ever), Pi Wen and I recently caught a film on its opening night.
This was Florence Foster Jenkins, starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg. It's based on a true story, of a socialite with an awful singing voice who nonetheless performed at Carnegie Hall.
Jenkins's husband St. Clair Bayfield spares her from the knowledge of her terrible voice as an act of love. Esteemed vocal coaches say nothing to Jenkins because they want her money. Whether from greed or kindness, the end result is the same: Florence Foster Jenkins believes she can sing well even though she most definitely cannot.
Or at least this is the case in the film -- it is hard to believe that the real-life Jenkins was as clueless as her screen counterpart. Helberg plays her accompanist, Cosme McMoon.
Although Jenkins's case is extreme, and the film plays it as farce, there are genuine ethical dilemmas here. If a person is blissfully unaware of their lack of talent and causing no harm to themselves or others, why shatter their illusion? Or is this framing itself an illusion, as the lack of talent causes some discomfort in others at the very least? If you choose to tell someone that their talent is only in their head, do you do it gently and risk that the message will be lost? Or in a tear-off-the-bandaid fashion that leaves no doubt about the truth of the matter, but at the cost of hurt feelings?
In the film Jenkins does finally learn the harsh truth, from a caustic newspaper critic (a Hollywood trope if I ever did see one). In the end her husband could not her spare her. The review is so rough that one wishes he had let her down ever so gently (but not too gently) many years before.
That dean, Roman Kochan, replied with a tart missive to Allen. Kochan's message, in essence, was that Allen had stepped out of his lane and had best step back.
What was the fuss about? Allen accused one of Kochan's librarians, Gabriel Gardner, of promoting Sci-Hub. Yes, Sci-Hub, the site that publishers hate ("piracy") and researchers love ("it's so easy.") Now with over 50,000,000 papers and counting -- many if not most obtained through such dubious means as computer hacking -- Sci-Hub is the strongest threat yet to publisher paywalls and revenue streams.
Rather than evolving their business models, the main response by publishers so far has been to double down and build two-factor authentication schemes to protect their current revenues. This nerdy instance of whack-a-mole continues apace.
Back to Tom Allen, CEO of the Association of American Publishers (AAP). Allen's beef with librarian Gardner was that Gardner had not shilled sufficiently for AAP during a recent ALA presentation. Allen wanted Gardner to proclaim Sci-Hub illegal, immoral and detrimental to all human life. But Allen alleges -- on the basis of very scant evidence -- that Gardner encouraged people to use Sci-Hub. The more probable version of events is that Gardner simply noted that Sci-Hub is easy to use (it is). Allen charges instead that Gardner aided and abetted lawless behavior, but that's plainly ludicrous.
Let's not be too harsh -- Allen is just doing his job, throwing some red meat to his base of angry publishers. This is blatant propaganda, easily dismissed.
Nonetheless Allen's gambit does pose an interesting question: How should we discuss things that are clearly illegal (in the court of law sense) but are much more ambiguous ethically?
For Sci-Hub fits squarely into this frame. There is absolutely no doubt that the site is illegal, sourced by still-in-copyright materials Sci-Hub does not own or license.
And yet. The very fact that publishers can copyright, and profit by, the results of what is often taxpaper-funded research is unconscionable. It's legally permitted but morally outrageous. Even if we grant that publishers add value to scholarly communication (and I do) this does not mean they need the iron grip on content they currently have in order to make a profit. It's the system we've chosen to build, not the only system we ever could have.
Sci-Hub is far from blameless in this equation, as it falsely impersonates people and steals network credentials in order to obtain articles. But, of course, no such actions would be necessary if all scholarly content were open access at the time of publication.
So back to the question: what to do when something is legally forbidden but ethically ambiguous? Say so. Librarians discussing Sci-Hub with anyone should say, "This is illegal but the laws are bad. Live within these constraints AND seek to change them." Of course, most people listening will ignore the legal constraints (Sci-Hub is damn easy) and do nothing whatsoever to change copyright law. It's up to librarians and progressive attorneys to take that part on.
In 2012 the Republican Party conducted an "autopsy" to learn lessons after Mitt Romney's defeat as President, with the goal of retaking the White House in 2016.
Given that the 2016 GOP nominee is one Donald John Trump, this line from the report feels prescient: "If our Party is not welcoming and inclusive, young people and increasingly other voters will continue to tune us out." (Page 10)
Huh. Part of me feels the delicious schadenfreude in all this, in certain moods I look upon the GOP's implosion with delight. But most of the time I'm just sad about it. The Grand Old Party has been a vibrant and essential part of our democracy for more than 150 years, and in the space of just one year it gave away its soul to a most unworthy recipient. Trump has not simply coarsened the dialogue, stoked hate and embarrassed America. He has brought a great party down too, as collateral damage for his ego.