Ask the Bolshevik: The alternative reality era

Meet the UI Press is a recurring feature that delves into issues affecting academic publishing, writing, education, and related topics. Today, industry advice columnist The Bolshevik answers your questions.

bolshevikDear Bolshevik,
With the amazing recent changes in the political landscape, does academic and scholarly publishing have any worries? We’re already seeing an aggressive turn against knowledge with the muzzling of government scientists and experts at federal agencies. The recent election itself could be seen as a rejection of expertise. The first days of the new administration seem dedicated to the rejection of truth itself. Yet you guys are trying to sell expertise and the search for truth all the time. Any thoughts on getting with the prevailing paradigm and just publishing any old thing that makes you look good? Signed, Trender Bender

Dear TB: As someone experienced with the weaving of communist unrealities, the Bolshevik welcomes this new era. It means he once again possesses in-demand job skills beyond designing massive hydroelectric boondoggles. Yet I, too, feel chilled by the partisan anti-intellectualism in the air.

Our corner of the publishing universe, by definition, deals with the unpopular, the controversial, the overlooked, and the nonconformist. One of our own recent books offers details on what that sort of attitude can get you when the powers-that-be decide that certain ideas have become suspicious, if not dangerous. But, as the Bolshevik himself knows from real life, the threat goes beyond having FBI agents rifle through your mail or send memos about your embarrassing addiction to Chipotle, though the threat of Siberian exile remains remote.

It doesn’t take much to start a damaging social media firestorm over a comment or a meme. A academic publisher—an entity that usually lacks the deep pockets to subsidize the wardrobe of white nationalist celebrity provocateurs—has to keep in mind that any one of their books can become the next Five Minute Hate. It doesn’t even matter what the book in question discusses, not really. All someone needs do is misrepresent a single quote or idea, send the message out via social media, and voila, there’s an instant deluge of threats, attacks, and scapegoating. Becoming a target means real consequences. A sustained attack can swamp or even shut down a press web site and Twitter feed, and damage an author (or press’s) reputation. Both would affect a bottom line that, in many cases, is already feeling a dozen other pressures.

What to do? An excellent topic for discussion and stormy applause! The Bolshevik, off-handedly, would suggest building alliances with others likely to come in for partisan attacks. Who? Other publishers, first and foremost. Perhaps it is possible to create a decentralized response team—or at least a hashtag—that can rise in support of any press taking a culture war broadside.

Also scholars, the backbone of our industry

Also the millions of students who read our books.

Also advocacy groups with whom we share goals or intellectual interests.

Also professional groups—think climate scientists or National Park Service employees—that share our belief in free inquiry, even if their research/work falls outside our ken, and who already are facing the challenges described above.

It never hurts to prepare. You know who didn’t? The Tsar. Look how that turned out.