Generally, the 501st Legion steers clear of politics. We're not supposed to appear with political candidates or generally deviate from a charitable + costume-styled mission, but there's points where we simply can't avoid it.
The New England Garrison made an appearance in Senator Tom Coburn's annual Waste Book, a publication that points out what he considers wasteful spending. The document can be found here, and on page 84, at #52, there's an entry titled 'Return of the Jedi - (MA) $365, you'll see members of the New England Garrison and Alderaan Base, from when we trooped at the Abington Public Library's Star Wars Day. Our folks had a good time, and apparently the library's patrons did as well.
The document goes on to say the following:
The Star Wars Day event, held at the Abington Public Library in Massachusetts, was paid for with $365 in federal funds, part of an $11,700 grant provided by the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services.
The Star Wars franchise has grossed over $4.5 billion over the past 35 years, so taxpayers may wonder why the government is subsidizing fan events for one of the most popular and successful movie series in the universe.
It's enough to make my blood boil.
What immediately strikes me is just how misleading this entry is, or at the very least, the second paragraph. While it's true that the films have grossed more than 4.5 billion listed, there's no direct connection between Lucasfilm Limited and the library, or us, for that matter. We're an organization that LFL works with, but we're not employees. Moreover, this works to imply that the $365 (which compared to the national budget / debt is a microscopic part) that was paid went to LFL or us to pad the bottom line. You want to know what the money was probably used for?
The librarian on staff who's position is funded through grants. At $15 an hour, that's 24 hours, less than a full work week, and far less time than what was probably required to put together the event.
I didn't work with this particular event, but I did work with another library event here in Vermont, where we worked to support the Star Wars club at the Brownell Library in Essex Junction. The grant that supplied a librarian to run the club had actually been cut, and we were there to help support that club. In all, we raised $290, which helped keep the librarian there for the rest of the year.
What bothers me the most is how absolutely clueless this entry appears, given the problems that the nation face, and it's not this enormous debt, and it's not that it's completely off mark, but that whoever placed the entry had absolutely no idea what something like this does. It's not a miniature Celebration, where fanboys can bask in the glory of Lucas's franchise: it's designed to get kids into the public library, where they can see, touch, and interact with all of the resources that are at hand for free to the general public. Libraries are the civilized world's most crucial institutions, not just for the books that they hold, but for their center in the community, for the expertise that their staffs provide, and for the multiplier effect that they can have on one's education. This sort of investment from the federal government is something that can do what is most important: assist in the education and self-betterment of our peers. Now, as the country is slowly inching along in its recovery, this is the type of institution that is evermore valuable, and evermore threatened. The Library Foundation of Hennepin County reported that in the 2002 recession, library circulation jumped 11.3%.
Looking long-term, we consistently hear arguments that the American child is falling behind relatively to their peers around the world, with the public school system often coming under fire for a poor education that public school children seem to be receiving. Those arguments aside for the moment, it's a tiny snapshot of the resources that schools and libraries are pushed to go to. Without additional funding that host communities can't provide, these important institutions simply cannot exist, and with them, any hope for sustained, meaningful economic recovery.
The Star Wars day that's come under fire here is inconsequential, but it's an important insight into how divided we are from the situation on the ground. This congressional member has likely never visited the library, or seen just how federal dollars are used, and what the direct impact on their constituents are. At the same time, the word 'Military' shows up three times. 'Army', 14 times, but most of those are in the footnotes. 'Navy'? 23 times, with a couple of good points about military readiness, but also attacking a kid's program about space and Mars. 'Marines' doesn't show up at all, all institutions that eat enormous quantities of money. I will note, I'm not against military spending, but somewhere in the $1.030–$1.415 trillion, $11,000 was lost in someone's couch cushions. I would argue, as Fermilab physicist Robert Wilson did in 1969, when questioned about the practical security value of a collider: "If only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture... it has to do with , as we good painters, sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about ... it has nothing to do directly with defending our country, except to make it worth defending. " (Rocket Men: The epic story of the first men on the moon, Craig Nelson, p.x) I don't mean to imply that there's an argument being made here that the same money should be put strictly to defense, but I don't believe that this country should be on a path of bare bones financing, at the expense of the American public.
The elimination of this single event at this single library would be inconsequential in the greater scheme of things. But when you eliminate (or suggest to eliminate one), here, and another there, soon, there's nothing left.
Again, I didn't attend this event, but at the one that I did attend, I was greeted behind my helmet by over a hundred patrons: kids, parents and fans, all excited and all of them in the library. I saw a lot of children with books. Reading is an incredibly important skill for the modern world, and everywhere I look, I see evidence that this is something that's far less valued as a whole, when it should be the most important thing that a child learns to love. Reading opens the doors to worlds previously closed to us, and allows for the creation of an innovative, creative generation that will spur this country to great heights, or down to dangerous depths from which we have little hope of escaping in the same amount of time.
It bothers me that the reality on the ground differs so much from the story that's been concocted by a disinterested party, hellbent on their mission (which certainly has its merits) to the expense of all other concerns that come up along the way. It's the programs like this, that build the country, little by little, into what makes it a great nation.
I for one am proud of what the 501st has done to support such events. This summer, we were inundated with over a hundred requests from libraries across New England for similar events, and I fervently hope that we will have twice as many next year.
EDIT, 10/23 3:20PM: NPR has a great post up on the reading habits of younger generations, and surprisingly, it's not just ebooks and internet things, it's regular, dead tree books and libraries. Read it here.