I’m going to be a bit of a grumpus about The Ministry of Reshelving. There’s a simple reason to object to this strategy.
The simple reason is that some folks on the left simply don’t seem to grasp that any tactic in the culture war is now highly symmetrical in its potential application. Once upon a time, only a Yippie would nominate a pig for President because the right identified itself as establishment and above that kind of thing. Now the cultural or populist right is perfectly content to mirror any and all tactics employed by the left in the cultural arena. Boycotts, marches, sit-ins, agit-prop films, giant puppets and subversive stunts: you name it, the populist right can do it too, and sometimes with considerable success. You do your theater of the absurd, they do their affirmative action bake sales.
So you don’t want to start something like this because if people actually start doing it, it’s extremely likely to spawn a mirroring imitation on the right. Michael Moore off to the fiction section, etcetera etcetera. And this is likely to be a feedback loop: we’ve already seen similar things happen. They send one of yours to the hospital, you send one of theirs to the morgue. As a one-off gesture, I don’t think this is actually all that much of a hassle for anyone, including bookstore employees. You get all the mileage you need out of just suggesting it, tongue-in-cheek. Trying to actually encourage people to go out and do it is a sign that there’s a lot of people out there who need to make themselves feel better more than they want to think about what actually accomplishes anything politically in the wider world.
But the actual danger here, as everywhere in culture war, that it won’t be a one-off. I don’t particularly want to go into a bookstore and have to spend an hour figuring out where some right-wing sod decided to hide a book I want that he disapproves of. I don’t particularly think bookstores want to have to devote increasing numbers of hours to finding those books.
I actually like subversion and mockery as political tactics, but I think they’re most effective (and amusing) as one-off statements or performances. (And also if they’re uniquely creative). I enjoy teaching in my consumerism class about the “Barbie Liberation Front’s” infamous hacking of Barbie dolls, but if every Christmas, there were three or four thousand people reverse-shoplifting crudely altered Barbie and GI Joe dolls into stores, I think you’d lose any value from the single stunt and merely garner a lot of antagonism from annoyed kids and parents. I think this is what bugs me so much about cultural warriors: they don’t seem to have a model of consequences. Either of the consequences of action in the sense of “what is this likely to do to positively affect the conscience of people who we hope to persuade” and equally, “what if this gesture starts to become a pattern or pervasive tactic”? Because I still think that the left, broadly speaking, benefits more from a free and informed society than the right does. Why would we want to bring chaos and disorder to the circulation of information and political discourse? I’m sure that’s an overreaction on my part, but you have to think about what happens if “reshelving” becomes a political fad or even a standardized political gesture among both left and right, and it’s hardly inconceivable that it would if enough people head down to their local Borders and move the Orwell–or even if enough people chortle on blogs about how they plan to do so.