From Library Babel Fish, July 8, 2013

Has my country changed so thoroughly that we’re beyond the point of no return?

On Sunday, when I wrote on Twitter “A secret court where only the govt can appeal. no checks, no balances. This is un-American, NSA” (linking to the frightening New York Times story about the massive secret body of law that the FISA court has built up in which the only possible appellant is the government), a friend responded that she wished it were possible to call it un-American. She thinks this is what America has become.

I really hope she’s wrong.

Today I read Daniel Ellsberg’s explanation of why he supports Edward Snowden even though he fled the country.  Ellsberg writes that he lived in a different America. After releasing papers he copied surreptitiously to the press, he was initially released on his own recognizance, and later, though he had to put down a $50,000 bond and faced a possible 115-year prison sentence, he was able to speak to the press, make public presentations, and be part of the public discussion that ultimately led a president to resign. Today? He believes he would have been imprisoned, held in solitary confinement, and at best silenced. At worst – who knows?

Ellsberg released classified documents when we were embroiled in a conflict in which over 58,000 Americans died. That war was part of a decades-long standoff between superpowers that threatened the world with nuclear annihilation. “Everything changed after 9/11” seems incredibly ahistorical to me. Yes, I take the threats we face seriously, and I appreciate that the government has a heavy responsibility for the nation’s safety, but it’s hardly the first time we’ve faced serious risks. I simply can’t buy the notion that the threat today is so much greater that we should no longer expect the government to be anything but secret, brutal, and all-powerful. That security is more important than the Bill of Rights. That sweeping laws approved by secret courts should be allowed to change our legal framework fundamentally. (“Judicial oversight” that is so thoroughly hidden from view is turning out to be an oxymoron.)

Odd though it may seem, I’m going to bring this around to my professional responsibilities as a librarian.

We want students to learn how information works: where it comes from, how to usefully pose good questions, how to sort through and evaluate the results of a search, and in how to engage with knowledge in an ethical way. That most often boils down to “don’t plagiarize” but it includes “use evidence with integrity, examine sources of information with an open mind, acknowledge positions that you may not agree with, change your mind if the evidence persuades you you’re wrong, conduct your own research in ways that honor the pursuit of truth.”

It shouldn’t stop with individual responsibilities, though. It should address wider civic issues. What can we do to reduce unequal access to knowledge? How can citizens enjoy the conditions that allow them to produce and share knowledge? What are the moral and ethical considerations that should guide information policy, including intellectual property law,  access to public information, and – yes – privacy, that condition which is necessary for the right to inquire and the right to dissent. I’m wondering how we can steer our information literacy efforts away from mere training in information consumerism and toward a deeper appreciation of the role information (and how we decide to share it) plays in our everyday lives and in the public interest.

What our government has designed and put in place is a powerful technological and legal architecture for oppression. Whether we trust our current administration is entirely beside the point. So are the external threats we face. These are internal existential threats, and they are grave.

I like to think these threats to the constitution and to our civil liberties can still be defined as “un-American,” that we are better than this, that we will work on fixing this and might even succeed. I hope I’m not deluding myself.


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