Friday, September 21, 2007

Intellectual Freedom, Privacy, and Me

You wouldn't know it to look at me, but the AL seems to be something of a cause celebre these days. I know, I know, it's strange, isn't it. Here I am, just this shy, retiring library blogger who never speaks at conferences, who doesn't promote her professional reputation, who rarely leaves her lonely writer's garret, who has no power over anyone, who has only the power of her little fingers typing on her little keyboard, and yet some people just get so mad when I write things that they disagree with. Of course they all claim they wouldn't be so mad if they just knew who I was. Yes, that would make all the difference to them. That would lend some sort of authenticity to what I write. Oh, and it would make it easier for people to attack and smear me as well, but that's purely a coincidence.

During my most recent sally into the insipid debate over pseudonymity, a kind reader posted a comment linking to the Electronic Frontier Foundation's statement on Anonymity. It makes very interesting reading. I think it is a statement that librarians should embrace, but obviously some of my critics disagree. Let's take a look at some excerpts. Here's how it begins:

"Many people don't want the things they say online to be connected with their offline identities. They may be concerned about political or economic retribution, harassment, or even threats to their lives. Whistleblowers report news that companies and governments would prefer to suppress; human rights workers struggle against repressive governments; parents try to create a safe way for children to explore; victims of domestic violence attempt to rebuild their lives where abusers cannot follow.

Instead of using their true names to communicate, these people choose to speak using pseudonyms (assumed names) or anonymously (no name at all). For these individuals and the organizations that support them, secure anonymity is critical. It may literally save lives."

So there! I doubt I save any lives, though I might have brightened a few afternoons here and there, but the point is the same. I'm sort of like a whistleblower, except I blow the whistle on a bunch of annoying stuff in librarianship that many people either like or would prefer no one to notice. Even the Supreme Court likes me. Read on:

"Anonymous communications have an important place in our political and social discourse. The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that the right to anonymous free speech is protected by the First Amendment. A much-cited 1995 Supreme Court ruling in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission reads:

Protections for anonymous speech are vital to democratic discourse. Allowing dissenters to shield their identities frees them to express critical, minority views . . . Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. . . . It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights, and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation . . . at the hand of an intolerant society."

Well, what do you think about that? Protected by the First Amendment, just like viewing porn in the library, except with fewer naughty images. I am shielded from the tyranny of the majority and from retaliation at the hand of an intolerant profession. The AL exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights! I feel so exalted now! I do wonder sometimes if those authoritarian librarians, who no doubt think they believe in free expression, are ever troubled by any inconsistencies. Some people, though, believe in free expression as long as they agree with what is being expressed, or, in the astonishingly incoherent view of one of my critics, as long as what is expressed is signed, as if that made any intellectual difference at all. Oh well, we can't all be intellectual. Those who just wish I'd go away are those who don't believe in free expression.

I thought intellectual freedom and free expression were values librarians are supposed to hold dear. And privacy as well. Aren't we all supposed to believe that privacy and freedom of expression is important? That's what it says over at the ALA website. Isn't that true? Or is this another case of intellectual freedom is the freedom to think like me? Or I can't handle issues so I'll focus on personalities? Or I'm a library puritan who is angry that someone, somewhere might be making fun of me? Just asking.

The EFF then makes the point I have made before: "The tradition of anonymous speech is older than the United States. Founders Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote the Federalist Papers under the pseudonym "Publius," and "the Federal Farmer" spoke up in rebuttal. The US Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized rights to speak anonymously derived from the First Amendment."

Perhaps some of my critics have never heard of Alexander Hamilton or the Federalist Papers, but they could look them up. Surely as librarians they should be able to find some information about them. My critics may not realize this, but those pseudonymous Federalist Papers played an influential role in the ratification of the US Constitution. I'm sure you've heard of that document. I wonder if those who complain about my pseudonymity would say no one should have paid any attention to James Madison because he wrote under a pseudonym. Oh, but that's different, right? Keep telling yourself that, if that's what it takes to reconcile the inconsistencies in your thinking.

"These long-standing rights to anonymity and the protections it affords are critically important for the Internet. As the Supreme Court has recognized, the Internet offers a new and powerful democratic forum in which anyone can become a 'pamphleteer' or 'a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox.'"

Yep, that pretty much sounds like me.

"The Electronic Frontier Foundation has been involved in the fight to protect the rights of anonymous speakers online. As one court observed, in a case handled by EFF along with the ACLU of Washington, '[T]he free exchange of ideas on the Internet is driven in large part by the ability of Internet users to communicate anonymously.'"

Wow! Now the ACLU is involved. That oughta impress those alleged freedom-loving librarians!

So I'm curious what my critics who feel in their hearts that it's just not right that someone writes pseudonymously and dares poke fun at this pretentious profession and pretentious librarians think about this statement. It might be nice for a change for them to just admit that they don't care about intellectual freedom or privacy or free expression, to admit that what they really want is to stifle criticism and debate. I used to think it was just the regressives who believed that intellectual freedom was the freedom to think like them. Now I'm not sure sure. I guess ideology doesn't have to be political. There's also the ideology of a profession that takes itself much too seriously. Heil, Dewey!

This statement is remarkably consistent with many of the statements on intellectual freedom and privacy emanating from the ALA, and, my faithful readers might have noticed, those aren't the ALA emanations that I've targeted in the past. Intellectual freedom and privacy don't annoy me. The ALA thinks they're good things. I think they're good things. I practice what I preach.

Do you?


Varzil said...

Well, since most Librarians are really just sheeple in disguise think cannot think differently than what ALA tells them to think, you really cannot expect more from them.

ALA says conservatism and questioning them is bad, so therefore anyone that is conservative or questions them is bad and they must do all that they can to nip it in the bud. Why next thing you know, they might be called on to condemn Castro for jailing librarians or heavens forbid, actually do something about listening to what the patrons actually want and providing those services to them.

BTW, I am going to post this with a pseudonym, I think you will understand.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to respond to your post about anonymity. I have no problem with anonymous bloggers or writers. In fact, I think the mystery adds a certain unique element. I am an anonymous blogger myself. :) You can check out my "anonymous" blog at Feel free to let me know what you think!

Anonymous said...

Excellent post.

I wrote my philosophy thesis on Soren Kierkegaard, a philosopher and anti-Hegelian gadfly who infamously wrote a large portion of his work under pseudonyms. Many of his writings were attacks on the local clergy of Copenhagen and "Christendom" in general. Of course those whom he attacked were confounded by his use of pseudonyms—and for obvious reasons—but I've never read any serious student of SK (or of philosophy for that matter) disparaging Kierkegaard for his choice to write under pseudonyms.

When it is evident that the writer makes it either implicitly or explicitly clear that his or her real name is important, perhaps as important as the work itself, you have to wonder if a narcissistic impulse is what’s behind the hype.

—Soren Faust

Anonymous said...

Didn't Benjamin Franklin write under a pseudonym at some point--Doogood or Doowright or something like that?

I agree with your point, and I stay anonymous myself for three reasons:

I'd much rather have people focus on my argument than me.

In this profession if you have contrary views you can either keep it to yourself or talk anonymously. It has cost me to have liberal left wing co-workers find out I don't share their views, even if I never talk about what they think.

Lastly I faced a lawsuit once over comments I made online, and ever since I've been very discreet what I post.

Anonymous said...


It's like shooting fish in a barrel with a shotgun, isn't it?

You really are the voice of reason.

Thanks for your blog--it is a delight to read.

Anonymous said...

"in the astonishingly incoherent view of one of my critics, as long as what is expressed is signed, as if that made any intellectual difference at all."

Sing it. The ideas stand or fall on their own, regardless of anonymity or pseudonymity. A legitimate poke at ALA pieties is valid without needing to show the vaunted credentials.

Of course, it's really funny that this comes so much from Twopointopians, with their fetishization of the web. Because, erm... this is the culture of the web. It's the rule, not the exception. "We love the web, we work on the web, we... have no idea whatsoever how the web operates."

Anonymous said...

Those who just wish I'd go away are those who don't believe in free expression.

I think most of them are also taking it for granted they're working in an environment where their views are tolerated. (or more likely ignored)

How many of these "radical" librarians would be so willing to sign their name to every politically correct post if the tables were turned? My guess is hardly any of them.

Leo Klein said...

Gee, I wonder who suggested the link...

Anyway, not only is anonymity a right but it's a tradition, like it or not, of Web 1.0 & Web 2.0.

The very fact that you can choose an "avatar" which may have zilch to do with how you really are is another example.

To make a long story short, Anonymity is just part of Web 2.0.

You can't love the Blogging but hate the Anonymous Blogger. It's all part of the same package.

Anonymous said...

I keep thinking of the name Mildred Pierce or maybe Joan Crawford when the subject of AL's identity comes up. Odd innit?

Leah said...

I agree that posting anonymously has it's place in our society. As you noted it can literally save lives and certainly saves some people from serious repercussions.

However, I don't believe at all that this includes your blog. Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with you being anonymous, but your use of this seems to be less for privacy and more for getting away with saying what you want without having to hear about it later. Like throwing stones at glass windows and watching from the bushes. You get to see all the fallout and not deal with any of it.

I come from a Free Press background. I believe in being able to say what needs to be said. Being as your blog is unlikely to get you into any serious trouble, just annoy people, I don't see your posting as having any need for being private except it makes it easier for you to throw the stones and hide. My family has placed their names on stories and editorials that have inflamed and annoyed the populous many times, but people know where they stand. Comparing your writing to the situation of the founding fathers or whistle blowers is just a bit ridiculous to me.

Keep your privacy, but don't try to tell me it's for anything but your own comfort. Librarians may get annoyed, but I haven't heard of any of us being life-threatening.