As the fallout from the NSA’s phone record, email and Prism surveillance programs continues unabated, booksellers have witnessed a newfound interest in that most famous of government-run-amok novels, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. A needed reminder as to how prescient he was. As Noam Chomsky pointed out in an interview in The Guardian, we should not really be surprised by the revelations. Despite the admonition of FDR more than seventy years ago, we still succumb to fear with regularity.
The so-called Patriot Act, launched hand-in-glove with the “Global War on Terror” paved the way for governmental clandestine spying campaigns against its own citizens as well as citizens of the world.
Of course, this is not the first time the government has acted against its citizens. As Chomsky noted, the principal enemy of any government is it own people—the Palmer raids, Sedition Acts, McCarthyism. For a detailed exposition of the nefarious us of governmental power read Chris Finan’s From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act. Not confined to those “non-democratic” countries that our government routinely chastises--Libya; Syria; Egypt; North Korea; Burma; the Congo, et al, the NSA scandal highlights the desire of all governments for control. As Lord Acton so correctly put it—power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
What separates the present era from those that preceded it is the technological capabilities of governments (and corporations) to “collect and mine” data. This is done with impunity, but seems to evoke only limited concern. The President wants us to trust the government; Congress wants us to trust that it can control the situation; the Supreme Court has yet to weigh in on the specifics of the NSA scandal, but seems none too concerned with the Patriot Act. But the reality is that there has been a rapid rise in the government’s snooping activities as well as its almost paranoid concern with secrecy—hence the present administration’s relentless pursuit of “whistleblowers,” who leak embarrassing information it wants to remain hidden. I am reminded of the movie Sneakers—the subtext was “too many secrets.”
Sadly, apparently the younger the generation, the less the concern for privacy. Chomsky calls the present youth culture the “exhibitionist culture.” This cultural phenomenon—not the sole realm of the young—cultivates publicity.
As independent booksellers, what can we do to combat the invasive actions of our government? My partner and I refuse to keep records of what books our customers purchase. Section 215 of the Patriot Act, a Draconian interpretation of which led to the current NSA scandals, allows the government to confiscate records from book shops and libraries. If we are handed a secret warrant (approved by the shadowy FISA Court—a highly suspect and overrated check on governmental abuse as clearly demonstrated by Glenn Greenwald who broke the NSA story for The Guardian), we are obligated to hand over our store’s records. We are not allowed to contact an attorney; nor are we allowed to notify people that this action has occurred. If we did, we would be subject to prosecution.
We therefore do not keep this information. As a business model, we have been told that we are handicapping ourselves, losing a valuable marketing tool. So be it.
To us, our customers are not data. We value their privacy as much as we value our own.
Happy Independents’ Day.