When certain aspects of life become accepted practice, part of the texture of everyday life, one tends to forget that they are there at all. They become part of the wallpaper. One forgets that putting them in place involved massive effort, and that things may not always be the same. To stretch my metaphor to the breaking point, someone might come in and paint over the wallpaper. It is important not to take for granted those things which we should cherish. Access to information is just such a phenomenon. The point was brought home to me this year.
Each spring semester I teach a large undergraduate class entitled Chinese Law & Society. Though I am a member of the Law School faculty, I offer this course through the Legal Studies major. Teaching undergraduates is a tonic. The information habits of the typical 19 year old University of California student are so different from mine, the river in which they swim so alien, that I can only shake my head in wonder. But that discussion is for another day. Today’s topic is a bit of old time religion. The freedom to locate and rely upon legitimate, lasting legal authority, indeed any authority, has become part of our wallpaper. It is so entrenched in our quotidian affairs that we take it for granted. My undergraduate course reminded me of how we should appreciate it and protect it.
Among my 160 students were half a dozen from China. These students were undergraduates from Chinese universities who are studying at the University of California. Around the midpoint in the semester’s lectures, these students started coming to my office hours in wonderment. One told me that she had never heard anything about the things that I was discussing. She was amazed to hear of the origin of the Korean War, or the Great Leap Forward’s disastrous results or the fact that the Tiananmen Massacre happened at all. Another came to tell me that she was so shocked at what I was saying, and you must trust me on this point, I work to present objective facts as objective facts and to outline the rationale behind each position on political questions, that she called her father in China to ask if it was true. He suggested that they not discuss it until he saw her in person.
China is a master at the control of information. While China’s dust-up with Google took center stage for a spell, we pay little attention to its on-going efforts. It is difficult to comprehend the level of information control in China. Print, internet and broadcast sources are carefully monitored. High officials in the Communist Party have access to information that no one else sees, lower level officials have correspondingly less, but the common populace, ideally have none. Though the voices of dissent in China are creative at using the Internet to communicate, they are a small band, and they must keep recreating themselves. Think of the impact of each newspaper carrying the same story on the front page, of all newscasts being carefully vetted and an endless game of virtual tag as the censors block certain terms from search engines and blogs.
The freedom of information and the access to it are central to the Western concept of democracy. Citizens have a right to know. Dissidents have the right to speak. I can write, “President Obama is a terrible person, he should be removed” and no one will drop by to discuss my politics, no one will search my computer files, and no one will put me under house arrest.
There are two points to this column. The first is that we should appreciate the heritage of free information that we have inherited. The second is that librarians are the heroes in this story. Librarians protect information. Librarians preserve it. Librarians demand accuracy and legitimacy. These are often unpopular actions. Yet librarians do it because they believe that it is the right thing to do. Life is not about money or power. Life is about truth. That truth is not part of the wallpaper. It is the foundation of the house. Librarians understand that vital truth. It is worth the fight.
Have a lovely summer.