Remembering Informational Freedom: Clapping for the Wrong Things
by Nathaniel Enright
“People always clap for the wrong things.”
— J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
Award ceremonies have hit the headlines in recent days. Whilst Ursula Le Guin was honoured with the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (Arons 2014) and widely celebrated for her acceptance speech which took aim at an increasingly avaricious publishing industry, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was honoured with the Global Legacy Award from Save the Children, prompting a torrent of criticism which highlighted Blair’s central role in Britain’s invasion of Iraq and his controversial business dealings in the Middle East (Sherwood 2014).
There’s just no pleasing some.
Of course, awards and accolades, distinctions and decorations are capricious things conforming at times to a whimsical logic all of their very own. Kissinger, Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin all won Nobel prizes for peace; Ghandi did not. Jean Paul Sartre and Lê Ðúc Tho both refused their Nobel citations. Stalin and Hitler both adorned the covers of Time magazine. The awarding of such honours—and more— has always generated their own controversies. Yet, the 2013 and 2014 W.Y. Boyd Literary Award for Excellence in Military Fiction awarded by the American Library Association has been characterised by extreme silence. Sure, the W.Y. Boyd award might be the literary equivalent to retirement— an “award consisting of $5,000 and a 24k gold-framed citation of achievement”, says the ALA (2014) — but surely, somebody — anybody — out there in library-land noticed that the back to back winner was none other than former Lieutenant Colonel and Fox News Strategic Analyst Ralph Peters.
Well, somewhere down toward the end of the earth, I noticed. And I was angry. Admittedly, I’ve never read either of Peters’ (2012; 2013) prize-winning civil war novels; they may very well be the literary equals to The Killer Angels or Gone with the Wind though neither of Peters’ books made the Pulitzer short-list. To be clear, my anger was not simply a response to the literary merit of Peters’ books. No. The principle cause of my distemper was the jarring realisation that an organisation, which in 2011 unanimously passed a “WikiLeaks–Related Resolution”1 defending “public access to information by and about the government” and which vowed “to support whistleblowers in reporting abuse, fraud, and waste” (Office for Intellectual Freedom, 2011) was, in effect, endorsing — if only tacitly — the views of the outspoken Lieutenant Colonel. These views famously include placing WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, on a “kill or capture list” and suggesting that Assange was “guilty of sabotage, espionage, crimes against humanity” and therefore “should be killed” (Peters, 2010). Peters’ has also been a vociferous proponent of the death penalty for Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and all other “leakers”.2 Peters’ public profile is one marked by increasingly ludicrous claims; he has become infamous for his contemptible and bizarre attacks on everyone from Barack Obama (“a fool and a weakling”) to Eric Holder (“weenie of weenies”) and even suggested whistleblowers were simply trying to “make treason cool”. I know I’m a long, long way away in Australia, but didn’t the ALA invite Daniel Ellsberg to speak at its Annual Conference? Am I the only one that can spot the tension?
And yet the inflammatory remarks made on Fox should be the least of our concerns. In a series of articles published in Parameters (1997; 1999; 2001)—a quarterly academic journal published by the United States Army War College—Peters outlines his reasons why an information society should be promoted. Gone are the humanist concerns with intellectual freedom and equality of access so enshrined within ALA doctrine. In their place, information becomes central to securing “Western cultural and economic dominance” (2001) serving as a “boot in the backside of those who move too slowly” (2001). For Peters, “what matters is the power of information to terrify men of decayed belief” resulting in the continued expansion of the American “empire at the expense of failing cultures”. Peters (1997) imagines a world where the global struggle to retain economic, cultural and military supremacy revolves fundamentally around the ability to “sort, digest, synthesize, and apply information”. “Information”, says Peters, “is at once our core commodity and the most destabilizing factor of our time” and as “more and more human beings are overwhelmed by information, or dispossessed by the effects of information-based technologies, there will be more violence”. In fact, says Peters, we should be “building an information-based military to do that killing”. Awesome.
I am certain that some folks will accuse me of unnecessarily politicizing the W.Y. Boyd Prize, and that Peters’ political opinions have nothing to do with the quality of his fiction. They are right. There are, to be certain, countless examples of exemplary art produced by maniacs with dubious political positions—Salvador Dali and Jorge Luis Borges spring readily to mind. But what is at stake here is not so much Peters awards as the credibility of the ALA itself. How is it that a prominent political commentator who routinely espouses views not simply contrary but hostile to some of the core principles of the ALA is awarded not one but two prizes for excellence? Is the WY Boyd Award so marginal that it does not matter? Have ALA members been too busy downloading Democracy Now! podcasts and watching The Daily Show to notice the poisonous yet commonplace vitriol of Peters? I am not sure and I’ve got a feeling an answer will not be immediately forthcoming.
We might yet console ourselves with Peters’ (2001) words: “I believe, firmly, that societies that embrace informational freedom will triumph”. Unsurprisingly, Peters follows with: “But the victory will not come without cost.” It is difficult now not to think that that cost was “informational freedom” itself. When Ursula Le Guin received her medal just few days ago she argued that in the future “we will need writers who remember freedom.” As the December 1 closing date for the 2015 Boyd Award draws near I would suggest that we need an ALA that remembers what defending intellectual freedom looks like.
But then again, there’s just no pleasing some.
1. To be fair, the adopted “Resolution on Access to and Classification of Government Information,” is a substantially weakened, less-politicized version of two explicit WikiLeaks resolutions put forward by ALA’s Social Responsibilities Round Table (SRRT). For a clear elucidation of the process, see Al Kagan’s “Midwinter’s WikiLeaks Letdown.”
2. On a segment on Fox, Peters declared: “I do not believe in leaks, I would execute leakers, they are betraying our country”.
American Library Association 2013, ‘Cain at Gettysburg‘, viewed 25 November 2014
American Library Association 2014, ‘W.Y. Boyd Literary Award for Excellence in Military Fiction‘, viewed 25 November 2014
American Library Association 2014, ‘Hell or Richmond’ by Ralph Peters wins the 2014 W.Y. Boyd Award‘, ALA News, viewed 7 June 2014
Arons, R 2014, ‘We will need writers who can remember freedom: Ursula Le Guin and last night’s N.B.A.’s‘, The New Yorker, November 20, 2014, viewed November 24
Office for Intellectual Freedom 2011, ALA Council Unanimously Passes WikiLeaks-Related Resolution, American Library Association, viewed 25 November 2014
Peters, R 1997, ‘Constant Conflict‘, Parameters, vol. XXVII, pp.4-14, viewed 25 November 2014
Peters, R 1999, ‘Our New Old Enemies‘, Parameters, pp.22-37, viewed 25 November 2014
Peters, R 2001, ‘The Plague of Ideas‘, Parameters, pp.4-20, viewed 25 November 2014
Peters, R 2010 (a), Lt. Col. Ralph Peters Goes Off On Holder, Assange & Obama Over WikiLeaks & The Response, online video, viewed 25 November 2014
Peters, R 2010 (b), Newest Wikileaks “I would execute leakers” LT. COL. Ralph Peters- Newest Wikileaks Release, online video, viewed 25 November 2014
Peters, R 2012, Cain at Gettysburg, Forge, New York
Peters, R 2013, Hell or Richmond: A Novel, Forge, New York
Sherwood, H 2014, ‘Save the Children staff furious over ‘global legacy’ award for Tony Blair‘, The Guardian, 26 November, viewed November 25 2014