An Invitation to Danger: Perspectives on Intellectual Freedom and Information War

Advocacy, Censorship, General Interest, Professional Ethics

By: Sarah Hartman-Caverly

In the world in which we live it is no longer agreed by all governments and citizens that truth is the final measure of men’s acts and that the lie is shameful . . . In the world in which we live it is no longer agreed that the common culture is a common treasure . . . To many men and many governments the life of the human mind is a danger to be feared more than any other danger, and the Word which cannot be purchased, cannot be falsified, and cannot be killed is the enemy most hunted for and hated.

Archibald MacLeish portrait
Archibald MacLeish portrait

These words could have been written yesterday, but they are eighty years old. In a 1940 speech delivered soon after his controversial appointment as Librarian of Congress, Archibald MacLeish – poet-warrior, librarian-propagandist – admonished the library community not to turn a blind eye to the spread of fascism in Europe, and not to trust that America’s newly declared policy of neutrality provided an adequate defense to the spread of fascism at home.

MacLeish – whose tenure at the Library of Congress overlapped with directorships at WWII-era propaganda agencies: the Office of Facts and Figures and Office of War Information – was a wartime librarian. With military precision, he strategized an emergency evacuation plan to protect the nation’s cultural record held at the Library of Congress; an operation he then activated in response to the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Oozing vocational awe, MacLeish touted the library’s contributions to the national defense, highlighting its information services to more than 250 federal agencies during the war effort. MacLeish was also intimately familiar with the binary weapons of surveillance and censorship; he himself came under investigation by both J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and anti-Communist Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Text reads: Post #14 letter of 2-25-64 re MACLEISH, cont'd. You will note that over fourteen of the movements have been official cited as communist fronts or movements while several others have been listed as socialist or communist type programs. We recognize that he was former Librarian of Congress; that he is a noted poet; that he was 1 of 155 'distinguished' guests invited to a Presidential inauguration; and that he is former editor of a national magazine, but this does not excuse his nearly thirty years of supporting movement as itemized above.
Excerpt from an anti-Communist complaint against Archibald MacLeish

While this brief biographical sketch admittedly cheats MacLeish of the deep consideration he is due – an inquiry I’m undertaking with a research collaborator – it is all to say that Archibald MacLeish knew a thing or two about information war.

An invitation to danger

The first task of information warfare is to recognize when you’re in one. The risk of declaring an information war is that it sounds equal parts conspiracy theory and cliché. One can even argue that this is by design – “plausible deniability” and “the necessary lie” are both baked into the source code of covert psychological operations. The signs and symptoms of information warfare may thus be circumstantial, obfuscated, delayed, displaced, and otherwise indirect – but, eventually, history catches up to the truth and offers us its counsel.

MacLeish warned that the kinetic information war, the burning of books and destruction of monuments and razing of libraries that was unfolding under Axis totalitarianism, could also happen here. But these would only be symptoms of a “war within the war,” a “spiritual civil war,” a “revolution aimed against the intellect, against the mind, against the things of the mind.” MacLeish decried “the whole miasma of suspicion and censorship and fear” which later gripped post-war America – a cancel culture manifesting as “the attempted suppression of books and opinions by boycott and by economic pressures of various kinds”:

Congressional committees began to investigate the opinions of citizens, newspaper persecutions followed, blacklists were established in various industries, men and women were hounded out of their jobs and out of their communities – even out of their lives.

— “Address delivered at the dedication of the Wallace Library, Fitchburg, Mass.,” 1967.

In the pre-dawn of the Information Age, MacLeish already observed a “burgeoning babel” and “increasing fragmentation” of the knowledge record. He described the emerging “neo-human function of feeding information to machines” and warned that “as we move into an age of mass communication, we move also into an age of mass-produced minds – look-alike mentalities.”

Thus the war within the war is “fought for men’s convictions – for the things which lie beneath convictions – for ideas.” And the library – vocational awe or no – not only holds these ideas and keeps them, but is also itself a brick-and-mortar manifestation of a shared belief in ideas. Thus every library is a forward operating base in the information war, serving up “arsenals of the weapons of intellectual freedom,” and extending “an invitation to danger.”

To say, to fight, and to defend

If information warfare is a conspiracy theory, it is a well-documented one. As recently as July 2020, the U.S. Army Mad Scientist Initiative and its academic partners ran a weaponized information wargaming exercise. In January, the Congressional Research Service updated its Defense Primer on Information Operations. The Belfer Center at Harvard published a November 2019 paper on cognitive warfare in the Baltic region, which will read to many like the Department of Justice’s February 2018 indictment of the Internet Research Agency and other Russian entities for interfering with US political sentiment. Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald pulled back the curtain on how state operatives infiltrate and manipulate digital discourse in the 2010s, and a 1996 RAND Corporation monograph offers an early analysis of the potential for ideological war fought over the public Web.

From these accounts, we can derive two defining attributes of information wars: they are total, and they are asymmetrical. They are total in the sense that there is no civilian space or activity deemed out of scope; on the contrary, civilians (and their information activities) are routinely conscripted as unwitting assets. Information wars are asymmetrical in the sense that they comprise state and non-state actors, instigators and opportunists, unevenly distributed capabilities and unconventional operations. Rather than bullets and bombs and bodies, they traffic in disruption, deception, distrust, shame, and fear.

Title reads: EFFECTS: Definition. First bullet-point reads: "Using online techniques to make something happen in the real or cyber world." Second bullet-point reads: Two broad categories: Information Opes (influence or disruption), Technical disruption. Third bullet-point reads: Known in GCHQ as Online Covert Action. Fourth bullet-point reads: The 4 D's: Deny / Disrupt / Degrade / Deceive.
Slide from internal GHCQ JTRIG cyber effects document leaked by Edward Snowden. Attribution: The Intercept

Like MacLeish, I question whether library workers can ignore or avoid this war.

Is it still wise for librarians to admit no positive duty to learning in a time when governments abroad teach ignorance instead of knowledge to their people, and fanatical and frightened citizens at home would, if they could, obliterate all art and learning but the art and learning they consider safe?

— “Of the librarian’s profession,” Atlantic Monthly, June 1940, 786-90.

Whatever level of “intellectual” or “academic” isolationism was possible in his time does not seem possible now. I’m not aware of a Hague Convention for the protection of our digital cultural heritage. You might not be fighting the information war, but the information war is fighting you.

MacLeish called on his contemporaries to answer “the question of public information,” “to say, to fight, and to defend  . . .  that the tradition of the written word is whole and single and entire and cannot be dismembered.” He implored librarians to take up “the cause of the inquiring mind.” For MacLeish, the practice of intellectual freedom was intrinsic to American self-governance, and any attempt to censor expression, or to chill it at its source by violating privacy, was therefore an attack on the culture of democracy, and one to which libraries must respond.

The opportunities for usefulness are endless

In MacLeish’s time, as in ours, the best library response to information war is a reexamination of our first principles: that it is “a good and desirable thing” for individuals to have broad access to information and opinions; that they be able to critically examine arguments, both the accepted and the presumed dangerous; and that in so doing they consult a diversity of human experiences and human perspectives. MacLeish understood that the mission of libraries wasn’t just books, but also “the means to human intelligence, human imagination, human passion, not at its lowest and dullest and most commonplace, but at its highest, its most human.”

In reporting on the wartime activities of the Library of Congress, MacLeish boasted that “the opportunities for usefulness are endless.” The way to fight an information war from the library is not to board it up and hunker down, but by “exhibiting to the people the nobility and beauty of their intellectual inheritance.” It is not to attempt isolationism or both-sideism or neutrality in the face of attacks on our core values, but “to fly our flag of truth and reason higher than our enemies can cut it down.” It is not to attempt appeasement through censorship, quietly dismembering the body of knowledge in shame, but to loudly proclaim:

Here are the books! Read them as you please! Make up your own minds! Determine your own destiny! Be free!”

Consulted writings by Archibald MacLeish 

As anthologized in Champion of a Cause (1971, ALA)

“Of the librarian’s profession,” Atlantic Monthly, June 1940, 786-90.

The obligation of libraries in a democracy,” 1940.

The Library of Congress protects its collections,” ALA Bulletin, Feb. 1942, 74-75.

Toward an intellectual offensive,” 1942.

“The librarian speaks, 1941-44”

“Libraries and mass communication,” excerpt from remarks made at the dedication of the Fitchburg (MA) Youth Library, 1950.

A tower which will not yield,” 1956.

“The knowable and the known,” in A Continuing Journey (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967), 242-49.

“Address delivered at the dedication of the Wallace Library, Fitchburg, Mass.,” 1967.

Sarah Hartman-Caverly

Sarah Hartman-Caverly, MS(LIS), MSIS, is a reference and instruction librarian at Penn State Berks, where she liaises with Engineering, Business and Computing programs. Prior to her current appointment, Sarah was a reference and instruction librarian at a community college, and was an electronic resources manager and library system administrator in both community and small liberal arts college settings. Sarah’s research examines the compatibility of human and machine autonomy from the perspective of intellectual freedom. Recent contributions include “Version Control” (ACRL 2017), “Our ‘Special Obligation’: Library Assessment, Learning Analytics, and Intellectual Freedom” (ACRL 2018), and “Human Nature is Not a Machine: On Liberty, Attention Engineering, and Learning Analytics” (Library Trends, 2019). She earned her MS(LIS) and MSIS from Drexel University in 2011.

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