Keeping tabs

In The Public and its Problems, John Dewey (1927) talked about the need for a vibrant Public as a necessary condition for a healthy democracy. This meant the development of what’s been called a “critical, socially-engaged intelligence,” for citizens who respect each others’ diverse viewpoints, who inquire about their society, and are actively engaged in improving it. Doing this requires open diaolgue, the ability to speak without reprisals, and, it should go without saying, the confidence that one is not being hounded by agencies who operate in secret with little check on their behavior.

A colleague of mine recently showed me her copy of Jane Addams’s FBI file. It’s 188 pages of prying into the life of one of the greatest Americans. Hull House, which she co-founded (1889), was a settlement home for thousands of immigrants in Chicago, providing food, shelter, education, arts, English classes, and an introduction to particpatory democracy. It was the beginning of sociology, social work, and public health. The first little theater in America, the first playgrounds in Chicago, and so much more, came out of Addams’s lifetime of dedication to building a better world for all.

It’s true, Addams protested against World War I. For that she won the Nobel Peace Prize (1931), but also the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, thanks in part to the machinations of J. Edgar Hoover. At least those files are finally public. You can judge for yourself whether our Nation was more secure because of that assault on personal liberty.

Another colleague pointed me to a court case in Canada related to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service’s (CSIS) file on Tommy Douglas. Douglas was premier of Saskatchewan from 1941 to 1960, and led in the development of a universal, publicly-funded single-payer health care system. The success there led eventually to the national Medicare plan in Canada. In part for that work, Douglas was selected as “The Greatest Canadian” of all time.

Now, CSIS argues in an affidavit filed in court last month that “Secrecy is intrinsic to security intelligence matters.” They say that full disclosure of Douglas’s file could endanger the lives of confidential informants.

Since the file is secret, we can’t know whether CSIS is correct in saying that it’s absolutely necessary to maintain secrecy on its operations. For that matter, how do we know that their reluctance isn’t based on covering up their own violations? Reading the file on Addams, I’d say that the only people who might want to hide it are those in the FBI. One thing we do know is that there’s no public basis for these security investigations–no violence, no plots, no attempts to undermine the government.

If the file on Douglas is anything like the one on Addams, we should all ask about the extent to which our security services really serve the public good. Why do we create dossiers on our great leaders, without any public evidence? Does security intelligence trump all other values? Does it help create a vibrant Public when secret agencies are given free rein to explore and document our lives, with little oversight on their own actions?

References

CSIS trying to block release Tommy Douglas’ file. Toronto Sun.

Dewey, John (1927). The public and its problems. New York: Holt.

Maloney, Steven Douglas. The public and Its problems.

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