Red Book Bashing

A while ago, Rex posted on Human Events’ list of the “most dangerous books of the 19th & 20th century”. While ideologically frightening, we can be thankful that Human Events doesn’t (yet?) have any sort of enforcement power behind their list-making.

Or do they? A student in Massachusetts was visited by Homeland Security officers after requesting a translation of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book (#3 on Human Events’ list) through interlibrary loan. The student, who was taking a class on fascism and totalitarianism, requested the book as source material for a term paper on Communism; after filling out the form, he was visited at his parent’s home by two DHS agents, who told him the book was on a “watch list”. The content of their visit is, so far, unreported — but whatever was said, the fact of the visit itself is intimidating enough, and the effect on a developing student’s willingness to grapple with complex issues clear enough to imagine.

Just as worrying, though, is the “chilling effect” this visit is already having. Professor Brian Glyn Williams, a professor of Islamic Studies at the same school, asked to comment on the student’s case replied with concern over the risks that he and his fellow teachers might be putting their students into. “”I shudder to think of all the students I’ve had monitoring al-Qaeda Web sites, what the government must think of that,” he said, adding that he was reconsidering his plan to offer a course on terrorism next year, as the research required for the class would be bound to attract attention.

This past week we’ve learned that the US government has been rather extensively spying on American citizens associated with the anti-war and related political movements. But while the implications of this sort of monitoring for the expression of political dissent is clear enough, the implications for academic instruction are generally overlooked. While most professors can deal with the ramifications of their work, students are in a much more tenuous position, and if pursuing the demands of an adequate, unexceptional (that is, “normal”, not “mediocre”) education puts them at risk, we’ve got a big problem. Do we follow Dr. William’s example and shield our students from such risks, or do we accept the possibility that instructing our students to engage with the issues that shape their lives — or even allowing them to do so — may well expose them to the monitoring eye of the State, with who-knows-what consequences?

[Link via Joho the Blog]

8 thoughts on “Red Book Bashing

  1. Pingback: Roughtheory.org
  2. I’m curious about the status of this story – it seems the paper has not spoken directly to the student involved, and is essentially reporting at second hand information a student reported to their university professors. I’m sure the professors are acting in good faith, but the facts seem a bit odd.

    The story includes some odd details (is it now standard practice in the US for people to leave their social security numbers when requesting a book through interlibrary loan?). And, without contesting the heightened intrusiveness of Homeland Security, does it make sense that they would investigate the request of one book, by a student actually affiliated with a university, who was moreover so diligent that they left a great deal of personally identifying information when making the request? Does this particular book have such a close association with the kinds of terrorist organisations that would be closely watched at the present time? If so, why hasn’t Homeland Security also paid a visit to all the students monitoring (according to the professor cited above) al-Qaeda websites – surely some of these students have also spent time abroad?

    I’m not trying to be overly skeptical and, as I said, I’m sure people are acting in good faith in reporting this. But I personally would like a bit more confirmation…

    The broader point, though, of whether we know the full extent of monitoring of intellectual activity in the US, and of whether this monitoring has a chilling effect on critical academic work, is still a very salient one.

  3. There appears to be some question about the veracity of this story — Boing Boing is doing a good job keeping track of the various challenges. The reporter maintains that the story he reported is true, and that he is trying to get the student to come forward and also to get the DHS and the U Mass – Dartmouth library to comment. A copycat story was circulated, citing sources at UCSC, which was indeed a hoax — they simply rewrote the original story with different names. The main sticking point in the U Mass story is the assertion that the student left his Social Security number on his Inter-Library Loan request, which is not the policy at U Mass. It is, of course, conceivable that the student misremembered what information he had filled out — or that he “over-corrected” in an effort to tell a more convincing story. Further details will, hopefully, be forthcoming…

  4. The Mao’s Little Red Book story seems to be turning out to be a hoax. The below is on today’s Inside Higher Ed:

    “The Department of Homeland Security adamantly denied Wednesday that its officials had interrogated a senior at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth because he tried to borrow from acampus library an unabridged version of The Little Red Book. The alleged incident has prompted a controversy, but Jamie Zuieback, a spokeswoman for the department, said, “We investigate violations of the law, not individuals’ reading habits.” She said that department officials have “serious questions about the veracity of the claims” made by the student. She also indicated that the department “has no such thing as a book watch list.” Brian Glyn Williams, a professor whom the student shared his claims with, said Wednesday that he still believes the student. To date, the student remains anonymous.” http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2005/12/22/qt

    If this is indeed a hoax I think that Glyn Williams has some serious explaining to do.

    I see no reason for the student to remain annonymous, if Homeland Security already knows who s/he then there is nothing to loose, if they don’t then the story is a fraud. It is becoming clear that this second option is the most likely.

    Glyn Williams should hold a press conference and distance himself from this story that will likely soon self destruct as a fraud. If it does, it will be used by Homeland Security to claim that America is needlessly paranoid about NSA/Homeland Security surveillance, and this will help efforts to make the Patriot Act permanent.

  5. Aaron Nicodemus (the reporter who “broke” the original story) has also published an updated article, which quotes representatives from the FBI and DHS who are very skeptical of the story.

    Nevertheless, Brian Glyn Williams seems quite firm (from a variety of communications, to different sources) in his support for the student. I’ve been growing increasingly curious – particularly watching Williams’ story itself mutate slightly over time (once it became evident that UMass Dartmouth had no record of the ILL request, he then clarified that the book was requested via Amherst; once it was claimed that DHS has no field agents, he indicated that it may have been the FBI) – whether Williams himself received this story second hand? – e.g., did the student say something to Pontbriand, which Pontbriand then relayed to Williams, who then relayed it to the rest of the world?

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