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NOTE: This blog post has been updated a number of times. All revision history for this blog can be found at the github site.

Liberal democracies, for want of a better term, subject their own structural need for violence to Freudian levels of repression. From the ongoing “so-called primitive accumulation” meted out to marginalized communities and colonized subjects, to the discursive and conceptual repression of, say, trans people, to the levels of violence we have seen in the outrageous barbarity of police forces in the US and Canada over the last several days, violence is a structural requisite for the maintenance and reproduction of the social and political power of capital. And yet it goes against all the ideological perspectives white supremacist capitalism also uses for its reproduction, and so it must be repressed, overlooked, psychologically unseeable from the perspective of the settler-colonial, patriarchal, property owning class and those on whom its hegemonic weapons have worked. But these weapons are in contradiction: the social peace upon which bourgeois ideology is predicated - the human half of Gramsci/Machiavelli’s centaur image - is constantly at war with the necessity and perverse joy of deploying armed force, in the form of the - increasingly indistinguishable - army and the police, against Black and Brown bodies at home and abroad. What we see again and again in the images of police violence and the various tools used by government and media to dismiss them - passive voice, selective framing, justification for the unjustifiable - is a “return of the repressed”.

This contradiction lies at the heart both of the conception of intellectual freedom in librarianship and in the hegemonic inability to conceive of intellectual freedom in any other way. For the defenders of IF absolutism, there is no violence, there is no physical harm: all social conflicts only take place on the plane of ideas, beliefs, and opinions. They cannot grant the real harm done - by transphobes or the police - because that would require acknowledging the continuing role played by state violence in the construction of what, to them, is a democratic society built on shared values and a commitment to peace. The continuing violence of capitalist society challenges and denies that conception of social peace, but as Nietzsche often reminded us, the ideological constructions that serve racial capitalism win out even over the evidence of our senses.

‘I have done that’, says my memory. ‘I cannot have done that’, says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually - memory yields. - Beyond Good and Evil.

For example, in Alvin Schrader’s CFE piece in April he argues that only “vestiges” of the “virulent homophobia” of the 1990s remain in Alberta, despite evidence - for example in the current government’s position on Gay-Straight Alliances in schools - that homophobia is still unchecked within the province. Schrader argues that it was only ideas, beliefs, and opinions that were in conflict in the 1990s, and that “bad ideas” were best countered by “good ideas”: “Shining light on extremism was the only way to see it widely discredited and public discourse disinfected. Our voices and those of allies eventually became strong enough to push back, defy, and overcome [premier Ralph] Klein’s manufactured babel of hatred, lies, slander, obfuscation, misinformation, and ‘othering’”.

It seems to me that this discounts or even discredits the activism and resistence we are seeing in the streets of American and Canadian cities today. How many years have people been “shining a light” on police violence, on the racist structures of capitalist society and the gleeful recourse to violence they resort to at the smallest provocation. And how disingenuous is it to reduce the physical, material, and psychological harm done to people - gay people, trans people, Black people - to only “lies, slander, obfuscation, misinformation, and othering”. These things are important and deeply oppressive in their own right, to be sure, but to deny the tear gas, the rubber bullets, the NYPD vehicles driven into a crowd of protesters, the nine-year old girl being maced - to deny these things, to place them all on the same plane as “lies” seems to me to be a deeply disturbing reductionism.

This reductionism replaces harm with offense, denying the place of harm as such in settler-colonial, capitalist relations, erasing the reality of violence. This is how the repression identified above actually works in practice. We can see the rhetorical evidence in many defenses of absolute IF, for example in James Turk’s post from last year:

I am among those who find Murphy’s views offensive. But, then, I must confess I find many people’s views troubling and offensive these days. The question is, in a democratic society, whether anyone’s offense at someone else’s expression gives the right to prevent others from hearing it in a public place. The answer is “No.”

Democracy depends on the freedom of everyone in society to participate in an ongoing public conversation about what is legitimate and what is illegitimate.

What “ongoing public conversation” is possible when Minneapolis Police execute an unarmed man, only the latest example of rampant police violence in Canada and the US over recent years. In Winnipeg last month, a sixteen year old Indigenous girl was shot and killed by police without arrest, investigation, charge or conviction: an example of extrajudicial execution in a country which prides itself on not having the death penalty. There can be no “ongoing public conversation” about these things, because the Habermasian ideal speech situation on which so much IF discourse relies (cf. Buschman) does not exist. The state ignores years of “shining a light” on racial violence until the moment it decides to send in the cops to break heads and limbs.

None of this is new, of course: Black and feminist activists, gay and trans theorists, have been saying this for years, and structural violence is a core part of the Marxist worldview. But it seems like the overwriting of harm by offense, of material effects by ideal ones, is so deeply entrenched in the liberal ideology, that it never goes away and always has to be confronted a new, to the shock and dismay of those who subscribe to it. The “ongoing public conversation” of IF over the last near-century never seems to move us forward, in large part due, I think, to the repression of the necessity for violence in racist, patriarchal capitalist society.

This naive ignorance of harm in favour of a reduction to offense was on display yesterday when Jason Scott from Internet Archive suggested that people upload their protest footage and images to IA, and arguing that scrubbing, anonymizing, or even vetting the footage was not part of IA’s mandate. Raw data - “neutral” footage - and an anti-editorializing (i.e. anti-censorship) stance was, in Scott’s view, “baked into IA’s ethic”. This is the libertarianism of white male geeks (and wealthy entrepreneurs) which cannot see the harm (or potential for harm) inherent in any and all data collection, preservation, and dissemination. Scott was called out for his uncritical promotion of IA’s uncritical libertarianism and “neutralist” view of the digital archive and historical record, but the suggestion itself speaks volumes about the way defenders of IF see the world, even as the police are out there actively destroying lives.

Fundamentally, the position taken by absolutist-IF defenders that we have democracy, peace, and freedom now, but that social justice is withheld for the future, is nothing but an indication that, for them, the world is fine the way it is, the world does not need to change. The loss of lives and the lack of time do not concern them; the “ongoing conversation” does not need to issue in any kind of change. As James Baldwin asked “How much time do you want for your progress?”

The police state of liberal democracy, the white supremacist, settler-colonial, patriarchal structures of capitalism must be demolished. Freedom is not something we have and must protect and maintain, but something we have to win. Freedom is differential, qualified, never absolute, always in dialectical confrontation with necessity, but as the police violence being wantonly exercised in the US and Canada right now indicates, those who have the least of it are not prepared to carry on an endless, tedious “ongoing conversation” in the hope that some day freedom and justice will miraculously result. Police violence must end, but this can’t happen without dismantling all the fundamental inequalities of capitalism itself. Perhaps next time a public library feels like calling the police in to confront peaceful protesters - as TPL did at the Palmerston branch 1 - they will remember the images of police brutality exercised in the name of state institutions, including libraries. Perhaps they will then realize that a conversation must by definition be two-sided. To adopt Orwell’s image, there can be no conversation when a boot is stamping on a human face forever.

  1. CORRECTION: A director at TPL got in touch with me to correct this blog post, writing: “A public library does not have the ability to direct the work of the Police or request 50 officers be present, or not be present, if the Police determines concern to public safety. The Police monitored the October 2019 protest planning and determined themselves they needed to be present.” However, in one of the emails from Vickery Bowles, dated October 28, 2019, released through FOIA, she wrote: “Tomorrow evening there is a planned protest outside of Palmerston branch. We have worked with branch staff, event organizers, managers and directors, and Toronto Police to plan for the protest with the security of staff and the public in mind.” I will leave readers to interpret these statements as they wish. 


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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