Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Don't Trust Anyone

In Cory Doctorow's novel Little Brother, the kids who are fighting the modern-day version of Big Brother say "Don't trust anyone over 25," having modified the former hippie (yippie) creed. But one of the messages of the novel is simply don't trust anyone. Encrypt your files and your e-mail, not because you have anything to hide, but because some things should be private. Go to for specific instructions on how to maximize your electronic privacy. This is a website that grew out of the novel--people wanted to know how to do some of the technical things that the protagonist, Marcus, does in order to stand up for his rights.

Little Brother is not just a wonderful novel; it's an important novel, and it's addressed to the right age group ("young adult"). Doctorow's exaggeration of the role of the Department of Homeland Security in our everyday lives in the wake of another terrorist attack on American soil shows young adults exactly why the freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution and Bill of Rights are worth preserving. The inclusion of history lessons (woven in seamlessly, since the protagonists of the novel are still in high school) doesn't slow the pace. From the beginning, this novel is relentless in the way it shows readers what can happen when Americans get to a point where safety is considered more important than freedom.

The dangers that Marcus, a San Francisco native, faces are explicitly laid out for him, and he's smart enough to be able to articulate what the problems are in the kind of thinking demanded of him. When the DHS agent wants the password for his phone, Marcus "submitted to her will," but he thinks about why, even though he has nothing to hide, it's a bad idea to be forced to give up such information:

"There's something really liberating about having some corner of your life that's yours, that no one gets to see except you. It's a little like nudity or taking a dump. Everyone gets naked every once in a while. Everyone has to squat on the toilet. There's nothing shameful, deviant or weird about either of them. But what if I decreed that from now on, every time you went to evacuate some solid waste, you'd have to do it in a glass room perched in the middle of Times Square, and you'd be buck naked?
Even if you've got nothing wrong or weird with your body--and how manhy of us can say that?--you'd have to be pretty strange to like that idea. Most of us would run screaming. Most of us would hold it in until we exploded.
It's not about doing something shameful. It's about doing something private. It's about your life belonging to you."

That's a pretty good paean to human dignity, especially coming from a 17-year-old. I don't know about your town, but in my town and many nearby, anyone still in high school has fewer Constitutional rights than the rest of us. They're subject to random backpack and locker searches. Earlier this year, my daughter came home from school and told me a story about the bravery of one of her classmates. The math teacher claimed he heard a cell phone in the classroom and demanded that the student hand it to him, as cell phones are completely banned from the high school. According to my daughter, he must have heard something in the hall. At any rate, one student finally got up and gave him her cell phone, which she was carrying, as almost every student carries one--turned off and put away in her backpack. She was a hero to the rest of the class, because she'd saved them from having their backpacks searched.

Marcus' history teacher, Mrs. Galvez, who eventually loses her job for teaching too much history and too little pro-DHS propaganda, reminds me of the history teacher in Francine Prose's novel After, who loses her job (and probably her life, in that novel) for similar reasons. Here's Mrs. Galvez' explanation of the purpose of some of the sixties protest movements:

"Yippies were like very political hippies, but they weren't serious the way we think of politics these days. They were very playful. Pranksters. They threw money into the New York Stock Exchange. They circled the Pentagon with hundreds of protestors and said a magic spell that was supposed to levitate it. They invented a fictional kind of LSD that you could spray onto people with squirt guns and shot each other with it and pretended to be stoned. They were funny and they made great TV--one Yippie, a clown called Wavy Gravy, used to get hundreds of protestors to dress up like Santa Claus so that the cameras would show police officers arresting and dragging away Santa on the news that night--and they mobilized a lot of people.
Their big moment was the Democratic National Convention in 1968, where they called for demonstrations to protest the Vietnam War. Thousands of demonstrators poured into Chicago, slept in the parks, and picketed every day....The police and the demonstrators fought in the streets--they'd done that many times before, but the Chicago cops didn't have the smarts to leave the reporters alone. They beat up the reporters, and the reporters retaliated by finally showing what really went on at these demonstrations, so the whole country watched their kids being really savagely beaten down by the Chicago police. They called it a 'police riot.'
The Yippies loved to say, 'Never trust anyone over thirty.' They meant that people who were born before a certain time, when America had been fighting enemies like the Nazis, could never understand what it meant to love your country enough to refuse to fight the Vietnamese. They thought that by the time you hit thirty, your attitudes would be frozen and you couldn't ever understand why the kids of the day were taking to the streets, dropping out, freaking out.
San Francisco was ground zero for this. Revolutionary armies were founded here. Some of them blew up buildings or robbed banks for their cause. A lot of those kids grew up to be more or less normal, while others ended up in jail. Some of the university dropouts did amazing things--for example, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who founded Apple Computers and invented the PC."
I was really getting into this. I knew a little of it, but I'd never heard it told like this. Or maybe it had never mattered as much as it did now."

Cory Doctorow's genius consists of the way he makes history matter in his fictional world, and the way he makes abstract issues feel very specific and pressing. The teacher who replaces Mrs. Galvez sketches a scary picture of a society in which the federal government can suspend the Bill of Rights. Room 101 has nothing on the room Marcus eventually ends up in on a waterboard. The image of Big Brother has nothing on the idea of the government recording everything you have to say, both public and private. (See that little camera on your computer? Look deeply into its eye.)

Read this book. Don't trust me to tell you enough about it. Give it to your friends and your children, and your childrens' friends. It's available online at

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