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November 20, 2012

Prof presents history of censorship during wartime

Harvard Professor of history of science Peter Galison suggested that censorship and state secrecy are far more extensive and intrusive today than at any previous time in United States history in a talk entitled “War, Censorship, and the Mind” in Harper last Friday afternoon.

In his talk, Galison spoke on the history of censorship in the U.S. and its effect on the individual psyche. He called censorship in this country a distinctly modern idea and broke it down into three periods that correspond with military action: “the Great War” (1914–1918), “the Long War” (1939–1989), and “the Terror Wars” (2001–present).

Censorship in the first period resulted from the Espionage and Sedition Acts, which banned speech disruptive to the U.S. military’s recruitment efforts for the First World War and the releasing of sensitive material like tactical maps. These efforts were of small scope and applied to only a small number of subjects.

By contrast, in the last period, brought about by the terrorist attacks of September 11, ordinary centers of civilian life such as airports and personal computers have become “fronts” in the war on terror and as a result, state surveillance has grown.

Simultaneously, the 2001 U.S.A. Patriot Act and so-called “State Secrets Privilege” have expanded the scope of classified information to 117 broad categories of government information by what Galison called a “radiative effect” of secrecy by default.

“When the government started adding ‘and other information’ to lists of classified materials, that’s where the tether breaks,” Galison said. “With this change, the ontology of secrets shifted from forbidding utterances to forbidding entire domains of knowledge.”

Galison called this latest advance “para-secrecy” and channeled his concern into his 2008 film Secrecy, which he co-produced with fellow Harvard professor Robb Moss. Galison screened a clip from the film suggesting that extensive secrecy policies have led to unconstitutional invasions of civilian privacy and human rights violations such as those documented at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad.

At the individual level, as early as 1897 Freud made the connection between the Austrian government censoring letters and newspapers and individuals censoring their own thoughts and developing neuroses. Galison worried that the significant growth of censorship since then could have profound negative psychological consequences. “We have no idea what para-secrecy does to the human mind,” he said.

Galison gave the lecture as the 2012 Critical Inquiry visiting professor, which includes his giving two public lectures and teaching a Ph.D. seminar called “Building Crashing Thinking,” which investigates the question, “How did the machines we make turn around to remake us?”

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