Canaries in the gears.

Wednesday, March 7th, 2007

Geez, I would hate to be a librarian or a provider of web services/storage these days. You want to enable, empower others. Your government may call upon you to let them look at your folks’ private property at any time, and part of the law says—may say—hell, it’s hard to say these days—that you, the innocent intermediary, may not even tell your cherished client or user that their rights have been tromped on by the Feds.

These are awful times, in that way alone.

So how do you offer any reassurance at all? Well, one new approach seems to be steeped in that old deep-background j-school tradition…paraphrasing Dustin Hoffman as Carl Bernstein, working out indirect signals from source to reporter: “so, if there’s a problem with the story, you just hang up now.” FBI informant: “got it?” Well, no, the secret nod and a wink were too complicated. Oh, yeah, sorry, bad 1970s flashback there.

The post-Patriot Act approach: a warrant canary. Yeah, as in a canary in a coal mine. An indicator, a flag in a flowerpot, that if things aren’t right, this textfile won’t be in this place with this high-tech key doing this kind of job anymore. It looks like these guys were the first to do it. It’s telling that they have to do it at all.

But I’m especially of a mind to appreciate an act of quiet yet strong legal defiance after watching Tom Morello (of, yes, you’re hipper than me, Rage Against the Machine fame) lay out the case for George Bush as hangable war criminal on Tavis Smiley…which I seldom watch, but it was one of those odd, off days. I’d never seen Morello talk about much of anything before, but I was impressed. In the pantheon of activist musicians (a crowded house), he stands tall. And he also seems to be (I shake my head in amazement), through accidents of background and choices far more decisive, blazing a trail for Barack Obama to follow…when he’s not playing old-timey twangy folk or chaotically flanged-out electric guitar.

Morello quotes Howard Zinn as saying “You can’t be neutral on a moving train,” and adds, “…this train is definitely moving in the wrong direction. So we can either sit in the dining car sipping cocktails, or we can throw something in the gears to try to stop it and turn it around.”

He says a lot more, too. Worth reading or listening to. And keep an eye on that canary, while you’re at it…the air’s getting more than a little stale around here.