by Geoff Olson

I used to get regular bulk emails from a BC activist about the perils of GMO foods, nuclear radiation, toxic trade agreements, climate change, and the like. The stories were accompanied by his commentary, which ran something like this: How can people be such sheep? Why are they so blind? Act now or we are doomed! Silence is complicity!

The hyperbole wasn’t without some truth. But when you start blaming your audience for inaction on the very events you are flagging, the response is more likely to be pessimism than slacktivism – at least from the likes of me.

Similarly, the online journal Nation of Change alerts readers by email to its newest stories, with funding pleas attached. Typical subject headings have included, “Why we give a damn, and why you should too,”  “We’re actually running out of time,” and “We’re confident that you’ll come through.”

Sometimes I don’t the unsolicited emails from Nation of Change because of the panicky, personalized subject headings – and I’m someone who resonates with their advocacy journalism. If they dialed down their rhetoric, there’s a better chance I’d send some bucks their way.

I appreciate the problem that news blogs, charities, and NGOs have, particularly on the web. You try to open people’s hearts, minds, and wallets by leveraging the world’s bad craziness into worst-case scenarios, and then discover an audience overwhelmed with a sense of hopelessness. Tough gig. senior editor David Wong knows the ropes. “The news blogs many of you read? The people running them know the same thing. Every site is in a dogfight for traffic…and so they carefully pick through the wires for the most inflammatory story possible. The other blogs start echoing the same story from the same point of view. If you want, you can surf all day and never swim out of the warm, stagnant waters of the “aren’t those bastards evil” pool,” observes Wong.

As an info-junkie and journalist, I find tough-minded commentary as addictive as sugar. But the flip side is the cognitive equivalent of insulin shock. After mainlining dirty deeds and dire trends for several days in succession, I’m about ready for a compassion crash and cat video binge.

There’s always been a social tension between the canaries and the coalminers; between the whistleblowers and the wageslaves. Sibel Edmonds knows this well. Called “the most-classified woman in US history,” the former FBI language analyst posted a dispirited  message last year on

“They say we need more revelations. I say we have had more than enough revelations on synthetic wars, atrocities, surveillance and torture. They wonder when the majority of Americans are going to speak up. And I say: The American Majority has already spoken—loud and clear. The United States government has been engaged in the worst kind of human rights abuses, detention and torture around the globe. That’s a fact. And the American Majority knows this…. They have spoken: with their silence,” wrote Edmonds.

When HBO’s John Oliver went into the streets of New York with questions about Edward Snowden, he found most pedestrians couldn’t recall the name. Perhaps it’s because the NSA whistleblower wasn’t a fixture for long in the broadsheets and broadcasts. Or perhaps it’s because details from his classified cache of documents left a smaller footprint on social media sites than Miley Cyrus’s misadventures with a giant foam finger.

Whatever the reason for the knowledge/concern gap, it’s disturbing that so little has come of Snowden’s efforts to warn Americans, Canadians and Britons of the open-air electronic prison that’s being assembled around them.

According to one survey, four in 10 Canadians say they hadn’t had a single political conversation in the past 12 months. People understandably tune out when they feel electoral democracy is being twisted into a game for the prosperous few rather than a forum for the restless many – but doesn’t apathy make for a self-fulfilling prophecy?

There’s a whole generation of websurfers who get the bulk of their news through clickbait listicles, trending tweets, and social media flame wars, rather than the long-form journalism of outlets like Nation of Change or Truthdig. Amusing ourselves to death has never been so effortless. And I fully realize that last line reads like something the BC activist would have written in an bulk email.

The Vancouver Courier, May 22


In April, Victoria reached a funding agreement with the Royal British Columbia Museum to ensure that 33,000 boxes of documents will be properly archived.

Not 33,000 documents. 33,000 boxes of documents.

In 2003, the overwhelmed museum resorted to charging the government $454 per box as an archive processing fee. As a non-response, the BC Liberal government began to squirrel away documents in four warehouses, where they have accumulated for over a decade.

The government will now provide up to $400,000 a year for the museum to archive newly transferred material and catch up with the backlog. The museum will the “cover such costs for previously transferred archival records from its existing budget,” notes a Canadian Press report.

You may reasonably wonder how many civil servants it will take to burrow through these ziggurats of text, and if they will complete the job before the sun bloats into a red giant and boils off Earth’s oceans like beads of water on a hot skillet.

Undoubtably these records were generated on computers rather than by Underwood typewriters. So digital became paper and in theory, will become digital again –  after a decade in limbo. Your tax dollars at work.

At the moment, journalists, activists, and engaged citizens still have no way to investigate the documents, which include “court records, dissolved company files, improvement district case files, executive correspondence and records of commissions of inquiry,” according to the CBC. This has been more than a major case of Vaultzheimer’s – it’s  been classification by default. In July, B.C.’s information and privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham expressed shock that that situation had gone on unaddressed for 10 years.

South of the border, paper is exploding in the darkened corridors of the post-911 world. “The classified universe as it is sometimes called is certainly not smaller, and very probably much larger than [the] unclassified one,“ observed Harvard science history professor Peter Galison in 2004. The U.S. added a net 250 million classified pages in one year [in 2003]. In comparison the entire system of Harvard libraries, which number over a hundred, added about sixty million pages.

“Contemplate these numbers: about five times as many pages are being added to the classified universe than are being brought to the storehouses of human learning including all the books and journals on any subject in any language collected in the largest repositories on the planet,” noted Galison.

In a 2010 Counterpunch essay, contributor Jimmy Johnson noted the phenomenon of “derivative classification,” which is the creation of documents that make use of a previously classified document. The original classified document is secret, and uses and references to it can be secret as well. Uses of and references to any documents generated this way can also be secret. And on it goes.

In 2008, the number of original classification actions was 203,541, says Johnson. The number of derivative classifications was over a hundred times higher, at 23,217, 557. Secrecy feeds on itself, generating more layers of disguise. In the words of geographer Trevor Paglen, the classified universe “tends to sculpt the world around it in its own image.”

An out-of-control crypotocracy requires swelling budgetary requirements. Keystroke by keystroke, the inky domains of the deep state begin to eclipse the sunlit forums of publicly accessible information. But here in Brutish Columbia, we’re positively neolithic when it comes to blocking access to documents. Our government routinely denies that records even exist, according to the NDP Opposition.

When the NDP presented the BC Liberal government with Freedom of Information requests, the  government responded that they had no records for documents the Opposition had already sourced through other routes, says party leader John Horgan. In April, the NDP highlighted several examples of such denied documents, including records from meetings about the disappearance of women along the province’s infamous “Highway of Tears.”

There you have it: Victoria’s once-ballyhooed “open government” on display. Perhaps the missing records cited by the NDP are squirreled away in one of those four warehouses, but I wouldn’t expect the Premier to know any more than a Happy Meal inaction figure.

Ah, to live in Norway, where by law all government documents, including email, are made publicly accessible as soon as they are produced, received or transmitted by a government agency.

The Vancouver Courier, May 15