Seeing what you want to see

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Recently, I had a conversation with someone I know well. It seems that he intends to run for public office; he thinks that he can do a better job of "running" his town than the incumbent mayor. I applaud his aspirations - we need people with ambition in government, people who question the existing order of things.

But, at the same time, I felt disheartened by this person's revelation. You see, as an example of how poorly the current municipal government works, he brought up the situation at his local library.

The library, in an attempt to remain relevant and address the needs of it's constituents, commissioned a study of it's services and audience. The study, published on the library website, sets directions for the library to the year 2016, and includes the statement that they will cultivate a "hacker ethic". The study elaborates by saying that the library will

Enable residents to become comfortable with the tools that allow them to create, collaborate, innovate, and persue their personal and professional objectives.

My informant tells me that his stand is that the library actively incites people to mistrust government, because (according to him) that's what the hacker ethic states.

And here's the nub of the problem. Nowhere on the library website is "hacker ethic" defined. A search of the internet pulls up many definitions of a "hacker ethic", most of which are derived from Chapter 2 of journalist Steven Levy's seminal book "Hackers".

In that book, Steven Levy says that, in the '50s and '60s, a group of computer experts (the "hackers" of the book) established a behaviour that included a mistrust of authority. That mistrust they incorporated into their behaviour as "hackers" (at the time, the word "hacker" meant a "computer expert, master of his craft", and not "malicious computer vandal"). In fact, Levy elaborates on this mistrust of authority:

The best way to promote this free exchange of information is to have an open system, something which presents no boundaries between the hacker and a piece of information or an item of equipment that he needs in his quest for knowledge, improvement, and time on-line. The last thing you need is a bureaucracy.

Now, somehow, my informant translated this need for access to information into the fantasy that the library actively promotes mistrust of the government. And that's what he bases part of his platform on.

I really have only two things to say to that.

First, by questioning the library's experts and challenging the current mayor, my informant exhibits the same behaviour as he publicly abhors. He is very guilty in his words and deeds that mistrust authority, in this case, the experts and authorities who determined and instituted the library policy that he so publicly decries. And he is as guilty in his activities that mistrust government, by questioning and challenging the mayor.

Second, by deliberately misconstruing and misrepresenting "mistrust authority" as "mistrust the government", he has twisted a simple, common, beneficial action (which we all do, from scientist to politician to voter, when we question "why" of those in power, rather than just accept "because I say so" as an answer) into the much more volatile, emotional, and antisocial action. I believe that he did this, not because of ignorance, but because he can get elected if he incites people with a "See, the library board tells you that your duly elected government is not to be trusted. They are trying to overthow your vote with their subversion."

In other words, my informant, rather than being a concerned citizen fighting for his rights, is just another politician, manufacturing fictions and half-truths to support his own ends.

If I were one of the voters in his constituency, I would not only not vote for him, I would actively promote against him. Because, I won't put someone into an authority position if I know that the person is not worthy of that authority. And, by twisting things to suit his agenda, my informant has proved to me that he is not worthy of the authority he seeks.