Despite a snowstorm that snarled travel, librarians filled the auditorium at the 2018 Public Library Association conference in Philadelphia yesterday to hear former Deputy U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates deliver a highly anticipated opening keynote—and Yates did not disappoint.
In a stirring speech, which was followed by a Q&A with PLA president Pam Sandlian Smith, Yates urged librarians to stand up for truth in these unprecedented—and exhausting—political times. “Over the course of our nation’s history we have faced inflection points, where we had to decide who we are as a country and what we stand for,” Yates told librarians. “Now is such a time.”
Yates stressed that statement wasn’t intended to advocate for any particular political party or policy—but rather for a vigorous debate that is based on truth and facts.
“Part of what makes our country so strong is that we have different views, and we debate a whole range of issues. Because it is out of open, vigorous, and hopefully respectful debate come the best answers to the vexing policy issues facing our country,” she said. “In our best moments, we put country before party, and the common good before personal ambition. And in our very best moments, the moments that have defined what it means to be American, we have stood up and we have acted to ensure that our country lives up to its promises. We have lived our patriotism, not just declared it. The question is: will this be such a moment? Because beyond the partisan gamesmanship that’s going on in Washington D.C., there’s really something much more fundamental hanging in the balance.”
Yates served as Deputy Attorney General in the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) from January 2015, through January 2017, and briefly as Acting Attorney General. She later shot to national prominence—and became a symbol of resistance—after being fired by President Trump for refusing to defend the administration’s controversial Muslim travel ban.
Over the course of her keynote, Yates spoke eloquently of the ideals we as a nation aspire to (even if we often fail to live up to them). And without mentioning the name Trump once during her hour onstage, Yates decried the systematic undermining of trust in our nation’s essential institutions, including the FBI and the free press, as well as attacks on “objective truth” itself.
“We can’t control whether our public servants lie to us, but we can control whether we hold them accountable for those lies,” she said, “or, whether from exhaustion, or to protect our own political objectives, we look the other way from those lies, and normalize indifference to truth.”
Truth, Yates stressed, “is the very foundation” of our democracy.
“There is such a thing as objective truth,” she said to applause. “You can debate policies and issues, and we ought to debate policies and issues, but those debates have to be based on common facts and truth, rather than just on raw appeals to emotion, or fear, or appealing to something people are anxious to believe.”
That, she said, is where libraries are especially important. “You all are the keepers of the gateway to the truth,” Yates told librarians. “An informed electorate is essential to our system of checks and balances, to holding our elected officials accountable. But an informed electorate requires access to information, and the tools necessary to be able to determine what’s true, and what isn’t.”
She went on to acknowledge the challenges facing libraries, including the rise of social media and "echo chamber stories," to budget cuts, and fatigue. She urged librarians to stay vigilant.
“We’re not living in ordinary times, and it’s not enough to admire our nation’s core values from afar,” she said, noting that the Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 Word of the Year was “post-truth.” But “just because it was the word of the year that doesn’t mean we have to allow it to happen,” she said. “The only way that we devolve into a post-truth world is if we acquiesce to it. And I know it can be exhausting to stay in a constant state of rage, but we also can’t normalize conduct that is not normal.”
In the Q&A with Smith, Yates was asked about the travel ban and her dismissal by President Trump. She told librarians that first learned about the ban against seven Muslim-majority nations late on a Friday afternoon from her assistant, via a New York Times article. Even though the DOJ would have to be in court the next morning to defend the ban, the White House never involved the DOJ, or even let them know the order was coming.
Ultimately, she said, after studying the ban as quickly as she could, Yates said she wasn’t convinced it was lawful or constitutional. "To defend it, we were going to have to argue a pretext that I didn’t believe was true, and that was that the travel ban had nothing to do with religion," she said. "At that point it was a simple decision for me to make. I wasn’t going to be part of that. The Department of Justice should never be involved in advancing a pretext."
The other question, she said, was whether to resign. She decided that as Acting Attorney general, she had a greater responsibility to uphold justice. "If I resigned, that would protect my personal integrity," she said, "but it would still have left the Department of Justice to advance an argument that was not grounded in truth."
And she closed by reflecting on the things that give her hope, including the people who turned up at airports to protest the travel ban, and more recently, the kids in Parkland, Florida, who after a school shooting have organized to fight for sensible gun control.
"With stuff like that happening across the country, you know we’re going to be okay."