FAQ on the JMC NSA campaign
The Just Mathematics Collective, May 2021
We have compiled some frequently expressed questions and concerns regarding the campaign to sever ties between the mathematics community and the security state. We hope this is helpful for anyone trying to decide how they want to engage with the campaign, and more generally, how they want to navigate the ethical questions it raises.
- It is impossible to avoid unethical employment in mathematics. Whether in finance, academia, or defense, evil just comes with the territory. So, what really distinguishes working at the NSA from any other type of mathematics job?
One of the guiding principles of our campaign is commitment to a theory of political change that is grounded in reality. Impacting real people in real ways requires targeted actions, which will necessarily not address all problems in the mathematics community at once. When every problem in existence is brought up in response to awareness of one problem being raised, the result is collective paralysis. In other words, the idea that there are problems everywhere so we may as well not act towards addressing any of them is not a mindset that will lead to the sorts of radical shifts in community commitments that we are after.
And while the JMC does not, and should not, ignore the extractive, gentrifying, and imperialist roles played by the neoliberal university in American civil society, we also believe that there are significant differences between the university and Wall Street, or between the university and the military. This is discussed in Footnote 31 of our statement.
- I agree with what you are saying, but will not sign on because I do not know who you are.
Abolition is unfortunately controversial in conventional academic spaces. Many of our members are untenured and nonwhite, and there are many examples of academics (especially Black and Brown academics) being censured or even summarily fired for expressing political opinions. Some of our members have, however, made the personal choice to publicly identify themselves. We could therefore associate several names of JMC members to each of our campaigns, but doing so would not be representative of the work and effort put forth by all of our membership. This is why we choose to speak collectively and anonymously.
But, we are all members of your community. We are undergraduates; grad students; post-docs; part-time and full-time faculty; and members of R1 departments, liberal arts colleges, and community colleges. Our membership includes research mathematicians; historians of mathematics; experts in mathematical pedagogy; AMS members and non-members; and AMS fellows.
We appreciate that we are asking you to sign your name to this and yet we are not providing you with all of ours. Most JMC members who are in a position to do so have also signed on as individual community members.
- I agree with you, but will not sign because I am not based in the US.
The campaign focuses on the NSA in the interest of having a concrete place to start, but as made clear in the statement, the arguments therein generalize readily to other surveillance and policing agencies around the world. Beyond that, because of the position of power that the United States occupies on the world scene, its security-industrial complex impacts everyone on the planet, including mathematicians who are not US-based.
For these reasons, it is completely appropriate for non-US mathematicians to sign on, so long as they believe in a freer, healthier, and more just future for our international mathematics community. And indeed we welcome and celebrate the non-US-based mathematicians who have already signed on.
- Why are you acting like this is controversial in any way? These opinions are widespread and fairly mainstream. There is just nothing we can do about it.
What is and is not controversial is a function not only of the content, but of the speaker. For Black and Brown mathematicians who occupy precarious professional roles in our community, speaking out against the police and security state will always be controversial. And, as mentioned above, there are unfortunately too many examples of academics of color who have been disciplined, censured, and/or terminated for expressing their views on these matters.
Beyond that, there is in fact something we can do about this. The purpose of the campaign is not to express our opinions, but instead to gather concrete commitments from individuals, organizations, and institutions not to collaborate with the security state in any way. The key distinction here is political organizing: many people may share an opinion in common, but without a collective articulation of that opinion and a way to translate it into concrete action or commitment, we cannot hope to create change.
We see this campaign not as an end in itself, but as the first phase in a broader long-term movement whose goal is to shift the culture of our community away from surveillance and policing, and towards collective liberation. This is made clear in our statement: resistance will have to take many forms and we are only at the beginning.
- I already do not collaborate with intelligence agencies and neither do most people, so me signing is meaningless and that is probably true of most people who signed.
In a reality where most mathematicians are opposed to collaborating with intelligence agencies but also do nothing to shift the broader community culture away from these professional relationships, the relationships will persist, as does the control over the mathematics community enjoyed by the military industrial complex.
As a useful analogy, consider the fact that our world is still dominated by white supremacy in spite of the fact that a vast majority of people would say they disapprove of any form of racism whatsoever. When a cultural and economic force is baked into the fabric of our social institutions, disentangling our lives from that force requires more than just mere disapproval of it. We need to build power by forming connections between people who are ready to take concrete action. Already, this campaign has brought together people from all over the country (as well as from several different countries) who are passionate about working together to end collaborations with the police and security state. Join us!
- The NSA domestic controversy was serious but over the past few years, it has been addressed through formal governmental channels.
We hope that our campaign statement itself serves as a response to this objection. But briefly, since the public has absolutely no recourse to impose accountability over the NSA, the only publicly available information regarding changes made is the narrative it (and allied governmental organizations) itself has put forth. The NSA has not been embroiled in earth-shattering controversy surrounding its abuse of human and civil rights since the last time a whistleblower has come forward to reveal these violations. In our statement, we also highlight the ways in which the NSA continues to strengthen the hold of local police departments over communities through a wide network of surveillance partnerships.
- Internationally, the NSA is important for protecting against foreign threats.
The existence of useful aspects of an organization or institution is not sufficient for proving that the organization itself should exist.
For example, in many American towns and cities, police are largely responsible for traffic control at large gatherings or in the event of a power outage. This is a useful function, but it could of course easily be performed by unarmed employees of the state who have not been meticulously trained to view every member of the public as a potential assailant (and Black and Brown people; neurodivergent people; people experiencing homelessness; people experiencing addiction; gender non-conforming people; indigenous people as especially dangerous). We can acknowledge that organizations responsible for maintaining 'national security' serve several useful functions without forfeiting our desire for a world without them.
An abolitionist response to this objection would question the nationalist framework in which it is embedded; if you do not believe in the validity of borders, you will not be swayed by arguments that implicitly presume their necessity.
- It is an abuse of my power as a professor to refuse to write letters of recommendation.
The JMC asks community members to think carefully about whom professors have power over. To do this, we should first give a working definition of what it even means to have power over another person. This definition is not meant to be perfect and power is not a simple or straightforward concept, but we offer the following:
To have power over another is to be able to impact, or have control over, their life through decision-making channels that are easily available, while they do not have a reciprocal capacity to impact your life in similar or analogous ways.
Using this definition, we of course agree that professors have power over their students, but moreover (and especially if they are faculty at a conventionally prestigious institution) they also have power over most other people who are alive in the world today. As stewards of the mathematics community, decisions that we make have the potential to impact billions of people.
Taking full account of over whom an academic mathematician has power requires looking beyond the classrooms and the hallways of our academic institutions. It requires the consideration of the many people who are disadvantaged so severely by material and political conditions -- crafted by many of the same surveillance and policing institutions at which this campaign is aimed -- so as to not have ever had a chance to ask us for a letter of recommendation in the first place. When we broaden our scope to bring these people into view -- people who are just as deserving of our compassion and solidarity as our own students -- we must also ask whether writing a letter of recommendation for a student applying to the NSA constitutes an abuse of our power over all of such people. In our view, it does.
- It is wrong to impose my sense of morality on my students.
This objection, while well-meaning, falls into the common trap of implicitly assuming that a mathematics class is a priori value- and politics-neutral. It is not. Students -- and everyone else, for that matter -- are constantly being bombarded with political messaging both in and outside of our classrooms. Without a professor even uttering a single word on the matter, the following messages are conveyed to students in every mathematics department across the United States through job posters and email advertisements:
(i) It is extremely prestigious to conduct mathematics research at the NSA;
(ii) the NSA does extremely important and necessary mathematics work; and therefore,
(iii) your colleagues, department, and institution encourage you to seek out such work.
No one (and especially not the JMC) is suggesting that professors should 'impose' their view of the world on their students; only that we convey to our students that we are full human beings with political and ethical commitments. Despite public perception, we are not politically neutral robots and we should not attempt to be.
And just as fully honoring our own political commitments can mean participating in a boycott or supporting a strike by not crossing a picket line, it can also involve refusing to write letters of recommendation. A student who has made up their mind about applying to the NSA can then seek their letter from someone else; it is important that we do not conflate our freedom to choose to participate in a given system with restricting the freedom of another to do as they see fit.
- If you do not want people to work for the NSA, then what are the alternatives?
Good question! The JMC asks you in return to help us compile a list of job opportunities that are non-militaristic and more in line with the ethics with which every mathematics classroom should be imbued. We have already started this here and in our statement, we ask community members to get in touch with us with more ideas and additions. To be clear, the mathematics community is highly intertwined with policing and the security state, and that means that many job opportunities will be ethically grey at best. (Note that in our statement, we argue that working for or with the NSA is very clearly unethical and therefore not within any sort of grey area). Moving towards a reality where this is not the case requires that we collectively divest from this type of employment.
As a helpful analogy, consider any one of the many economic plans put forth for a Green New Deal. The labor capacity, funding, and material resources to make green jobs possible only become available once we divest from the fossil fuel industry. The JMC agrees wholeheartedly that there are not enough alternatives to military and surveillance-oriented jobs, but we see collective divestment from militarism and surveillance as a first and necessary step towards changing this.
- It is not ethical to make this call without the voice of marginalised mathematicians working at or funded by the NSA.
There are Black and Brown members of the JMC who have experience navigating the job market and choosing --- for political reasons --- not to avail themselves of opportunities at the NSA. In an organization that self-selects for people aligned with the principles articulated in our mission statement, one is unlikely to find many people with "inside NSA experience". Most of us have had to make decisions about whether and/or to what extent we're willing to further our careers through engagement with oppressive organisations. It's true that the same feelings and convictions that might lead to JMC membership would also make one less likely to be someone who has sought the support of military, intelligence, or police agencies in the past (although feelings and convictions change over time).
However, it is certainly true that the numerous authors of the statement and architects of our campaign include marginalized people with extensive experience in the "mathematics community". This statement argues that the relationship between the security state and the "mathematics community" is toxic for the latter and --- more importantly --- detrimental to society at large because of the role of the security state in maintaining unjust power structures. These arguments rely on facts and explanations that are available to people without direct experience working for the security state. In fact, an even more powerful version of the statement would have been one written entirely by non-mathematicians directly victimized by US militarism calling on mathematicians to end collaboration with intelligence agencies and refuse their money.
By analogy, it would be absurd (and self-defeating) to require that advocacy of police abolition be limited to those with past experience as police officers.
In any case, what we want is a mathematics community for which all Black and Brown people do not feel like they have to choose between the NSA and being in math at all, and we recognize that this does not reflect the current reality.
We finally direct you to Footnote 31 of the statement, and the paragraph immediately after the one in which that footnote appears, where we're careful to address the use of the term "tokenization" with more nuance. It can be (and is) simultaneously true that people have agency to make their own choices, and that the security state engages in very intentional recruitment strategies for defending themselves against accusations of racism/white supremacy/etc.