Thursday, May 16, 2013

a brief digression into current events

I try to stay focused here on the exciting and glamorous life of the book rep, but this week’s tasks don't make for great copy:  mailing and annotating fall catalogs, coming up with interesting one-liners for complicated books, and nailing down reservations at Hampton Inns from Louisville to London (alas, the Ontario one.)

But I’m also a little distracted by the day’s news.  Plenty of smarter people are already commenting on our increasingly surreal politics, so I try to stay away.  And where would you start?  The idiocy is breath-taking.   But the latest fake crisis over the IRS treatment of tea-partiers demands attention. 

Let me understand this: there is a category of “social welfare” organization which can be tax exempt.  To win tax exempt status, you file paperwork and answer questions to show that you are not going to abuse that status by, I don’t know, running millions of dollars worth of political attack ads in order to destroy an opposing political candidate.  Inexplicably, the vast majority of these applications are actually approved, hence the barrage of character assassination spots paid for by tax exempt “issues” organizations. 

So IRS staffers, doing the job they were hired to do, attempted to assess whether the flood of tea party groups asking for tax exemptions in 2010 were not actually political groups.  Leaving aside their insane conclusion that the vast majority actually were educational issues groups and not political, this is nevertheless the latest occasion for the fake outrage machine to kick into gear.  It’s a case of outrageous, unwarranted government intrusion and interference with the constitutionally protected political rights of citizens!

Can we talk? 

There is a difference between being asked to fill out pesky questionnaires and genuine political harassment.  Twentieth century US history is filled with indisputable cases of state-sponsored infiltration, dirty tricks, entrapment, frame-ups, assassination and all manner of political intimidation against left-leaning citizens.  Academic historians have built entire careers around prying these details from classified government documents and writing about them.  Libraries are filled with books on the subject. 

This activity is so well-documented that there are sub-genres within the bigger literature of anti-communist hysteria: harassment in the entertainment industry, against Black and Latino activists, against the Labor movement.  And there’s a rich trove of personal memoirs which vividly testify to how the lives of ordinary people were destroyed by government witch-hunt.  (For a good quick intro, see David Caute, whose new book from Yale is about cold war literary figures Isaiah Berlin and Isaac Deutscher, for one of the best comprehensive histories of red scare mania, The Great Fear.)

I have a little personal experience with this subject.  My former in-laws- communists- were mercilessly hounded during the fifties and sixties by open and covert government agents.  Although they were never charged with any crime, the kids were followed to school, families of friends were questioned and told not to play with them, neighbors were asked to spy on them, and both mom and dad were fired from job after job. 

A Milwaukee friend came back from vacation during the sixties to find his entire house wired by the Police Department's so-called "red squad."  It took a couple days to rip it all out.   

Surreptitious government photographers lurked everywhere, snapping photos of people and license plates- outside meetings, parties, demonstrations- even weddings and funerals.  (After many Freedom of Information Act requests and lengthy paperwork submissions in the eighties I was sent a load of grainy FBI photos of my 18 year old political self, compliments of the tax-payers.)  

One woman I knew, a communist, a nurse, fell in love with a man in the fifties who later turned out to have been an FBI agent who was assigned to marry her as a way to infiltrate the party.  (His written reports were discovered by their five year old daughter in a closet one day.)  She was heartbroken and shocked, really it was a kind of state-sanctioned rape when I think of it now, and to heap misery on misery, custody of her two children was awarded to the father because the judge determined that a communist, by definition, was an unfit mother.  Talk to her about government stomping on constitutional rights.

Infiltration of domestic political groups is a robust field for inquiry.  While an activist in college in the early seventies, I had a good friend, a quiet guy who I thought I knew well.  He marched for peace, attended meetings, showed up for chicken dinner sales and car-washes (typical subversive activities) and worked on the Free Angela Davis defense committee.  He turned out to be an agent who had submitted detailed, banal reports for three years on me and my friends to his government superiors.

Worse, I remember being in several strategy sessions during the anti-Vietnam war days- and these were by no means Communist Party meetings, but open coalitions of activist groups- where the most strident calls for illegal action, to be bolder, to be more militant, to provoke a police response- came from men (always men) who were later exposed as government agents provocateurs.  To this day I’m deeply skeptical when I hear that some “terrorist” plot by some knucklehead has been foiled.  Oh, and by the way?   The plot was suggested, financed, sourced and planned with the help of government agents.

Perhaps these experiences should make me more sensitive to the prospect of state sponsored political harassment, but I just can’t drum up the outrage over IRS-gate.  These people write, speak and preach with angry, self-righteous eloquence against the “culture of victim-hood,” wielding it like a hammer when a mother buys an illegal bag of Doritos with food stamps, or an unemployed man hasn’t proved he’s applied for more than three positions in a week.  (Believe it or not, these two examples are actual items our tea-party controlled Wisconsin legislature has busied itself with recently.)

But it seems to me that the tea partiers relish wallowing in their own sense of aggrieved victim-hood.  Despite being backed by billions of corporate dollars, despite controlling major chunks of the mainstream media, despite controlling a branch of Congress, they scream victimization because their sham organizations weren’t simply handed a tax break no questions asked.  And the punch line was that they mainly were!

When I see some evidence that the government is infiltrating their very families, destroying their careers, making them pariahs in their own communities- FBI business as usual for much of the 20th century- I might sign on to the pity party. 

That's better.  Now back to books.