My File and What's In It

Nowadays, people talk about having a file with the FBI like it’s a bad thing.  I’ve even seen active bloggers, slandering people left and right, argue that they have to maintain their pristine anonymity to avoid “getting a file”, as though the Feds couldn’t figure out who they are in 8 minutes flat if they wanted to, pseudonym and all.

Yes, I have a file.  It used to be a badge of honor on the Left.  I wouldn’t quite characterize it that way these days.  I look at my own as more of a selective scrapbook of my leftist politics when I was younger in the context of things going on in America at the time.  Selective, because after all, it was the Feds who chose what went into it.

The story of how I came to know what was in my file is relevant.  Most people who get a peek at their file do so through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.  If you actually have a file, you will eventually receive some heavily redacted sheets of paper with all the interesting things blacked out.  (And if you didn’t have a file, you can be sure that they start one on you.)

But I had the fortune of knowing someone who saw my un-redacted file.  He was my late brother, who happened at one time to be a major drug dealer.  The Feds followed him around for the better part of a year, with surveillance photos and everything.  They eventually nailed him by infiltrating an agent into his inner circle.  When he got busted, they offered him the choice of 20 years bunking with Big Bubba or an exciting new job working for them.  He made a business decision to take the second option.  At one point they decided to show how powerful they were by showing him some files.  There was his, of course, three mighty volumes of photographs that almost covered the table.  But there were two others; mine and his wife’s.

His wife and I had files in part because we were caught in some of his routine surveillance photos.  (Lesson One: It is possible to get a file for doing nothing.)  But both of us also had files in our own right.  His wife’s file had been created years earlier when some idiot boyfriend of hers had tried to send her a couple of ounces of hash through the mail.  (My boyfriend went to Amsterdam and all I got was this lousy FBI file.)

My file was full of my “political” activities.

This was my active, un-redacted file he was looking at.  I should point out that my brother and I had not at that time seen other for some years and he really had no idea what I had been doing.  He read my file with great interest, since it was a way of catching up.  When he finished reading it, he asked the agent if it meant that I was in deep trouble.

“Naw.  It’s just a bunch of small time BS.  He’s all right, as long as he doesn’t run for president.”

My file was opened when I was a high school student.  I went to a progressive Jesuit school that in addition to Latin and French had Russian in the curriculum.  I signed up for Russian and one of the things we were required to do was subscribe to a Soviet newspaper. It was a daily, and each copy came with a little note from our Uncle Sam telling us that the government was not pleased at our choice of reading material.  Looking  back on it, I find it deliciously ironic that so many of my middle class prep school friends, now doctors, lawyers, and Republicans, have little files that tag them as consumers of Soviet propaganda.

I found the paper dry but fascinating and the next year I subscribed to a Soviet humor magazine.  I also sent a long letter to the editor of Pravda, written in broken Russian, complaining that Soviet newspapers were not giving adequate coverage to the American anti-war movement (this was the late sixties).  I still have their long reply, and so does Uncle Sam, because the Feds steamed open the letter, copied it, and left one of their little notes.  This note contained a much stronger and more personal warning.

As far as my real political activities at the time, I stayed away from young leftists.  I went to the odd peace march, but I had seen the police riot at the Democratic convention of 1968 on television.  Some of my buddies had been beaten, maced, arrested, and/or tossed into the Lincoln Park lagoon.  For their pains, we got Richard Milhous Nixon for a president and a massive escalation of the Viet Nam War.  Years later, I befriended a cop who had been at the riot and he admitted that he and all the other police had been ordered to remove their identification just before the order came to let the beatings begin.  To this day I am very selective about the rallies I will go to.

I ended up going to a Chicago university newly built for the children of the working class to make them think that they had a real shot at entering the middle class.  The place was wild and not very respectable in those days.  You needed like an ACT score of 5 to get in and a quarter of the students seemed to be angry Viet Nam War vets.  The place was new enough that the Reds had not been purged from the faculty and it was here that I started to read the Marxist classics.  I did not join any of the Communist parties, but I did subscribe to some of their newspapers, which in the eyes of the Feds was apparently just as bad.  (Lesson Two:  If you want to get a file really quick, fill out and return the subscription form in the back of the Daily Worker.)  I joined the odd march here and there, and there was always an all-too-tidy looking hippie in the crowd taking photos.  But apparently none of these got into my files, because I wasn’t worth putting a name to a face.

I became more radicalized and I then started hanging out more and more with Marxists.  Marxism was appealing to me then because it seemed to be a cohesive system entirely unlike the hippie style anarcho-ganja theories current at the time.  Ironically, my association with Marxists kept me away from drugs (drug use was considered petty-bourgeois) and hippie radicalism (ditto).  I became a sort of Marxist “intellectual”, a fellow traveler.  I could see that the Soviet system was evil and bogus, but I tended to feel that the bogus communisms of the day had sold out the revolution, which was still viable.

My Marxism would have quite possibly remained the hobby it was had I not decided to go to graduate school at an avowedly Marxist department.  Even my Red professors at the time warned me against doing this because my department of choice had a rotten reputation in the discipline (anthropology).  But I wanted something more formal than what I had been getting and besides, I got a good scholarship.  So off I went.

This is where my file started to get thick.  The Marxist faculty included real Communists, including a guy with a price on his head in his native country.  Most of the students were active party members.  We had Maoists, Trotskyites, CPUSA, Stalinists, and one Red Quebec Liberationist. There was even a coterie of Sudanese students, full of hope that they could overthrow the moderate secularist government that was paying for their education.  These people were inspired by the liberation movements in South Africa, Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea-Bissau and I remember many times when the beers started to flow that they would speculate about who and how many would have to be shot in Khartoum to usher in the new age.  (Unfortunately for them, the bullets turned out to be flying the other way, and most of these young men were shot when the Islamists took over the Sudan a few years later.)

So these people weren’t just Marxists, they were Communists.  And not just readers like me, but men and women who owned firearms who took them out into the woods on weekends to practice for the coming revolution.  They didn’t just have files; they had police records.

Of course, all of this radical activity in one convenient location attracted the intense scrutiny of the authorities, who actually inserted one of their agents into our group.  I still don’t know who the bastard was.  But their report on me was also in my file.  (I was apparently classified as harmless.)  Also in my file were a number of surveillance photographs.  My brother described them to me and two in particular I remembered.  The first was shot at night through the window of the remote farmhouse I was living in.  I was sitting with some people in the kitchen having dinner when we saw the flash through the window.  (Why they would use a flash I don’t know.)  We ran outside to investigate just in time to see the car speeding off.  The second photo was of a tranquil scene of a professor lecturing his students as we sat in a circle in the grass by a pond.  The professor was a visitor from a Southeast Asian country and he was going to talk to us about current events.  What I didn’t know at the time was that he was a high ranking member of a Maoist national liberation group whose wife had just been busted at the Canadian border with a sack full of Red Chinese cash destined for arms purchases.  As we sat listening to the lecture, I saw a very well dressed black woman appear from nowhere.  She stopped about 30 feet away from us and took a 35 mm camera from her bag and started shooting pictures of us.  Then she calmly put the camera back in her bag and walked away.

My file had other records of book and periodical purchases from this time.  Certain foreign publishers automatically garnered a note in the file if one ordered a book from them.  But my Marxism was beginning to flag.  I was becoming less idealistic and more pragmatic.  I began to skip out of the all night group discussions of “Gramsci and the Relationship of the Superstructure to the Infrastructure in the Context of Overdetermination in the Relations of Production” and I began to focus instead on my real studies.

In the meantime, academic Marxism was falling apart.  We were entering the age of post-modernism, where one could masturbate in print for the revolution and turn a nice salary as a tenured professor.  As time went on and I moved to another graduate school, I started sounding like Saul Alinsky, so 1930’s, when the hip politically-correct radicals around me sounded so 1980’s.  At the Marxist conferences I went to, people who were still taking about things like class, economic exploitation, war, etc. were referred to as “The Young Vulgarians”, a take-off on “The Young Hegelians”.  We were characterized by the trendy radicals as knuckle dragging vulgar Marxists with two inch foreheads.

My file begins to peter out at this point, but it was probably just as well.  We were now into the Reagan years, and the sleep walking cowboy was attacking those who had been his real enemies all along; the unions and the moderate left.  Reds weren’t really worth the trouble any more.  This is when my brother was busted and my knowledge of what’s in my file ends here. The very last thing my brother mentioned as being in my file was a copy of a plaintive letter from a tiny British Trotskyite magazine I used to subscribe to asking me why I stopped writing to them.  The letter itself had arrived to me opened.

I suppose that my salad days as a minor Marxist who the Feds thought worthy of their attention has made me braver than I otherwise would have been.  I’ve taken some personal risks over time to get some good things done and I am not very afraid of authority figures.  Those days were formative for my politics, although it wasn’t until I had spent decades in business in management that I became a really good socialist.  On the other hand, over the years in the US and abroad I have met some truly brave revolutionaries, who really committed themselves and who really lost everything because of it.  (I’ve also met some of their killers.)  I think we have a lot more at stake than you might think and most of us could be a lot more brave and more serious (and a lot more pragmatic) both on these blogs that we write to outrage, instruct, and entertain and in our lives in general.

unagidon is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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