Sunday, November 11, 2012

Big Brother Has Always Been Watching You

I'm reading Jon Wiener's 1991 collection of articles Professors, Politics and Pop (Verso), which I happened on recently.  Wiener is a historian and journalist, and I've read some of his pieces over the years, especially at The Nation.  Most of the pieces in this book were published in the 1980s, and as someone who lived through it, it's interesting to revisit that period.

For example, in a review of a book on the CIA and academia, Wiener writes:
A quarter of Winks' book is devoted to James Angleton, Yale '41, head of CIA counterintelligence during the 1950s and 1960s.  Angleton left the agency after the 1975-6 Church committee hearings revealed that he had headed CIA operation HT/LINGUAL, under which the agency had opened American mail since 1955 [and] kept a watch list of two million citizens, in violation of its charter.  Defending himself before the committee, Angleton said, "It is inconceivable that a secret intelligence arm of the government has to comply with all the overt orders of the government."  In spite of that, Winks can hardly restrain his admiration for Angleton, describing him as "incredibly attractive," the greatest mind in the history of counterintelligence and a "theoretician of human nature."  Yet Angleton worked for years with Kim Philby, had lunch with him weekly and never suspected him of being a Soviet Spy.  Indeed, the failure of the head of US counterintelligence to suspect Philby led some to conclude that Angleton himself was a KGB mole; the CIA investigated him for two years before deciding that he wasn't [121].
What follows, including the dubious claims by a defector that there was a mole in the CIA, suspected by Angleton himself to be William Colby, makes me wonder if the CIA was wrong about Angleton.  Maybe he was a KGB mole.  But then I just recently saw both the TV and movie versions of John Le Carre's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, about a Soviet mole in British intelligence, so I have moles on the brain.  But the most interesting thing to me is CIA surveillance of millions of American citizens over a twenty-year period.  A lot of people think that the Bush and Obama surveillance programs are something new.  It seems that whatever lull occurred after the Church committee's investigations was the real aberration.

One other item that was news to me, because I didn't know that anyone had numbers on this:
The Age of Reagan seems to be coming to an end on the nation's campuses: 37 per cent of the 1990 freshman class reported that they "participated in organized demonstrations" last year, according to an authoritative poll -- more than double the percentage of the late 1960s [156].
Noam Chomsky has long said that there is more activism on college campuses today than there was in the 60s, and my impression was that he was right, but it's good to have some evidence about the matter.  When students I worked with during the 90s told me that they'd missed the interesting times of the 60s and there was nothing happening politically, I would point out all the groups that were busy afflicting the comfortable at the time; many of them seemed to want to ignore that activism, though.

Also interesting is that according to Wiener, the demonstrations in which these kids participated weren't just for the hot-button issue of the period, South African apartheid, but about issues ranging from school dress codes to civil rights issues at home:
The dismissal of a black superintendent was the focus of the recent Selma, Alabama sit-in by black high school students.  In Los Angeles, 10,000 high school students took part in sit-ins and protest marches during a two-week teachers' strike in 1989, with many of the students actively supporting the teachers' demands -- the largest wave of student-led protests in the LA schools in twenty years [156].
There has always been more activism in the US than many Americans know about, and more than many want to believe.  At the same time that many adults complain about the (supposed) apathy of Kids Today, they also seem comforted by it, and relieved at the idea that the young have given up the idealism of the Sixties for the self-absorption of later decades.  This is clearly wishful thinking, based on the propaganda of corporate media that welcome and try to foster citizen apathy, and not on reality.