The machinery of politics keeps grinding on
SOAPBOX • Democratic ideals often have been sacrificed in the name of patriotism
'It must have brought back memories,' said a friend who called me after reading Ben Jacklet's outstanding first article about police surveillance in Portland ('The Secret Watchers: How the police bureau spied for decades on the people of Portland,' Sept. 13). I had to say, 'Yes.'
I was initially stunned at finding myself labeled a communist again after so many years. I have never identified myself as such, largely because the term is meaningless in the United States, where it has always been used to discredit anyone who took action to preserve democratic values.
I was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee after I signed a call for a national mobilization against the war in Vietnam. No hearings were held. No action was taken beyond issuing subpoenas.
Nor did the allegation that the anti-Vietnam War effort was communist-led diminish massive public participation. In fact, the HUAC had become so thoroughly discredited in its witch-hunting tactics that it was disbanded shortly after by Congress.
Meanwhile, the accusation made headlines in the local press and, since little distinction is made in the public mind between allegation and actuality, it stuck. Hence the label is not new, but it is one that seemed to me never to fit well, to be too big or too small, too open to interpretation.
Now, again I wonder what it means to me, or might mean to others.
As the police 'intelligence' files show, the term can be used in myriad ways to spread ever wider a network of suspect citizenry. Indeed, that is the purpose it has served historically in the United States, as I was recently reminded.
Reading Volume 2 of Blanche Wiesen Cook's biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, I realized that this extraordinary woman was just hitting her stride as a public figure at the time I was born.
I grew up influenced, as many Americans were, by the ideals she worked tirelessly to support Ñ Social Security, decent housing, women's rights, fair wages, full employment, civil rights, public arts, strong unions and education for all as a means to creating a truly democratic society with broad citizen participation. It is my continuing work and commitment to these ideals that I feel best identify me.
Of course Roosevelt, too, was called a communist, so make what you will of that. Her story offers some astounding insights into the machinery of U.S. politics that have helped me to understand better what we are experiencing today with the continuing effort to crush civil liberties and workers' rights (all those battles that I thought were fought and won in the '30s) in the name of patriotism.
It helps me to understand how today our Portland City Council members could vote unanimously to continue the Portland FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force in the face of overwhelming citizen opposition. By that vote they have guaranteed that spying on citizens will continue, and that secret files will continue to be accumulated, without oversight and in violation of state law. All of which brings me back to the files the Tribune has unearthed.
What astounds me most in reading the section of the files devoted to me as a supposed 'terrorist' is the completely mundane and innocuous nature of the information (public meetings, lectures on civil liberties, civil rights, peace marches, pictures of my children, etc.) collected by these grown men drawing, no doubt, substantial salaries at the expense of taxpayers like us during years when we could barely pay the rent and feed our children. I find that truly obscene.
Brooke Jacobson is an adjunct assistant professor of communication studies at Portland State University. She lives in Northeast Portland.