Land of The Free!

Posted: February 4, 2019 in Uncategorized

Nobody would think to police science and literature in America. That only happens in other countries.

Cold War–era FBI files on famous scientists, including Neil Armstrong, Isaac Asimov, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Alfred Kinsey, and Timothy Leary.

Armed with ignorance, misinformation, and unfounded suspicions, the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover cast a suspicious eye on scientists in disciplines ranging from physics to sex research. If the Bureau surveilled writers because of what they believed (as documented in Writers Under Surveillance), it surveilled scientists because of what they knew. Such scientific ideals as the free exchange of information seemed dangerous when the Soviet Union and the United States regarded each other with mutual suspicion that seemed likely to lead to mutual destruction. Scientists Under Surveillance gathers FBI files on some of the most famous scientists in America, reproducing them in their original typewritten, teletyped, hand-annotated form.

FBI files on writers with dangerous ideas, including Hannah Arendt, Allen Ginsberg, Ernest Hemingway, Susan Sontag, and James Baldwin.

Writers are dangerous. They have ideas. The proclivity of writers for ideas drove the FBI to investigate many of them—to watch them, follow them, start files on them. Writers under Surveillance gathers some of these files, giving readers a surveillance-state perspective on writers including Hannah Arendt, Allen Ginsberg, Ernest Hemingway, Susan Sontag, and Hunter S. Thompson.

Obtained with Freedom of Information Act requests by MuckRock, a nonprofit dedicated to freeing American history from the locked filing cabinets of government agencies, the files on these authors are surprisingly wide ranging; the investigations were as broad and varied as the authors’ own works. James Baldwin, for example, was so openly antagonistic to the state’s security apparatus that investigators followed his every move. Ray Bradbury, on the other hand, was likely unaware that the Bureau had any interest in his work. (Bradbury was a target because an informant warned that science fiction was a Soviet plot to weaken American resolve.)

  1. Aleah Griffin says:

    I find it both fascinating and concerning that the FBI believed they were capable of controlling what people believed and thought. I understand their reasoning, but it’s simply not feasible, no matter what they do. First of all, we live in a country of people obsessed with their freedom of speech. Telling people they can’t say something is like telling a teenager they can’t hang out with their friends; they’re going to find a way to do it anyway. And even if the FBI had found something concerning enough that they really tried to coerce the scientists or writers to think a certain way, it’s impossible to force someone to change their ideas. This reminds me of Big Brother in 1984; society appeared perfectly controlled, even down to controlling people’s thoughts. But the book proves that it’s impossible; there will always be people who have their own, new ideas, no matter how much Big Brother threatens them.

    • Over time, there have been lesser and greater attempts around the world to control thought and speech. We most frequently associate most of these movements with Eastern Europe and Asia. However, very real efforts have been made to do the same in America, and it’s wise not to forget this. When commemorating Dr. King the other Monday, I paused to reflect that for most of American history persons of African descent were forbidden to learn to read or write at all. In more recent times, books have been banned and artists and writers of various sorts have been investigated and subpoenaed things they were or were not publishing. I think it’s correct to believe that people to have a right to freedom of conscience and speech, but I also think it’s risky, to say the last, to take these for granted. While it’s not desirable to control thoughts, I don’t believe it’s very possible. It does not take examples as glaring as the Chinese indoctrination camps which are now working to deprogram Muslims. Our minds can be controlled by something as seemingly inoffensive as our digital devices, or something as purportedly commendable by our public schools. It’s in our schools that students are taught not just information, but how to conform to social roles and capitulate that authority. As for what actually gets taught in our schools, most of the teaching I do in all five of my Honors courses consists of disabusing students of all the incorrect and limiting notions they picked up in high school.

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