When I left for college, my father warned me that I might be approached by an FBI agent, asking about his political activities. At the time, that seemed ridiculous, the product of narcissistic, paranoid thinking. But in my junior year, a guy from the Dance Club – in which I was very active – began asking me questions about my dad. Through some research, I discovered that he had been working out in California, trying to sabotage the Cesar Chavez grape boycott. I realized that maybe my father’s paranoia wasn’t so crazy after all. Using the Freedom of Information Act, my father ultimately received roughly 5,000 pages of FBI notes, with many of the words redacted (meaning crossed-out!), supposedly to “protect” the identity of the agent who was following him. I spent hours pouring through these files a number of years ago, and was stunned to read that the FBI knew that my sister and I were being ostracized by our so-called friends because of my father’s political beliefs, and that my mother lost many dear friends and family members to the fears they had about being associated with “a Communist family”. You can read more about this in Colin Dabkowski’s article in the Buffalo News:http://www.buffalonews.com/spotlight/article727714.ece
I was on the treadmill at the gym the other day, frantically trying to undo a day of sitting and staring at my computer, when a casual “gym friend” joined me on an adjacent treadmill. She noticed that I hadn’t been there lately, and wanted to know why. I don’t know her well and could have manufactured some story, but she had always been so warm and friendly, so I decided to tell her the truth, that my 97-year-old dad had just passed away. Her response was immediate and kind, as she empathized with how hard it is to lose a parent. Then she looked up to the ceiling of the gym, and as I followed her gaze, wondering what had stolen her attention, she said in a reassuring voice that he was in heaven now, and then looked back at me with a smile. Not knowing how to respond, I smiled wanly and increased the incline on the treadmill. I wish I believed that he was in heaven and as my partner says, I hope to be happily surprised…
She then asked about the funeral, and I explained that we had it right away because I’m Jewish and that’s what we do… Apparently, distracted by the realization that I was a Jew, she then said that she had many arguments with her Catholic friends who believed that “the Jews killed Christ.” (Wait a minute – where did that lovely empathy go?!) Just as I was thinking about an exit strategy, she came back to earth and said, “It’s crazy that people of all faiths don’t get along.” And as I was mentally excusing her for that detour, she added, “except for the Muslims”. Again, I was hooked, and as I looked at her, I know I must have appeared surprised because she looked back at me with a slightly uncomfortable smile. And then went on to say that she worried that Muslims – presumably all Muslims – were terrorists. Wasn’t it time for me to leave the cardio area and work on my abs or something? But no, I couldn’t leave now, as this was a “teachable moment.”
I said that the media would like us to believe that all Muslims are terrorists, but most Muslims are peaceful people. And she asked me, didn’t I think that the “Koran incites Muslims to commit terrorist acts?” I replied with certainty, with whatever knowledge I have accumulated since 9/11, that that was untrue.
This really bugged me, a kind-hearted, well-meaning person swallowing Fox News whole. And it really upset me that the media is so compelling that good people can believe such nonsense.
I learned the hard way from my father not to run away from difficult conversations and to stand up for my beliefs. In the 1950s, and again in the 1960s, he was called before the Senate House of Un-American Activities (HUAC) to answer the now-infamous question, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party (CP) of the United States?”. The first time he was subpoenaed before the committee, he challenged its legality. And the second time, he used the first amendment, declaring his right to freedom of speech. As a result of the first committee hearing, he was “blacklisted” from work in the U.S., and ultimately sold life insurance for 15 years through a Canadian firm. He also became a prolific playwright, writing about his experiences within the labor movement in attempt to give voice to working people.
It was not until I was well into my 30s that my father admitted to me that he had been a member of the CP, but had wanted to protect me in case the FBI approached me with that question. That might seem like crazy-thinking, but the FBI actually did follow my father – and consequently, our family – for half a decade, employing agents to observe meetings where my father spoke, reviewing documents he wrote, including plays and memoirs, and even observing the fall-out we experienced in our family, as a result of being persecuted by the government.
After my mother died, my father told me another reason why he left the Communist Party. He didn’t want that admission to have negative repercussions on his CP colleagues and friends. He was a working class Jewish man who had strong convictions and was loyal to his friends, risking a lot to stay true to them. He wasn’t trying to overthrow the government, although he was challenging an economic system that, even more so today, creates haves and have-nots. He was simply a very effective labor organizer who mobilized workers around issues of wages and benefits and fair treatment on the job. In doing this work, he was simply executing his first amendment rights to speak out about his beliefs. I believe that the world was a better place because of people like him.
So what to say to my friend at the gym, who seems to have drunk the kool-aid of misinformation in the right-wing media? What to say to many of my fellow Americans who are now stumped about whether to support a wealthy businessman for President whose personal and political interests are intertwined or an evangelical politician who would happily turn our country into the United Christian States?
There are many ways to fight disinformation and work for a better, more equitable world, through organizing, writing, teaching, and just speaking to friends, colleagues and acquaintances. And we must not be afraid to do so.