Sunday, January 18, 2015

What Would J. Edgar Hoover Think of the Movie 'Selma?': Semi-Open Weekend Thread. The FBI and COINTELPRO as Art and Literature Critic of the Black Freedom Struggle

I hope that you are having a restful and nice weekend. The weather is unseasonably warm here in Chicago. I will be taking my afternoon constitutional and feeding the animals who live near the lake some bread and popcorn later in the day.

My main task for this Sunday is to will the New England Patriots to victory against the Indianapolis Colts. The Seahawks will destroy Green Bay: the outcome is a given, one almost pre-ordained.

The question remains, if the Patriots overcome the Colts, will Belichick and Brady have enough tricks in the bag to take down the indomitable Seahawks Greenbay.

Who knows at this point?
the Seahawks.

Tomorrow is Dr. King's birthday and national holiday.

On that day, the American public will celebrate the empty and obligatory popularized version of a man whose work has been reduced to punchlines that all can embrace across the colorline, robbed of its radicalism and truth-telling through the intellectual and political pasteurization necessary for a person to become an American icon, and where the obligatory I Have a Dream Speech is flattened to make mainstream white America happy--King boldly held white America accountable for its sins, advocated reparations and affirmative action, and spoke clearly and directly about white supremacy and white privilege.

If film is like "writing history with lightning", mass culture has taken Brother Dr. King's radicalism, diluted it, and then spat it out through the tip of an eye dropper across American popular memory and consciousness.

Never forget: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was an enemy of the state.

King's work and sacrifice are part of the long Black Freedom Struggle. As such, its cultural workers, activists, and leaders were the target of systematic harassment and violence by the United States government under the decades-long Counter Intelligence Program.

While it may seem absurd and comical in its excesses, the FBI and other domestic intelligence organizations operating under COINTELPRO monitored African-American art and literature for "subversive" messages, and also as a barometer for black protect activist and public opinion.

William Maxwell's new book F.B. Eyes: How J.Edgar Hoover's Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature offers insights and details on those practices that (in addition to monitoring King's speeches and letters) included close readings of work by such seminal figures as Claude McKay, Sonya Sanchez, Richard Wright, and others.

[The visual of FBI officials reading Claude McKay's poems and then performing them at home is a beautiful one. The image of Hoover, a gay man who was likely black and passing for white, all the while he harassed African-Americans and the gay community is the worst and most pathetic way possible.]

Maxwell's findings are not surprising. The United States, British, and French used sophisticated propaganda techniques to manipulate publics during World War One. World War 2 saw a refining of the monitoring and control of mass publics through the mass media. The Cold War evolved those practices forward.

In the digital social media era, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, cell phones, email, and other technologies are observed and manipulated by the surveillance society. The difference? The masters of the universe and the security state have incentivized publics to share all of their most private thoughts and beliefs online. COINTELPRO and like operations once hid in the shadows; now, their heirs operate in plain sight with the help of a complicit, eager, and oftentimes indifferent public.

As is our habit and tradition, do you have any discoveries or thoughts to share about issues of public or private concern? Have any of you ever gotten your FBI file? Any activists with stories of FBI or NSA monitoring to share?

A provocative question: Are Hollywood movies like Selma the ultimate example of how the State and culture industry can transform political radicalism into acts of art as commerce that undermine the radical nature of people's resistance movements such as the Black Freedom Struggle and Civil Rights Movement?


Char said...

"Are Hollywood movies like Selma the ultimate example of how the State and culture industry can transform political radicalism into acts of art as commerce that undermine the radical nature of people's resistance movements such as the Black Freedom Struggle and Civil Rights Movement?"

Selma doesn't do that. It's fortunate such a movie has come along, in this current climate.

Buddy H said...

Looking at photos of Hoover, I can't help but think a modern DNA test would reveal some African ancestry. Maybe his preoccupation with the destruction of the civil rights movement (when all those resources could have been better turned against organized crime) was over-compensation.

joe manning said...

"Century of Self" pointed to the sophisticated propaganda techniques "they" use to segregate and control publics, keeping free floating aggression at manageable levels toward the prevention of inter-group fighting which would upset the unstable equilibrium that they wish to maintain for social control. To that end the Hollywood Dream Machine has cast MLK as the model Rotarian rather than the radical Ghandian that he was. The media's projection of the ideal society makes it what folks want it to be rather than the suppressed reality that it is. Not surprisingly, Selma wasn't even nominated for an Academy award in keeping with Hollywood's white supremacist tradition.

chauncey devega said...

Interesting point. The radicalism of the film is by definition removed by its reduction into spectacle via the Hollywood machine and mass culture industry.

It is a huge and long debate--can "radical" or "resistant" popular culture be produced a corporate machine that is invested in the status quo.

Reminds me of Adam Curtis' short video essay on Vaudeville politics.

chauncey devega said...

There have been many believable rumors about J Edgar being "black". Eisenhower too.

Char said...

Well, it's a film with Black people in prominent positions not only in front of the camera but behind it as well. The reason so many Hollywood films aren't radical is because they're not really diverse and are targeted at White-centric interests. Selma doesn't try to coddle Whites or beg them to come and see it. Just look at the treatment of LBJ that is, for some reason, a controversy.

Char said...

Thinking about it, I can see how this is the ideal film to slip through the Hollywood cracks. King's image has been so watered down, that the Hollywood establishment probably thought it was a "safe" film to make. They probably weren't expecting anything that would challenge recent revisions of King.

chauncey devega said...

Black people working within a white industry. Black Culture Industry at work. Selma does coddle white folks and is a product of post civil rights multicultural America.

Selma does this in some very subtle but very important ways...if it didn't the movie would not have been released via the Hollywood system.

Plus, the movie utterly distorted Johnson's role w. civil rights in the U.S.

Very problematic and not necessary.

Miles_Ellison said...

The interesting thing about Selma is that the script was rewritten by Ava Duvernay. The original version of the film was going to be about Lyndon Johnson with MLK as a bit player. The pivoting away from the white savior narrative is probably the reason it was snubbed by the Oscars, not that those awards really mean anything anymore.

Char said...

I don't subscribe to such an absolute, though I do acknowledge the improbability of Hollywood producing a radical film. If it were impossible, there would be no point in criticizing anything that Hollywood (or other White industries) produce.

chauncey devega said...

All texts are ideologically mixed for the most part. But the system that produced them has to be the center of the analysis.

Dan Kasteray said...

Most people I know forget king was a radical. But despite the refinement of propaganda progress moves gradually and brutally forward despite the Edgar "shit stain" hoovers of the world. At least now with the internet nothing is ever forgotten

chauncey devega said...

The movie is ideologically mixed--as are most. Here is one of the ways that it is a product of a Hollywood system that is invested in racial capitalism and reproduces the white racial frame--in no way does the movie indict White America writ large for white supremacy and how the majority of white Americans stood against King and the Civil Rights Movement (either actively or tacitly through indifference if not passive support for American Apartheid).

Film is a conversation with the audience. Selma allows the white audience--and the black audience too--to read themselves into a narrative of racial reconciliation (the present looking at the past) and to also imagine that they would have been the very very very very few white folks who went to protest and in some cases get killed in Selma.

Think about the tv segment where white folks watch the events in Selma. What narrative is being communicated in those scenes? It is very easy, and politically correct in the service of colorblind white racism and white supremacy to make an easy juxtaposition between those "bad whites in the South" and the good if not just "ignorant" and "not radical" whites in the rest of the country.