“Desperate Character” by Karl Hess

Recently I received about 600 pages of material taken from the files of the various Government agencies that have bothered, over the past 20 years, to probe into my loyalty, my personal habits, and my political thoughts. My lawyer obtained this windfall under the Freedom of Information Act.

About half the material covered what some might suppose was the “respectable” period of my life, when I was a Republican, a very outspoken anti-Communist and a professional political propagandist for right-wing enterprises. The other half covers what seems to be the disreputable part of my life: when, after 1965, I ceased being a republican, protested the Indochina war and supported the neighborhood organizing work of the Black Panthers and Students for a Democratic Society (and continued to be an anti-Communist, certainly in the anti-Stalinist and antiauthoritarian sense).

Initially, I felt anger that the Government should waste so much money investigating people who are clearly more idiosyncratic than dangerous. Then, oddly, I began to enjoy reading through the stuff. Part of it was romantically flattering, in the sense that the Government actually has viewed me as a desperate character–a role into which I fit approximately as well as Cuddles the Puppy, or Erwin the Troll. And part of it was helpful, revealing some things about my past, of which the Government has obviously kept far more careful track than I.

There is, too, a shocking aspect: It’s not so much that the material is significantly incomplete (making me wonder just how fully any Government agency can be made to comply with the Freedom of Information Act), but that it’s so sloppy. Much of it is fantastically inaccurate. The F.B.I. reports even describe me as having blue eyes. I have hazel eyes. Didn’t anyone even look me in the eyes long enough to know that?

The F.B.I. material is laced with spicy references to my advocacy of this or that Marxist position (when, of course, I have always voiced opposition to doctrinaire Marxism), and there is much talk of violence, which the F.B.I. reports say I encourage (yet I have maintained that violence, against a supremely violent government, strikes me as hopeless).

However, a serious omission from my Secret Service report is worth mentioning. There is a file, based on an anonymous call, which accuses me of harboring “weapons and dope” in the place where I was living. Well, yes: The weapons were three–dutifully registered, altogether legal target pistols. I have often fired them in police-department sponsored shooting matches! There was, admittedly, also some marijuana. But there is no information on what may well have been the most revolutionary activity in which I was ever engaged. For a time–while working at Newsweek magazine, and while being openly a champion of various right-wing causes–I ran guns to Cuba. This activity was undertaken on behalf of a pro-American, anti-Batista former president of Cuba named Carlos Hevia. My activity was known to the F.B.I.  Yet this altogether illegal enterprise, this support of armed violence, this dealing in lethal weapons, did not, apparently, stain my official record–as did, for instance, my speaking to students in opposition to the Indochina war.

Anger gives way to sadness, though, when for page after page, you see your name transformed to the word SUBJECT. To see your life transformed to rumors, tips, sly whispers, creepy glances around corners, and numbers in files (my F.B.I. file number was–is–643 496 H). To see all that is to see life itself reduced to mere machinery.

Page after page of investigative material is filled with reports of what I said in a coffee house, in a classroom, at a church, even at a police-academy training class where I was once invited. Why didn’t the F.B.I. just ask me to come and fill them in directly? I would have been pleased to do it then, and still would now. How wonderful if the political policemen and I could have discussed my political migration in person. But, no, their knowledge of SUBJECT must be filtered through a keyhole or an informant, in the dehumanized reportage of the dossiers.

You wonder what would happen to them if they discussed these dangerous ideas openly. Defending their own concepts. analyzing and arguing–rather than snooping and prying, and treating the immensely important discussion of how humans should or could live as a pornographic subject. You wonder if, really, they mistrust not the dangerous radical, but themselves.

How, I wonder, would the F.B.I. agents react if we could discuss, and not simply file away, the main, the amazing point that seems to permeate the entire dossier? The point is antagonism to institutional, nondemocratic authority.  As a Taft Republican, later a Goldwater Republican, my opposition to tyranny was reflected in vociferous, public opposition to the Federal Government itself, to its abuses of power, enlargement of power, intrusions of power, and it’s coercive powers.

But later, it is as though every such impulse had become suspect, tainted, different: because now there was such total opposition to tyranny that it even included the abuses of the military, the F.B.I., the C.I.A. and I had turned from patriot to suspect. The F.B.I., the C.I.A. and the military intelligence agencies are not concerned with loyalty to the ideals of freedom, to the ideals of America even. The are concerned solely, specifically and fervently with loyalty to the State and, in an even more narrow sense, with loyalty to a particular regime of the State.

However, I would like to thank these faceless observers for a service. In its current coverage, the material notes that I have been active with several Jewish groups known for their opposition to totalitarian regimes (including the Soviet), and to authoritarian violence (including the undeclared war in Indochina). But there is no cross-reference to earlier reports in the files, where my mother had been suspected of being a Nazi–and I had been noted as having been anti-Semitic. There is no reference in the current file to the earlier anomaly. Perhaps nobody actually reads these dreadful files. They are just collected. Maybe only SUBJECTS read them thoroughly.

My mother’s early brush with the F.B.I. happened just before World War II. She was, when I was about 12 years old, manager of an apartment house in Washington, D.C. Some of the residents of the apartment house happened to be employees of the German Embassy; apparently, anonymous phone calls and denunciations put those facts together, and actually inspired an F.B.I. investigation. My. mother was, eventually, completely cleared.

Those early files suggested that I had made anti-Semitic remarks as a kid. And I had. Later, when I was granted a top-secret clearance in my Republican, or “loyal,” phase of life, agents conscientiously dug into that anti-Semitic business. A Government investigator spoke to our doctor, a Jew, who had ben very close to my family. I had always thought him to be one of the most wise and gentle people I had ever known. According to the dossier, he told the Government agent that the reason I had been mouthing off about Jews was in no way political. It was, he said, simply that I, a Catholic, happened to look quite Jewish, and obviously resented it. My reaction, the doctor explained, was a period of very boisterous anti-Semitim in order to prove that I wasn’t “one of them.”

Yes. Of course, I find that a moving remembrance, discovering it now.  It is a recollection of foolishness, but also the revelation of a good and patient man who understood–a man who was not moved from his love, or friendship, by that foolishness. How he towers above all that tattle-tale business. Perhaps some policeman also saw it. I hope that he might have been moved by such a thing, too. We are all, after all, very human, and not SUBJECTS at all.

Originally published in the The New York Times, November 7, 1976.