Scott McLemee’s latest essay is a good one. He writes the “intellectual affairs” column for Inside Higher Ed and often ruminates on books, trends in theory, or ideas that crop up in the news but have an iceberg-like past that’s invisible to most of us. This time he ties together the “red squad” surveillance of C.L.R. James in the 1950s, the Cointelpro shenanigans of the 1970s, and the recent release of documents describing the careful surveillance of people who were plotting against capital punishment. Planning leaflets. Tabling at a farmer’s market. Seditious stuff. And – as he always does – McLemee hearkens back to a classic article in a scholarly journal on the nature of agents provacateur and informants.
The redacted report of the police agent describes the surveilled as “socialists,” “anarchists,” and “terrorists” as if these are interchangeable categories. Nothing documented by the undercover officer was even faintly illegal or reason to take precautions to protect public safety. McLemee is right to call this “Patriot Act sensibilities at their most deranged.” But though it seems laughable, it’s important to recognize the fundamental illegality of those portions of the Patriot Act that enable this bizarre and dangerous waste of time. The Constitution has a way of cutting through the bullshit. And on this subject it’s quite clear:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
The report from the surveillance is here, all 46 trivial pages of it.