I’m still trying to figure out what to do with my history books. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been reading a lot more history recently, and it’s sort of been informing the things I’ve been thinking about in my own time. It’s also creating problems. You might have noticed that I haven’t really written many general posts in the theology stream this year – this is number three for 2019, and the rest has all been either Aquinas, Luther, or now Calvin. Reflecting on this trend, I suggested last time that most of my own theological thinking is pretty much in place now – I don’t feel the need to work it out at length – meaning the general posts just don’t happen. I think that’s partially true, but it’s also that the general posts grew out of whatever ideas I was doodling with, away from the main stream of the Theologian of the Week. I’m still doodling, but now I’m doodling with history, and I haven’t figured out how to translate that into something here. Last time I mucked around with history as a parallel for things we’re experiencing now – from memory, ah, I think I compared the WW2 popes to Youtubers. That’s not really a shtick I want to be repeating – the comparisons aren’t very rigorous, and it just feels a bit hack. But I dunno what the fuck else to do.
One of the things I really enjoy about reading history is being able to flesh out my sort of mental map of the world. I enjoyed reading about 19th century Egyptian feminism, for instance. There are some significant contemporary criticisms of Qasim Amin – I’m not saying he’s perfect – but in order to know about those criticisms, you have to a) know who Qasim Amin is, and then b) also know about Leila Ahmed, one of his critics. And then suddenly you’re knee-deep in over a hundred years of Egyptian feminism, and Egypt starts meaning more to you than just Cleopatra and the pyramids.
The other thing I really like is learning about the reasonableness of different beliefs. For example, there’s a few people in my orbit who are aggressively mistrustful of police and law enforcement. It’s not something I totally understand, coming as I do from a relatively tame, small city, where most of the police work involves minor domestic disputes and helping drunk people get home. But from that perspective, it was really interesting to learn about the history of the FBI under Hoover. We know that Hoover authorised illegal mail opening from 1940, and illegal bugging and break-ins from 1942. Some of the FBI’s work was around legitimate counter-espionage, trying to stop the Russians from pinching nuclear secrets and so on, but they also did a bunch of sneaky political shit. When the National Lawyers’ Guild demanded an investigation of the FBI, the FBI built up a 300-page report of the Guild’s so-called ‘subversive activities’ and leaked it to the Committee of Un-American Activities in 1950. They didn’t want to face an investigation, so they ran out and dug up a bunch of dirt on these people and smeared them. That’s fucking shady. Knowing that, it seems more reasonable to mistrust the police or law enforcement. It might not be entirely justified or correct in all instances, but it seems more reasonable.
The further you look into that sort of stuff, actually, the worse it becomes. Did you know that the FBI wiretapped the heck out of Martin Luther King? They decided that black civil rights was a Communist plot, and they set out to undermine it – not because anything illegal was going on, but because Communism bad. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King’s civil rights organisation, was even described by Hoover as a black nationalist hate group. Again: no laws were being broken, nothing illegal was happening, but the FBI rolled out a fuckload of surveillance and then actively tried to undermine the black civil rights movement. That’s not law enforcement. It’s political repression.
And I guess that’s the thing that I’m getting out of this history research. It’s giving me a set of questions to ask – or, rather, one question to ask in a bunch of different contexts. It basically boils down to ‘Is this happening like last time?’ We know, for instance, that FBI agents in the US are out and about trying to talk Muslims into becoming terrorists so they can arrest them. In 2006, we had the Liberty City Seven, who collectively received over a hundred thousand dollars from FBI agents trying to persuade them to commit a terrorist attack. Or in 2009, another so-called terrorist group led by an FBI informant, who, by the way, was paid another hundred thousand dollars for talking some dudes into a fake terror plot so they could get arrested. The judge in that case, Colleen McMahon, went on to say “I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that there would have been no crime here except the government instigated it, planned it and brought it to fruition.” Is this happening like last time? Is this a reasonable practice for law enforcement, or are they scaremongering, taking advantage of fear and instability for their own political agenda?
And you might say, well, you know, if those Muslims weren’t a bit dodgy already they couldn’t have been talked into this terror stuff. Terrorism is definitely scary, and I think some of us would be willing to overlook this kinda pre-emptive entrapment, even just on the grounds that it was possible to talk these guys into a terror plot. Better the FBI now than an actual terrorist later, right? It’s curious, though, that so much of this entrapment revolves around Muslim communities. I’ve not seen any instances of white nationalist hate groups being lured into FBI-led fake terrorist plots, even though they’re carrying out terror attacks in America at nearly three times the rate of Islamist extremists. How would we feel if white guys were being talked into terrorism and then arrested for it? I think we also have to wonder whether the term ‘terrorism’ is being used as a kind of shield against behaviour that we’d otherwise find immoral. The surveillance on Martin Luther King was justified by concerns over communism. In the 50s, communism was the shield against behaviour that was clearly fucking sketch. The FBI took advantage of those cultural concerns to try and block the black civil rights movement. It was obviously wrong. So why aren’t we willing to apply the same logic here? Is it because the Liberty City Seven aren’t as influential as King? If you think about it, that’s essentially saying that you have to have X amount of social merit, or we’re okay with the government talking you into committing a crime and then arresting you for it. That’s fucked. Further, even if you somehow meet the bar for social merit, we know that the FBI has historically smeared people, often with illegal surveillance. They managed to produce 300 pages of incriminating evidence on a bunch of fucking lawyers. What the fuck chance do you think you’d have?