When confronted by the particulars of "background checks," I have to admit that such investigations scare the crap out of me. So often, those doing the investigating fall victim to their own grandeur and importance that the ordinary humanity of the one being investigated is relegated to the "suspicious" bin. Conformity is a frightening commodity, yesterday and today.
An Associated Press story today details the lengths to which the Federal Bureau of Investigation went when scouring folksinger Pete Seeger's associations and thoughts and friends as he tried to join the army during World War II. His "loyalty" was fragile at best, from the FBI's point of view.
Freedom of thought. Freedom of association. The wonders of the thoughtful mind. None of this seems to occur now to investigators who have the task of assessing a man or woman's make-up and potential. Then it was Pete Seeger. Now it is, perhaps, Muslims or some other perceived "radicals." If your job is to find dirt, what human being -- to the extent s/he is human -- is immune? Gawd!
Pete Seeger's left-wing affiliations were known. His left-leaning friends like Woody Guthrie were likewise known. His wife was of Japanese extraction at a time when Japanese-Americans were being rounded up and sent to American internment camps. And he, like his friends, dressed in workplace clothes. A slob, by some lights. A Commie agitator who, with the Almanac Singers or alone, gave resonance to songs like "Talking Union" and "If I Had a Hammer." Seeger's mail was intercepted as were his wife Toshi's letters.
I grew up on Pete Seeger's music. I knew nothing of communism, but the songs spoke to justice and equality, however badly defined. They were inspiring songs and Pete Seeger was one of my heroes. I was happy as a pig in mud when I was able to get hold of a Seeger album that was "banned" ... something like "Songs of the Spanish Civil War."
And then there was the question of how, when it came time to run a background check over my own life, investigators didn't balk at the fact that my mother -- at a time when it was fashionable for intellectuals -- had likewise joined the Communist Party. I needed a top secret clearance for the work I was to do in the army and someone must have stumbled on my mother's disloyal affiliations ... before she realized that the Communists were far too lock-step for her taste and she quit.
All I could imagine was that the investigators had gone back to a time when, in college, I gained a "secret" clearance from the Navy in order to work at a facility linked to Columbia University where I had once taken classes and needed a job in order to pay tuition. All I did at Columbia was deliver books and mail packages, but the clearance was necessary. The facility worked on rocketry and similar secret stuff. I was a high-priced mail boy, so I got the clearance and when later it came time to join the army and bump up to "top secret," perhaps the army investigators went no further back than the point at which the Navy decided I was not a Communist threat and my mother's affiliations could be overlooked.
Secrecy, loyalty, conformity ... isn't there anyone in that self-involved and self-important world that stops to consider the ranging wonders of the human mind? Isn't there anyone who wonders if wondering and postulating are not really enough for a conclusion? These days, people even thinking about 'terrorist' acts are taken for questioning. I don't know about you, but I have seditious thoughts all the time. But it is when I act that you get to arrest or harass me ... and not before.
Oh well, I'm just an old scaredy-cat.