McCarthyism and Mindblindness – Chapter 9. The Biography of a File

Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman by Jeremy Adelman

Conversation – Instalment 11: McCarthyism and Mondblindness

Chapter 9. The Biography of a File                                                                                                       


Howard Adelman

The question for Albert Hirschman was NOT to be or not to be, but to know or not to know. The story of Plato’s cave begins with the shadows on the cave wall. The shadow is the darkened area where the light from a source behind a living person tied to a log in a fixed position is then projected on the wall of a cave. The person in Plato’s story takes those shadows produced by the obstruction of the real person to be themselves real. Note the following. The person on the log is opaque; the light does not pass through him or her as he or she blocks the light. The shadow we see is the light that is blocked but we do not see either the person blocking the light and certainly not into the person.  

This is the realm of spooks. This is the realm of images taken to be real. This is the realm of opinion taken to be as valuable as truth. This is the realm of rumours and gossip and half and quarter-truths. This is the realm of the FBI file that haunted Hirschman but which Hirschman only barely recognized as possibly existing and inhibiting his employment in any significant role in the OSS during WWII and in Washington after the war. The difference was that Hirschman was not chained to the log. He could have turned around. He could have sought out the source of the beam of light shining upon him and radically distorting who he was. As Jeremy writes:

From 1943 to 1966, a shadow trailed Albert Hirschman. But unlike most shadows, this was one he never saw. Hirschman did suspect that some invisible force was at work; some things in his life were too unfathomable. He did not understand why the OSS did not make more of his intelligence skills and preferred to employ him as a mere interpreter; he tended to explain this away as the bureaucratic ineptitude of armies or large organizations., in part because he had less and less affection for them. But there were times when his career ran into inexplicable roadblocks. 

I want to suggest a different description than the one Jeremy offers. The shadow was not behind him but in front of him. He could see the shadow that seemed to precede him wherever he went in those years. The blockage was NOT invisible but he preferred to account for it in terms of bureaucracy rather than assigning it to the malignant forces apparent everywhere in America in those years. McCarthyism was the BIG STORY, certainly by the early fifties though it had already reared its ugly head in the FBI and during WWII. Why would he believe himself to be immune? What was occurring was not at all unfathomable and was not simply seen clearly only in hindsight. The seemingly inexplicable was explicable if only he dared to look, inquire and investigate. There were plenty of clues.

Was it the fear of the insecure stateless person that inhibited him? Did Albert Hirschman and Hannah Arendt share a kind of mindblindness, an unwillingness to attribute deliberate beliefs, desires and intentions, in Albert’s case, to American officials, in Hannah Arendt’s case, to Adolph Eichmann? Why would they want or be willing to make pervasive evil, though certainly of very different and incomparable degrees, banal? Did the reasons have the same general source because both always remained deeply loyal to German culture even as they severed their loyalty to the German state? Both had developed a new loyalty to America but had not developed a deep passion for the culture of America. Neither could read its whimsical variations.

Jeremy goes in an opposite direction than I would and gives an inanimate bureaucratic file a life of its own “independent of the person about whom it purportedly reported, in part because it was so inaccurate, a likeness of someone else.” (p. 285) Jeremy opined: “The file remains nonetheless a sad portrait about the power of innuendo and paranoia that governed some people’s lives for many years.” But it wasn’t just the power of innuendo. It was the power of deliberate and conscious malevolence. And, in Albert’s case certainly, it was not a matter of too much paranoia, but too little following up on suspicion. And if we are talking about the McCarthyites, there is a big difference between manipulating paranoia for political purposes – which both Hitler and McCarthy did – and irrationally feeling persecuted. There is a difference between feeding and capitalizing on a paranoia you helped develop about the omnipresence of communists as you transgressed every single constitutional protection versus crediting paranoia with the reason for Hirschman’s ill-treatment. 

I had, and probably still have, a very thick file of information on my activities when I was young collected by the RCMP. I know of the information because I could watch as it was collected by unmistakeable RCMP officers at demonstrations and marches in which I participated as a youthful activist. I also know of the file because, when I was an undergraduate, Professor McCurdy in the Philosophy Department invited me in to his office to speak to him. He told me in confidence that he had been asked to come down to the offices of the RCMP and was queried about me and my beliefs. He told me that the file on me that the RCMP had opened on their desk was at least 5-6 inches thick. Later, I was one of the organizers of the Praxis Corporation, a research institute concerned with spreading democracy beyond politics and into civil society. The offices were raided, the building was torched and copies of material in the files appeared on the desk of Peter Worthington, the editor of The Sun. In the McDonald Inquiry into the activities of the RCMP, we learned that the Mounties had broken into our offices and burned down our building. (Cf. pt. 5, C/Superintendant S.V.P. Chisolm to A/Commissioner M.S. Sexsmith, 27 June 1977; ibid, ‘Praxis Corp.,’ 26 February 1971; ibid, pt. 2, ‘Praxis Corporation,’ 15 April 1971; ibid., ‘Praxis Corporation – Toronto,’ Memorandum of Sergeant W. Ormshaw, 8 June 1971.) 

We too had not been suspicious enough of the misbehaviour of government agencies. To this day I have no reason to believe my life was misdirected for periods because of it as had been the case with Albert Hirschman. On the other hand, I do recognize that a similar tendency to read the best into government activities did blind me to a degree to the ill use that officials could make with collected material. I, in fact, used to joke all the time that if I was ever worthy of a biography – which I am not – at least the RCMP would have done the work of accumulating the needed research material for some future scholar. Perhaps there is a correlation between AH’s recognition of his own potential importance and the added degree that he contributed to his own mindblindness. Further, AH was important enough that he needed a security clearance; I never reached that status.   

Jeremy is to be credited with getting and studying the file and showing how, even though the overwhelming evidence clearly pointed against either fascist or communist sympathies, activism alone and its extent in Germany, Spain and Italy was sufficient to set off alarms. And one did not even have to be an activist. One merely had to be active – in the case of Harry Dexter White – in believing (correctly or incorrectly) one could work with mutual benefit with the USSR. One could have the wrong beliefs, the wrong contacts, the wrong actions. Witch hunts do not require evidence, only suspicions, even if those suspicions were based on actions and activism in cooperation with ardent anti-fascists and anti-communists like Eugenio Colorni. Action and activism as well as reasoned conviction were all grounds for suspicion. It did not help that the investigators were so ignorant or so error prone with regard to local politics that they would confuse anti-communist socialists with their enemies, the communists. Allegations and suspicions were sufficient to taint a career.  Finally, in 1966, AH was allowed to have his own voice to answer these unchallenged allegations, but even then, Jeremy reveals, he left out of his account his actions in Spain. This suggests that he did indeed have a strong sense of the source of a stain on his file. Only then, with the added testimonials on his behalf, was AH finally given a clean bill of political health and no longer regarded as a potentially contagious agent. 


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