Watch What You Read, Comrade!

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So a student at the University of Massachusetts got himself visited by goons from Homeland Security because he wanted to read an original, Beijing-made copy of “Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-tung,” commonly called “The Little red Book.”

Two history professors at UMass Dartmouth, Brian Glyn Williams and Robert Pontbriand, said the student told them he requested the book through the UMass Dartmouth library’s interlibrary loan program.

The student, who was completing a research paper on Communism for Professor Pontbriand’s class on fascism and totalitarianism, filled out a form for the request, leaving his name, address, phone number and Social Security number. He was later visited at his parents’ home in New Bedford by two agents of the Department of Homeland Security, the professors said.

The professors said the student was told by the agents that the book is on a “watch list,” and that his background, which included significant time abroad, triggered them to investigate the student further.

“I tell my students to go to the direct source, and so he asked for the official Peking version of the book,” Professor Pontbriand said. “Apparently, the Department of Homeland Security is monitoring inter-library loans, because that’s what triggered the visit, as I understand it.”

I guess this means we’d all better watch what we read. We might even want to go through our own libraries, sort out the problematic titles and send them to the incinerator, just in case Homeland Security and the local constabulary are doing more than monitoring library loans made to world travelers. Suppose we assume — and why not? — that the plumber, the cable guy, the electrician or the landlord’s handyman have all been “deputized,” and during a visit to your house or apartment sees something that any one of the might consider — or have been told — is suspicious. And contacts the authorities.

Hmmm. I own a Chinese-made copy of the Little Red Book that I picked up for a few bucks, either at some has-been radical bookstore in Berkeley or one of several used bookstores in Columbus, Ohio, I don’t rightly recall. (Berkeley makes more sense, I know, since it hardly makes sense for anything of Mao to have made his way to this country’s great and virtuous heartland.) Oh, and there’s all the stuff on Islam I have — Sayyed Qutb’s “Milestones” (published in Kuwait, but I’m guessing security goons would not care about that), an abridged version of Maududi’s commentary on the Qur’an (plus a bunch of other Maududi books, all published on that marvelously cheap paper they use for books in Pakistan), and a bunch of books in Arabic (mostly copies of the Qur’an, or commentaries, or hadith collections, or collections of prayers, and a few dictionaries). What about that great big world atlas I have, published by Progress Press in Moscow in 1967 to commemorate [sic] the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution? It isn’t every book I own that has a heroic and passionate portrait of Lenin in it. It is one of the finest collections of maps I’ve ever seen, which is why I paid $100 for it in 1990, but still, if an American is to own a collection of world maps, I suppose it ought to be a proper American map collection.

I have a few books in Russian as well, a language I once studied but has long since faded, largely forgotten, into the deepest folds of my brain. Dictionaries and children’s stories, mostly, though there is that nifty Russian-language copy of the Qur’an I have (produced by a Soviet research institute in the waning days of perestroika and glasnost, bought from the same subversive Russian bookstore I acquired the atlas from). And all those Defense Language Institute textbooks, too. What normal person keeps 20-year-old language textbooks?

And what about all the feminist books and volumes of English country lore my wife brings to our book collection? I sometimes fancy that we have the only bookshelves in North America where volumes of Sayyed Qutb and Zora Neale Hurston sit side by side, where the gardens of southern England’s landed gentry and the need to wage unending jihad against the infidels are equally described in exquisite detail. I’m not sure what the phone guy would get perusing our book titles, assuming he would know any of the authors, but I’m guessing it would be clear to him or to just about any observer that my wife and I are misfits and malcontents and definitely need to be watched.

Especially given Jennifer and I don’t own a teevee. How suspicious and un-American is that?

In the report cited above, Professor Williams describes Mao Zedong as “completely harmless,” which is not entirely true. Mao harmed a lot of Chinese. Not with his bare hands, maybe, but his rule left a lot of people harmed. What he ought to have said is that a book by Mao Zedong is harmless, which is true enough, unless you throw the Little Red Book very hard at someone. And even then: It’s a small book with a soft cover.

It should come as no surprise that in the wake of September 11, 2001, when many Americans felt afraid of the world and all that was different, strange and mysterious, when the state and those who run it sought as much power as possible, both to keep that sense of fear going (for political purposes) and the seize as much power as possible (to control), that Quakers and college students suddenly find themselves in the watchful crosshairs of the national security state.

Much as we praise bourgeoisie industry and commerce at this web site, the attachment of the bourgeoisie to social and political stability, and to the state as the best way to ensure that stability, is the kind of thing that gets us to goons knocking on doors asking probing questions about one’s reading habits. It’s what I call the “bourgeoisie imagination,” and because it prizes order and tends to see the state as an organic extension of society and community, it tends to view with suspicion or horror anyone or anything that, for whatever reason, does not fit. Anything that could, even in the remotest way, threaten or jeopardize that order.

In this world, the only individuals with rights, and who merit protection and respect, are those who willingly fit in and belong. The rest have no place in society, and can be thrown away. Any amount of violence used against us, well, that’s okay. It isn’t really violence if the state does it anyway.

And this is why police, at all kinds of levels, are wasting their time spying on pacifist Christian groups, college students and anyone who looks remotely swarthy and who cannot behave themselves (for whatever reason) in public. We knew this was going to happen, or we should have known, because our police and other government agents do not know how to tell the difference between peaceful protest and dissent on the one hand, and terrorism and sedition on the other. For the most part, they don’t believe there is a difference.

To borrow a metaphor from another failed, state-state war to maintain and impose order, we who dissent and protest are at best like those dupes who believe that marijuana does no harm — idiots in need of hair cuts, jobs and a quick refresher on the Pledge of Allegiance — and those who fail to understand that one puff of protest can lead to a (likely short) lifetime of mainlining terror, and all the damage it does to the user (though who cares about the user, to be honest) and the rest of society.

I hope someone gave the young college student in question a decent copy of Mao’s Little Red Book for his paper. Heck, were I there, I’d even let him borrow mine. (It’s not as interesting as you might think, and most of the quotes are pretty dull.) Sure bet though — he learned a thing or two more than he bargained about fascism and totalitarianism.

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.

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