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Joel Whitney: The Egregious Price America Exacts for Integrity

The "Finks" author joins Robert Scheer to talk about the lives of poets George and Mary Oppen, two admirable Americans persecuted for their leftist ideals.
Mary and George Oppen on their boat in California, circa 1930
Mary and George Oppen on their boat in California, circa 1930. [Photo by AP]

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“George and Mary Oppen were branded enemies of the state,” writes Joel Whitney in a recent essay for The Poetry Foundation titled “The Violent Years.” “Their FBI files document just how deep their activism went, and the price they paid for it.” The author of “Finks: How the C.I.A. Tricked the World’s Best Writers” has long been interested in the links between the world of literature and the U.S. surveillance apparatus that grows more unwieldy by the day. As he finished his most recent book tour for “Finks” just as Donald Trump and neo-fascism were on the rise, he tells Robert Scheer on this week’s installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” Whitney kept hearing a few lyrical lines ringing through his mind. The verses were from “Of Being Numerous,” a poem by Pulitzer Prize-winner George Oppen, a World War II veteran and Purple Heart recipient whose poetry is remembered for its aesthetic qualities as opposed to the heroic acts or the political ideals of its author. 

And yet, it was precisely due to their political affiliations that George and his wife Mary, a poet and artist herself, were persecuted by the FBI. Whitney, who obtained the FBI’s files on the Oppens through a FOIA request, explains in his Poetry Foundation essay that due to their anti-eviction and pro-workers’ rights work within the Communist Party USA during the Great Depression, the couple was targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, labeled as a “‘premature antifascist’ [for] opposing Hitler too soon for the [U.S.] government’s taste,” and essentially forced to flee to Mexico. 

“In the late forties and early fifties [during] the dawn of the McCarthy era,” Whitney tells Scheer, “people were regularly going south of the border–in some cases without the permission of the U.S. government, knowing they would get their passports destroyed–for political asylum. That’s what [Lorraine] Hansberry’s parents did; that’s what a lot of Black intellectuals did. And this is something that George and Mary Oppen did, too. 

“That movement across the border is something that fascinates me in terms of, how many leftist lives were marginalized in this way?” says the “Finks” author. “How many leftists were chased across the border because [they believed] in total equality and total fraternity and that wealth should be slightly redistributed through a better tax system?” 

But even in Mexico, where they called themselves “political refugees,” Whitney writes in “The Violent Years,” “they spent the next decade in Mexico City, under constant surveillance.” Whitney also draws a connection between Civil Rights hero Martin Luther King, Jr. and the poet George Oppen that leads back to the host of “Scheer Intelligence”: both figures were incredibly moved by the photo essay “The Children of Vietnam,”published in Ramparts Magazine under Scheer’s leadership. And it was partly their passionate anti-war stances that led to the FBI’s targeting of the Oppens and MLK, as Scheer discussed with “MLK/FBI” director Sam Pollard in last week’s episode of “Scheer Intelligence.” 

“[Oppen] experienced war,” says Scheer. “He knows what it is when metal cuts through the flesh because it had cut through his own flesh. And he knew, he was horrified by the carpet-bombing of Vietnam, and by the destruction.” 

Below is an excerpt from “Of Being Numerous” that describes George Oppen’s feelings of “disgust” about the Vietnam War, and, as Whitney points out, was published “days before Martin Luther King denounced the American war on Vietnam in a speech describing the United States as the ‘greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.’”

It is the air of atrocity,
An event as ordinary
As a President.

A plume of smoke, visible at a distance
In which people burn.


Now in the helicopters the casual will
Is atrocious 

Insanity in high places,
If it is true we must do these things
We must cut our throats

The fly in the bottle 

Insane, the insane fly

Which, over the city
Is the bright light of shipwreck

Listen to the full discussion between Whitney and Scheer as they talk about the Oppens’ extensive, admirable activism and how their unwavering integrity painted targets on their backs when it should’ve done the exact opposite. 


Robert Scheer

Joshua Scheer

Natasha Hakimi Zapata 

Lucy Berbeo 

RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case it’s Joel Whitney, and I had him in a podcast a while back when he wrote a book called Finks: How the C.I.A. Tricked the World’s Best Writers. And he was really–it’s a very important book about what the CIA did, beginning with the first years of the Cold War, of trying to present a positive view of the United States, in the CIA’s eyes, no matter what its policies were. And they enlisted the support of very famous writers, and so forth. But that would have been fine if it were transparent, but it was quite deceptive. 

But in any case, the reason I have Joel Whitney back now is that he’s written an essay for the Poetry Foundation. By the way, I should mention he won a prize from PEN, one of the organizations that in its early inception–the literary organization that was involved in kind of some of the finks’ activity. But anyway, coming up to the present moment, he wrote an article for the Poetry Foundation called “The Violent Years” [on] how “George and Mary Oppen were branded enemies of the state. Their FBI files document just how deep their activism went, and the price they paid for it.” 

And when I read this article, I thought wow, this is a part of American history that we’ve heard some references to; we know the Hollywood blacklist, and Dalton Trumbo, who was a friend of George and Mary Oppen, who were–and I’ll leave it to Joel to explain who they were and why he was interested. But when I read it I just had watched a movie called “MLK/FBI,” and I ended up, the podcast just before when you’ve heard this one is with [Sam Pollard], and it was on the FBI’s campaign to destroy Martin Luther King. A campaign that began with, first of all, trying to connect him with Communists, and then when that didn’t pan out too effectively, then they went after his personal life. 

But it struck me in reading your article, Joel, that we don’t know enough about how deceptive, disorienting, dishonest–fake, fake news–this effort of our government during the Cold War. And I would argue it’s continuing today, even though–and we’ll get to that. But how destructive it was of people’s lives. So tell us, let’s just begin, who were George and Mary Oppen? What happened to them? And how did you come to spend this much time on it?

JW: Yeah, George and Mary Oppen–first of all, thanks for having me on the show. It’s always a pleasure to speak with you. George and Mary Oppen were writers, and they met each other when they were quite young, and just sort of became fixtures in each other’s lives instantly. And they were inspired by a class they had in college, and they sort of went off and tried to live these lives as poets. Very soon–

RS: A class, by the way–I always say I’m not going to interrupt, and I always do. [Laughter] Where they heard, at Oregon State they heard Carl Sandburg read his “Fog” poem, and they sort of got committed to being poets.

JW: Yeah, wonderful poem. And we can all imagine that time when we were young, and something like poetry just makes us feel like the world is ours. And really quickly, you know, they traveled, and then the Great Depression hit. And then they actually stopped writing poetry, and decided to help people who were being evicted in New York. And of course they were doing this through Communist-tied organizations, the United Front organizations, and this came back to haunt them. And so they went on this journey, and George stopped writing poetry for a long time, and he came back to it with a vengeance. And his third book after his cessation of something like 25, 28 years won the Pulitzer Prize. And there’s this poem in it that I couldn’t stop thinking about, called “Of Being Numerous.” And I’ll tell you why I couldn’t stop thinking about it in a second.

But in general, the essay is one of the first things I worked on after that book that you mentioned, that we got to talk about I think in 2017, Finks: How the C.I.A. Tricked the World’s Best Writers. And I was interested in how creative writing was used–in that book I was looking at how it was used by the CIA, and people’s cache, people’s cultural brand so to speak, became an object of soft power. But then behind the scenes, in the op-ed section of the magazines that the CIA systematically created, dozens and dozens of them, you know, you’d get the hardline American perspective. And you’d see very subtle uses of op-eds to kind of support American coups, and then you’d see people like, you know, as mainstream as Hemingway or Borges or you name it, on the covers. Or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which I think we talked about last time. 

So these magazines were doing something with writers that I was very curious about. But when I finished the book, and finished my round of interviews and tours and things–back then when you could still go on a real book tour, before the pandemic–I was looking for the holes. And I was–I didn’t report a lot on the FBI doing similar things domestically that the CIA was doing abroad. And I’d always loved Oppen. So I went back, and I remember hearing, remember reading in Mary’s amazing memoir, which everyone should read, Meaning a Life, about these FBI visits to their house when they were living in Southern California, not too far from where you are.

RS: It was Redondo Beach, I believe.

JW: Yeah, yeah. I’m not sure how far that is. But it sounded like this idyllic life that they had. They’d already gone through hell in some ways; like the evictions that they were trying to stop in New York had happened, George went off to fight in World War II. He was pretty heroic, he was badly wounded just before the Battle of the Bulge, and his regiment went on while he was recuperating to liberate a concentration camp, the Landsberg concentration camp. And he comes back from World War II to his wife and– 

RS: Let me just stop you there, because his patriotism should be established. This is a guy who wanted to get into the military because he wanted to fight fascism. And he suffered very serious wounds; he was in a hospital for a whole year, as I understand it. 

JW: Yeah.

RS: Right, so later, when the FBI is challenging his and his wife’s patriotism, he’s one of those people who fought in the Great War, you know, in World War II, and sacrificed for it, and yet they had no hesitation to basically hound him for much of his life.

JW: Yeah, and after having been in that hospital recuperating in Nancy, France, on the border with Germany, he was terrified that he wouldn’t make it. And when he went to pick up his flak suit, the man who looked at it thought that it couldn’t possibly have been his, because whoever wore that flak suit couldn’t have lived. 

And so this is someone who’s worried at multiple points, when he’s recuperating, that he might not make it home. And his wife is writing him letters: make sure, no matter what, you live through the damages and come home. And so immediately after coming home, he establishes himself in L.A. He’s still not writing, from the Depression on. And the persecution–the FBI visits to his neighbors, sort of insinuation, constant hounding of his neighbors, constantly coming to him and his wife, interviewing them–was so bad that along with some other Southern California intellectual friends, they fled across the border.

Now, what really also hooked me on this idea and this piece is that I just did a piece right before this for Jacobin on Lorraine Hansberry. I won’t go into detail about that, but her parents did a similar journey for racism reasons. And so in the late forties and early fifties, you know, the dawn of the McCarthy era, people were regularly going south of the border, crossing the border in some cases without the permission of the U.S. government, knowing they would get their passports destroyed, for political asylum. And that’s what Hansberry’s parents did; that’s what a lot of Black intellectuals did. And this is something that George and Mary Oppen did, too. 

And that movement across the border is something that fascinates me in terms of, how many leftist lives were marginalized in this way? How many leftists were chased across the border? I think I came on your show one other time after Finks to talk about Pablo Neruda being chased out of Chile by the Truman administration. So this act of being chased across the border because you believe in total equality and total fraternity and, you know, that wealth should be slightly redistributed through a better tax system, and whatever else the leftists in question believed, it gets rewritten as, like, you want gulags or something like that. And that’s what the FBI was doing. 

So they crossed the border and they lived among, as you said, they lived among these Hollywood refugees, who all called themselves political refugees from the United States. And it was this sub-community, not far from, I think, where Diego Rivera had his studio. And it’s interesting, too; in Mary’s memoir, which covers a lot of decades, you see her play down how politically invested they were. So as soon as my book was finished, I filed a FOIA request, and that’s really how the article was born. Now, others had, I think, filed just before I did, and so some of us were getting–it took two or three years for them to send it to me, but you get a note that you get a hit when you file a Freedom of Information Act request. And when I saw that I got a hit for the Oppens, I just wanted to know–what got them chased across the border, what were they doing in Mexico, were they still politically active? Because Mary gives us enough hints to know that we might need to know more. 

So that’s kind of how everything started, and you know, if you read the piece, I tried to–you know, I tried to show that the political–maintaining their political activity was hard. It was nearly impossible for them to maintain their political views without being banned from their own country; their passport was destroyed. And they just wanted to come home by, like, the mid-to-late fifties, to put their daughter in college. And this was something that was, you know, repeatedly denied to progressive leftists or antiwar leftists or people who had worked against poverty during the Depression, after it was retroactively made illegal. 

RS: Well, what you’re–yeah, but what’s really involved was a notion–red-baiting. 

JW: Yeah.

RS: And at the heart of it, you have a phrase in your article, “premature antifascist.” 

JW: Isn’t that amazing?

RS: And these people were being punished in part because they were against fascism before it was fashionable [Laughter] or considered front-and-center to be against fascism. I’ve always been intrigued by that phrase, because it was used openly as a sort of–oh, of course, they were ahead of their time, so they probably had other motives. The other was the label of working with Communists, or being a Communist. 

JW: Yeah.

RS: And the assumption was then that they had to be demons. They had to be bad people; that was certainly J. Edgar Hoover’s assumption. That’s why the fact that Martin Luther King had two people, actually, close to him that he respected, one Jewish and white and one Black–and that was the excuse to hound Martin Luther King until his death. And–but everybody, in the rewriting of history, we forget that the Communists and various socialist groupings were really at the heart of most of what became the New Deal and the Civil Rights Movement, as well as the peace movement. And the issues–it was interesting in reading your essay that George and Mary Oppen worked on what included rent control. You know, and people not being thrown out of their houses. And you know, as well as race. And if you think back to the thirties, which is the period we were talking about before he goes into, gets wounded in the war, or leading up to that, they were the heart of the Civil Rights Movement, people like them. 

JW: Yeah.

RS: You know, in the white community. Not in the Black community, but in the white community where the support came from was basically these people on the left, including non-Communists, social democrats and pacifists like A. Philip Randolph, for instance, who helped sleeping-car porters, and Bayard Rustin, who organized the March on Washington. A.J. Muste, you could go down a whole list. So these people in Hollywood, whatever their affiliation, whether they were socialists or Communists or whatever, they were the center of progress in America, and some of them were very successful, like Dalton Trumbo and others, and they were hounded. And yes, they formed a colony in Mexico, both in Cuernavaca and in Mexico 

City, for their survival. And they were even hounded down there, because the American FBI worked with the police in Mexico to hound them and follow them nonstop. 

JW: Yeah. Yeah, it’s amazing. First of all, the label “premature antifascist” is just amazing to me. And what comes with that is, presumptively it’s premature antiracist, premature Civil Rights Movement person, premature anti-coup, you know, anti-right-wing-takeover. But what amazed me when I finally got the FBI files and sort of saw an expanded version of what they were doing in Mexico–which, you know, as I said, Mary’s memoir covers so much of their lives that I’m sure–

RS: That came out, what, in 1976 or something?

JW: ’78, it came out, and it was just reissued by New Directions, a gorgeous edition with some extra material. 

RS: And what’s the title of it?

JW: Meaning a Life. And it’s worth multiple re-readings.

RS: And George Oppen’s Pulitzer Prize was in 1969, I believe–

JW: Yeah.

RS: –for his poem. Yeah, so tell us more about them. I mean, these so-called threatening people–one of the interesting things I found in your essay is that they gave up–he gave up writing for 25 years because he thought it was more important to do this political work of being against fascism and against racism. And he didn’t want his poetry to be political propaganda of any kind. He was very conscious of that; it would–I forget the words he used, it would–they both felt it would destroy their poetry. They didn’t like Soviet realism, or socialist realism. They were offended by the political people anywhere in the world just grabbing the arts and using it for, you know, even good purposes. Why don’t you discuss that a little bit? Because these people have an incredible sense of integrity.

JW: Yeah, it’s astonishing how many contradictions there are. And they’re having a bit of–when Trump was elected, they had a bit of a renaissance, and I think there was a piece in the New Yorker, I can’t remember if it was in the magazine or online, really looking at their antifascism and how ahead of their times they were. But they embody so many things. Her book is often reread as a special kind of narrative feminism, which is, you know, worth a lot of the essays that have come out around that. And she influenced a lot of narrative nonfiction writers who came after her. It’s a beautiful, beautiful book, and she has this amazing talent at just sort of capturing things with a slight touch of satire or cartoonishness, a lot of introspection, a lot of honesty. 

But the two of them, their voices grew so intertwined. So these books were coming out, and they were constantly crediting each other’s memories. And so they were–I think certainly George was pretty much a high modernist, so aesthetically he did not go with, you know, the people he was being associated with in the minds of the FBI, the paranoid FBI. If they were drawing the caricature of him that they wanted to draw, he would have been, you know, spewing that everyone must write for the sake of the poor, or everyone must write to put forth the revolution. 

And what’s amazing is that when you look at the FBI version of them, which certainly has its distortions, you do see this sense that they maintained their [Marxism] long past when it seemed tenable to many people to do so. They remained kind of militant. And one of their biographers points out that they maintained their Marxism throughout their lives, and they gravitated in the Vietnam era more towards Maoism, which still amazes me, because you don’t see that in their work; you see the high modernism. And they were associated early on with a school called objectivism, not to get into, you know, deep into aesthetics or anything, but what that–

RS: Hey, this is NPR, you can get into anything you want. 

JW: [Laughs] Yeah. Well, what that basically meant to them was that you won’t know what can be substantiated in the actual materials of the poem until you’ve written it down. So some things you want to say in politics, or some things you want to believe are true in your romantic kind of inner world, just doesn’t land on the paper with any kind of sincerity or honesty. So sincerity is what Oppen was looking for. And style-wise, he was not very far off from what someone like T.S. Eliot was trying to do: this high-modernist blend of the avant-garde in a very plainspoken language. And there is an avant-garde quality to Oppen’s poetry, his best and his lesser poems as well. But it just did not ever really go with the politics that they maintained throughout their lives. 

And so as I say in the first, in the lede of the essay, what really made me write this, and kind of explore it–I mean, a lot of my writing is just trying to figure out what I think about stuff–was just how I was walking around New York after Trump was inaugurated, and I was sort of dejected by language, and sort of, you know, felt somewhat betrayed by our politics and our political world and the media, as I often feel. And I just kept going back to this poem, almost like it was a song in my head, the first 22 parts of this 40-part poem that you can listen to in 10 minutes on that same website, the Poetry Foundation. And he’s got this broken, sad voice where you can hear his PTSD from the war, you can hear the long life that he lived of being chased out of the country as a leftist, and being hounded. 

But it just felt like the antidote to Trump and to fascist discourse, or quasi-neofascist discourse, or whatever we want to call this fear of immigration and this kind of new Red Scare that we’re in. It was just someone trying to do this extended meditation on what it felt like to be in a city crossing paths with all these people after having been through what he’d been through, in terms of the Cold War and World War II and the near-death isolation that he felt. And so I looked through his notebooks and I looked through his letters, and I just found these images of him trying to claw back. You know, claw back sort of psychically and morally from this, and looking at the city after being away in Mexico for something like 10 years. And being astounded by life in the United States, and in a mostly, in some ways a positive way, and sort of reestablishing his ties with poets in the United States and the poetry scene in the United States, getting back into that world. And then of course he’s hit by the reality, the horror of the Vietnam War, which only creeps into the poem at the end, and it kind of piggybacks on World War II scenes. So they kind of blur together. 

So that’s kind of where this essay landed. It was my meditation on his poem, which is a meditation. But it was really the antiwar segment set in Vietnam that astounded me the most.

RS: Well, you know, but with all due respect, I don’t think you’re giving that poem, that was part of winning the Pulitzer Prize, its due. Because what he’s really saying–first of all, he experienced war. He knows when the metal cuts through the flesh, because it had cut through his own flesh. And he knew, he was horrified by the carpet-bombing of Vietnam, and by the destruction. And he made a–he had a very strong sense, and it’s in your article, about being Jewish. 

JW: Yeah.

RS: And he was very critical of the Soviet Union for anti-Semitism, very critical. And that shows up in the FBI files. It doesn’t convince the FBI of anything. But the fact is, this guy is making very profound criticisms of the Soviet Union. And part of his criticism is on anti-Semitism, or condoning it, or being indifferent to it. But this poem is–yes, it wins the Pulitzer because people–and you know a lot about poetry. I suspect it won because of stylistic and poetic issues involved, you know. But however, the fact is, the point he’s making in that poem is everyone’s walking around New York at a time–and he was very critical of Lyndon Johnson, [the] Democratic president. And you know, here’s another–what, we now say five, six million, but he actually felt it then, people being killed in Southeast Asia. And people are walking around New York with total indifference and self-absorption while their government is doing this. I mean, I thought that was the power of the poem. And he talks about, you know, at the end of your article, “Now in the helicopters the casual will/Is atrocious/Insanity in high places,/If it is true we must do these things/We must cut our throats/The fly in the bottle/Insane, the insane fly/Which, over the city/Is the bright light of shipwreck.” You know, it’s an incredibly powerful image.

JW: You’re absolutely right, and that pivot that you’re talking about is why I’m so grateful to my editor at the Poetry Foundation, Jeremy Lybarger, who held this for a long time. And I think he sensed that what I was building up to would be, you know–no one’s going to read an essay about a poem as kind of the quintessential take on the Biden inauguration. But I think, like you, I am more inspired to be critical of liberals, because I know that when liberals commit interventions and coups and things like Vietnam, or sign off on the genocide in Yemen, as both administrations have been doing lately, or both parties have been doing, it’s more of an insult–it’s more against the liberal Democratic ethos than it is–I don’t feel sometimes like I can share a common language with some Republicans some of the time. 

So I did want to end on this image of these flies. And you nailed it; I mean, it is all related, this image of people going about their lives after he, you know, has lived through this near-death experience in war that he could never forget, and a war to stop a horrific genocide against his fellow Jews. So that is all so much of what moved me about this poem. But to end on those Johnsonian flies is important to me, as you say, because you know, how many interventions are we going to get back into? What new interventions will come with the Biden administration? I hope zero. I hope he’ll resign the Iran deal and start being inspired to become a peacemaker, but not enough Democratic administrations have been doing that. And that is why I love this poem.

RS: But I want to get into the honesty of the poet. Because this is what drove this couple. They were willing–first of all, the separation of their obligation to the art and their political commitment was very interesting. Because that’s denied by a lot of people. You know, you’re going to be one way or the other; forget politics, be an artist, or you’re going to sacrifice your art to the politics. Or you’re going to sell out to be successful and win a Pulitzer Prize. Which by the way, he was very suspicious of, according to your article; it embarrassed him; he wondered what’s wrong, why have they given me this prize; you discuss that. But I think the connection here is one of integrity. And he wanted his poems–he was looking for an honesty beyond himself. 

And you get that in this liberal dilemma, you know, in that when liberals condone war crimes, then somehow it’s a lesser evil. It’s to be understood, it’s to be forgiven, and if an out-and-out conservative war hawk does it, well then, it’s expected and to be condemned as they’re really neofascist. And it’s interesting, because you know, just like Martin Luther King, the Oppens were persecuted mostly by Democrats, or at least part of it by Democrats. And in the case of Martin Luther King in the sixties, that you’re discussing, it was Lyndon Johnson. It was even John Kennedy at first, and then Lyndon Johnson. And even Bobby Kennedy, who came out against the war, but Bobby Kennedy was the attorney general who did allow Hoover to go after King. 

And so I think–and this, I want to sort of bring it up to the present moment and wrap this up. I’ll–I can’t print your poem, because the Poetry Foundation–but I’ll have links to how people go there and get it, which I understand. And anyway, they have a lot of good material people should be familiar with, and check it out. But I think the interesting thing here, in the current moment, this whole thing–just as the charge against Martin Luther King, the charge against these people was this Communism thing. The Reds. Red-baiting, the Red Scare. And the irony in the current moment is we’re still doing it, only we don’t have Reds running Russia anymore; there is no Soviet Union. The Chinese are still Reds, but you know, we need their products, and they’re very good at surviving pandemics and producing lots of iPhones and everything else, so you can’t really go after those Reds. And then if we want people to stop producing in China and produce somewhere else, they’ll probably go to still-Communist Vietnam. And so–but we don’t want to objectify them. And it’s interesting, in an echo of your article as I was reading it, we’re still doing red-baiting, only we’re now doing red-baiting without a Red. 

And so it raises a point that the Oppens, I think, felt very strongly, which is that the labeling has very little to do with the moral judgment. It has to do with the convenience of the labeler. That they need an enemy, they need someone to focus their wrath on, their hostility, and a rationalization for their own failures to do the right thing. So that might–why don’t you comment on that, you know, as sort of–and its relevance to your writing in both your book and in this article?

JW: Yeah, I mean, when you were talking about liberals a moment ago I was–you know, how the three administrations kept people like the Oppens on the security index; I think they didn’t come off until ’66, in the height of Vietnam, which is why that section of the essay ends with Johnsonian flies in the antiwar section of the poem. But bigger picture, it was Eisenhower, it was Kennedy, and it was Johnson. And it just made me think of what we’ve been hearing from Obama’s memoir. And he said something, you know, at first blush you might feel sympathy towards when he says that with the war on terror and drones, he had to make sure the Democrats didn’t come off as soft on intervention and war and peace and war on terror stuff. Not coming off soft–running from the charge of coming off soft–there’s nothing softer than that, if that doesn’t match your policy goals. Like, if you commit to killing people with drones, for instance–and I think Obama brags in his memoir how good he was at killing–you know, there’s nothing softer than that. You’re baited into, like, violating one of the principal rules of civilizations everywhere. And I laugh, you know, horrifically; there’s a lot–there are things to admire, of course, from the Obama administration, and its historic firsts, and all that. But it brings us so far from our progressive values to accept killing. 

And I think that was what I was pursuing in this essay about this poem. When he gets to that point–you know, he’s a writer whose mother committed suicide when he was young. And when he looks at the killings in Vietnam from helicopters, and the masses of innocent civilians who are killed, in not just Vietnam but in other Southeast Asian nations, I think it was also six million if you count Laos and Cambodia. And so his response to that is amazing. He says, if it’s true we must do these things–as you said–he says, we must cut our throats. And that degree of morbidity, that degree of despair at a government that can’t stop killing, is the right response to me. That’s where we all should be. And so poetry sometimes does–I mean, it gets a lot of credit; it gets treated with a lot of romantic kid’s gloves types of responses, and put up on a pedestal, and I try not to do that. But this poem, when it gets to that point, you just feel his despair with him. You feel what he lived through, and that’s why I agree with what you just said, and that’s why I was happy to talk about this with you. 

RS: Well, you know, on one final point, it really is: Where do we find integrity? Because you know, the main theme–and it’s true in every advanced, developed society, whatever they call themselves–is to be successful, to be honored, and to make money commensurate with your honor. To succeed; careerism trumps everything else. And here in your essay–and I really recommend people going to the Poetry Foundation and reading this essay, and I’ll have a link to it on our site. But this couple, the Oppens, they devoted their life to the pursuit of integrity. And when they felt that their art would be corrupted by their politics, even though they respected their politics, they put a wall between the two, to preserve the integrity of one from the other, I guess, or certainly of their art. And they paid a tremendous price for it. I mean, your essay is really about the artist’s struggle to find integrity, even to the point of giving it up for a long time, and you know, or am I honoring it, am I betraying it. And what is so fascinating about this is that the people who then judge and condemn these other people because they had the wrong label, or their cause or what have you, they have no such anxiety. They back their government, wherever they are in the world. They don’t have the poet’s angst about that, that these two people had. And can you have a last word on that? I mean, where does it come from, and why is it so easy to lose, except for these exceptional people that you’ve written about?

JW: Yeah, that’s the same question I’m asking when I write these pieces, is why–well, it’s not confusing. A government that would rather attack, marginalize, ridicule, in some cases chase out the antiwar point of view, the point of view with integrity, with principle, again and again–obviously, that’s going to have effect on a lot of people. It ruins people’s confidence to think that they can hold the views that they actually have. And we’re seeing an effect of that. So integrity is not something that is easy to maintain in our crappy two-party system these days. But you know, you mentioned the “MLK/FBI” film earlier, and across the board, rather than even condone the free speech of antiwar people–and it was really, I mean, they were watching MLK from the beginning, but he became the most dire threat when he started speaking against the war. Not to say that he wasn’t a threat when he was just speaking about segregation, and I say “just,” you know, in air quotes. So this is the tendency that I’m trying to investigate, is just where these things lead us, you know, these dead ends of red-baiting and calling people Communists and trying to have these outside enemies, and then not taking people’s integrity at face value, and always looking for some foreign tie that must discredit them.

RS: Well, at the heart of it, it’s an ad hominem attack. Whatever label you use, whether you do Muslim-baiting, or gender-baiting of one kind, or race-baiting, or political baiting, you basically want to trivialize the discussion. You want to deny that there are moral choices to make. So it’s an ad hominem way of avoiding that. And what was so interesting about this essay–and I want to end on one point, I was just searching to find it, but you have a reference to Ramparts magazine that I happened to edit, and the atrocities in Vietnam from the U.S. bombing, and particularly the killing of children. And that happens to be, as you mention, the same issue of Ramparts magazine that showed these horrible pictures of the kids that had been napalmed and, you know, limbs torn off and skin burned and so forth, that moved Martin Luther King to break with the war in Vietnam and give his famous Riverside Church speech a year before his death. And in the “MLK/FBI” film, they say–it’s very interesting–Martin Luther King, even though now he’s celebrated and we have a day to honor him and he’s been reconstructed as a benign, nonthreatening figure, he was a very unpopular person in the United States. His approval ratings were like twenty, 25% or something. And he was denounced by the New York Times, the Washington Post, the L.A. Times and all that–what are you mixing up, these two issues of civil rights in America and the war crimes or the bombing of civilians in Vietnam. And what came through in your essay and came through in the movie about MLK/FBI, is to separate these issues is to deny the moral relevance.

JW: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. It’s like, you know, you see people battling over Obama’s legacy, too. Like someone like Cornel West saying you can’t take drones out of Obama’s legacy at home, and you can’t take American empire out of Obama’s legacy at home. And that’s the side I’m on, I have to say. Like, I get why people are protective of Obama, especially after you see what kind of crap Trump was throwing at him, and which made Trump’s career. But I think MLK tried coming out against the war much earlier, and he was cowed. And he was mad–that comes through in the documentary–

RS: ’65, ’65 he gave a speech, and yeah, he was roundly attacked–“stay in your lane, Martin”–and then–but the story goes that when he was walking through an airport and he saw that particular issue of Ramparts and was, you know, having breakfast and looking at the pictures, that he told the person he was traveling with: I have to speak up, I have no choice. And this, by the way, a year before his death, was when the FBI was watching him 24/7 and trying to drive him to suicide over what they said was his personal life. And they, you know, I don’t want to change the storyline here, but that–this guy felt besieged by the FBI, and yet he took this controversial stand and was denounced by people who formerly had supported him. And that’s the price the Oppens paid for their integrity. They basically lived a life of isolation.

JW: Yeah, and it’s not outside the story, either, because I snuck it in because I–you know, all respect to Peter Richardson; I loved his book on Ramparts, and all respect to you for having worked there; I respect Ramparts so much. But it was in the film, and the Oppen collection that won him the Pulitzer with this poem in it, and with that great anti-Vietnam War moment in it; I think that book published at the end of March in 1968. So it was just a few days before that speech where Martin Luther King called the United States the greatest purveyor of evil, or violence rather.

RS: Greatest purveyor of violence in the world today. How do I tell young people in the ghettoes of our big cities to shun violence when my own government is the major purveyor of violence in the world today. Not often referred to on Martin Luther King Day. But that’s it. We’ve taken a lot of your time and the listeners’ time. And please tell us, how, if they’re really inspired at this moment, what can they do right now to read your essay and read the poem?

JW: They can find both on, or they can look for me on my website, 

RS: OK, and thanks again for doing it, and you can also listen to our previous podcast with Joel Whitney, on the Finks. OK, that’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. I want to thank Christopher Ho, the producer at KCRW, the wonderful FM station in Santa Monica, the NPR station in Santa Monica for posting these. Natasha Hakimi Zapata, who does the introduction. Lucy Berbeo, who does the transcription. And executive producer Joshua Scheer, who finds these wonderful guests and holds the whole show together. And I want to shout out, particularly in relevance to our subject today, I want to thank the JWK Foundation for having supported this show in honor of Jean Stein, a really terrific editor, writer. She did Grand Street, she wrote Edie, you know, West of Eden and so forth. And I think this conversation today brought back a time where she was one of the people who opposed this kind of witch hunting. So that’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. See you next week. 

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