G-Men and American Brutality
I have been reading a book, G-Men: J. Edgar Hoover and the American Century by Barbara Gage, a Yale historian. It is chocked full of detail, overwhelming and boring detail at times, but is quite good nonetheless and quite comprehensive historically. Gage makes one mistake, however, in that she is committed, as most are these days, to psychologizing Hoover and his politics, tracing his actions to his childhood and his personality. So, she writes of “Hooverism” and distinguishes that from “McCarthyism,” for example, pointing out that while being anti-Communist, Hoover, unlike McCarthy, “disciplined” his anti-Communism by bureaucratizing it. The problem here is that Hoover’s politics, like McCarthy’s, reflected fundamental American values and, so, their politics should be described as “Americanisms.” That is, instead of psychologizing Hoover, Gage should have politicized him, thereby seeing in him and his politics the character of what might be called “the American political order.”
If she had done so, she might have realized that one word that may be used to describe the American political order is brutal. That is, it turns out that the American political order and, therefore, its elites rely on and even honor brutality or the overwhelming use of power, social, economic, political, and military power in order to maintain what is claimed to be “a republic,” or a “democracy.” While Hoover liked to describe himself as rational, as a professional and not a partisan bureaucrat, he was never very far away from engaging in brutality. He did so during the Palmer raids in the early 20th century; he did so when he refused to confront the lynchings in the South after World War II; and he especially did so when he confronted Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 60s when he tried to drive King to commit suicide after invading King’s privacy and revealing his private sexual affairs – and he did reveal those affairs to persons in the Congress, not one of whom blew the whistle on Hoover. Hoover wasn’t the only one capable of brutality, obviously.
So, the American Century Gage writes about may be described as a brutal century, because that is the character of American politics and the elites that possess and use that political power. As it was at its outset, relying on and embracing slavery and the dispossession of the indigenous, so was the American political order during what is called “the American Century.” It’s rather interesting then, to say the least, that this century is looked upon, commented upon as being a century of “progress.” Of course, the century could be both, brutal and progressive, and we fail to see the brutality because we don’t fully understand that progress requires brutality to succeed.
But failing to see the brutality as endemic to the American political order, interwoven into fundamental American values, is nothing to sneeze at. I have a feeling that many Americans actually do sense this brutality but turn away or try to turn away from that recognition, in this way and that. Gage’s wonderfully complete history of Hoover is one way of accomplishing this, of disguising the fact that brutality lies at the very core of “Americanism,” thereby transforming it magically into “Hooverism” or “McCarthyism.” Another way of accomplishing this is to turn away from those who see and talk about this brutality, to refuse to engage with them, exiling them as it were, thereby silencing them and, perhaps, doing to them what Hoover was trying to do to MLK, Jr., viz., drive them to distraction or worse. As the denouement of King’s life illustrates, when measures such as these prove insufficient, then there are other measures that may be taken in order to silence those who call out the brutality and its practitioners, which of course King was doing in the year preceding his assassination.
Was Hoover guilty of King’s murder? Of course not, at least not in any legal or bureaucratic sense. Bureaucrats are all about procedures and so cannot be easily linked to outcomes, something Hoover understood quite well. In that way, their brutalities are disguised, even made to disappear. But although “disappeared,” the brutalities are real and the subsequent brutalizations, of both the bureaucrats and the non-bureaucrats, are also real. Welcome to “the American Century.”