Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Subversives ... and Richard Aoki

My review of Seth Rosenfeld's book, Subversives, ran on Truthdig last week and received a fair amount of traffic. As it turns out, Sol Stern reviewed the book for the Wall Street Journal. Fanatical readers of this blog will recall that Sol was on the staff at Ramparts and wrote many of its most important stories. He has since repudiated the magazine's politics, especially when it comes to Israel and the Black Panthers, and is now a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute.

Some readers may find a comparison of the reviews instructive, especially when it comes to the importance of selection and emphasis. My review focuses heavily on what I take to be the book's central story: the relationship between Ronald Reagan and the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover. The book clearly invites that reading. For example, Reagan's name appears in the subtitle, and Seth concludes the book by detailing the FBI's stubborn refusal to release the files that document its relationship with Reagan. That Seth was able to land those documents through a series of lawsuits is a major part of his contribution.

Sol acknowledges that the Reagan-FBI story contains the book's "most significant historical revelations," but he devotes relatively little space to, and offers almost no details about, those revelations in his review. He's more interested in the book's treatment of Mario Savio and the radical nature of the student protests. That emphasis assorts well with a more general argument Sol has been making in various forums over the years.

Interestingly, Sol also passes on what has proven to be a very controversial aspect of the book: its claim that Richard Aoki, a former Black Panther, was also an FBI informer. Seth released that story separately through the Center for Investigative Reporting this week, and it got a lot of pickup. The story hit a nerve, especially among activists and academics interested in race and ethnicity, and some of the most vocal early responders were deeply skeptical or dismissive--reflexively so, in my opinion. One way to evaluate that opinion is to perform what Stanley Crouch used to call the flip test. If someone brought similar evidence against Reagan or Hoover, for example, would the claim be accepted or rejected?

Readers of a certain age may recall the 1978 New West piece on the Panthers by Kate Coleman and Paul Avery. That one was also sponsored by CIR and received a great deal of attention. (I discuss it in the Ramparts book.)



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