[Marxism] First and Very Partial Read of Seth Rosenfeld's "Subversives" (Re: Richard Aoki)

X Y whdgm66 at gmail.com
Tue Aug 21 15:40:33 MDT 2012

again, currently only available on kurashige's facebook page


First and Very Partial Read of Seth Rosenfeld's "Subversives"
by Scott Kurashige on Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Ok, through Amazon and Google previews (you need both cause they
provide different pages) I just read almost the entire chapter of Seth
Rosenfeld's book dealing with Aoki. Can't say anything conclusive yet
but we do have much more to work with. Normally I'd say we should all
wait for the full publication to be released before criticizing a
book--but this is a different case. When an author makes sensational
claims in a short excerpt (just like Amy Chua did) we need to respond
with what we have to work with right now.

First let's be clear--the whole chapter is not about Aoki and that's
the only one out of 27 that deals with Aoki.  Almost the entire book
is about the FBI messing with UC Berkeley student activism in the 60s.
Here's the thesis (pp. 34-35 on ibooks): "Each of these men [Reagan,
Berkeley president Clark Kerr, and Mario Savio] had a transforming
vision of America and exerted extraordinary and lasting influence on
the nation. By tracing the bureau's involvement with these iconic
figures, this book reveals a secret history of America in the sixties.
It shows how the FBI's dirty tricks at Berkeley helped fuel the
student movement, damage the Democratic Party, launch Ronald Reagan's
political career, and exacerbate the nation's continuing cultural
wars." So we know that he chose to advance excerpt the Aoki narrative
not because it's central to his book but because it was the most
sensational sound bite he could use to draw attention to himself ahead
of the book release (standard marketing practice of course). The
thesis stated is entirely consistent with the liberal narrative of the
60s that I discussed earlier. Savio--the white free speech activist
from the early 60s--is "brilliant"; Reagan--the right winger--makes a
pact with the devil (Hoover) to advance politically; Kerr is the
reasonable, underappreciated liberal who was trying to be a
responsible steward but was a casualty of the new social polarization.
Three white male protagonists represent the 60s and the transformation
of America--think that will hold up in 2042?

Second, there is very little about Aoki's relationship to the BPP even
in this one chapter and almost of all of this material is already
reported in the CIR (long version--not the short version on sfgate)
article by Rosenfeld and the accompanying video. The only new
information is that Rosenfeld says the (November) 1967 report posted
in the CIR article (and the only one that Rosenfeld provides to
substantiate his claim that Aoki was an informer) also states that
Aoki reported to the FBI in May 1967 that he had joined the BPP and
was "minister of education." That may be very significant, but I also
don't think you're going to get any more from Rosenfeld than that.
There's nothing that says Aoki was ordered by the FBI to do any
actions within the BPP.

Third, Rosenfeld and Swearingen are contending that the FBI is
withholding further documentation on Aoki--and they most certainly are
right because the FBI withholds as much as it can from everyone.
Rosenfeld says this is circumstantial evidence that Aoki played a
major role for the FBI. Maybe. However, this is speculation. It's also
possible that the FBI doesn't want to release records on Aoki because
his files are part of a general body of documents that embarrasses the

Finally and most interesting, most of the discussion about Aoki in the
book involves the TWLF at Berkeley. Here, Rosenfeld has no evidence
that Aoki was working for the FBI--all the argument is based on
circumstantial evidence. It goes like this: Mario Savio and the Free
Speech Movement were good, wholesome examples of (white) radical
activism in the early 60s. Reagan and Hoover investigated and attacked
Savio and FSM but it was all without merit--every claim that Savio was
a Communist or a subversive was dubious because Savio was just a
brilliant, articulate proponent of freedom and democracy. However, the
TWLF--even though it had some justified claims--was violent and turned
off many white students. More than that, for the author's thesis, the
violent TWLF made Reagan (and Nixon and Hoover) look justified in
their repressive calls for law and order. And since the book's big
claim is that it's exposing a conspiracy (mostly by Reagan and
Hoover--again, Aoki is a small player), Rosenfeld strongly suggests
that the TWLF's "violent" turn was sparked by Aoki working on behalf
of the FBI. Here is what he says Aoki did: a) rejected compromise and
always pushed for more militant actions, including the use of violence
(certainly Aoki was no Gandhi but there's nothing new there); b) once
worked with the black student leaders to "kidnap" a Chicano student
accused of being "too soft" and interrogated him to see if he was an
informer (at the same time, Rosenfeld says--again nothing new--that
Aoki was one of the strongest voices for Third World unity); c)
secretly told Chicano leaders of TWLF that he was ordered by BPP to
stay tight with the black student leaders so they would not fall under
the sway of the nationalists. I'll let the TWLF veterans and scholars
analyze the last two.

Again, we can't disprove everything Rosenfeld says. He may turn out to
be right about some things and he certainly is right about much of
what he says about Hoover and Reagan. My problem right now is that he
sensationalized the story about Aoki, pushing it beyond what he can
substantiate and has not presented his story in the most upfront and
ethical way. He's working for himself and is not a movement person.
Again that doesn't mean he's wrong or should be completely ignored--it
means we need to look at this critically. And also people need to see
that his interpretation (assuming for now that his facts are
correct--something not guaranteed when dealing with FBI sources) is
linked to a white liberal narrative of the 1960s that at least in part
wants to blame violent activists of color (even if in this case they
are steered by the FBI) for the demise of liberalism and the rise of

And just to reiterate, anyone who thinks my goal is to preserve Aoki
as an icon is misguided. I have no stake in such iconography--see my
previous comments. Let's all look at the evidence (and demand more
disclosure from the FBI) and discuss and debate it with a critical
eye. But let's all be clear that every author trying to sell books has
a perspective and an agenda. (Of course I have my own political
perspective that shapes my analysis--but this is very explicit and
easy to discern from all my published writings.) And there is now a
growing body of evidence that Rosenfeld is using Aoki to advance a
white liberal narrative of the 60s that fails to put late 60s
militancy in proper context and is in many ways antithetical to the
movement history put forward by the founders of ethnic studies.

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