Even though some books I need are out of reach for now, I’m currently reading David Price’s (2004) Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists
(I’ve written here previously about Cold War attacks on gay people and scientists, as well as activists and journalists speaking out about US imperialism in Latin America.)
I’m still only a portion of the way through the book,* but the story of archaeologist Richard Morgan already has me fuming.** I’m writing about it now because it illustrates an unfortunately common pattern in the responses to victimization, and I hope that becoming more cognizant of this history and the habits of thinking involved might help to prevent the pattern's repetition in other contexts.
Morgan was curator of archaeology at the Ohio State Museum in the late 1940s when a local rightwing rag published a story about his and his wife’s political activities and Communist connections. The local media took it up, a home the couple owned was assailed by a mob (for which no one was arrested), and he was “asked” to resign from his job at the museum.
Morgan fought back, launching a letter-writing campaign to encourage others in anthropology, civil rights groups, and especially his professional organization, the American Anthropological Association, to come to his aid. This was effective in calling attention to his plight and the broader political problem, but the AAA failed him and subsequently other targeted scholars in refusing to defend them adequately or contest the wave of political witch hunts.
One aspect of Morgan’s story, not particularly emphasized by Price but noticeable in the narrative, is the pattern of victim-blaming engaged in even by many of his supporters. Throughout, in addition to suggestions that Morgan wasn’t worthy of support because he might actually be a Communist and not just falsely accused, people charged that he was bringing much of the attention and problems on himself through his anger, resistance, and vocal challenges.
Despite the obvious irregularities in the museum’s treatment of Morgan, he was blamed for not cooperating even with procedures designed to work against him. As Price recounts:
At the annual meeting of the Museum's board of trustees on April 16, 1948, a revised policy on tenure and employment was contrived in a closed-door session so that Morgan could be fired in accordance with an ex-post- facto tailor-made policy. This new policy included a clause allowing the firing of Communists or individuals who kept company with Communists, for the reason that the museum was "supported by the State ... to preserve the heritage and traditions of Ohio and through its program of research, exhibits, lectures and publications, to encourage understanding and good citizenship among our people. Communism is hostile to these purposes, and it is the policy of this Society not to have in its employ a member of the Communist Party, or one who by close and continued and sympathetic association with such members, indicates his approval of their plans and purposes"... (KL 902-907).
These were the early years of the harassment of scholars, but the involvement of the FBI and the political nature of the accusations were already known. The signals of the museum’s intent to get rid of him, and the indications that this was part of a larger political campaign, were clear. Nevertheless, Morgan’s case was treated by many as if it were an isolated administrative matter in which he had a solid chance of prevailing if he just handled himself properly. He was (like others) cast as someone who had, through his failure or unwillingness to avail himself of opportunities, sabotaged his own future.
For instance, when a museum board meeting was held at which Morgan was expected to appear, the AAA requested that there be an impartial observer present. This was rejected by the board, and Morgan made the decision not to attend under these closed conditions. Rather than appreciating the reasons for his decision, many in the AAA suggested that Morgan’s decision not to attend was what sealed his fate and lost him alleged allies on the board. An AAA report, even while noting that the museum’s policy was ex post facto, suggested that his decision may have been ill-advised and worked to his detriment:
Morgan felt, wisely or not, that he [must] decline to attend the meeting unless an impartial observer were present. Since this request was not granted, he retired. The Board then decided to dismiss Morgan, stating without qualification that he had "refused to discuss the merits of the matter" and that he was in [violation] of the stated employment policy of the Society. (KL 931-933)
The disingenuous suggestion was put forward that it was Morgan’s choice not to appear under those circumstances that had sealed his fate. Price writes that a few days after the board met, John Bennett, the junior scholar appointed by the AAA to investigate,
interviewed Dean Hatcher [newly appointed vice president of Ohio State University, home to the museum]. Hatcher believed that Morgan made a strategic mistake in not attending the meeting. He believed the board might actually have found in Morgan's favor had he appeared before them. Hatcher viewed Morgan's decision as an act of "suicide." Bennett paraphrased Hatcher's remarks as follows: "After all, this Board was not so hostile. I know of 2 men in there who were open minded. Peters and myself were in Morgan's far as getting him a hearing went at the time. Why a man should not take advantage of an opportunity to talk things over with his own Board is something I cannot understand. Why, here we wanted to talk things over with him in a friendly way, to give him a chance to have his side heard, and he turns around and walks out"... (KL 951-956).
This sentiment was echoed, naively or disingenuously, by some at the AAA: “Some members of the AAA's executive board believed that Morgan weakened his case with the museum by, as Charles Voegelin put it, "insisting the AAA representative be present at his hearing"... (KL 962-964)
People also readily accepted more general suggestions, often originally floated by museum officials, that Morgan’s problems resulted from his own attitude or approach:
[Museum Director Erwin] Zepp told Bennett that the board's plan was to allow Morgan to keep his job while he searched for another appointment, but that Morgan's stance throughout the situation had left them with no option but to fire him... (KL 959-960)
Bennett passed on reports from third parties that Morgan "feels that he is finished professionally, and cannot ever get another job in archaeology. Therefore his only alternative is to fight the case publicly. If he does the latter, he really may be `finished' professionally. But actually the important thing would seem to be his attitude, which prevents him from making and preserving contacts in the field"... (KL 1010-1012)
Even Price himself starts to fall into it at times:
When reporters -even those sympathetic to their plight, such as Scripps-Howard's Blackburn-called them for comments, Richard and Anna Morgan were prone to lash out with a rage stoked by the injustices they had suffered, thus alienating those who might have become allies. (KL 976-977)
Also common was the tendency to reduce the matter to a mess or series of bungled interactions in which all parties had behaved badly. Further, Morgan’s actions (and activism) were often presented as a hindrance to the efforts of his supporters. When anthropologist Sol Tax wrote Bennett to ask about whether the AAA had dropped its investigation of Morgan’s case, for example, Bennett’s reply was typical:
Suggesting that things were not as plain and clear as presented in Morgan's latest epistle, Bennett added, "Morgan's letter is only the last item in the whole tragedy, and makes our job only so much more difficult. One wishes for a neat and categorical judgment upon the affair, but such is impossible. In short, Morgan is both guilty and not guilty; the [AAA] the same. From beginning to end the case has been a series of misunderstandings and stupidities. With some danger and nastiness lurking in the background"… (KL 989-995)
Morgan was not going quietly. After he launched another mimeographed letter campaign to the AAA membership, John Bennett wrote Griffin that they were in “a mess if I ever saw one"... (KL 1004-1005)
Bennett again tried to organize a meeting between Morgan and some of the principal figures, with hopes that Morgan could provide "some clarification of the comedy of errors and misunderstandings that resulted in his dismissal"… (KL 1012-1013)
Bennett did try to warn the AAA that they had failed in this case and needed a structure and policy in place to deal with similar cases that would inevitably follow (a warning which “fell on institutionally deaf cars,” KL 1060), but at the same time he joined others in portraying Morgan as something of an agent of his own undoing:
John Bennett's supplement to this report added a few details and new interpretations of the events recounted. Bennett closed his supplement noting that "Morgan has some clear moral and probably legal issues on his side; yet his course of action is unrealistic and dangerous to him. The Society has a right to request resignations of employees with connections deemed undesirable for public institutions; yet the methods used to secure a dismissal were of the clumsiest and most inhumane sort".... Bennett's summation came close to arguing that Morgan had brought on his own problems by adopting aberrant views on racial and economic stratification, and while the museum had muddled the way they sacked him, they had every right to do so. (KL 1033-1038)
Morgan did leave the museum, and the state. Price reports that “Al[t]hough Morgan became an obscure figure in American archaeology, the FBI continued to monitor and harass him for decades” (KL 1311). He and his wife Anna continued as activists, and when he died from a ruptured aorta in Oaxaca in 1968, they were still watching and reporting on him.
I don’t want to make this (especially from a position of hindsight) about the complex question of whether Morgan’s or anyone else’s individual response to McCarthyism and FBI surveillance and harassment in their individual circumstances was right or effective. I will say that judging from the stories of anthropologists I’ve read so far, the people targeted, highly intelligent and trained as social analysts, had a much keener understanding of what was happening to them and would be needed to confront the problem than most of those who criticized their responses. For the most part, they seem to have recognized earlier than many others that the problem was much larger than their own personal and professional difficulties and that a coordinated, clear, and collective public response would be needed to stem the tide.
The point I want to make here is about the tendency to view victimized people as in some measure responsible for their victimization. We do that by implicitly accepting their persecution as a fact of nature rather than a human political act to be analyzed and opposed; by dismissing their experiences and emotions, including their rightful anger and feelings of betrayal, or invalidating these by framing their actions in purely strategic terms; by portraying their actions as alienating or harmful to the work of their allies; by implicating their own positions and defensive responses in their continuing problems; and by reducing clear patterns of victimization to “messes” or “misunderstandings” in which “neither side has behaved perfectly.” It’s a tendency we should resist.
*Price has been a member of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists. The book makes several general and important arguments about the real motivations behind the FBI’s program of surveillance and harassment (which he argues was more about involvement in social justice activism, fighting race, gender, and class inequality, or scholarly challenges to systems of oppression, than real or purported Communist ties), the reasons for the AAA’s (non)response, and the effects of the harassment not just on those whose careers and scholarship were directly harmed but on the scientific course of anthropology. (His more recent book, Weaponizing Anthropology, focuses on “the increased militarization of anthropology and [education] in post-9/11 America.”)
**I’m only about halfway through the stories. I might need to take a break to meditate or something.