Last week, when I read Peter Richardson’s review of Seth Rosenfeld’s book on the FBI and Ronald Regan I was shocked to learn that Richard Aoki–a legend in Bay Area activist circles–may have been an FBI informant. I teach about Aoki and much of the history he participated in as part of my class, “All Power to the People.” I had the pleasure of meeting the man, who was both entertaining, compassionate, and a grand storyteller. It was shocking, to say the least.
This morning, as Rosenfeld’s own account of this story appears in the San Francisco Chronicle and, as a consequence, in multiple places all over my Facebook feed, I get to see a host of my friends go through the same shock. Some are defensive, some in denial, and others just shocked and confused.
Rosenfeld’s book, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power, is not about Aoki. As I understand it, the book is about the FBI’s counterinsurgency history in California and, most importantly, how Ronald Regan cooperated with and benefited from the FBI. Aoki is featured in the book because of his long Bay Area history inside of multiple organizations which were targeted and infiltrated by the Bureau.
Some in my circles are already questioning Rosenfeld’s research without having read his book or without considering his evidence. Others I know are questioning his motivations, made suspect by his selling of his book in the above article. That says a lot about Aoki’s memory, and his many fans in the world of comparative race & ethnic studies. Some small part of it also reveals some of the reflexive elitism inside of academia–doubt the journalist because he is not an academic. (As if academics do not have biases.) Most of it is really about coming to terms with the death of our movement heroes, especially when they represent communities not often represented in our mainstream understandings of these times.
Doubting the evidence will be, I suspect, a fruitless task. You can never know the “real truth” when it comes to these matters. Aoki is dead, and can not defend or clarify his own truth. At the same time, FBI records are about as good as it gets for this. While they can be misleading, too, maybe even wrong, they were not created to be sources of misinformation. The fact is, the FBI does not reveal these truths willingly or with any kind of openness.
Richardson’s review helps shed light. Rosenfeld is the first to use the only real evidence we have to accurately tell the story of the FBI, youth political movements, and Ronald Reagan–the FBI files themselves. He got access to these over many years and fleshed out the story with interviews and other evidence. His approach as a journalist (standards of evidence and raw tenacity in securing sources) seems more useful here than if he had been an academic.
But, of course, we should read it and then evaluate these questions.
What I really wanted to say has little to do with this burden of proof. It’s really about heroes. Last week, after my initial reaction of shock, I came to terms with the Aoki news for the benefit of my teaching. After all, it is a profoundly important “teachable moment.” The lesson, I think, is one I emphasize time and time again in my class–these times were complex and always defy easy categorization. On top of that, it is a powerful reminder of the human imperfection marking all of our pasts. We are messy, contradictory, imperfect beings. Our history is this, too. That isn’t bad, it just is.
Heroes can be useful to history because they inspire us to be better than we are. Figures like Aoki help us question our own times, our own lives, and (maybe) realign them for the better. Revelations of their contradictions and frailties don’t end this potential. For those ready to make a real change in their lives, reminders of the humanness of our heroes is necessary. Martin Luther King Jr.’s infidelity and sexism, Cesar Chavez’ dictatorial style and poor decision making, or whatever we discover about whoever, are necessary understandings for us to possess to put our hero worship in a real-world context.
What I mean to say is–perfection and purity are not prerequisites for change. If we make the standard of progress dependent on our romanticized memories of these real figures rather than on the historical realities they contained then we are doing “the movement” an injustice. We make it far less likely that we will ever make a better world through our own efforts because we will take ourselves out of the fight before we even begin.
Richard Aoki may have been an FBI informant. Richard Aoki may have also been a man who made meaningful change throughout his life and served as an inspiration to thousands. Deal with it.
EDIT: Below is a short video made on the story by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), for whom Rosenfeld works.