The Egregious Price America Exacts for Integrity

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Mary and George Oppen on their boat in California, circa 1930 Photo by AP.

“George and Mary Oppen were branded enemies of the state,” writes Joel Whitney in a recent essay for The Poetry Foundation titled “The Violent Years.” “Their FBI files document just how deep their activism went, and the price they paid for it.” The author of “Finks: How the C.I.A. Tricked the World's Best Writers” has long been interested in the links between the world of literature and the U.S. surveillance apparatus that grows more unwieldy by the day. As he finished his most recent book tour for “Finks” just as Donald Trump and neo-fascism were on the rise, he tells Robert Scheer on this week’s installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” Whitney kept hearing a few lyrical lines ringing through his mind. The verses were from “Of Being Numerous,” a poem by Pulitzer Prize-winner George Oppen, a World War II veteran and Purple Heart recipient whose poetry is remembered for its aesthetic qualities as opposed to the heroic acts or the political ideals of its author. 

And yet, it was precisely due to their political affiliations that George and his wife Mary, a poet and artist herself, were persecuted by the FBI. Whitney, who obtained the FBI’s files on the Oppens through a FOIA request, explains in his Poetry Foundation essay that due to their anti-eviction and pro-workers’ rights work within the Communist Party USA during the Great Depression, the couple was targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, labeled as a “‘premature antifascist’ [for] opposing Hitler too soon for the [U.S.] government’s taste,” and essentially forced to flee to Mexico. 

“In the late forties and early fifties [during] the dawn of the McCarthy era,” Whitney tells Scheer, “people were regularly going south of the border--in some cases without the permission of the U.S. government, knowing they would get their passports destroyed--for political asylum. That's what [Lorraine] Hansberry’s parents did; that's what a lot of Black intellectuals did. And this is something that George and Mary Oppen did, too. 

“That movement across the border is something that fascinates me in terms of, how many leftist lives were marginalized in this way?” says the “Finks” author. “How many leftists were chased across the border because [they believed] in total equality and total fraternity and that wealth should be slightly redistributed through a better tax system?” 

But even in Mexico, where they called themselves “political refugees,” Whitney writes in “The Violent Years,” “they spent the next decade in Mexico City, under constant surveillance.” Whitney also draws a connection between Civil Rights hero Martin Luther King, Jr. and the poet George Oppen that leads back to the host of “Scheer Intelligence”: both figures were incredibly moved by the photo essay “The Children of Vietnam,”published in Ramparts Magazine under Scheer’s leadership. And it was partly their passionate anti-war stances that led to the FBI’s targeting of the Oppens and MLK, as Scheer discussed with “MLK/FBI” director Sam Pollard in last week’s episode of “Scheer Intelligence.” 

“[Oppen] experienced war,” says Scheer. “He knows what it is when metal cuts through the flesh because it had cut through his own flesh. And he knew, he was horrified by the carpet-bombing of Vietnam, and by the destruction.” 

Below is an excerpt from “Of Being Numerous” that describes George Oppen’s feelings of “disgust” about the Vietnam War, and, as Whitney points out, was published “days before Martin Luther King denounced the American war on Vietnam in a speech describing the United States as the ‘greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.’”

It is the air of atrocity,
An event as ordinary
As a President.

A plume of smoke, visible at a distance
In which people burn.


Now in the helicopters the casual will
Is atrocious 

Insanity in high places,
If it is true we must do these things
We must cut our throats

The fly in the bottle 

Insane, the insane fly

Which, over the city
Is the bright light of shipwreck

Listen to the full discussion between Whitney and Scheer as they talk about the Oppens’ extensive, admirable activism and how their unwavering integrity painted targets on their backs when it should’ve done the exact opposite. 



Joshua Scheer