[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. – bev]
Returning after my annual holiday pilgrimage to visit family, I once again felt the American police state churn up the bitter taste of authoritarian humiliation. A decade after 9/11, my routine is mechanical. This year, as I was holding my arms in the air for my holiday dose of full body radiation, I noticed a family of South Indian ethnic background being marched one by one to a back room for frisking: first mom, then the grandma, then 5 year-old daughter, and then, finally, dad. As I grabbed my carryon and walked away, the fully-frisked family now stood submissively as an agent conducted an item-by-item search of their bags: bottle of cologne, toothpaste, nightgown, one shoe, pair of underwear. The bitterness hit me as I caught the expression on the mother’s face as the agent held up a bottle of perfume. “Perfume,” she said. “My god,” I muttered to myself, walking towards my gate. “What the fuck is wrong with this country.”
As historian Jay Feldman describes in his brilliantly researched and artfully written new book, Manufacturing Hysteria: A History of Scapegoating, Surveillance, and Secrecy in Modern America, there have indeed been a great many things wrong with this country specifically with respect to government attacks on civil liberties. Feldman pulls together a jaw-dropping historical catalogue of 20th Century examples where the United States government not only trampled the Bill of Rights, but did so while whipping up class warfare, xenophobic hysteria, and political mob violence, all on the pretext that war or the threat of war necessitated the abrogation of liberty.
For anyone who looks at post-George W. Bush era with alarm, Manufacturing Hysteria is a must read. In chapter after chapter, Feldman recounts government initiatives that targeted ethnic groups, immigrants, political activists–stripping American citizens of their Constitutional guaranteed rights on the premise of vague threats to national security. In just a few hundred pages, Manufacturing Hysteria describes the history of the American police state as an ongoing project, a long-standing problem at the heart of our democracy. Anyone who thinks the United States crossed a definitive authoritarian rubicon sometime around 2001 will suddenly feel their outrage meter reset as they are thrust onto a much bigger landscape.
Was the Patriot Act of 2001 with all of its violations of civil liberties bad? Heck yeah. But the 1918 Sedition Act seems to have been worse by half.
An Extension of the Espionage Act, the Sedition Act made it illegal to speak, print, write, or publish just about anything negative about the US government, including the Constitution, the flag, and the military forces or their uniforms. Moreover, the Sedition Act gave the postmaster general the power to return any mail to its sender–just because he suspected therein a violation.
Of course–as if you hadn’t guessed–what lead the postmaster general and his agency to suspect a violation in 1918 followed much the same pattern as what leads TSA agents to suspect a violation in 2012: politics and appearances.
After 2001, a person need only look Middle Eastern to trigger suspicion from the TSA. In 1918, a person–or one’s return address–need only look German or, as the case may be, syndicalist.
Seeing government attacks on civil liberties as extending deep into the roots of the 20th-Century, rather than being a symptom of the current decline–that is the most profound insight of Feldman’s book and worth every page of getting there. A second lesson about political partisanship, however, is perhaps even more important.
In the simple “red state, blue state” logic that now saturates most political discussion of our day, far too many Americans have grown comfortable with the idea that authoritarianism is the vice of the hardcore political right. After 9/11, we watched as a Republican President beat the drums to war, whipped up hatred against American citizens of a particular ethnic background, and used vague threats of domestic attack to euthanize whole sections of the Constitution. And while this description is accurate, we all too often mistake partisan affiliation for the corruptions of power itself.
As Feldman reveals with aplomb, what we lose when we view the history of liberty through partisan-colored glasses is the extent to which government limits, represses, and incarcerates political dissent that refuses to accept party lines, particularly on the subject of war and the economy.
The victims of government surveillance and scapegoating, in other words, are not just ethnic minorities, but minority voices who dare express opinions held far beyond their radical ranks. Opinions held, that is, but not expressed.
For many decades now, a majority of the American public has drifted through their lives hearing little from political voices outside the mainstream. Curiously, as Wall Street and the Military Industrial Complex continue to tighten their grip on both political parties, a new diversity of dissenting views has begun to circulate again.
The Occupy Wall Street movement in particular has started to percolate perspectives up from the depths of silenced anarchist, socialist, and libertarian traditions. Having perused the history of how American political power has responded to dissent over the 20th Century, it should come as no surprise that new waves of state sponsored hysteria have tried to hush the debate. The real question is will the scales tip this time just as far they did the last time–or farther?
For now, I would still feel comfortable keeping your copy of Manufacturing Hysteria in your carryon bag as you pass through airport security. As for your books by Kropotkin, Proudhon, and Goldman, well–it might still be better to pack those in your checked luggage. The jury is still out on this new century.