Sunday, May 26, 2019

Rich Couch on Politics

Preserve Your Democratic Norms: Lessons from a Dark Time

There are two ways (at least) that democracies can fail.  The majority can unjustly and unfairly impose its will on minorities, or the majority, through indifference or ignorance, can allow a minority to use democratic means to impose its will on the majority.  The danger currently is that a minority will use an autocratic leader to diminish our democratic norms to the point where the leader has the power to persecute any person or institution that disagrees with his/her policies.  Adam Hochschild, a journalist and author, addresses our current situation in Lessons from a Dark Time, the first in a collection of essays from his book Lessons from a Dark Time and Other Essays.  What Hochschild provides us is an example from our not too distant past that demonstrates how badly our government and our society can behave when our chief executive has inadequate checks on his actions.  The current threat is Donald Trump.  The villain from the past is none other than Woodrow Wilson.

As president, Trump has attacked anyone who has had the temerity to disagree with him.  This includes newspapers, judges, politicians, random individuals, and even leaders of our traditional allies.  This moved Hochschild to ask what might occur if none of these people or agencies had any power to check Trump’s policies?

“For a chilling answer, we need only roll back the clock a century, to a time when the United States endured a three-year period of unparalleled surveillance, censorship, mass imprisonment, and anti-immigrant terror.  And strangely, all this happened under a president usually remembered for his internationalist idealism.”

Wilson may have acquired the trappings of an idealist intellectual, but he was also a southern racist who was intolerant of any opposition to his policies.  He was elected as the man who kept us out of war, but subsequently decided he wanted to join the action.  There were plenty who wanted to join with him, but also a considerable minority who would rather not get involved.

“President Wilson was not sure he could count on the backing of some nine million German Americans or the 4.5 million Irish Americans who might be reluctant to fight as allies of Britain.  Hundreds of elected state and local officials belonged to the Socialist Party, which strongly opposed American participation in this or any other war.  And tens of thousands of Americans were ‘Wobblies,’ member of the militant Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW, and the only battle they wanted to fight was that of labor against capital.”

Wilson set the table for what was to come by making inflammatory statements about those who might disagree with the direction he wished to follow.

“In strikingly Trumpian fashion, Wilson himself helped sow suspicion of dissenters and hidden enemies…Well before the declaration of war, he had ominously warned that ‘there are citizens of the United States, I blush to admit, born under other flags…who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life…Such creatures of passion, disloyalty, and anarchy must be crushed out’.”

Those were words designed to stir up hatred of anyone Wilson thought might be an opponent of going to war.  It worked, and the public and the government (local, state, and national) accommodated his wishes.

“The moment the United States joined the conflict in Europe, a second, less noticed war began at home.  Staffed by federal agents, local police, and civilian vigilantes, it had three targets: anyone who might be a German sympathizer, left-wing newspapers and magazines, and labor activists.  The war against the last two groups would continue for a year and a half after the First World War ended.”

The “crushing” of German Americans began quickly.

“The government started arresting and interning native-born Germans who were not naturalized U.S. citizens—but in a highly selective way, rounding up for example, all those who were IWW members.  Millions rushed to spurn anything German.  Families named Schmidt quickly became Smith. German-language textbooks were tossed on bonfires.  The German-born conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Karl Muck, was locked up, even though he was a citizen of Switzerland; notes he had made on a score of J.S. Bach’s St. Mathew’s Passion were suspected of being coded messages to Germany.  Berlin, Iowa, changed its name to Lincoln, and East Germantown, Indiana, became Pershing, named after the general leading American soldiers in their broad-brimmed hats to France.  Hamburger was now ‘Salisbury steak’ and German measles ‘Liberty measles.’  The New York Heraldpublished the names and addresses of every German or Austro-Hungarian national living in the city.”

Incidents of anti-German violence became commonplace.  Hochschild tells of the sad fate of German-born Robert Prager in Collinsville, Illinois.

“They kicked and punched him, stripped off his clothes, wrapped him in an American flag, forced him to sing the ‘Star Spangled Banner,’ and lynched him from a tree on the outskirts of town.  No matter that he had tried to enlist in the U.S. Navy but was turned down because he had a glass eye. After a jury deliberated for only forty-five minutes, eleven members of the mob were acquitted of all charges, while a military band played outside the courthouse.”

The placing of a target on the backs of German and Austro-Hungarian nationalists by the New York Herald may have been self-initiated, or it may have been driven by pressure to “join the program.”

“People from the highest reaches of society bayed for blood like a lynch mob.  Elihu Root, a corporate lawyer and former secretary of war, secretary of state, and senator, was the prototype of the so-called wise men of the twentieth-century foreign policy establishment who moved smoothly back and forth between Wall Street and Washington, DC.  ‘There are men walking about the streets of this city tonight who ought to be taken out at sunrise tomorrow and shot,’ he told an audience at New York’s Union League Club in August 1917. ‘There are some newspapers published in this city every day the editors of which deserve conviction and execution for treason’.”

The most efficient way to control the dissemination of information by magazines was to put an operative in charge of the Post Office. Albert Burleson was Wilson’s man.  Any publication associated with the IWW, the Socialist Party, or anything considered less than pro-war was harassed or totally banned from the postal service.

“With so many recent immigrants, the United States had dozens of foreign-language papers.  All were now required to submit English translations of all articles dealing with the government, the war, or American allies to the local postmaster before they could be published—a ruinous expense that caused many periodicals to stop printing.  Another Burleson technique was to ban a particular issue of a newspaper or magazine and then cancel its second-class mailing permit, claiming it was no longer publishing regularly.  Before the war was over seventy-five different publications would be either censored or completely banned.”

The chaos and tumult of the era provided the perfect opportunity to attack organized labor whose members could now be considered “traitors to the war effort.”

“Virtually every IWW office was raided; at the group’s Chicago headquarters, police smashed tables and chairs, left papers strewn all over the floor, and took away five tons of material, including even some of the ashes of the popular Wobbly songwriter Joe Hill, recently convicted of murder on shaky evidence and executed.  In Seattle, authorities turned Wobbly prisoners over to the local army commander, who then claimed that because they were in military custody, they had no right of habeas corpus.  When 101 Wobblies were put through a four-month trial in Chicago, a jury found all of them guilty on all counts after a discussion so brief it averaged less than thirty seconds per defendant.  The judge passed out sentences totaling 807 years of prison time.”

After the war ended the Russian Revolution provided the threat of Bolshevism as an excuse to continue the various persecutions. Woodrow Wilson, again in true Trumpian fashion, made this contribution to peace between the races.

“Woodrow Wilson, himself a Southerner and ardent segregationist, predicted that ‘the American negro returning from abroad would be our greatest medium in conveying Bolshevism to America’.”

“Nearly 400,000 blacks had served in the military and then come home to a country where they were denied good jobs, schooling, and housing.  As they competed with millions of returning white soldiers for scarce work, race riots broke out, and in the summer in 1919 more than 120 people were killed. Lynchings—a steady terrifying feature of black life for many years—reached the highest point in more than a decade; seventy-eight African Americans were lynched that year, more than one per week.  But all racial tension was also blamed on the Russians.”

Clearly, our nation is capable of horrible behavior—particularly when it is led by a horrible president.

Hochschild leaves us with a concluding observation.

“The final lesson from this dark time is that when a president has no tolerance for opposition, the greatest godsend he can have is a war.  Then dissent becomes not just ‘fake news’ but treason.  We should be wary.”