Jay Feldman “Manufacturing Hysteria: A History of Scapegoating, Surveillance and Secrecy in Modern America”

The US history reading binge continues. After Stephen Budiansky’s “The Bloody Shirt” (reviewed here), Daniel Ellsberg’s “Secrets” (reviewed here) and with Richard Rhodes’ “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” (a solid piece of scholarship, I don’t have anything to add, so won’t review it here) enqueued, time has come for Jay Feldman’s “Manufacturing Hysteria: A History of Scapegoating, Surveillance, and Secrecy in Modern America”. Post-9/11 reality has put civil liberties under heavy barrage and it seems worthwhile to study how it has come to this from a historical perspective. Feldman delivers such an outlook by visiting dark corners of American history, revealing in the process a profound, deeply-rooted antilibertarian and antidemocratic streak running beneath the seemingly-democratic surface of social and political life – a streak which is, in light of Bush era’s misdeeds, alive and well. Far from being isolated abuses of power, recent infringements fit frighteningly well into a century-long pattern of civil rights opression which began with persecution of German immigrants and labor workers during World War I and abated only with the 1972 death of J. Edgar Hoover – FBI’s “director for life”, the arch-villain of illegal governmental surveillance.

War and need for surveillance – which begets which? As conspiracist as it may sound, could entering WWI have been a pretext to tighten government’s grip over its citizens? Once country goes to war (the US entered WWI in 1917), it seems only reasonable and innocuous to put enemy aliens – in this case, Germans – under increased surveillance, perhaps involving occasional arrests and deportations of particularly suspicious individuals. Even if the net is cast a bit too wide, patriotic (read: unqualifiedly pro-war) mood enforced somewhat too forcefully, fear of espionage overblown – exceptional circumstances seem to justify the means. Once, however, a powerful governmental machinery is set in motion, it starts living a life of its own, oblivious to ends which made it spring into existence. After the German peril faded away, committees and agencies charged with national security were hungry for a new target. Luckily, the October Revolution came in handy, and soon hounding socialists, communists, labor unionists, anarchists, pacifists, “subversives and radicals” – all conveniently lumped together as “Bolsheviks” – was fair game. This first “Red Scare” (the second came with McCarthy in the 50s) paved road for all future surveillance techniques: illegal mail opening, use of agent-provocateurs, deportations and arrests based on flimsy evidence, administrative usurpation (such proceedings usually had purely administrative character, without right to judicial appeal), gathering files on “potentially subversive individuals” (a dangerously broad label, often belonging to labor union was enough). The “Communist threat” was so blown out of proportion (the real danger of Communist infiltration was negligible), the persecution so fervent, the atmosphere so hysteric that it’s hard to not believe that the real goal of scapegoating was crackdown on liberal and radical elements – including Emma Goldman, the queen of American anarchists, and hundreds of labor activists whose activity ran contrary to interests of industry and large enterprise.

The scale and character of scapegoating paranoia is hard to describe concisely, and naturally, it didn’t end there – before Cold War began, similarly oppressive campaigns had been enacted twice more, against Mexican immigrants and all Japanese Americans during World War II. The latter case was particularly appalling, with thousands of Japanese aliens and citizens forcibly removed from their homes and relocated to internment camps, all for completely unfounded fear of Japanese “fifth column” sabotaging American war effort (in reality, the number of Japanese found guilty of sabotage or espionage under newly enacted laws was zero). The economical motivation for internments – desire to drive Japanese farmers and businessmen out of competition – makes the ordeal all the more repulsive. Far more ominous than repressions themselves was that they set a precedent for future infringements. To ensure that the machinery ran smoothly, Roosevelt increased the power of FBI led by J. Edgar Hoover, making it the foremost surveillance institution in the country. After FDR, Hoover was unstoppable and results were discovered as soon as the war ended.

With the advent of Cold War, red-baiting became a hot political topic again. There was a lot of cynicism in both political parties – Truman himself did not believe the threat of Communist infiltration and thought accusations of Communist cooperation exaggerated, but nevertheless gave green light to anticommunist mania to snatch ground from Republicans, who could have otherwise accused him of “being soft on Commies” (a political death sentence). With intensive anti-Red propaganda in place, after Alger Hiss case the country was primed for a firestorm. Enter Joseph McCarthy, Wisconsin senator and one of the most notorious figures in American post-war politics. The supreme red-baiter, McCarthy flung wild accusations of Communist sympathies or being a Communist agent, keeping the country in terror for a couple of years and wrecking uncountable careers and lives. It was no secret that McCarthy held a close cooperation with Hoover, who supplied him with ammunition for his political onslaught. Over the years, Hoover had developed his intelligence files into a fearsome collection ripe with blackmail material, giving him grasp over many major political players. McCarthy eventually went overboard – for Eisenhower, hurling insinuations at the Army went too far – but Hoover prevailed. He could now follow up with his own counterintelligence initiative, a group of secret surveillance programs nicknamed COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program; he would have had hard time choosing a more ominous abbreviation).

Once again, telling the full story of COINTELPRO, one of the most blatant violations of democratic and liberal principles in any democratic country in 20th century, lies beyond the scope of this review. Illegal wiretaps and secret intelligence gathering with disregard of law and civil liberties became rampant. Hoover made COINTELPRO his private turf and used it to wage war against any social elements he deemed “subversive” – for the extremely reactionary and conservative man that Hoover was, this could mean pacifists, university students, minority leaders, leftists, feminists – anyone challenging the existing social and political system. Once you were targeted, the director would unfold the whole power of his agency upon you, employing blackmail, slander, harassment and denunciations, any means to eliminate you socially if not physically. Academia was terrorized, teachers blackmailed and student communities stuffed with informers and provocateurs. Particularly vicious were his attacks on Martin Luther King, whom Hoover hated and aimed to destroy completely. In some cases, FBI did not shun from political assassination – one of Hoover’s goals was crushing Black Panthers, which he achieved first by driving wedges between its leaders and by constant harassment, then by a carefully orchestrated action in which one of the leaders was shot in mysterious circumstances, purportedly in “self defence” as FBI agents raided his home. In short, COINTELPRO is a story of a state-within-a-state, a nexus of unchecked bureaucratic power which could persecute citizens with utter disregard for the law, trampling civil liberties on a massive scale – a homegrown police state.

It was chilling to read how precariously close the US at times was to a fully-fledged police state. One of the most disturbing fragments describes one officer’s proposals for antiliberal legislations, amounting to blueprints for a true police state, with concentration camps for political dissidents and dramatic curtailment of constitutional rights. With Bush’s presidency, the antidemocratic tendencies have successfully resurfaced, continuing the well-established tradition of government illegally using its powers to spy and oppress its own citizens. For me, it seems that hatred for liberal principles – democratic checks and balances, right to just legal process – lies in the very nature of institutional power, independent of beliefs of individuals who comprise it. The corrupting nature of bureaucratic institutions invities more exploration (“The Wire”!). Every sound political system must not only not assume good faith on the part of political players – including government agencies and operatives – but perhaps should actively assume bad faith, that is, treating as a default that any unchecked bureaucratic entity will have a natural drive to expand and increase its power in the most authoritarian way possible. If this sound like too pessimistic an assumption, the sad history of US government surveillance and repressions in the 20th century lends it much credibility.

And just for flavor, I give the table of contents of the book – chapter titles should give good impression of what’s in store:

1. The Fine Gold of Untainted Americanism
2. A Democracy Gone Mad
3. The Heel of the Government
4. A Peculiar Sort of Mental Hysteria
5. The Gravest Menace to the Country
6. A Skimming of the Great American Melting-Pot
7. A Lawless Government
8. Grave Abuses and Unnecessary Hardships
9. The Utmost Degree of Secrecy
10. A Jap Is a Jap
11. Scare Hell Out of the Country
12. A Neurotic Nightmare
13. There Were Many Wrecked Lives
14. There Are No Rules
15. We Never Gave It a Thought
Epilogue: An Aggressive Assault on Civil Liberties

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