Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Manufacturing Hysteria

I’ve been reading Jay Feldman’s well-written and thoroughly-researched Manufacturing Hysteria: A History of Scapegoating, Surveillance, and Secrecy in Modern America (New York: Pantheon Books, 2011).  It is a whirlwind history of the twentieth century U.S., but its focus is on some dark moments in our history.

After demonstrating how Red Scares in the aftermath of the First World War were whipped up to break organised labour to the advantage of employers, Feldman discusses how the Bureau of Investigation suppressed intelligence which indicated how it knew that a handful of Italian anarchists were responsible for bombing attacks, giving cover to the politicians who went lying to the country about giant conspiracies, and used this excuse to lay the first stones in the national security apparatus that dominates our country today.
Feldman lays bare the racism and economic opportunism (of the big agricultural growing conglomerates among others) which led to the internment of Japanese Americans on the West Coast.  There were in fact spies living in California, but intelligence operatives already knew who they were, leaving no reason for the tragic round-ups.  The most nauseating quote in this chapter came from California Congressman Leland Ford, who said that because “other loyal Americans are enlisting in the Army and Navy and Air Forces and are willing to give their lives for their country, and if these men are willing to make their contribution to the safety and welfare of the country...it is not asking too much of the Japanese to make theirs in the form of permitting themselves to be placed in concentration camps, although they may be loyal”.*
The saddest story I’ve heard from that episode, however, comes from another source, and concerns Hideo Murata, a World War I Veteran honoured by Monterey County in “heartfelt gratitude, of honor and respect for your loyal and splendid service to the country in the Great World War.  Our flag was assaulted, and you gallantly took up its defence”.  When Murata received his orders to report to a round-up site, he took his own life, the certificate of honorary citizenship which had accompanied the Monterey County award in his hand. **
In a striking parallel to the actions of the NSA today, in the 1950s the CIA began an illegal operation to sort through Americans’ mail.  Feldman chillingly documents a CIA memo which noted that “if the program did come to light [in spite of its illegality] ‘it should be relatively easy to ‘hush up’ the entire affair, or to explain that it consists of legal mail activities conducted the Post Office at the request of authorized Federal Agencies’”.*  That language is eerily similar to that used by the NSA today, which lies about its activities in order to assuage the consciences of the Congressmembers who in turn mischaracterise the NSA’s activities to the public they serve. 
The most terrifying chapter so far is that on Senator Joseph McCarthy, who went from casually uttering an inaccurate statement about his possession of a list of communists in the State Department to constructing a web of lies to save his skin by publicly defaming others and plunging the country into a frothing witch-hunt.  Feldman’s description of McCarthy as “an uncouth...publicity-seeking troublemaker who demonstrated little regard for the Senate’s elaborate conventions of decorum, procedure, and seniority”, and who was avoided by nearly all of his colleages,* could be nearly applied to Ted Cruz today.
It is a depressing account, but there are moments of hope and moral clarity in the service of liberty which from time to time interject themselves into the narrative.  It is worth quoting at length a passage from Edward R. Murrow’s on-air rebuke of McCarthy, accompanied by a serious journalistic investigation which revealed that the Wisconsin Senator’s accusations were based on a series of fabrications.  It is a rebuke which could well be delivered to those in our own political world who trade in hatred, innuendo, racism, and fear for electoral gain:
“The line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one, and the junior senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly.  His primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind, as between the internal and the external threats of Communism.
“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty.  We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law.
“We will not walk in fear, one of another.  We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, and if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men—not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.  This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent”.*
* Feldman, Manfuacturing Hysteria: 172, 250, 209, 232.
** Fool’s Paradise: A Carey McWilliams Reader (Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2001): 129.

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