Thursday, May 05, 2005

More Wilson Than You Can Shake a Stick at


American politics are a wide field, and the lines runs far left and far right. But there is an out-of-bounds. When your passion for some position takes you past respect for the basic fabric of the system we live under, freedom and justice for all, the rule of law and democratic institutions, when you advocate anarchy or dictatorship or repression, then you've ceased to be part of America.

In the years after World War I, fear of foreign-born terrorism led to domestic programs and policies that undercut the Bill of Rights.

Collective righteousness, which Wilsonian war politics encouraged, can easily become ungovernable and cruel. Wilson had had premonitions of this; he spoke of it in 1916, when he was still the peace candidate: "Once lead this people into war and they'll forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance. ... The spirit of ruthless brutality will enter into every fibre of our national life."

Wilson was a progressive Democrat. The tendency of progressive Democrats to favor its ideal version of reality at the expense of messy free expression and basic rights is familiar to anyone who follows the PC wars on modern university campuses. But runaway righteousness is a broader problem than that; it is the trap of crusaders.

George Creel at first took the high road in his Committee on Public Information work during World War I. He rallied the nation with positive images of America's best qualities. The artwork he commissioned focused on the enemy as militarism and autocracy, and on its victims. The German people, as Wilson made explicit in his war message to Congress, were not the enemy. Like many Americans, Creel had German ancestry.

But eventually he stooped to lurid attacks on the Kaiser, German-Americans, dissenters, and the opposition press.

He even turned on Congress itself. Congress responded by cutting off his funding stream, which quickly caused his department to collapse. Creel had crossed the line.

Others followed. Intolerance and xenophobia during World War I were far worse than the supposed horrors of the McCarthy era. The Espionage Act (1917) and the Sedition Act (1918) put the screws to the Bill of Rights. The Sedition Act punished expressions of opinion, regardless of their likely consequences, which were "disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive" of the American form of government, the flag or the military. Under it, "Americans were prosecuted for criticizing the Red Cross, the YMCA and even the budget" [Johnson, "Modern Times," p.204].

Wilson, while he was still governing, had the opportunity to curb these abuses, but he did not. After he was incapacitated by strokes, the zealots ran wild, and the witch-hunts culminated in the notorious Palmer raids.

There are lessons in this for modern-day Wilsonians. For one, history shows that, so far from being a new Nazi Germany (as Bush-haters insist), America today is not even as repressive as it was in 1920. The civil rights violations of the Palmer raids were far more serious than anything done or proposed in the name of the Patriot Act. (And at the same time they were far less serious than those of Lincoln's Administration in 1862 or the repression of the loyalist elements in the Revolution.)

But history teaches us that that way lies the danger.

Though it may have been fuel on the fire, I can see no direct connection between the idealism of Wilson's world-changing course and the repressions that grew under his administration. Rather, the repression sprang from pre-existing domestic fears following an era of heavy immigration and a vague awareness of a foreign menace in the form of "bolshevism."

If anything, the idealism of the president's rhetoric lent itself to the defense of rights. The Wilsonian idealism was a magic mirror held up to the authorities when they pursued repressive policies at home. Walter Lippmann wrote in a private letter in July 1920, "It is forever incredible that an administration announcing the most spacious ideals in our history should have done more to endanger fundamental American liberties than any group of men for a hundred years." Many agreed, and said so in public.

And rights advanced dramatically in America in that decade, for workers and for women. It's an open discussion among historians, whether those advances came more from the efforts of those who embraced the national crusade in World War I than those who rejected it. I tend to come down on the side of the ones who took the idealism and made it their own.

Another lesson in all this is that ham-handed prosecutions eventually recoil in great advances in civil rights. Ever since the Zenger trial in 1735, American civil right have emerged stronger from every attempt to quash them. The authorities may bully, and they may have the strong arm, but eventually the case goes to court, and there the rights win the day.

As long as eloquence can come to their aid, personal liberties will triumph. The outcome of a particular case is no matter. In the 1920s, John Scopes lost his "monkey" trial in Tennessee. But the trial itself turned the hearts of Americans. Our love of liberty triumphs, in a Hollywood ending, over our yearning for order and the fear of the strange.

Provided the courts get to hear the case. Be vigilant of rights, 21st century Wilsonians; one of the tendencies in a highly moral regime is to interpret other systems of morality as enemies. And to see legal appeals as an impediment to progress.

And those foolish enough to wish to legislate our morality would do well to remember the lesson of Prohibition; the impossible dream that put a bad taste in the American mouth to the whole idea of "legislating morality."