Century-Old Intolerance

(June 7, 2017) While re-reading Fredrick Lewis Allen’s 1931 Only Yesterday I am struck by the similarities between then and now of an intolerance for minority viewpoints. The chief difference is that a hundred years ago one side could shut down debate merely by characterizing an opponent—no matter how erroneously—as a Bolshevist whereas today a variety of labels such as racist and Neo-Confederate serve the same purpose.

In April1919 sixteen brown-paper wrapped packages were sent through a New York Post Office to leading politicians and capitalists. After a similar package had exploded in the hands of a servant for a Georgia senator, the New York packages were examined and discovered to also contain bombs. Thus began what Allen called, The Great Red Scare.

Alarmists concluded that America was on the brink of a Communist revolution in September 1919 when the Boston police force went on strike. When other unions discussed striking in sympathy with the police, Bostonians worried that “the dreaded revolution was beginning here and now.” Labor leader Samuel Gompers tried to intervene by wiring Massachusetts’s governor Calvin Coolidge to urge that no police lose their jobs over the strike. After Coolidge wired back that there was “no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime” he became an overnight national hero.

When workers in the steel industry decided to strike that same year Allen writes:

The public was jumpy and would condemn any cause on which the Bolshevist could be pinned. The steel magnates found little difficulty in pinning a Bolshevist label on the strikers.

The great steel strike had been in progress only a few weeks when a great coal strike impended. In this case nobody needed to point out to the public the Red specter lurking behind the striking miners…The government must act.

And Attorney General Mitchell Palmer did act. He began by “rounding up alien membership of the Communist party for wholesale deportation.” Over six thousand men were promptly arrested on the thinnest evidence. Palmer reminded “the twenty million owners of Liberty bonds and the nine million farm-owners and the eleven million owners of savings accounts that the Reds proposed to take away all they had.” Allen continues:

College graduates were calling for the dismissal of professors suspected of radicalism; school-teachers were being made to sign oaths of allegiance; businessmen with unorthodox political or economic ideas were learning to hold their tongues if they wanted to hold their jobs.

Innumerable patriotic societies had spring up, each with its executive secretary and executive secretaries must live, and therefore must conjure up new and ever grater menaces. Innumerable other gentlemen now discovered that they could defeat whatever they wanted to defeat by tarring it conspicuously with the Bolshevist brush….A cloud of suspicion hung in the air and intolerance became an American virtue.

“America,” wrote…Harper’s Magazine in 1922, “is no longer a free country…No thinking citizen…can express in freedom more than a part of his honest convictions…[E]verywhere free speech is choked off. The only way in which an American citizen…can preserve any freedom of expression is to choose the mob that is most sympathetic to him, and abide under the shadow of that mob.”

Similarly, today Civil War discussion websites have become echo chambers in which participants “abide under the shadow of” the opinion of a majority that behaves like the “mob” described by Harper’s Magazine 95 years ago. The difference is that colleges and universities eventually became centers of free speech in the earlier era, whereas presently they are among the leaders of censorship. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the history of the American Civil War and Reconstruction where intolerance for a minority viewpoint is regarded as a virtue.

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