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Liberty Bonds

The Quest for the Dream

by John P. Roche
Macmillan, 308 pp., $5.95

In the unspoken dialogue that constantly goes on between the present and the past, the modern mind paradoxically puts itself on the side of the past, and the more thoroughly modern it is in thought and sensibility the more committed it is likely to be. This partisanship does not usually rest upon a full-bodied knowledge of the past—quite the contrary—but upon a strong revulsion from the conditions of our own time. The emergence and persistence of totalitarianism, the spectacle of Auschwitz and Belsen, the threat of the bomb, the small daily horrors of mass society have all combined to convince us that we are the stepchildren of history. The old belief in progress has been not simply abandoned but reversed. It is a poor intellectual nowadays who cannot show you in almost unbearable detail how much worse things are today, spiritually, culturally, and politically, than in some series of vaguely delineated but always superior yesterdays.

In this book Professor Roche has not ventured to contest the contemporary state of mind on every front, but he has thrown himself into the breach at a point where two vital and related subjects meet—the state of civil rights and civil liberties in the United States. The Quest for the Dream (what an unfortunate title!) is an informal and somewhat discursive history of human relations in twentieth-century America. Its central argument is that “by all the standards of historical evidence civil liberty has a meaning in contemporary American life which never existed in the past. Never since the foundation of the Republic has there been such a concern for the basic principles of decency and civility in intergroup relations as we know today.” To argue this case against the dominant intellectual apocalypticism of the age, in the wake of the McCarthy era, and in the face of the slow gains and heavy costs of the movement for Negro rights, may seem foolhardy, but let us consider Roche’s evidence and see how he fares.

Roche’s strategy is to force us to take a close, hard look at our earlier failures and to estimate the conditions of our own time against a full and candid recall of the iniquities of the past. He reminds us, for example, that in the first year of the twentieth century one hundred Negroes were lynched, that by the outbreak of the first World War the number had risen to 1,000 for the century, that the first two decades of the century saw many savage race riots both in Northern and Southern cities, that the terrible thirteen-day Chicago race riot in the summer of 1919 resulted in the deaths of thirty-eight persons and injuries to over 500, that a lynching of the most incredible brutality was possible in a Northern city like Omaha, culminating in the display of the corpse at a downtown intersection. We have had, of course, our lamentable casualties in the current movement of Negro protest, but the situation contrasts with that of a few decades ago not merely in the circumstance that there is now less violence but also in that the brutality of yesterday was not even a response to any militancy on the part of American Negroes or to any improvement in the status of the race—it was merely an ugly response to their being there at all.

The situation of other minorities, Catholics and Jews, starts from a less spectacularly degraded and violent base, but the contrast again favors the present. It is relatively easy here, even for the skeptical, to follow Roche’s argument, since the increasing acceptance of Catholics and Jews in American life has been dramatized in certain gratifying ways. The election of a Catholic president contrasts sharply with the conditions faced by Al Smith, and anti-Semitism, as a variety of overt political appeal, has virtually disappeared, even in the ideology of right-wing fanatics. It is, however, useful to be reminded once again of the savagery of the campaign against Smith. Or of the attacks on Brandeis’s appointment to the Supreme Court. Or that the U. S. Army’s manual for the use of draft board doctors in World War I had to be revised to eliminate a section in which there occurred the sentence: “Foreign born, and especially Jews, are more apt to malinger than the native born.” Or that the Secretary of the Treasury in the first World War had to be pressed to expunge some anti-Jewish remarks from Liberty Bond brochures.

If we are determined to protect our commitment to the idea of a general cultural retrogression, what answer can we give to Professor Roche’s evidence? On the subject of ethnic relations, I think his case for the present as against the past must be granted out of hand. The United States began both with the heritage of slavery and with white Anglo-Saxon Protestant domination. The upsurge of the new immigrants, the Catholics, and now finally of the Negroes has made our twentieth-century history into a story of ethnic wars of various kinds, wars incidental to transforming the old America into a multi-ethnic, multi-religious urban society. For all but the Negroes, the largest battles have been won, and the Negroes themselves have launched at last upon a campaign of self-assertion which cannot be forever denied.

With respect to our civil liberties, our tolerance of dissenting opinion, the case is more mixed. Here I think we are still entitled to nurse our sense of uneasiness. In this area Roche’s case hangs largely upon comparing the incredible intolerance with which World War I was conducted and which continued for some years after its close with the relatively good record both of the federal government and the general public in World War II. (Roche does not slight the one disgraceful exception to his case—the herding of 110,000 Japanese into concentration camps and the wholesale violation of their rights.) After recounting the familiar story of our national phobias in 1917 and 1918, our elaborate wartime apparatus for the repression of all dissent, and the Palmer red raids that followed, Roche goes on with some satisfaction to discuss the superior conduct of the federal government in the Second World War under Attorney General Francis Biddle’s guidance. He is also heartened by the decision of the Supreme Court in the famous Jehovah’s Witness case in 1943. “In the middle of the war,” he writes.

which in 1943 seemed touch and go, what with the Germans in the Caucasus and in the suburbs of Moscow and the Japanese bombing Australia, the United States Supreme Court held that the compulsory flag salute was a violation of individual freedom…When one compares the mood of the nation in 1943 with that in the First World War, he gets a sudden sense of the degree to which American democracy had come of age in barely more than a generation.

Reviewing the post-war years, the author shows more signs of hesitation. At the end of his account of the McCarthy era, he can only remark that, although its excesses perpetrated lasting damage, American society was capable of withstanding the shock. “The Yahoos had been contained.” It is possible to argue, on the contrary, that there has been a canker gnawing at American civil liberties since the Bolshevik revolution, and that our capacity for political tolerance has since then been steadily sapped, though I see nothing wrong with Roche’s contention that the hysterical manifestations attending the First World War have not been matched since.

Professor Roche, who is chairman of the Department of Politics at Brandeis University and also national chairman of Americans for Democratic Action, is not trying to urge us toward complacency about the present state of human relations in this country but rather to push us away from defeatism and despair. He has written some important professional papers on the subject which enlist him among those writers on American history who have their roots in urban radicalism rather than rural progressivism. He looks skeptically on the notion that the older America, simply because it was a particularistic and diffuse village culture, left greater latitude for dissenting opinion than modern urban society. He warns us against assuming that because our early libertarian ideals were nicely formulated in this village culture they were also fully realized. Our model of dissent stems from the days of the village rebel, and we tend to idealize both him and the social order in which he was possible. In contrast, since we simply take for granted the position of the modern Greenwich Village rebel, we fall to see any serious triumph for libertarianism in his freedom, or to consider that the kinds of liberty he exercises largely without interference were rarely possible in village society.

Elsewhere Roche has argued that the successes of individual liberty in nineteenth-century America came not so much from its ideology of freedom or from a broad tolerance of spirit, but from its geographical and structural diversity, its pluralism. It was always possible to achieve freedom from oppression by moving into some enclave of the like-minded—the extreme case was that of the Mormons. While our older liberties were to a degree underwritten by diversity and mobility, the liberties of urban America have been underwritten, Roche has the courage to say, by the bureaucratization and the increasing impersonality of modern life, which have forced us to write our concern with freedom into institutional and legal principles designed to soften group conflicts. Each society has had its way of sustaining liberties and its ways of invading them—the older America with tar and feathers, and what Roche calls “the spontaneous democracy of lynching,” current America with highhanded security dismissals and the Smith Act.

Roche refuses to accept the widespread notion that centralized government is the primary menace to the liberties of the individual: he finds it instead—and here I think he is largely right—in local vigilantism and its power over local and state government. He has given less consideration, however, to the potential effects of mass society on all of this: it is now possible, as McCarthy thy showed, for the local mobs to he animated from a central point, so that they can act in concert.

That American village culture was as libertarian as we like to think is certainly open to question. One hundred and thirty years ago Tocqueville argued in a memorable passage: “I know of no country in which there is so little true independence of mind and freedom of discussion as in America.” At the turn of the century John Jay Chapman, returning from a small town in Pennsylvania (where, by the way, he had been looking into the circumstances of a particularly revolting lynching), wrote: “No one who has not been up against it can imagine the tyranny of a small town in America. I believe that good old fashioned Medicean, or Papal, or Austrian tyranny is child’s play compared to it.” Of course, Tocqueville and Chapman and others who saw matters as they did may have been wrong, and their case is open to argument. But if they were even approximately right, we no longer have the luxury of asking how it is that our rights and liberties have gone so far downhill. We must ask again from what eminence we think they started. It seems quite possible that Tocqueville and the others were simply giving an account of the mold in which America was cast and in which it is still cast: a country which inherited the fine traditions of “Anglo-Saxon” liberties and always believed in them earnestly enough, but which has also been far too impatient and intolerant, and all times brutal, to observe them with decent regularity.

The principle that those whose beliefs seem revolting to us should remain free to express them, and should in fact be supported by us in their efforts, has been so thoroughly rationalized by decades of libertarian argument that we are disposed at times to forget what an in-credibly sophisticated idea it is, and how much more of insight and self-restraint it demands of us than most of us are able to produce. When one thinks of it in this way, and when one remembers what people so often are, the odds against the prevalence of any such principle seem very high, and it appears almost miraculous that societies do exist in which its requirements are fulfilled in any considerable degree.

If Roche has shaken the unspoken commitment that so many of us have to the idea of a universal retrogression, I hope it is not to revert to a belief in automatic progress. At one point he seems to skirt this error when he remarks that the United States, having made in the past fifty years, “the greatest breakthrough in human freedom in our history” may possibly stand “on the verge of a new historical form: a great industrial urban society dedicated to freedom and equal opportunity.” It is possible, but we remain free to doubt it. It is also possible that the fortunes of our civil liberties move not along a line of linear progress but in some cyclical pattern. For the past decades, I believe that Roche successfully establishes his case about an upward swing in the cycle, and I think he is right in resting his weight as an authority on the proposition that an apocalyptic view of the state of our rights and liberties is less likely to sustain their advancement than a cautious version of what Emerson called “the optative mood.”

This book was commissioned in observance of the fiftieth anniversary of the Anti-Defamation League, and it is written in a style which suggests that the author thought a bid for the widest possible audience was appropriate. I much prefer the more austere tone of Roche’s professional essays in this field. References to John Dewey’s followers as “Dewey-eyed pragmatists” and transitional phrases like “Meanwhile, back at the federal courthouse,” do not add to the readability of the work. They may distract attention from the fact that it is a serious book about a major subject which has a significant argument to put to us.

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