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1938

You Can’t Do That!: Eternal Vigilance

“Those who realize that human life loses all value when liberty is denied the individual must…work and fight to preserve the old and gain even greater freedom.”

George Seldes, You Can’t Do That:  A Survey of the Forces Attempting, in the Name of Patriotism, to Make a Desert of the Bill of Rights, New York:  Modern Age Books, 1938.  219-231 (Excerpts).

Part Four: The Price of Liberty

Chapter 19. Eternal Vigilance

There comes a time, in writing about the crimes of the munitions makers, or analyzing the corruption of the press, or the present propaganda for the coming war, when the situation itself poses the question: “What are you going to do about it?”

In the past the present writer has been guided by a quarter century of journalistic reiteration of the word “objectivity,” which meant the presentation of the news, the facts, without editorial opinion. “The presentation of truth” — if I may use the rather naive but still important phrase — is, I have always been convinced, enough.  I used to believe that “vice is a monster of so frightful mien, as, to be hated, needs but to be seen,” which became an axiom years ago when I was assigned to the Pittsburgh council manic graft cases, the investigation of the red light district, the campaign against quack doctors, and many other enterprises of a crusading newspaper. It was not necessary to write editorials: the mere publication of a list of red light houses followed by a list of names of owners (which, by the way, included big businessmen in town) was enough. Public opinion and the law then took their course. 

Perhaps it is only the book-reviewing clan which requires an editorial statement at the end of a book of facts; perhaps, however, the reviewers of books dealing with munitions makers, a corrupt press, propagandists, fraudulent patriots, incipient Fascists, speak for a public asking recommendations. Perhaps it is not true that the sight of vice, or reactionary intolerance and abridgment of civil liberties, is enough to cause a hatred which will provide a remedy.  Perhaps I had better write a conclusion. As I have indicated previously, there is one outstanding organization which is dedicated to preserving our civil liberties, and it was for a long time the only group of any kind of which I voluntarily became a member. It may come as a shock to my readers —it certainly was to me — to learn that the American Civil Liberties Union has only five thousand members in the whole United States of America, and operates annually with a budget of only some $20,000. It accomplishes tremendous things and is so influential that it has earned the enmity of powerful interests, notably the Hearst press. The Lusk report and other discredited documents, and notably criminally distorted testimony before official committees are used to attack the A.C.L.U. because although these are lies they are privileged lies and the publishers are free from the danger of suit. However, the A.C.L.U. report is worth repeating, that “due apparently to the persistent and distorted attacks by the Hearst press and the American Legion, the Civil Liberties Union membership jumped up by 700 in 1935, the largest increase of any of the fifteen years of its existence.” 

A move to discredit it is also made by the charming, cultured and intellectual society leader of Kenilworth, Illinois, someone named Billing, who writes that “any one who takes the trouble to investigate what the A.C.L.U. is and does, knows that it is directed by Communists and Socialist revolutionary leaders and their sympathizers, and that it works untiringly to further and legally protect the interests of the Red movement in all of its branches—Red strikes, Atheism, sex freedom, disarmament, seditious ‘academic freedom,’ deportation and exclusion of Reds, rioting, etc., constantly supporting and cooperating with Moscow’s open legal defense agency, the I.L.D., for this purpose.”   

This statement is a collection of nonsense and half lies and distortions.  There is nothing communist about the Union and in no year was the legal defense of communist persons and institutions more than a fraction of its activities. The Union, of course, could sue for libel, but since it advocates free speech and free press it is willing to overlook attacks upon itself, no matter how stupid, vicious and untrue they may be. 

The strength of the Liberties Union lies in the personality of its small membership. Representative committeemen are: 

Judge George W. Anderson, formerly of the Circuit Court of Appeals, Boston; Harry Elmer Barnes, the noted historian and sociologist; Bishop Benjamin Brewster of Maine; Heywood Broun, President of the Newspaper Guild; Professor Richard C. Cabot of Harvard; Clarence Darrow; the Union’s attorneys Morris L. Ernst and Arthur Garfield Hays, who have fought hundreds of battles for liberty in all the courts of the country; Rev. Dr. John Haynes Holmes, the leading liberal minister of the United States; Sidney Howard, the playwright; Quincy Howe, and B. W. Huebsch, publishers; Corliss Lamont; Agnes Brown Leach, director of the Foreign Policy Association; Prof. Alexander Meiklejohn; Bishop Edward L. Parsons of California; Elmer Rice, the playwright; Bishop William Scarlett of Missouri; Oswald Garrison Villard; and Dr. Harry F. Ward, Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Theological Seminary. 

Among the friends of the Union is Alexander Woollcott, who, concluding his radio broadcasts, amidst whispers of censorship and pressure, astounded the country by this electrifying appeal: “I speak from the heart,” he said, “when I tell you that I know of no other way in which a dollar can be so well invested in the interests of the American people as a dollar put in an envelope and sent to the American Civil Liberties Union, 31 Union Square, West, New York City.” Three hundred and thirty-eight persons accepted Mr. Woollcott’s advice. But it will take a thousand times that number to bring the Union up to the strength it deserves. 

In being consistently libertarian the Liberties Union has never hesitated to take action involving its principles when that action was to the benefit of suppressive, intolerant, demagogic, and generally anti-libertarian elements. In 1934, for example, it sent its general counsel to aid the Friends of New Germany, a Nazi organization, in court proceedings to break down a lawless prohibition of their meeting in New Jersey. 

This logical gesture was a shock to the howling enemies of the Union, who continually accuse it of being “pro-Communist” because so many of the men and women defended from illegal attacks are workers. It was even criticized by members who would except the German Fascists from their tolerance for the rather good reason that since the Nazis in Germany suppress all civil liberties, their agents should be permitted none in America. Moreover, there was the knowledge that free speech and assemblage would be denied us if these same German Nazis got control of local, city or state government anywhere in America. 

Some years ago, when the Ku Klux Klan was invading the north, Mayor Curley of Boston, a Catholic, denied this terroristic body the right to hold a meeting and have speeches, but here again the Union protested, not because it had any love for the sheeted and dangerous yokels, but because it knew that if the Mayor suppressed the Klan he would lawlessly stop others he disliked — birth control advocates, union organizers, pacifists, etc. “And,” continues the report, “he did.  Our protest began when his lawless suppression began. We do not choose our clients. Lawless authorities denying their rights choose them for us.” 

Quite recently the Chicago authorities refused to grant a permit to Father Coughlin to use Soldiers’ Field for a meeting of the National Union for Social Justice. Again the A.C.L.U. became active in behalf of a man who is no friend. Like Voltaire, it was willing to defend to the death the right of another to say things with which the Union itself did not agree. 

The Union is constantly being confronted by such problems as the ethics of sending protests to judges. When Western Union ruled it would not deliver telegrams which sought to influence decisions in pending cases (Left-wingers had sent thousands of such protests to judges of all degrees, from those on the Supreme Court bench down to the politicians who occupy police court swivels), the A.C.L.U. upheld the Western Union. “A judge engaged in the trial of a case,” it decided, “is presumably in the same position as a juror. If we maintain the right of friends of defendants or urge dismissal of a case, we must also concede the same rights to friends of the prosecution to urge convictions. Certainly, we would condemn any attempt, let us say, of the American Legion or the D.A.R. to shower a judge with telegrams demanding conviction of a radical.” 

The Union’s statement in the Nazi rights case is perhaps the best declaration of its principles. Naturally enough, many liberals were rather severe in their outspoken opposition. “Few of our critics,” replied the Union, “take a frankly class position on the exercise of free speech, as do the Communists — denying to reactionaries the rights they seek for themselves. Emotions of hate and intolerance alone lead them to outlaw the Nazis. But if the Union yielded to such critics, and condoned the denial of rights to Nazi propagandists, in what position would it be to champion the rights of others? Shall we choose to defend only progressive or radical causes? And if we do, how best can we defend them? Is it not clear that free speech as a practical tactic, not only an abstract principle, demands defense of the rights of all who are attacked in order to obtain the rights of any?

The Union does not care to make martyrs of the Nazis by helping drive them underground where they would attract more sympathizers, but believes the best way to combat their propaganda is with counter-propaganda, protests, picketing, all the means which do not deny the rights of anyone. Against the Nazi interference with the rights of others, the Union declares, it will continue its fight, especially against Nazi drilling with arms (evidence of which was given the congressional committee); and Nazi breaches of the peace must be prosecuted under criminal law. Criminal libel statutes are a remedy. 

The Union’s program changes from year to year as new enemies of our liberties arise and fall. In the early 1920’s, the Ku Klux Klan constituted the most serious menace to traditional American rights.  In 1935 and 1936, gag legislation and the tremendous wave of reaction, which followed the death of the Blue Eagle and brought violent denial of labor rights, provided the Union with more cases than it was adequately able to handle. Its newest program is an important document because every one of the fourteen items listed as an activity is proof that many violations of the Bill of Rights are occurring under that heading. I quote it in full in an appendix. 

I am also a member of the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners (156 Fifth Avenue, New York City), whose policy is to “defend militant labor and the victims of racial oppression.”  I believe membership in both these organizations to be a moral obligation. 

There can be no doubt that a specific guarantee of individual rights in a new amendment to the Constitution, first proposed at the time that great instrument was being written, would check the encroachments of the state considerably and of the lawless police, judges, business corporations and patrioteers even more. The Federal Industrial Relations Commission did in fact propose such a measure.  The Manly Report recommended: “That Congress forthwith initiate an amendment to the Constitution providing in specific terms for the protection of the personal rights of every person in the United States from encroachment by the Federal and State Governments, and by private individuals, associations, and corporations. The principal rights which should be thus specifically protected by the powers of the Federal government are the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, the right of trial by jury, to free speech, to peaceable assembly, to keep and bear arms, to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, to speedy public trial, to freedom from excessive bail, and cruel and unusual punishments.” 

And, at a time when the nine judges had declared numerous social security laws unconstitutional, while Mr. Hoover was going about saying that “the American people should thank Almighty God for the Constitution and the Supreme Court,” it was Norman Thomas, the leading Socialist of the country, who proposed that the Constitution be changed so that it would function for the benefit of the majority, the workingmen and women of America, through the passage of his Workers’ Rights Amendment. 

The hearings of the La Follette Civil Liberties Committee have already revealed such a great semi-legal and illegal attack upon our liberties that it seems logical to expect that a constitutional amendment defining and enlarging and safeguarding our rights will follow. 

Of course, we cannot expect too much from a Congress composed almost exclusively of Republicans and Democrats, both pretending to serve “the people” but aware that they owe their first allegiance to certain people. Men of courage, independence, and character are rare in Washington, and true libertarians are as scarce there as in any city of its size in the country. And as for depending upon what the politicians always call their “enlightened electorate,” why, that has been the most tragic joke in the world. Every four years in our lifetime, the people of this country have proved their lack of understanding by voting for the two parties which are the political machinery by which the Du Ponts, Sinclairs, Morgans, Raskobs, Hearsts and similar humanitarians run the country — and every four years the voters believe the buncombe of the venal press which tells them they are all-powerful. 

The forces of communications — the press, radio, movies, especially — are to blame for perverting the minds of the people, the pulpit and educational system for failing in their high purposes. And behind the communications, the pulpits and the schools, the ultimate blame of course rests on the men, the powers, the economic, financial and social forces which some call Capitalism and others the status quo, or Wall Street, or the Beast, or even the Setup. Under whatever name it may be known, it consists always of those who have money, possessions and power — the State, the courts, the laws and the press — and who have never in history voluntarily relinquished them or even permitted the people their liberties without a fight.  The hag-ridden Kluxers and Legionnaires, the professional patriots, that eighty per cent of the press which was bribed, the chambers of commerce and commercial organizations, the disgraceful sons and daughters of 1775 Revolutionaries and libertarians, are either the dupes or the willing co-workers of this arrogant, reactionary, repressive system, call it by whatever name you will. 

The new liberal and progressive leaders, who are generally accused of being soapbox demagogues, have not as yet won the masses. To make our fight against the enemies of the people it is high time we had a political party representing you and me, a party representing all wage earners, the trade unions, the farmers, the professional workers and the cooperative groups — all the people who believe in preserving and furthering real democracy. 

The American people, according to lists prepared by the Social Security Board, includes the following number of wage earners:

15,000,000 in manufacturing and mining

10,000,000 trade and clerical

11,000,000 agriculture and forestry

4,000,000 transportation and communication

4,000,000 professional and public service

5,000,000 domestic and personal

A total of 49,000,000. If from this number you subtract the white collar workers, most of whom still think they are too good to be known as proletariat, and little bosses and functionaries who have a “position,” you still have close to 40,000,000 wage earners who could, if they organized themselves, call themselves the people of the United States, and bring about a cooperative or distributive system which would insure to each all the food, clothing and shelter, and the personal property he could possibly dream of— social security for all, abundance for all. 

In many foreign countries, the wage earners are engaged, or have been until dictators stopped them, in just such a program. Being a wage earner almost automatically makes a Briton or a Frenchman a member of a liberal or labor party. Being a workingman almost automatically makes a man join in the cooperative commonwealth movement in the most enlightened countries of Europe, if not in the world — I am referring to Denmark, Sweden and Norway. It is only in the country which proclaims itself the most intelligent, the most enlightened, the most free, the greatest in the world, that the people themselves are so misled that they have never in any great numbers joined any movement which really aimed at their own betterment. 

In 1940, however, there will certainly be a functioning Labor Party, honestly and sincerely representing the people, whether or not the masses are ready or willing to be so represented. In several states a Labor Party already exists. In New York in May, 1936, a Trade Union Sponsoring Committee for a Labor Party, as its first act, adopted by unanimous vote a resolution “in favor of independent political action on the part of labor on a program of progressive legislation for the protection of civil rights and backed up by the economic power of the American Federation of Labor.” The limitation of the power of the Supreme Court, the right to picket, the outlawing of injunctions, thugs, soldiers, and private police in strikes, and war on Fascism were part of the first program. The unanimous report declared that “neither Democrats, new or old dealers, nor Republicans can be depended on to protect or promote any action in the interests of the working people” and that whenever any prolabor legislation is enacted, “we find that the other arm of the employers’ political party, the courts, stands ready to nullify, misapply and destroy such legislation,” which is self-evident nowadays. 

The first national conference of the Farmer-Labor movement held in Chicago the same month decided not to enter the 1936 campaign but to organize a powerful party which will hold the balance of power in Congress should it fail to elect a majority. 

Its first adopted set of principles was not alarmingly radical:  abolition of monopoly, public ownership of natural resources, a social security program financed by taxes on high incomes, inheritance gifts and corporate surpluses, a thirty hour week with no reduction in pay, curb on the Supreme Court, opposition to war, steps toward collective security. These are the things the people of the United States want or should want. The intelligent leaders of the 49,000,000 wage earners, in other words, proposed a political party which is pledged to government ownership of natural resources and social and collective security for which the rich minority will have to pay through taxation. If reason and intelligence prevailed in the country, instead of Liberty League money and Republican and Democratic newspaper buncombe, it would be logical to expect that 49,000,000 people would rush out and vote for themselves and their own interests, instead of those of the Du Ponts, the Morgans and the Hearsts.

The situation is deplorable but not lost. The defeatists must be defeated. You and I should support a new party so long as it is our party. 

But, believing as I do that a free press is the bulwark of the Bill of Rights, I sometimes think I would place above all other recommendations and first under the heading “eternal vigilance,” a united front against the reactionary newspapers in America. When Dr. Dewey included the press among the forces in the hands of the reactionaries, he was sharply criticized by the World-Telegram bellwether of the Scripps-Howard chain of newspapers. That was in 1934. The World-Telegram said to Dr. Dewey that he was mistaken as regards the press, that “nothing is less regimented in this country at the present moment than the press, for or against liberalism… . Nor are reactionary newspapers anything like a solid phalanx. Many of them are already engaged in more or less daring flirtations with progressivism in the hope of saving an Old Guard from complete surrender. … A ‘possessed’ and mobilized force the press is not… .” Two years later the election campaign for the first time in the history of our generation posed the question of progressivism and liberalism (of a mild, reform sort, to be sure, and not recognized as liberalism by real liberals) versus reaction, whose depths can be measured by its fundamental basis: the Liberty League, the Du Ponts, Morgan, Hearst, Wall Street money. And what did this free, heterodox, unmobilized, healthy and independent press of America do? It went over, between eighty-five and ninety per cent, to the side of reaction. The power interests had lamented that they had been able to bribe only eighty per cent of the nation’s free press, but more than eighty per cent, many dropping party lines for the first time in order to catch hold of financial life lines, proved Dr. Dewey’s contention with finality. 

It was believed at one time that the newspaper press would do more than any enlightening agency in the world to liberate the people, but since there is no longer a free press anywhere —free not in the sense of being permitted to print, but in printing, facts uncolored by the corrupting forces of money in its many manifestations — then that instrument is no longer the object of great hopes.  Moreover, as Sir Norman Angell best expresses it, the press has become “one of the worst obstacles to the development of a capacity for real self-government, perhaps the worst of all the menaces to modern democracy. The institution which the older order most feared as the instrument of revolution has, in fact, become the main instrument by which any real movement toward a new social order is resisted. If the workers are out for the destruction of all autocracies, for the self-determination and self-government of the people in their daily lives, the right to rule themselves in the things that matter most —so far as those things are human possibilities at all — then the indispensable condition of their success is a daily press of their own.” 

It has always been my belief that everything that is vile and detestable in our national life can be cured by a free press, that not only national life but individual life can be made better when a free press functions. Given a free press, a country would have the instrument with which to convert the entire people to the great program of the cooperative commonwealth, the practical Utopia. The warmongers, the merchants of death, the exploiters of human labor, the parasites who live on the toil of others, the reactionaries and the Fascists with all their present power and their control of the instruments of force, would not long endure. 

With a free press everything is possible. This is at least my fixed idea. But is there any axiom which proves that an idee fixe cannot be an idee juste? And until I am proved wrong I will continue to spread the idea that a free press is the first objective of every person who values freedom. The main fight for a free press is at present being waged by the American Newspaper Guild of which Heywood Broun is president, and if I were a decrepit millionaire who had robbed widows and orphans of their oil lands or an industrialist who had never missed paying a dividend and never paid a living wage, I would make peace with my conscience by leaving my millions to the Guild for the purpose of establishing free newspapers. 

Meanwhile we must support the few liberal newspapers which are for civil rights and against vested interests. 

Most important of all must be the realization by this generation that economic pressure has brought upon us with redoubled fury the battle for liberty which we once believed won. Libertarians through all the ages have agreed that liberty is not a code, a paper, something static, fixed, once won and forever present. Freedom must continue to struggle in its own defense; otherwise it degenerates. Lincoln realized that there was a continual war, a never ending struggle, when he declared that “the cause of civil liberty must not be surrendered at the end of one or even one hundred defeats,” and the contemporary Bertrand Russell believes that “the old battles for freedom of thought and freedom of speech, which it was thought had been definitely won, will have to be fought all over again, since most men are only willing to accord freedom of opinions which happen to be popular.” As Mr. Whipple, the historian of civil rights, * sums up, “Liberty cannot be inherited. It must be won and won fresh for each issue in every generation. Our fathers’ liberties are little help to us. The old spirit may free us but never the old words.” 

And since I have used Mr. Lewis’s title for all its ironic worth, I will conclude with a warning from It Can’t Happen Here. The struggle for human liberty in America is befogged, says Mr. Lewis, by the fact that the worst Fascists are those “who disowned the word ‘Fascism’ and preached enslavement to Capitalism under the style of Constitutional and Traditional Native American Liberty. For they were thieves not only of wages but of honor. To their purpose they could quote not only the Scripture but Jefferson.” 

In truth there appears on the propaganda sheets of various self-styled liberty leagues (subsidized by the Du Ponts), and the inheritors of Ku Klux-isms the immortal Jeffersonian phrase, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” 

The American tragedy is the mental inability of vast strata of society to distinguish between the real libertarians and the enemies of liberty quoting the founding fathers. And yet the test seems so easy.  Take, for example, the Liberty League broadcasting an offer to fight for every man’s violated rights and refusing to accept even one of the hundreds of cases offered it by the Liberties Union. By such actions rather than patriotic words must we judge them. 

But, as Doremus Jessup realizes, all the conscientious, respectable, lazy-minded Americans who let Fascism grow without fierce enough protest are to blame. 

The “danger of abridging the liberties of the people” of Abraham Lincoln’s time has grown in our time. Not so much the present war on radicals but the intolerance of everything liberal, from culture to statesmanship, which finds extreme expression in murder and lynching, and which in steel mill towns, coal mining regions, in the deep south, on the farms and in California, produces a simulacrum of a Nazi reign of terror, proves that our liberties are especially endangered in time of economic danger. 

Certainly those who realize that human life loses all value when liberty is denied the individual must be willing to unite and work and fight to preserve the old and gain even greater freedom. 

For the benefit, therefore, of book reviewers who insist on a constructive program in the concluding chapters of a book, and perhaps for those who, book reviewers declare, expect it, here is a recapitulation: 

  1. Adherence to a Labor, or Farmer-Labor, or Progressive, or any party or coalition of parties dedicated to the ideals of civil liberty and not the pork barrel.
  2. Adherence to organizations dedicated to the preservation of our civil liberties, such as the A.C.L.U.; the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners; the special similar organizations which spring up for special cases, such as the Mooney case in California; the Methodist Federation for Social Service; the National Catholic Welfare Conference, and similar organizations.
  3. Adherence to cooperative and similar movements for economic liberation in the knowledge that without economic liberty we will never enjoy civil liberty.
  4. Support for a free press. 

“If we wish to be free we must fight.”  [Patrick Henry]

At this moment I can hear the D.A.R., American Legion, Mr. Hearst, the Chamber of Commercial Patriots, the noble Elks and various other orders of Bovidae unite in a cry of “treason,” “sedition,” and “red.”

Yet it is as true today as in 1776.

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