28 December 2005

You Can't Spell Sedition Without I, D, I, O, T, and S

How Appealing points out an interesting Chicago Tribune article about the efforts of several University of Montana law students to clear the names of individuals jailed during World War I under Montana's sedition law:
After Montana enacted its Sedition Act in 1918, an array of ranchers, farmers, loggers, butchers, cooks, and bartenders--people scratching out a living in fierce winters and scorching summers of the rugged West--was convicted of making anti-government statements. Some of the remarks were little more than profanity-laced tirades uttered in saloons.

For example, [attorney, journalism professor, and author Clemens] Work unearthed the case of Adam Steck, a 53-year-old German immigrant bartender in the Trocadero Saloon in Helena who was sent to prison for calling the American flag a "dirty rag" and saying that "this damned country is bankrupt already and do they expect to lick Germany? No, they never did and they never will."

. . . .

"Montana's law was the broadest, most repressive anti-speech law passed by a state in the history of the country," Work said. Three months later, Congress passed a national sedition law, "largely due to the influence of Montana politicians and legislative leaders," he said.

Except for three words, the federal law was a copy of Montana's law. About 2,000 men and women would be convicted under the national Espionage and Sedition Acts, including Eugene V. Debs, who organized the American Railway Union, the nation's first industrial union, in Chicago.

It is not lost on those involved in the clemency effort that much of today's unpatriotic speech from the anti-war Left would have been severely punished under the World War I-era sedition statutes. As one of the Montana law students noted, "If [Montana's sedition] law was around now, I probably would be in jail myself--relating to Iraq". Indeed, when one compares them to the Bush-as-Hitler/Stalin/Satan vitriol produced on a daily basis by left-leaning blogs, the seditious statements for which Montanans were jailed in 1918 seem quaint: "These damn fools still think they can lick Germany, but all they get is a good licking in France every day." "I would sooner fight for the Kaiser than I would for the United States." "Americans are no good, and I hope that Germany will win."

I'm proud that we're more politically enlightened than our forebears; the criminal punishment of unpatriotic speech is abhorrent and, despite our present circumstances, we have not made any meaningful effort to criminalize or substantially curtail anti-administration or anti-war speech. Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer's comments are, I believe, representative of the sentiments of the overwhelming majority of politicians from both parties: "I will defend our right to call a politician a son-of-a-bitch at any time, even when they are calling me a son-of-a-bitch."

There is a difference, however, between having a legal right to loudly denounce your country and it being acceptable or advisable to do so. Those Americans who criticized our war against the German Empire in 1918 should not have been imprisoned for their speech; neither should anti-war speakers today, however belligerent, be jailed when their speech does not constitute treason. Notwithstanding, Adam Steck and his fellow pro-Kaiser Montanans would have been well-advised to pipe down once our doughboys went "over there". It's never too late for those Americans who favor our enemies to learn from Steck's lack of common sense, even when there is nothing resembling a federal sedition law to teach them.

As an American, you have the right to root against your own nation in time of war, but doing so does not make you a good American.


Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

This is late, but I have just begun to read the past "Carnivals of the Blawgs" and have just discovered your 'sedition' post. I have to protest very strongly several of your comments in it. First is your comment about "Bush-as-Hitler/Stalin/Satan vitriol produced on a daily basis by left-leaning blogs." I wish you'd given cites for that. I've read a fair number of left-leaning anti-Gulf War blogs )I am both 'left=leaning' and anti-Gulf War myself") and I haven't seen anything like this except for some statements by some American (and non-American) Muslims, hardly a 'left-leaning" group.

(I'm sure there are such blogs. Prup's First Law states "whatever position you take on any issue, you'll find a number of idiots on your side.")

But most opposition blogs may call Bush a fool, liar, or hypocrite, and some may make the (to my eyes false) claim that 'its all about oil,' but this is hardly the same as the comparisons you make. (You might check out my blog in a couple of days, after I get a chance to explain my own explanation for the war and my opposition to it.)

More important and more insulting - and more incorrect -- were your statements calling anti-war speech "unpatriotic" and describing opponents as those who 'favor our enemies.' (That last ascends into pure fantasy when it refers to the Iraq Wars. Both had substantial opposition, but none of that opposition that I know of -- even the Muslim opposition -- could be described as 'favoring' Saddam Hussein, or the insurgent bombers in this extension of the War. And while I know of no domestic opposition to our Afghan War, I doubt if any that did exist was pro-Taliban.)

I could examine the opposition to each of the seven major wars of the last century -- and I should state that, as a 59 year old who is a damn good amateur historian, I would have supported or did support all but Vietnam and the current War. But let's put your two statements up against 'the Good War,' WWII.

There was plenty of opposition to our entering the War before we did, and even some after we were in. (Some of the latter was based on the 'we should be fighting Stalin, not Hitler' argument.)

Even here, while there was some pro-Nazi involvement in the opposition, the vast majority of the opponents opposed the war -- wrongly, of course -- not because they were UNpatriotic, but because they were, in fact patriotic, and thought that America's best interests were served by remaining isolationist -- or in supporting Hitler as a bulwark against Stalin as the 'lesser of two evils.' Few had any liking for Hitler or Nazism.

(Some were in fact both patriotic and anti-Semitic. There is nothing stopping someone from loving his country and also being a bigoted jackass. Look at the Southern Segregationists. Bigoted yes, but still patriotic, still among the first to fight for the country.)

Nor did, to pick the one war whose opposition seems to have shaped your opinions, the majority of Vietnam protestors support the VietCong -- again, except by seeing a native group of bastards as the lesser evil to an unpopular American group. Nor were we unpatriotic. We thought America was wrong, yes, and hurting itself -- and I will insist we were right in both opinions. But we loved the country enough to try and change its mind.

Colin Samuels said...

Yours is a very thoughtful and respectful comment to my earlier post; I appreciate it and will, as you requested, attempt to respond in kind.

I think the "Bush as Hitler" meme is so ingrained in the extreme left that it's hard to read Daily Kos for very long before multiple commenters raise it in justification for their views; indeed, the current state of criticism on the far end of the liberal spectrum is such that the inevitability of Godwin's Law comes to pass in mere seconds and, thanks to the internet, is preserved for all eternity. If you Google a few simple queries along the lines of "bush * hitler" (the words "bush" and "hitler" separated by one or more words), you get a sense of the pervasiveness of the meme for today's left. That query generated "about 574,000 results" when I ran it a few minutes ago (on February 17, 2006), including a Gallery of Bush-Hitler Comparisons, the (I hope you would agree) "mainstream" Democrats.com site, and the Bush/Hitler advertisement (in QuickTime format at the IndyMedia.org site) produced by the influential MoveOn.org group. Granted, a fair number of those Google results are for right-leaning sites highlighting and commenting upon the "Bush as Hitler" meme, but the underlying messages are, of course, solely from the left.

I would agree with you that a current of dissent has been associated with every American military action from the Revolution onwards and that some actions were more broadly or vociferously opposed. With a few regrettable exceptions, however, that current of dissent has become more constructive and less antagonistic to the nation's chosen action once it has been determined (i.e., the decision has been made to go to war and troops have been deployed). I don't believe that that is the case with this war or, frankly, was with the Vietnam War.

To cite to the World War II era as you have, let me point out the example of Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh was one of the leaders of the "America First" movement before the war and actively promoted that movement's isolationist and appeasement agenda; his sentiments were misguided, certainly, but were widely-shared in that pre-war era. Following Pearl Harbor, the United States shifted from its undefined position on the war in Europe to one of active involvement both there and in Asia. The nation mobilized and largely abandoned the "America First" agenda, as did Lindbergh himself. Would those former America Firsters have rather stayed out of the war? Probably. Did they embrace the Roosevelt administration's objectives and share its enthusiasm for the mission? Probably not, but they supported the effort as good Americans would. Indeed, they turned on and distanced themselves from Lindbergh, who recognized his mistake and probably did not deserve such scorn.

While the public shaming and punishment of Lindbergh after his renunciation of his former position was unfortunate, what is more unfortunate is the current climate of "dissent" where, despite a clear national position on the war (it is authorized by Congress, after all) and the presence of American troops in combat zones abroad, so many have chosen not to be either supportive or silent. Instead, they have continued to not just protest their nation's actions but to vilify its elected leaders and fighting men and women. As I said in my post, that vilification is their right under our Constitution but it does not make them good Americans.

As with Godwin's observation about the use of Nazi references in debate, the choice of the term "unpatriotic" to describe those individuals and groups who choose to vilify our nation's expressly-chosen mission may sometimes be appropriate, but it is always controversial. I think it's appropriate here as I've used it, but I can appreciate the instictive reaction by some against its use. It's sometimes difficult to define the line where patriotic dissent crosses over to unpatriotic opposition, but the fact that the line is difficult to draw precisely should not prevent us from labeling those actions and actors who are clearly across the line. You offer a defense of your own position, but the first step to a rational defense of the patriotic opposition to the war is to clearly label those opposition elements which are clearly unpatiotic. I think this goes beyond admitting that, in your words, there are "a number of idiots on your side".

You also seem to be arguing that if most extreme denunciations of the disloyal opposition are not motivated by heartfelt support of Saddam, the Taliban, or Al Qaeda, then those denunciations are excusable; frankly, that's dead wrong. Is enlisting in the Taliban army to fight the Americans wrong? Sure. Is sending money and otherwise actively supporting those anti-American forces wrong? Sure. But also wrong is publicly and loudly undermining your nation in time of war and thereby making your views useful to those forces and regimes who oppose our nation. Whether you seek to strengthen our opposition or seek to weaken us, the effect is the same, as is the culpability. Anti-Americanism doesn't need to be motivated by pro-Saddam, pro-Taliban, or pro-Al Qaeda sentiments to be wrong in this time of war; as Edmund Burke wrote, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."

Thanks again for your comments.