Secrets & scapegoats

Local author takes on America’s tendency to lay blame and stifle dissent

photo courtesy of Jay Feldman

Manufacturing Hysteria: A History of Scapegoating, Surveillance, and Secrecy in Modern America is available from Pantheon this week.

At least America is consistent. That’s the first and most obvious take-away from Jay Feldman’s latest book, Manufacturing Hysteria: A History of Scapegoating, Surveillance, and Secrecy in Modern America. The Davis resident and author has turned his attention to—relatively—contemporary history, concentrating on the U.S. government’s attempts to stifle dissent, marginalize minorities and keep citizens in the dark during the 20th century.

In fact, as Feldman told SN&R during an interview last week, what surprised him most about the research was how the same sort of fear, scapegoating and surrender of civil liberties had repeated itself over the modern period—and right into today’s news.

“How similar the language is, the rhetoric: ‘If you’re not with us, you’re against us. If you’re against us, you must be with them,’” he said. It’s not just something cooked up by the marketing wing of the Iraq War machine, he noted, but is instead found all the way back in the period of World War I.

“There was a meeting in New York, and Mayor John Purroy Mitchell spoke to a crowd at Madison Square Garden,” Feldman recounted. “It could’ve been [President George W.] Bush speaking. It could have been [President Ronald] Reagan.”

The speech included the phrase, “You are for America or you are against her.”

“We’ve heard that a lot in our lifetimes,” Feldman said.

Manufacturing Hysteria examines attacks on resident aliens and pacifists during the World Wars, two Red scares in which socialists and communists were hunted vigorously, two separate periods of deportation of Mexican workers, the internment of Japanese immigrants and Americans of Japanese descent during World War II, and the activities on COINTELPRO, which spied of American citizens during the Vietnam War era.

It’s all as familiar as today’s newsfeed, and it raises the question: Do we ever learn?

Feldman’s answer is that he doesn’t know. But we’re still pursuing the same course, for instance, on the issue of immigration from Mexico. During tough times in the Great Depression, there was a large-scale “voluntary repatriation” of Mexicans who had sought work in the United States.

“You look back at that operation in 1930s, then fast-forward 20 years to 1954 to Operation Wetback,” said Feldman. In six months during 1954, the U.S. government deported as many Mexican workers as had been “repatriated.”

“Now we’ve got these new laws, like [Senate Bill] 1070 in Arizona, and you have to really ask yourself, is this an intelligent way to do things?” said Feldman. “This is the third time we’ve done this, and it hasn’t solved anything. If nothing else, just in terms of sheer practicality, it doesn’t work.”

While he’s hesitant to trot out the famous quote by George Santayana about history repeating itself—“It’s become a cliché,” he said—Feldman does make the point that the same process is in play every time America finds itself in a crisis.

“One of the most serious and insidious things undermining democracy is the scapegoating of minorities, because denying the civil liberties of any group, no matter how small, is a first step toward denying the civil liberties of all,” he said. “And the thing that scapegoating brings with it, inevitably, is surveillance and secret government.”

Why is this so enmeshed?

“It’s because if there’s a bad guy out there, we’d better keep our eye on him,” Feldman said. “By the way, we’d better keep our eye on everybody, because that guy might not look like what we expect.” Eventually, the surveillance is extended because “the threat could be anyone.”

That’s key for his study of our history.