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Manufacturing Hysteria: A History of Scapegoating, Surveillance, and Secrecy in Modern America

A call to arms about the government's use of scare tactics.

By Carlo Wolff / August 11, 2011

Manufacturing Hysteria: A History of Scapegoating, Surveillance, and Secrecy in Modern America, by Jay Feldman, Pantheon, 400 pp.

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The United States was founded on the notion of being open to all, with malice toward none. At the same time, the U.S. has a history of being hostile to the “other,” be that racial, political, sexual or economic. Jay Feldman tracks that hostility from World War I to now, when disputes over immigration roil the country state by state. The picture he paints in Manufacturing Hysteria is dark.

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Among the key agents of darkness: J. Edgar Hoover, from his time with FBI precursor the Bureau of Investigation to his discredited end; most presidents, particularly Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and George W. Bush; and first among equals, GOP Senator Joe McCarthy, the heartland demagogue who inadvertently helped liberalism regain its voice.

Feldman launches his scapegoating inquiry with an anecdote about rural Illinois in April 1918, when the good folk of Collinsville lynched Robert Paul Prager, German immigrant, alleged Socialist and suspected spy. Prager's murder attests to the toxic patriotism of president-to-be Warren G. Harding, who said “the only place for Germany's 'miserable spies…is against the wall.'” (page xiii.)

Over the past 90-plus years, this attitude led to persecution of German, Mexican and Japanese, both native and second-generation. It first was crystallized in 1918 with passage of the Sedition Act, a law curtailing free speech that ultimately led to the demise of the Industrial Workers of the World, aka the Wobblies.

World War I, writes Feldman, signaled “the birth of the surveillance state,” gave arms manufacturers “enormous influence in governmental affairs” and began to make “governmental secrecy” an “operational norm.” All paved the way for the “red scare,” culminating in the Palmer raids, which decimated the tiny U.S. Communist party and led to the deportation of those suspected of Bolshevik sympathies.

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