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

How fear has sometimes driven America to forsake its highest ideals.

By Carlo Wolff / August 17, 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 US has a history of being hostile to the “other,” be that racial, political, sexual, or economic. Historian and writer 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: A History of Scapegoating, Surveillance, and Secrecy in Modern America 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; several presidents, particularly Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Ro­ose­velt, and George W. Bush; and first among equals, Sen. Joe McCarthy (R) of Wisconsin, 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, a German immigrant, alleged Socialist, and suspected spy. Prager’s murder attests to the toxic patriotism of president-to-be Warren G. Harding, who helped to stir the pot with his remark that “the only place for Germany’s ‘miserable spies … is against the wall.’ ”

Over the past 90-plus years, this attitude led to the persecution of German, Mexican, and Japanese-Americans, 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 International Workers of the World (aka the Wobblies).

World War I, writes Feldman, signaled “the birth of the surveillance state,” which 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 US Communist party and led to the deportation of those suspected of Bolshevik sympathies.

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