Friday, October 24, 2008

Why J. Edgar Hoover is still important in 2008

This is the twenty-first Mixed Meters post about politics. It is a review of a book called Young J. Edgar: Hoover, The Red Scare and The Assault on Civil Liberties by Kenneth D. Ackerman, a book which tells an important bit of U.S. history with frightening parallels to recent events.

Young J. Edgar by Kenneth D. Ackerman(Click the cover for larger image.)

The story begins with multiple co-ordinated terrorist attacks inside the United States, all on a single day. The public demands that culprits be caught. We, the public, demand that more attacks be prevented. So government officials target certain groups of people, mostly foreigners with unpopular political beliefs, unfamiliar ethnicity and strange religion.

Desperate to get results, U.S. officials, even the very highest ones, break our own laws. They ignore our Constitution. Their fervent, fanatical determination to catch anyone who might be planning more violence turns out to be a worse crime than the violence itself.

Of course Ackerman's book is about 1919, not September 11, 2001. The suspects are not Arabs or Muslims or members of Al Qaeda. They are Russians and Jews and Communists; Italians and anarchists and members of unions. Any "true" American assumed their guilt; it was just a matter of rounding them up.

Unlike the ongoing aftermath of 9/11, historians can tell us how the Red Scare story of 1919 turned out. The seditious groups were squashed and their remaining members intimidated. The fanatical officials who twisted the laws were eventually exposed and humiliated.

All except one. That person, J. Edgar Hoover, survived like Darth Vader escaping the Death Star. He went on to become America's most powerful secret policeman, head of the FBI. After his death we learned about his many evils.
J Edgar Hoover in Hollywood
Hoover was a mama's boy, a snappy dresser and (probably) a repressed homosexual. Above all he was a workaholic and a highly capable bureaucrat. He started out tracking alien Germans but was soon spying on Commies. With great success he introduced modern information technology (the card catalogue) and communications (long-distance telephone) into law enforcement. He would have loved facial recognition software.

He co-ordinated massive raids (the "Palmer Raids" named after his boss who wanted to be President). Thousands of people were rounded up for sedition. Without doing anything illegal, if you said the wrong things or belonged to the wrong group, you could get hauled away. (I think that's the really un-American part.)

Fortunately, right-minded people prevailed. I hope they prevail again in post-George II America. I hope that the evils perpetrated by our current government, which were intended to protect us but actually weakened us, will be corrected. Based on how little discussion this has gotten during our current election cycle, it's a faint hope.

J.Edgar Hoover with Shirley Temple

No matter who becomes the next president, the George II era will continue to have its effects. Bush has appointed incompetent cronies to important jobs; they were picked for their adherence to right-wing dogmas.

Along with the bozos, however, there are sure to have been some highly capable fanatics who, with heads down and noses to the wind, will manage to keep their jobs. These people are the ones to watch out for. A future J. Edgar Hoover, who was hired to correct the problems he himself caused, might eventually find a way to restart the cycle of repression. We need to watch out for that person right now.

The J.Edgar Hoover Building in Washington DC 
Postscript: Along with the sobering similarities of our recent history with events eighty years before, Young J. Edgar lets us glimpse how society and politics have changed. Here are a few random quotes from the book that made me laugh and/or shudder.

In Chicago, a crowd cheered when a sailor in uniform raised his rifle and shot a man at a victory loan pageant, wounding him for refusing to stand up and take off his hat during the nation anthem. (page 22)

At local theatres, crowds flocked to see Helen Keller, billed as "The Famous Blind, Deaf, and Formerly Dumb Girl," appearing onstage with her teacher, Anne Sullivan, in a musical cabaret called Vanity Fair. (page 320)

[Hoover] requested, ... from the State Department, twelve copies of the pamphlet "The Jewish Peril" or "Ten Protocols," versions of the discredited but still popular Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which Edgar devoured. Even knowing it was a hoax, he found the Protocols so fascinating that he asked the State Department to check on whether six particular Bolshevist leaders were in fact Jewish. (page 342)

An article about cronyism under George II
A Wall Street Journal article about litmus tests at the Department of Justice under George II
Someone else's review of Young J. Edgar
A previous MM post about J. Edgar oover
Read all Mixed Meters' posts labeled Politics, about one out of every twenty.(more to come)

Red Scare Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


Anonymous said...

I'd never heard of about JEH "the early years" and that he escaped scrutiny when the tide turned. Some of your mother/son description could apply to Liberace.

David Ocker said...

Thanks for your comments, PA.

Liberace was also a snappy dresser.

You want to borrow the book?