Although we weren’t literally among the thousands who camped out the night before or lined up in the morning’s gloom before the Walter E. Washington Convention center’s doors opened to assure themselves that Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was still alive in the era of 45. we availed ourselves of “the best free event” in the nation’s capital Saturday.[https://archive.org/details/CSPAN2_20190831_155900_2019_National_Book_Festival]
Since we concentrated our energy and certainly time, as well as holding onto excellent seats for note-taking on “history and biography,” here is some of what we heard and maybe learned indoors on a beautiful late summer Saturday.
Dave Maraniss, author of “A Good American Family,” in describing the 1950s “Red Scare,” noted that throughout the nation’s history there have been lingering questions over “what does it mean to be an American?” and “Who decides?”
In that history, the nation been beset with times when the public at large have been “manipulated into overwrought fear” of the “other” by political figures, religious fanatics, and, my words not Maraniss’, self-proclaimed defenders of a country that never existed anywhere, any time.
Saying in several ways, as did other authors like Joanne Freeman, “The Field of Blood,” a look at congressional violence leading up to the Civil War, [70 incidents and one dueling death] that history does not repeat itself, Maraniss saw threads of creating “the other” that are drawn upon to rekindle fears of being pushed aside or, worse yet, pushed down — economically, politically, and socially, to stretch the anxiety analogy out.
In his family’s case, they were the “others” for supporting Communism as an answer to the economic woes of the Depression and persistent racial animosity of Jim Crow America. He asked rhetorically, “what is the role of dissent” and “what is a patriot?” in times like those — from 1929 to 1945, say.
Maraniss added, “echoes of the Red Scare — they’re everywhere [now] unfortunately.”
But the “central dilemma” for the United States that carries across time centers on race, Maraniss said in explaining his father’s command of an all-black unit in the battle for Okinawa.
That sense of “other” not being Americans has been focused like political lasers in recent years on Latinos and Muslims.
“Now we have a president doing that.”
Freeman, in her presentation, cited the extreme polarization of political opinion during the three decades she concentrated on for her book. This time, like that era in the pre-Civil War United States, is one of “splintered parties” and filled with “conspiracy theories.” Like 21st century America, it was also an era of “instant communication” through the invention of the telegraph, a comparable revolution to today’s internet. that was coupled with the rise of the mass circulation daily newspapers filled with stories of events brought almost instantly to their offices across the wires, putting them in similar position to social media.
When asked by a member of the audience what explained the violence of that time from election rioting and brawling to race riots, but also now, she said “once you ‘other’d’ another American” the dynamics of the situation have changed.
Of course, there are ebbs and flows in eras of tolerance and intolerance, rioting and order, mayhem and tranquility. Freeman noted how the Northern congressmen after the Civil War refused to be intimidated as they had been for years by Southern representatives constantly threatening violence by brandishing pistols, and, on occasion, turning to it by throwing over desks, wielding fists, canes, and other objects to bludgeon an opponent. Instead of knuckling under to former Confederates attempting to be seated as representatives post Appomattox, who were determined to restore their pre-war order of badgering and threatening havoc on Capitol Hill to gain their way, the Union men denied them admission and launched congressional Reconstruction. The price of re-admission for all the former Confederate states but Tennessee was passing the Thirteenth, freeing the slaves, and Fourteenth Amendments, guaranteeing citizenship, and setting the stage for the Fifteenth, establishing voting rights.
As to how the “Red Scare” ended, Maraniss cited Republicans from President Dwight Eisenhower to the only woman serving in the United States Senate denounced the bullying tactics of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy in his “investigations.” His showboating for television cameras and before large audiences in places like Wheeling, West Virginia and reckless charges of hidden Communists and fellow travelers everywhere threw into question the witch-hunting probes of different industries — from filmmaking to building automobiles by the House Unamerican Activities Committee.
“Where’s Margaret Chase Smith,” he asked nearing the end of his presentation.
She was the sole woman in the Senate at the time, and the first Republican to say “no more.”
C-SPAN covered the entire event and will post the presentations, interviews, and call-ins over time.