Author Jay Feldman sheds light on the darker side of American history
He compares it to the urban legend of frogs in boiling water. The story goes that if you put a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will immediately jump out. But if you introduce the frog into a pot of cold water and then heat the water by degrees, the frog won’t perceive the incremental increase in temperature. It will stay in there and boil to death.
True or not, the parallel between this analogy and Jay Feldman’s newly released book, “Manufacturing Hysteria,” is clear. Feldman’s comprehensive history of America’s political climate of scapegoating and surveillance starting with World War I and leading up through the 20th century gives a compelling account of how incremental encroachment of civil liberties has led us up to where we are today in post-9/11 America.
Feldman will appear at Capitola Book Café at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 7, when he will read excerpts from his book, lead a discussion about the themes he addresses and answer audience questions. There will be a book signing following the talk.
In advance of this event, Good Times caught up with Feldman while at his home in Davis:
What inspired you to write this ambitious book?
The book grew out of a conversation between myself and two editors at Pantheon, Dan Frank and Andrew Miller. I’d written a proposal on the alien-enemy control program during World War II and Dan and Andrew really liked my writing, but felt like that was too slim of a subject so they wanted me to fold it into a larger work. The (larger) story was what happens to civil liberties in times of crisis. As I started my research, I realized that the story starts in World War I. I found that anytime there is any type of crisis—real or imagined—there is some type of minority that gets regarded as a “boogie man.”
When I say minorities, that can be ethnic, racial, or political. It can be religious, like the Mennonites during World War I, or it can be sexual. During the Cold War, 5,000 homosexuals lost their government jobs because they were considered “security risks.” So there’s always this dynamic: if you’re not with us you’re against us. And if you’re against us, you must be for “them,” whoever the “them” might be.
So this fear and suspicion of whichever minority is the boogie man at the time—this fear that’s generated, which is where the title of my book comes from, “Manufacturing Hysteria”—is used as justification for a larger crackdown on liberties and suppression of dissent.
Why is it important to tell this story to the American public at this time in history?
We’re seeing it happen right now. After 9/11, Arab- and Muslim-Americans became the new boogiemen. And at the same time, the anti-immigration movement is running amok and homophobia is rampant. So we’re seeing the same dynamic happening now as has happened so many times since World War I.
In 2008, in the waning days of the Bush administration, the guidelines were rewritten to allow FBI agents to conduct surveillance, enlist informants and interview friends of suspects without a supervisor’s approval. So basically you have these 14,000 (agents) out there doing whatever they want. We’re back to the point where government agents are allowed to pick through your garbage or [watch] you simply because some guy thinks you are suspicious.
Denying the civil rights of any group, let’s say in this case Arab-Americans, simply because of their ethnicity, is essentially the first step to denying the civil liberties of all and therefore constitutes a serious threat to democracy. That’s something that’s really hard to wrap our minds around because we’ve grown up with the bedrock of American politics, (believing) that we have a democratic system and it will always be so. Just remember that the Nazis didn’t seize power, they were voted into power. Hitler was appointed—he didn’t overthrow anybody. So it’s a slippery slope.
Most people believe that in the United States we have the protection of the Bill of Rights, yet your book chronicles numerous periods in history where civil liberties have been waived in the name of national security. What type of real protection for civil liberties do we have in the U.S?
That’s a good question. I would say we have the power of the people. That’s the one thing that has saved the republic time and time again. But, unless we exercise that power, it could go away. And part of exercising that power is staying informed and not giving that power away.
So why haven’t we learned? Why does this country repeatedly marginalize minority groups?
We’re not the only ones that do this, but Americans supposedly are holding ourselves to a higher standard. So why in America does this happen over and over again? I think it’s partly because we’re ignorant of our history, which is one of the main reasons why I wrote this book. Partly it’s that we are given a very cherry-picked version of American history. Because there are so many things that are great and admirable about this country, we’re reluctant to shine the spotlight on the dark side of American history. But until we do, and fully integrate that into a larger picture, I’m afraid that we’re going to do this over and over again.
You end the book by commenting that each time minorities have been scapegoated, America has managed to right the ship, yet one of these times we could reach a point of no return. How far are we from that point and what does that look like?
I don’t have a crystal ball so I can’t say how far we are, but I do know that there’s an antidemocratic streak that runs just below the surface. I don’t know what it would take and I can’t say what it would look like except for this gradual infringement on our civil liberties.
It’s important to watch these things happening—this incremental encroachment. We hoped things would be somewhat different under Obama, but I’m sad to say that he’s shown no inclination to dismantle this surveillance state. And in fact the Obama administration has prosecuted five whistle blowers under the Espionage Act for releasing secret documents—that’s more than all previous administrations combined in terms of whistle blowers. This type of infringement, this type of encroachment of civil liberties, has become institutionalized in our society little by little since World War I.
(It’s akin to) the frogs that can’t perceive the incremental increase in temperature and they stay in there and boil to death. It doesn’t happen at once, it’s a little bit at a time.
Jay Feldman will read from “Manufacturing Hysteria,” participate in a Q&A and sign copies of the book at 7:30 p.m on Wednesday, Sept. 7 at Capitola Book Café, 1475 41st Ave, Capitola. For more information call 462-4415.