Stopped clock, or whatever, but Glenn Beck was right -- Woodrow Wilson was a terrible, terrible president. Of course, the reason isn't progressivism. Theodore Roosevelt -- backing food safety or worker protections -- was a progressive. Wilson was for all intents a purposes a dictator, as I was reminded this morning reading a blog post by Esquire's Charles Pierce. He was arguing -- and I agree -- that the 1917 Espionage Act which has been used by the Obama administration to prosecute whistleblowers and harass journalists is fundamentally a horrible, horrible law. Check out how it was used in the late 1910s and early 1920s:
Under the Espionage Act of June 1917, it became a felony punishable by twenty years' imprisonment to say anything that might "postpone for a single moment," as one federal judge put it, an American victory in the struggle for democracy. With biased federal judges openly soliciting convictions from the bench and federal juries brazenly packed to ensure those convictions, Americans rotted in prison for advocating heavier taxation rather than the issuance of war bonds, for stating that conscription was unconstitutional, for saying that sinking armed merchantmen had not been illegal, for criticizing the Red Cross and the YMCA. A woman who wrote to her newspaper that "I am for the people and the government is for the profiteers" was tried, convicted, and sentenced to ten years in prison. The son of the chief justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court became a convicted felon for sending out a chain letter that said the Sussex Pledge had not been unconditional. Under the Espionage Act American history itself became outlawed. When a Hollywood filmmaker released his movie epic The Spirit of '76, federal agents seized it and arrested the producer: his portrayal of the American Revolution had cast British redcoats in an unfavorable light. The film, said the court, was criminally "calculated . . . to make us a little bit slack in our loyalty to Great Britain in this great catastrophe." A story that had nourished love of liberty and hatred of tyranny in the hearts of American schoolchildren had become a crime to retell in Wilson's America. The filmmaker was sentenced to ten years in prison for recalling the inconvenient past.
Now that's American unexceptionalism. Not surprisingly, they kind of gloss over this era when you're in school and I didn't learn about it much later...and it's pretty appalling. When I think about the civil liberties abuses that began under Bush and have largely continued under Obama, I also pause before I say that they are unprecedented (although just because something happened before doesn't mean we should put up with it). Likewise, when people decry how awful the tone is in Washington or decry "the lack of civility," I remember that within my own lifetime (the 1960s...if you read this blog you may have heard of them) scores of Americans were killed in civil rights or anti-war protests or urban riots -- now that's a lack of civility!