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Uncommon U.S. Justice: The 100th Anniversary of a Tough Lefty’s Victory

The 1919 misfortune of Woodrow Wilson and good fortune of Scott Nearing are nowhere near enough evidence for the existence of God or for even karma, but these 1919 events do provide some therapy for me—a reminder that life, occasionally, is not completely unjust.

In 1919, Wilson—who earlier in his administration had racially resegregated several federal government agencies, and then successfully pissed on the First Amendment so as to make anti-war speech illegal—suffered a debilitating stroke. Also in 1919, the tough Lefty warrior Scott Nearing (1883–1983), unlike many other Wilson victims, beat the rap and did no prison time after his arrest for anti-war words. Nearing would go on to see his 100th birthday, along the way co-writing (with his wife Helen) The Good Life and becoming a hero for back-to-the-land homesteaders who sought escape from the madness surrounding them and longed for a meaningful good life.

Beginning with Wilson’s Espionage Act of 1917 (made even more oppressive by the Sedition Act of 1918), free-speech advocates, anti-war activists, and the entirety of the U.S. anti-authoritarian Left were “shocked and awed” by state terrorism. The Palmer Raids, which began in 1919, resulted in several thousand activists being arrested, with hundreds of them—including the anarchist Emma Goldman—deported. The majority of Americans were unbothered by the arrests, imprisonments, and deportations of immigrant socialists and anarchists; however, the 1919 imprisonment of the gentlemanly Eugene Debs—born and raised in Terre Haute, Indiana—for his 1918 anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio, had a chilling effect on many Americans.

Debs was one the most beloved figures of his era. Running as the Socialist Party candidate for president from a prison cell in 1920, he garnered 3.4% of the vote. Having an almost saintly status on the Left, Debs was called Little Jesus by fellow inmates, and when he was released from prison, estimates of the crowd that welcomed his return to Terre Haute ranged from 25,000 to 50,000, as Debs was hoisted above the crowd and carried. That such a famous and adored man could, in his sixties, be imprisoned for anti-war speech has contributed to generational shock waves of anxiety. Many Americans a century later, even those who know nothing of Debs, sense that if the state wants something badly enough, the Bill of Rights means nothing (as Edward Snowden again discovered with respect to the Fourth Amendment).

During Wilson’s reign of state terror, twelve anti-war publications were deprived of their second-class mailing permit, and some formerly anti-war publications moderated their views to become more patriotic. Many radicals who had once called themselves socialists became pro-war, patriotic Americans. State terrorism, in general, is quite effective.

That is why Scott Nearing’s victory and life are so important and therapeutic for me. Scott Nearing is a useful reminder that even when state terrorism succeeds in subjugating the surface society, it remains possible for anti-authoritarians, with a little luck and some wisdom, to survive in the underground nooks and crannies—and even have a good time.

Scott Nearing grew up in a wealthy household, and in 1903, at age 20, he decided to make teaching his profession, ultimately acquiring a PhD in economics. He taught at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business but became increasingly outspoken about the cruelties of capitalism, including its child labor practices, and he was fired in 1915. His dismissal was seen by many Americans across the political spectrum as a serious breach of academic freedom, and it made Nearing a national public figure. Nearing found another teaching post at the University of Toledo, but after he spoke out against the U.S. government’s entry into World War I, he was fired again in 1917. This permanently ended his academic career.

Nearing joined the Socialist Party in 1917 and authored several pamphlets, including The Great Madness: A Victory for the American Plutocracy, for which he was indicted by the U.S. government under the Espionage Act. However, unlike many others so prosecuted, Nearing was not convicted. In his 1919 trial, the prosecution, as was their routine, attempted to prove Nearing had subverted U.S. government’s recruiting and conscription; but (after the judge dismissed counts alleging conspiracy) a jury found Nearing not guilty (see The Trial of Scott Nearing and the American Socialist Society).

Nearing won the case not because the jury sided with freedom of speech. Nearing was found not guilty because he made the case that the prosecution had not given a single example of his obstructing recruiting or conscription. The unusual Nearing defense strategy was to accept as jurors the most successful businessmen, a strategy based on the theory, Nearing later recounted, “that those who have arrived are more secure than those who are still climbing.” It was clear to these successful businessmen jurors that both the prosecution and Nearing were failures: the prosecution had failed to make their case because Nearing had failed to subvert any militarism. Nearing’s childhood knowledge of how wealthy businessmen thought was his ticket to freedom.

In 1927, Nearing joined the Communist Party, but in 1930 he was expelled from it for contradicting Leninist dogma. Estranged from Left political parties, his academic career destroyed, Nearing had also separated from his first wife, and his life was in shambles.

In 1932, a 49-year-old Nearing, along with his new partner, 29-year-old Helen Knothe (whom he later married) moved from New York City to rural Vermont to begin homesteading. When ski resorts and developers intruded on their Vermont homestead, Scott, at age 69, and Helen decided to start over, relocating to Cape Rosier, Maine, again calling it “Forest Farm.” In 1954, Scott and Helen Nearing published Living the Good Life about their then approximately two-decade experiment in homesteading. With the Nearings’ Good Life books (that would later include Continuing the Good Life: Half a Century of Homesteading), they became legends.

“The Nearings became counterculture celebrities in the 1970s,” writes John Faithful Hamer in his article “The Forest Farm Romance.” The Nearing homestead became a sacred place for thousands of young people who would make their pilgrimage there—some just to gawk but others who the Nearings would feed and put to work. Scott once again had his students, and he was in his glory. Many of these young people were so inspired by the Good Lifebooks and by Forest Farm that they embarked on their own homesteading attempts. They reasoned that if Scott could begin homesteading at age 49, start over again in Maine at age 69, and could be making it work for another three decades, then certainly with hard work, they too could also succeed.

Scott Nearing, unlike Eugene Debs, was never viewed even by his admirers as a gentle saint. Nearing had a streak of anger, dismissiveness, and coldness. He cut his son John (from his first marriage) out of his life because of John’s mainstream political views and lifestyle, not returning John’s letters and not attending John’s funeral. Moreover, the Nearings were not candid in their popular Good Life books about all their sources of income (though Scott was more candid in his 1972 autobiography The Making of a Radical); as their self-promotion of self-sufficiency—especially given their ages when they accomplished this—was what gave them their celebrity status.

Despite Scott Nearing’s less admirable traits, even his greatest detractors would acknowledge that he was stubbornly persistent, hardworking, resilient, and dedicated. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the Nearings began to sell off, quite inexpensively, significant acreage from their large tract to young homesteaders who included current organic farming guru Eliot Coleman and also Jean Hay Bright (and her then partner). Though it troubled Hay Bright that the Nearings were not completely candid with the public about their financial realities, she makes clear in her book Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life that she continues to have great respect for what the courageous and hardworking Nearings accomplished, and she maintained a friendship with them until their deaths.

Few Americans today give a damn about the truth of Woodrow Wilson, the persecution of Eugene Debs, or the triumph of Scott Nearing. Americans today are more likely to associate 1919 with baseball events: the “Black Sox Scandal” in which the Chicago White Sox threw the World Series; and Babe Ruth getting sold by the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees which triggered, some baseball fans believe, the “Curse of the Bambino,” resulting in the Red Sox not winning a single World Series for an 86-year period during which the Yankees won 26 of them.

Unlike the Boston Red Sox, who have nicely recovered in the 21stcentury to win four World Series, the anti-authoritarian Left got so thoroughly clobbered a century ago that they have never recovered their once great confidence that they would prevail. So for Scott Nearing to have scored a win over state terrorism in 1919 is something to commemorate, and for Scott and Helen Nearing to have gone on to have a good life is something to celebrate.

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Bruce E. Levine, a practicing clinical psychologist often at odds with the mainstream of his profession, writes and speaks about how society, culture, politics and psychology intersect. His most recent book is Resisting Illegitimate Authority: A Thinking Person’s Guide to Being an Anti-Authoritarian―Strategies, Tools, and Models (AK Press, September, 2018). His Web site is brucelevine.net

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