Musings on Adam Hochschild at the Mechanics Institute

The historian Adam Hochschild—author of King Leopold’s Ghost, Bury the Chains, To End all Wars: a Story of Loyalty and Rebellion 1914-1918, Spain in Our Hearts and Rebel Cinderella—spoke recently before a packed house at the Mechanics Institute in San Francisco. I was there and took notes, thinking I might want to interview Hoschschild. I still might do that. Meanwhile, I offer some musings on his talk and on American history, a field of study that has often been under attack and that has been assaulted recently by right wingers in the culture wars who would erase the past and replace it with their own version of never never land.

Hochschild ought to be forgiven for saying that his new book American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis 1917-1921, tells the story of a missing chapter in our history. Some of us haven’t missed or forgotten the crisis of 1917-1921, the political repression, censorship, and the deportation of radicals like Emma Goldman, plus the misdeeds of our racist President Woodrow Wilson, who, Hochschild said, oversaw the assault on civil liberties during World War I.

Some of us have read the history books, including texts like Eric Foner’s The Story of American Freedom, which exhumes the crisis of 1917-1921 and explores its many twists and turns and that journalist Nat Hentoff called “an indispensable book that should be read in every school in the land.” Foner’s text isn’t the first to tell it like it is. W. E. B. Du Bois, Charles and Mary Beard and Richard Hofstader to name just a few, aimed to raise awareness about some of the darkest days of our Republic.

Foner’s Story should be read, but isn’t, and so the period from 1917-1921, as well as other times of crisis, isn’t just forgotten. They were never learned in the first place. Unfortunately, in the U.S. today a small group of scholars, teachers and students, ordinary citizens and activists, know a great deal about American freedom and its absence, while large swaths of the population know very little about the past, which makes it difficult to initiate and maintain a dialogue.

Without widespread knowledge and an understanding of what happened in the American Revolution, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Era of Jim Crow, the New Deal and the Sixties, it’s not surprising that as a nation we have repeated the injustices of the past over and over again. As readers of Counterpunch already know, it’s not an accident that Americans don’t know their own past. Their minds have been deliberately colonized by politicians, lawmakers, presidents and so called pundits like Fox’s Tucker Carlson who have polluted the channels of communication.

Hopefully, Hochschild’s book will be widey read and citizens will learn about and be reminded of Eugene Victor Debs, The Masses, the book burners, lynchings, A. Mitchel Palmer, the early J. Edgar Hoover, the Industrial Workers of the World, demigogues and the assault on civil rights and on democracy itself.

During the question and answer period that followed his talk, Hochschild said that he was optimistic, that the best media today is better than the media of 1917-1921 and that his study of the period taught him how rapidly mass hysteria could be ignited and how fragile our social order. His argument might have been buttressed with explicit mention of imperialism and colonialism, misogyny and homophobia, subjects he’s informed about. “We don’t know what the crises will be in the future,” he said. “But we need to be on guard against them. Toxic stuff is deeply embedded. It will take many elections to change things.”

And not just elections, one might add. But also people in the streets and on picket lines and even on the barricades. We’ve been there before. We’ll be there again.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.