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When dissent crosses the line: A lesson from history

By Robert E. Meyer
web posted April 2, 2007

Lately, my home town newspaper has been reprinting historical front pages from the archives of one of its predecessor publications, commemorating watershed events in American history. The most recent reproduction was a facsimile of the April 6, 1917, edition, announcing our formal entrance into World War I.

Thank God I can still read fine print! If not, I probably would never have noticed the caption near the bottom of the page with the byline "Bryan too?" It read:

"William Jennings Bryan must stop his plea for pacifism or lose his contract with the Redpath Lyceum bureau, under the auspices of which he has been speaking. The bureau has decided that speakers who might hamper the government by their views will be taken from the boards."

That refers to the same William Jennings Bryan who ran for president three times unsuccessfully as the democratic party's presidential candidate (1896, 1900 and 1908). This is the man, who a few years later, became the object of unfair lampooning after he was falsely caricatured as a dim-witted, stark-raving fundamentalist prosecutor in the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial. Cinematic portrayals of this event perpetuate that myth.

Though he may be a somewhat unknown personality by today's generation, he was an influential statesman near the end of the 19th century through the administration of Woodrow Wilson. Bryan shaped foreign policy in his time and embossed his mark on many facets of domestic legislation that would be championed and celebrated by the current populist movement.

Can you believe the view of that day? You were entitled to your own opinions, but as soon as America committed to war, you were expected to support the effort and not undermine the government publicly. Please notice that all Bryan was saying was "give peace a chance," not claiming that America was evil, a predator, or a terrorist nation, as is the common fare today.

Byran had helped secure the Wilson nomination and presidential victory in 1912 and, had been selected for the position of Secretary of State by Wilson as an expression of gratitude.

In other words, Byran was not a political dissident, or the deliberate iconoclast of his time. He wanted to keep America out of WWI, and resigned from his post after the sinking of the Lusitania began to change Wilson's mind about the Isolationist approach.

What I find to be most interesting about the statement above as it appeared in the historic newspaper, is that the intentions of Redpath Lyceum bureau to squelch Bryan's message were he unwilling to relent, seems to be approved of by big media. They apparently agreed with that stance--or at least said nothing against it.

There was a common understanding that people could graciously disagree on important issues, but some levels of opposition rose to the height of undermining the federal government's war efforts.

My, how different were the expectations of that time. Today, failed presidential candidates wail like banshees and, along with past presidents and their confederates, are not held to the same standard of public declaration as they have been traditionally. These people are not statesmen, they are simply political opportunists. For the record, Bryan eventually did get on board to support American policy during WWI.

Notice, also, that this is not a matter of questioning anybody's patriotism, which is functionally out of vogue anyway. Saying whether one is patriotic or not, is meaningless where there is no fixed definition of what "patriotism" actually is. Has anyone of any philosophical or political persuasion ever claimed to be unpatriotic? I personally believe there can be equal patriotism expressed on the right or left of the political spectrum, the question is to what ideological vision for America is each respective advocate loyal to? Consider the election slogan of John Kerry in 2004; "Let America be America again," borrowed from the title of a Langston Hughes poem lionizing radical socialism.

What concerns me most is that modern advocacy for the type of cooperation that was expected in 1917, is considered cowardly capitulation or even blind jingoism by today's "progressives." In fact, in our times, criticism of boorish behavior from dissenting flame throwers is condemned as the creeping imposition of fascism. A little lesson of history is a sobering exercise. ESR

Robert E. Meyer is a staff writer for the New Media Alliance, Inc. The New Media Alliance is a non-profit (501c3) national coalition of writers, journalists and grass-roots media outlets.


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