American Liberty

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American Liberty

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Harry Kelly, “American Liberty,” Mother Earth 3, no. 3 (May 1908): 127-132.

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AMERICAN LIBERTY

By H. Kelly.

 

ATTACKS upon freedom of speech and press follow each other so fast that it passeth understanding that we still have any libertarian publications existing and their supporters at large. It is unusual to have a day pass without hearing that someone has been condemned to prison for one or more years for writing to a friend or client where a certain book may be found, or a publication excluded from the mails because it dared to criticize existing institutions. Sex reformers and Anarchists suffer most from these persecutions, as is natural with extremists, but no one is immune from the wrath of Caesar in these days.

There have been a number of unemployed “riots” and several acts of violence by individuals, it is true, but it seems to have escaped attention that the “riots” were provoked by the police, and that the acts of violence are coincident with every industrial depression. It seems like stating the most obvious of facts to say that deeds of violence, such as we have recently witnessed, find their inception in some social condition or overt act on the part of those in authority.

Obvious or not, most people blink at such facts and can see no remedy but repression, which—after all—is no remedy; it is merely sitting on the safety valve. What a mockery of justice to characterize the demonstrations of the unemployed in Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York, as riots. People may be ever so peaceful and inoffensive, but there are limits to the patience of hungry men; having tramped the streets for weeks in vain search for work, a number of them decide on a public demonstration to call attention to their condition. Unfortunately for them, demonstrations—except of a pious or patriotic nature—are unpopular. The game of life here as elsewhere has its rules, and must be played accordingly. If a man is so foolish or inefficient as to be caught by an economic crisis, he must either pray to the deity, undersell his fellow man, or petition the legislature. He is usually willing to do all three; but when the deity fails to respond, his fellow man refuses to be undersold, and the legislature adjourns for the summer in April, he demonstrates—and then the trouble begins. Take the most recent case, that of Union Square, and see where it leads to. The Socialists, claiming two hundred thousand men out of work in New York City, call a meeting to discuss the question and suggest a remedy. The Park Commissioner, with a sagacity that is truly remarkable, refuses a permit to meet in Union Square. The Socialists, with that respect for law and order which characterizes them everywhere, appeal to the courts to enjoin the Park and Police Commissioners against interfering with them, which appeal is promptly refused.

Twenty-five thousand people, unaware of the refusal, assemble in the Square. Two hundred mounted police charge the crowd, batter their heads, and ride them down until the meeting is dispersed. The next step is the throwing of a bomb with results now familiar to the public. Instead of seeking to understand the cause of the trouble and then remedying it, a request is immediately made by Police Commissioner Bingham for a hundred thousand dollars for a secret service fund, to terrorize agitators and unearth “conspiracies.” (The Chief’s request was fortunately defeated.) Not the least appreciation of the situation; simply an appeal for more force and more graft. The same day that the papers contained columns of reading matter about the Union Square event, a short article appeared on another page, announcing that seventy men had lost their lives in a mine disaster in Wyoming. Later news estimated the deaths at over three hundred. No fuss, no noise, no General Bingham rushing to the Board of Aldermen to ask for an appropriation of a hundred thousand dollars to save society by trying to discover means whereby such disasters could be prevented. They are inevitable, we are told: one of the prices we must pay for civilization and industrial supremacy. What a farce to pretend that we object to bomb outrages and unemployed “riots” because of the possible loss of life they may entail. What shrugs of mingled horror and disgust we indulge in when we speak of that aftermath of blood called the “Reign of Terror,” where about three thousand aristocrats paid the penalty of centuries of tyranny and oppression. But not a word have we to say about the fact that more than seven hundred and fifty lives were lost in Greater New York last year through acts of violence, and that fifty per cent. more lives were sacrificed in killed and maimed in the United States during 1907 than in the entire Russo-Japanese war. And still Moloch cries for more. Senator Hale said in the Senate a few weeks ago that seventy per cent. of the entire revenue of the Federal government was spent on the navy, army, and pension list. In spite of this fact, Roosevelt is trying to browbeat Congress into an appropriation to build four more first-class battleships. By what twist of logic is this arch conspirator against human life and freedom able to hypnotize the nation into believing in the sincerity of his professions, when he raves over the necessity of crushing Anarchists because they are the enemies of all mankind?

The New York Sun of March 24 devoted considerable space to the subject of the exclusion from the mails of La Questione Sociale, an Italian Anarchist paper published at Paterson, N. J., and gave in full what purported to be the President’s letter to the Department of Justice on the subject of his order. The following is a quotation: “Under Section 3893 of the revised statutes, lewd, obscene, and lascivious books and letters, publications for indecent and immoral uses, or of an indecent and immoral nature, and postal cards on which indecent and scurrilous epithets are written or printed, are all excluded from the mails, and provision is made for the fine and imprisonment of those guilty.

“The newspaper article in question (La Questione Sociale) advocates murder by dynamite. It specifically advocates the murder of enlisted men of the United States Army and officers of the police force, and the burning of the houses of private citizens. The preaching of murder and assassination is certainly as immoral as the circulation of obscene and lascivious literature, and if the practice is not already forbidden by the law it should be forbidden.”

A formidable document that; one calculated to strike terror to the hearts of honest trust magnates and non-grafting police officers. But let us see. Free speech should be free speech; the proper way to combat error and demagoguery is by truth and reason, not by the big stick. Liberty is inseparable from licence; those who wish to enjoy the blessings of freedom can not expect to eat their cake and have it, too, by coercing others. Unfortunately, this view is not widely held; for the bulk of the American people believe in repressing each other, and never seem so happy as when they can thrust their standard of morals down the other fellow’s throat. That this is so is not open to serious doubt; and if the editor and publishers of La Questione Sociale were really guilty of the offenses charged against them by President Roosevelt and the Mayor of Paterson, they would have been railroaded to prison, as their predecessors were to the gallows at Chicago twenty years ago. There can be no reasonable doubt in the minds of thinking people that the violation of constitutional guarantees in this and similar cases will be endorsed and held entirely justifiable by the majority of the people of America; it is even safe to assume that Theodore Roosevelt will gain considerable popularity for his abuse of power. It all depends on who is oppressed.

A moment’s reflection must inevitably bring the question: If the editor and publishers of La Questione Sociale are really guilty of the offenses charged against them, why were they not brought to trial? Instead, they were invited to appear before the Postmaster General at Washington, merely to show cause why their paper should not be denied second-class mail privileges. Indifference to logic is one of the privileges of autocratic power, and as our Caeser has constituted himself moral guardian of the American people, logic is never overworked in his mental calculations. For reasons best known to the President and Mayor of Paterson, they have decided that administrative order is preferable to an open trial, so that there is no chance of an acquittal, and no appeal. The process possesses a simplicity which is charming, and its effectiveness is beyond question. The precedent is sure to be improved upon by their successors. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” said Jefferson; likewise it is the price of privilege, and as long as the people are content to remain indifferent where the liberty of others is attacked, so long will oppression exist. An appeal to the Siegfrieds of the land to buckle on their armor and sally forth to fight the dragon has been suggested; but as the Siegfrieds are interested chiefly in automobile races and base-ball matches, the suggestion is not in order. Sympathy for human rights and enthusiasm for personal liberty are not vital factors in our social life; on the contrary, they seem as dead as the Single Tax Party. Nicholas Tchaykovsky, during a conversation regarding the failure of the Russian peasant to rise in rebellion, once said to me: “My dear fellow, there is the famine; people can’t fight on empty stomachs.” My reply was that they don’t seem to fight here on full ones. The “full dinner pail” of recent years was no tangible barrier to the inroads on personal freedom in America. Acts have been committed and are being committed in this country every day that would cost a European sovereign his throne and perhaps his head; yet they cause scarcely a ripple on the surface of our body politic. Roosevelt, with his bombast, petty politics, and utter disregard for the rights of others, represents the true American spirit of invasion. We have to reform some one, and as it is inconvenient and troublesome to reform ourselves, we try it on our neighbor. If in the process we injure him and benefit ourselves, so much the worse for the other fellow and so much the better for us.

It seldom occurs to those who cry about posterity that nations, like individuals, must pay the penalty of their misdeeds, even though retribution is slower; those who do see it are for the most part imbued with the after-me-the-deluge philosophy. That any effective protest will be made against these violations of free speech and free press is extremely doubtful. Aggression always stimulates resistance and makes more rebels, even though some of them are middle-aged; and that is our hope. Light usually reaches the darkest intelligence, even if it comes late, and it is possible that it may enter some of the dullest intellects that extreme views are as necessary in society as moderate ones. One represents ideals unrealized; the other, ideals realized and ready to be discarded. Without the one society must stagnate; without the other it would lack stability. When this idea is appreciated it will be accepted, and a spirit of greater toleration prevail. Meanwhile, we must struggle, be it seemingly ever so futile; for to acquiesce in such violations of human freedom is to lose all sense of dignity, and be a slave in fact as well as in name. That the struggle for freedom of expression will go on is quite certain, no matter how disconcerting it may be in high quarters. Having survived the rack and thumbscrew, it will outlive even Presidential messages.

 

Harry Kelly, “American Liberty,” Mother Earth 3, no. 3 (May 1908): 127-132.

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Kelly, Harry May, 1871–1953, “American Liberty,” The Libertarian Labyrinth, accessed May 20, 2019, http://library.libertarian-labyrinth.org/items/show/1915.