William Barr, Civil Rights, and QAnon

By I. Columbina, ad vivum delineavit. Paulus Fürst Excud〈i〉t. — 1. Johannes Ebert and others, Europas Sprung in die Neuzeit, Die große Chronik-Weltgeschichte, 10 (Gütersloh: Wissen Media, 2008), p. 197. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=3DVH8dVGkX0C&pg=PA1972. Superstock: Dr. Schnabel of Rome, a Plague Doctor in 1656 Paul Fuerst Copper engraving (Stock Photo 1443–1112), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15695681

The Attorney General of the United States said something that should concern you during a seminar. It was clear that If Donald Trump wins the coming election the attacks on science and face masks will continue in the name of civil rights. On the face of it, it seems silly. It is another step into the culture war that’s divided the country. In the case of the AG, this is about a misunderstood sense of persecution, in particular for conservative, religious, American far-right conservatives. Barr said that the present pandemic restrictions, which incidentally have closed houses of worship, are the greatest violation since slavery. Not only is this hyperbole, but this is a full circle with the far-right and QAnon talking points.

These are weaponized radical views. At this point, this is no longer a mystery. These views are divisive and are setting the stage for a hot civil war. For some in the conservative bubble anybody not them is not part of the nation. Perhaps this is why the AG missed actual assaults on civil rights in the history of the 20th century. All three were done to affect a group of people who’s politics, or mere existence was a threat to the body politic. Or at least they were conceived that way.

Why are we facing this dangerous moment? A group of people who are not the majority are seeking to impose fascism in the United States. This will benefit very specific groups that support them, including business interests. This is also about a Fundamentalist Religious Right that sees any health closure of churches and temples as an attack by secularists who in their minds are persecuting Christians. It is part of the culture war where a majority group (at least as far as religious views go) sees itself as a minority under attack. This is not new but it has a coherent storyline. This started with things like the war on Christmas, which is silly at its core. Telling somebody happy holidays is not against Christianity but it is inclusive of others, which the fundamentalist religious right cannot accept. . Barr has embraced this fundamentally scary world view. One where the other side is classified, before elimination.

Barr at least did not go so far as to call face masks muzzles. Many of the QAnon memes do this, often. Incidentally, this is where the first version of health measures is the same as slavery started. So he did not have to do that, since this is self-evident to the members of this cult. . Never mind that the right wants to limit the rights of those they perceive as internal enemies and limit facts, science, and knowledge. These memes are dangerous propaganda. This shows the radical nature of the Attorney General and the far right. However, we need to explore actual assaults on civil rights.

This is where the 1917 Alien and Sedition act comes in, followed by the Palmer Raids during the first Red Scare which was a direct assault on conscience and free speech. They were a real-life muzzle. This was a frontal attack on free speech and civil rights.

The Justice Department raids, which were known as the “Palmer Raids” because they had been ordered by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer (Figure 11.11), initially were praised as necessary acts, but they also incited a counterreaction that was one reason for the Red Scare’s demise by mid-1920. Antiradicalism hardly disappeared, but the panicked fears that the nation was in peril subsided. Difficult questions persisted, however. The individual rights of citizens and non-citizens to discuss, hold, and express unpopular beliefs under the First Amendment was a cornerstone of American constitutionalism. But the war had raised the question of the scope of the federal government and Justice Department’s legitimate powers and necessary responsibilities to protect both national security and the rights of individuals.

The postwar fears of subversion and radicalism were rooted in part in wartime demands for loyalty and national unity by the administration of President Woodrow Wilson. During the war, Wilson stated he would not tolerate anyone who would “inject the poison of disloyalty into our most critical affairs.” The administration saw the war as a progressive crusade to “make the world safe for democracy” and to promote a rational social order, harmony, patriotism, and Americanization at home. Federal executive agencies curbed and controlled individuals’ rights in the public interest. The Committee on Public Information managed propaganda, the Eighteenth Amendment prohibited alcohol, Congress passed immigration restrictions based on literacy tests, and a wave of repressive legislation limited free speech and other civil liberties.

Encouraged by Wilson, Congress had quickly passed the Espionage Act (in June 1917), which expanded the government’s power to control suspected espionage and sabotage. The federal government used this authority to convict 1,000 Socialists, anarchists, and pacifists who opposed the war under the 1918 amendments to the act, commonly called the Sedition Act. The day before, Wilson had delivered a warning in his Flag Day address: “Woe be to the man or group of men who seeks to stand in our way in this day of high resolution when every principle we hold dearest is to be vindicated and made secure for the salvation of the nation.” The president issued a secret executive order authorizing the firing of federal employees seen as disloyal. Postmaster Albert Burleson stringently censored the mails.

So was the second Red Scare under Senator Joseph McCarthy. It was purposeful d greatly damaging. According to an author unknown in the Princeton library:

The Second Red Scare stunted the development of the American welfare state. In the 1940s and 1950s, conservatives in and out of government used concerns about Soviet espionage to remove from public service many officials who advocated regulatory and redistributive policies intended to strengthen democracy. The crusade against “Communists in government” had even more casualties than we thought. In addition to its well-known violation of civil liberties and destruction of careers, the Second Red Scare curbed the social-democratic potential of the New Deal through its impact on policymakers who sought to mitigate the- antidemocratic tendencies of unregulated capitalism.

It was an assault on the conscience and like the former, it ruined many American lives. To be marked by the House Committee of un-American Activities meant no gainful employment. Some chose to leave the country as political refugees. For others, life changed. Their very loyalty to the nation questioned, their careers destroyed. Barr’s statements are part of a new age of fear. His legacy will be a dark one, as he seeks to protect the president and the far right. According to David Maraniss in a piece that ran in the Washington Post in 2019:

Only a month after my visit to the National Archives, Donald Trump announced that he was running for president — and from that moment on, many of the themes I wanted to explore in the book about my father began echoing through the decades. The use of fear as a political weapon. The demonization of fellow human beings because of place of origin, race or political ideology. The attacks on free speech. And the raw power of government authorities to disrupt and destroy the lives of civilians. In the Trump era, fueled by fear of the other, we are again arguing over what it means to be American or un-American. Alongside the Statue of Liberty ideal of American inclusion runs a counter-reality in which every era has restricted who might be accepted as a full-fledged American. The original nations of Native Americans were considered so un-American they were nearly annihilated; blacks were so un-American they were enslaved and treated as second-class citizens; women were not American enough to earn voting rights. In the 1950s Red Scare, communists and their sympathizers were called un-American traitors. Now Muslims are disparaged as terrorists and Hispanics as “illegal” and worse.

Then there is the ultimate invasion of civil rights in the twentieth century. This is the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War Two. People lost their property and their freedom because they were internal enemies. They were held in confinement in places like Manzanar. Those were concentration camps where armed guards, had orders to open fire. The fact that some enlisted and served with honor is a credit to them, not the nation that kept their families behind the wire.

I have not even touched on how insulting this comparison is to the descendants of slaves. It is as if their families experience is not that serious, and it is an appropriation of history that is the height of privilege

Let me be clear on this point. Quarantines are not unprecedented in American history. We just don’t remember because as a society we have not faced a health crisis since the 1950s. Those very local outbreaks of polio closed pools and kept people at home. Those were mild scares compared to the present. This is the greatest public health crisis in a hundred years.

Quarantines are necessary measures to control the spread of disease. This has been known since the middle ages. In 1918 we had the same resistance to health measures from some quarters. We also had some local officials botch the response so badly that they lost complete trust. Not unlike Trump, their word became a joke. However, these were mostly local officials, such as the director of public health in Philadelphia. These are federal, who are weaponizing an epidemic since fear is the ultimate tool of the authoritarian.

This administration is at war with science, facts, tradition, American law, and at least half the country. This is not a disease that cares about whether you are blue or red. It will take over a host, and could care less. The president and the AG are treating this as an opportunity to concentrate power. What Barr said yesterday is extremely dangerous. It is also a straight line into the radical right thinking. We are seven weeks from the most critical election in living memory. The administration is at war with halt the country and attacking every institution it can.

The words of the AG were not only directed at an audience of one but also at his base, which is mobilizing for war. They feel the country slipping away. Internal polls, as well as public state-level polls, reflect the weakness of the incumbent. He is one who keeps seeding doubt in the electoral system, as well as the word of his scientific advisers. So yes, in this age of the absurd, calling masks and health orders a violation of civil rights is not just bizarre, but very dangerous.

Historian by training. Former day to day reporter. Sometimes a geek who enjoys a good miniatures game.

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