Review of Manufacturing Hysteria

The following book review appeared in this past Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle. There are many faculty and students here at Wes interested in the problematic history of surveillance in our country. I’ll just mention here historian and American Studies professor Prof. Claire Potter’s original and important take on J. Edgar Hoover. You can find it on WesScholar:


Manufacturing Hysteria

A History of Scapegoating, Surveillance, and Secrecy in Modern America

By Jay Feldman

Manufacturing Hysteria offers a chilling overview of how American political culture has generated domestic enemies to justify massive infringements of rights. Jay Feldman begins with the World War I era and charts how the federal government (and often the states) developed bureaucracies of surveillance that often spilled into mob violence of the worst sort. He shows how the government “protected” democracy by systematically attacking those whose beliefs departed from official positions, thereby undermining the very political culture it was supposedly protecting.

What it means to be a patriot has changed over time, but Feldman sees how the urge to define “untainted Americanism” has persisted from the hysteria around German immigrants during the First World War to fears of a fifth column – be it made up of Russian Bolsheviks, Japanese saboteurs or Islamic terrorists. In 1919 the Washington Post applauded “serious cleaning up” of “bewhiskered, ranting, howling, mentally warped, law-defying aliens” and “international misfits,” and in subsequent generations we find parallel support for official, well-muscled efforts to make us feel safe by finding an internal enemy that can be attacked.

Feldman emphasizes two salient dimensions of this curious process of generating security by feeding paranoia. The first is that these efforts themselves violated the Constitution they claimed to be defending. Again and again, our elected officials (and the bureaucracy that shores up their power) have used extralegal means to pursue enemies. And they did so knowing they were violating the law or exceeding their authority. They often conjured up a sense of crisis to justify their actions, but Feldman does a good job of showing how their elaborate security designs were developed well before any emergencies actually occurred. These were well-planned efforts to ensure that future crises wouldn’t go to waste – that the government would be in a position to use them to increase political homogeneity.

The second dimension that Feldman emphasizes is that the insecurity was illusory, that the hysteria was “manufactured.” He does indicate, very briefly, that in times of prosperity, such as the 1920s, the propensity to create ideological or ethnic purity through violence is much reduced. But he does not examine how threats – such as the existence of a real world war or the work of spies who are really gathering information on behalf of a well-armed foreign power – might change security issues. Feldman notes that after hundreds of thousands of investigations of private citizens, there were few prosecutions, but he mistakenly concludes that this means that there never were any real security threats.

The communist witch-hunts of the McCarthy period are for Feldman the paradigm for America’s “neurotic nightmare.” He doesn’t see the relevance of the communist tyranny in Asia and Europe, a form of oppression willing to murder millions, and he is silent about the tactics of the American Communist Party – from its embrace of the Soviet alliance with Nazi Germany to its willingness to accept the mother ship’s mass persecutions of dissidents. Instead, Feldman opines that it was communism’s “powerful critique of the social inequities of the capitalist system … that made the Communist Party so threatening to the established order.” But he gives no evidence at all that it was a “critique” J. Edgar Hoover was worried about.

And Hoover, longtime director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is at the heart of “Manufacturing Hysteria.” Hoover’s obsession with dissidents of all kinds, his reckless abuse of the Constitution, his power over lawmakers turned feelings of suspicion into policies of surveillance and control. The internment camps for Japanese Americans were just the tip of the iceberg; given the right conditions, Hoover was ready to round up millions. The FBI’s thousands of informants were in the field to discredit civil rights organizations and antinuclear groups – anyone who might depart from the narrow band of mainstream American life.

Alas, Feldman does not explore Hoover’s motivations, or why this man so desperate to conceal his own private life from scrutiny became a master of intruding into the lives of his fellow citizens. The author rarely digs beneath the political surface, and his focus remains stubbornly on conventional, mainstream American history. Do other republics (or political organizations) also create political scapegoats? Of course they do. How does the American example compare to the French, or the British? What about socialist countries and their manufacture of hysteria to shore up those with power? Unfortunately, one learns nothing in this book about how modern political regimes of various kinds are prone to the hysteria that has also infected the United States.

Feldman’s focus on American political elites is meant as a cautionary tale, and his epilogue describes how much worse things have become in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. “Manufacturing Hysteria” is a political book, aimed at reminding those dedicated to civil liberties (especially the right to dissent) how fragile our freedoms are and how “close to a police state” we have come over the last century.

In his preface, Feldman writes: “Now, as ever, vigilance is required if liberty is to survive.” He does not seem to recognize that many of those whose “hysterical” actions he deplores could have written this very same sentence. We can be grateful for his account, while still being disappointed that he did not explore what drives officials here and in other countries to believe that in periods of great insecurity the rights of some should be sacrificed to protect their own particular version of freedom.