Homeland security 1.0

Not quite a century ago, during the Great War, Tulsans deemed guilty of “disloyalty” were sent to insane asylums. Unattached women of suspect morals were interned without recourse in a “detention camp” at First and Elgin; men judged insufficiently enthusiastic about their patriotic duty to buy Liberty Bonds were, in the words of an official post-war report, “made to see the light.”

This was not just Tulsa. Under color of patriotism and the war effort, very likely influenced by reaction to an influx of immigrants, the stirring of a civil rights movement, and women’s march to suffrage, the nation launched a broad attack on personal liberty.

It began, if not innocently, at least with good intentions. The National Defense Act of 1916 authorized the creation of state and local Councils of Defense. The state councils were activated shortly after U.S. entry into the war in the spring of 1917; the state councils, in turn, authorized the local councils.

Initially, the councils were to inventory industrial, agricultural and transportation assets and coordinate their utilization for military purposes. Rather quickly, they assumed or were given responsibility for monitoring the activities of regular citizens, ferreting out suspected spies and saboteurs, intimidating suspected enemy sympathizers, tracking down draft resisters and war profiteers, even pressuring clergy to stick to the script.

The Tulsa County Council of Defense was led by prominent and conscientious citizens, and most of what it did was beyond reproach. Some of it, though, fed the worst instincts of human nature.

The council maintained an investigations department that handled more than 300 cases in a little over a year, ranging from disloyalty to fraud. It also worked in cooperation with the American Protective League, a civilian auxiliary of the U.S. Justice Department’s investigation bureau — later renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation — and the 1,000-member Home Guard, a force of men ineligible for regular military duty who were supposed to replace the National Guardsmen called to active duty.

Much of their work was relatively routine — background checks, identifying draft dodgers, looking out for the families of service members. But they also interrogated “alien enemies,” put a stop to German-language schools and religious services (even German classes at the local high school) and packed off an unknown number of “disloyal” citizens to the “insane asylum.”

The war ended at the end of 1918. The councils of defense and the Home Guard were disbanded the next year. But the overriding zeal of the times lingered, manifesting itself in the rise of a new Ku Klux Klan, the Palmer Raids, even Prohibition, and an insistence on conformity to a certain definition of what it means to be an American.

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They’re not doctors, but sometimes they play them on tv

The caller wanted to know what makes members of Congress think they’re so smart. Those use of us in the news biz are used to this question, except we’re  usually asked why we think WE are so smart.

But this caller was talking about members of Congress who want to ban travel from places in West Africa where Ebola is a problem, even though the people who are paid to know such things say that would be a bad idea.

Why, the caller asked, would someone with no background in medicine or science think they know about germs and stuff than actual scientists and doctors?

Ah, I answered, you don’t seem to realize that getting yourself elected to Congress automatically makes you smarter than anyone on the planet, including the president of the United States, all the Ph.D.’s lined end-to-end, and the Dalai Lama, all mind-melded together.

Ha, ha, the caller said. This is no joking matter.

I did not bother telling him I wasn’t entirely joking. As far as I can tell, a person summoned to appear before a congressional hearing on the subject of Ebola or anything else is rarely there to explain things. They are there either to be told how wrong they are — especially if they happen to be associated in any way with the opposite party — or as props for whatever dog and pony show is being trotted across the stage.

The caller was not exactly a neutral observer. He had pretty much decided this particular member of Congress was a dummkopf long before cable news, bloggers,  and then the rest of of us news types turned one fatal case of Ebola into so many spinoffs of The Walking Dead. But he had a point — namely, that some people seem to be going to extreme and maybe dangerous lengths to exaggerate the situation for the sake of some votes on Nov. 4.

Ebola is absolutely a serious and scary disease. Especially if you’re in West Africa, where it’s actually an epidemic. And it could be here, too, if we’re unusually careless — which seems to be what happened with the one fatal case here in the U.S. In that instance, a Dallas hospital was able to accurately diagnose the patient as uninsured, but not as infected with a painful, deadly disease that the entire planet is afraid of catching.

So yes, Ebola is dangerous and not to be taken lightly. But an American is more likely to be struck by lightning in the next year than killed by Ebola. They are certainly more likely to die of stroke, heart attack, cancer, AIDS, suicide, the common flu or even bee stings. They are more likely to be hit by a drunk driver or die of a drug overdose or from falling out of a window.

The fact of the matter is, in nearly 50 years the most deadly outbreak of an infectious disease other than HIV/AIDS — admittedly, a very big exception — was a round of whooping cough that killed 9,400 Californians in 2010. Nothing else has been close.

Americans have a hard time keeping things in perspective, and we news types don’t help, especially when everything depends on ratings points and page views. Politicians understand this, and sometimes try to exploit it.

But I must admit I heard a surprising response to the current situation from one of our esteemed members this week. Someone asked him about Ebola. He wasn’t that worried, the congressman said. There’s always been something, from legionnaires’ disease to SARS to the new strains of TB, and the Centers for Disease Control has had a very good record controlling them. The congressman said he would trust them on this, too.

Imagine that.


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A shameless plug

If you liked my last post, you may be interested in a longer piece loosely based on the Green Corn Rebellion and set in rural Oklahoma during World War I.



It’s a short novel (We all have at least one, don’t we?) called The War to End all Wars. The first chapter is available at the tab of the same name on this blog’s home page; comments are encouraged.

If you’re really interested, an e-book edition of the entire book is available at here.

Again, comments encouraged. And thanks for reading.

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Pitchforks and politics in early Oklahoma

Five years ago, I wrote a column for the Tulsa World about one of the most poignant and largely ignored events in Oklahoma history. It happened in August 1917, and was called the Green Corn Rebellion.

The rebellion, such as it was, stemmed from rural Oklahoma’s long-simmering discontent with the social, political and economic conditions of a young state founded on the promise of opportunity. Socialist Party organizer Oscar Ameringer said Oklahoma’s sharecroppers, tenant farmers and small land-holders lived in greater poverty than the immigrants of New York’s Lower East Side.

Ameringer found a receptive audience. Mostly from default, many rural Oklahomans called themselves socialists, although the capital-S Socialists weren’t so sure they agreed. Oklahoma Socialists didn’t want to collectivize the farms, they wanted to own them. They wanted banks and railroads and landlords that didn’t cheat them, real schools for their kids, seed and equipment at fair prices, and to be paid enough for their grain and cotton to turn a decent profit.

Fred Holt, the Socialist candidate for governor in 1914, got almost 53,000 votes — 21 percent of the total — in an election decided by less than 5,000. Six rural Socialists were elected to the Legislature, and more than 170 won local and county offices.

A discriminatory (and unconstitutional) literary test targeting African Americans had been enacted a few years earlier. Now the Democrat-dominated Legislature went after poor whites by limiting access to voter registration. The move guaranteed political control but only intensified frustration in the hinterlands. Masked riders terrorized small-town bankers and local authorities. Rural radicals, shut out of the Industrial Workers of the World, formed a rag-tag organization called the Working Class Union.

U.S. entry into the Great War, and especially the draft that went with it, did not go over well in rural Oklahoma. Farmers saw no reason to fight for Wall Street and European royalty; a shadowy organization known as the “Jones Family” actively encouraged and assisted in avoidance of the draft.

Matters came to a head in early August 1917 when several hundred men converged on a remote farm about eighty miles southeast of Oklahoma City. The idea was to march on Washington, cutting telephone and telegraph lines and burning bridges along the way, picking up strength and living off “green corn” scavenged from fields on their route.

Misguided, delusional, ill-planned, ill-led, the rebellion disintegrated almost immediately, put down by local posses even before the National Guard arrived. Authorities used the uprising as a pretext to crack down on all dissidents, whether they had anything to do with the rebellion or not. Some four hundred men were arrested and 150 were sent to prison.

Radical politics in Oklahoma essentially ended with the Green Corn Rebellion. But the radical’s ideas did not. The Working Class Union’s outrageous demands had included an eight-hour work day, child labor laws, a workers’ compensation system, protection from predatory banking practices, and decent schools.

Some might say that the fight goes on.

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On baseball

This is the way baseball is. Pete Kozma spends most of the season in AAA, plays just 14 games with the Cardinals, and not only makes the post-season roster but conceivably could start the first game of the playoffs.

Kozma has never hit for much of an average, not even in the minors, but he’s 4-for-8 with three doubles against the best pitcher in baseball, the Dodgers’ Friday starter Clayton Kershaw. And he has a history of coming through with big hits and big plays in tight situations. Kozma is a natural shortstop, but if he starts Friday it will be at second base, in place of the left-handed hitting rookie regular, Kolten Wong.

That’s the way baseball is now. It’s not about which team has the best starting nine or even the best 25-man roster. It’s about who has the most players in the organization capable of contributing to a season — and in this case, post-season.

Baseball is unique among major team sports in that players play more games in one or two seasons than most other athletes play in a lifetime. And careers tend to be longer, too. This makes for the complex subtleties in the warp and weft of the game that create its texture. For those who prefer the slam-bang of football and basketball, the lickety-split mayhem of hockey, baseball can seem like a lot of standing around and spitting.

To those of us who know better, it is pure Hitchcock, all anticipation and surprise, sliders in the dirt and fastballs in the eyes. A pitcher, a hitter.

A hanging curve.

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