Sunday, February 19, 2017

This Is Not Fake News, The President Really Did This, And It's Outrageous

This is NOT fake news, it really happened, and it is appalling. The President has signed several acts into law. One of them, recognizing that immigrant citizens more often vote for the opposition party, makes it much more difficult to become naturalized. Another, aimed at the potential danger posed by immigrants, gives the President sweeping power to incarcerate or deport any non-citizen that the President deems "dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States". The last and most alarming one curtails the rights of American citizens by prohibiting assembly "of the people with any intent to oppose any measure or measures of the government of the United States" and making it a crime to "write, print, utter, or publish" any "false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the Government of the United States". That last law, which makes criticizing the government a crime punishable by fines and jail time, was written to be used against the press, which the President has declared to be the "enemy of the American people".

This is not fake news, it is real. Real history. The president who signed these laws was John Adams, and this actually happened in 1798. But the parallels to today are both frightening and instructive. The Federalists (the conservative party of their day, lead by Hamilton) were in control of Congress, and the Democratic-Republicans (the party of Jefferson and later Jackson) were on the outs. Adams was despised by Jefferson's party, and had an uneasy relationship with his own party from whom he was independent and considered a bit unpredictable. Newspapers were highly politicized, with right-wing news and left-wing news furiously putting their spin on events, and there was a fair amount of "fake news" flying around. Politicians considered newspapers to be patriots or traitors, depending on which politician and which newspaper. The Federalists were pushing for war with France, seeing the French Revolution as a sheer terror, while the Democratic-Republicans saw the French Revolution as the people rightfully rising up to overthrow a tyrannical aristocracy and monarchy. There was a great fear of immigrants from France in America, and the influence they could have on our own young country. It was in this context that the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts came into being. Under the Sedition Act, a number of prominent left-wing publishers and even one Congressman were fined and jailed. (Alas, the notion of going to court to challenge the constitutionality of a law hadn't yet been invented.)

The Sedition Act had a sunset clause and was allowed to expire in 1800. However, in the fever pitch of World War I, another Sedition Act was made law in 1918, making it a crime to use any "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language" about the US Government, its flag, or its armed forces. The act was used against a number of party leaders and labor leaders before it was repealed in 1920. One piece of the 1798 legislation, the Alien Enemies Act, still remains on the books today. This was used as the basis of authority for the notorious Executive Order 9066 in 1942, ordering the internment of Japanese-American citizens. (That happened 75 years ago today.)

The original Alien and Sedition Acts and their subsequent reincarnations are generally considered shameful black marks in our history, overreactions to fear. It should be clear to any good student of history that we are on this same path yet again.

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