The Progressive's ninety-fifth anniversary--what a lovely reason to celebrate. This calls for whoopin' and hollerin', shootin' out the lights, dancin' on the bar, and paintin' the front porch red. I realize the Midwestern progressives who run the venerable rag are more apt to hold a somber symposium on the erosion of our constitutional rights by way of a wing-ding, but you can't expect a Texan not to pounce on such a splendid excuse to hallelujah the county.
Ninety-five years being right about damn near everything is worth a rattlesnake round-up and boot-scootin'. Just listing all the issues and people The Progressive has been right about over the years would take up all my space, so I'm going to concentrate on its record on two subjects precious to my heart: free speech and dissent.
The blessed Bob La Follette founded The Progressive in 1909. Eight years later, he was hanged in effigy and widely excoriated as a traitor for opposing U.S. entry into World War I. O, what a lovely war it was, that war to end all wars. "Patriots" used to go around kicking dachshunds in those days on the grounds that they were "German dogs." You notice they didn't go around kicking German shepherds. La Follette reported on the repressive tactics of our government, which was arresting people simply for opposing the war or saying anything critical about the flag. The Progressive defended Eugene V. Debs and many others who were put in the hoosegow for having the temerity to disagree with the government.
In 1917, La Follette wrote, "Today, Secret Service men, United States District Attorneys, United States Marshals, United States Court Commissioners, and other federal officials are rankly abusing their authority on every hand. People are being unlawfully arrested, thrown into jail, denied the right to employ counsel, or to communicate with their friends, or even to inform their families of their whereabouts, subjected to unlawful search, threatened, examined, and cross-examined. The most sacred constitutional rights guaranteed to every American citizen are violated in the name of democracy."
Plus a change. . . . (Are we still allowed to quote the French?) All in defense of freedom, of course.
In 1931, while the Red Scare was still a going concern, the magazine dared to publish Theodore Dreiser's defense of the Communist Party. During World War II, it published criticism of the brutality of the U.S. war and propaganda effort, including censorship of the far-right magazine of Father Coughlin. Anyone can stand up for the free speech rights of those they agree with; it takes people who really understand the First Amendment to stand up for the rights of blue-bellied nincompoops to spew vicious drivel. It being our right in return, of course, to denounce it as vicious drivel.
In 1954, taking on a subject close to home, The Progressive put out a special issue exposing Joe McCarthy, a tremendously influential piece of publishing. It was The Progressive's largest-selling issue ever, 300,000 copies. Here is a sample:
"McCarthy has struck repeatedly at the letter and spirit of our Bill of Rights by using methods of intolerance and intimidation in an effort to create a national climate of hysteria, fear, and suppression. The 'ism' added to his name has become a generic symbol of guilty-by-accusation, character assassination, the big lie, and the repudiation of our country's traditional devotion to fair play and a fair trial."
In 1979, The Progressive got into one of its all-time most controversial flaps for refusing to let the Department of Energy edit an article entitled, "The H-Bomb Secret: How We Got It--Why We're Telling It." For more than six months the government held the presses in an unprecedented case of prior restraint.
The late Erwin Knoll, that fearless man and lovely human, wrote when it was over, "We discovered that some of our fellow citizens (and some of our colleagues in the media) believe the First Amendment to be obsolete--a scrap of paper rendered useless by the demands of 'national security.' We discovered that our own government believes the First Amendment was exploded by the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945--or at least rendered 'inoperative' by the Atomic Energy Act of 1954. We were determined to disabuse our fellow citizens, our colleagues in the media, and our government of these unfortunate, undemocratic notions. We were prepared to throw all of our resources into the fight, and to find resources we did not even know existed. We were resolved, of course, to protect and preserve this magazine--but were prepared, if necessary, to sacrifice even The Progressive for the principle at stake."
Now that, friends, is a gutsy editor.
Among contemporary journalistic defenders of the First Amendment, Nat Hentoff is without peer, and The Progressive is again publishing Hentoff's learned First Amendment commentary, as it did for many years. Eternal vigilance being the price of liberty, Matt Rothschild has lately been on the case of no-political-buttons-allowed in Crawford, Texas, as well as the perfectly obscene notion of "free speech zones."
Because American progressives are ever hearing the sound of jack-booted fascism around the nearest corner (sounding closer than usual these days), it is particularly important for us to rejoice when we have the opportunity. And I can think of no finer cause to pause for a spell of pride and joy than this anniversary of one of our oldest freedom-fighting publications.
This magazine has published Jane Addams, James Baldwin, Clarence Darrow, Helen Keller, Martin Luther King Jr., Jack London, A. J. Muste, George Orwell, Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, and Izzy Stone.
This magazine has published Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Adlai Stevenson, John F. Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, William Proxmire, George McGovern, Bernie Sanders, and Paul Wellstone. This magazine has published Supreme Court Justices William O. Douglas, Louis Brandeis, Hugo Black, and Earl Warren.
It will survive John Ashcroft.
The Progressive's contributions to freedom of thought and freedom of speech now span ninety-five years. So to all those who make this magazine possible--staff, readers, writers, donors--take a day off, gang, and let's rodeo.