Chris Finan is interviewed by Catherine Carr for the BBC's series "The Why Factor." The episode on alcohol addiction includes a discussion of why countries like America and India have at times turned against alcohol; stories of addiction in India and Kenya and a history of temperance and prohibition movements in America. Medical specialists explain why people can become alcoholics, why some people are drinking more and the treatments available. How Alcoholics Anonymous began and how a new synthetic alcohol may provide a solution.
November 1, 2017
John Sheldon, podcast editor of AA Beyond Belief, interviews Chris Finan about Drunks: An American History. AA Beyond Belief is a website that provides "a space for the agnostic, atheist and freethinker in Alcoholics Anonymous to freely share their experience, strength and hope with each other, and the Fellowship as a whole."
By Christopher M. Finan
AA Beyond Belief
Chris Finan discusses the achievement of Irish leaders in the recovery movement, including Jerry McAuley, founder of the Water Street Mission, Frank Murphy, leader of the Blue Ribbon campaign, and Sister Ignatia, who worked with Dr. Bob Smith, a co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, to develop a program of medical treatment for alcoholism. The program was held on October 21, 2017, at Glucksman Ireland House in New York City. It was co-sponsored by the New York Irish History Roundtable.
By Christopher M. Finan
October 16, 2017
Thursday, July 27, 2017, 8:00am
Ever since the earliest days of our nation, Americans have struggled with alcohol addiction and the quest for sobriety, according to our guest. He explores the history of temperance and sobriety movements in America...from the so-called Washingtonians of the nineteenth century to Alcoholics Anonymous...and the individuals who lead the charge....
From the Founding Fathers to today, America has struggled with its complicated relationship with alcohol. Christopher Finan joins Krys Boyd, host of Think on KERA (the public radio station in Dallas/Ft. Worth) to tell the stories of Iroquois leader Handsome Lake, prohibitionist Carrie Nation, AA founders Bill Wilson and Bob Smith and others who’ve tried to get America sober. His new book is called “Drunks: An American History” (Beacon Press).
The Fix Q&A with Christopher M. Finan, author of Drunks: An American History, on our nation's history of alcoholism, recovery and AA.
An interview about the author's own recovery and how it inspired him to write this book about the history of alcoholism.
The origin story of America is typically told as a fight for freedom. But a new book, Drunks: An American History, by Christopher M. Finan, recounts a struggle that predates our wrestle for independence: a three century long battle to sober up.
Drunks begins in 1799 with the story of Handsome Lake, a member of the Seneca Nation whose drinking reduced him to “yellow skin and dried bones.” Stripped of their land and decimated by poverty, Natives sought solace in yet another empty gift offered by Americans: booze.
In a weakened, depressed state, Handsome Lake had a vision in which the Creator told him that alcohol was for the white man. “No, the Creator did not make it for you.” Inspired by his spiritual awakening, Handsome Lake eventually went on to help his fellow Iroquois sober up in what turned out to be one of the first bona fide recovery movements in North America.
Finan also chronicles the evolution of temperance movements that ultimately led to America’s failed flirtation with prohibition. The history is full of passionate characters, like Carry Nation, the radical prohibitionist known for wielding a hatchet used to break saloon windows. You’ll discover a whole other reason to dig Abraham Lincoln. While stigma punished alcoholics, he had something of a soft spot. “There seems ever to have been a proneness in the brilliant, and the warm-blooded, to fall into this vice,” he says fondly of local drunkards.
A theme of warmth and empathy toward those who’ve walked through the gauntlet of alcoholism is carefully threaded throughout Drunks. Probably because Finan himself comes from a long line of people who drank too much. He, his mom and his dad all came down with alcoholism. But the interview below, which was lightly edited for length and clarity, shows Finan as an optimist. Reading his book, you’ll understand why. While many of us are still drunk and will stay drunk, history shows we’ve come a long way from gold cures and cruel sanatoriums. Drunks is a history of lost causes finding redemption.
Your book is chock-full of fascinating historical nuggets about alcohol’s place in America’s political and social history. Which person or story that you dug up stands out as a favorite?
The story of Handsome Lake. He’s the Seneca leader of the first recovery movement. Partly because it's such a heartbreaking story, of how hard alcoholism hit the Indians. They were experiencing nightmare after nightmare: military defeat, dispossession, poverty and alcoholism. But his religious awakening, founded on sobriety, is so encouraging. He was very successful in sobering up other members of the Iroquois Confederacy. Of course he didn't sober up everybody but the Indians had no idea that recovery was even possible until Handsome Lake began his crusade. One of my favorite quotes is from an unidentified member of his tribe. Someone asked why did it take you guys so long to get sober. He responded, "Until Handsome lake. our prophet, said the great ruler wants us to get sober, we didn't have the power. But now we know it's possible." In many ways that is every alcoholics' experience. When we’re trending down to the bottom, we wonder: is there anything we can do to stop this? Those people become powers of example to us; that’s what Handsome Lake was to his people. He was proof that not only you can get sober but that your welfare and happiness depended on it.
“Drunks” is an exhaustive history. And addiction and alcoholism are deeply personal, complex topics to explore. What motivated you to research this history?
I studied history in grad school and toward the end of my dissertation, I told my advisor I was in recovery. I had known him quite a long time and I don’t know why I decided to tell him but I did. He was a very warm and gracious guy. He became very excited and told me I ought to write a history of alcoholism. He said it would gain from the fact that you’re sober and provide some of that perspective that another historian might not be able to do.
I really liked the idea, but my dissertation took a very long time. That book took even longer. Then I wrote my second book as a history of free speech. When that was done, and I began to think about this book,I only knew my own experience in recovery. But when I looked at the broader picture I found that this was an untold story. There are certainly many historians of recovery and I depended heavily on their work, particularly William White. But there wasn’t a compact version of this story.
The more I researched the more I realized that I identified with these people. When I researched the Indians and read them describe their first experience with inebriation, I thought wow I felt that. I got that excitement, that thrill. It was like reading something that had been written yesterday instead of three centuries ago. I got very excited about these people.
Storytelling is a big part of AA and recovery today in general. But it also played a powerful role in early temperance movements. Why do you think drunks telling their stories or drunks hearing others' stories is important?
One of the other people I found particularly fascinating was this unemployed hatter named John Hawkins. He goes onto become the leading orator for the Washingtonians. I heard about the group before; but doing research you just caught their enthusiasm. It was the same discovery the Iroquois had made: nobody thought alcoholics could be restored to sobriety. Everyone thought we were a lost cause. So the best we could do was ban the sale of alcohol and all the alcoholics would die off and it’d be a better world.
To some extent, the storytelling aspect is built on a Protestant tradition of witnessing faith in Christ publicly, speaking about how your life had been improved by religious experience. But what was so different about the Washingtonians was that there was no particular religious angle to those stories. They were getting up and talking about their stories as drunks and not Christians. It was a central feature of the Washingtonian movement and a big factor in its popularity. Not only among alcoholics, but among the public. It was a huge social phenomenon. Everyone was talking about these Washingtonians during the 1840s. It swept the nation.
There was a certain amount of interest by people who weren’t alcoholics. They were open to anybody and most Washingtonians were not drunks but the leaders were. So these stories of degradation had a certain appeal. But the real appeal was the discovery that recovery was possible. My favorite spokesman for that in the book is Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln has no use for the old temperance ministers with their indifference to alcoholics. He recognizes that this is this a great human reclamation project. And he gives it his blessing.
A lot of our readers are in recovery from alcoholism. They probably know the story behind Alcoholics Anonymous: when Bill met Bob. But can you give us the historical context of their meeting?
This was one of the most hopeless periods for alcoholics in American history. What we saw in the 19th century was a growing effort to help alcoholics. Even after the Washingtonians faded, they inspired others to begin to open institutions to help people get and stay sober -- they believed in the possibility of recovery.
All that gets wiped by Prohibition. All those institutions close because there’s this naive belief that once there is no alcohol there will not be any alcoholics. Some alcoholics even believed that; even Dr. Bob believed that and thought prohibition was a solution to his problems. Everyone who felt that way was cruelly disappointed.
Within a couple years there was as much booze as ever. By the 1930s, there was little to no help available for alcoholics. So when Bill and Bob meet they are really starting at ground zero. For the first time, until 1935 to 1941, they’re really struggling. They’re broke. They’re getting people sober and it keeps them going but AA isn’t growing very rapidly.
But once AA gets public attention then begins an explosive growth in Cleveland and eventually to rest of country. It becomes the main pathway to recovery. In addition to being of direct service to the people in the rooms, it supports a more humanitarian approach. Once again, American people see alcoholics can get sober and stay that way. It encourages more efforts to help them and causes more understanding in the private sector about alcoholic employees, which eventually results in direct government support for recovery institutions.
The significance of AA, historically, is impossible to overstate. It makes possible so much of what we benefit from today. Of course, recovery is much bigger than AA; but it really did make subsequent efforts possible.
As a journalist I’ve covered the addiction treatment industry, which today is rife with hucksters, gurus and snake oil salesmen. I thought of all that when I came across Dr. Leslie Keeley peddling his “Gold Cure”? He seems complicated, because it sounds like he was really trying to help people but peddling a bogus tonic.
I agree with you it’s very hard to know what he was thinking in the beginning. He was inspired as a medical man. Like others before him [such as] Dr. Benjamin Rush, he believed a cure was possible. Keeley comes up with the Gold Cure, but certainly in the beginning there's a certain amount of hucksterism.
His unwillingness to ever reveal what the Gold Cure is certainly confirms our suspicion.
But what mattered to Keeley was not the Gold Cure. What mattered was his faith in recovery, and the fact that he inspired others to believe in it and come to his clinics. There were over 100 clinics in the country during the peak of Keeleyism. What got people sober was not the Gold Cure, but being with other alcoholics and discovering that you weren't alone and the failures you experienced have been experienced by many other people.
So you’re saying it wasn't the gold chloride that helped people.
It wasn’t gold chloride, it was other alcoholics. The secret is what we’ve seen in the Washingtonians and even among the Seneca. It was believing that sobriety was possible and having the support of others.
Alcohol kills more people than heroin but it doesn’t get much media play these days. Are we focusing too much on opioids and forgetting that there isn’t just an opioid epidemic but an epidemic of addiction?
Drug addiction and alcoholism used to be treated very differently. This brings in some class and racial elements. They were treated as different things. There was a time when people in AA were very worried about the program being diverted for people who were dually addicted. The fear was once again that the focus on recovery would get lost. As science tells [us] more about addiction, it really has made it plain that many of the basic processes in biological addiction are common across substances. I think that increasingly, the advocacy done on behalf of alcoholics and addicts is done on that basic premise.
Faces and Voices of Recovery, which emerges as the primary vehicle for advocacy in the early 21st century, their central thesis is that addiction is addiction. Both alcoholics and drug users gain from that conception because it just demonstrates how broad the problem is, how serious it is and also how many of the solutions we've devised over the years for dealing with alcoholism can also be useful for people with other kinds of drug addictions. I don't think it steals any thunder from alcoholics to recognize that people with opioid addictions are in a terrible crisis. It just confirms that, for everyone, addiction is a deadly and serious matter. And that people need help and benefit from help.
In terms of advocacy, do you think stigma is on the decline?
There’s a broader understanding now, more than at any time in our history, that addiction is an illness and has to be treated. I was watching the news last night about some stupid sheriff in Butler County Ohio. He won’t authorize his deputies to carry naloxone. I think that guy is only interesting because of all the other cops you see being interviewed saying it’s better to have something than nothing—we need solutions. I think stigma has declined significantly. One reason is a lot of of people in media reporting those stories may not be in recovery themselves, but they know people who are. There are so many people in recovery now it’s changing the minds of mainstream.
I think social media today plays a huge role in reducing stigma. People aren’t anonymous anymore, they’re very loud and out there.
I’ve been been sober a long time but I knew nothing about Faces and Voices of Recovery until I started doing research for that last chapter. I found it tremendously exciting. Their own polling shows people in recovery are increasingly willing to talk about their own histories. That’s a huge significant historical development. It’s not just a matter of politics. When people realize that recovery is as broad as a huge movement as it is, it will only encourage more people to get help and continue to break down stigma.
By Zachary Siegel 07/18/17
“The fight against addiction is one of America’s great liberation movements,” Christopher M. Finan writes in his introduction to “Drunks: An American History.” Like other such fights, it is “marked by periods of progress and devastating reverses.”
Temperance movements grew throughout the 19th century, leading to states banning alcohol and, finally, the national prohibition law that took effect in 1920. The law coincided with a withdrawal of government support from many institutions, like the Minnesota Hospital Farm for Inebriates, that were meant to help. Banning alcohol, it was hoped, would do the trick.
In the early 20th century, Henry F. Milans, an alcoholic ex-journalist, had heard a doctor tell medical students of his condition: “This man can never be cured! He must die as he has lived, a drunkard. Nothing can save him.” Finan writes that Milans very likely joined the United Order of Ex-Boozers, a group of mutually supportive alcoholics organized by the Salvation Army. It was a precursor of sorts to Alcoholics Anonymous, the creation of which is detailed in “Drunks,” including the organization’s early wrestling with how explicitly religious it should be. One of its 12 steps originally stated that “God could restore us to our sanity.” God was revised to a “Power greater than ourselves.”
Finan’s chapter on A.A. brings to mind David Foster Wallace’s treatment of the group’s tenets in “Infinite Jest.” “And that was the first night that cynical Gately willingly took the basic suggestion,” Wallace wrote, “to get down on his big knees by his undersized spring-shot Ennet House bunk and Ask For Help from something he still didn’t believe in, ask for his own sick Spider-bit will to be taken from him and fumigated and squished.”
“I’ll be in the supermarket pushing the baby around, and people will sidle up and want a selfie. Which I never mind. Weirder is when you catch people taking selfies with you in the background. Wish you’d just come over and say hello.” — Neil Gaiman, in an interview with Houston Press
The Year of Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau was born 200 years ago this month, and publishers are celebrating with new editions and adaptations of his work. “The Illustrated Walden” recreates a 1902 edition that included 30 engravings, daguerreotypes and period photographs. “A Year in the Woods,” a picture book illustrated by Giovanni Manna, selects excerpts from “Walden” for a condensed view of Thoreau’s time in the woods. And Jeffrey S. Cramer has edited and annotated “Essays,” a selection of Thoreau’s writings about slavery, Massachusetts, apples and other subjects. In this issue, the historian Douglas Brinkley considers Thoreau’s environmental legacy beyond the shores of Walden Pond.
The new book 'Drunks' is a colorful history of America's attempts to lay off the sauce, from radical prohibitionists attacking frontier bars to modern rehab programs like AA.
For as long as people have been drinking, they've also been trying to quit. A new book, Drunks: An American History, by Christopher M. Finan, chronicles the various sobriety movements that have characterized every phase of American history, as far back as the 17th century.
Drunks, which was published last week by Beacon Press, begins with Native Americans, for whom sobriety was not just a personal health issue but a way to restore pride and independence from the white colonists who first brought liquor to the continent. Finan recounts the story of Handsome Lake, a member of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy), whose visions of a spirit messenger telling him to abstain from alcohol, kicked off a religious sobriety movement in 1799. (Legally speaking, Finan notes that the very first North American prohibition was enacted by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1633.) From there, the book covers centuries of colorful episodes, including radical prohibitionist Carry Nation's attacks against frontier taverns in the early 1900s. She smashed up Kansas bars "first with bricks and stones, then an iron rod, and finally a seven-pound hatchet" taken from the railroad company. These early sobriety movements would eventually pave the way for the self-help and rehabilitation movements of the 1980s, including Betty Ford's highly publicized rehab center. The Betty Ford Clinic was so fascinating to people, a TV station once attempted to sneak into her hospital via a bread truck. "I hadn't rescued anyone from a burning building," said Ford, mystified by all the attention. "I'd simply put my bottles down."
But Finan, who comes from generations of alcoholics working to get sober, knows there's nothing simple about it. This lived-in experience is on display as he chronicles three centuries of advocates and alcoholics fighting to arrive at the modern view of addiction. Drunks shows how hard doctors have had to work to prove that alcoholism is, in fact, a disease and that giving up alcohol was possible for even habitual drinkers. Finan calls sobriety one of the "great liberation movements," and his book is a history of people trying to get free.
VICE: You write about the changing meaning of "temperance." How and why did the meaning of that term change over time?
Christopher M. Finan: In the beginning, there was a widespread recognition that Americans had a drinking problem, by the end of the 18th century. It was the result of the sudden flood of whiskey that became so cheap that abuse was inevitable. So the early temperance groups advocating abstaining from distilled spirits but believed it was OK to drink beer and wine. In fact, Dr. Benjamin Rush [surgeon general of the Continental Army] really believed that lesser spirits could help people get sober by helping to wean them off of whiskey. As the temperance movement grew, people started to say—sensibly—it's not really whiskey that's the problem, alcohol is the problem. So, several decades into the movement, this clash developed between the older school of temperance and the so-called Tea-Totalers, who began to push a pledge getting people to abstain from any alcohol at all. And that became the stance of the temperance movement up until Prohibition.
There is a theme of class that comes up from time to time in the book. Do you see a connection between the issue of drunkenness and the American dream of economic success?
As with every aspect of American history, there certainly is a class element. Some of the older temperance supporters were ministers and men of wealth who really wanted to be able to continue to drink wine. So focusing on whiskey, which is what the poor were drinking, was easy for them. For the Washingtonians, the 19th-century movement among working men to address the problem of drunkenness in their ranks, it definitely was a factor. [It was] an increasingly turbulent economic environment, in which classes were developing—and sobriety was critical to be able to rise in that world.
I love the Abraham Lincoln quotation that you include about the "heads and hearts of habitual drunkards." It's a warm description—very different from the way that many others talk about drunks.
It is a constant theme, to push back against the image of them as the town drunks, the degenerates, and to make the point that alcoholism affects all classes of society and it afflicts the best and brightest. It's often a reaction to how terrible the stigma was against alcoholics: the idea that alcoholics deserved to suffer because they were bad people, they were criminals, they were weaklings, they were sinners. The tremendous humanitarianism of Lincoln is well-known, but I hadn't known until I started working on this book that it extended to drunks.
I was surprised to read how early some doctors were viewing alcohol abuse as a medical issue.
They didn't call it alcoholism at the time, but alcohol has always been kicking the hell out of us. Doctors could hardly miss it. But it wasn't until the 18th century that some began to speculate that it was the consequence of a physical illness that could be studied. Benjamin Rush was the first American to focus on the problem and to see it as something that could be cured. He knew people who had gotten sober, and he had helped people get sober. He had a servant, who may have been a slave, who had an alcohol problem, and he gave him Ipecac to make him throw up, and that became a fairly standard treatment for helping to wean people off.
How did sobriety evolve from there?
Doctors had always been interested, but it was really until the 1870s that there were enough who came together for the American Associate for the Care of Inebriates. They began to establish institutions for alcoholics, and realized that as difficult as it was, people could be helped. And then that went on to Dr. Keeley, who established more than 100 clinics, and helped thousands.
Could you talk more about Keeley? This doctor is treating alcoholism as a disease—great—but also selling "gold injections" as a cure.
It takes a lot of thinking to figure out if he was a bad guy or a good guy. At the beginning, there was a certain amount of hucksterism. But the fact is that, whether he knew what he was doing or not, he did help thousands, because he created these places where alcoholics could go. They had been alone in their suffering, and they began to draw strength from each other, and gain confidence in the idea that they could recover. Up until that point, it wasn't even clear to people that recovery was possible.
"They didn't call it alcoholism at the time, but alcohol has always been kicking the hell out of us."
I love this idea that Keeley maybe was being a bit of huckster, but stumbled into the real cure.
I think he was well-intentioned. But as with all elements of American life, there was always an element of commerce. The patients in his clinics were enormously grateful to him. There's a scene with an image that I love. Keeley is under attack from the medical establishment and he's coming back from a trip, and there lined up at the railroad station are long lines of his patients who doff their caps to him as he passes—it's very heartwarming.
You get into the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous. Can you tell us a bit about what was going on in America at the time?
It's impossible to exaggerate what a disaster Prohibition was for alcoholics, even those who hoped that Prohibition would help them. There had been a little over a century of increasingly hopeful developments, and then Prohibition comes along and a lot of private institutions and some key government-run institutions closed. And when Prohibition fails, and the liquor starts to flow again, alcoholics are really lost. It is out of that really devastated landscape that Alcoholics Anonymous emerges. There were a lot of factors—like America's talent for forming voluntary groups, which is something that de Tocqueville talked about. But the spark is just this chance meeting between Bill Wilson and Bob Smith, in Akron, [Ohio], in 1935—two talented people, likeminded people, who find each other in desperation. Wilson is only a few months sober, and he's afraid he's going to get drunk, and Smith is recovering from a hangover from a couple of days before. These two guys sit down and click. By the early 1950s, there are more than 100,000 members. It is a fabulous tale—and its lasting significance cannot be overstated. This is one of America's great liberation movements.
I'm curious about what you think about the current culture around drinking and sobriety.
I think that a lot of the progress we've made is permanent. As long as people are staying sober and can remember what it was like for them, whether in AA or some other sobriety group, this is one of the defining experiences of their lives and they aren't about to let anybody deny or diminish the truth of what they've experienced. [But] alcoholism is still a tremendous problem, and the amount of treatment is completely inadequate. In government, there's always going to be the temptation to do what it did before with Prohibition, to cut back on spending, to say it's really not such a big problem. We hear that in the debate over repealing Obamacare. Tom Price, the head of Health and Human Services, was trying to defend the fact that the Republican plan would cut back on addiction services, and he said, "Hey, these treatments aren't working. We need to try something else." As if cutting the budget is the way to try something new.
You Can't Say That
by Nan Levinson
In November 1919, federal agents raided a community center in New York frequented by Russian immigrants, rounded up hundreds of students and teachers, and vandalized the classrooms. So began the Palmer Raids, a response to the threat of foreign radicalism after WWI, in which thousands of supposed subversives — primarily members of American Communist parties — were arrested, though most were never charged with any crime.
In October 2001, Congress passed the Patriot Act, empowering the federal government to round up and deport hundreds of non-citizens it suspected of terrorist connections and expand its authority to conduct covert searches and collect information about American citizens. We don’t yet know the extent of these programs because they are secret, but, as in the earlier campaign, people are currently being penalized, not for their actions but for their ideas, affiliations, and words.
With a little historical license, the intervening era could be called America’s free-speech century; during this time, the government, as well as organizations that sprang up to suppress or defend various forms of expression, struggled to determine what the 45 words of the First Amendment really mean. Christopher M. Finan ’92GSAS, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and chair of the National Coalition Against Censorship, has documented these fights in his comprehensive tour of free-speech controversies over the past nine decades.
Finan writes gracefully about the episodes, and he explains their significance with insight and occasional wit. He relies heavily on the work of other writers who have focused on specific issues in greater detail and nuance (a bibliography would have made tracking his sources easier), but if he charts little new territory, he has drawn a valuable map, with routes and boundaries clearly delineated.
Though the skirmishes he describes show America at its most intolerant and silly, Finan portrays the larger war as being won. That’s true to an extent — even with the current retrenchment, the First Amendment is remarkably generous in what it protects — but censorship will always be with us. The instinct to ban offending words or images is too powerful to litigate or legislate out of existence. Thus, Finan’s history serves as a useful reminder that, for all its glory, the First Amendment has been put to the test as often as it has been honored.
Finan organizes his review of this testing more or less by decades, beginning his chapters with an anecdote about a controversy, then circling back to fill in details, historical context, and legal benchmarks. Many of these stories will seem the stuff of familiar headlines: the government swinging from openness to secrecy and back again, money buying legal favor, fundamentalists pushing to substitute church for state, new technologies causing panic, civil libertarians caroming from optimism to despair to internecine warfare, and everybody, it seems, chanting, “I’m not in favor of censorship, but…”
Governments tend to censor in the name of national security, which often includes business interests, moralists, and reformers in the name of propriety and protection of the weak. The reasons remain remarkably consistent, as do the effects: covering other people’s mouths, ears, and eyes, purportedly for their own good. The sticking points are words that make us feel unsafe or that challenge authority — frequently confused — and portrayals of sex. (American depictions of sex have long been a dance of approach and avoidance; our way of accommodating that friction seems to be to excoriate and entice simultaneously — and then feel bad about it.)
Finan begins with national-interest issues, linking the Espionage Act of 1917 to the repression of radicals and immigrants, then moves on to the persecution of labor activists in the 1920s. He dates the birth of the civil liberties movement from this time, charting in detail the founding of the ACLU and the tactics of Roger Baldwin, its resourceful first executive director, who understood that when the government is hostile and the courts supine, enlisting public sympathy may be the only tool available to the politically oppressed.
The early years of the ACLU exemplify the face-offs that still typify free-speech fights, along with the capacity of the fighters to convince themselves that bad legal decisions and rotten laws could have been worse. Finan also sets up the ever-present tension between compromise and radicalism. Supporting popular speech is easy; it’s the offensive words and ideas that put the First Amendment — and civil libertarians — to the test.
Until the 1930s, the courts read the First Amendment as applying only to the federal government. Then came the Depression, which, Finan writes, “created a new tolerance for ideas that had once seemed radical and a new appreciation for those who defended free speech.” Civil libertarians were suspicious of the New Deal at first, as were the anti-Communists who, after the war, hounded individuals in the government, schools, and entertainment industries with loyalty oaths and blacklists. The chill of this second Red Scare lingered into the 1960s, when the government harassed political activists in the civil rights and antiwar movements with domestic spying and other destabilizing activities. But this time, Congress and the Supreme Court resisted, instituting significant First-Amendment safeguards for incendiary speech, student speech, and journalism.
Finan also dives into waves of American culture wars, marked by suspicion of intellectuals and by ever-futile attempts to wall off “good” art from “bad” porn. We learn about the Scopes trial, which challenged the teaching of evolution in schools; the Comstock laws — Finan labels this “the first national censorship regime” — which used the postal system to ban racy novels and information on such topics as birth control; the give-and-take over what can appear in books, magazines, movies, and comic books and on radio and TV; the dustups over public funding for the arts in the 1980s and 1990s; and the backlash against permissiveness stoked by the unlikely alliance of right-wing evangelicals, who sought to protect “family values,” and left-wing feminists, who sought to protect women. He also examines prominent free-press victories that expanded protection for dissenting views by prohibiting prior restraint and making it harder for public figures to silence journalists through libel lawsuits.
In the final chapter, Finan presents his most original material, reporting from an activist perspective on our post-9/11 era, with its extreme government secrecy, reignited fear of foreign influences, and vilification of dissent. Temporarily shedding his historian’s voice, he offers a firstperson account of ongoing efforts to guard civil liberties in the face of a collective national shrug. He notes that most Americans were frightened into accepting repressive measures they might otherwise have resisted and didn’t think the Patriot Act affected them anyway until the infamous Section 215 came to light. It allows the government to monitor what anyone takes out of a library or buys at a bookstore. It also prevented librarians and book - sellers from so much as mentioning that the feds had visited them, a restriction they refused to accept. Their resistance helped loosen the gag and add a little accountability to the reauthorized Patriot Act in 2006. And it minted some of Finan’s recent free-speech heroes, such as board members of the Vermont Library Association, who led the fight to repeal the offending provisions, and their senator, Bernie Sanders, who took their fight to Congress.
Of the post-9/11 crackdown, Finan writes, “As in the past, the greatest threat to free speech came not from individuals or private groups but from government.” Governments do have the power to stifle speech, but so do churches, schools, employers, editors, and sometimes even our neighbors. Censorship is ultimately a transaction between people, and it is individuals who fight it most effectively, often one by lonely one. Finan introduces a host of well- and lesser-known advocates in all their complicated humanity, including the many jurists who upheld the First Amendment with thrilling eloquence.
So maybe the real story of free speech in America is how we came to understand the need to tolerate expression we dislike and to believe that persecuting people for what they say and think is un-American. We still do it, but somebody somewhere can be counted on to rise up to call it unworthy — of ourselves and of our nation. To Finan, that is notable progress. “We are fortunate to live in a country that includes many brave souls,” he concludes. “They have made freedom of speech one of the glories of American civilization.”
Nan Levinson is the author of Outspoken: Free Speech Stories. She teaches at Tufts University and is working on a book about the antiwar movement of Iraq veterans.
Book gives voice to heroes in the fight for the First Amendment
By Michael Braude
Today, I want to call your attention to an extraordinary, off-the-beaten-path book. It is Christopher Finan's "From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America."
The conclusion of Finan's book sums up why I believe it is such an important treatise. He writes: "We are fortunate to live in a country that includes many brave souls. They have made freedom of speech one of the glories of American civilization."
The book methodically traces Americans' fight for free speech from 1919 to the present.
The Palmer Raids occurred in 1919. Federal agents raided a community center in New York and arrested hundreds of Russian immigrants, mostly teachers and students. This was done as a response to the perceived threat of foreign radicalism after World War I. Many of those arrested in the raid were never charged with any crime.
Decade by decade up to the Patriot Act, the author chronicles our battles for free speech. He highlights many episodes of intolerance but concludes that although the First Amendment has been tested frequently, heroes generally have emerged to protect our right to free speech.
Interestingly, he repeatedly hammers home the need for vigilance. He writes: "Censorship will always be with us. The instinct to ban offending words or images is too powerful to litigate or legislate out of existence."
He says: "The expression creates a new tolerance for ideas that once seemed radical and a new appreciation for those who defended free speech."
I was taken by the author's detailed account of the Red Scare, which lasted well into the 1960s. Then, the government harassed political activists in the civil rights and anti-war movements with domestic spying and other such activities. After this era of McCarthyism, Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court instituted meaningful safeguards for free speech and free journalism.
A central theme of the book is that the biggest challenges to free speech in our country have come from the government itself, tending to censor "in the name of national security."
Certainly, the author thinks that was the case with the passage of the Patriot Act. He says that Americans were frightened into accepting the act's repressive measures and that "we only became incensed when the act's Section 215 came to light."
That section allowed our government to monitor what anyone took out of a library or bought at a bookstore. It also prevented libraries and booksellers from mentioning that the feds had visited them.
The author lauds the board members of the Vermont Library Association, who led the successful battle to repeal the offending provisions along with their senator, Bernie Sanders. These odious provisions were dropped in the reauthorized Patriot Act in 2006.
The book also explores efforts to wall off "good art" from "bad porn." He describes the use of the U.S. Postal Service to ban racy novels, information on birth control and the content of books, magazines and movies. Here, he points to the unlikely alliance of right-wing evangelicals who wanted to protect "family values" and left-wing feminists who sought to protect women.
Finan clearly believes that the need to tolerate expression we dislike is essential in a free society and that persecuting people for what they say is un-American.
His theme that I most agreed with is his belief that "censorship is ultimately a transaction between people, and it is individuals who fight it most effectively, often one by lonely one."
I strongly hold that the First Amendment must always be one of our most cherished values.
Hence, I recommend Christopher Finan's thought-provoking book!
Chris Finan Wins ALA Award for
"From the Palmer Raids"
In June 2008, the American Library Association's Intellectual Freedom Round Table presented the Eli M. Oboler Memorial Award to Chris Finan for his book, “From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America.”
The award is named for the late Idaho University librarian Eli M. Oboler—famed as a “champion of intellectual freedom who demanded the dismantling of all barriers to freedom of expression.” The Intellectual Freedom Round Table (IFRT) presents the award every two years for the best published book on intellectual freedom.
The presentation of the Oboler award was made at the ALA Annual Conference in Anaheim, Calif.
Whence Comes Censorship?
By Gene Roman
Just after the terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer warned Americans at a press conference that we are now living in an era in which “we have to watch what we say.”
Since that declaration, I have been searching for a book describing the battles against government censorship. I have found that book in Christopher Finan’s From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America. Finan, a historian and free speech advocate, has written a book with enormous relevance for post-9/11 America. As the president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and chair of the National Coalition Against Censorship, he describes the battles against government censorship from his professional perch as a historian and advocate for civil liberties. “This is the story of our triumph over government censors,” he writes.
Throughout the book, Finan gives credit to the American Civil Liberties Union for its leadership in protecting political speech during wartime, opposing campaigns to censor books and promoting the rights of individuals to “peacefully assemble” to establish labor unions.
During the 1920s, the A.C.L.U. fought for the rights of miners in West Virginia, Colorado and Pennsylvania to organize unions against the financial interests of the Rockefeller and Carnegie families. In the same period, they also fought campaigns by civic organizations to censor reading materials held by public libraries. When a coalition of Protestants and Catholics lobbied the New York State Legislature on behalf of a “clean books” bill, the A.C.L.U. and its allies led the efforts to defeat the legislation. The books targeted for removal from public libraries included Women in Love, by D. H. Lawrence and Ulysses, by James Joyce. The religious denominations judged these books and those like them to be “sexually objectionable.”
A spokesman for the Catholic Church in New York argued that “we must be governed by decent laws even at the risk of being denounced for seeking to impose the will of a group on the majority.”
The A.C.L.U.’s opposition to this censorship campaign was not automatic. In his research, Finan discovered that the A.C.L.U. had to overcome its own “reticence” about defending sexually explicit material. He also credits the federal courts with helping to expand free speech protection after World War II.
When Jersey City’s Democratic mayor, Frank Hague, tried to block union organizers from distributing leaflets informing workers of their rights in 1937, the A.C.L.U. and the union sued in federal court and won.
According to Finan, the greatest number of legal victories were achieved between 1954 to 1969, when the Supreme Court was led by Chief Justice Earl Warren. “The impact of the Warren Court on the right of free speech and freedom of the press has been profound. It expanded artistic freedom, helped ease the abuses of the McCarthy period and encouraged the growth of civil rights.”
The 1964 landmark free-press case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan produced the ruling that debate on public issues must be “uninhibited, robust and wide-open.” The majority opinion was written by William Brennan, a Catholic. Finan argues that these victories for civil liberties were achieved only after a period of complacency that lasted from before World War I to the beginning of the New Deal. “Prior to World War I,” he notes, “Americans took freedom of speech for granted.”
The conviction and deportation of thousands of Americans between 1919 and 1920 by U.S. Attorney General Mitchell Palmer (hence “Palmer Raids”) for criticizing World War I convinced Americans like Roger Baldwin, the A.C.L.U.’s founder, of the need for an aggressive civil rights organization to combat government abuses. The de-ported and arrested Amer-icans included Emma Goldman and Eugene V. Debs, advocates for free speech and women’s rights.
It was Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who wrote the majority opinion affirming the government’s right to imprison Debs for making a speech criticizing American participation in World War I. “But the government raids,” according to Finan, “did achieve something important. They raised the issue of what freedoms are protected by the First Amendment.”
The conflict between civil liberties and presidential power would resurface again with the passage of the USA Patriot Act in April 2002. There was growing concern around the country that the federal government would again sacrifice civil liberties to national security, repeating the mistakes made during World War I, World War II and the cold war.
“It had already stirred the ghosts of the Palmer Raids by pulling more than one thousand Muslim men off the street and holding them incommunicado,” Finan notes.
Many individuals and organizations again looked to the A.C.L.U. for leadership and support to combat the warrantless government surveillance of electronic and telephone communications by American citizens.
One of the victories won with A.C.L.U. legal advocacy resulted in a federal court decision that ruled a National Security Agency-sponsored wiretapping program illegal.
“There are no hereditary kings in America and no powers created by the Constitution,” wrote U.S. District Court Judge Anna Diggs Taylor of Detroit. A higher court later overruled Judge Taylor’s decision, Finan points out, “citing an expansive view of presidential power.”
Our constitutional amendments protecting freedom of speech and freedom of the press exist on paper; but according to Christopher Finan, the American people must remain vigilant if we want to keep them. “Perhaps the best explanation for the expansion of free speech,” he writes, “is that over the last century we have learned that it will survive only if we cultivate it. Our constitutional protections and liberties depend on the courage of individuals who fight for their rights.”
Gene Roman is the managing editor of the Community Affairs Newsletter at Columbia University in New York City.
History About Free Speech is a Compelling Read
By Dennis Lythgoe
"From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act" is a nicely paced history with a list of fascinating characters, starting with A. Mitchell Palmer, attorney general in the 1920s, who led a government round-up of thousands of Russian immigrants and deported 800 of them.
In 1929, books by such celebrated writers as Bertrand Russell, H.G. Wells, Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner and John Dos Passos were "banned in Boston" and other places in the country.
In the '50s, a second red scare gripped the country with Sen. Joseph McCarthy the lead character, spearheading a witch hunt for "communists and queers" that will be forever remembered. So will CBS's Edward R. Murrow for taking on McCarthy for his abusive and cowardly methods.
By the end of World War II, everyone was talking about sex.
In 1953, "The Moon is Blue," a film by Otto Preminger, failed to get the government's Production Code seal of approval. The movie was a mild sex comedy with the theme of seduction but it was still booked into 2,400 theaters.
The author also tells the story of Emma Viets, chairwoman of the Kansas City censorship board, who cut scenes from Hollywood films that were not "clean and wholesome" -- including the shortening of on-screen kisses and excising the image of any woman "in the family way."
During the Reagan administration, there were major efforts to fight pornography, which was displayed in a number of different ways. (Of course, no one realized the biggest challenge would come in the 1990s when the Internet revolutionized worldwide communication.)
In telling a disturbing but important story, the author quotes former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, saying, "It is during our most challenging and uncertain moments that our nation's commitment to due process is most severely tested; and it is in those times that we must preserve our commitment at home to the principles for which we fight abroad."
No wonder the American Civil Liberties Union was founded in 1920, with the determination of fighting First Amendment battles. Early on, the ACLU defended Socialists, union organizers and such groups as the Klu Klux Klan and Jehovah's Witnesses. Then it was civil- rights crusaders, those charged with releasing government papers, and those accused of violating the product of terrorism, the Patriot Act.
This book is a well-researched and analytical study of the persistent arguments Americans have had regarding the First Amendment. Whatever your position on some of these varied issues, you would be hard-pressed to disagree with their importance.
Christopher Finan has produced a book that is very well-written and pitched to the average reader rather than the scholar of American political or social history.
From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act
A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America
Library Journal, 2007
Finan (president, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression) begins his sad tale of modern attacks on the First Amendment with the pre-World War I campaigns against the Wobblies and other labor activists, which expanded into the prosecution of antiwar activists, ethnics, pacifists, and Socialists and culminated in the 1919 Palmer raids. At the same time, leading civil libertarians organized the first of several groups that became the American Civil Liberties Union. Finan shows that the primary focus of government and social repression has always been the "enemy" of the day-Socialists and pacifists in World War I, Communists and foreigners during the first Red Scare, Communists and all those left of center in the McCarthy years, and antiwar protestors during Vietnam and post-9/11. Along the way, unionists, writers condemned as obscene, teachers with unpopular views, and librarians could all become ensnared in the net of oppression. Finan examines the steady expansion of our concept of freedom of speech, as underpinned by the ACLU, the Freedom of Information Act, and the Supreme Court. He defines the battle to protect free speech as an ongoing one in which today's antiterrorism laws are of a piece with earlier suppressions. Based on original research as well as secondary sources, this timely book will be of interest both to general and academic readers. Highly recommended.
– Duncan Stewart, University of Iowa Library, Iowa City
From the palmer raids to the Patriot Act
A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America
It’s obvious from this fascinating book that the author, chairman of the National Coalition Against Censorship, is passionate about his subject. From the 1919 anti-subversive raids launched by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, to early film censorship, to book banning, to the red scare, to the attack on comic books, to anti-NAACP legislation, to television censorship, to the Patriot Act, Finan takes us on a censorship tour of the twentieth century, carefully examining how the right to think and speak out has been repeatedly put to the test. In addition to the usual heroes (Rosa Parks, Edward R. Murrow, Martin Luther King Jr., Clarence Darrow), the book is full of notorious villains, such as Will Hays, the father of film censorship; Fredric Wertham, the psychiatrist whose hatred of comic books changed an entire industry; Joseph McCarthy; and Donald Wildmon, the Methodist minister whose crusade against sex and violence on television garnered worldwide attention. Unlike many commentators, Finan treats the villains fairly, presenting them not as wild-eyed fanatics but as people who thought they were doing what was right. The book is a welcome and much-needed change from the simplistic good-versus-evil treatment this subject often gets. Could be the definitive study of a perpetually complex, contentious issue.
– David Pitt
From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act
A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America
Publisher's Weekly, 2007
Finan (Alfred E. Smith: The Happy Warrior), president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, provides an insightful history of the long struggle for free speech in America. The book is especially apropos for our own age, when, confronted by the Patriot Act, otherwise mild-mannered librarians have morphed into tenacious guardians of civil liberty, refusing to open client records to the FBI. The government has more than once tried to suppress the First Amendment right to free expression of suspected radicals, antiwar activists and labor unionists. In November 1919, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer launched raids during which 4,000 Americans, mostly immigrants, were rounded up because they were suspected of being Communists. In 1923, Upton Sinclair went to jail for the brazen act of reading the First Amendment aloud on Liberty Hill in San Pedro, Calif. Thirty-four years later, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and a City Lights bookstore clerk faced trial in San Francisco for selling Allen Ginsberg's "obscene" book Howl. Finan's tome is chock-full of would-be tyrants eager to tell others what they might say and think. But it's also chock-full of heroes (from the ACLU to those brave librarians) who have refused to be silenced.
Alfred E. Smith
The Happy Warrior
Kirkus Reviews, 2002
A rock-solid biography of the muckraking New York politician. Though he bore the sobriquet "the happy warrior," Al Smith (1873–1944) took anything but a lighthearted approach to politics. He harbored, writes Finan (president of the American Booksellers' Foundation for Free Expression), a "distrust of theory" in an age when big ideas abounded and instead was convinced that the "first step to solving any problem was to get 'the facts'." His careful, studious approach to politics was learned on the job after an unlikely elevation from his former occupation as a laborer at New York's Fulton Fish Market. Taken up by a Tammany ward boss, Smith soon became an integral part of the city's political machine, securing the support of fellow Irish Catholics. Populist but essentially conservative, he won the governorship in 1918, dismaying the social elite that ruled Albany. Around this time he became a valuable ally of Franklin Roosevelt, though FDR harbored his own ambitions and eventually turned on Smith, ostensibly in the interests of anti-boss system reform but in fact in the interests of the patrician, anti-immigrant, and anti-Catholic wing of the Democratic Party. Angry at Roosevelt's "dodging" on Prohibition, Smith endured a sound defeat at Herbert Hoover's hands in the presidential election of 1928, then became a prominent critic of the New Deal after FDR beat Hoover in 1932. For this supposed betrayal, he was shunned by his fellow Democrats and was subsequently all but forgotten by historians. That's all to the bad, Finan argues; Smith's mistrust of big government is a familiar trope today, his political accomplishments were many, and had he been elected, "he may well have become one of the country's great presidents." Well written, thoroughly researched: likely to stand as the definitive portrait of Smith for years to come.