IN HIS TIME the “psychologist” Coue may have seemed a mere passing fad, yet he struck deep roots in America. His main therapeutic technique—the repetition of the sentence, Day by Day, In Every Way, I am Getting Better and Better—summoned up a persistent American capacity for optimism which survives not merely in the preaching of Norman Vincent Peale but, more surprisingly, in some recent articles on civil liberties that appeared in the New Republic.
The agent of this metamorphosis is John Roche, a historian at Haverford College and a director of the Pennsylvania Civil Liberties Union. His series of three articles is straightforwardly titled “We’ve Never Had More Freedom,” and his central thesis is “that American freedom has never been as firmly established or as broadly shared as is the case today.” Within the month, Roche had the distinction of being quoted approvingly by Sidney Hook in a New Leader article demonstrating that teachers, also, never had it so good.
There is a temptation to treat the whole thing facetiously, to oppose Roche’s fabulous title to anyone’s knowledge of the American reality, and let it go at that. But more serious attention is required.
Strangely enough, Roche’s entire case is based upon a genuine insight into the civil liberties problem. He realizes that there has been a shift in the locus of the attack on freedom and that this fact is the heart of the matter. But then he compares the situation in America of fifty to seventy-five years ago with that of today and measures them against each other as if one could multiply donkeys by elephants and come up with a conclusion about the forest.
ROCHE ATTACKS the notion that there was once a “Golden Age of American Freedom” and that we are in a retrogression from it. But in dealing with this view—one would like to know who is naive enough to maintain it—he calls attention to a crucial fact. The American past, he points out, is filled with a sorry record of vigilantism which struck out at “The Non-Partisan League organizer in Minnesota, the Wobbly in Colorado, the abolitionist in Georgia, the Socialist in Oklahoma, the Catholic in Know-Nothing territory…” It was a consequence of the “decentralized authoritarianism” of a growing America. And this anti-libertarianism, Roche points out, is on the decline.
So far, so good. There is no question that this kind of vigilantism has diminished. Today, it is chiefly located in the Southern White Citizen’s Councils, a serious enough matter to be sure, but in other areas it has just about vanished.
Behind this change, Roche finds “the increasing power and jurisdiction of national government over national life which has taken place as a concomitant if not as a consequence, of the increasing industrialization and urbanization of the nation....
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