When patriots attack 

This week, UM School of Journalism professor Clem Work sent to his publisher the final manuscript of his book, Darkest Before Dawn, which tells the stories of the 64 Montanans tried (41 of whom were sentenced to up to 20 years in prison) under the state’s 1918 sedition law for speaking their minds during wartime. Work had the idea for the book before 9/11, but says the post-9/11 “rallying cries for unity…and accusations of people being unpatriotic for criticizing the government resonated with me at the time, because I was reading about the same things going on during World War I.”

Work’s manuscript opens with a huge patriotic parade held in Lewiston in 1917 and ends with a German textbook-burning spectacle outside a Lewiston schoolhouse just one year later; the book burning was followed by another parade.

“My question is, how was patriotism so perverted?” says Work.

Asked, two days after the 2004 presidential election, if that question has any relevance today, Work answers, “The notions of patriotism I think you could say have become perverted in some ways, certainly in the sense of criticism of those who do criticize the government.”

Three months after Montana passed the sedition law in February 1918, Congress adopted it almost word for word, says Work, and used it to convict about 2,000 people nationally. “This dark period in Montana and in other states,” he adds, “ultimately provoked a widespread reaction not only by scholars but even by the public to this repression and led to an awakening of the First Amendment, of the idea that there ought to be breathing room for dissent.” Asked if the fear and hysteria surrounding the 1918 sedition law might resonate with his readers today, Work says: “It was a pretty ugly climate after 9/11, and to some extent I think that’s been turned into legal instruments like the PATRIOT Act that may have some good purposes in stopping terrorism, but have gone way beyond the pale in narrowing people’s civil liberties and affecting the way in which people can criticize government.”

Work wonders whether George W. Bush’s re-election might coalesce support for a PATRIOT Act II. As for how this election might affect Work’s sales, he jokes that his wife has already weighed in: “This will probably help your book.”

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