Friday, January 06, 2006

Upton Sinclair and the modern conservative pundit

Jonah Goldberg, as is his style, makes a broad attack on the "left" and "liberal" person by pointing out how Upton Sinclair refused to tell his readers what he really learned about the guilt of Sacco & Vanzetti, two Italian anarchists who were executed for a crime they had actually committed.

The source of Goldberg's diatribe was this article in the LA Times, which was a too-deeply cut version of what was going to include an examination of the times in which the Sacco & Vanzetti trial took place.* Too bad it didn't because it has, in retrospect, left the door wide open for sophomoric commentary of the likes of Goldberg.

First, this letter writer to the LA Times summarizes the facts of a biased judge and corrupt prosecution, which shows, regardless of their guilt or innocence, they did not receive a fair trial under our nation's laws. There is no dispute among reputable historians, conservative or liberal, concerning this point.

Second, Goldberg's ahistorical commentary fails to inform a reader that this was not the only case out there during the 1920s involving radicals. For example, there was the case of Tom Mooney, a labor union radical in California who was convicted on trumped-up charges who served 20 years in prison before being released. Never has anyone with any authority attempted to doubt his innocence. In general, the actions of the police and district attorneys across our nation during that time formed a pattern of harrassment, imprisonment and sometimes the murder of radicals. The latter had occurred in places such as Wyoming, Colorado, and other states in that region. Sinclair had a sense that if he went public with Sacco and Vanzetti's guilt, he was undermining those who would be the next victims of such police and district attorney misconduct. And again, remember how corrupt the Sacco/Vanzetti trial was.

This is not a defense of Upton Sinclair, who should have told the truth if he learned it from a source besides the attorney for Sacco and Vanzetti (and I believe there was at least another source). It is, however, helpful to understand why Sinclair would have acted this way at that time.

Third, Goldberg is desparate to attack Sinclair's entire character for one episode because Goldberg is well aware that his "Cause" (on behalf of the Terrible President, Tom DeLay and the whole corrupt, lying bunch) is now in deep trouble. Considering Goldberg's support of the Terrible President and the Republican Congress, he still has the audacity to write: "It's difficult to find many liberal martyr-saints who haven't been burnished by deceit." Yes, Goldberg, nobody's perfect. But where are your martyr-saints on the deceit meter? And in a self-refutation, Goldberg immediately mentions Reinhold Niebuhr, John Dewey, Michael Harrington as "liberal intellectuals" who were not deceitful. Funny that Dewey and especially Harrington thought of themselves as more "left" than "liberal," but that is perhaps a quibble. Here is more on Sinclair, who, if it was not for him, millions more of Americans would have died from ingesting unhealthy and rancid food.**

Overall, the Goldberg article is not designed to enlighten. It is designed to delegitimize and stigmatize. It is a classic slur on an entire movement of people who have fought for good working conditions, social security, medical insurance for people who are vulnerable (Medicaid and Medicare), civil rights, and due process of law in criminal prosecutions. It is especially galling for Goldberg to call the Rosenbergs, Abu-Mumia and Stanley "Tookie" Williams "liberal martyr-saints" to attempt to attack the integrity of those of us who stand for civil liberties and "liberal" public policy causes. I have, nor have most "liberal-left" persons, never thought Julius Rosenberg innocent, have always believed Mumia did not get a fair trial, but is most likely guilty of at least 2nd degree murder (killing in a heat of passion) and that Tookie Williams lied about his innocence in the crimes for which he was convicted. However, regardless of their guilt, they nonetheless deserved fair trials. Tookie received a fair trial, but Mumia and the Rosenbergs received neither a fair trial nor sentence, as many if not most legal scholars and historians would now agree. None of this, however, interests Goldberg who would rather rant like an arrogant, spoiled child.

* Disclosure: I was consulted on the Upton Sinclair article before it was published. I helped the reporter find Ideale Gambara, whose father was on the original defense committee for Sacco & Vanzetti. I was lucky to have met Ideale once, who is a friend of my wife's cousin, who is also a close and dear friend of mine. I contacted my wife's cousin to see if Ideale would talk to the reporter. He did and her article was going to include a more complete background as to how neither side acquitted themselves in the plea bargaining or trial. The "news" about the guilt of Sacco & Vanzetti was not a "hot" story, as Ideale's father was already well known in historians' circles because of Francis Russell's book on the subject almost 20 years ago (the comments at the Amazon cite do not do justice to the book, in either their approval or disapproval). I was thinking about blogging about the Upton Sinclair article and the deep cut editing (I never saw the original, but it was definitely going to include lots more information and context). Then, time ran by and I didn't. Oh well.

** In early 2005, I finally got around to reading "Oil!" Sinclair's novel about the California oil business in the 1910s and 1920s. It was extraordinary in its prose, its understanding of the oil business, and the best surprise was that the most sympathetically drawn character in the book is the wildcat businessman--not his bright, but sometime naive communist-leaning son. It is a great read and I strongly recommend it.



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