Saturday, June 16, 2018

"A free soul in jail"

Eugene V. Debs speaking in Canton, Ohio, June 16, 1918

     The media notes the anniversary of every popular cookie and famous sporting event, and I'm as guilty as anyone. A trivial person, enamored with popular culture, a humorist at heart.
     But that doesn't mean I don't sympathize with those who stand up against the system, which did not suddenly become corrupt and oppressive with the election of Donald Trump. Who is without question an outlier when it comes to falsity, spite and self-dealing, but who also shines a klieg light on how things have always been in the shadows.
     Today, June 16, 2018, could be spun a lot of way. It's Bloomsday, the day in 1904 when the entire plot of James Joyce's Ulysses transpires. It's also my younger son's 21st birthday.
     With that in mind, thanks to a heads up from my friends at Haymarket Books, I'd like to point out that today is the centennial of a speech by Eugene V. Debs in Canton, Ohio.
     If you remember Debs at all — and I'd imagine most don't — you think of him as a labor leader and socialist candidate who ran for president from jail in 1920. The reason he was in jail was the speech he made, 100 years ago today.
     It's a very long speech—you can read it here, or hear a dramatic four minutes read by actor Mark Ruffalo here

     Debs begins by explaining how he has to be very careful in expressing his beliefs, lest he end up in prison. But that he would try to do so in a way both honest to himself and within the law, but if he failed, Debs said, "I would rather a thousand times be a free soul in jail than to be a sycophant and coward on the streets."
     A 'sycophant," in case the word is unfamiliar, describes the people crowding around Donald Trump, rolling at his feet like puppies.
     The key passage:
     Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder. In the Middle Ages when the feudal lords who inhabited the castles whose towers may still be seen along the Rhine concluded to enlarge their domains, to increase their power, their prestige and their wealth they declared war upon one another. But they themselves did not go to war any more than the modern feudal lords, the barons of Wall Street go to war.      The feudal barons of the Middle Ages, the economic predecessors of the capitalists of our day, declared all wars. And their miserable serfs fought all the battles. The poor, ignorant serfs had been taught to revere their masters; to believe that when their masters declared war upon one another, it was their patriotic duty to fall upon one another and to cut one another’s throats for the profit and glory of the lords and barons who held them in contempt. And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose—especially their lives.
     They have always taught and trained you to believe it to be your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at their command. But in all the history of the world you, the people, have never had a voice in declaring war, and strange as it certainly appears, no war by any nation in any age has ever been declared by the people. And here let me emphasize the fact—and it cannot be repeated too often—that the working class who fight all the battles, the working class who make the supreme sacrifices, the working class who freely shed their blood and furnish the corpses, have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace. It is the ruling class that invariably does both.
     They alone declare war and they alone make peace.
     Yours not to reason why;
     Yours but to do and die.
     I was familiar with those last two lines—I would guess many people are—without realizing where they came from.
     Debs didn't calibrate his words finely enough; he was arrested two weeks later, charged with 10 counts of sedition for this speech, and sentenced to prison for 10 years, a judgment unanimously upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. That's why he was in jail during the presidential election of 1920, running as Convict No. 9653, nevertheless receiving 3.4 percent of the vote, slightly better than un-jailed libertarian Gary Johnson did in the 2016 election.
     Woodrow Wilson refused to pardon Debs, writing, "While the flower of American youth was pouring out its blood to vindicate the cause of civilization, this man, Debs, stood behind the lines sniping, attacking, and denouncing them....This man was a traitor to his country and he will never be pardoned during my administration."

     Now we elected a traitor to our country president, eyes wide open.
     Warren G. Harding didn't pardon Debs, but commuted his sentence, to time served, on Christmas Day, 1921.
     A reminder to all those resisting our current president. Things are not as bad as they once were. Or as bad as they could be, and will be, if good people do not stand up, speak out, and do whatever they can for as long as necessary, the consequences be damned. This is not a new fight; it's the old fight in new clothes. Do not think that victory will be easily won, or won without cost, or without suffering.  That never has happened, nor can, nor will. 


  1. Thanks for the rallying cry.

    I believe Debs was paraphrasing "The Charge of the Light Brigade"

    Theirs not to make reply,
    Theirs not to reason why,
    Theirs but to do and die.

  2. You're right. I had a sense he was quoting from somewhere else.

  3. Ruffalo's reading wasn't quite Deb's speech although he used some of the words. He should have read it as Debs spoke it. It doesn't seem like the speech is very long. There should be readings all across the country today.

  4. As much as I like and respect Eugene Debs, I think that he made his case too strongly. The "people" often do participate in the declaration and pursuit of war and the monarchs of old (and new) often fought and died in their stupid wars. I'm reminded of a quote from "Into the Silence" from an English aristocratic young lady, who early in the First World War, said, "I just realized that every man I ever danced with is dead."


  5. "Yours not to reason why;
    Yours but to do and die."

    That was the reply from our sixth-grade teacher when we whined about surprise quizzes and too much homework. She never explained the origin of those words, but they've stuck with me for sixty years, and I've never forgotten them...or her. A wonderful teacher, who made me want to learn...and to know more. Tough, firm, and one of the best I ever had. Thank you, Mrs. Perkins.

  6. As much as I admire Debs, I can't agree with him here, at least not totally. We got dragged into World War I by Germany's extremely obnoxious and offensive policy of assuming the right to torpedo every vessel that approached the British Isles. Prior to that, Germany had provoked us on several occasions, especially in Mexico, where they actively obstructed our efforts to defend our own citizens from becoming collateral damage of the Mexican Revolution. And don't forget the Zimmerman Telegram.

    That said, clapping him in prison for 10 years was ridiculous and Draconian, and served only to inflame passions. He should just have been ignored.

  7. tate, you are correct. Debs was overselling. Better that than outright lies, eh? Phil Ochs had a truer take on war. "It's always the old who lead to the war, always the young to fall". But Debs was close to the truth. Most Vietnam era draftees hadn't attained voting age and like Debs many were jailed for opposing the process. But it seems that Debs was jailed for what he said, a very, very sad, disgusting witch hunt, our current leader would say.

  8. So Debs could talk absolute twaddle? Of course the ruling classes of Europe and its former colonies fought and fight in wars, to say otherwise is to ignore reality entirely.

    I don't support prison for merely talking twaddle, but surely he doesn't earn any honor for it either.

    (Now, the ruling class of China tended not to fight in its own wars, at least the very top levels. They still could easily die, if their side lost, they just didn't fight.)

  9. The speech that Neil linked to was some what edited. Here is the speech. It is quite long.


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