Definitely Not A Book Review

Bob Jones
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Wednesday - March 15, 2006
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A surefire way for a MidWeek columnist to reduce his weekly readership to 11 is to do a book review.

So this is not a book review. It’s the story of how a book can make us see the tragedy of George Bush and the Patriot Act without mentioning either one.

That, while supposedly showing us how American complacency led us to spread a 1918 flu in Kansas into a pandemic that may have killed at least 50 million people.

(Just for the record, it’s all in historian John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza, Penguin Books, $16.)

Let’s get right down to George & The Patriots, or how it all began 88 years ago.


Woodrow Wilson seems as close to a religious-crusader president as we’ve ever had, until the current one. Historian Barry says Wilson’s convictions with no signs of self-doubt made him “one of those rare men who believed almost to the point of mental illness in his own righteousness.”

When he took us to war against Germany he said “I will not cry peace so long as there is sin and wrong in the world. America was born to exemplify that devotion to the elements of righteousness which are derived from the revelations of Holy Scripture.”

I keep thinking I’ve heard that someplace else.

The Espionage Act of 1917 stopped just short of press censorship, but allowed the Postmaster to refuse to deliver anything unpatriotic or critical of the administration. The Sedition Act of 1918 made it a 20-year prison offense to “utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language about the government of the United States.”

Patriotic sing-outs blossomed and songs that could hurt morale - I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now - were banned.

The Secretary of War wrote all our college presidents that “military instruction under officers of the U.S. Army will be provided in every institution of college grade which enrolls 100 or more male students. All students over the age of 18 will be encouraged to enlist.” Not may be, but will be.

Wilson warned the Congress that “there are citizens of the United States, I blush to admit, who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life. Such creatures of passion, disloyalty and anarchy must be crushed out.”

The Librarian of Congress was told to report the names of those who asked for certain books so the government could monitor “the individual casual or impulsive disloyal utterances.”

All of this was declared constitutional in a decision written by Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.


Of course, while we were weeding out traitors we were still neglecting 20th century medicine. Our colleges had 200 endowed chairs in theology and five in science. Until 1880, most medical schools required no high school, no literacy and certainly no practice on patients. You just paid your tuition and were declared a physician.

And as American soldiers moved to the Europe battlefields they brought with them The Great Influenza along with the Holy Scripture. Democracy and disease.

Death and transfiguration.

If I were a high school social studies teacher I’d see a two-semester project in the lessons of this book (oops, did I say that killer word again?)

But do it carefully. There are people who are watching for the poison.

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