restricted access America's Culture of Terrorism: Violence, Capitalism, and the Written Word (review)
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Reviewed by
Jeffory A. Clymer. America's Culture of Terrorism: Violence, Capitalism, and the Written Word. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2003. xii + 277 pp.

Most Americans believe that the attacks of September 11, 2001, destroyed a myth of American invulnerability to terrorism. For the first time Manhattan, like Srinagar and Belfast, bore the scars of sectarian violence. For the first time Americans faced conflicts between security and civil liberties, requiring stern new measures that bypassed customary guarantees about lawyers, habeas corpus, and trial by jury. But as Jeffory Clymer argues persuasively, only "a long and pervasive amnesia about different acts and forms of terrorism in its history" can explain this insistence that September 11 was entirely unprecedented (211).

America's Culture of Terrorism focuses on the period between the Haymarket Square explosion of 1886 and the Wall Street bombing of September, 1920. These events framed some forty years of often violent conflict between the labor movement and corporate management. As Clymer demonstrates, the newly powerful mass newspapers played a key role in constructing public perception of violence, including police reprisals; they generated narratives to explain the violence and, of course, publicized threats and multiplied fears. As many workers were immigrants, xenophobia loomed large. When the working-class son of Polish immigrants assassinated President McKinley in 1901, fears of foreign socialists and anarchists drowned out his claims to have acted alone, triggering a series of congressional acts to restrict European immigration. In the infamous Gilded Age, newspapers and public officials alike used a rhetoric that "conflated violence aimed at drawing attention to the inequities of capital with an outright attack on the American government" (3).

While Clymer pays close attention to the rhetoric of politicians, journalists, advertisers, and propagandists, four of his five chapters [End Page 746] also consider more literary texts, ranging from Henry James's canonical Princess Casamassima to Covington Hall's justly forgotten verse. Clymer demonstrates how literary writers both participated in and criticized the popular construction of terrorism. His analysis of Jack London's The Iron Heel (1906) and The Assassination Bureau (1910) is especially persuasive. London's terrorists, unlike the "maniacal murderers or disconnected intellectuals" of popular understanding, are eminently rational men like Ernest Everhard, who scolds academics and clergy for identifying "with the capitalist class . . . that pays you. . . . And in return you preach . . . the brands of metaphysics that . . . . do not menace the established order" (144, 147). Even more subversively, The Assassination Bureau depicts the terrorist "Minions of Midas," whose operations are as systematic as a well-run corporation's; they plot takeovers behind closed doors, guarding secrets zealously. Using Max Weber's terminology, Clymer notes how this "'bureaucratization of assassination'" diffuses "responsibility for murder throughout the 'bureaucratic rationale' of the organization," thus "'effectively reducing its political meaning to zero'"; moreover, London suggests that the "secretive and well-organized" structure of bureaucracies makes them "particularly amenable to menacing and clandestine ends" (165). Thus he creates a world in which "criminality, law, and terror" seem "reversible, contingent, and ultimately indivisible concepts" (169).

This affinity between terrorist and capitalist, and the identification of the state's welfare with business interests, was noted at the time by the International Workers of the World (the Wobblies). In a particularly engrossing chapter, Clymer documents how the Wobblies, like their capitalist counterparts, developed advertising campaigns featuring slogans, jingles, and trademark black, red, and white graphics. The Wobblies developed a distinctive visual idiom: the wooden shoe ("sabot," suggesting "sabotage"), say, or the black "sab-cat" with arched back and extended claws threatening capitalists with bad luck. Sabotage, Clymer argues, by connoting violence against property rather than terrorist violence against people, already complicated the black-and-white rhetoric that denounced workers as murderers. Unlike the Iron Workers, who blew up the Los Angeles Times' offices and printing plant in 1910, the Wobblies mostly feigned rather than practiced violence. Still, as Clymer notes, threats of violence have real effects, operating in the same murky area between language and material action as the Wobblies' "stickerette" campaign. Featuring the organization's trademark colors, graphics, and slogans, by 1915 the stickers were printed in lots of 500,000 and freely applied to private...


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