Tuesday, August 14, 2012


“Okay, who's fucking with me and who's idea of a joke is this? I presume we're not talking about Eugene McCarthy. Are we talking about Joseph McCarthy? Then we're talking about McCarthyism. And if we’re talking about Joseph McCarthy, I’ve got a big, huge hairy problem with that asshole! Let me tell you a little bit about that. The only way this mediocre alcoholic could maintain his spotlight on the national stage was by whipping up some half-assed idea that there were Reds under all of our red-white-and-blue beds. So, he started coming up with "I have a list here with 237 names of American Communists" listed on it.”

Thus began one of my epic screeds on FB yesterday. This was in response to some article someone linked to regarding some batch of nuts in the GOP (are there any other kind?) who think it would be a swell idea to start up that kind of nonsense.

The trouble with McCarthyism is and was, in a nutshell, (and I am cutting lots of historical corners here,) is that there were American Communists; but the party had been outlawed by the 1950s; we had just been through the Rosenberg Trials. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted for selling secrets to the USSR. They were convicted of helping the USSR develop the Hydrogen bomb before schedule (I never understood that reasoning) and Stalin was scary; very scary. And very paranoid; he was already cutting swathes through his own Politburo, Army, Univerisities and had zeroed in on his doctors, his own medicos, when his altar-ego, the Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy started doing likewise in the US. The fact that McCarthy's victims didn't get a bullet in the head was a small victory; lives were ruined, people were outcast. Two of my father's professors at his college committed suicide over these witch hunts.

I'm not going to relate the whole Drew Pierson, David Shine, Alger Hiss, Roy Cohn mess. There were Senate hearings. They were televised. McCarthy looked like Richard Nixon, only Nixon looked more clean-cut. With one sentence, McCarthy’s crusade was ended. At one of the Army Senate hearing, his posturing and waving around of bits of paper led to a rebuke, after he had smeared the reputation of a man named Fred Fisher, who belonged to the National Lawyers Guild. I don't even remember what the man was supposed to have done. But the US Army's chief legal representative, Joseph Welch admonished McCarthy, saying,

"Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?" 

This was the beginning of the end of McCarthy's "career." Shortly thereafter, he died in obscurity, alone in an asylum, of the effects of alcoholism. Do you know how many names checked out on his list? Not a one. The fact is, people ran scared. They left jobs. They named their colleagues as “known to have consorted” with undesirables. No evidence was ever provided. No witnesses were ever really impeached.

The real irony? Joseph Stalin. He sat over there in Moscow and said "we need not try and make America weak. She is doing for us what we only dreamed we could do," in response to this whole thing. 

By fettering attitudes and opinions we weaken ourselves. By not speaking up against what we know to be wrong, we commit a sin. A crime of omission is a crime of commission and if we look the other way and say nothing, we are just as guilty as the person who is doing wrong. Of course we are going to have disagreements. We all are from different places, races, cultures and are in different socio-economic classes. But by acknowledging those differences, and respecting the holder of those views, we may learn a bit from he or she. Then, we move on. It doesn’t change who we are, or who they are. But it does make us stronger. This is America. We are a strong country. We are strong enough to take all of this. We can eat this up for lunch and be ready for more at dinner. We will not be bowed by this. All of this divisiveness is not America. All of this hate and aggression towards one another is not who we are. We’re better than that. Let’s start showing the world who we used to be.

I know so much about this subject and this particular era because I wrote an article on modern history and free speech and its rewards and perils while living in Detroit. I won an award on rhetorical writing for it. 

I recommend anyone interested in more on this topic to see the excellent TV movie "Tail-Gunner Joe" with the always-excellent Peter Boyle in the Joseph McCarthy role. It was widely noted at the time for its verisimilitude and is one of my favorites.
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