One of the most difficult things for a conservative to write about is McCarthyism. Oh, I don’t mean “difficult” in the Oprah Book Club sense of difficult. It’s not painful, or heart-wrenching, or cathartic. I mean it is technically challenging to write about it with clarity and precision. The problem is simple: McCarthyism has come to mean anything liberals or leftists consider to be unfair, unjust, un-nice. It’s simply another example of the general phenomenon described by George Orwell when he wrote in “Politics and the English Language” that “The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’” (See “Orwell’s Orphans.”)
What makes McCarthyism so hard to discuss is that McCarthy behaved like a jerk, but he was also right. Every movement has its jerks, the Left included — but liberals are unwilling to elevate these people to villain status or to make their tactics into a full-blown “ism.” Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton are perfectly willing to accuse any Tom, Dick, or Harry of racism without regard to the damage this might do their careers. But we don’t talk about “Jacksonism” or “Sharptonism,” even though being labeled a racist is the modern equivalent of being labeled a Communist. Indeed, being a prick has become something of a badge of honor on the Left. Alan Dershowitz is brilliant and eloquent. He is also one of the most obnoxious people in public life. Michael Moore is by all accounts so ugsome, so selfish, so noisome (yes, noisome), and so unlikable that if he’d been a conservative, the New York Times would have stepped on him and wiped its shoe on the curb. Feminists, gay activists, and other champions of social change even wear their nastiness on their sleeves. Just look at the bitch cult among feminists. There are any number of books dedicated to the glories of being a “bitch”: Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women, Getting in Touch With Your Inner Bitch, and so on. Elizabeth Wurtzel, a feminist priestess of bitchdom, has explained that “bitch” is a sexist label for difficult, strong women. So, she argues that women should reclaim the word “bitch” in the same way as homosexuals reclaimed “queer.”
Well, I would dearly love to reclaim the word McCarthyism, if only a little bit. Which gets back to the challenge of writing on the topic.
Senator Joe McCarthy was a lout, generally speaking. But he was on the right side of history and, in a broad sense, of morality as well. If, in some sort of parallel-universe exercise, the same number of (now proven) Soviet-Communist spies, collaborators, sympathizers, and the like were somehow switched to Nazis, and McCarthy went after them with the same vehemence as he went after Reds, Joe McCarthy might well have universities and foundations named after him today. Just imagine if a ring of Nazi party members were found to be working in Hollywood, never mind the State Department, taking money from Berlin to advance the Nazi cause. Does anyone really think “McCarthyism” would still be denounced as an unmitigated evil, often put at the front of the parade of horribles alongside Hitlerism and Stalinism?
Now, I’m sure many people are rolling their eyes at this point. “It’s not the same thing!” say those who believe that the lost jobs of a few Hollywood writers and the loyalty oaths reluctantly offered by some unjustly accused union officials are the American equivalent of concentration camps. Maybe, maybe not. The argument over which was worse, Communism or Nazism, will never be settled. Nor should we expect it to be. But even if you firmly believe that Nazism was more evil than Communism, as even Robert Conquest does, you must concede that Communism was evil enough. If the sight of an American Communist screenwriter being forced to take the Fifth Amendment before Congress and have his “career ruined” still fills you with blinding rage, it’s indeed curious why the forced slaughter of millions by Stalin seems like a trivial event to you. After all, there were plenty of men and women invoking their “rights” as their heels left lines in the dirt on the way to the gulag. Needless to say, their careers were ruined too. And if the American Communists had had their way, much the same thing would have happened here as well. But, yeah, Roy Cohn’s the devil.
Regardless, wherever you come down on McCarthyism, Communism, and the rest is a matter of opinion. What is a matter of fact — unmitigated, irrefutable, undeniable fact — is that there were hundreds of Communists working for Moscow, directly or indirectly, in the United States during the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. The Rosenbergs were guilty and got what they deserved. Alger Hiss too. Victor Perlo, Judith Coplon, Morton Sobell, William Perl, Alfred Sarant, Joel Barr, and Harry Gold were all either pawns or lackeys of a foreign and evil foe. We know the Hollywood Ten were all Communists, but what else they were we can’t know for sure, because they believed taking the Fifth was more important than protecting the country (and if you think it’s unfair to cavalierly call people who devotedly followed the Moscow line for all their adult lives “Communists,” I sure hope you don’t ever call, say, President Bush a “fascist” on the basis of no evidence at all). The American Communist Party (CP-USA) was in fact a Soviet franchise.
In other words, you are free to describe McCarthyism as a witchhunt if and only if you are willing to concede that actual witches existed in our midst. The evidence — from declassified Venona transcripts, Soviet archives, memoirs, etc. — is still mounting, but what we have so far is plenty in itself. In 1996, Nicholas Von Hoffman wrote an essay for the Washington Post that caused no small amount of hysteria on the American Left, which has been milking its myths and denial for decades. McCarthyism was the product of the “paranoid style” in American politics. There were no witches — only zealots and brown-shirted bullies. The playwright Lillian Hellman declared: “The McCarthy group — a loose term for all the boys, lobbyists, congressmen, State Department bureaucrats, CIA operators — chose the anti-Red scare with perhaps more cynicism than Hitler picked anti-Semitism.”
Yet, as Hoffman reluctantly conceded, these assessments were in turn lies, myths, and carefully constructed distortions. The reality was that “in a global sense McCarthy was on to something. McCarthy may have exaggerated the scope of the problem but not by much… The Age of McCarthyism, it turns out, was not the simple witch hunt of the innocent by the malevolent as two generations of high school and college students have been taught.”
But even as honest liberals like Von Hoffman were coming to grips with reality, many on the Left decided to take another approach. From the 1950s through the 1980s, the Left was largely content to describe McCarthyism in Hellman’s terms: a baseless assault by right-wing paranoids and fanatics. But in the 1990s — as the evidence against the Rosenbergs, et al., became undeniable and the general obsession with Marxism was replaced by an obsession with postmodern sexual gobbledygook — the Left began rewriting the moral of McCarthyism.
The McCarythites — defined as almost anyone who was meaningfully anti-Communist — were still venal and unjustified in their assaults on “civil libertarians.” Now, however, they were homophobes as well. The canard about anti-Communism being a stalking horse for anti-Semitism was replaced by the canard that anti-Communism was really the dyspepsia of repressed right-wing homosexuals. Sidney Blumenthal, for example, wrote in The New Yorker that the “true legacy” of Whittaker Chambers was that “he helped to transmute an external threat into a moral panic, and to encourage a new generation of Cold War conservatives to do the same.” For “a pantheon of anti-Communists . . . conservatism was the ultimate closet,” a way of disguising their latent homosexuality. “Conservative anti-Communism,” Sidney Blumenthal lamented, is “an anachronism. What endures is the fear of the enemy within: the homosexual menace.” Blumenthal’s bile is mild compared to what you might find on many college campuses.
THE “NEW MCCARTHYISM” Now, I don’t bring this up because I’m one of those conservatives who can’t get over the fact that the Left got away with decades of dishonesty and deceit on the subject of America’s struggle to save Western civilization. (Though, for the record, I am one of those conservatives.) Rather, this history has new meaning and relevance now because the Left is again invoking “McCarthyism” in an assault on those who would defend the country.
The USA Patriot Act, wrote David Cole in The Nation, “resurrects the philosophy of McCarthyism, simply substituting ‘terrorist’ for ‘communist.’” Arab-American and Muslim groups denounce almost any accusation of someone with an Arab surname as “McCarthyism.” “It smacks of McCarthyism and other events in history in which heavy-handed government tactics against an entire community have done nothing but ruin innocent lives,” Sarah Eltantawi, a spokeswoman for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, predictably declared of a Justice Department policy. Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on America-Islamic Relations of Southern California, exclaims, “This new McCarthyism against Muslims must end,” he said. “Are you going to deport us all?”
Now, I have no problem with Muslims denouncing McCarthyism — if, by McCarthyism, you mean unfairly accusing someone of wrongdoing either through guilt-by-association or through simple prejudice. But that’s not what those throwing around the “McCarthyite” smear are up to. When they denounce McCarythism, they are working on the clear assumption that McCarthyism victimized only innocent people. That is a lie. And it also a lie that the USA Patriot Act is being used solely to punish innocent people.
Consider Sami al-Arian, the controversial University of South Florida professor who’s been arrested on 50 counts of supporting terrorism. He is alleged to be a senior member of the Palestinian group Islamic Jihad, which carries out “suicide” bombings and the like. If “terrorist” has any meaning at all, Islamic Jihad is a terrorist group. Al-Arian’s arrest would not have been possible without the Patriot Act, which allows domestic law enforcement to use foreign intelligence.
When al-Sami was the subject of intense controversy for his statements justifying terrorism against the U.S. and Israel, his defenders claimed that — you guessed it — this was nothing but so much McCarthyism (see John Podhoretz’s excellent column on the subject). On CNN, the charming spokesman for the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, Hussein Ibish, insisted: “Until we have some reason based in fact to think otherwise, I think that the presumption has to be that this is a political witch-hunt, a vendetta, and a kind of very, very ugly post-9/11 McCarthyism.” Eric Boehlert of Salon wrote: “Media giants, eagerly tapping into the country’s mood of vengeance and fear, latched onto the Al-Arian story, fudging the facts and ignoring the most rudimentary tenets of journalism in their haste to better tell a sinister story about lurking Middle Eastern dangers here at home.” Professors reveled in the opportunity to change the subject to “academic freedom,” in much the same way as defenders of Stalin’s gulag used to insist that the only issues worthy of public passion were the civil liberties of spies and traitors.
Al-Arian hasn’t been proved guilty yet. But, between you and me, I find it hard to believe the Justice Department would risk the colossal embarrassment of being proved wrong about a case so popular among its critics. And, any reasonable person must concede that there are some Muslims and Arabs in America either in the employ of al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, Islamic Jihad, et al., or, at minimum, sufficiently sympathetic to such causes as to be indistinguishable from employees of bin Laden & co.
This hardly means that all Arabs or Muslims are terrorists or terrorist sympathizers. I agree with Ibish that the vast, vast majority of such citizens are innocent and decent people. And no one wants to bully or mistreat innocent people the way McCarthy sometimes did. But to claim that the current legal and political environment for Muslims is “McCarthyite” does not change the fact that there are, in fact, real Muslim terrorists here in America — just as decrying the excesses of Tail Gunner Joe doesn’t change the fact that he was right when he said there were Stalinist spies in the State Department.
Meanwhile we will all wait for the verdict on Mr. al-Arian, who has gone on a hunger strike in jail to protest the supposed McCarthyite vendetta against him. Professor al-Arian is not stupid and he knows that the crowd that considers John Ashcroft a bigger threat than Osama bin Laden is nothing if not a sucker for a good hunger strike. This is no doubt an ordeal for al-Arian. Indeed, it prevented him from doing the work second-most-dear to his heart. On March 5, he was originally scheduled to give a speech at the University of Colorado. It was titled “McCarthyism II: The Post 9/11 Erosion of Civil Liberties.”