Friday, December 14, 2007

This is Why We're Screwed, Part 2

Too many stare, not enough see Not enough stand, too many flee Too many slave, not enough free Who let the goon squad in? - Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers, "Goon Squad" It disturbs me that I keep seeing attempts to turn Joe McCarthy in to some sort of tragic, misunderstood American hero. I already brought it up here once. Still, I think it bears repeating, especially since the first context was in an article on the loony and marginal World Net Daily. This time, though, it comes up because of M. Stanton Evans' new book Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and His Fight Against America's Enemies. The issue at hand is one of presentation. I think even the most hardened opponent of McCarthy would have to admit that he had some worthwhile success. The question, however, is at what cost? Was rooting out one or two actual Communist spies worth accusing a vast swath of the country of being Communists and creating an atmosphere of fear? Can we really lionize someone who did excessive harm in the name of a dubious good? Should we really make a hero out of a fear monger? It is, I suppose, the same question we face now with the Bush Administration. Just as we cannot, apparently, discuss Iraq without digging up Vietnam and beating it like a dead horse, we can't seem to discuss terrorism without invoking the Red Scare. I have argued, and will continue to argue, that the United States was not in any danger of falling to Communism in the 1950s. It's not in any danger now, either. We're not going to fall to terrorists, either. There's tons of historical precedent here. Look at London or Belfast during the height of the IRA bombings. Look at Israel right now. Hell, take a look at the greatest campaign of terrorist bombings in history: WWII. Whether its a suicide bomber getting on a bus with a vest full of TNT or a flight of bombers dropping incendiaries on Dresden, London, or Tokyo, historical precedent indicates that people just get on with their lives. Since the American Revolution itself life in America has never become so intolerable that a critical mass of the population has sought an armed resurrection. Furthermore, I'm absolutely certain that life in the United States would have gotten back to normal post-9/11 without too much difficulty. Attacks on civilian targets in the United States have come from garden-variety crazies like the Virginia Tech shooter and that guy in Omaha. None of them have come from Al Qaeda or some other terrorism group. We gain nothing by living in fear of a terrorist attack that occurred more than six years ago. In fact, we've lost a great deal. A half-century ago Joe McCarthy managed to successfully divide parts of the country and feed on the phantoms of the Red Scare in order to push his own agenda. The Cold War accusations of being "soft on Communism" have now switched over to being "soft on terrorism" and the familiar idea that those who do not support position X are not true Americans is once again dividing the nation. Nowhere is it more obvious than on Fox News. This is an old item from January, but right as Barack Obama was setting up his run for the Presidency, John Gibson on Fox News accused Obama of being an unfit candidate because of his "dirty little secret." Namely, he's a smoker. Now, if that's a dirty little secret, then we're all in trouble, since it was fairly well-known that Obama smoked back in 2004 and earlier. Oh, and on my list of things that would keep me from voting someone in to office, "smoker" isn't really one of the check boxes. But, see, it's a less than subtle attempt to say, "Well, he keeps this secret. So what other secrets could he keep?" It's not that far away from an accusation of Communism. This was followed by comments from one John McWhorter who accused Obama of being a "mammy," basically a slave who was happy to be one. This I don't entirely understand, since McWhorter seems like he's more credible than the average commentator on Fox News and should probably have been aware of the extensive hypocrisy of going on Fox News and accusing another black man of being a "mammy." And, yes, this is old news. Fortunately I'm a pretend internet historian, so I can get away with that. The reason I bring it up is to illustrate a point. Evans' book is published by Crown Forum, a Random House imprint specifically tailored to a "conservative" audience. I put conservative in quotes there because it's really tailored to a Neocon audience. See, a politically "conservative" ideology generally used to indicate someone who thought that the government is best which governs least. Now conservative seems to indicate someone who thinks that the government is best which spends the most time possible intruding on the lives of people to make sure they're properly "American." Oh, and I think there's something in there about marginalizing people and, in general, being really mean spirited (on a completely unrelated note, Crown Forum also publishes Ann Coulter's book If Democrats had Any Brains, They'd Be Republicans. I actually wish that was a joke). So what does this have to do with us being screwed? Market segmentation is probably a good thing if you're selling widgets. I want a small car, someone else wants an SUV. I want a Zen Vision:M, someone else wants an iPod. We both win. It's far less of a good thing when we're talking about how news, politics, and history are disseminated. I'm not saying that there isn't room for a difference of opinion. I'm also not saying that there's one side that's objectively right and one side that's objectively wrong. However, someone who only reads books published by Crown Forum and only watches Fox News is going to get a skewed view of the world. That is an objectively bad thing. Joseph McCarthy was not a misunderstood American hero. He wasn't the Devil incarnate, by any stretch of the imagination, either. His actions and attitudes, however, were bad for America. Perhaps he had good intentions, but that shouldn't excuse him. Barack Obama's smoking habits weren't a secret. And even if they were, they offer absolutely no evidence of further duplicity. The last 11 months have proven that his smoking isn't an issue at all with the voting public. Oh, and on the flip side, saying, for instance, "I'm not going to read Ann Coulter, I'll only read Al Franken," is just as bad. As the Vorlons said on Babylon 5, "Understanding is a three-edged sword: my side, your side, and the truth." It's a good thing to remember. And if we forget, we're screwed.


Anonymous said...

Is uncovering agents of totalitarianism in our government really of “dubious good”?

Did McCarthy really name only “one or two actual Communist spies”?

Was he really “a fear monger” who accused “a vast swath of the country of being Communists,” creating “an atmosphere of fear?”

Did he really “divide parts of the country and feed on the phantoms of the Red Scare in order to push his own agenda”? Did he really do “excessive harm”? Were his “actions and attitudes … bad for America”?

In order to answer these questions, you need to know the names of the people McCarthy submitted to the Senate for investigation. You won't find those in any of the standard histories/biographies (Oshinsky, Reeves, Schrecker, etc.), because they relied on the reports of they Tydings and Gillette committees, which didn't reveal the names -- and the lists McCarthy submitted mysteriously vanished from the National Archives.

So you need to read Blacklisted by History, in which M. Stanton Evans recovered McCarthy's lists from his own files, preserved by his former Staffer, Jim Juliana.

Next, you need to cross-check these names against the files of the FBI, State Department security, Army Intelligence, OSS, Subversive Activities Control Board, HUAC, Senate Internal Security subcommittee, etc., to see if what McCarthy said about his suspects was corroborated.

Finally, you need to double-check these names against Soviet archives and the Venona decrypts to see if U.S. security data on these suspects was accurate.

Fortunately, M. Stanton Evans has already done the legwork. Read Blacklisted by History, and see for yourself. It photographically reproduces many of the cited documents. It is fully footnoted, so you can verify any other documents cited if you wish.

You will find that McCarthy was right far more often than he was wrong, and that his antagonists were not merely wrong, but lying.

Geds said...

Ah, comment spam. From an anonymous poster, no less. Shilling the book I'd already been taking apart.

Why, for the record, should I trust the legwork of someone who has already claimed that the Senate's official historian screwed up the information on McCarthy? Seriously. It's right here.

M. Stanton Evans has no credibility with me and his bias precedes him. It's as simple as that.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the "anonymous" comments. Blogger kept rejecting my comment until I clicked "anonymous."

Evans expands on his criticism of Ritchie in the book. Either Evans is wrong or Ritchie is wrong. I don't see how you can decide that it must be Evans who is wrong without looking at the evidence.

You don't have to take Evans' word for anything. That was my point in saying that he photographically reproduces the relevant documents, and provides footnotes for the others.

I hope this isn't spam!

Mark LaRochelle

Geds said...

So it wasn't comment spam. Huh. Although I will admit that I was a bit surprised that comment spam would have direct quotes from the post.

Anyway, you're presenting a false dichotomy between Ritchie and Evans here. I only really know Ritchie as filtered through Evans (which means I probably don't know Ritchie at all), but I get the distinct impression that in both cases it's an argument from results. I look at McCarthyism as an issue of ethics and methods.

My two main problems with McCarthy himself are that he overstepped his authority and adopted a "burn the village to save it" strategy. I would never argue that we should call McCarthy the most evil human being on the planet for what he did, but I don't think we should be erecting statues or holding parades on his birthday. He set a bad example. We should remember and learn but not lionize.

The fact is that in the United States of America it isn't illegal to be a Communist. It's fundamentally stupid, yes, but there is no law against reading Communist literature or agreeing with past Communists on stuff. It's not even illegal to set up a home-grown Communist party and attempt to win an election. What is illegal is attempting to subvert the government in the name of Communism, spying, treason, and all that fun stuff.

McCarthy caught some of the latter variety of Communist, but he also perpetrated a witch hunt against the former. This is where I have a problem. I don't necessarily agree with, say, the anti-genetic engineering screed that underlies Jurassic Park, but I'm not going to suggest that Michael Crichton or Steven Spielburg should be flogged on the street corner for it.

Furthermore, I have a major issue with the fact that I've seen a lot of the current embrace of Joe McCarthy from the religious right. It's no accident that Arthur Miller used the Salem Witch Trials in The Crucible. Christianity as a political power has a long and ugly history of attempting to root out, in turn, non-Christians, not-the-right-kind-of-Christians, and, finally, less-than-appropriately-pious Christians of the "correct" variety when given power.

Re-imagining Joe McCarthy as a tragically forgotten hero isn't a problem in and of itself from a historical perspective. I've got no real problem with that. But combining "Joe McCarthy, Tragic Hero" with a religious cadre that seeks political power above all else is decidedly dangerous.

Anonymous said...


You read can the comments by Richie that Evans quotes and criticizes here:

Did McCarthy really overstep his authority? Did he really adopt a "burn the village to save it" strategy?

To answer these questions, it is necessary to review the names McCarthy submitted to the Senate for investigation, the security data that existed on those suspects at the time, and the subsequently available information on them from Soviet archives, Venona decrypts, etc.

Evans is the first to actually attempt this Herculean task. Others who wrote about McCarthy could not do so, because the relevant records were classified or lost until Evans obtained them through dogged detective work that is a story in itself.

You are correct that "in the United States of America it isn't illegal to be a Communist ... there is no law against reading Communist literature or agreeing with past Communists on stuff" or setting "up a home-grown Communist party and attempt to win an election," all points McCarthy emphasized many times, as cited in Blacklisted by History.

Did McCarthy really perpetrate a witch hunt against Communists who were not Federal officials? If so, he should have left a trail of such victims. What are their names? Even a murderer is entitled to habeus corpus.

In fact, unlike his House counterparts in HUAC, who investigated the Communist attempt to infiltrate nongovernmental institutions such as unions (most notoriously the Screen Writers Guild), McCarthy limited his Senate investigations to Federal employees: White House aide Lauchin Currie; Assistant Treasury Secretary Harry Dexter White; Owen Lattimore, head of the Office of War Information in the Pacific; State Department Foreign Service Officer John Stewart Service; Pentagon code clerk Annie Lee Moss; etc.

The Hatch Act made it illegal to hire or retain such people in Federal positions; Civil Service Commission regulations were even stricter; the Truman loyalty program required Federal officials to take loyalty oaths that implicated folks like McCarthy suspect Robert Miller in perjury, directed the FBI to investigate all Federal employees, and directed each Federal agency to establish a loyalty-security board to rule on such cases.

McCarthy's cases were made up of suspects who had been flagged by security screeners, yet were cleared by these boards -- or who were disapproved by the boards, yet cleared by unnamed higher-ups. McCarthy's investigations sought to find out who was responsible for these clearances, and why these particular suspects were cleared, while many others, who posed far less apparent security risk, were not. Due to the Truman secrecy order -- which prohibited any Federal agency from cooperating with or providing security data to any congressional investigation of such matters, McCarthy never got an answer.

But it's still a good question.

Regarding religious persecution, I agree with you. I have recently seen undeniable evidence of antisemitism, for instance (under the code word "neo-cons"), of a type I had hoped went out with the Ku Klux Klan. Speaking of which, see Blacklisted by History, Ch. 37, on the shameful populist-Protestant KKK-style anti-Catholicism deployed against McCarthy by his antagonists.

Regards, Mark