that McCarthy thing…

Posted on Friday 31 October 2008

Being a twelve year old boy wasn’t easy. I was living in a new house in a new neighborhood. And, we had a television set! There weren’t any stations in our town yet, but we could get Atlanta, 120 miles to the South. The reception varied between snowy and snowier, but it was definitely television. The t.v. sets were always on, just in case the reception was good – good reception and we’d watch anything. In the daytime, they periodically carried the "McCarthy Hearings." Twelve year old boys with early signs of "hormones" weren’t thinking much about politics, as I recall. But that summer, we watched those hearings – mostly because it was t.v. and the reception was good in the early afternoon. But through the haze of early adolescence, I remember them. I recall thinking Joseph McCathy was mean, sinister, and that the people that he questioned didn’t have a chance to defend themselves. I asked my mom about it. I didn’t know her politics [or anyone elses] then, but I knew that she didn’t think right because the year before she didn’t vote for General Eisenhower [I couldn’t imagine not voting for a General!]. But when I asked about McCarthy, she said, "he’s crazy." That time, I thought she might be right, because he seemed crazy, just like she said. He kept badgering these [mostly thin little] guys about being communists. And he talked about something else, but I didn’t know what homosexuality was then, so I didn’t get it. Phil, the older boy next door must’ve gotten it, becaused he giggled a lot:

I’m talking about it because I remember those t.v. hearings much more vividly than anything else that summer over half a century ago. Those snowy images actually scared me. I’m not sure twelve year old boys feel things clearly, but those hearings stand out as a dark spot in the otherwise sunny world of my summer in a new place..

I was older when I finally knew what all of that had been about and how it ended. And I do remember his dying a few years later from alcoholism. I’m not sure I recall knowing how I knew the cause of his death, but it’s a memory, not something I learned later. Over the years, Joseph McCarthy became immortalized in the term McCarthyism:
    Today the term is used more generally to describe demagogic, reckless, and unsubstantiated accusations, as well as public attacks on the character or patriotism of political opponents.
This definition leaves out the part I remember most – guilt by association. McCarthy would produce some picture of his victim with someone else who may have been a Communist or a member of some organization thought to have Left or Communist leanings. Maybe it would be a letter of some kind that was, in and of itself innocent, but linked his prey with some questionable person. I don’t recall the details [hormones], but the associations were always pretty remote. Now it’s fifty years later, and McCarthyism is being reborn in the John McCain Campaign. Obama’s Preacher Jeremiah Wright and two fellow professors at the University of Chicago, William Ayers and Rashid Khalidi, apparently offer a rich field for guilt by association arguments – McCarthy·esque arguments.
These are the kind of interesting people one meets in a city like Chicago. It’s telling that all three are people who have been involved with causes where a  group of some kind has been oppressed, and the part of their story that has been attacked is their allying themselves with some faction that advocated using force to deal with its frustrations.

In each case, the attacks have branded these men as Terrorists and by association implied that Obama either is himself a Terrorist or a person who supports Terrorist causes. In some circles, each of these men are seen as patriots, championing a cause against the forces of oppression. In the case of Jeremiah Wright, Obama first appealed to reason – tried to explain the historical context of Jeremiah Wright’s rhetoric. He actually did a good job with that. And when Jeremiah Wright declined that explanation, Obama renounced him. In the latter case, he simply renounced the actions of Ayers and Khalidi.

I’m supressing impulses to defend Obama here, or give counter examples, because that just perpetuates this kind of campaigning. I prefer to stick to McCartyism itself. It’s based on magic, or voodoo, or the language of dreams and the unconscious. If something evil gets close to you, it might inhabit you, or change you. It’s the stuff of Grade B Horror flicks. "Ever since he camped in the Great Dismal Swamp, he’s been different…" It follows the logic of what I call "bad person television" – those shows where the boy scout leader is a serial killer or the popsickle salesman is a pedophile. The three men pictured above are all very out front with their thoughts, as in Obama – none secretive. The notion that knowing them is a measure of his own thoughts is simply too primitive to take seriously, though, apparently, in some circles, it is either taken seriously or, more likely, a Talking Point to justify voting a certain way.

But McCarthyism is actually more about the accuser than the accused. While it’s designed to sow seeds of doubt and paranoia, it’s a technique that draws attention to the person making the accusation. McCarthy was a stage-hound, always self promoting, always in the limelight. He invited people into his paranoid world, but never knew when to stop. He was famously confronted by Joseph N. Welch:
    The most famous incident in the hearings was an exchange between McCarthy and the army’s chief legal representative, Joseph Nye Welch. On June 9, the 30th day of the hearings, Welch challenged Roy Cohn to provide U.S. Attorney General Herbert Brownell, Jr. with McCarthy’s list of 130 Communists or subversives in defense plants "before the sun goes down." McCarthy stepped in and said that if Welch was so concerned about persons aiding the Communist Party, he should check on a man in his Boston law office named Fred Fisher, who had once belonged to the National Lawyers Guild, which Attorney General Brownell had called "the legal mouthpiece of the Communist Party." In an impassioned defense of Fisher that some have suggested he had prepared in advance and had hoped not to have to make, Welch responded, "Until this moment, Senator, I think I never gauged your cruelty or your recklessness[…]" When McCarthy resumed his attack, Welch interrupted him: "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?" When McCarthy once again persisted, Welch cut him off and demanded the chairman "call the next witness." At that point, the gallery erupted in applause and a recess was called.
I think of Joseph Welch’s words often as I listen to the inneundo and fear-mongering tone when McCain, Palin, O’Reilly, Limbaugh, etc. wind up with their own "Neo-McCarthyism."

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