March 15, 2010

McCarthyism - Liz Cheney's Version

Only oldtimers like me can recall how destructive McCarthy "witchunting" was to the country more than a half-century ago. Younger generations can get a sample of its poison through George Clooney's 2005 movie "Good Night and Good Luck". Or check out today's McCarthysim evident in this ad smearing the Justice Department lawyers representing Guantanmo detainees.

Behind the ad is Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney. Over the past week, her conservative group, Keep America Safe, has launched a smear campaign against the lawyers - "the al Qaeda seven" - who did legal work on behalf of terror suspects.

Mother watches Sen. McCarthy on TV
"Senator Joseph McCarthy’s formula was to call into question the patriotism and loyalty of his political opponents and malign them as jeopardizing America’s integrity and national security," writes Jake Horowitz on his blog War and Peace. Cheney and her Republican crowd follow suit...

"Compiling a dossier on Justice Department lawyers and sullying the character of these individuals is mere neo-McCarthyism cloaked in the language of national security and safety," Horowitz adds. "Cheney’s attempt to score cheap political points by questioning the integrity of these lawyers and equating them with al Qaeda terrorists must be dismissed outright.

"In representing Guantanamo detainees, Justice Department lawyers have defended the U.S. constitution by ensuring that even those charged with heinous acts have the right to make their case heard in court. It is this principle that lies at the heart of American democracy and represents the bedrock upon which our nation was founded. Constitutional rights apply to unpopular people too, and American history is filled with examples in which patriotic lawyers have defended the most dangerous criminals."

Cheney's phoney flag-waving reminds me of the 2004 Swift Boat campaign against Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. Remember? Kerry was a much-decorated Vietnam War veteran who was called a coward and a liar during the 2004 presidential election campaign while George Bush, who avoided not only the war but completion of his National Guard duties, was portrayed as more patriotic, more heroic. It was a textbook example of how Republicans can seduce the general public into believing lies and misinformation as true: hero becomes coward, and vice versa. War even becomes peace, as we have also seen.

My mind goes back to the anxieties I felt during the actual McCarthy period. Here is a snippet from my unpublished memoir:

McCarthy’s witch hunt for 'reds' caused thousands of people to lose their jobs. Institutions large and small purged themselves of anyone suspected of having been a member or even a sympathizer of the Communist Party, or involved in leftwing movements, which included labor unions. It didn’t matter if the dalliance had happened 20 years earlier and was fleeting. Some went to prison. Many artists were blacklisted and couldn't work, including the great comic actor Charlie Chaplin, who fled into exile in Switzerland.

Amid a national debate on the red scare, the Boston Traveler ran a series of side-by-side, pro-and-con articles on Sen. McCarthy: the pros praising him as a great patriot defending us against the enemy; the cons denouncing him as a dangerous fraud who was confusing dissent with disloyalty. One day I brought home a copy of the paper and showed Dad the contrasting articles, pointing out that, in my view, McCarthy was a liar. Not in Dad’s eyes. "He's right!" he shouted. "They're all Commies!" I was stunned. Dad had never shown much interest in politics or seemed inclined to one party or another. But now he was in a fury, challenging me with a piercing, aggressive look that I had never seen before. From that moment on, we never discussed politics.

Many ordinary Americans, like Dad, believed the senator’s charges because, as the old saying went, “there is no smoke without fire". In January 1954, a Gallup poll found that 50% of the American public supported McCarthy, while only 29% had an unfavorable opinion of him. But as history shows, McCarthyism was indeed smoke without fire; the long list he claimed to have of communists in government and the armed services turned out to be a blank paper. He eventually suffered humiliating censure by his colleagues in the Senate. Dad never commented on McCarthy’s fall, but I’m sure he stuck with him to the end.

As this anecdote indicates, I entered adulthood leaning toward the left. It was the moderate left of social democracy, which in the United States meant the Democratic Party. Studies have shown that being left, right or center is probably in our genes; if so, mine certainly didn’t come from Dad.

1 comment:

Ana F. said...

This last two post are really interesting. I like Graham's words: ..."every time a defense lawyer fights to make the government do their job, that defense lawyer has made us all safer". It is so easy (and popular too!) to spread insults in the name of something, say loyaly, freedom, etc. Which most times just means nothing! I think doing so for the "safety" of a country is specially dangerous. Happened in Spain too when mixing politics and terrorism...