By Judith Gayle | Political Waves
It's intriguing how our brains can compartmentalize memories, stuffing them into folders deep in our subconscious filing system until a smell, a sound, a phrase resurrects them. It seems that no experience is ever deleted in this personal computer we can call mind, quietly waiting to be triggered by an association. I bumped into one of those time capsules this week.
Because life is cyclic, the current level of demagoguery should come as no surprise. We may think we've outgrown the kind of xenophobic, ideological fear that grips the loudest members of our citizenry, but we haven't. This week, a single word triggered childhood memories of a relative's brief flirtation with the John Birch Society and the McCarthyism that fostered it. The word was "collectivism," used in a Republican rant about the Tenth Amendment. This amendment reiterates the sovereignty of states' rights; according to Wikipedia, it "restates the Constitution's principle of federalism ...." The Tenth Amendment added nothing to the Constitution except reassurance of states' rights for wary Federalists; it functions as a rarely used deterrent against 'forced participation.' That's why we're hearing about it now, as Tea Baggers complain that health care reform and a routine census interfere with their rights as citizens. In essence, they're spitting in the eye of government and growling, "Make me!"
The Tenth Amendment was passed in 1791, prior to any perceived assaults upon states' rights. We obviously come by our American paranoia honestly. I was born into it. My introduction to politics occurred in 1952 when my after-school cartoons were replaced on the TV screen by the Eisenhower Nominating Convention. I was six years old and disappointed, unaware of Cold War rhetoric that would soon interrupt kiddy programming on a regular basis. A year later, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, featuring Senator Joe McCarthy, began televised Senate hearings investigating Communist activities.
In confrontation after confrontation, McCarthy cajoled, insinuated and insulted those who came before him. He accused the Dems of "twenty years of treason", and called the American Civil Liberties Union a front for the Communist party. He waved sheets of paper that he said contained names of Communist infiltrators of schools and government, claims that he seldom proved. I still recall the theatrical drone of his voice and the perennial sweat dripping from his moon-face. Years later, I was unable to warm to Nixon as a presidential candidate because he reminded me so much of Joe.
I grew up on mistrust of anything unAmerican. The family gathered to watch I Led Three Lives
, a 1954 weekly series about an average businessman who joined the Communist Party as a spy for the F.B.I. All scripts -- even the one about vacuum cleaners turned into rocket launchers by Communist agents disguised as housewives -- were approved by J. Edgar Hoover. During the McCarthy era of political conformity and loyalty, Commies were perceived everywhere. Suspicion spread like a virus. In '54 the words "under God" were added to the Pledge of Allegiance as a slap in the face to our godless Cold War enemies. There were book burnings, mandatory loyalty oaths were required even of elementary school children, and McCarthy's Senate witch hunts were televised. McCarthy was the hero of the fearful, though many of his contemporaries thought him a radical and a drunk. Eisenhower was particularly disdainful of him. McCarthy's name came to symbolize unsubstantiated accusations and reckless attacks on the character and patriotism of dissenters.
Although McCarthy was eventually discredited, thanks to his televised bullying and the courage of journalist Edward R. Murrow, his legacy never died and lives on in current right-wing hysteria. Joe's paranoia ploughed the ground in the '50s for a group called the John Birch Society. Until recently, the Birchers were considered too radical to be invited into the Republican tent, but no longer. Now they're frequently spotted at Bagger gatherings. In the early '60s, I read a Bircher tract a relative brought home, thinking it might be useful in my high school American History class. It sounded much like this snip from Wikipedia:
According to (founder) Welch, "both the U.S. and Soviet governments are controlled by the same furtive conspiratorial cabal of internationalists, greedy bankers, and corrupt politicians. If left unexposed, the traitors inside the U.S. government would betray the country's sovereignty to the United Nations for a collectivist New World Order, managed by a 'one-world socialist government.'" Welch saw collectivism as the main threat to Western Civilization, and liberals as "secret communist traitors" who provided cover for the gradual process of collectivism, with the ultimate goal of replacing the nations of western civilization with a one-world socialist government. "There are many stages of welfarism, socialism, and collectivism in general," he wrote, "but Communism is the ultimate state of them all, and they all lead inevitably in that direction."
"The gradual process of collectivism." That is the fear that runs like poison through the far-right, exacerbated by the Glenn Becks and the Rush Limbaughs. To that fear, add racism, undeniably at home in the Dixiecratic heart of Republican politics today. This is an old story, older than McCarthy, who used it like a bludgeon. We can trace its roots back to the divide over states' rights and those who mistrusted a unified Republic.
Fear of collectivism met the '60s counter-culture head on. In film clips from that period, the voice of the establishment was always a somber man in a coat and tie, hat jammed down on his head. This was the authority figure that could not be challenged if you were a decent citizen and watched Father Knows Best
and later, Leave It To Beaver
. Yet it was the young vote that ushered in Jack Kennedy and his brief but glamorous Camelot years. It was the hippies who had no fear of collectivism, who rallied for social justice and an end to conscription and unjust war. These were the kids who had stared at the television back in the '50s, watching Joe McCarthy rant and sweat, missing their cartoons. They changed the world and they can do it again.
In 1954, Edward R. Murrow hosted his weekly episode of See It Now
with clips of McCarthy, letting him damn himself much as today's Jon Stewart skewers politicians with their own words. At the conclusion, Murrow said of McCarthy:
"His primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind, as between the internal and the external threats of Communism. We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men.
This all sounds like deja vu, doesn't it? The Baggers are the latest incarnation of the McCarthyites and the Birchers. Their front men appear on television, exposing their warts and internal demons while their YouTube clips are passed around like political tracts. Like McCarthy's witch hunts, the revolution is televised. The other day, Glenn Beck showed clips of shabby Eastern European high-rise apartments as an example of socialism. He tied them to similar structures in New York that were a product of welfare programs.
"The Leave It To Beaver
House was built by individuals, hard-working Americans," Beck began. I changed the channel. He's a right-wing cartoon, and Edward R. Murrow would have made mincemeat out of him. They'll have to do better than this if they want their antiquated version of America back.