McCarthyism

McCarthyism

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
May 28 1998 3:30 AM

McCarthyism

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Dear Ron:

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       I'm not sure why you continue to pull quotations out of context and badger me about a book I never wrote. In your New Republic review, you even had me citing a source that I never used. But Slate readers can judge Many Are the Crimes for themselves. They may be surprised to find that it contains few "demons," "perverts," or "noble heroes," but tries instead to explain how McCarthyism functioned and why it produced the longest lasting and most widespread episode of political repression in American history.
       I'm glad we agree that the past is a complicated country, though when it comes to communism and anti-communism, you still seem oblivious to nuance. Sure, the end of the Cold War offers the opportunity for a "frank accounting," but why do you insist that only the left bare its soul? Victory does not automatically confer virtue. The West has sins of its own.
       I'm not defending communism. But I can't understand why you take such a melodramatic view of American communism that you heap 100 million deaths on a bunch of aging true believers in a California old folks home. These senior citizens may have been deluded, but do they really have blood on their hands?
       As I discovered when I began my research on McCarthyism, it was exactly that refusal to look realistically at American communism that enabled its opponents to demonize it so thoroughly that thousands of its supporters and former supporters could be denied their constitutional rights. A big part of that demonization involved making every communist and fellow traveler responsible for every crime Stalin ever committed.
       Let's get some perspective here. People connected with the American CP did some bad things (including espionage, which, by the way, I sought to understand, not exonerate). But most ordinary party members, however foolish, dishonest, or unpleasant they may have been, did not send anyone to the gulag. Whether or not they (or at least the party's leaders) would have had they been in the Soviet Union is irrelevant. They were living in the United States. And, by the late 1940s, they were powerless, despised, and under attack.
       Political repression--albeit considerably more mild--occurred in this country as well as in Russia. I wrote Many Are the Crimes to find out how that could happen; how a modern, democratic society could violate its own citizens' political freedom in ways that even you admit was a genuine disgrace.
       As you suggest, the end of the Cold War allows us to treat the professional anti-communists who ran the McCarthy-era purges with the same detachment we use toward their (mainly) communist victims. Demonizing Hoover, McCarthy, et al., oversimplifies the witch hunt and treats it as an irrational outburst by a few aberrant characters rather than the mainstream phenomenon it actually was. After all, it was the moderate--and even liberal--Hollywood producers, college presidents, and other employers who, by firing the political undesirables HUAC and the FBI had fingered, made McCarthyism so effective. What these people did was wrong, but they did it not because they were wicked or eager to repress dissent (though that is what occurred) but because they had come to accept the venomous caricature of American communism that Hoover and his allies were pushing.
       Perpetuating stereotyped thinking, whether it's about communists in the 1950s or welfare mothers in the 1990s, divorces politics from reality. It encourages oversimplified and often repressive solutions to complicated problems. Worse yet, it deflects attention from more important matters. Surely, Ron, you don't want to claim that the two-generations-old misdeeds of a small, powerless, and defunct political sect are central to contemporary American culture.