Thursday, March 23, 2006

More about Senator McCarthy

In my post about Clancy Sigal, I referred to Senator Joseph McCarthy and 'his allegedly anti-Communist witch hunt in the US of the 1940s and 1950s.' In response, Archer wrote in and asked whether this was 'the sort of subtle British irony that fools us Yanks.'

Well, no. Actually I meant what I said. But I clearly didn't express myself very well. I tried to cram far more meaning into that phrase 'allegedly anti-Communist' than it will comfortably accommodate. My apologies for that, and I will do my best to explain.

First a bit of background. Those who know absolutely nothing about Senator McCarthy might like to take a look at the Wikipedia entry. Better still, read an excerpt from Richard Rovere's classic study of the man. Actually, this latter is not particularly easy to read online, because it appears to have been reproduced without paragraphs, but it won't take long to get the gist.

McCarthy was an undistinguished US Senator who discovered, in 1950, that by making speeches attacking 'Communists' he could attract huge amounts of public attention. So from 1950 until his death in 1957, McCarthy proceeded to ruin the lives of a substantial number of people who just happened, at one time or another, to have been members of, or supporters of, the Communist Party in America.

McCarthy, says, Rovere, 'walked with a heavy tread over large parts of the Constitution of the United States, and he cloaked his own gross figure in the sovereignty it asserts and the powers it distributes. He usurped executive and judicial authority whenever the fancy struck him. It struck him often. He held two Presidents captive -- or as nearly captive as any Presidents of the United States have ever been held.'

McCarthy, in short, was one of the nastiest lumps of dogshit ever to rise to the top in a western democracy -- which is saying a great deal. He was a self-serving demagogue, with self-serving being the key part of that description. Furthermore, it is doubtful whether he ever knew the first thing about Communism. The idea that Joe had the intellectual capacity to understand the finer points of dialectical materialism, for example, is too silly to contemplate for more than half a second.

In respect of this man, I have two points to make, and, as stated above, I was trying to build them into my earlier comment.

First, even at the time when McCarthy was riding high, it must surely have been obvious that the main purpose of his activities was not to eliminate 'Communist spies', but to enhance the name, power, and glory of Senator McCarthy himself. He was looking for a bandwagon which would take him to a position of power, and he found it. But it might have been something else entirely. I suspect that the anti-Communist aspect of McCarthy's activities came about more or less by accident. If he had discovered that he could gain power over people by attacking the price of budgerigar seed, he would have made a career out of that instead.

The second point I want to make is that McCarthy did enormous damage to America, both internally and externally. For a start, it is utterly absurd that any American should be held to be 'un-American' for exercising the right to hold a particular set of political views (always provided, of course, that they stay within the law). This did not go unnoticed in Europe and elsewhere.

Furthermore, I would draw your attention to the comment which led to Richard Condon's famous novel The Manchurian Candidate. Condon said that the novel grew out of a remark he once heard a newsman make, to the effect that the loud-mouthed Senator Joseph McCarthy couldnÂ’t have done more harm to the country if he had he been a dedicated Communist agent himself.

Condon built a book around that. He described a moronic Senator who rose to power on vague claims about 'Communists in the State Department', and whose wife actually was a Soviet agent. And, in so doing, Condon turned McCarthy into a buffoon. Which is too kind by half.

Now I won't go so far as to say that I actually believe that McCarthy was a Soviet agent (though stranger things certainly happened in that era). But I endorse the view that the damage he did was far more extensive than that of any Soviet agent known to me.

However, as I said at the beginning, Archer has a point. And on reflection it is probably impossible to build into one sentence the burden of what I had in mind when I used the phrase 'allegedly anti-Communist'.

But, were I to try, I might, perhaps, refer to McCarthy's 'nominally anti-Communist activities, which were primarily intended to increase the power and influence of McCarthy himself, and which in fact did more damage to America's interests, and to America's good name, than any Communist agent ever did.'

I wonder if m'learned friend Archer would accept that. Archer, you see, has a blog of his own, called LawyerWorldLand. How could I have missed it?

11 comments:

JodyTresidder said...

Nope.
"Nominally" keeps you in more or less the same pickle as "allegedly" does - because you are still trying to shoehorn in way too much confusing nuance.

"Nominally" also still excludes McCarthy's demented, self-serving sincerity.

By trying to indicate doubts about McCarthy's authenticity, you additionally end up somehow calling the perception of his campaign into question.

Might "egotistical anti-Communist witch hunt" crisply cover more bases?

The Fez Monkey said...

"McCarthy, in short, was one of the nastiest lumps of dogshit ever to rise to the top in a western democracy ... He was a self-serving demagogue."

There is something very deeply satisfying, in the same way as a cold drink on a hot day, about reading an erudite person use the word dogshit in such an appropriate and sublime manner.

Some say that profanity is the last refuge of a weak mind. I've always felt that it, like any other form of speech, can be brutally effective when weilded properly.

Thanks for proving me right.

Ook ook

Don said...

McCarthy's personal problems aside, am I wrong to think that anyone who belongs to the Communist Party is an implicit advocate for the violent overthrow of the Constitutional government of the United States?

Andrew said...

McCarthy was not only a sad (and dangerous) figure, he failed to cover his tracks well. We still have McCarthys in America today--they simply learned to duck and spin so they aren't exposed.

One of the legends that grew out of the era was that Edward R. Murrow "took him on,"...the truth is he, like most, waited until McCarthy's walls were already falling before saying anything, when it was safe. History re-written, as usual, and it works better in the movies.

Wyndham said...

Great post. If you look at the news-reel of McCarthy now - in the footage used in Good Night, And Good Luck, for example - it's extraordinary to think that such a shifty, ill-at-ease, lank-haired, badly-dressed and downright surly character could wield any kind of power at all. I've never read much about McCarthy but Michael Herr's novel about his odious cohort Walter Winchell is a blast.

Bill Sinclir said...

Brilliant post.
But surely the most insidious aspect of the McCarthy period was the rise to influence of those who coat-tailed McCarthy's rise, ie. Reagan, Nixon and John Wayne amongst others. Reagan used the offices of the Screen Actors Guild and his close friendship with John Wayne to further both his movie career and develop a political power base. Yellow bellied (he declined to enlist in WW2)John Wayne likewise used the McCarthy period to build his profile as a True American Patriot, and, in the process destroyed many good people's careers, before declaring himself as Nixon's rabble rouser in chief in the Nixon-Kennedy election.
And you're right about McCarthy's lack of knowledge. McCarthy accused Ed Murrow of once being a Wobbly (a member of the Industrial Workers of the World), linking them (the IWW) with the great Soviet Conspiracy. As every casual student of the Wobblies knows the IWW was more anti-communist than McCarthy. One of their better known slogans was "To defeat fascism we have to destroy bolshevism". The IWW still exists.

Bill Sinclair said...

Brilliant post.
But surely the most insidious aspect of the McCarthy period was the rise to influence of those who coat-tailed McCarthy's rise, ie. Reagan, Nixon and John Wayne amongst others. Reagan used the offices of the Screen Actors Guild and his close friendship with John Wayne to further both his movie career and develop a political power base. Yellow bellied (he declined to enlist in WW2)John Wayne likewise used the McCarthy period to build his profile as a True American Patriot, and, in the process destroyed many good people's careers, before declaring himself as Nixon's rabble rouser in chief in the Nixon-Kennedy election.
And you're right about McCarthy's lack of knowledge. McCarthy accused Ed Murrow of once being a Wobbly (a member of the Industrial Workers of the World), linking them (the IWW) with the great Soviet Conspiracy. As every casual student of the Wobblies knows the IWW was more anti-communist than McCarthy. One of their better known slogans was "To defeat fascism we have to destroy bolshevism". The IWW still exists.

archer said...

am I wrong to think that anyone who belongs to the Communist Party is an implicit advocate for the violent overthrow of the Constitutional government of the United States?

Yes. Many Party members (and virtually all Americans on the extreme left) rejected the idea of armed revolution, opting for the view that socialism would arrive in the forms of government to which people were accustomed. There was nothing new about that; Wells and Shaw had been preaching such Fabianism to the British fifty years earlier.

Casey said...

I have to say, the "finer points" of dialectical materialism seem to have been lost on the millions of starving Soviets, Chinese, and North Koreans who were fairly well-trained in Marxist theory. So... but other than that, Yeah!

Anonymous said...

Senator McCarthy - a blow-hard, bullly, paranoid delusionist - all. Yes there are still those in US society and politics who might also take to same attitude to the new President, Barack OBama here in November 2008. Senator OBama has been accused of being a 'Socialist' which to some euqates with being a 'communist'. Even President Roosevelt prior to WW2 was accused of being a 'Communist' by some in the States.

Still the same old bigotted atitudes remain. It sure sucks dont it, and here we are in the 21st century!!

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