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Jewish World Review May 13, 2003 / 11 Iyar, 5763

James Lileks

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What McCarthy messed up | The "secret transcripts" of Joe McCarthy have been exposed to light! Fifty years after his reign of terror ended, the truth is finally out: McCarthy was a sweaty, drunken, coal-hearted boor who ruined lives for his own political advantage.

In related news, the sun rises in the east, water is wet, and Paula Abdul is cute. Stop the presses.

The release of these documents doesn't add much that we don't already know -- unless you believed that McCarthy was a nice guy, or that Reuters is an unbiased news service. Take a look at this line in a Reuters' dispatch: "McCarthy flourished during Cold War anxieties, with some parallels to today's fear of terrorism."

Yes, we all remember when Soviet agents drove a passenger plane into the Empire State Building. When the United States invaded East Germany to get the perps and put 2,000 Stasi agents at Gitmo. When a gaunt apparition of Trotsky himself sent blurry kinescopes to his followers, urging death to the bourgeoisie.

Perhaps Reuters is just massaging the event for its own purposes? If so, it's not alone. Sen. Carl Levin said the hearings reminded Americans of "the tactics [that] can be used to quiet dissenters," as well as the requirement that we oppose "those who try to still voices of disagreement."

Huh? Stalinists and members of the CPUSA were not dissenters; they were hard-core Reds who wanted to replace the Constitution and the U.S. government with a Moscow-run puppet state. If this is "dissent," then al Qaeda is the loyal opposition.

Joe's problem wasn't his target but rather his aim. McCarthy wasn't just accusing leftists of being Communists.

McCarthy was accusing left-handers of being Communists, and crimson-haired people of being Reds.

File clerks, ordinary folk -- anyone could have his life put through the shredder for nothing. Say you worked next to a guy who put a red rose on his desk on Lenin's birthday. Why didn't you denounce him? Doesn't matter that there was a guy outside the building selling red roses for disabled vets that day. You should have been suspicious -- and if nothing aroused your suspicions, that made you very suspicious indeed.

Reading these transcripts, you wish you could jump in a time machine, head back half a century and give Joe McC the testimony of his miserable career:

"Oh, I'll name names, Senator. I'll name one. Yours. We all know now about the stick of butter you eat to calm your guts before these hearings. And it's not even Wisconsin butter. For shame, sir! For shame! And how do we know this? Because Roy Cohn bugged your liquor cabinet and passes everything on to The Party. Khrushchev knows everything. Even about the late-night calls where you speak in baby-talk to Hoover.

"Now listen up, you fool. There are Communists at work in the land. There are men who write movies who have a sophomoric comprehension of the world and who cling to Communist nonsense. And there are double agents. Sympathizers. Fellow travelers. Just because the Salem witch trials convicted innocent women doesn't mean there wasn't some crone burning hair and casting spells in the town down the road.

"But you have killed your cause -- and what's more, you have poisoned debate for decades to come. In the future, the very accusation of Communist sympathies will be dismissed out of hand because few will want to be associated with your loathsome precedent.

"And even after Communism itself has been defeated -- which it will be, but not by men such as yourself -- the term McCarthyism will be used to shut down debate. The accusation will be the absolution. On behalf of everyone who opposed the totalitarians, the collectivists, the mealy-minded fans of charismatic brutes yet to come -- thanks for nothing.

"And now I must return to the 21st century, where U.S. astronauts have just completed a mission with their Russian comrades. Oh, and that Aaron Copland fellow you were so worried about? We play his Fanfare for a Common Man when the aircraft carriers return to port.

"Here's your grave, Joe. Lie down. Start spinning."

You have killed your cause -- and what's more, you have poisoned debate for decades to come.

JWR contributor James Lileks is a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Comment by clicking here.


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11/07/00: Get ready to return to the Dark Ages

© 2003, James Lileks