Monday, January 02, 2006

Let's all go to the lobby...

Roger Simon is, perhaps predictably, none to enamoured of George Clooney's latest opus, Good Night and Good Luck. I haven't seen the film so I can't comment on its content, though from the clips I've seen and commentary surrounding it I'm none too optimistic. Certainly it sounds like there's a substantial helping of boilerplate.

It's a shame really because a nuanced take on the McCarthy era would be worthwhile, not least because the common perception is shaded very strongly by the pat left-wing (and rather ahistorical, confused and Hollywood-centric) version of what went on and recent revisionist attempts by sections of the conservative commentariat to rehabilitate McCarthy are every bit as misplaced.

Joe McCarthy does not deserve rehabilitation. He was, at the risk of sounding trite, a bad man. His motivation was largely base, feeding as he did on the publicity and opportunity for self-promotion his position afforded him. Prior to finding his niche in anticommunism, he drifted with the breeze, latching on to any transitory issue that seemed likely to raise his profile. He was indiscriminate in his accusations, sweeping the innocent up with the guilty and making ever wilder claims as he began to believe his own publicity. He used his position as a weapon with which to menace personal enemies and political rivals. The Eisenhower executive branch viewed him as a menace and a fraud, though it was largely stopped from acting by a believe that the conservative grassroots had take McCarthy to their bosoms. Eisenhower himself personally vowed to put the boot into McCarthy when the opportunity arose - as eventually it did when McCarthy's claims became so ludicrous as to include the likes of General George C. Marshall. McCarthy's methods were simply not conducive to the functioning of an open and free liberal democracy. He deserved to fall and fall hard.

These flaws alone mean, it seems to me, that he deserved his comeuppance. However, as Norman Friedman has pointed out in his "The 50 Year War", perhaps McCarthy's worst legacy is simply the fact that he made anti-communism somehow grubby and not respectable.

"Of course, we all know there's no such thing as vampires or lesbians. But what's that under the bed? And who's that in the closet?"

This had (and has) major implications. It did so because the fact of the matter is that the threat was real. The empirical evience to back this up, both from the Venona decrypts and from the opening of the Soviet archives, is absolutely indisputable, except to a fully paid up pro-USSR shill*. The Soviets were operating an aggressive and extensive espionage network in the USA and they did, in fact, have agents in most parts of the US governmental and military bureaucracies and, for culture war purposes, within the artistic and literary community. These agents exacted a shockingly heavy toll in terms of purloined information, pilfered scientific research, leaked decrypts and the betrayal of Western agents in place and dissidents struggling for freedom within the Eastern Bloc. The fact that actually there was a threat is something that is, at best, skimmed over in the pat mainstream interpretation of the McCarthy period. Arthur Miller chose the Salem Witch Trials as his allegory of McCarthyism. The analogy is fundamentally misplaced because, although Miller would have us believe otherwise, the existence of actively treasonous figures within US society and bureaucracy was not an ignorant and superstitious conceit brought about by closed minds. Unlike witches, the reds did actually exist. But McCarthy was notably unsuccessful in uncovering the significant players (in fact, none of the major Soviet moles got their just desserts as a result of McCarthy, he just happened to be frolicking in the right ballpark**) and his methods caused such a backlash that it became easy for legitimate anticommunism to be portrayed as inherently repressive, untrustworthy and anti-liberal. The situation persists.

*Although it predates the high McCarthy period, it's worth noting, just because I'm a bitter, twisted little man being gradually eaten away in a pool of my own stomach acid, that in the case of almost every major high-profile Soviet spy tried brought down during the Cold War, from Alger Hiss to the Rosenbergs onwards, a substantial chunk of mainstream left-wing opinion made it, in some cases for a good forty year period, a noisy and ongoing article of faith that they were the innocent victims of outbreaks of authoritarian right wing paranoia. As it has emerged over the past decade or so that they were actually guilty as hell the common response seems to have been to pretend that nothing's happened.

**Alger Hiss fell foul of the HUAC, but of course McCarthy was not associated with HUAC. This is not to say that nobody fingered by McCarthy was guilty. In fact, several of the people on McCarthy's lists were guilty as hell. The problem is that a) he accused so many people that almost by the law of averages given the threat a proportion of them would be guilty and b) although evidence has shown some to be guilty, Soviet files and decrypt evidence provides no support in the large bulk of allegations made by McCarthy.


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