Guest Commentary

McCarthyism Redux?

By Victor Wallis
The Public Eye - Vol. 19, No. 1

This issue's lead article examines the mainstreaming of fascist parties in present-day Western Europe. The scenario is one in which those parties have largely shed their extreme-right image without, in the process, giving up their defining agenda. They remain profoundly racist even if they no longer boast of their racism. Although their supporters include many people who are ill served economically by the prevailing system, their coalition partners—when they have them—are parties committed to preserving the economic status quo. This is in the grand tradition of 20th-century fascism, which from its beginnings railed against privilege while pandering to capital and serving it faithfully once in power.

In the United States, no fascist party has entered the electoral arena, but the trademark goals embraced historically by such parties have been attained through other channels. Military aggression, the scrapping of international treaties, preventive detention, widespread torture of prisoners, and the ethnic screening of immigrants have been implemented without any need for the prior services of an avowedly fascist party. It has all come about under the authority of at least one and sometimes both of the "established" political parties.

How this has happened is a complex story, many of whose components are already familiar to readers of The Public Eye. At the core of the process are traditions of acquisitiveness, vigilantism, aggressive religiosity, and a peculiarly arrogant patriotism—forming a mindset whose more authoritative public expressions are couched in a persistent euphemistic rhetoric of diversity and moderation. In what follows, I will explore some recent manifestations of this discursive swamp, in terms of how they reflect the larger global agenda that has driven U.S. policy since before the end of World War II.

The 9/11 attacks have supplied the pretext for the U.S. government to reaffirm and intensify its global role. The significant increase in the scope—and the brazenness— of U.S. interventionism invites comparison with the immediate post-World War II period. As in that earlier period, it has been necessary for the government to enlist popular support for policies which in themselves, especially when they come to involve tangible sacrifices, are bound to be unpopular. In both cases, this has entailed creating a climate of fear, which has meant on the one hand constructing an "enemy" and, on the other, setting up a machinery of institutionalized intimidation.1

Constructing an enemy means portraying as a threat to the whole people what is in fact a threat only to the corporate interests that permeate the U.S. government. What threatens these interests is any movement (or associated regime) that might reduce the scope of their activity anywhere in the world. Turning such movements into "enemies" means linking them in people's minds with scenarios of being brought under some kind of foreign military subjugation—or, in the more recent setting, of being exposed to a permanent threat of sudden attack, with the latter seen as something undertaken by such enemies as an end in itself (embodying "hatred of our freedoms"), unrelated to any acts of U.S. foreign policy.

Both the earlier specter of Russian armies invading Western Europe (and then presumably the United States) and the current one of our being attacked just because of "who we are," are based on conscious misrepresentation of reality by U.S. leaders. In the earlier instance, the very formulation of U.S. containment policy (the famous 1947 "X" article by the late George F. Kennan) was grounded in a recognition—missing from politicians' rhetoric—that whatever threat was posed by Communism was fundamentally political rather than military.2 In the present situation, U.S. policymakers have persistently made clear in their practical measures—as distinct from their ideological pronouncements —their awareness that the climate for terrorist attacks is directly fed by U.S. impositions and assaults on the Islamic world.3

In both periods, the thrust of the ideological sleight-of-hand consists in turning the U.S. role from that of an imperial power—seeking to control political outcomes in other countries4—into that of either a defender of the weak (protecting "friendly countries" against "Communist aggression") or that of being a victim or potential victim in its own right. But at both historical moments, those who promoted the U.S. global agenda evidently doubted the persuasiveness of their scam. For this reason, they could not limit themselves to time-honored practices of fabrication. They had to scare potential dissidents not only by propagating nightmares and red/orange alerts, but also by directly threatening the personal freedom of anyone they perceived as "disloyal."

The arsenals of intimidation are longstanding in the United States.5 From the beginning they have had a private or vigilante dimension as well as an official one. The earlier agents of such enforcement were Indian-bounty hunters and Ku Klux Klan nightriders—terrorists by any neutral definition. More recently, during the period known by the name of McCarthyism,6 they included a large and highly impressionable sector of the population which, moved by the climate of the times, lost whatever capacity they might have had to respect people with unfamiliar convictions and got sucked into types of conduct for which at least a good many of them would later have to apologize. They snooped on neighbors and co-workers, ostracized schoolchildren, fired workers for their beliefs or associations, assaulted people at public events, and issued anonymous threats of bodily harm to individuals.

The present-day political climate is one in which the ground is being prepared for reenacting such practices on a vaster scale. The signals of this trend are numerous. Especially striking is the overturning, via the USA PATRIOT Act, of consitutional protections against unreasonable search & seizure and of constitutional guarantees of the right to assembly, the right to legal counsel, and the right to a speedy trial. No less impressive is the open disdain expressed by the White House for international legal norms. Underlying all these developments has been the willingness of the Republican party machinery to use strong-arm tactics to capture and hold the nation's top offices.7 Completing this basic picture is the growth of a constituency of often religiously inspired zealots who are disposed to enforce conformity —e.g. in matters of school curricula —by creating a climate of fear.

In terms of identifying and understanding what is new in present-day forms of repression, it is worth noting the changed historical setting. Several traits distinguish today's conjuncture from that of the McCarthy period: 1. Washington's expansionist agenda is unrestrained by any threat of serious military reprisal (the lurking specter of non-state terrorism is itself, ironically, a reflection of this circumstance, in which state-based forces disposed to deter U.S. attacks are essentially absent). 2. The U.S. government, in its selective rejection of international law, has embraced more strongly than ever a culture of impunity regarding its own actions. This attitude extends down to the lowest levels of authority and readily informs the conduct of troops and prison guards. 3. On the other hand, in comparison with the earlier period, the U.S. global position is now weaker in terms of a) negative trade-balance, b) longterm resource prospects, and c) world public opinion. 4. Finally, much was learned from the earlier wave of repression, which ended up discrediting its perpetrators. As a result, any new campaign of repression will need to project some kind of "deniability" in relation to its forerunner.

In the intervening period, protest movements arose to challenge existing patterns of dominance in every dimension of social interaction (class, race, gender, sexuality, age, disability). To accommodate them, the discourse of "rights" was radically expanded, under the overarching banner of multiculturalism. The gut reaction of conservative sectors was to ridicule this trend, often very aggressively (e.g., Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly) and in a manner that readily encouraged violence on the part of their cohorts. Government officials, even when appealing to these sectors, generally eschew the more extreme rhetoric, but they do not hesitate to advocate legislation (including constitutional amendments) to take away the often painfully acquired rights of various oppressed groups.

The irony of the "new McCarthyism" is its attempt to appropriate the discourse of rights, diversity, and oppression in order, as it turns out, to undermine the social awareness that can be arrived at on the basis of free and open inquiry. A specific instance of this approach involves the labeling of all critics of Israeli occupation policies as antisemites, a process by which critics are lumped together with the traditional bigoted persecutors of Jews. This frames the complex and fluid issues of victim and oppressor in the Middle East in a static onedimensional way that portrays Israel solely as a victim and creates a chilling effect on other perspectives.8 A more general expression of the assault on free inquiry has been the proposal, put forward in a number of states, to require universities to adopt a so-called Academic Bill of Rights.

The Academic Bill of Rights project has identified a new category of alleged victimhood: conservatives in academia. The idea is to legislate a measure which, under the guise of promoting freedom and diversity, can require professors to take seriously (and accept, if put forward by students) approaches lacking in intellectual or scientific merit.9 The rationale for such a law resembles the arguments that have been used to advance the biblical story of creation against the teaching of evolution in public schools. The advocates of creationism are not fazed by the weight of scientific evidence against their contentions. By building up political pressure, they have been able to force into many biology textbooks the assertion that the literal biblical narrative of "creation" has the same level of scientific validity as the theory of evolution.10

The only remarkable feature of these campaigns is their apparent embrace of the same principle of diversity whose introduction conservatives have otherwise opposed. What is particularly cynical about the Academic Bill of Rights project, however, is the way it treats conservative academics as though they were victims of social and political oppression. Conservative academics, in contrast not only to members of specific oppressed groups but also to their leftist counterparts in the professoriate, have the benefit of a whole hegemonic political culture in support of their outlook. The underlying assumptions of their approach are trumpeted on a daily basis from the highest levels of government and from the most widely diffused talk shows on the commercial media. While all this indeed makes it possible for them to claim that their opinions match those of a significant portion of the public, it hardly proves that they reflect a serious effort to understand either the varieties of human experience or the underling social reality.

In fact, the persuasiveness of the rightwing worldview depends precisely on the insulation of its devotees from much that is well known to the majority of humankind—be it the experience of poverty or military occupation, the legitimacy of more than one culture, or the arrogance of U.S. behavior on the world stage. Not attuned to any of these realities, and shielded from argument or evidence by faith-based bigotry, the constituents of the Right are susceptible to any fiction that might suit the interests of their national leadership. They are also incapable of seeing themselves as they appear to people of the rest of the world. And when terrible atrocities that have been committed in their name become known, they can rationalize them as part of a "moral" crusade and can claim exemption for their leaders from any conceivable international norms of conduct.11 No wonder that devotees of such attitudes feel uneasy when they venture out of their ideological cocoon and are exposed to the fullness of human knowledge.

When we shift our attention, however, from the education sector back to the whole society, what we find is that the very forces which are demanding equal time for their own narrow perspective are attempting to deny equal time to those who might question official policies. It has reached the point now where people are arrested simply for displaying protest signs that might be visible to the president. 12 But there is a ready rationale for such measures: the attacks of 9/11 conferred upon the world's most powerful and most interventionist country the status of permanent victimhood.

The view of "U.S. as victim," along with the self-righteous anger it has unleashed, is the key cultural assumption, the key point of conformity of the new McCarthyism. Do you dare to question official priorities? Remember 9/11! Of course, the social agenda that goes along with all this is far from new, but this particular way of justifying it reflects the exhaustion of all other rationales, and poses the ultimate challenge—in terms of its effectiveness—to anyone committed to humanity's longterm survival.

Victor Wallis taught political science for many years in Indianapolis, where he was a frequent commentator on local media. He is now a professor in the General Education department at the Berklee College of Music and is managing editor of the journal Socialism and Democracy. His articles on recent U.S. history have also appeared in Monthly Review and New Political Science.

1. On the links between overseas priorities and domestic measures, see: Freeland, Richard M. 1974. The Truman Doctrine and the Origins of McCarthyism. New York: Schocken Books; and Kofsky, Frank. 1993. Harry S. Truman and the War Scare of 1948. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
2.See X. 1947. "The Sources of Soviet Conduct." Foreign Affairs, vol. 25, no. 4 (July), 566-82. Kennan describes Soviet foreign policy as cautious and flexible, and calls Russia [sic] "by far the weaker party" compared to the West(581). He nowhere mentions even the possibility of Soviet military attack.
3. Blum, William. 2005. Freeing the World to Death: Essays on the American Empire. Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, p. 92.
4.An outstanding treatment, richly documented, is: Blum, William. 1995. Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II. Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press.
5.For historical background, see: Wolfe, Alan. 1973. The Seamy Side of Democracy: Repression in America. New York: David McKay; and Goldstein, Robert Justin. 2001. Political Repression in Modern America. Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
6.For an excellent overview of this period, see: Schrecker, Ellen. 1998. Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
7.On the 2000 election, see: Palast, Greg. 2003. The Best Democracy Money Can Buy. Harmondsworth: Penguin; Nichols, John. 2001. Jews for Buchanan: Did You Hear the One about the Theft of the American Presidency? New York: New Press; and Bugliosi, Vincent. 2001. The Betrayal of America: How the Supreme Court Undermined the Constitution and Chose Our President. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press. The 2004 election requires a more complex analysis; I offer a preliminary sketch in the Introduction to the March 2005 issue (vol. 19, no. 1) of Socialism and Democracy.
8. An example was the recent successful campaign to terminate the participation of Columbia University Professor Rashid Khalidi in the annual workshops for teachers sponsored by the New York City Board of Education. Physical threats have even been made against a prominent Jewish critic of Israeli policies, Rabbi Michael Lerner (editor of the bimonthly magazine Tikkun). A valuable introduction to these issues is the 2004 documentary produced by the Media Education Foundation, Peace, Propaganda and the Promised Land (
9.See the point-by-point commentary by the American Association of University Professors on the text of one such bill (in Maryland) at; also Jacoby, Russell. 2005. "The New PC: Crybaby Conservatives." The Nation, April 4.
10.For trenchant comment, see Pollitt, Katha. 1999. "Weird Science." The Nation, September 20.
11.For a seminal analysis of this process, see Davis, Walter A. 2005. "The Passion of the Christ at Abu Ghraib: Toward a New Theory of Ideology." Socialism and Democracy, vol. 19, no. 1 (March), 67-93.
12.Bovard, James. 2004. "Quarantining Dissent: How the Secret Service protects Bush from free speech." San Francisco Chronicle, January 4.

Vol. 19, No. 1:

Spotlight On

Browse Topics | Site Guide | Multimedia Bookstore | Magazine | Publications | Activists Resources

Political Research Associates

Copyright Information, Terms, and Conditions

Please read our Terms and Conditions for copyright information regarding downloading, copying, printing, and linking material on this site; our disclaimer about links present on this website; and our privacy policy.

Updates and Corrections