I have a couple of Comments of the Day on the runway and a guest column too, but when Steve-O-in-NJ delivered one of his epic epistles—I think they transcend “comments”—of Alizia Tyler length, I had to choose it to end the day. The topic is one Ethics Alarms has discussed in recent week: the disturbing similarities between the Red Scare and McCarthyism and the current George Floyd Freakout.
Here is his Comment of the Day on the post, “Waning Sunday Ethics Reveries, 7/12/2020: You Know, Ethics Isn’t Fun For Me When Everyone’s Acting Irrationally”:
I dub this the White Scare.
No doubt there are still a few people who have nightmares of the living nightmare of sitting uncomfortable and squirming in the lowest seat in the Senate chamber. You sit alone before an intimidating array of microphones, all eyes on you, questions being fired at you like crossbow bolts from every angle about anything and everything. You don’t exactly know how you got there, maybe someone said your name was mentioned in connection with some gathering or that you said or wrote something that concerned them. Your finances, your job, your friendships, your family, nothing is off-limits. Question after question, hour after hour, it drags on until you forget when it began and have no idea when it will end. Letters you wrote years ago, conversations you barely remember having, meetings you remember attending, but can’t remember who else was there, leave alone the subject, the questions keep coming. As you shake inwardly, your shirt soaked from the stress of the interrogation and the fear of its consequences, the stern-faced Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin fixes you with a glare like God throwing the Egyptian host into a panic and thunders possibly the most dreaded question in history, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” Refuse to answer, give the wrong answer, claim not to remember, or equivocate, and you are finished, tarred as a “Red,” a Communist, someone in league with the most evil regime then in the world, and the second or third worst ever, against America, the Constitution, and everything that was good.
If you have few friends when you sit down in this loneliest chair in the world, you could well have none when you leave it. There’s a very good chance that if you held a security clearance it will be revoked, because there are just too many maybes for you to be trusted. There’s a good chance that you will lose your job as you can’t hide or scrub off the red stain. There’s a very good chance your life and your family’s life will collapse or be greatly damaged or diminished.
Few dare say a word against this unfairness. Many people are afraid that they will become targets themselves if they speak out, for who is the greater villain, the villain, or the villain who defends him or covers for him? Many more fear that there really is a vast Communist underground in the US, and no one knows how deep or wide it is. It’s better to be safe than sorry. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg have been tried and convicted of espionage for passing nuclear secrets to the Soviets, for which they will ultimately meet death in the electric chair. Alger Hiss, a convincing lawyer and high official who helped set up the UN, has been revealed as a liar and a spy by the infamous “pumpkin papers.” Everyone wonders, ”just what else will these investigations reveal?” It’s the Red Scare at its height, probably the most damaging moral panic this nation ever went through.
Thankfully today this is only history for most of us. McCarthy fell from power in 1954 when he overreached himself by attacking the military, and TV journalist (when the title meant something) Edward R. Murrow exposed him for the power-mad paranoid he was (it turned out later that he was also a stealer of valor, but let’s not get too far afield ). He died three years later, at the relatively early age of 48, officially from hepatitis, no doubt exacerbated by alcoholism, and the parallel House Committee on Un-American Activities was dissolved. Unfortunately, this came too late for many people whose lives had already been torn apart. Financial ruin is like a lobster trap, a simple matter to enter, but very hard to escape once you have. A reputation is like a china statuette, easily shattered, difficult to put back together, and never the same even if it is put back together.
Although there was never a formal law passed or agreement made, never again would Congress convene a committee to accuse citizens of “Un-American Activities.” Never again would legislators summon citizens to grill them on alleged ties to enemies of this nation based on rumors or things that happened years or decades ago. Even through the turbulent years of Vietnam, when and Watergate, when it looked like the country was falling on its face and couldn’t keep young, angry people in line, Congress did nothing similar. The most that happened were a few trials of unhinged activists that usually ended with the court system looking relatively powerless, even though the activists were the ones deliberately being uncontrollable. No one was ever reduced to poverty or ruin just by a shadowy accusation, although some chose to live on the outside. The major congressional hearings of that time were against Richard Nixon for his involvement with the criminal web that was Watergate. Even during the nervous years of the Cold War, when civilization was the closest to doom it had been since the Nika riots, neither House nor Senate attempted to publicly shame those who opposed Reagan’s strong defense of the US and its interests.
The Berrigan brothers and their hangers-on usually got nothing more than slaps on the wrist for their vandalism. What no one will tell you is that they were usually cut loose with a slap on the wrist because the thought was that they weren’t at all important, and trying them would just give them free publicity.
This changed, of course, in the wake of 9/11, because it dawned on the US that if vandals could penetrate secure areas, so could terrorists, but that’s just an aside. Even so, even after the greatest attack on this nation since Pearl Harbor and 2 wars, one of which we had to pick up again after a 2-year hiatus, the other of which has never stopped, nothing like it has happened.
During any of these times, no one was ostracized for being less than loyal or for displaying sympathy for this nation’s adversaries. If you spoke out against the arms race, you might be told you were wrong, but you wouldn’t lose your job. If you said this nation’s involvement in Vietnam was wrong, for whatever reason, you wouldn’t suddenly find yourself on the outs with everyone respectable you knew.
As often as not, the wealthy and otherwise respectable were supporters of the radical like Ira Einhorn, even the violent like Mumia abu-Jamal. As often as not also, if you said something along the lines that maybe some of these folks who do nothing but criticize should be looked at more closely or that those who aligned religiously or philosophically with this nation’s sworn enemies could be enemies themselves, you would be told not to revive the Red Scare or conjure up McCarthy’s ghost.
The fact is, that way of thinking has a basis in the Constitution. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech. If someone says that the current war effort is not in this country’s best interest, or that war generally is bad, or that this country isn’t living up to its ideals, they are supposed to be free to say that, as much as you might disagree with them, and they aren’t supposed to be ruined for it. If someone shares the faith of the men who knocked those towers down, that’s supposed to be all right, there’s supposed to be freedom of religion. You weren’t supposed to suddenly not trust Hamid up the block after 9/11, even if he compared this to the Palestinian Arab situation. It was considered unfair when suddenly customers stopped coming to a diner owned by two Muslim brothers and their families, and it WAS unfair.
This nation is supposed to have moved past scares and moral panics. This nation is supposed to have moved past demands for absolute and expressed loyalty to any cause as a prerequisite for acceptance. This nation is supposed to have moved past tearing people’s lives apart based on single statements, or rumors, or things they said or did years ago, or attitudes they held at one time. It’s not fair, it’s not just, and it’s not supposed to be what the Constitution is all about. However, the events of the last few months make it clear we have not moved past any of these things. They have just been quiescent, like floodwaters held back by a dam, waiting for that one weakest spot to fail, or flammable gas building up in a mine or a tunnel, just waiting for the spark in just the right place that will set it off.
There have been a few indicators that one part of this was coming: adult athletes being attacked because of tweets they made when they were in high school, the first attempt to cancel J.K. Rowling when she dared to say that a trans woman and a woman born a woman were not one and the same thing, the brief ignition of the Kavanaugh hearings, which ultimately flamed out as everything pivoted to the midterm elections. There have been a few other indications that another part was coming: the Zimmerman trial, Ferguson in the wake of the death of Michael Brown, Baltimore in the wake of the death of Freddy Gray, and others. However, all of these remained localized and bottled up, and eventually retreated. Plenty of damage was done, including the horrifying mass murder of five officers in an ambush in Dallas and the outright assassination of two NYPD officers who were not engaged in a police action. Baltimore and Ferguson are still rebuilding.
However, none of these sparks touched off a nationwide insurrection. Maybe there were just too many questions about those particular incidents, and maybe the aftermaths eroded sympathy too quickly for that. Also, since there was no ongoing pandemic, the killing of George Floyd, with the knee of a crazy (though not proven racist) white officer pressed into his neck and back while he was outnumbered and handcuffed, looking for all the world like an arrogant high school football player torturing and bullying a helpless classmate just because he could, was the perfect spark, and now this issue has exploded.
However, it’s gone farther than protests. It’s gone farther than marches like Selma. It’s gone farther even than riots. Governments from the local to the state level have acted paralyzed at best, been involved in the destruction at worst. Calls for the elimination of police departments are not only being taken seriously, they are actually receiving positive votes in municipal councils. Everyone is suddenly taking a knee, when three years ago few did. Corporations are tripping over themselves to prove their wokeness. It’s not enough to not be racist, the mobs say. Everyone has to prove to us that they are actively anti-racist. How it must be proven varies, but it starts with the mandatory utterance of the phrase “black lives matter.” Only that phrase will do. If you dare co-opt that phrase and say any other kind of life matters, or you dare to say that “all lives matter,” you will be judged a racist and targeted. Taking a knee is another, especially before the flag or when the national anthem is played, when the normal protocol is to stand. If you stand, as is the normal practice, you are telling the mob that you do not stand with them, which makes you a racist.
Supporting the defunding of the police is apparently yet another, as the mob has decided that, because of the acts of certain police officers, the entire force, even the entire concept of policing, has to be eliminated. If you dare say that there needs to be another system in place before that’s considered, or that you think the idea is a bad one, or heaven forbid, that it is unfair to punish every officer for the acts of some, you are a racist in league with a racist system. If you are a corporation or other institution, you need to make a public statement that black lives matter and a big donation toward anti-racist causes. If you don’t use the right verbiage, or you’re too slow on the draw, you are a racist.
Of course if you really want to prove you’re anti-racist, you can repudiate the whole system since Columbus first landed in Hispaniola and began this nation’s unbroken history of racism and genocide. The 13 colonies were racist, the Declaration of Independence was written just to benefit the white male aristocracy, the Revolutionary War was just about that and getting at the lands west of the Appalachians, the Constitution is tainted because it did not abolish slavery then and there, and so on, up to 2008, when the nation finally started to do right be electing Barack Obama, only to throw it all out the window with the election of Donald Trump. This system isn’t worth of honor. Disagree, or try to defend the system, and you’re a racist defending a racist system.
If you are determined to be a racist, expect deep dives into any and all aspects of your life. Expect your donation history to be checked. If you made a donation to a politically incorrect cause, you’re in trouble. Expect your social media presence to be examined going all the way back to when you started it. If you said something that’s no longer considered acceptable expect a light to be shone on it. Expect anything else you wrote to be examined to. If anything is politically incorrect, expect to be publicly humiliated, lose your job, lose any public office you hold, and take all the consequences that come with those events. MAYBE you can atone by suitably groveling publicly and making as big a donation as you can spare to a lefty cause or Black Lives Matter directly, but it still won’t save your career.
As I pointed out above, financial ruin and loss of reputation are nearly impossible to come back from. Since this is mainly targeted at alleged white supremacy, I dub it the White Scare. The difference is, in the Red Scare people were targeted by elected officials, who could be removed, as some were. In this scare, people are being targeted by activists and mobs, who answer to no one, and who no one will protect against.