I try to make my blog posts like mini religious services, with (usually brief) text for the left side of the brain plus an image or two and music for the right side. In any religion, though, there are times to devote a service either to the spirit or the intellect. Sometimes, religious faith means devoting a service to an issue that seems political but intrudes on our souls.
I fear that many born after 1950 or so don’t fully understand the McCarthy era, and don’t see how much Donald Trump has begun to sound like Senator Joseph McCarthy. Even though I was only 3 when McCarthy launched his anti-communist and anti-gay crusade and was 8 when he was effectively silenced, thanks to early television and the strong sense of fear I picked up from the adults around me, I remember much of it vividly and feel called to share my memories.
The grown-ups I knew smirked about how McCarthy always had a list. It became an ironic figure of speech in the ’50s: “I have a list right here.” McCarthy’s list had 57, or 205, or 130, or some other number of communists in the State Department, or the CIA, or the military. Less remembered were his lists of homosexuals, who in the climate of the ’50s were considered bad security risks because of their vulnerability to blackmail. Sometimes he would wave a sheet of paper with the supposed list, but he never showed it to anyone for verification.
When asked for a list, or for any sort of documentation of his charges, McCarthy would find a way, or invent a way, to attack the person asking the question.
As I watched the much-talked-about contentious Trump interview on the Morning Joe Fox News program, I was shocked at how closely Trump followed the McCarthy model. For example:
They have sections in Paris that are radicalized. The police refuse to go in there…places in London that are so radicalized the police are afraid for their own lives…It’s well known, well documented…They (ISIS) have tremendous money.
When asked to name the neighborhoods in Paris he was talking about, Trump suggested that the questioner go for a vacation there with his family. This interview came after, of course, Trump’s indisputable “fact” that thousands of people in largely Muslim neighborhoods of New Jersey cheered as the World Trade Canters collapsed in 2001.
Trump is not solely responsible for the Islamophobia in the United States, and McCarthy was not solely responsible for the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s. Both were assisted by a small group of politicians and a large dose of fear among the public.
But here’s why it’s a religious issue. In the ’50s, I lived in a working-class, immigrant neighborhood where almost none of the adults had any college education, and yet they were smart enough to smirk at McCarthy. But they did their smirking in private. Fear kept them from speaking up as McCarthyism ruined some lives and ended some others. They feared somehow becoming a target of McCarthy, and maybe they feared communism and the atom bomb more than they feared for their free speech and civil rights.
Love thy neighbor as thyself…welcome the stranger…minister to the least of these…have compassion for all sentient beings...none of these have the qualification…except when you are afraid and inconvenienced.
We smirk at Trump now, but how can any one of us know when he’ll become a real threat, as McCarthy did? Maybe it’s time to take Trump seriously.
The Senate voted to condemn McCarthy on December 2, 1954, but two events set the stage for that condemnation.
In March 1954, TV newsman Edward R. Murrow devoted his documentary program See It Now to McCarthy. Included in Murrow’s conclusion where these words: “We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.”
Then, in June 1954, came the exchange in the video below. The Army-McCarthy hearings in the Senate were televised live, and my house was one of the first on the block to have a TV. My mother watched faithfully, and I hurried home from school at lunchtime and again in the afternoon to watch with her.
The video begins after Army counsel Joseph Welch has repeatedly asked Roy Cohn, an attorney and aide to McCarthy, to produce the 130 names of supposed subversives working in defense plants “before the sun goes down.” McCarthy comes to Cohn’s defense by attacking a junior lawyer in Welch’s firm who had once been a member of the National Lawyers’ Guild. In two exchanges, Welch tells McCarthy:
Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness…Senator, may we not drop this? We know he belonged to the Lawyer’s Guild…Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator; you’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?
Then Welch called for the next witness, and the gallery erupted in applause.
Even as an 8-year-old, I sensed a difference in the atmosphere after that exchange. May we all stand up for decency as Joseph Welch did.
Copyright 2015 © Mel Harkrader Pine