Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 26, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

WHAT IS MCCARTHYISM?....Jonah Goldberg has a long column in National Review Online today that he obviously means to be provocative, so I guess I'll take the bait. The subject is "McCarthyism":

What makes McCarthyism so hard to discuss is that McCarthy behaved like a jerk, but he was also right.

....Senator Joe McCarthy was a lout, generally speaking. But he was on the right side of history and, in a broad sense, of morality as well. If, in some sort of parallel-universe exercise, the same number of (now proven) Soviet-Communist spies, collaborators, sympathizers, and the like were somehow switched to Nazis, and McCarthy went after them with the same vehemence as he went after Reds, Joe McCarthy might well have universities and foundations named after him today.

Goldberg uses about a thousand words to say, basically, "McCarthyism was really not that bad because, after all, there really were a lot of Communists around back then." This is essentially the same argument that Glenn Reynolds has made in the past (though it usually takes him only a sentence or two), and I can't tell if they are being deliberately dishonest or if they really don't get it.

I can't pretend to speak for the entire liberal community, and certainly not for liberals of a generation before me, but I'm not sure anyone really denies that there were indeed communist spies in the United States back in the 50s. The problem with McCarthy and McCarthyism wasn't that he uncovered lots of communist spies, but that he didn't uncover many communist spies. While other, more careful investigators had some success, McCarthy himself was extraordinarily unproductive.

What McCarthy did do was accuse everyone under the sun of being a communist. If you had belonged to the communist party as a student in the 30s, you were a communist. If you belonged to the ACLU, you were a communist. If, like Fred Fischer, you belonged to the Lawyer's Guild for a few months after you graduated from law school, you were tarred as a communist on national TV.

It's not McCarthyism to accuse a communist of being a communist. It is McCarthyism to accuse someone of being a communist who has only a vague association with communist friends, groups, or ideas.

Why is this so hard to understand? Goldberg himself says:

Now, I have no problem with Muslims denouncing McCarthyism if, by McCarthyism, you mean unfairly accusing someone of wrongdoing either through guilt-by-association or through simple prejudice. But that's not what those throwing around the "McCarthyite" smear are up to. When they denounce McCarythism, they are working on the clear assumption that McCarthyism victimized only innocent people.

No, not "only" innocent people, but that's a pretty low bar, isn't it? Shouldn't we aim a little higher?

What we're afraid of is a repeat of the climate of hysteria McCarthy created, where far more innocent people had their careers ruined than were ever actually convicted of any treasonous behavior, where the old saying was turned on its head and ten innocent people were ruined for every guilty person who was sent to prison. I hope this doesn't happen today, but it's right to be on guard against it. I don't know why Goldberg feels the need to disagree.

UPDATE: Just a quick note. Goldberg's basic case is that he's upset with liberals who denounce everything in sight as "McCarthyism." Now, he could certainly argue that we are nowhere near the level of hysteria McCarthy caused in the 50s, so this kind of talk is over the top. That would be defensible. But why on earth would he also spend over a thousand words actually defending McCarthy himself, a man who accomplished nothing concrete in the fight against communism and whose demagoguery and serial smearing of innocents caused a backlash that, if anything, set back the cause of anti-communism? It's inexplicable that any truly anti-communist conservative would offer even a half-hearted defense of the man.

UPDATE 2: Tapped points to this 1999 piece by Josh Marshall in which he addresses the whole phenomenon of McCarthy revisionism. It's an interesting read and ends with this reminder:

One of the great ironies of the McCarthy period, now conveniently forgotten, is that those who were most hysterical about the communist menace were those who opposed almost every policy that actually helped to contain it.

As Josh points out, there's a big difference both then and now between liberal Democrats and extreme lefties. Conservatives frequently try to make it look as if the extreme left is actually a fair representation of mainstream liberalism, and it's an argument we shouldn't let them get away with.

UPDATE 3: Jonah Goldberg responds here.

Kevin Drum 11:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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