‘We’re Seeing the Result of a 40-Year Assault on the Liberal Mainstream’ – CounterSpin interview with Ellen Schrecker on the New McCarthyism

Janine Jackson interviewed Ellen Schrecker about the New McCarthyism for the January 6, 2017, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Ellen Schrecker

Ellen Schrecker: “What we see as a result of McCarthyism is a much narrower range of political ideas that impoverished the American political scene.”


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Janine Jackson:  We have major media afroth with tales of Russian hacking of the presidential election, giving millions of Americans the idea that Russian agents actually tampered with voting machines. A Democratic president just signed off on something called the Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act, tasked to aim communications at foreign audiences to countermessage the ideas of state-defined terrorists and other extremists in the information space. That was part of the National Defense Authorization Act, a previous iteration of which eliminated parts of the Smith/Mundt Act that prevented the US government from propagandizing domestic audiences.

And while legislation making its way through Congress sets up an interagency committee empowered to target Russian media manipulation, along with such other duties as the president—that would be Trump—may designate, a new website purports to serve as a watchlist on professors deemed guilty of advancing leftist propaganda in the classroom, the Washington Post trumpets a completely unfounded story about Russians hacking the electrical grid in Vermont, a few weeks after promoting a report by an anonymous group on websites accused of purveying fake news in service of a Russian campaign to undermine American interests, and the Wall Street Journal declares it wouldn’t be objective to use the word “lie” when referring to Donald Trump’s false statements.

It is quite a moment. And while not everything old is new again, it’s better not to pretend this is this country’s first excursion into enemies lists and official encouragement to ferret out the insufficiently patriotic. The first inclination is to evoke the McCarthy Era. In what ways does and doesn’t the present moment echo that time, and what are the threads that connect that not-so-long-ago period to today? We’re joined now by Ellen Schrecker, now retired professor of American history at Yeshiva University, and author of, among other titles, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America and No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism in the Universities. She joins us by phone. Welcome to CounterSpin, Ellen Schrecker.

Ellen Schrecker: Thank you very much, and it’s a pleasure to be talking with you.

Joseph McCarthy

Joseph McCarthy “came rather late to the movement that he gave his name to.”

JJ: Well, I know that that introduction was sort of overwhelming, I meant it to be. I think folks are feeling overwhelmed. It’s almost a key feature of the present moment. And that feeling—who do you trust? is the enemy of my enemy my friend?—that feeling can be instrumentalized, if you will. Confusion and fear lead people to accept things and do things that they might not do otherwise. When we think about McCarthyism we tend, naturally enough, to think about Joe McCarthy. But I wonder: Do you think, in a way, that the lessons, such as they are, might lie less in him than in what that time brought out in other people?

ES: Very much so. McCarthy was a convenient figurehead. He was an aberrant personality. He was a guy who knew how to play the press brilliantly. But actually, he came rather late to the movement that he gave his name to. He didn’t really surface until 1950, by which point there had been years of hearings by the House Unamerican Activities Committee; the federal government had imposed a very ideological loyalty security program on its employees. McCarthyism, in other words, was going full steam even before McCarthy showed up at the station.

And I think the main thing that we have to be careful about is not to confuse McCarthy with McCarthyism, because McCarthyism was a much broader movement, and, similarly, not to sort of think that Trump is everything that is happening today. Because I think what is happening today is the fruit of 40 years of a concerted right-wing conservative effort to delegitimize a lot of what we would consider liberal/moderate orthodoxy, to delegitimize things like climate change, for example, which is pretty scary.

McCarthyism was the same way. What we saw in the 1950s was a very broad-based movement, designed ostensibly to eliminate all the influence of American Communism, and all the people involved with it and the ideas and the organizations connected to it, to eliminate that from American life.

Now, there were Communists. I mean, one of the myths of the McCarthy period was that McCarthy and the HUAC and all the other sort of second-tier witch hunters were targeting innocent people. Well, they were and they weren’t. These people were certainly innocent of crimes, they hadn’t done anything wrong. But politically, these were people on the left, these were people, many of them, probably the vast majority of them, the people who were called up by committees or blacklisted, had had some connection to the American Communist Party. And who were still willing to defy the status quo, the sort of standard Cold War consensus, enough to refuse to name names, to refuse to collaborate with this witch-hunting machine. And it was a machine.

And so what we saw was a drive against the left, and one that was incredibly successful. I mean, that’s the thing that we—we can’t just sort of say, look at the 1950s and say, “Oh, McCarthy, you know, he was censured by the Senate, everything turned out fine.” Well, everything didn’t turn out fine. We ended up with a war in Vietnam, among other things. But also what had happened was that the American political spectrum narrowed, that a whole bunch of ideas and causes kind of disappeared from American political discourse and American political life.

And I can give you examples, from the labor movement that stopped trying to organize white-collar workers, for example. Or from the civil rights movement, which in the late 1940s had a very strong economic justice component, and that was completely wiped out, largely because many of the people who were pushing this broader notion of what civil rights was did have some Communist connections, were concerned about issues of economic class, and were simply booted out of the civil rights movement, the mainstream civil rights movement, which was trying to protect itself against some very ferocious red-baiting.

So what we see as a result of McCarthyism is a much narrower range of political ideas that impoverished the American political scene and put a stop to creating a much stronger safety net, for example.

We’re seeing it now with an attempt of the Republicans to roll back Obamacare. Well, back in the late 1940s, President Truman wanted to get the equivalent of Medicare for all. He wanted a full federal financing of healthcare, the same as that that exists throughout much of the industrialized world. But he was attacked, it was considered, quote unquote, “socialized medicine,” and it has yet to return to American politics.

JJ: Yes, you hear folks now saying we’ll survive this, like we survived McCarthyism. I mean, we post-date it, you know, but I think we forget that there were costs, that actual people and actual, as you point out, causes were hurt. There was fallout there, and it’s not simply enough to say, well, we’re going to get through it, as though there’s no damage.

ES: Right. I think that’s very true. And what I would like to emphasize is one of the reasons there was so much damage, and one of the reasons why so many people lost their jobs and even more people just shut up… I’ll give you one example of this is, I taught late 20th century American history; US since 1945 was my main course. And I would talk about McCarthyism, and then I would ask my students to talk about the anti-war movement against the Korean War, which began in 1950 and was every bit as unpopular, according to the polls, as the Vietnam War was, but we don’t know that very well. And I would be greeted by silence in my classes, and I’d say, yeah, that’s the right answer. In other words, McCarthyism had thoroughly prevented any attempt to criticize the Korean War.

In my writing, I always sort of say, wait a minute, what about the books that weren’t written, the movies that weren’t made, the unions that weren’t organized? In other words, the damage from McCarthyism is not just people losing their jobs or going to jail, but all of the movements, all of the projects, all of the books and ideas that weren’t out there in American life. And that’s the kind of thing that’s very scary, because we’ll never know.

JJ: Right.

ES: What I think is responsible for a lot of that and a lot of the self-censorship, which was really ferocious during that period, was the collaboration of what we could see as the moderate middle. The willingness, not just of politicians or journalists, but university presidents and hospital administrators, all kinds of people, to go along with McCarthyism, to somehow buy into the notion that the Constitution protected everybody but Communists.

And so what we got in the 1950s was institution after institution within civil society, all the way up to and including the Supreme Court, refusing to defend the rights of individuals who were attacked during this period, and operating on the assumption that somehow if you were named by HUAC and took the Fifth Amendment, there was something wrong with you. And people knew better. That was what gave McCarthyism so much power, was this collaboration of the employers, of the mainstream media, of the legal system, you name it, to go along with this anti-Communist purge.

JJ: I remember hearing a talk long ago by Robert Kuttner in which he talked about the abandonment of professional ethics. And this is in the ’90s, I guess, or early 2000s. He was talking about lawyers saying, “OK, I can squint and make the law say that torture is okay.” You know, doctors saying, “OK, I can make force-feeding prisoners at Guantanamo square with my Hippocratic oath.” There’s no competing ethics with that that is set out by political power, and that does more than undermine resistance. I mean, there’s no kind of alternate set of values in evidence for people.

ES: Exactly. Exactly. Although to their credit, one has to say the liberals did wake up. It took a while, it took really until the mid- to late ’50s for the Supreme Court to begin to rule that some of the practices of the red-baiters were wrong, or the civil rights movement could pick up again, although in a somewhat attenuated way; there was no longer this stress on economic justice, but rather on sort of legal rights and civil rights. Important as they were, it wasn’t the whole story of racial inequality in America by any means.

JJ: Right.

ES: I think the important thing is to avoid going along with this, these watchlists. And there is hope.

JJ: Let me ask you about that hope, because the word “watchlist” itself, I think, for many people sends a shiver. But at least with regard to universities in particular, we are seeing pushback. So let me just draw you out on that. Where are you seeing resistance?

ES: OK. Well, I am seeing resistance in a number of places. With regard to some of these threats, shall we say, to civil liberties and civil rights, one of the most alarming ones is this notion of a registry of American Muslims. And what we’re hearing from a number of groups and individuals is what I call the king of Denmark moment, which comes from the experience during World War II when the Third Reich, Hitler, invaded Denmark and forced all the Danish Jews to wear yellow stars, and the king of Denmark put on a yellow star as well.

Obviously showing a great deal of courage there. And we are hearing a number of groups and individuals saying, well, if it comes to that in this country, I’m going to register as a Muslim too.

And we’ve actually seen that happen within the academic community with this professors’ blacklist that was published of, started out, some 200 names. It’s a weird little list, because it doesn’t by any means list all the more serious leftist and political activists within the academic community. It seems to be a kind of hodgepodge. I think many of them probably right-wing students who just sent in the names of professors who gave them Cs.

But anyhow, that list was published, and I began getting some interesting things in my in-box, including a letter that was sent from about a hundred faculty members at Notre Dame, which is very interesting. It’s a Catholic school, you know, you would expect the faculty there to be rather conservative, but here come the Fighting Irish. They sent a letter or an email to the blacklisting organization, saying, put us on the list! And then I know that professors at the University of Michigan began to do the same thing. And then an organization called the American Association of University Professors, that I had been active with, that is the main sort of guardian of academic freedom, the main institutional guardian of academic freedom in this country, sent a letter to its members, telling us all where to send our names in as well.

So there is pushback. And more pushback then there had been during the McCarthy period. For example, during the McCarthy period, the American Association of University Professors, AAUP, simply didn’t do a thing. About a hundred faculty members were fired, and the AAUP, which had been theoretically supposed to look into these cases, didn’t lift a finger.

And we saw that throughout American society. The ACLU, for example, during the McCarthy period would not defend anybody who had been a member of the Communist Party unless they had recanted seriously. I don’t think you’d see that today. I do think that some of these organizations are much wiser and more willing to fight back.

But—and let me emphasize this point—there are ways in which it’s much worse. And that’s because of the way in which institutions like the universities, and I’m particularly concerned about the universities, have been completely hollowed out over the past 40 years. There have been structural changes, many of them motivated by politically conservative movements, to press down on universities, and it’s done through defunding, through state legislatures no longer as willing to support higher education as they had been in the 1950s.

JJ: Right. Any final thoughts?

ES: I think the main thing is really to remember, above all, that what we’re seeing is the result of a 40-year assault on the sort of liberal mainstream. It’s not an assault on the left, like McCarthyism, but rather on the American mind, if I can put it that way. And so what we’re seeing is people in power now, probably sponsored in one way or another by corporate interests, certainly we know that climate denial has very strong ties to the oil and gas industry, and it’s this kind of corporate ideological assault on reality, as it were, that is so dangerous. And that, you know, is not just Trump.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Ellen Schrecker. Her most recent book is The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom and the End of the American University. Ellen Schrecker, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

ES: Well, thank you. It was a pleasure.

This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.