Showing posts with label McCarthyism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label McCarthyism. Show all posts

25 November 2015

America First

Couple of things led to this week's musing. After my speculations about the Duke of Windsor's political sympathies. Eve Fisher suggested John Gunther's INSIDE EUROPE (1938) for a good picture of the rise of fascism, and then she wrote wrote a column about anarchist history - how none of it develops in a vacuum. This was followed by Jan Grape's piece on terrorism, and then there was Donald Trump's widely-reported prescription for a register of Syrian refugees, and bringing back waterboarding. It doesn't matter what you or I think of Trump, or what we think about torture, for that matter, or immigration policy, or radical salafist Islam. Certainly there's a debate to be had about national security, but that's another conversation. Right now, let's talk about the hysteria index. This doesn't exist in a vacuum, either, or outside historical context.

We've got a long track record in this country of what Harry Truman once called Creeping Meatballism. Examples go back to the Know-Nothings, a nativist, anti-Catholic political party of the 1850's. One constant is fear of the Other, as in the captive narratives that were popular after the Deerfield Raid in 1704, white women and children carried off by Indians, and much the same sentiment as No Irish Need Apply or the Chinese Exclusion Act or Jim Crow laws, or various incarnations of the Red Scare. It boils down to marketing skills, and the lowest common denominator.

Charles Lindbergh got famous three times. First, for his solo flight across the Atlantic, then when his son was kidnapped, and last, for his active engagement with the America First Committee, established in 1940 to keep the U.S. out of any European war. Although there was plenty of isolationist feeling in the country, or at least a strong bent toward neutrality, in the end America First damaged Lindbergh's reputation and later legacy, because he was not only an admirer of Germany and an apologist for Hitler's rearmament policies, but he ascribed support for the war to the Jewish influence. This echoed the anti-Semitism of the more notorious America Firsters - one, Laura Ingalls (not the LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE writer) went to jail for sedition after Pearl Harbor, because she'd taken money from Nazi spymasters.

Joe McCarthy might seem a little obvious, and more than a little below the salt, which is why he was written off as a blowhard at first, but there was nothing ridiculous about him, not if you got tarred with the Commie brush. The blacklist was used to settle a lot of scores, and nobody's motives were pure, so you wonder how come it provoked so much fevered melodrama. What gets lost, or eroded over time, is the actual experience people lived through, the climate of paranoia and lynch law. That's why survivors on both sides of the quarrel still hold a grudge.  

Generally speaking, I'd guess you could make a pretty good case that this kind of phenomenon arises in times of uncertainty. As a friend of mine once remarked, people don't have much tolerance for ambiguity. The more complicated and intractable the problem, the more likely it appears to encourage simple-minded posturing and wishful thinking. "The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter," Spade says, which holds true for any unserious argument.

The world, which seems to lie before us like a land of dreams, is in fact an increasingly ambiguous and treacherous place, and we don't have too many navigational aids. Is there any such animal as True North? I can't say. The difficulty with taking refuge or comfort in
certitude, is that the goalposts are gonna move. There's no sure thing. Orthodoxy is snake oil. The received wisdom is a high-mileage trade-in with too many previous owners. The evidence of your own senses is open to question. It depends what's in the drinking water. In other words, we've got a trust issue. Somebody comes down from the mountaintop, you have reason to wonder whether the air up there's too thin to breathe.

We prefer to imagine it's all those other guys who are so gullible, and open to suggestion. Truth is, there's probably a closet jihadi in each of us - not in the literal sense, the Islamist moral midgets, but in the sense that each of us harbors a need to be protected, inside the mouth of the cave, safe from predators. Told it's okay. Better perhaps to know too little than too much, and not to be challenged by a world that doesn't conform to our hermetic comforts. The jihadi is sealed off, at a remove. I'm sure there's a psychological term for it. Inversion? It's reassuring, and self-contained. It feeds off its own inner heat, it has no outside frame of reference.

We're talking, I believe, about a defense mechanism. A reaction to uncertainty and confusion, and the loss of confidence. An arrested mania, a retreat. Why not call it a pathology? There's a fascinating book called EXTRAORDINARY POPULAR DELUSIONS AND THE MADNESS OF CROWDS. We might reflect on this, in our fortress mentality. These are uneasy times. They conjure up bafflement.

12 June 2013

The Haunted Wood

The hysteria of the Red Scare in the 1950's is a sad chapter in recent American history. Joe McCarthy was a blowhard and an opportunist, who targeted the innocent along with the merely suspect, and destroyed the careers of honorable people, inside the government and out.

To take one example, it was an article of faith on the Left for many years that the Rosenbergs were railroaded to the electric chair. And likewise, that Alger Hiss was the victim of a smear campaign by the despicable turncoat Whittaker Chambers. The fact that the Hiss case gave legs to Richard Nixon's early political career is only proof positive that the bottom-feeders of the Far Right have no shame, and are happy to use the basest of lies to promote a culture of fear.

Slight cognitive dissonance, here. What gets lost in the shuffle is that Stalin had in fact mounted an enormous clandestine espionage operation inside the United States in the postwar years. Not that McCarthy made a dent in it.

Which brings us to THE HAUNTED WOOD.  In 1995, the FBI began to release the declassified transcripts of the Venona intercepts. Venona was a U.S. counterintelligence program that decrypted cable traffic, specifically Soviet agents reporting back to Moscow. The authors of THE HAUNTED WOOD were given access to KGB archives, and cross-collateralized with Venona, they reconstruct a secret world.

There's an obvious question of provenance. To what degree are the KGB documents---or the FBI documents, for that matter---redacted, or sanitized, or doctored? No security service wittingly gives up material that makes them look bad. The answer seems to be that when both versions of the traffic are available---e.g., the original Russian in Moscow's archive, and the FBI translations---the content matches, with only minor differences such as wording, small errors in vocabulary or grammar that would naturally creep in. A non-native Russian speaker (like this writer, for instance) is bound to make some mistakes. In other words, the resulting analysis is trustworthy. The authors haven't been led down the garden path.

THE HAUNTED WOOD makes a hash of the apologists' case. Alger Hiss, for one, was alomst certainly recruited by GRU, Soviet military intelligence, in the 1930's. And the Russians, of course, found other sympathizers among the anti-Fascist Left, particularly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. You could ascribe this to idealism, or naivete, or a thirst for social justice. There were a lot of people on the Left, in the '30's, who saw the rise of Hitler as the handwriting on the wall, nor were they far wrong. It took a willing blindness, though, to see Stalin as a champion of the oppressed, and as time passed, many of these former willing acolytes fell away from the faith. After the arrest of the Rosenbergs, the Moscow intelligence apparat discarded well-intentioned Old Lefties and turned to pros. Rudolph Abel established a spy network out of Brooklyn that lasted nine years before the FBI rolled him up. Soviet illegals, working under deep cover, weren't a fabrication of J. Edgar Hoover's fevered reptile brain.

None of this is meant to be an alibi for malignant windbags like McCarthy, or the moral cowardice of his enablers. It's widely accepted that the Red-hunters never exposed a single agent of Communist influence. It was all smoke and mirrors. What they did do was create an abiding climate of mistrust, and enshrine the habit of betrayal. It's not a stretch to say that the hearings themselves, with their odor of Stalin's purge trials, the posturing, the parade of friendly witnesses, the public disgrace of others, and the blacklist, the fruit of a corrupt bargain, did more to damage the American political fabric than any number of actual enemy subversives could have hoped for. It poisoned the well for a generation.

The war in the shadows went on. A long stalemate, between two adversaries who each recognized a genuine threat in the other, and found, it seems, their mirror image. This is not in any way to suggest a moral equivalency, but there's a lesson to be taken from the Cold War. We were looking into the past, and trying to see the future through the wrong end of the telescope.