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Copyright © 2002 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of May 7 - 13, 2003

Opinion Columns

A new ‘McCarthyism’

Commentary by PAT MURPHY

Those in their late 60s and 70s remember the chilling spectacle on black-and-white television in 1953 and 1954 of an obscure U.S. senator, Joseph R. McCarthy, destroying reputations with wild, undocumented accusations of communist affiliations.

Propelled by a depraved hunger for national celebrity, McCarthy trampled good names of individuals and institutions, including the U.S. Army and State Department, with unproven accusations of communist sympathies or of being card-carrying communists.

Now, a half-century later, the Senate has released 4,000 pages of transcripts from hearings McCarthy often conducted alone and in secret like an ancient Inquisition to winnow out the weakest witnesses for public humiliation on TV. They certify history’s perspective of McCarthy as crazed.

McCarthy was a browbeating bully with a pathological fixation about communism and, as Army attorney Joseph Welch asked McCarthy in an historic confrontation on TV, "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?"

The Wisconsin Republican’s conduct finally was too much even for his Republican colleagues: He was rebuked in an incurably bruising Senate censure. Three years later, in 1957, McCarthy died a broken, pathetic drunk at 47 years of age.

In addition to hours and hours of black and white TV footage of McCarthy badgering, belittling and insulting witnesses in his droning, nasal voice, Joe McCarthy left another political legacy for the ages: the word "McCarthyism," a chilling synonym for a "political attitude characterized chiefly by opposition to elements (in society) held to be subversive and by the use of tactics involving personal attacks on individuals ... " (Merriam Webster dictionary).

The spirit of McCarthyism lives on.

McCarthy’s slur of "communist sympathizer" is out. Now, "liberal" is in as the ultimate denunciation. Even better, the definitive, insulting nom mauvais is "card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union."

One of the first to declare intolerance of dissent after 9/11 was the authoritarian zealot, Attorney General John Ashcroft, who declared that criticism of President Bush would aid and comfort enemies of the United States and who regards civil liberties with whim. His policy of incarcerating suspects without bail, without charges and without rights to an attorney would’ve delighted Joseph McCarthy.

The new, oblique brand of McCarthyism of "opposition to elements held to be subversive and by the use of tactics involving personal attacks on individuals" is brandished most fiercely by broadcasting’s self-proclaimed patriotic jeering section (Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Hannity, Scarborough, Coulter, Savage and their ilk), and really "Far Right" members of Congress and their agents, who spit out the word "liberal" with the same ferocity and disgust as the word "Jude" was uttered as an epithet on the streets of Germany in the 1930s and 1940s by disciples of Aryan purification.

And just as good people cowered in silence while Joseph McCarthy brutalized reputations with slanderous charges a half century ago, few today show the courage to denounce goons who McCarthyize those who dare depart from the post-9/11 ideological script de jour.


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