This weekend's teapot tempest was started by a retired general's overreaction to a nasty little comment Bill Clinton made on the campaign trail. You can read the former president's statement when you follow the link; once you do, I think you'll agree that it was a slap at Senator Obama following the Rev. Wright controversy. The general, an Obama supporter, equated Clinton with Joe McCarthy, and that comment enraged the Clintonites while embarrassing the Obama campaign.
A history lesson is in order. "McCarthyism" is one of the most-abused political pejoratives after "fascism." In correct form, both words represent very bad things, but people tend to inflate their meaning to encompass anything bad that they disagree with ideologically. In the present case, the general thinks Clinton was practising McCarthyism by implicitly questioning Obama's patriotism. But Clinton's utterance falls far short of practical McCarthyism. Joe McCarthy didn't merely accuse people of hating America. He called them traitors -- agents of a foreign power out to bring down the government and the entire political order.
Some people probably assume that, in the mind of whoever makes the charge, to hate America is to be a traitor. Some "conservatives" probably agree with that premise, but their perceptions were shaped by the Cold War and the notion of an all-encompassing "international Communist conspiracy." That attitude is harder to sustain today. Mr. Right, for instance, makes a point, when challenged, of denying that Americans who oppose the Iraq War are traitors. He says he questions their judgment, not their loyalty. "Conservatives" who've kept up with the times allow for a great deal of space between "hating America" (e.g., Rev. Wright) and "treason." They become McCarthyists only when they move from one charge to the other.
The only people who are accusing Obama of treason aren't even doing it directly, or even sincerely. They're the people who always use his middle name and spread stories about Muslim influence over him. I question whether any of these people really believe the story they're spreading. More likely they're just provocateurs who sympathize with the Clintons or the Republicans. The Clintons themselves don't speak in the "Hussein" code, and Bill Clinton didn't seem to be implying anything along those lines in his speech. That doesn't mean the general had no right to compare Clinton to McCarthy, but it does oblige me to call the man out on it in the name of intellectual honesty. Likewise, the "conservatives" who are condemning Obama for his association with Wright aren't McCarthyites -- they're just jerks.