Kathleen Parker believes that Senator Reid, the Majority Leader, "broke down all barriers to protocol" when he called the Koch brothers "un-American" in recent speeches. If that's so, it would only be because there was only ever a House of Representatives committee on "Un-American Activities" back in the bad old days. As Joe McCarthy was a Senator, and never a member of HUAC, Parker may be on safer ground when she chides Reid for "McCarthyesque name-calling." Meanwhile, Charles Koch himself indulged in another kind of McCarthyism when he characterized his critics as "collectivists" in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. From Parker's relatively-moderate Republican perspective, it's just as wrong for Reid to call the Kochs un-American as it is for some of the Kochs' sympathizers to call President Obama un-American. It might even be slightly worse, not because she believes Obama is more un-American than the Kochs, but because in Reid's case "a powerful government official fired a shot across the bow of two private citizens who have acted within the law while contributing wealth to the economy through employment" But her main point seems to be that Americans shouldn't call each other un-American, and that Reid should apologize for doing so.
That's the conventional moral of the McCarthy story, after all. Regardless of one's opinion of Communism, no American should have been stigmatized as "un-American" for advocating Communism" because there's nothing inherently "un-American" about Communism or any other ideology advocated by Americans. To believe in "un-American activities" is to be an inquisitor sniffing out heresy,or a commissar sniffing out "anti-party" activities, while liberal Americans recognize no heresy in politics -- except, I suppose, for bigotry, which in their minds is most likely too contemptible to rise to the level of heresy. I'm sure that Reid's comments about the Kochs did rub some establishment liberals of otherwise impeccable Democratic loyalties the wrong way for these reasons. To use the term "un-American" is to appear intolerant, and no liberal wants to look that way. But do liberal scruples decide the matter for all of us? Is it always wrong to call a fellow American un-American? The answer depends on how broadly we define the context for the word. If you accuse someone of aiding a hostile foreign power -- as McCarthyites accused Communists -- then the right term might be "anti-American" or "traitor." But Reid doesn't mean that the Kochs are traitors in that sense. He more likely means one of two things: either that the Kochs' plutocratic ideas are somehow alien to American political culture -- in which case Reid, as a Democrat just as hungry for campaign donations from billionaires as any Republican, is a hypocrite -- or that the policies the Kochs advocate are detrimental to the American economy and the American people. You have to be careful how you phrase that, too, since "enemy of the people" rubs some the wrong way, too. Were Reid to call the Kochs that, people would be calling him worse things than McCarthyite. Again, however, liberals need not have the last word. Liberals may believe that there is no such thing as an "enemy of the people," but the people need not agree. Nor need people agree with Kathleen Parker that no private citizen acting within the law should be called un-American or an enemy of the people. Nor should Parker worry that such rhetoric means that the gulag or the guillotine is next. Certainly Harry Reid intends no such measures, nor does he seek to silence the Kochs in any comprehensive way. Sometimes "un-American" is just a heavyhanded way, maybe forceful out of necessity, of saying "you're wrong."