10 April 2017

The McCarthy rule

The April 17 Nation is a relic of those bygone days when defending Russia sometimes meant defending Donald Trump, and thus caused problems for some of the magazine's writers. Once upon a time Stephen F. Cohen called it "McCarthyist" to accuse Trump or his advisers of colluding with the Russians, and this made many readers very angry. Some were just sick of Cohen's constant warnings against antagonizing Russia. The novelist Norman Rush, for instance, writes that Cohen and his wife, Nation publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel, werer "failing to balance thenecessary project of nuclear detente with Russia against a proper appreciation of the country's renewed aggressive imperial strategems." But it's the McCarthy thing that really bugged Andrew Feffer of Union College, Schenectady. Feffer chides Cohen for twisting the meaning of "McCarthyism." He claims that Cohen "conflates Cold War belligerence with McCarthyism which, while it indeed inflated international threats, did so in large part to promote domestic counter-subversion." Feffer protests that "It is Trump who is accusing his opponents of subverting and conspiring against the nation," and "Trump and the Republicans who propose criminalizing protest," while denying implicitly that today's Kremlin-baiters are doing anything like that.

To my knowledge, Cohen hasn't responded to Feffer's criticism, but readers can probably refute this one themselves. Anti-Trump McCarthyism is "counter-subversive"insofar as it accuses the Trump movement (or the "alt-right") of undermining both American values and U.S. national security with the help and in the interest of a foreign power deemed hostile to values and security interests alike. If the original McCarthy whipped up Russophobia or its equivalent in his time, anti-communism, in order to discredit the American left, so the neo-McCarthyists, however much they might condemn Joe McCarthy's own politics, whips up Russophobia in order to discredit (if not criminalize) a large part of the modern American right. While Tail-Gunner Joe and his allies accused the "SJWs" of 1950 of furthering the International Communist Conspiracy, today's tail gunners accuse the Trump movement of furthering an International Authoritarian Conspiracy, also directed from Moscow -- or they did until last week. Now, perhaps, many of those who accused the President of being a Russian stooge will join Cohen's warnings against provoking Russia. A few may buy into conspiracy theories I'm hearing about, according to which the April 6 bombings were designed to give Trump cover and quiet the Russophobic left while he continues with pretty much the same foreign policy he'd planned all along.

Whatever the international consequences of his little stunt, the President has most likely stripped his domestic opponents of what Wisconsin letter writer Dean Schlabowske concedes was their most powerful weapon against him. "With Democrats having little power in any of the three branches of government," Schlabowske writes, "they may think this is their only means of slowing the efforts of an administration that many of us see as unlawful, dishonest and immoral." Schlabowske leaves us with the moral to this story, as far as his part of the left is concerned: there can be no such thing as left-wing McCarthyism because "McCarthyism made a concerted effort to instill paranoia toward any government official, member of the press, entertainment figure, or neighbor seen as sympathizing with the left." From this perspective, McCarthyism is neither a rhetorical tactic nor a political strategy available to anyone, but a singular historic phenomenon that can only be "trivialized" (a word often used by past victims of injustice when caught victimizing others) by using the M-word to describe anything inconsistent with Joe McCarthy's own agenda. McCarthyism, though, was only an American expression of a global trend of rulers accusing dissidents of treasonous foreign affinities, and that trend was peculiar or exclusive to neither right nor left. Right-wing regimes identified critics with the International Communist Conspiracy, while left-wing regimes identified their critics with an Imperialist conspiracy. In the 21st century this sort of argument probably will grow only more persuasive -- the French election reportedly is taking a Russophobic turn -- as it becomes increasingly impossible to shield any country's citizens (apart, perhaps, from North Koreans) from other countries' opinions of (or dirt on) their leaders and factions.  In this environment it won't be enough to indict the sources of information and propaganda as Democrats tried to do in 2016; no claim is automatically wrong because you can trace it via Wikileaks to the Kremlin. Instead, a more candid world will require more candor from world leaders, and neither McCarthyism nor cries of "McCarthyism!" can substitute for that candor.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

60+ years ago, it was the right that seemed to see Communists everywhere. Now its the left. The more things change, the more they stay the same.