Comparisons are always tricky, and one ought to be guided by caution when doing so, since there is always the possibility of making false assumptions and using faulty reasoning. Comparisons between decades are even trickier. Yet, when one views this well-known broadcast (“See It Now;” CBS-TV) by Edward R. Murrow of March 9, 1954, focused on Senator Joseph McCarthy’s exploiting a climate of fear in America, one can’t help but wonder how much the situation is the same today, six decades later, in the United States.
“Communist Witch Hunts” and “Red Scares,” two phrases to describe the feeling in the air, one of inquietude and lack of ease. The fear of Communism was used as a means to abuse power, as a means to demoralize and terrorize the nation, and as a means to blacklist people and prevent them from working. The use of intimidation, provocation and inflammatory language is employed today to stimulate and maintain a climate of fear in the United States. For example, the word “treason” is used so often that it has lost its meaning among politicians, who ought to know better: treason has a precise legal definition, the only such crime defined and outlined in Article III, section 3 of the U.S. Constitution. (It is rarely used. There have been fewer than 40 cases of treason in the U.S., and even fewer convictions.)
So much changed after September 11th, 2001, and so many valuable and cherished things were lost afterward—an understatement of understatements that rings true with the greatest clarity today, notably now that we have some distance in time to better our perceptions and understanding. That event was tragic in more ways than one. The voices of extremists became more pronounced and prominent in both the public and the political spheres. The currency is Fear. For more than a decade, fear has been normalized; and some politicians have used this primal emotion as an means to divide the electorate. The message disseminated by the radical right is a variation of a theme: “There are terrorists residing among us; ” “I have a good plan, and the other guy or gal does not;” and “We will make America great again!”
How? By blocking entry, by building walls and barriers, by barricading America’s southern border. Homeland Security. Some call such thinking “Fortress America,” an apt description that starts in the mind and works its way from bricks and mortar to armored vehicles and guns of various sizes and configurations. Instead of blacklisting people, as was the case in the past, today it is the use of xenophobia to keep whole groups of people out: Mexicans, Latin Americans entering via Mexico and, of course, Muslims. While illegal immigration from Mexico and Latin America is on the radar, and has been for decades, today the radical right's target is primarily (but not exclusively by any means) the followers of Islam, who are viewed today with hostile suspicion (“guilty by association”), despite the efforts of, for example, President Obama to point out the legitimate difference between terrorists and adherents of a world religion.
The president himself has been the target of a sustained and a senseless campaign of character assassination and hateful rhetoric the last seven years, including trumped up charges of being a non-American—one that serves no genuinely good purpose. It is nothing but provocation.This is not the same as genuine disagreement on policy, which is becoming ever rarer. Personal attacks have replaced policy attacks, even when the statement is ostensibly about policy. This only proves that any individual that extremists do not like or agree with can be targeted for opprobrium and vilification—social media providing easy means to attack people, even unfairly and without any evidence or fact. This is often an outcome of a certainty confirmed by insufficient thought, insufficient analysis and insufficient doubt.
Doubt rarely enters the forefront of thought, especially when action is required and enemies have to be vanquished; the radical right leads the fight, without questioning its axioms, against perceived domestic enemies with vigor, enthusiasm and a rightness that only a superficial and partisan understanding of politics can bring. This in itself is not surprising, as the Party of the Right has attracted, in the last decade or so, individuals who hold extremist anti-democratic, anti-immigrant views, and anti-government views (An article, by Thomas Mallon, in The New Yorker gives some insight on the John Birch Society’s influence on the rise of radical right).
What at one time is marginal or remote can gain popularity; and fascism becomes less remote and a greater possibility when people sacrifice everything for safety and security. Fascists and nationalists both like to reclaim “past greatness” and often blame the minority populations for a nation’s current failures. Such groups usually find sympathy among the Christian Right, who see past greatness as synonymous with a “restoration of law and order” and in particular the biblical values of Christianity. (The Party of The Left has also attracted its share of extremists, including anti-Semites and anti-Western zealots, but their values are not generally drawn from the Bible, but from such sources as Marxism, Nihilism and Post-Modernism. They tend to view the past with suspicion and hostility.)
Extremists, being extremists, tend to follow the rule of easy solutions for complex situations, the path of least resistance and lessened rationality. This path often leads not only to a fractured nation, but also to a failed nation that does much harm, both at home and abroad. The blame gets shifted elsewhere, with insufficient soul searching or deep introspection to determine reasons for the failure of a policy or policies. Such inner introspection by political leaders is a tried and true way to avoid dead ends and blind alleys common to short-term thinking and objectives. This approach is rarely taken; political leaders are too busy with everyday politics and defending their policy decisions. This requires quick decisions, some of them having catastrophic consequences.
One such consequence, rarely discussed or sufficiently acknowledged, is the effect to one’s mental health of residing in a continuous climate of fear. It must have some deleterious effect? Can a sustained climate of fear cause delusions and bouts of paranoia? What is the effect of a sustained climate of fear on economic output and human productivity? Can this be measured in any scientific way?
Another outcome of fixation with one problem is, given limited human resources and abilities to focus, is that other more pressing problems receive little attention. “In this regard, the greatest loss arising from the nation’s fixation on terror may be the opportunity cost in time and energy that could instead be spent on developing policies that address other urgent national concerns and needs,” Laurence M. Krauss, a scientist, writes (“Thinking Rationally About Terrorism;” January 2, 2016) in The New Yorker. [see also my recent post, “Global Terrorism Facts & Figures” here.]
Let us hope that this populist anti-Everything sentiment will pass, and that sanity prevails again in America. This day can’t come too soon, not only for America, but also for the rest of the world. The 2016 presidential election is already shaping up to be a nasty and divisive campaign, where we can expect ugly and counterfactual attack ads. This makes it an important one for American democracy and the survival of its fundamental values.
It will take a few Edward R. Murrows to stand up to these demagogues, “the Ghosts of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.” (On December 2, 1954, by way of example, the Senate voted 67-22 to censure McCarthy.) And in doing so, the nation can begin to recover what was lost.
For the show’s transcript, see [UCBerkley].