Echoes of the McCarthy Era

As I write this, I’m listening to one of my favorite folk albums, by a group called The Weavers. I’ve loved their music since I discovered this CD in a music store a few years ago. Only after I bought it did I realize they were the group that recorded one of my favorite songs when I was a little boy. I used to sing along at the top of my voice to their rendition of “On Top of Old Smokey” on an old 78 record.

After I found this CD, I wondered whatever had happened to The Weavers. I, for one, enjoyed the American folk music boom of the late 1950s and1960s. I had several favorite groups, but I couldn’t remember The Weavers being part of that scene. I wondered why.

It turned out, as I read a little about them, that they apparently were victims of McCarthyism or of unchecked root-out-the-Reds fervor in the heyday of the House Unamerican Activities Committee. Somehow they were tainted, and that effectively ended their musical careers.

List them among the victims of extremism in thought.

A memorial display honors veterans who gave their lives.

A memorial display honors veterans who gave their lives.

Do not misunderstand what I say here. I consider myself a patriot. I have loved the United States of America from my earliest childhood. I still cry when I sing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” or “America the Beautiful.” In an era when my country is attacked and demonized throughout much of the world, I am deeply grateful when I hold the passport that specifies where I had the privilege of being born.

As a teen and young adult, I was deeply concerned about the influence of communism in the world. I won a high-school oratory competition with an anti-communist speech. I truly believe there were evil and sinister people among the communist/socialist leaders of the world who needed to be stopped or held in check.

But much foolishness was propagated and evil done in the name of fighting communism. This includes the destruction of lives and careers of people who were tainted because of the great Red Scare.

I am worried because I see the same thing happening today as the pendulum of popular thought has swung in the opposite direction from what was acceptable in society in my youth. I see political correctness as the McCarthyism of our times.

As much as I admired the late Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona for his principles, I never could completely buy into his assertion that “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” Sorry, senator, but extremism is almost always the wrong response to a problem in society. It leads to an “us versus them” mentality, a willingness to categorize others in the harshest of judgments, and a willingness to punish those who do not agree with philosophies currently acceptable to the majority. That was the case during the McCarthy era, when a person could be ruined by expressing thoughts that someone else might conceivably describe as socialist or sympathetic to communism. And it is the case now, when someone can be attacked or ruined for expressing thoughts that do not seem sympathetic to “reproductive rights” or favorable toward gay marriage. Even corporations and institutions must not seem lukewarm toward these causes; they must express support or be publicly punished and ridiculed. Never mind the sincerely held beliefs of those who may disagree. There are those who would willingly punish or ostracize anyone who believes that the unborn child has rights, or that marriage is an institution established by God that men and women have no right to redefine.

Self-righteous “patriots” used labeling during the McCarthy era to categorize people who disagreed with them—“communist fellow traveler,” “pinko,” “socialist symp.” (This may seem funny if you watch an old episode of M*A*S*H in which Frank Burns is made to look like an idiot, but believe me, there was nothing humorous about it in the 1950s.) The same kind of labeling is used today to pigeonhole and sometimes demonize people who do not agree with some things that have become acceptable in society. These people may be called “anti-feminists,” “homophobes,” “haters.” This makes it so easy and convenient to dismiss them as people and to judge their beliefs as unworthy of consideration.

I do not feel that I am an enemy to women because I believe that a child conceived without coercion is not simply a “fetus,” or mere tissue, but a person with a right to live. If the woman who conceived the child does not want it or cannot keep it, there are other solutions besides abortion. I believe that marriage is a divine institution established by God so that one of His daughters and one of His sons can join together to progress in this life and to bring more of His daughters and sons to live on earth if they can. Believing this does not make me hate anyone who sees things differently.

But well-known people I admire—notably, actors and other public figures—take positions on these sensitive issues that not only express disagreement, but seem to ridicule and advocate ostracism or punishment for those who do not accept conventional wisdom. Many of these people who use the public forum to attack or criticize the beliefs of others are too young to remember what McCarthyism did to Hollywood and to politics in its heyday. I wish they could.

I fear that some of them would be quite willing to build intellectual and philosophical ghettos for those who disagree with them.

I fear for liberty when people can be punished, even in subtle social ways, for simply holding beliefs that do not conform to those of the majority. Extremism in defense of “liberty” is always a vice if it leads to suppression of thought or to punishment of those who do not accept the philosophy of the majority.

2 thoughts on “Echoes of the McCarthy Era

  1. Bill Bush

    Nicely said, Don Searle. I always appreciate your wise, measured approach to issues. Thank you for thinking this through and sharing with us.

  2. Pingback: Six Degrees of Sizzling Music ~ From REM to…. REM?!? | Andy Kaufman's Kavalkade Krew ~ Featuring The Wandering Poet

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