Recently Congress released transcripts of secret testimony of witnesses summoned before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s infamous subcommittee in hearings that impugned the patriotism of everyone from artists to decorated generals.
It is good timing to look at these transcripts anew just now, at a time when the fear being exploited has shifted from “Communist” to “terrorist”; from un-American to anti-American; from “blacklisted” to “profiled”; from “the Soviet bloc” to the far broader swath of the world community dismissed under the rubric of the “United Nations blockade.” This is a time, after all, when that warrior princess of the right, Ann Coulter, has embraced McCarthy as not such a bad fellow; a time when “the culture wars” and “the war on terror” seem to have bled together in an unholy marriage of secrecy and suspicion.
The major difference, I think, between the 1950s and today is that our current indictments are accomplished by more sophisticated, faceless and privatized means. There is no central committee with a clearly identifiable zealot at the helm, Karl Rove notwithstanding. There is instead a highly organized network of think tanks whose decisions about what represents a danger to corporate interests (dba Western Values) seem increasingly to rule us all. Eric Alterman has written about the efficiency with which their opinions are published first in their own in-house organs–for example the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal–then on to the Wall Street Journal‘s op-ed page, The Weekly Standard and National Review, then reiterated in a nationwide network of privately subsidized conservative student newspapers, talk-radio and the Fox network. Next thing you know, it’s “fact”: CNN is struggling to keep up with the invective, the New York Times is “commenting” on the trend and Random House is launching a new line of conservative books with Ann Coulter as launchee.
With such private but monopolized power dictating the public record, there is no need for official censure. Only retired four-star generals, reborn as media consultants for hire, reshape the First Amendment in the hearts and minds of much of the country: We are not civilians but soldiers all. We are not at home watching this from the Barcalounger but actually on the frontline. We are not the President’s constituents; he is our Commander in Chief. Once so romantically figured, there is no room for political dissent because, after all, when a soldier speaks back to our flak-jacketed Commander in Chief, it is insubordination.