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.

In this world of stifled debate, the government doesn’t have to pursue Janeane Garofalo or Sean Penn or Tim Robbins; they are simply shunned by private entities like the Baseball Hall of Fame–who are not censoring, heaven forbid, but only exercising their best business judgment. It will not matter that the Dixie Chicks play to full, cheering houses, while their current album soars to number one on the country and bluegrass charts–The Daily Show‘s Mo Rocca on CNN, sounding a bit like the Iraqi information minister, will continue to call them the “Dixie whores” whose “hate speech” should consign them to “refuge” in Canada. Senator Olympia Snowe’s Republican colleagues will not have to work publicly on her kneecaps when she questions the wisdom of George W. Bush’s tax cuts. They can leave the dirty work to private groups like the Club for Growth, which purchased television ads accusing her of “standing in the way” and therefore being awfully like the French.

The present round of free-enterprise, media-driven McCarthyism began some years ago with attacks waged against civil rights organizations, feminists and too-liberal academics. For at least the past decade, beat-em-up political discourse has been mounting until this pervasively troubling moment when even the voices of true-blue Republicans like John McCain risk being drowned out. Here are a couple of thoughts based on my experience as a feminist, civil rights agitating, fringe-type academic: First, we should be careful not to fall for the silencing traps posed by what is in fact a small number on the very far right–the bullying, circular, rhetorical paradoxes that more or less say, “The First Amendment protects my using global media to tell you not to speak because you are not a patriot and thus do not deserve the protections of the First Amendment.” On campuses a more direct and insidious extension of this logic is being played out as nativist students go up to schoolmates (particularly foreign-born ones) after heated classroom discussions and threaten, “I’m going to call the FBI on you.”

Second, it is important to remember that just because someone has the freedom to speak, the discussion does not have to end with that acknowledgment. Too often discussions go round and round about what to label speech–whether this or that is politically correct or incorrect speech or hate speech or protected speech–and never get to the underlying politics. An egregious example of that phenomenon occurred in 1992, when a few of the Harvard Law Review‘s editors published a vicious and vulgar parody of the work of the tragically, and at that time recently, murdered law professor Mary Joe Frug. The editors, who took issue with the postmodernism of her writing, publicly mocked the “post-mortem” analysis of “Mary Doe, Rigor-Mortis Professor of Law.” What I found remarkable was that the discussion of this incident, on campus and in newspapers, swirled mostly around whether the editors (who went on to employment as clerks of Supreme Court Justices and associates in powerful rainmaking firms), had the legal right to say it. Indeed they did. That said, the curious culture of sadism that produced it was scarcely addressed. In the 1950s people lost jobs, reputations and even lives. There is a terribly worrisome punitiveness about the way that attacks on very civil and principled opponents of the war, from Robert Byrd to Susan Sarandon, have been justified: They have a right not to like the war, yessireee, but, hey, freedom of expression has “consequences….”

Exactly how dire the “consequences” must be the subject of immediate, urgent and (what’s left of our) public address.