The essence of the tactic of McCarthyism is to de-legitimize one’s opponent so as to avoid addressing the substance of his argument. When say, Ann Coulter, accuses liberals of being “perverts,” “liars,” “felons,” “traitors,” “terrorists” and the like, the obvious goal is to make it impossible for liberals to be heard respectfully in the national political discourse. (Ironically, Coulter goes even further in this regard than her hero, McCarthy himself who, during his heyday in 1951, continued to use the term as a compliment. McCarthy accused Gen. George c= Marshall and Secretary of State Dean Acheson of being part of "a conspiracy so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so bleak that, when it is finally exposed, its principles shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all liberal men.")
Coulter is a kind of well-paid circus clown, even to her ideological brethren, but her tactics, like those of Limbaugh, O’Reilly and others, tend merely to represent exaggerations of what is standard operating procedure on the political right in this country; in part, one imagines, because given their domination of the punditocracy, they are so rarely called on it. The Weekly Standard, edited by William Kristol, represents the most exalted plateau of right-wing journalism, but it too revels in the use of McCarthyism as a political tactic.
Most recently, for instance, they used it against yours truly. Seeking to discredit the recent paper on the Israel Lobby published by the University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer, who is among America’s most distinguished political scientists, and Stephen Walt, academic dean and a chaired professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School — and unwilling or unable to take on the authors on the merits of their arguments, an anonymous writer for the magazine’s “Scrapbook” section wrote: “But really: Scholars who uncritically offer as evidence for their thesis a malicious blog by The Nation's Eric Alterman purporting to identify 61 ‘columnists and commentators who can be counted upon to support Israel reflexively and without qualification’ hardly merit a serious rebuttal.”
In fact, there was no “blog,” but a column I wrote on MSNBC years ago. And while it’s years old, it has never been refuted. No one has been able to find anyone I listed among the pundits who has taken the Palestinian side against the Israelis on absolutely anything. (And of course I’d be happy to compare my scholarly credentials with any Standard editor, much less the anonymous punk who wrote the item.)
But of course that’s not the point. The point is to smear not only me, but also Mearsheimer and Walt, so that the points of their more than 80 page-long-argument (with an additional 220 footnotes) need never be addressed. (I’ve written a column about the paper’s strengths and weaknesses that can be found HERE.)
Not coincidentally, the Standard’s “Scrapbook” launched an almost identical attack not long ago on a writer named Nir Rosen, of whose views on Israel and Iraq they disapproved. After quoting Rosen’s reporting from The Atlantic Monthly and elsewhere, the anonymous coward charged, "No wonder Rosen has such great access to the Baathists and jihadists who make up the Iraqi insurgency. He's on their side." I’ve never met Rosen, but my colleagues at “Think Progress” inform me he “is a very well-regarded journalist who holds a distinguished fellowship at the centrist New America Foundation — not a bastion of anti-Semitism in the slightest. The Standard believes that the most offensive thing about Rosen is that he once suggested (in a different article) that an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories would help combat terrorism. Because Rosen believes this, the logic goes, he must be an anti-Semite — the test for anti-Semitism being, of course, whether you think an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories would be a good or bad thing.”
A little research would turn up many such McCarthyite missives in the Standard of this type, most of them undoubtedly anonymously authored. What I find most interesting about its employment, however, it is how unashamed it is. To call a writer you don’t like a traitor or a partisan of the enemy would seem to go beyond the pale — unless the author were in possession of the strongest possible evidence. And yet the “anonomice” at the Standard do not even pretend to have such evidence. All they have is malice.
Amazingly, the magazine’s editor in chief is on record actually approving of McCarthyism, both historic and contemporary. During the election of 2004, William Kristol sought to attack the foreign policy pronouncements of then-Democratic presidential candidate, Richard Gephardt, by writing, “But the American people, whatever their doubts about aspects of Bush’s foreign policy, know that Bush is serious about fighting terrorists and terrorist states that mean America harm. About Bush’s Democratic critics, they know no such thing.”
In fact this was nonsense. Like McCarthy’s Red-hunting techniques which never identified a single spy, Bush’s tactics for fighting terrorists have proven an unarguable failure in Iraq and elsewhere, and the Democrats, including Gephardt, were united in pursuing a far more effective strategy that focused on al Qaeda and homeland security. But what was most interesting about Kristol’s unfair attack on Gephardt was that it perfectly echoed a famous defense of Senator McCarthy that appeared in Commentary magazine in 1952. “For there is one thing that the American people know about Senator McCarthy; he, like them, is unequivocally anti-Communist. About the spokesman for American liberalism, they feel they know no such thing.” The author? “Godfather” of neoconservatism and father of William Kristol, Irving Kristol.
I cannot begin to explain the Freudian forces that must be at work that would inspire William Kristol to emulate what most people consider to be one of the most ill-considered and mean-spirited sentences his father ever offered. But most significant for those of us who care about the quality of public discourse in our country is the unhappy fact that Kristol’s magazine has also emulated the tactics of the late, unlamented Senator himself.
Just about all one can do is shake one’s head at the spectacle and ask, as Joseph Welch so famously did more than half a century ago: “Have they no shame? At long last, have they no sense of decency left?"
Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His most recent, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences, was just published in paperback
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