From McCarthyism to Harry Reid: Harsh words lead to deep divisions in USA

Edward R. Murrow once said: “To be persuasive we must be believable, to be believable we must be credible and to be credible we must be truthful.” Murrow is fondly remembered by American liberals as the 1950’s CBS journalist whose criticism of “McCarthyism” and the “Red Scare” helped speed the political downfall of Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy.

McCarthy is said to have abused his position as a US Senator by making unsubstantiated claims that there were large numbers of communists and Soviet spies in the US Government and other American cultural institutions. Today, the term “McCarthyism” is generally used to describe demagogic, reckless and unsubstantiated accusations, as well as public attacks on the character or patriotism of a political opponent.

False accusation from Senate floor
Lean forward to the US Presidential election campaign of 2012 when Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told a Huffington Post reporter that a Bain Capital investor told him that Republican candidate Mitt Romney had not paid any taxes over the past ten years. Following that interview, Reid restated the charge on the Senate floor, this time claiming as a fact that Romney paid no taxes. Reid produced no evidence to back up his claim which Romney denied. The Republican candidate’s position was upheld by several tax experts, media fact-checking organizations and the release of some relevant tax returns.

In making the false accusation from the Senate floor Reid took advantage of an Anglo-parliamentary tradition known as parliamentary privilege or immunity.  The principle of immunity supports the freedom of parliamentary debates and proceedings from interference by a nation’s courts. The intent of this is to allow legislators to effectively carry out their responsibilities to inquire and debate policy without fear of costly legal challenges. The privilege was never intended to provide a safe haven from which to slander political opponents. But during the course of the tightly contested 2012 Presidential campaign it is fair to say that Senator Reid acted as an Obama partisan first and a statesman second.

Earlier this year, Senator Reid announced that he would not run for another term in the US Senate. During the course of a candid interview with CNN’s Dana Bash, the soon-to-retire Democratic Senate Minority Leader was asked whether or not he had any regrets about accusing, with no evidence, then Republican Presidential Candidate, Mitt Romney of not paying his taxes. “I don’t regret it at all,” said Reid. When Bash followed up by suggesting that some were describing his past actions in the Senate as “McCarthyite” Reid displayed a wry smile and said: “Romney didn’t win did he…”

Reid’s statement on the Senate floor was clearly intended to reinforce the Democratic narrative that the Republican candidate was a callus, greedy and hypocritical rich man who did not play by the same rules as ordinary Americans. The narrative held. Romney lost and President Barack Obama won a second term of office. Harry Reid remained unrepentant about his tactics. “I’m not going to let the bastards beat me…” he said.


A radically inverted world view
For some in my generation, the one on the way out, Harry Reid’s reaction is another troubling example of the moral distance we appear to have travelled over the course of a single lifetime. Somewhere along the line we have come to accept a radically inverted worldview which discounts truth and places the highest value on the utility of a constructed narrative. It seems as though a pervasive public amorality has replaced even the residue of the Judeo-Christian moral inheritance that once held public speech to a higher standard.

We are increasingly feeling the force of this transformation in politics and civil society. The ease with which events can be distorted, facts ignored, motives disparaged and reasonable explanations dismissed is sufficient to disturb even the most cynical observers of human nature. In the prevailing ethical climate politicians, journalists, intellectuals, entertainers, jurists, community activists and work-place participants feel entirely justified in developing useful fictions to scapegoat designated targets and support self-interested ends.

What reasonable people might still recognize as truths, the post-modern left calls “social constructions.” They claim that traditional “narratives” generate unfair and oppressive modes of authority and knowledge. So, in popular culture there are no longer any facts. There are only interpretations. Interpretations are never proven or disproven by hard evidence. They can only be replaced by other more powerful interpretations. In the arsenals of cynically ambitious, envious or resentful culture war combatants, unkind and dishonest words have become the most lethal personal and political weapons of our time.


Words are like arrows
An old Jewish teaching compares words to arrows. Once they are drawn and loosed they cannot be returned. American Rabbi and author, Joseph Telushkin, often reminded his readers to resist exaggerating the wrong done by people who provoke our anger. “Words” he said, “are powerful enough to lead to love, but they can also lead to hatred and terrible pain.”

Teluskin underscores his concern with a nineteenth-century Eastern European folktale which tells the story of a man who went through a small community slandering the Rabbi. One day the man felt remorseful and asked the Rabbi for forgiveness. When he offered to make amends with a penance, the Rabbi asked the man to take a feather pillow from his home, cut it open and scatter the feathers to the wind. The man did this and returned to the Rabbi to ask if he was now forgiven. “Almost,” said the Rabbi. “You just have to perform one last task. Go and gather all the feathers.” But that’s impossible,” the man protested, “for the wind has already scattered them.” “Precisely,” the Rabbi answered.

Few of us may be capable of taking this lesson to heart. In fact, many of us would have considerable difficulty refraining from hurtful or unfair talk about members of our own families and communities even for twenty-four hours. Nevertheless, one cannot help looking back to a time when false narratives where, at least restrained, by a religious reverence for truth and a compelling empathy for the victims of lies. People intuitively understood that murder is wrong and “character assassination” is a metaphor for murder.


Little difference between McCarthy and Reid
In the McCarthy era, framed by a cold war with the Soviet Empire and a military conflict in Korea, suspected communists, fellow travelers and all perceived enemies, foreign or domestic, were favored targets for persecution. Early in 1950, a US State Department official, Alger Hiss was justifiably found guilty of perjury for concealing his membership in the Communist Party. Soon after, however, Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy took advantage of the prevailing climate of suspicion by publically claiming, without evidence, that there were 205 known communists working in the State Department.

The Senator’s now infamous speech began a witch hunt during which McCarthy abused another old English parliamentary procedure, the Congressional committee system, to conduct what amounted to show trials against ideological opponents. According to eminent US historian, Paul Johnson; “The Senator smelt an issue and brandished it. He was not a serious politician but an adventurer who treated politics as a game.”

There is little difference between the slanderous intent of Senator McCarthy in 1950 and Senator Reid in 2012. But, from one generation to the next, there has been a disturbing evolution in the tolerance for deception within America’s political class. In the fifties, the American press, the courts and eventually public opinion strongly resisted McCarthyism. McCarthy was destroyed by publicity and became an iconic pariah for the forthcoming generation. Johnson contends that one of the key figures who orchestrated Republican Senator McCarthy’s destruction was Republican President, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Today it would take a considerable stretch of the imagination to expect a Democratic President to criticise the behaviour of Harry Reid. Slander has become a form of argument that is justified by a sincere belief in its own perceptiveness.


New scapegoats
The works of Franco-American philosopher, Rene Girard, reveal that when powerful personal desires for power and influence are conflicted, troubled societies seek resolution through the persecution of scapegoats. But, in a post-McCarthy zeitgeist, ushered in by decades of progressive education and post-modern drama, America’s preference for victims has come full circle. It is no longer America’s critics and adversaries who are most likely to become targets for unfair abuse. Now, It is friends and supporters of the once revered, “American way” who must watch their backs. Successful entrepreneurs, leaders of traditional institutions, conservative writers, law enforcement authorities, practising Christians and anyone else opposed to the standard radical chic agenda are favorite targets for persecution.

Although partisans from both sides of the political spectrum make use of character assignation, the spirit of our present age has placed conservatives at a particular disadvantage. Conservatives tend to rally around established authorities that embody the continuation of religious, cultural, constitutional and judicial traditions. The canon they represent celebrates virtues like religious tolerance, individual liberty, equality of opportunity, economic freedom, personal responsibility, the rule of law, national sovereignty, the value of family and the sanctity of life. This conservative bias toward ancient truths, established ideas and foundational laws invites contempt from a liberal culture that believes in perpetual modern progress and personal divinity through science, technology, government and liberation from all “absolute” moral constraints.


Fierce divisions lead to irreconcilable narratives
The ferocity of America’s ideological divisions has altered the traditional nature of partisanship in the USA. Instead of putting forward rational arguments for policy initiatives that might bring parties together; partisans are more likely to concentrate on raising the level of hatred against ideological opponents. The will to power has, as Nietzsche predicted, overcome the importance of truth; and activists at every level of society understand that the crowd they seek to attract finds agreement more easily at the expense of a victim. Time and time again we are witnessing good men and women threatened by malicious personal attacks from easily manipulated crowds. Americans are devouring one another at the expense of their nation’s interests.

On June 16, 1858 then Republican candidate for the US Senate from the State of Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, in what became one of the best known speeches of his career, said: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” At the time, the single most important issue in the nation was the continuing tolerance for the use of human slavery. As Lincoln saw it, the United States could not survive and remain divided on such a fundamental moral and philosophical issue. Reason and compromise failed and a painful civil war ensued before the country could be reunited.

History has troubling way of repeating itself. In the early 21st century there exists another great philosophical divide in America. This time it is between liberal and conservative. Liberals are generally represented by the Democratic Party whose most important guiding principle is “equality.” Conservatives are generally represented by the Republican Party whose most important guiding principle is “liberty.” Unfortunately, post-modern American citizens seem even less capable of fairly and respectfully debating the merits of opposing positions than they were during the Lincoln-Douglas debates over slavery in the late 1850’s. As Canadian political-philosopher, William Gairdner, has warned in his latest book, “liberals and conservatives will never agree.”


Little sign of tone improving
Below the 49th parallel, there is little sign that the tone of debate will improve in the near future. Senator Harry Reid certainly isn’t going to be picking up any feathers during his remaining time in office. In an April interview with CNBC’s John Harwood Reid described the entire Republican field for President in 2016 as a “bunch of losers” and his Senate Republican counterpart, Mitch McConnell, as a “lump of coal.” Meanwhile, conservative talk show host, Rush Limbaugh, broadcast hearsay to suggest that Reid was not being truthful about facial injuries he suffered in an exercise accident. “He got beat up by the mob” became the alternative narrative for conservative listeners.

The liberal-conservative divide remains evident at the highest levels of public authority. Current Democratic President, Barack Obama, seems more comfortable acting as the nation’s Anthropologist in Chief than Commander in Chief. He and his supporters appear to respect every cultural pattern in the world except that of their own country. This continues to raise the ire of conservatives who rise to the bait and respond in kind. Few on either side have the will to temper their words and endless irreconcilable narratives are leading to violence on the streets of America’s cities.

“There are words that hurt and words that heal” said Rabbi Teluskin, and there is not a great deal of healing going on south of the Canadian border. Electoral success has come to depend more on the assembly of a murderous crowd than it does on winning the hearts and minds of individual citizens. Power is being seized by the side that can stir up the biggest mob, but residual hatred is unlikely to be expelled by more hatred.


American division threatens free world security
Over the coming years, American leaders will need to search for the words that can restore harmony, purpose, trust and reciprocity within the Republic. The survival of liberal democracy may well depend on the restoration of American unity. Should the USA and the founding principles for which it stands continue to show signs of perishing, we should not be surprised when the vultures begin to gather around the corpse.

The decline of America will not bode well for allied nations like Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany and Israel. Jihadist terrorism, Iranian hegemony in the Middle-East, rogue nuclear states, renewed Russian aggression and Chinese militarism all point to clear and present dangers for nations of the free world. Without a strong, confident and united America the survival of freedom throughout the 21st century will become an increasingly tenuous proposition.

William Brooks is a freelance Canadian journalist and Editor of