December 18, 2004  ·  Geof Stone

Thanks for the amazingly thoughtful and interesting comments on the O’Reilly show. I want to answer one questions about that because several people raised it: Why would any sensible person agree to be a guest on that show? Truth be told, I’ve always in the past declined to be on the Factor and other shows like it. I agreed this time because the issue “Is dissent disloyal?” is important, I’ve thought a lot about it, and I thought I might be able to contribute something useful. And I would have, had he not changed the issue! But, since the main thrust of my guest stint on this blog is learning lessons from past mistakes, I won’t do it again! (The reason, by the way, is not because it’s unpleasant, but because no one should allow himself to be used by a demagogue.)

Speaking of which, let’s return to our history. We left off with the Japanese internment. As several comments noted, the Supreme Court in 1944 upheld the internment in the case of Korematsu v. United States. In effect, the Court held that, in wartime, we all have to make sacrifices, and it couldn’t say that the decision to internment these people was not a rational military decision at the time it was made. Korematsu has gone down as one of the most profoundly embarrassing decisions in the history of the Supreme Court, and the nation has in many ways confessed the unconstitutionality of the internment in the sixty years since the decision. (As an interesting aside, by the way, I sumbitted a friend of the Court brief on behalf of Fred Korematsu –he is still alive and flourishing — in the Guanatamo Bay, Hamdi, and Padilla cases in the Supreme Court last spring.)

At the end of World War II, Americans were optimistic. We had the strongest military in the world, we had just won a “great” war and we had clearly been on the side of the angels. The world was at peace. Within a short time, however, everything changed. Although the Soviet Union had been our ally during the war, relations collapsed beween the U.S. and the Soviet Union as the need for that alliance disappeared. Within a stunningly short period of time, the American economy took a nosedive, there were revelations of Soviet espionage, the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb, China fell to the Communists, Americans began to build bomb shelters as they prepared by nuclear bombs to rain down upon our cities, and the Korean War burst upon the scene.

Who was to blame? How did the Soviets get the bomb? Why had China fallen to the Communists? A group of anti-New Deal Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats had the answer — it was American Communists who had sold us out and were working to further the Soviet cause. Men like Richard Nixon in California and Joseph McCarthy in Wisconsin began to play the Red Card in order to get elected, and they did. In the 1946 elections, the Republicans, who now portrayed the choice as one between Communism and Republicanism, picked up 54 seats in the House. After being out of power for 16 long years, the Republicans had found a strategy that could propel them back into power.

Democrats, who were overwhelmed by the growing anti-Communist hysteria, jumped on the bandwagon, afraid to resist. Within a few short years the United States had a new federal loyalty program for over four million government employees, the House Un-American Activities Committee investigated thousands of individuals to determine if they were secret Communists, state and federal governments adopted their own loyalty programs, investigations, blacklists, and anti-Communist laws. Tens of thousands of people were threatened, intimidated, fired, humiliated, and even prosecuted.

Who were these people? Were they spies and sabotuers? No doubt, there were Soviet agents in the United States. But they were almost never the target of these actions. They were too well-hidden for that. Rather, these actions were cynical efforts to make political hay by taking advantage of, and exacerbating, the fear that was already upon the land. So, who were these people?

After the Depression, many Americans began to search for answers to what had happened to the nation. Many toyed with communism. At this time, the Communist Part of the United States was a lawful political party that ran candidates for public office throughout the nation. It stood for such causes as women’s rights, the rights of labor, and public housing; it opposed the rise of fascism in Europe and racism at home. As many as 250,000 Americans joined the CPUSA in this period. Moreover, many millions more participated in CPUSA events or joined other organization that shared some of the goals and programs of the CPUSA. During World War II, we fought side-by-side with the Soviet Union, and FDR encouraged Americans to see the Soviets as our allies and friends.

After the war, though, all this fell apart. And suddenly the most dangerous question in America was: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party or a member of any organization that is or was affiliated with the Commnist Party or have you ever attended an event sponored by the Communist Party, or signed a Communist Party petition, or attended a Communist Party rally, or read a Communist book?” An affirmative answer to any of these questions would immediately cast doubt on the patriotism and loyalty of the individual. After all, how do we know you’re not still a Commie who is secretly working to subvert the government of the United States.

This was the heart of McCarthyism.

  • anon

    given that you had to suffer o’reilly, you really should get on the daily show…jon stewart makes the o’reilly pain go away.

  • Ans

    So you’ve decided O’Reilly is a demagogue and the solution is to blackball him. That’s your right, though I’m sure you hope others don’t judge you based on one interview. Are you going to retreat to your ivory tower, or only face interviewers who are sympathetic from now on? Jon Stewart’s a good idea–he’s just as bad a demagogue, but he’s on your side so you’re safe.

  • http://amediadragon.blogspot.com jozef imrich

    “I must say that I find television very educational. The minute somebody turns it on, I go to the library and read a book.”
    - Groucho Marx.

    “The only graceful way to accept an insult is to ignore it; if you can’t ignore it, top it. If you can’t top it, laugh at it. If you can’t laugh at it, it’s probably deserved.”
    - John Russell Lynes, Jr.

  • http://www.jzip.org/ adamsj

    Let’s have some precision in use of language, okay?

    In every sense, the word “blackball” is about a social activity–people deciding, as a group, to exclude or avoid dealings with someone.

    What we have here is an individual saying that, having had some personal experience with a public figure, he’s determined, first, that the figure really is a demagogue (the word is used with precision here–for an example of O’Reilly’s bad faith, look at his column in Friday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution and you’ll find a lie–about civil liberties, no less–which exploits popular prejudice in the first few sentences used as the theme of the article), and second, that conscience requires him not to be used by that demagogue again.

    That’s not blackballing. Consider the connotation of the word, powered by the word’s origin–a ritual through which an elite excludes an individual.

    Why would one use such a word? Possibly to reinforce the popular prejudice tied up in the phrase “ivory tower”?

    Anyway, O’Reilly is clearly a demagogue, and it’s possible to engage him on his turf.

    The proper response to every one of his questions, after he pulls a fast one, is “You’ve told a lie,” “You’re arguing under false pretenses”, “You are a dishonorable man.” At that point, the discussion becomes O’Reilly and his lack of decency, and that, too, is a valuable discussion.

    It’s understandable that one wants to keep the debate on topic, but it’s O’Reilly’s show, and he’s the one who moves the debate from agreed-on grounds to the place where he (presumably with premeditation) wanted it to be all along, and that dishonest behavior is a valid topic, too.

  • Ans

    If you ban someone from your personal company, you’re blackballing him. If O’Reilly keeps Stone off his show, that’s blackballing. Are you saying Stone can’t blackball back simply because he doesn’t have enough pull? What if he got a few other profs to refuse to go on Fox because of the network’s supposed demagoguery? Would that be elite enough exclusion for you?

    What if I sent out a list of supposed communists (or racists or terrorists or demagogues or whoever’s unpopular at the time)? I’m certainly not blackballing–I don’t have the power–I’m just informing the public. Now what if many, acting invidually, decide not to deal in any way with the people on my list? They’re acting, as Stone is, as an invidual, and so, I guess, can’t be blackballing.

  • http://www.jzip.org/ adamsj

    Ans, the inappropriateness of your use of the word “blackball” is reinforced by your appeals to prejudice through the use of the word “elite” and your references to profs and ivory towers. Bad word choice is sometimes simply verbal clumsiness, but in this case I don’t believe you deserve that slack.

  • http://heliolith.com/ michaelm

    “And suddenly the most dangerous question in America was: ‘Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party…[?]‘”

    Oddly, someone working for American Airlines in Oxnard, California asked me that question in 1995, as I was receiving my boarding pass. It was right after the question, “Have you agreed to carry anything for anyone else in your luggage?” Do you think it was still on the list of questions to ask, or they guy was just messing with me?

    Unfortunately, I had to answer no, as technically, I wasn’t, although at the time I surely was no fan of the current state of “democratic” government we had then or have now. Anyone who believes in human rights and economic justice should be in dissent with U.S. policy now & historically. We have a long way to go. Thanks for your informative entries here on Lessig Blog Geof Stone.

  • http://www.reachm.com/amstreet/ Kevin Hayden

    Some added examples about the mainstreaming of Communism would be nice. It was distinctly tied to the labor movement especially, and human rights. But if more folks understood WHO was a Communist in that era, I think it’d be very instructive. (For example, there was Helen Keller…)