I took some heat the other day from a friend for posting the following on Facebook.
My buddy felt that I spend too much time being critical of Republicans and not evenhanded in my contempt across party lines.
Unfortunately, for me, is he missed my point altogether. Like Upton Sinclair, I aimed in one direction and hit another. (as a point of reference, Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle. He aimed for the hearts of Americans and hit them in the stomach – his novel led to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration).
There was a subtle nuance I was trying to convey in this picture, beyond the fact that Allen West is a douche nozzle, and I’m afraid it was lost on just about everyone.
So here’s the point: Allen West recently made a claim that 78-81 democratic members of congress are, in fact, communists. That right there earns him the comparison to Joe McCarthy!
However, what I find most disturbing about McCarthyism and Westism is that why do we care? Why did we care then and why should we care now?
Once upon a time in America, there was an actual Socialist/Communist political wing. From 1904 to 1920 Eugene Debs ran for president 4 times, garnering nearly a million votes in 1916 and 1920 – in the final election (1920) he actually ran for office from prison where he was incarcerated for violating the Sedition Act, for opposing American involvement in World War I.
In 1924, Robert LaFollette, a long time socialist from Wisconsin, ran for President as the candidate of the Progressive Party and not only won his own state but picked up 16.6% of the vote (nearly 5 million total)!
Following World War I and the rise of the Soviet Union, political leaders throughout the US demonized socialists and effectively removed elected leaders from state assemblies across the country.
Congress created the first investigative committee to look into the political leanings of Americans in 1918 – the same year Congress passed The Sedition Act. This culminated in the creation of the House Committee on un-American Activities (HUAC) that investigated American citizens from 1947 until 1975. Although Joe McCarthy, a Senator, was not a member of the HUAC – the goals were inherently the same – to root out suspect citizens that posed a “threat” to America. The HUAC and McCarthy would go on to investigate numerous citizens including the infamous Hollywood “blacklist” and civil rights and union leaders that had nothing to do with “un-American” activities.
The Sedition Act was repealed by Congress in 1920, but in the two short years it existed many, including Eugene Debs, were sentenced to prison. Attempts to overturn convictions were upheld by the Supreme Court. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in his dissent, remarked that “when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas.”
So we arrive at the heart of the matter. Allen West levies a pejorative charge that members of congress are *gasp* “communists.” His intent is to create fear and distrust – after all, communists are bad! His fear-mongering is also un-American!
See, in this country there is an idea, a constitutionally mandated right to speech, that all too often is trampled upon by men like Woodrow Wilson, Joseph McCarthy, and yes, Allen West and his ilk:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
I’m not saying here that communism is awesome and that we should embrace it – but why are people afraid of the ideas associated with the ideology? Before it became scary, socialists and communists walked the streets of America without fear. In 1912, Debs pulled 6% of the electorate. Six whole percent! What a threat that was to the nation!
What that tells me is that 94% of the country heard what Debs was saying and instead of embracing communism, they rejected it; however, they made an informed decision that was not influenced by derisive fear-mongering.
This is why I’m so incredibly critical of the right wing. Allen West is just a meme for a body of conservatives that repeatedly attempt to shut down ideas, free speech, and contrarian thought. It’s as though they want everyone to fall in line, lock-step, with their ideology – what a wonderful world that would be! It would also represent the death of this country!
The battle of ideas is never pure. Someone thought it was a “fine idea” to limit speech and ideas during World War I. That sponsor apparently found plenty of Senators and Representatives to go along with it in 1918. But bad ideas seldom last – the Sedition Act was rescinded in a shorter period of time than Prohibition (another brilliantly bad idea)!
Americans are not always the sharpest knives in the cupboard, but eventually we figure out when we’ve been sold a bad bill of goods. In that vein, it never fails to amaze me why anyone on any side of the political spectrum would deign to extinguish speech or ideas – even those that some people would consider detrimental to our governance. I can only assume that people like Allen West are basically afraid that communists will take over the country if their ideas are heard.
Just to take a leap for a moment – imagine if communism took root in America. You do realize that in the “marketplace of ideas” that would mean a majority opted for it? What that says to me is that if you’re against it, and communism “won,” you did not offer a decent competing idea to stand as an alternative. That’s what happens when dissent is crushed – you no longer entertain possible solutions and can no longer innovate.
Shutting down debate is done a variety of ways, and we should be aware of the practice when we see it – even if we happen to agree with the view. Take for example Sarah Palin’s infamous “Death Panel” characterization of the Affordable Health Care Act legislation. Her use of the term “Death Panel” is solely designed to instill fear and doubt among the electorate. Had she instead attacked the individual mandate as unconstitutional in practice, it would not have generated the visceral emotions she garners with “death panels.”
Here’s the problem – death panels are not real; the individual mandate as unconstitutional is real (or so we will likely find out Thursday). The death panel charge requires a “defense” of an aspect of the law that doesn’t exist!
The rationale used to justify the War in Iraq – weapons of mass destruction! Imagery of Iraqi nuclear bombs falling on American soil! If you don’t support the war, you hate America! You want Saddam to have the freedom to develop WMD and use it on our country.
Beware the harbingers of doom. First consider their agendas. How do they stand to profit? Why do they attempt to stifle debate? What are they afraid of?
As Thomas Jefferson once said:
“I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty, than those attending too small a degree of it.”
Or another great Jefferson quote:
“Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”