Calm down everybody: McCarthyism isn’t coming back just because a rich guy lost his job

Why public outrage against bigots like Donald Sterling has nothing in common with Joe McCarthy's reign of terror

Topics: McCarthyism, donald sterling, phil robertson, Brandon Eich, Joseph McCarthy, Corey Robin, Communism, HUAC, ,

Calm down everybody: McCarthyism isn't coming back just because a rich guy lost his jobDonald Sterling, Joseph McCarthy, Phil Robertson (Credit: AP/Mark J. Terrill/Zach Dilgard)

Joe McCarthy died in 1957, but to hear some people tell it, his legacy lives on in the swift downfall of Donald Sterling.

To wit: When Sterling was banned for life from the NBA last month, a number of prominent voices wondered whether there might be something dangerous — even McCarthy-esue — about the billionaire being punished for his transgressions.

Some of this, of course, is to be expected. Conservatives have been complaining (dubiously) for decades that “political correctness” is a new form of McCarthyism, something like a highly organized effort by the left to snuff out its political opponents. (And, sure enough, Rush Limbaugh recently theorized that Donald Sterling was really punished for not giving enough money to Barack Obama.)

But protestations in defense of Donald Sterling’s freedom of speech — which, gentle reminder, has not been violated — have actually extended beyond the political right. Author Joyce Carol Oates, for example, tweeted the following in the aftermath of Sterling’s lifetime ban:

It’s a concern that has increasingly being voiced of late — if not with such explicit references to the anti-Communist hysteria of yesteryear — even by left-of-center individuals like Jon Stewart and former Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett. But is it really possible that a case like Donald Sterling (or Phil Robertson or Brandon Eich) could portend something like another Red Scare?

Corey Robin is an associate professor of political science at Brooklyn College and author of “Fear: The History of a Political Idea,” in which he details the origins, realities and historical implications of McCarthyism. Salon spoke with Robin earlier this week about the current rush to assert a new age of McCarthyism, and why such claims ring false.

Donald Sterling is the latest in an increasingly long line of public figures who’ve said things — whether racist or homophobic or otherwise ignorant — that invited professional rebuke to one degree or another. What’s been interesting to me, though, is the comparisons between these things and McCarthyism. Does that kind of a comparison surprise you?

It doesn’t surprise me. Long after McCarthy had ended, it became a term of abuse and an epithet, and particularly I would say around the 1990s when the whole politically correct debate arose in the late ’80s and the early ’90s, and the phrase “left-wing McCarthyism” became so prominent. So it’s been a kind of term of art in American political culture at this point for going on three decades, if not more — the way of using this term, in very ahistorical and very incorrect fashion to describe these incidents. And I’ll speak to these most recent cases.

I think in particular the Sterling one, the are really two distinctive ways in which it’s being misused:

The first is that in these recent cases [like Donald Sterling and Phil Robertson], you are talking about very high profile, very economically powerful and well-connected individuals being called out on words that they’re using. And the difference with McCarthyism is that McCarthyism was overwhelmingly about a middle-tier to lower-tier of individuals — not a single individual but thousands of individuals. We still don’t know the exact numbers, but it’s anywhere between 12,000 and 15,000 people lost their jobs [during the McCarthy era]. And upwards of 40 percent of the entire American workforce was monitored, investigated formally or surveilled in some fashion, for their political beliefs and associations.

So it’s a much more comprehensive purge of social and political life aimed at these very middle-tier and lower-tier individuals for whom the loss of a job really could make all the difference in terms of their economic survival. As opposed to having to sell a team when you are very very wealthy. I mean, the punishments are just so vastly out of proportion.

And I’m not trying to simply make a moral point here. That’s a political point — that McCarthyism was really aimed at expurgating a whole political philosophy, a whole political formation that existed in this country. And the way to do that was you had to really threaten people in a fundamental way. Not just rap them on the wrist or something like that. So that’s the first huge difference. The targeting, not of high-profile individuals but of a whole middle tier and threatening them with the vast sum of their livelihood in order to purge not them but everything they represented from political life. [Now it's just] a couple of very high powered individuals being forced to give up a couple of things.

But all this leads to the second and perhaps the bigger difference, and this is why really the “McCarythism” charges today are so off base. As I said, the whole point of McCarythism was not that conservatives became intolerant. It wasn’t about intolerance of a belief you didn’t like, it was about trying to rid society of what was a real socioeconomic and cultural threat to whole systems of power and domination in that society. In other words, going after the Communist Party and the Popular Front and people like that, what you were really trying to do was destroy the left in America in order to move it to the right. And really push back against the New Deal and all that it represented. And the thing about McCarthyism is that it was extraordinarily successful. The reason why it ended was that it had succeeded. There was no point in its continuing.

The difference today is just so dramatic. And you can think about this in multiple ways. So, Sterling himself, prior to this it was a well known fact that this was a guy that didn’t just speak racist words, but presided over a completely racist regime in terms of housing, that nobody ever cared about and never said anything about.

And if you want to extrapolate the point even more broadly, all that’s really happening here is that people are going after words, right? But the society today is more segregated. The country is more racially segregated than it was in the 1970s. There are vast amounts of racial inequality that nobody is touching and that nobody cares about. So in other words, when you went after Communist beliefs and belief systems in the 1940s and the 1950s, you were not just targeting those beliefs but you were trying to transform the society as a result of that. In this case, what’s so ironic is, nobody is interested in transforming the society, even the people who are calling for Sterling to lose his team. It’s not as if that’s a prelude to them saying, okay, it’s time to take on racism in this country, in America. No, that’s the endpoint. You just slap him on the wrist. You have your judgment issued on him. But that’s the end of the story. And so I think it’s just so dramatically different from McCarthyism that to use the term is such a disfigurement of history.

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So lets imagine for a second that there was an alternate universe where what happened to the Donald Sterlings and Phil Robertsons of the world did fit into the framework of something like McCarthyism. What else would also have to be happening in order to justify that comparison?

Well, first of all you’d have to have organized government inquisitions, starting with the government itself, into the belief systems of every one of its employees. And when I say organized government inquisitions, I mean everything from congressional hearings about not just high-profile individuals but employees at all levels of the federal government. And then every executive agency would have to have multiple rounds of internal investigations and come up with codes of conduct and be constantly investigating the millions upon millions of workers of the federal government. And then that would have to be replicated at all the state levels as well. There wasn’t just one HUAC, there were something like 38 little HUACs throughout the states as well.

And not only that, you’d then have to have investigations of the private sector as well — extensive, extensive investigations of the private sector. And on top of that, if you found that people had membership in parties, and you’d have to have tests and measurements of what constituted wrong beliefs. And if you found that people did have any such beliefs, not only would they automatically lose their jobs, but they would be ineligible for all other sorts of benefits.

So for example, in New York City, if you were a member of the Communist Party, or thought to be affiliated with it anyway, you weren’t allowed to fish in the reservoirs, you couldn’t get a permit to fish in the reservoirs. You couldn’t become lawyer, so you’d have to have people disbarred, or not eligible for the bar. You’d have to have things like churches and synagogues and the American Legion and B’nai Brith and Hadassah would have to have internal investigations.

It was such a comprehensive social and political purge, with real penalties is the thing. Real penalties. Not slaps on the wrist. The only choice those people had was to either give up their beliefs, such as they were, or be exiled from the political and civic culture altogether. And it would have to be successful. And not just about words but about deeds as well.

The irony [of the Donald Sterling case], I think we’ve reached a point in American civic culture where what’s penalized is an overt, Jim Crow expressions of bigotry and racism. That’s just verboten. You can’t do that anymore, in the same way you can’t be anti-Semitic. You just can’t do it. But you can however, in the case of race, be in a society that is, as I said, more segregated than 30 or 40 years ago, where the racial inequalities are incredibly dramatic in terms of economics, as they have been for some time, and that okay, you know? Nobody cares or is going to do anything about that. We have a black president and yet, as I said, Gary Orfield down at UCLA came up with this report that school segregation is worse now than it’s been since forever.

So that I think is the contrast between the high profile case of a Sterling and the social reality, which is so vastly different, it’s incredible.

It’s the difference between a system that stretches through the entirety of our government and civic society, in McCarthyism. And, on the other hand, on-off demonstrations mainly for the sake of keeping up appearance, in the case of Donald Sterling.

Yeah. And I think personally, it’s a good thing that you can’t say this kind of stuff anymore. But I think the real problem is that people stop at that symbolic, rhetorical level and don’t take it a step further.

Are there other places in America today where we should legitimately be concerned about people’s political speech being stifled in a McCarthy-esque manner?

I mean, absolutely. This is a topic I’ve written about at length. The American workplace is a sphere in which most men and women enjoy very few rights. Particularly the right to freedom of speech and freedom of association. This is a systemic fact. And it is not a good thing. And I would say this applies to the left and the right.

An employee of a company — whether a secretary, a janitor, a mid-level professional — is not guaranteed the right to speak out on the political issues of the day, even outside the workplace. A worker is not guaranteed the right to [speak freely] without incurring the risk of being fired by his or her employer, either because the employer disagrees with the speech, or is worried that it’s embarrassing, or whatever it may be.

Now, I want to be clear these are not unlimited rights. There are obviously people in very high profile positions, where— if you’re a very high-level employee in the Catholic church denouncing the Catholic church, and not denouncing some specific heresy of the church or some problem, but saying Catholicism is wrong altogether, you can see why the members of the hierarchy would not want that person in that position. There’s obviously exceptions to all of this. It’s not just a free for fall.

But we’re really not talking about that when we’re talking about the systemic violation of free speech and association in the American workplace. The much more typical examples are very low level to middle-tier employees just not being allowed to speak out outside the workplace — and certainly not being allowed to speak out in the workplace — about what they think about certain things. And if you really want to talk about people being penalized for their beliefs, that’s where you really have to be looking. Because, again, you’re not talking about people losing one one-thousandth of their salary, you’re talking about them losing their livelihoods, and finding it very hard to find a job after that. It’s just a very different situation.

Is there any way to fix that? What kind of legal apparatus would you need?

Well, I mean, unions had this, and some civil servants had this, which is that you could only be terminated for just cause. The problem with American employment is that the basic architecture is at-will employment. The presumption is the employer can fire you for a good reason,  a bad reason, or no reason at all. That’s the basic legal regime we live under. You’re not allowed to fire people if they’re African-American, you’re not allowed to fire people for religious reasons. There are certain restrictions. But outside of those restrictions, it’s kind of a free for all.

The kind of legal regime that would advance significantly [reduce that problem] — it wouldn’t solve all the problem, but — would be to say you can only be terminated for just cause — that is, bad performance of your job. And one can find certain instances when certain kinds of public declarations of opinion could be legitimately construed as interfering with your performance at the position. But short of that, it seems to me, it’s not your employers business.

Peter Finocchiaro is the deputy editor of Salon. Follow him on Twitter @PLFino.

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