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Saturday, January 31, 2004

Many thanks to Stephen Green for his kind words about The Daughter's current imbroglio.

The reference to McCarthy seems to have sparked a debate in the comments at VodkaPundit. First, let me note that the reference to McCarthy was one of the things I contributed to the piece. The Daughter may well think McCarthy was that guy who opposed the Vietnam War. Right or wrong, that part was mine.

I was a toddler when McCarthy rose and fell, so I have no first hand experience in the matter. I've read that he was right, that there were numerous people in the government who could fairly be called "fellow travelers." This is based on Soviet archives which became available following the collapse of the USSR. I've read that he was wrong, too.

My problem with McCarthy isn't with whether he was right or wrong. My problem with McCarthy is his debating tactics. Or rather the tactics he used to avoid debate.

I think that pretty much everyone can agree that it was possible in the 50s to have an opinion on foreign affairs different than McCarthy's without being a communist or a communist sympathizer. Just as today Democrats could mount a principled opposition to the Iraq war. (That the Democrats have largely failed to do so does not mean that it is impossible.) But that's not how McCarthy felt. Anyone who disagreed with him was ipso facto in favor of communism, which, to most Americans at the time, meant Soviet domination of the world (as if the Soviets were actually communists, but that's a post for another day).

The evidence that someone accused by McCarthy was in fact a communist or one of their sympathizers may well have existed. But McCarthy didn't have it. We had to wait some 40 years for the USSR to implode in order to get it, if we ever did get it. If McCarthy had any evidence to back up his claims, it seems reasonable to believe that we would have gotten it directly from him a whole lot earlier, not four decades after the fact. Given that, the inescapable conclusion is that the use of the charge that one was a communist was a rhetorical device intended to shut the person charged up and to score political points. The accused became consumed with defending himself against the accusation of being a communist or communist sympathizer and could no longer oppose McCarthy.

To my mind, that what "McCarthyism" is: making spectacular accusations without evidence in order to score political points, grab headlines, derail a debate, or all of the above. The point I was trying to make (in my daughter's case) was that the opponents of the war attacked her as a racist solely because of her support for the war. The accusation grabbed center stage in the debate (as it always does and as was intended), the argument about the war is lost in the uproar, and my daughter had to defend herself against an accusation which can have some serious consequences in the academic world, but which was made without the slightest bit of evidence behind it.

Thus the reference to McCarthy.
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