Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Obama and the New McCarthyism

"Until this moment...I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness."  

 "You have done enough.  Have you no sense of decency?"
Although these quotes could easily be used today in reference to the far right's numerous fabrications against the Obama administration (birther hysteria, the imminent threat of martial law, death panels, undercover Muslim, etc.), these words were directed at Senator Joseph McCarthy by Joseph Welch, an attorney that represented the Army against allegations of poor security and communist ties during the nationally televised Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954.

I bring this up because I recently watched "Scandalize My Name," a one-hour documentary on how the McCarthy hearings and related blacklists affected famous Black entertainers in the 1950s, including Paul Robeson, Harry Belafonte, Canada Lee, Hazel Scott, Ossie Davis and Rosetta LeNoire.  

I was struck by the extent to which the far right was able to ruin or adversely impact the careers of numerous Black performers who spoke out for the cause of civil rights, all by falsely alleging Communist ties or by condemning some performers for having held sympathies toward Communist organizations or philosophies.

I see the similarities in how the far right is attacking the Obama administration.  When the President proposes or supports legislation that upsets the status quo (universal healthcare, extensions of unemployment benefits, repeal of tax cuts for the wealthy, etc.) and helps the nation's most vulnerable citizens, it seems that there is always some sort of conspiracy alleged by his detractors.  Replace the 1950s charges of "Communist!" with "Socialist!" and you can see that the Republicans have clearly studied the McCarthy playbook.  It seems that there is a new, wacky charge against the President every week.

President Obama could learn much from the Black entertainers that were successful at maneuvering around the blacklist.  In the documentary, those that kept pleading their case before Congress and the media seemed to get nowhere...

Harry Belafonte, a man of courage, did not go before Congress.  He focused on his art and advocating for his people.
Belafonte won a Tony in 1954, and tradition dictated that Tony winners appear on the Ed Sullivan Show. When summoned by Ed Sullivan for a meeting after his Tony win, he was told by Sullivan that he was on a blacklist and was asked about his alleged "anti-American" activities.

Belafonte told Sullivan that many of the activities he mentioned were false, some true, but as an American citizen with inalienable rights, he did not feel the need to declare which were true and which were false.  He thanked him for his time and left, even though being on the show would have been a major boost to his career.

Sullivan respected his stance and booked him for his show.

I write all of this to say that the President should just purse his lips and hunker down in the White House for a while and focus on progressive, innovative policies that everyone can agree upon, regardless of tax bracket.  President Obama has repeatedly stated to his friends and foes who he is, his place of birth, and goals for the country.  He should take a page from the Bush administration and stop responding to every allegation.  Energies spent crafting statements to address the endless claims of a lunatic fringe (check out this list of popular right-wing conspiracy theories from the Southern Poverty Law Center ( could be put to much better use.  
The President should also stop acting as if he's on the campaign trail and doing the "I feel your pain" tour in backyards and too-frequent press conferences unless he's announcing a new initiative or a major update on Iraq or Afghanistan.  He could mail one year of salary to everybody, and he still wouldn't please the haters.  The President should work on maintaining the support of his Democratic and independent base, the moderates in particular. 
Full disclosure:  Although currently registered as a Democrat, I consider myself an independent who happens to vote for Democrats because they are usually the lesser of two evils.  I'm definitely not a fan of the Democrats right now--they've swung a little too far to the left for me lately, and have failed to focus on jobs or articulate a unified message that focuses on the concerns of our shrinking middle class.  I'm not someone who blindly supports President Obama because of his party or skin tone.  I'd give him a solid B- for his performance thus far.  

I want him to succeed.  I also want the lackadaisical Democrats to hold onto their majorities in Congress (or preferably be replaced by more pragmatic, populist new Democrats or independents).  We can't afford to go backwards and get stuck in the mire of conservative culture wars again.  It's unfortunate that it's already happening again in Virginia under McDonnell and Cuccinelli. 

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