Media Watch: The Paranoid Style of the New York TimesCulture Watch
The problem, as Mr. Worth sees it, is how the United States responds to “real and perceived threats.” Once again, it seems, our leaders are showing “cold war echoes,” dividing the world into “zones of good and evil, darkness and light.” Moreover the language our leadership uses, according to Mr. Worth, could have been written by Cotton Mather in Puritan times. It is the same farcical belief that “sinister conspirators are spreading invisibly through the land, a cabal of evil and dangerous men who are bent on subverting this shining city on a hill.”
Now Mr. Worth is smart enough to qualify his disdainful tone and to acknowledge that today’s terrorists are very real and indeed evil. Nevertheless, he sees no reason to engage in “highly emotional political symbols” which somehow may lead us to “lose touch with the reality of their acts and motives.” Let us deconstruct this for a moment. Mr. Worth is evidently arguing that although there is evil, we should not call it such. If we do, we will somehow inevitably--although he does not explain how--“fail to better understand how to defeat or influence them.” I guess that means if we cease calling them evil, these Islamic terrorists will be so relieved that they will then be influenced to cease and desist from their sordid plans.
Mr. Worth continues to give his analysis academic gloss by invoking the specter of the late historian Richard Hofstadter’s theory about “the paranoid style in American politics.” Hofstadter, however, was writing about some of the fanciful conspiratorial theories of figures in sectors of the Old Right, like Joe McCarthy, who spoke in a famous speech in 1951 about “a great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.” Hofstadter compared this to the old left-wing Populist theories of the 1890s, in which their leaders spoke of “a conspiracy between the gold gamblers of Europe and America.” He traced it far back to the anti-Masonic movement, to the nativist and anti-Catholic movements, as well as to abolitionists who saw the US being held in the grip of a slaveholders’ conspiracy.
In more recent times, Hofstadter argued that the left-wing press engaged in it when talking of a munitions’ makers’ conspiracy before World War I, as did the White Citizens’ Councils in the American South and the Malcolm X’s Nation of Islam in the urban ghettoes. He was, as a liberal, criticizing sections of the Right, which he saw as believing the US to be under the spell of a “betrayal from on high.” But today’s leaders, like John Ashcroft, whom Worth singles out for referring to a “calculated, malignant, devastating evil,” are talking about real and actual threats, and not about a non-existent group of men “who were shrewdly and consistently selling out American national interests.” One of Hofstadter’s key examples of the paranoid mentality was Robert F. Welch and the John Birch Society--hardly a group similar in any way to anyone connected to the administration of George W. Bush. Welch, after all, called John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s conservative Secretary of State, “a Communist agent.” Calling Osama bin Laden an evil terrorist is hardly similar.
What really seems to upset Worth, however, is that if we see our enemies as evil, then, God forbid, we might see ourselves as good. And this desire to see the United States as “uniquely virtuous” might irritate our allies. As Andrew Sullivan has pointed out, it is not the European public who is anti-American, but a small group of the socialist elites and sections of the left-wing intelligentsia in countries like Britain and France who get a lot of press, but are not representative of sentiment in their own countries. Quoting Eric Foner, the dean of our new generation of left-wing historians, Worth writes that because of religious faith, Americans are “more likely to see enemies not just as opponents but as evil. America is the last best hope of liberty, so that those who oppose America become the enemies of freedom.” He is paraphrasing what Foner said to him, and reading Worth’s words, they are to be taken as sarcasm. But it is a revealing analysis, because, in fact, our enemies are evil--and not simply because they oppose the United States--but because they are trying as best as they can to destroy the entire heritage and accomplishments of Western civilization.
Mr. Worth moves through the centuries of the American past, and quickly arrives at the 1950s, and as you may have guessed, at the dreaded phenomenon of McCarthyism, which evidently is lurking right around the corner to emerge once again. “The McCarthy years,” he writes, “in some ways were eerily similar to the present moment.” So eerie, in fact, that many of us who lived through the McCarthy years simply cannot find one iota of resemblance, no matter how hard we may try. Not so Mr. Worth. He quotes a Harvard sociologist who found that, in the 1950s, many Americans found “a generalized anxiety” that we were “under attack by unseen enemies.” Perhaps in that era, when so many believed the end of the war meant a new beginning without problems, they were fearful to find that China had gone Communist, the Soviets too had the A-bomb, and that rather than an era of peace, Stalin was pursuing expansionist goals in Europe. That reality led some unscrupulous demagogues to play upon these fears and gain political influence by exaggerating the nature of the threat.
But in today’s world, the very real threat is clear for all to see, and the public correctly has given overwhelming approval to the Bush administration’ s deft handling of the new terrorist threat. The administration’s response has been careful, sustained and responsible. It has not in any way been comparable to the machinations of a Joe McCarthy. Nevertheless, Mr. Worth contends that “like the terrorists today…Communists were often conceived as moral monsters whose deviousness…made them capable of almost anything.” Of course, he goes on to take a cheap shot by sneering at Whittaker Chambers, who dared correctly to call Communism “the concentrated evil of our time.” If anything, Chambers was behind the time. He was making a judgment that the history of Communism proved unfortunately to be all too accurate.
And since we are now fighting a new evil, how long can it be before we once again succumb to widespread suppression of dissent, and--as his paper has warned us so many times--to another new era of McCarthyism? His experts for vindication of this fear: none other than our old friends among the left-wing historians, Ellen Schrecker and Eric Foner. Schrecker, fresh from her outraged support to Sami Al-Arian whose dismissal from the University of South Florida she condemned as “political repression,” now tells us that, “the narrowing of dissent that occurred during the McCarthy period seems to be recurring now.” Evidently the scores of anti-war teach-ins, the outpouring of opposition to the Bush administration extending from Susan Sontag to Gore Vidal to Noam Chomsky, the regular airing of such views in our major newspapers and magazines is somehow a “narrowing of dissent.” When the lead news analysis in The New York Times gives us only her view and that of Eric Foner, somehow her fears seem just a little bit over the top.
Of course, Professor Foner warns us yet again how this is such an “unfortunate recurring pattern in American history.” Once again we are showing “a tendency in times of war to adopt a Manichean vision of the world,” what he calls a “state of mind that makes us demonize the enemy and leads to a failure to see dissent as anything but treason.” One thinks it is about time that Professor Foner sticks to his own field of early American, Civil War and Reconstruction history, and stops lecturing us about current day America. An enemy whose adherents slays and beheads reporter Daniel Pearl does not need anyone to “demonize” them; their acts speak for themselves. And as he once wrote that the prosecution of Julius Rosenberg arose out of a “determined effort to root out dissent,” and was part of a broader pattern of “suppressed civil liberties,” Professor Foner now tells the New York Times that we are again trying to “demonize the enemy” which inevitably will lead to “a failure to see dissent as anything but treason.”
Just as the Rosenberg case arose out of a genuine effort to combat actual Soviet espionage, and not out of a desire to suppress Julius Rosenberg’s civil liberties, the fight against terrorism is motivated by a very real and serious threat to our national security, and not out of any desire to interfere with the civil liberties of supposed dissenters. As it has been shown many times, the Bush administration has gone out of its way to call for tolerance for the American Muslim community, and to urge the public not to see all adherents of Islam as the enemy. The problem that people who think like Eric Foner have is to only see dissent being suppressed, and even at times to see actual treason as only dissent. They are quick to make the clarion call about the need to avoid a new McCarthyism; but slow to even acknowledge that any actual threat to our nation exists. As Foner himself wrote after September 11, he did not know what was worse, the actual attack or the “apocalyptic rhetoric” of the Bush administration.
Mr. Worth does acknowledge that when Ari Fleischer misspoke and said that, “people have to watch what they say, watch what they do,” his words were met with angry opposition across the political spectrum.” And he notes that President Bush stresses that Americans “should not engage in domestic witch hunts against specific ethnic groups.” But he immediately qualifies his words by noting that, “the first victims of anti-Communist hysteria were immigrants.” Now that Middle Eastern immigrants, many having overstayed their visas, are being temporarily detained and checked out, he warns us about a possible repeat of the Palmer Raids of 1919, when Federal agents staged mass arrests of radical immigrants. He also worries that the Patriot act recently passed by Congress allows the deportation of people who belong to groups judged as terrorist, “even if they had no intention of furthering the group’s illegal activities.” One should stop to ask: if you joined Murder Incorporated, as the Mob was called in the 1920s, and did not personally take part in a machine gun raid on the streets of Chicago, should you not be deemed a potential danger? Do we wait until your turn comes, and then you participate in an act of murder? Or is it good policy, if it is proved you are a member of the Mob, to take action against you before your turn for action comes?
These are the kind of tough questions Robert Worth ignores, as he suggests that it is more effective “to start from a position of humility.” For me, I think we should leave the humility to New York Times reporters, and leave policy to the Bush administration. At least then we have some chance of dealing with what even Worth calls the “real threat” of terrorism.
This article was first published by FrontPageMagazine.com. and is reprinted with permission.
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