Defining Moments in US History and their Relevance Today

There are periods in the history of every nation that define its character and reveal who is really running the government and its social and financial institutions. In the US, one of those periods, of which there are so many, was the political witch hunt that occurred during the 1950s. Known as the era of McCarthyism, this was a time in which the civil rights of anyone with leftist political leanings were violated through a series of tormented public persecutions. During McCarthyism, thousands of law- abiding citizens were blacklisted and thus unable to find work. Among this group, numerous families were torn asunder, divorces sharply increased, and multiple suicides were reported.

The era of McCarthyism, one of many dark epochs of US history, clearly demonstrates that the political forces running the government were conservatism and right wing extremism. They are the very same elements that are tearing the nation and the world asunder today. Men like then Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover, and Ronald Reagan were manifestations of the syndrome of right wing extremism. Their fanatical neocon progeny are making the world a dangerous place today.

The McCarthy era was one of the most shameful of our young nation. Its value to the present, however, is that it permits a glimpse of the destructive forces that lurk behind the façade of democracy. These forces have always subverted the democratic process, discarded the will of the people, and run the nation for its own sinister purposes. This was a period in which liberal politics and progressivism, populist ideologies with socialist leanings, were openly under attack. In fact, liberals and progressives have been under constant assault in the US but rarely so openly and as blatantly as during McCarthyism.

Periodically, progressives, liberals, socialists and communists, were rounded up, divested of their constitutional rights, and imprisoned or executed. There were the notorious Palmer raids on the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and other revolutionary unions, the execution of organizers like Joe Hill, and the deportation of others, including Big Bill Haywood. Eugene Debs, a socialist union organizer, was imprisoned multiple times for his political views. The Haymarket Martyrs, who championed the cause of the eight hour work day, were hanged in Chicago for their anarchist ideology, framed for crimes they did not commit.

Rightly or wrongly, during the height of the civil rights marches of the 60s, Dr. King and his followers were associated with the Communist Party by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Functionalists have an extreme phobia of populist movements because, if successful, they would usurp their political power and disburse it among the people. In other words, neo-conservatives, and this includes virtually the entire Democratic Party of today, the neo-liberals, have an extreme fear of democracy.

Virtually all of today’s democrats do not deserve to be associated with the ideology of progressivism. Barely a handful of them are worthy of the liberal label. The traditional liberals, personified by the likes of Cynthia McKinney, were forced to leave the party. It is beyond absurd to think of President Obama as anything but a political conservative dressed in the garments of liberalism and masquerading as a man of the people. Obama’s voting record, his political appointments, the money trail, and his policy decisions reveal his true colors. So much for change we can believe in.

As significant as they are, such defining episodes of history are curiously absent from the narrative disseminated in the public education system. For most Americans, these episodes never happened. Indeed, anything that contradicts their obstinate belief in American democracy did not occur. Most Americans cannot wrap their languorous brains around these defining actions, and that is why current events, including 9-11, make so little sense to them: they lack historical context.

Indeed, as history attests, it has always been dangerous to be a progressive in this or any nation, and it still is. Since the people who wield the most political power were never struck down or divested of their ill-gotten influence, such episodes are certain to occur again. Imagine, if you can, a world in which polio had not been eradicated. This is why racism, sexism, and inequality, all characteristics of functionalist social theory, with its hybridized credo of neo- conservatism and neo-liberalism, flourish today; they were never eradicated and were allowed to spread.

Since the counter revolution ushered in during the interminably long Reagan years, it is wrongly perceived that progressivism in this nation is dead; that is wishful thinking on the part of the neocons and the corporate fascists who are running the show. The political left, occasionally a powerful revolutionary force for change in this nation, is currently disorganized and ineffectual, but it is not dead. And because it is not dead, it is likely to rise again in response to a future crisis. Some catalyzing event, such as an economic depression and massive job loss, is likely to revive it. This is arguably the only force capable of saving the republic, and much of the world, from self-annihilation.

Meanwhile, we must decide if it is worth salvaging.

Charles Sullivan is a naturalist, an educator and a freelance writer residing in the hinterlands of geopolitical West Virginia. He has an academic background in Appalachian Studies. . Read other articles by Charles.

9 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. HR said on May 30th, 2009 at 4:22pm #

    A real depression is just exactly what this country needs to be forced to its senses. Sad, but true. People have forgotten where the things they took for granted, like a 40 hour work week, decent wages, Social Security, and a whole slough of other damned good social programs originated.

    Glad to see that you’re alive and well, Charles. It’s been a while.

  2. David said on May 31st, 2009 at 12:03pm #

    Hello Charles,

    Congratulations on living in the W. Va. Ridge and Valley.

    I recall many happy weeks spent there in the 1980s shooting pics in Dolly Sods and in that exquisite valley carved out by the Potomac near Seneca Rocks.

    While there, I don’t recall having had a single thought about the crap that is thrown at us every day in exchange for the great privelege of being americans. You’ve chosen your digs well.

  3. Danny Ray said on May 31st, 2009 at 6:50pm #

    I really hate to bring this up, not only because it will disturb the harmony of this site but also due to the fact that you will all proclaim me a right wing hatchet man and Lichen will call me trash again in the oh so sensitive way of her’s… BUT, every one Joe McCarthy accused of being a commie turned out to be one.

  4. joed said on May 31st, 2009 at 7:14pm #

    gosh danny ray dalton trumbo wasnt a commie was he?! but all the same whats wrong with being a commie, it’s much better than a capitalist. danny ray i think you may be a collabarator.
    anyway the bad guys won and it is for keeps. this FREE SPEACH ZONE called dissidentvoice has served its purpose by keeping the “dissidents” off the streets. here you can whine and cry all you want with the approval of your govt. but dont do anything to get into trouble. the bad guys won quityurbellyachen.

  5. HR said on May 31st, 2009 at 8:16pm #

    Right Danny Ray, and if you peruse enough right-wing blogs or read enough right-wing historians, who have completely rewritten recent history, you will be asserting that the guys coming back from Vietnam were all being spit on by antiwar protesters, when the truth is, what little spit there was, issued from the mouths of pro-war hawks. Amazing how people just keep on spouting untruths, no matter how often they’re shown to be wrong.

  6. Phil said on June 1st, 2009 at 6:26am #

    every one Joe McCarthy accused of being a commie turned out to be one.
    Even if that were true, so what? Nothing justifies that sort of witch hunt.

  7. kalidas said on June 2nd, 2009 at 10:42am #

    Tell that to Demjanjuk.

  8. Danny Ray said on June 2nd, 2009 at 11:11am #

    Sorry Joed, I don’t want to be sailing under false colors, I am not and I repete not a collabator, I am a full fledged jack booted thug.

  9. joed said on June 2nd, 2009 at 11:38am #

    danny ray–well, of course you are.