In Charles Dickens’s 1848 story, A Christmas Carol, the ghost of Jacob Marley roams the earth weighted down by chains symbolizing the wrongs he committed in life. He appears to Ebenezer Scrooge, his still living former business partner, to warn him that he must mend his ways: he must transform his greed into generosity and his disdain for the poor into the practice of community responsibility. He must do so or suffer eternal damnation.
In our own time, in our own story, the ghost of Marley has been replaced by that of Joe McCarthy. McCarthy’s ghost roams America at will and is particularly hyperactive in his former home state of Wisconsin. But his influence is not felt in the same manner as was Marley’s spirit. Our contemporary apparition seeks not to warn and save others but to replicate itself, to regain substance through the corruption of others, such as Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin and the thoroughly suspect Waukesha Wisconsin County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus. These latter day McCarthys, and those allied to them, seek to destroy the rights of working people and are not above stealing elections to do so.
The Fear of Free Speech
To these sins we can add others, specifically attacks on free speech and academic freedom. In the last couple of weeks the rightists who control the Wisconsin state legislature, possessed by the spirit of Joe McCarthy, have misused the Freedom of Information Act to demand the University of Wisconsin e-mails of Professor William Cronon. It seems that Professor Cronon, who is to be the next president of the American Historical Association, has been publically critical of Governor Walker and his policies, and that is enough to warrant this abusive attention. The same tactic has now been put into play in Michigan. In that case, having to do with the academics at the Wayne State University Labor Studies Department, the university reacted by shutting down part of the department’s web site. These attacks go along with the financial starvation of public universities and colleges across the country by the same right-wing ideological forces now embedded in our state legislatures.
The aim of all this activity against universities and their faculty is intimidation. The intimidation of those who are, or may be led to, actively oppose the right-wing ideologues our fellow citizens have been foolish enough to place in positions of power. As Juan Cole has pointed out, “free speech in the US is rare.” Employees in the private sector can lose their jobs for saying things that their employees take issue with. Now, despite tenure (also under attack) the same threat hovers over the heads of academics employed by public institutions. For instance, what the right-wingers are looking for in the case of Wayne State is the particulars of any discussion by labor specialists that might promote ideas and criticism of which they disapprove. Those possessed of the spirit of Joe McCarthy obviously prioritize their own ideology over the freedoms of others. The institutionalizing of such an attitude forms one of the underpinnings of what we commonly call tyranny.
An Indifferent Public
Behind the conservative attack on academic free speech is a broader phenomenon. The reality that most people do not partake of free speech or even appreciate its value. Think of this situation in terms of a bell curve. Those in the main bulge of the curve are people who live their lives in near total compliance with the attitudes and beliefs of their culture. They rarely if ever venture beyond those parameters and they usually are suspicious and fearful of those who violate these boundaries. That means the practice of meaningful political and cultural speech is carried on mostly by the outliers of this bell curve, both on the left and the right. However, what happened during the Cold War and after is that, through the process of historical distortion and propaganda, the entire curve was shifted to the right. So now centrists can be labeled as liberals and liberals can be called socialists, etc.
This dangerous situation is possible because, for all the talk of globalization, the average citizen has little accurate knowledge of different political and economic systems or awareness of other ways of life. They haven’t got the experience that would allow them to accurately define the range of political positions they are dealing with. That means they can be manipulated by those who control their information environments. Those who are in control of these environments: the owners of the media in all its forms, the politicians and pseudo-expert “talking heads,” are themselves prisoners of their class determined or ethnically ingrained outlooks.
Where are the Moderate Conservatives?
All of this leaves us with the following situation:
1. There are now empowered office holders who are out to suppress progressives of all persuasions, be they labor unionists, academic activists or just ordinary liberal Democrats.
2. In the background is a general population that is passive, gullible and largely apolitical.
3. Which means one of the pillars of American freedom, that of speech, is now undergoing serious erosion.
It might sound odd to progressive ears, but an important question in regard to this situation is, where are the moderate conservatives? At least in part the fate of the nation is in their hands. These are the millions of such moderates who normally vote Republican because they think of the Republican Party as their political home. But now they are seeing their home taken over by McCarthyite specters: capitalist ideologues, know-nothings, and political cheaters who do not hesitate to act in ways that corrupts the nation’s political process. The resulting contradictions should breed a strong sense of betrayal and resentment in the minds of these people. What are the moderate conservatives going to do about this soiling of their own nest? What are their consciences telling them? It is time for them to wake up and join in the fight for the nation’s political future.
LAWRENCE DAVIDSON is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester PA.