The New Smell of McCarthyism Demands Faith Leaders Speak Truth to Power

A primary role of faith leaders is speaking truth to power on behalf of the rights and well-being of all people.  With the repressive smell of McCarthyism in the air today, confronting political and corporate power with reality and moral truth is even more of a prophetic imperative.

The smell of McCarthyism?  A self-identified “independent team of concerned American citizens,” calling their website “PropOrNot” and refusing to identify themselves, created a report blacklisting over 200 alternative online news sites.  “The list” includes reputable independent news sources, such as Consortium News, Truthout, Truthdig, Black Agenda Report, Naked Capitalism, Anti-war.com, Information Clearing House, and also Counterpunch.  PropOrNot accuses the sites of being “Russian propaganda outlets,” spreading “fake news,” reaching “tens of millions” of Americans that helped tilt the 2016 presidential election to Russia-friendly candidate Donald Trump. (“Black Friday Report: On Russian Propaganda Network Mapping,” By The PropOrNot Team, PropOrNot, Nov. 26, 2016)  Note the secretive PropOrNot authors of “Black Friday Report” hide behind the word “Team.”

The invisible “concerned American citizens” of PropOrNot “strongly suspect that some of the individuals involved” in spreading Russian propaganda online have committed espionage, “but determining that is up to the FBI and the DOJ.” (“Frequently Asked Questions,” propornot.com, Nov. 26, 2016)  The “team” also states, “To the extent any of these sites are involved in supporting Russian objectives that run counter to Western interests, they – and more to the point, the people who operate them – should be of interest to the security services of the Western countries in which they live, work, and acquire services related to their websites.” (“Black Friday Report: On Russian Propaganda Network Mapping,” Ibid)

The “concerned American citizens” of PropOrNot also “call on Congressional leadership and the Obama administration, to: immediately begin investigations to determine whether any U.S. government action or inaction has allowed Russia to manipulate the US domestic political process, and interfere in the 2016 election, through online propaganda;” and to “immediately begin investigations to determine whether, by action or inaction, the American public has been deprived of related information that they need to vote in an informed manner.” (“Russia is Manipulating US Public Opinion through Online Propaganda,” propornot.com, Nov. 30, 2016)  Note, again, no individual is identified as the author of the above PropOrNot article.

Subsequently, the CIA, the FBI and the National Security Agency, “the nation’s top intelligence agencies,” investigated Russia’s possible role in influencing the 2016 presidential election.   Interestingly, their reported “unanimous conclusions” are that “President Valdimir V. Putin of Russia directed a vast cyberattack aimed at denying Hillary Clinton the presidency and installing Donald J. Trump in the Oval Office.” (‘PUTIN LED SCHEME TO AID TRUMP, REPORT SAYS,’ By Michael D. Shear and David E. Sanger, The New York Times, Jan. 7, 2017)

A group that won’t identify itself is claiming independent websites that do identify themselves are  undermining American democracy.  PropOrNot hides from the very transparency it charges independent news sites with concealing.

One might think that PropOrNot consists of a group of “concerned” Democrats seeking to justify the Party’s failure to win the presidency from an impulsive, narcissistic Republican candidate, whom Sen. Bernie Sanders has rightly called a “pathological liar.”  Or the anonymous group could be “Cold War” warriors reviving a tried-and-true anti-American “Red” bogeyman to assure unending profits for America’s military/industrial/intelligence/security complex.

The secretive “concerned American citizens” forming PropOrNot are actually defenders of the status quo.  They see “on both the left and the right . . . a large scale information campaign . . . deceptively injecting Russian propaganda into American public discourse online.”  They discredit independent journalistic websites and their editors and writers by lauding “actual journalism (that has editors and fact checkers who impose accountability for mistakes).”  Thus they “call on the American public to . . . obtain news from actual reporters, who report to an editor, and are professionally accountable for mistakes.”  They even suggest the news sources that citizens should trust: “NPR, the BBC, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Buzzfeed News, VICE, etc, and especially your local papers and local TV news channels. (“Russia is Manipulating US Public Opinion through Online Propaganda,” Ibid)

Never mind that mainstream media’s “actual reporters” are “accountable” to editors, who, themselves, are held accountable as guardians of the status quo – making sure that the “news” is print to fit.  Never mind that right and wrong easily get lost in “left” and “right,” and that the truth often lies not in the middle between two extremes, but is judged as “extreme” when it threatens the status quo.  Never mind also that most mainstream newspapers, including The Washington Post and The New York Times, championed, with “fake news,” the George W. Bush administration’s 2003 falsely-based, criminal, pre-emptive invasion of Iraq.  Certainly count on your “local paper and local TV news channels” for accurate weather and sports reports, but not necessarily their repeating of national media news reports.

Intercept columnists Ben Norton and Glenn Greenwald are believed to accurately identify PropOrNot’s primary motivation in blacklisting “independent, completely legitimate news sources.”  They write, “The group eschews alternative media outlets like . . . Truthout, Naked Capitalism, Black Agenda Report, Consortium News, and Truthdig . . . and instead recommends that readers rely solely on establishment-friendly publications like NPR, the  BBC, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Buzzfeed, and VICE.  That is because a big part of the group’s identification for ‘Russian propaganda outlet’ is criticizing U.S. foreign policy.” (“The Washington Post Disgracefully Promotes a McCarthyite Blacklist From a New, Hidden, and Very Shady Group,” The Intercept, Nov. 26, 2016)

CounterPunch editor Jeffrey St. Clair also believes today’s smell of McCarthism is about defending the U.S. empire’s predatory foreign policy.  He writes, “We’ve published all kinds of articles on Russia in the past decade: critical, sympathetic, analytical, satirical, quizzical and befuddled.”  Then he states, “More to the point (and no doubt the reason we achieved our illustrious ranking), we’ve run articles about how in the dangerous geopolitical climate of the last 20 years, Russia has often acted as the last hedge against the US’s belligerent and provocative foreign policy, which has nearly brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.” (“Roaming Charges: The CIA’s Plots to Kill Castro,” Counterpunch, Dec. 2, 2016)

The foul smell of McCarthyism here is not secretive PropOrNot’s report blacklisting prominent independent online new sites.  The real odor of McCarthyism is emanating from the venerable “political newspaper of record,” the widely circulated Washington Post, which gave PropOrNot’s report the air of legitimacy by publishing it, in an article by reporter Craig Timberg, who “specializes in privacy, security and surveillance.”

The mere title of The Washington Post’s article on PropOrNot’s report gives it authenticity: “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say.”  Who are these “experts?” Reporter Timberg identifies PropOrNot as “a nonpartisan collection of researchers with foreign policy, military and technology backgrounds.”  (washingtonpost.com, Nov. 24, 2016.)  That description automatically attributes objectivity, professionalism and diversity to this group of anonymous “researchers.”

Throughout his article, Craig Timberg refers to PropOrNot as “researchers” around a dozen times, lending further credibility to their findings.  It is as if PropOrNot is reporting the truth, as Timberg matter-of-factly writes without commentary: “PropOrNot’s monitoring report, which was provided to The Washington Post in advance of its public release, identifies more than 200 websites as routine peddlers of Russian propaganda during the election season, with combined audiences of at least 15 million Americans.”  And, “On Facebook, PropOrNot estimates that stories planted or promoted by the disinformation campaign were viewed more than 213 million times.” (Ibid)

The Washington Post even allowed PropOrNot’s executive director to hide behind anonymity while slandering prominent independent new sites.  “ ‘The way that this propaganda apparatus supported Trump was equivalent to some massive amount of a media buy,’ said the executive director of PropOrNot, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid being targeted by Russia’s legions of skilled hackers.  ‘It was like Russia was running a super PAC for Trump’s campaign.  . . . It worked.’ ” (Ibid) From what the secretive PropOrNot executive director is saying, it appears that Americans have to depend on Russian hackers for knowledge about the machinations of Hillary Clinton’s campaign in sabotaging Bernie Sanders’ bid for the Democratic nomination for president.

The extensive criticism and threats of lawsuits leveled at The Washington Post for publishing PropOrNot’s report led The Post to attach an “Editor’s Note” to the article.  The “Editor’s Note” itself contains a major falsehood: “The Post, which did not name any of the sites, does not itself vouch for the validity of PropOrNot’s findings regarding any individual media outlet, nor did the article purport to do so.” (Ibid)  “The political newspaper of record,” in fact, “vouch[ed] for the validity of PropOrNot’s findings”: first by publishing the secretive “researchers” findings, and second by reporting the “findings” as if they were factual.

Max Blumenthal, a senior editor of the Grayzone Project at AlterNet, exposes PrpoOrNot’s McCarthyism-like anti-Russian fixation.  He writes, “Among the most ironic characteristics of PropOrNot is its claim to be defending journalistic integrity, a rigorous adherence to the facts, and most of all, a sense of political levity.  In fact,” Blumenthal continues, “the group’s own literature reflects a deeply paranoid view of Russia and the outside world.”  He states that, “according to PropOrtNot’s website, Russia is staging a hostile takeover of America’s alternative online media environment ‘in order to make Russia great again’ . . . The message is clear: Stamp out the websites blacklisted by PropOrNot, or submit to the malevolent influence of Putin’s ‘new global empire.’ “ (“Washington Post Promotes Shadowy Website That Accuses 200 Publications of Being Russian Propaganda Plants, AlterNet, Nov. 25, 2016)

PropOrNot’s anti-Russian fixation accommodates The Washington Post’s own role as a guardian of the status quo’s prevailing belief that Russia remains America’s arch enemy.  The Post’s motivation for publishing the anonymous PropOrNot’s report may be related to the fact that the newspaper’s new owner, Jeff Bezos, also owns Amazon, which recently received a $600 million contract from the CIA.  Since the CIA is a primary intelligence watchdog against the perennial Russian menace, publishing PropOrNot’s blacklisting of online websites, that provide independent news and commentary on Russia, could have been an easy call.

Norman Solomon, former director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, points out the journalistic conflict of interest involving The Washington Post’s owner and the CIA: “As Amazon’s major owner and the Post’s only owner, Bezos stands to gain a lot more if his newspaper does less ruffling and more soothing of CIA feathers.”  Solomon then quotes former Washington Post reporter John Hanrahan: “One thing is certain: Post reporters and editors are aware that Bezos, as major owner of Amazon, has a financial stake in maintaining good relations with the CIA – and this sends a clear message to even the hardest-nosed journalist that making the CIA look bad might not be a good career move.” (“Jeff Bezos Is Doing Huge Business with the CIA, While Keeping His Washington Post Readers in the Dark,” AlterNet, Dec. 18, 2016)

A month after The Washington Post legitimized PropOrNot’s report blacklisting independent online news outlets, President Obama signed into law the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, which includes a provision that is right down President-elect Donald Trump’s authoritarian alley.  That provision is the Encountering Disinformation and Propaganda Act, which creates a truth squad-like federal government-directed Global Engagement Center.

“The bipartisan Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act is organized around two main priorities,” states Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), co-author of the legislation.  The Center will develop “a whole-of-government strategy for countering THE foreign propaganda and disinformation being waged against us and our allies by our enemies . . . state actors like Russia and China as well as non-state actors,” Portman explains.  The second priority is “establishing a fund to help train local journalists and provide grants and contracts to NGOs, civil society organizations, think tanks, private sector companies, media organizations, and other experts outside the U.S. government with experience in identifying and analyzing the latest trends in foreign government disinformation techniques.” (“Portman-Murphy Bill Promotes Coordinated Strategy to Defend America, Allies Against Propaganda and Disinformation from Russia, China & Others,” Rob Portman, portman.senate.gov.)

The second priority is chilling.  It echoes a tactic employed by the Gestapo to maintain a smoothly running society in Nazi Germany.  History professor Robert Gellately’s analysis of the accommodating behavior of German citizens under the Third Reich helps one to understand why funding American groups and citizens to identify America’s disinformation enemies is so alarming.

Professor Gellately states that the prevailing myth was that the Germany’s Gestapo police were believed to be “everywhere.”  He discovered that “there were few secret police, and most were just processing the information coming in.”  He “found a shocking fact.  It wasn’t the secret police who were doing this wide-scale surveillance and hiding on every street corner.  It was the ordinary German people who were informing on their neighbors.”  That discovery led him to write The Gestapo and the German Society: Enforcing Racial Policy 1933-45 Oxford University Press, 1990. (“Robert Gellately,” Faculty Profile, Florida State University, fsu.edu/proflies/gellately)

Professor Gellately also found that the German people were aware of the concentration camps, and what might happen to people informed on.  He cites numerous German daily newspapers, with stories “with literal references in the headlines to ‘concentration camps’ and other related terms.” (Ibid)

The normalization of evil under Adolf Hitler’s rule offers a lesson to us Americans as the Trump administration is about to take over.  Professor Gellately states about the Third Reich: “They began with small violations of the rights of Jews and other minorities, and then ratcheted up their racism and persecution only when they saw implied consent from the German people.  His next words are also instructive: “Many Germans disapproved of Hitler’s fascism and brutality at first.  But, after the long economic depression following the First World War, the German people allowed the thriving economy and return to law and order under Hitler to mute their criticism.  People had jobs and the streets were safe.  Hitler was managing a fine balance of consent and coercion.” (Ibid)  (See Robert Gellately, Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany, 1933-1944, Oxford University Press, 2001) (“Robert Gellately,” Faculty Profile, Ibid)

The new Encountering Disinformation and Propaganda Act is taking a page from Nazi Germany.  Local journalists and media organizations, social groups, think tanks, private companies, educational institutions and other “experts” are being hired to join the crusade against the propaganda efforts of foreign governments and “non-state actors” bent on destabilizing American democracy.  How many of these non-governmental groups and other “experts” will be informing on mainstream and independent journalists and news outlets, civil rights and social justice advocates, peace groups, interfaith activists, and other private sector neighbors?  And how many more American “experts” and groups will be formed to cash in on the funding provided by the new spy-on-your-neighbor Truth Squad Act?

Chilling also is that this new legislation calls for the director of the so-called Global Engagement Center to be appointed by the president, which means Donald Trump.  And even more chilling is that the Center is mandated to perform “such other duties as the president may designate.” (“Fake News and the New McCarthyism,” by John Buell, Common Dreams, commondreams.org, Dec. 22, 2016.) The fact that a narcissistic, insecure, authoritarian submission-demanding Donald Trump will soon be yielding presidential power is most concerning.

John Bellamy Foster, editor of independent socialist magazine Monthly Review, points to the startup of the Nazi-like “denunciation” campaign inspired by Donald Trump’s election.  Foster writes, “Shortly after the election of Donald Trump, the alt-right organization Turning Point USA introduced its notorious Professor Watchlist (professorwatchlist.org), listing some 200 radical academics in the universities [of which he is one] as dangerous professors,” with “stories regarding this list . . . soon being carried in major newspapers throughout the country.”  Unlike ”David Horowitz’s list of the ‘101 most dangerous academics in America’ a decade ago,” Foster states, “the current Professor Watchlist has behind it the new sense of power on the extreme right provided by Trump’s electoral victory.”  Horowitz had no real political power, but “there is real political power here and people are being targeted by figures connected to the incoming administration,” Foster says, adding, “There is a clear alt-right agenda which requires bringing the universities in line.” (“Notes from the Editors,” Monthly Review, January 2017)

Professor Foster issues a call that needs to be heard by other professors – and by faith leaders and other citizens.  The present smell of McCarthyism leads him to speak truth about power: “We should turn the tables, and fight with courage and integrity.  If we are going to stand with professors who are under attack we have to defend their right to express their views.  And that means attacking the witch hunt.” (Ibid)

Faith leaders need to join in “stand[ing] with the professors,” who are being attacked for pursuing truth that threatens the status quo.  With funding from the status quo-monitoring Global Engagement Center’s Truth Squad, more Turning Point USA-like organizations may arise, including reactionary “God and Country” Christian committees.  The witch hunts could target journalists, scientists, Black Lives Matter members, immigration activists, labor union leaders, Jesus-inspired “peacemakers,” and social justice-minded faith and civic groups.

The words of Pastor Martin Niemoller, “outspoken public foe (italics added) of Adolph Hitler” and concentration camp survivor, are relevant for today:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

(Martin Niemoller ‘First they came for the Socialists . . .,” ushmm.org)

During the McCarthy era, those the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) came for included many faith leaders.  Methodist Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam was interrogated by HUAC in 1953.  “Accused of being a communist by Donald L. Jackson,” his reported political sin included “oppos[ing] compulsory military training and the military reserves in peacetime [and] . . . the use of the atom bomb by saying, ‘There is something morally wrong with a weapon that destroys humanity.’ ” (“Garfield Bromley Oxnam,” en.wikipedia.org.)

The McCarthyite inquisitors came for NAACP leader Rev. Theodore R. Gibson.  He was jailed by “a Florida legislative committee for his reported “contempt of the committee in refusing to produce membership lists of the NAACP.”  Also, “Arkansas, Texas, Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia and Louisiana have all tried to destroy the effectiveness of the NAACP by requiring the disclosure of its membership lists.” (“Secret. Joe McCarthy Hearings Opened after 50 Years,” By Joanne Kenen, Reuters, ratical.org, May 6, 2003.)

Another faith leader the patriotic monitors came for was Unitarian Universalist Donald Lothrop, minister of the nonsectarian Community Church of Boston  – the congregation I was honored to serve as minister from 1978 to 1991.  In the spirit of Monthly Review editor, John Bellamy Foster, Lothrop “turned the tables, and fought back with courage and integrity,” providing an inspiring model for faith leaders today.

In 1953, The Community Church of Boston (CCB), with its “Free Pulpit in Action,” was kicked out of John Hancock Hall (where it held Sunday services) after Professor Owen Lattimore presented an address.  Sen. Joseph McCarthy had branded Lattimore a communist sympathizer and “extremely dangerous influence on Americans.”  Thus his presence at a reputable Boston Church was judged subversive, and CCB had to go.

Rev. Lothrop found himself forced to appear before a Massachusetts legislative committee to answer the charge that he “had given comfort and aid to communists.”  As reported, he met the committee head on.  “Gentlemen,” he said, “I plead guilty to this charge.  I have given aid and comfort to all kinds of people: black and white, Jew and Gentile, Catholic and Protestant, Mohammedan and Buddhist, rich and poor, capitalist and communist, democrat and anarchist.”  Lothrop then said, “My exemplar is one,  “Jesus of Nazareth, who feared not to associate with and minister to prostitutes, thieves and tax-gatherers.  He believed in virtue by association, not guilt by association.”  Lothrop continued, “I am proud that over the years our people have been witnesses to the faith of the American people and that we have been willing to provide a platform for countless men and women who are debarred elsewhere.” (“A Brief History of the Community Church of Boston,” by Rev. Peter T. Richardson, community church of boston.org.)

Rev. Lothrop’s final words to the Massachusetts legislative committee speak to the challenge of today’s smell of McCarthyism.  ”Our country needs voices of dissent, diversity and daring,” he said.  “It is the stuff out of which progress is made . . . the assurance against complacency and error which lead all closed societies to their graves.” (Ibid)

It is time for faith leaders to stand with Professor Foster and the other 200 radical academics on the Professor Watchlist, and, with “courage and integrity,” join them and others in “fighting” the normalization of an authoritarian president.  Who knows when faith leaders themselves will be on a radical Clergy Watchlist?

 

Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center is both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister. His newly published book, The Minister who Could Not Be “preyed” Away is available Amazon.com. Alberts is also author of The Counterpunching Minister and of A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, which “demonstrates what top-notch pastoral care looks like, feels like, maybe even smells like,” states the review of the book in the Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling. His e-mail address is wm.alberts@gmail.com.  

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