Which Witch Hunt? Liberal Disanalogies

Katha Pollitt’s recent editorial, It’s Not ‘McCarthyism’ to Demand Answers on Trump, Russia, and the Election,  is a good example of why I stopped reading The Nation regularly a long time ago. Like many liberals in the months since Hillary failed to win the election, Pollitt hopes the fast road back to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. might go through Moscow, but she thinks that to call this “McCarthyism” is an affront to history. Along the way, she posits a version of the “historical uniqueness” thesis so often applied on a larger scale to the Jewish Holocaust. Comparison is disallowed because it allegedly cheapens the value of the original. In this game of “who owns the tragedy?” comparing “down” from a paradigm case to a lesser or partial instance of something similar is simply declared out of bounds. But is that really how historical analogies should work? Or is Pollitt making the rules up as she goes along so that her team wins?

Pollitt’s article purports to be a corrective to another piece by Nation author and historian of the McCarthy period, Victor Navansky, who wrote: The readiness of much of the American press and establishment to assume that the worst charges against Russia (including collaboration with and by Trump) are true is, given the lack of specific evidence, at least in part a legacy of Cold War attitudes toward the Soviet Union.” Notice how cautious Navasky’s language is: „at least in part“; „a legacy… of attitudes…” Notice that he isn’t saying it resembles an elephant because it weighs two tons, has a thick grey hide, two ivory tusks and large floppy ears. He’s saying it has a long trunk, at that this is very characteristic of elephants. But For Pollitt, if the homology isn’t perfect, any analogy is off limits. “Here’s what he overlooks,” she asserts: “McCarthyism involved the use of immense state power against a large, shape-shifting mass of fairly powerless ordinary people who, with rare exceptions, had done nothing more than exercise their right to freedom of speech and association.“ The reader who hadn’t read Navasky’s piece would simply assume he never took the trouble even to point in this direction. Click and read, however, and you find that Navasky devotes an entire paragraph of his short article to describing various facets of this “immense state power,” specifically listing its organs and acronyms. So no, Katha, Victor didn’t overlook anything of the sort.

But the real elephant in the room, which Katha Pollitt studiously avoids discussing, is U.S. foreign policy toward Russia. She doubts not just the relevance of the term “McCarthyism”; she thinks “Cold War” itself is another useless anachronism. Either naively or disingenuously— just weeks after Trump’s Syrian cruise missile show—she asks: “is it unkosher to speak negatively of the Kremlin? What worthy project does “Kremlin-baiting” attempt to derail?” That Trump had defied all political expectations by campaigning in the Republican primaries on a vague platform of détente with Putin’s Russia is promptly forgotten. Of course, why should détente be something to strive for, when Russia is “run by an autocrat and an enemy of human rights”? For Pollitt, in classic liberal-hawk mode, all this nonsense about a New Cold War is just a way of saying we should “give Putin wide berth to do whatever he wants.“ NATO expansion (Montenegro!)? No problem. U.S. meddling in the Ukraine in the lead-up to a NATO-friendly cout d’état? Not pertinent. Ringing Russia with military bases including „anti-missile“ batteries on false pretenses? Who cares.

Now, under what Robert Parry has called the “Chinese water torture” of allegations about Russia, Trump himself is becoming an anti-Russian superhawk. He’s reversed himself on Assad, who of course “must go” before peace can begin to arrive in Syria. And Trump’s “pro-Russian” Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, has announced that anti-Russian sanctions won’t be lifted until Crimea is returned to Ukraine—that is, until Hell freezes over. Trump’s politically risky plans for a thaw with Putin’s Russia might never have been serious; his ignorant hypernationalism and his love for all things military are an obstacle to serious diplomacy with any other major power. But by whipping up a steady froth of “Trump-Putin” innuendo over the course of weeks and months, the Democrats, with the “intelligence Community” and the neo-cons in their corner, have now made such a gamble all but impossible. Echoing her anti-„Bernie Bro“ defense of Hillary Clinton, Katha Pollitt is more concerned about the gendered etymology of the word „hysteria“ than that the palpable hysteria gripping the liberal media might actually be pushing us toward a dangerous renewal of a bipolar world conflict. Next she’ll tell us that when writers like Stephen Cohen focus on the perils of nuclear weapons, it just goes to show their phallocentric worldview.

Pollitt ends her piece by asking rhetorically, “If the country accused of the hack was, say, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, would we be talking about McCarthyism then?” But of course, that’s just the point: it isn’t countries with elephant-sized interests in U.S. electoral politics that are the object of the media frenzy, it’s only the one that „occupies some of the same geography as the Soviet Union“. And don’t even get me started about that mastodon in the room—Israel—whose electoral influence in the United States exceeds any Russian despot’s wildest fantasies, and which somehow escapes both mainstream media attention and Katha Pollit’s instinct for fastidious comparisons.

I happen to think that in the current context the “McCarthyism” label is both useful and potentially misleading. “McCarthy” has come to stand for the whole era of anti-Red witch-hunts after the Second World War, but that period began long before Joe McCarthy or Roy Cohn entered the media spotlight. What’s happening now probably has more in common with the earliest stages of the Second Red Scare than with its full-blown 1950s manifestation—that is, the period from the late 30s to the mid-40s, when Martin Dies chaired the newly instituted House Un-American Activities Committee and led a campaign aimed in part to tarnish Roosevelt’s New Deal with Communist associations. After the war, HUAC and Hollywood blacklists were largely about cementing America’s postwar reorientation from alliance to conflict with Soviet Russia abroad, and from New Deal experiments to capitalist retrenchment at home. Similarly, the Third Russian Scare, as it might be called, is in part about preventing any possible rapprochement with Putin’s Russia while preserving the eternal mandate of a U.S.-led NATO alliance. Trump, although a reactionary monster in all sorts of other ways, was until recently seen as a loose cannon on the Russian front. It’s no surprise that now, as then, many American liberals can’t see this significant forest for the trees of “connections”, “collusions” and conspiracies.

The irony is that Pollitt’s piece doesn’t just fail as a rejoinder to Victor Navasky’s argument: it illustrates it, perfectly. Navasky wrote: „One lesson to be learned about McCarthyism has to do with the role that much of the liberal community played in it. I include here some of our staunchest liberal humanists and organizations…“ By defending the paranoid style in recent U.S. journalism, and by throwing a faux-feminist veil over the larger mechanics of the imperial system driving a renewed conflict with Russia, Pollitt’s article adds at least a hair or two to that elephant’s trunk. Having inoculated herself against any uncomfortable affinities to America’s anti-Russian campaigners of yore, Politt feels free to hack away at the Great Amorphous Russian Conspiracy with abandon. After all, what she’s after is truth and justice, which could never have entered the head of a HUAC inquisitor. And besides, she reminds us triumphantly, Putin’s no Communist!

But historical analogies are tricky things. Sometimes, the more you try to shake them, the harder they stick. We may not be facing full-blown McCarthyism, and Putin is certainly not a Communist, but then Stalin wasn’t Satan and his agents in the West weren’t witches, either.

Matt Rubenstein is a classical pianist who lives and works in Berlin. His recordings have focused mainly on modern German piano music, and his articles on politics have appeared at souciant.com.