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Posted by on Apr 23, 2014 in At TMV | 3 comments

The Paranoia Paradox: Sometimes They Actually Are Out To Get Us


The debate over Joe McCarthy just won’t die. The conventional narrative is that he was unmitigated evil, a nasty label to be pasted on political opponents to tarnish them beyond repair. The revisionist narrative, emerging right on cue 60 years later, is the McCarthy was an unsung hero, the only person who truly understood the threat America was under during the early years of the Cold War.

As seems to be the case with all things political, neither purist stream has its monopoly on truth. But both have important elements of it.

Joe McCarthy was a bad person. He was a drunk, he was abusive, he was careless and irresponsible with grave accusations. But the threat he tried to address (or exploit) was more real than many of McCarthy’s loudest critics are willing to admit. The Soviet Union actually was targeting U.S. government institutions with espionage and subversion. The Soviet Union actually did seek to dominate much of the world and it was willing to use murderous force to pursue that goal. And Communist spies actually did try to infiltrate and influence important American cultural and intellectual centers, most successfully higher education (where their influence continues to grow to this day, insulated away from the corrective pressures of the real world).

A similar paradox infects our current national security environment, with postmodern avatars of McCarthy on both sides. One one side, we have the U.S. government and its military apparatus represented by drone strikes and its intelligence apparatus represented by the NSA. They are sometimes irresponsible in how they execute their mission, but they face a very grave threat, the nature of which many of their critics willingly blind themselves to.

On the other side, we have Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald. Both are, like McCarthy, seemingly bad people, seemingly obsessed with their own self-aggrandizement, grossly irresponsible in their tactics, delusional in their choice of allies, and totally unaccountable to anyone at the same time they preach self-righteously about ensuring accountability for everyone. But they too face a legitimate enemy — the unchecked growth of a technological-military-intelligence superstructure that is opaque, unaccountable, and grossly vulnerable to misuse.

National security policy in the postmodern age is Greek tragedy; there are no heroes. Only McCarthys.

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  • SteveK

    The ‘commie scare’ was real and Joe McCarthy was an America Patriot?

    Good Grief… What’s next Darrell Issa’s got a point and the Ted Cruz / Joe McCarthy comparisons are a positive for the Cruz team?

  • JSpencer

    Revisionist historians and “both sides” worshippers will always have an audience. Fortunately they are outnumbered by people who have both feet on the ground and better memories. People are right to view the McCarthy era as a dark moment in US history. Human nature being what it is, we either learn from history or repeat it. Not everyone is at the same point on the learning curve, but part of this is a function of the educators. Intellectual honesty plays an important part in that.

  • petew

    If this is an example of the idea that there is a thin line between evil and good, and that morality is always relative to any given situation, it is an analogy that is not quite right. One of the things that differentiated McCarthy and people like him, from enemies of democracy is the fact that he was primarily an opportunist. In that sense one doubts if he even gave a damn about communism one way or the other–but rather saw a great opportunity to create a scare about the commies in our midst as merely another example of political opportunism at work for a guy who was stuck on his own self-importance.

    The NSA controversy is first of all, not as important as it seems. The government has an interest in data mining incredible amounts of data, which can only be of use if general patterns pointing to suspicious communications are discovered over and over again, and are gathered in bulk, resulting in only few cases worth being analysed.

    One can conclude that our rights to privacy have been invaded, but no more so than the hypothetical scenario illustrated when an ordinary snail mail delivery person notices that you keep getting packages from known Al-Qaeda operatives. That mail man may decide to report such packages if they seem sufficiently threatening, but whether he reports them or not, it is usually pretty easy for him or anyone else, to guess at what the packages carry, where they were sent from and who they were delivered to–namely you, I, or hundreds of millions of other Joe Blows who are really not at all interesting to the intelligence community. Where McCarthy was concerned the conspiracy came from within the ranks of congressmen–or so he lead us to believe. And, in his case, the constitutional rights of the accused (not someone having a ton of suspicious calls to Osama bin Laden) were completely abused and ignored. It taught us that our own fears can start the beginning of the end of Democracy, and was only thwarted once Edward R. Murrow, displayed the strength of character to force McCarthy to face the accused and reveal his supposed sources of information.

    In a way, the fact that real enemies may be plotting to blow up the empire State Building, send anthrax to certain Congressmen, or blow themselves up in groups of American military officers, is a much more bearable kind of treachery. What really scares me, is the way Republicans in general, have made a complete mockery out of facts, just to gain the upper hand in power politics—being nothing but opportunists who want only to win, and don’t care who they step on to do it–just like Joe McCarthy.

    Its true that out of control data collecting has the potential to violate privacy and undermine constitutional rights, but that is not nearly as catastrophic as a small group of politicians aka The Tea Party, using deliberate lies and deceptions to control a much larger group of Congressmen who were elected by much larger constituencies.

    When we are sure about the enemy out there, and able to avoid breaches in our own ethical makeup, we are much better off. And even though the president, like others before him, may have taken unwarranted liberties in his desire to thwart imminent dangers, he has a duty to destroy the capability of terrorists to insure the public’s welfare. Because of this solemn duty, he is not just another Joe McCarthy, and, he doesn’t regularly preach about the evils of Muslims, Arabs, or even the Taliban–he merely responds to their threats in the best way he knows how. The real threat to our liberties, can only be detected by looking the other way—into the faces of greedy and opportunistic politicians who distort the truth without qualms and who, really want only to have a venue for grandstanding and slinging mud at our President.

    When we lost the key to our own political virtues, in a darkened hallway, we looked for it, instead, under the lamplight out on our streets. It isn’t there, and seldom will be, but is so much more easy to search for it in an area containing enough light to look for it, rather than to realize that we need to search our own homes and our own entryways! Because of our denial, unscrupulous politicians are able to gain public trust, by pandering to our own paranoia and fears, even when those fears are mostly self-created!

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