A matter of principles: Keeping the new Joe McCarthys at bay by learning the lessons of our past
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress
One of the intellectual benefits of aging is the ability to draw on experiences that had gone well or badly during our periods of growth, then to interpret our conclusions as universal truths. Such contrived insights are not a natural by-product of memories recorded and reexamined, but can effectively serve as a valuable guide for the future. And if judgments gained from those unsealed memories pass as wisdom, that may not be too far off the mark.
During the height of the Cold War, for example, the late Senator Joe McCarthy, whose reign was an embarrassment to our Constitution, to our traditions and to the high moral code we like to believe is inherently ours, had become the icon of irresponsible representation. His politically-inspired charges of conspiracy, treachery and disloyalty destroyed reputations, careers and lives and went uncurbed for several years.
McCarthy was not effectively challenged until lawyer Joseph Welch, during hearings conducted by the Army to investigate some of the senator’s more outrageous charges, asked, "At long last, sir, have you no sense of decency?"
Joe McCarthy was a bad man, "a sleazy bully" in the words of famed columnist Richard Rovere, obsessed with power, disinterested in truth and dangerously destructive to our nation. But as a threat he was hardly unique to our system. Nor will he be the last.
Of serious concern is that so few of our legislators seem to have learned from that experience — or have failed to properly monitor the performance of fellow members. We shall always have our fools and ideologues in positions of power, but our system of laws and logic, of checks and balances, is designed to guard against the abuses of legislative power, to protect the weakest from the more powerful and the most powerful from the mob.
If the elected guardians of our democracy, for reasons of greed or power or cowardice, fail in that task, that is the more troubling threat. It was Joe McCarthy’s colleagues, even more than the culprit himself, who let us down, by failing in their obligation to uphold the spirit and intent and integrity of our democratic system.
And that is one of the disconcerting problems of aging — we may have learned from the past, but are unable to extend its lessons to our leaders. It is now a half-century later, and those same legislators, under different names and following different drummers, are still pursuing votes and self-interests at the expense of national honor or personal integrity, still subverting the principles of the Constitution in favor of political party loyalty and reelection.
Effective legislative voices from both the left and the right are necessary to maintain a workable balance in our system, but this requires manipulating the levers of power honestly and honorably. We need our system of competing political parties — of liberal and conservative voices — to effectively debate the issues. We need spokespeople representing conflicting views to deal with the present and shape the future, but those voices, above all else, must be principled.
Adherence to established principles, pursued with integrity, free of obligation to political party or patron, must be the standard for the gift of our vote. Anything less is a perversion of our system. The billions being spent by drug companies and financial institutions and military supply contractors to bribe ("lobby") our legislators, however well clothed in clichÃ©s of nobility or manipulated by tortured logic, seriously weakens the health of our nation.
And that is one of the lessons of aging. Those insights we have gained along the way are not evidence of wisdom, but some of those bits of information that we may have absorbed could prove invaluable in effectively resolving our nation’s affairs.
By now we should have a reasonably clear view of our political and cultural environment and should use that knowledge to protect our society. As seniors we may have seen this pattern of consuming self-interest before, but we like to believe it belongs to a different culture, perhaps to those smaller nations in today’s headlines that are controlled by autocrats with no sense of responsibility for those they rule. But as seniors we have also seen enough changes during our lifetimes to give us pause in our inherent confidence in the inviolable virtue in our own system.
In our earliest days there was a perhaps naive confidence in the power of principles to guide our legislative decisions, of a reliance on the ethical implications of our Constitution. That earlier assumption, whether or not deserved, is no longer applicable. A representative of the people who is torn between his duty to his nation or the lure of his political ambitions or the material rewards of compliance — and who succumbs to those temptations — is dishonest with his constituency and a danger to his nation.
And for those insights we really don’t need the wisdom of the ages or their aged advocates. We simply must select our goals reasonably and fairly, then pursue them with honor and principle — remembering that it is our grandchildren who will inherit the fruit or the folly of our actions.
Bob Faber has been a resident of Ann Arbor since 1954. He and his wife, Eunice, owned a fabric store and later a travel agency. He served a couple of terms on the Ann Arbor City Council. He may be reached at email@example.com.
Tue, Apr 17, 2012 : 3 a.m.
I'm in my sixties and do remember (as a child) hearing about Senator McCarthy and even remember the famous CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow tearing McCarthy to shreds (on a black&white TV screen). That broadcast ruined Senator McCarthy. Just saying: we don't see that kind of central figure of the news - tearing into all the dishonest politicians and their political parties. G.W. Bush got the Republican Party nomination for presidential candidate: over the true war veteran Sen. McCain - and that was done by spreading lies and innuendo about McCain. Even though the confrontation between McCain and Bush was televised, no news network had their mega-star journalist tear into Bush (for his response: which was that "I can't do anything about what my supporters do.") The whole nation virtually turned on a dime and went against the endless war in Viet Nam after the night CBS's Walter Cronkite spoke against continuing the war. "I think it is absolutely essential in a democracy to have competition in the media, a lot of competition, and we seem to be moving away from that." – Walter Cronkite "Objective journalism and an opinion column are about as similar as the Bible and Playboy magazine." –Walter Cronkite (Today, Cronkite would say the same about "blogs.") And that's the way it was. (Cronkite) Good night and good luck. (Murrow)
Sun, Apr 15, 2012 : 3:54 a.m.
I apologize. In my article taking issue with Joe McCarthy, I failed to consider that many readers are too young to remember the political events from 60 years earlier. In its day, however, McCarthy was the intense focus of the entire nation, both in and out of politics. McCarthy's reputation as "a sleazy bully" grew from his penchant for falsely and very publicly accusing political opponents as Communists – with certainty and with passion, but never with any corroborating evidence. His style was characterized by a speech in 1950 in which he claimed that "I have here in my hand a list of 205 ... names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party." In a subsequent speech he revised the number to "57 names" then still later (each time waving the list before the audience) insisted the number was "81 members of the Communists Party." Never, however, was any list ever produced to back any claim. The destruction of careers, both within and independent of the world of politics, and of lives shattered by his baseless accusations, continued until he was finally tried and censured by the Army–McCarthy hearings in 1954.
Sat, Apr 14, 2012 : 7:20 p.m.
I've got to echo Mick52. I suffered through the paragraphs about McCarthy, while knowing the story, but wondering who, or what groups, Faber was referencing. I read it a couple of times to ensure that I hadn't missed something: the only finger pointing seems to be at drug companies, and unnamed ones, at that. Small wonder: the analogy of McCarthyism does not fit To me, the real finger of shame needs to be pointed at Ann Arbor.com, for publishing this 'nothing burger' of articles. Poorly written, referenced, and (sic) edited.
Sat, Apr 14, 2012 : 1:22 a.m.
In college during writing classes I read an article titled, "How to say nothing in 500 words." The intent was to not write something with excessive words and saying very little. I see that here. In high school my English teacher taught us "be specific and use examples." Three paragraphs here on Joe McCarty, an attempt to link him to current politicians (with no names or examples). Criticism of government with no examples. Nothing to learn here since there are no facts.
Thu, Apr 12, 2012 : 2:01 p.m.
"It is now a half-century later, and those same legislators, under different names and following different drummers, are still pursuing votes and self-interests at the expense of national honor or personal integrity, still subverting the principles of the Constitution in favor of political party loyalty and reelection." Not so, Mr. Faber, for the Dingell dynasty, which is still doing it old school.
Thu, Apr 12, 2012 : 12:57 p.m.
…..and of course another good example, and one of the most egregious examples of the violation of civil rights was the internment of Americans who happened to be of Japanese heritage by Franklin Roosevelt, the only four term president.
Thu, Apr 12, 2012 : 12:39 p.m.
New McCarthy = republican tea party member Rep Allen West alleging that all of the 75-80 members of the Democratic Progressive Caucus are registered members of the Communist Party. How this evil man can make untrue allegations like this and not face criminal charges is beyond me. Just to reiterate, the Communist Party itself says that no members of the US Congress are members of its party, but even if they were it wouldn't be illegal. More republican lies, more tea party scandal.
Thu, Apr 12, 2012 : 3:27 p.m.
That is outragous, but as a conservative minded individual, I don't believe a word of it, and believe the system of checks and balances Mr. Farber speaks of will remedy the situation in the not to distant future. Although the tea party is extreme, I do appreciate thier concern about our national debt. It is unsustainable. Any arguement otherwise is not founded in any logic. Even though it is part of the national debate for almost two years, the debt is still growing. It hasn't stopped growing. Not even close. And it isn't "scheduled" to stop growing any time soon. It is cause for concern.
Thu, Apr 12, 2012 : 12:35 p.m.
"is designed to guard against the abuses of legislative power, to protect the weakest from the more powerful and the most powerful from the mob. " How right you are. Great recent examples are the men's Lacrosse team from Duke University who were accused of rape and tried in the press (and by Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton), brought up on charges and tried and then later all found innocent. If the over eager prosecutor had waited, and not followed the lynch mob, they could have been spared. Mr. Sharpton had led several lynch mobs with similar results, beginning with Bernhard Goetz and moving on to Tawana Brawley and falsly accusing yound men, just as this author accused Joe McCarthy of doing. Just as McCarthy needed to be stopped, so do his modern reincarnations.
Thu, Apr 12, 2012 : 1:11 p.m.
Oo look a men's rights advocate, holding up exceptionally rare examples of false claims of rape in an attempt to justify our veritable rape culture, in which a staggering number of women and girls are sexually assaulted by men, who are protected in no small part due to their privilege that men's rights advocates refuse to acknowledge!
Thu, Apr 12, 2012 : 12:31 p.m.
OK and exactly what are we supposed to do differently ?
Thu, Apr 12, 2012 : 3:09 p.m.
Nothing. Faber just likes to vent once a week. Evidently it is "One of the intellectual benefits of aging "
Thu, Apr 12, 2012 : 12:25 p.m.
fantastic piece, Mr. Faber. You hit the nail on the head. We need to focus more on the virtue of our system in regards to those we elect, and not get wrapped up in the ideological rhetoric that boils to the surface as candidates eye upcoming elections.
Thu, Apr 12, 2012 : 12:03 p.m.
Excellent column, Mr Faber. "There are none so blind as those who will not see". While I suspect the comments later today will be divided among party lines, if we stepped back far enough, stopped the name calling and hatred, we might see that we have ALL handed over control of the government to special interests.....and we don't seem to care.
Thu, Apr 12, 2012 : 12:22 p.m.
Exactly Cash! Too busy voting without knowledge and fighting amongst ourselves/party lines, to see what is real and right before our eyes.