Thursday, November 29, 2007

origins of McCarthyism (the word)

Recently I was asked about the precise origins of the word "McCarthyism." The correct answer to the question is that for a while (perhaps five or six years) the term was used by some as a term of commendation--a positive as well as, of course, for many if not most, a negative. Soon I remembered that Richard Rovere (in his book Senator Joe McCarthy) wrote a nice passage on this topic:

Barely a month after [the] Wheeling [West Virginia speech in which the junior senator from Wisconsin claimed to know about several hundred communists in the State Department], "McCarthyism" was coined by Herbert Block, the cartoonist who signs himself "Herblock" in the Washington Post. The word was an oath at first--a synonym for the hatefulness of baseless defamation, or mudslinging. (In the Herblock cartoon, "McCarthyism" was crudely lettered on a barrel of mud, which teetered on a tower of ten buckets of the stuff.) Later it became, for some, an affirmation. The term survives both as oath and as affirmation not very usefully as either, one is bound to say and has far broader applications than at first. Now it is evocative of an almost undifferetiated evil to a large number of Americans and of a positive good to a somewhat smaller number. To the one, whatever is illiberal, repressive, reactionary, obscurantist, anti-intellectual, totalitarian, or merely swinish will for some time to come be McCarthyism, while to the other it means nothing more or less than a militant patriotism. "To many Americans, McCarthyism is Americanism," Fulton Lewis, Jr., a radio commentator and the official McCarthyite muezzin, said. Once the word caught on, McCarthy himself became intrigued with it. "McCarthyism is Americanism with its sleeves rolled," he told a Wisconsin audience in 1952, and, sure enough, there was the eponym, with his hairy arms bare to the biceps. That year he published a book of snippets from his speeches and his testimony before committees, and it bore the modest title of McCarthyism: The Fight for America. There is injustice as well as imprecision in both meanings; if patriotism can hardly be reduced to tracking down Marxists in the pastry kitchens of the Pentagon or the bindery of the Government Printing Office, neither is the late Senator's surname to be placed at the center of all the constellations of political unrighteousness. He was not, for example, totalitarian in any significant sense, or even reactionary. These terms apply mainly to the social and economic order, and the social and economic order didn't interest him in the slightest. If he was anything at all in the realm of ideas, principles, doctrines, he was a species of nihilist; he was an essentially destructive force, a revolutionist without any revolutionary vision, a rebel without a cause.

For more, have a look at my 1950s site.