Saturday, March 27, 2010
There is nothing new about name calling. It is as old as childhood. Call someone a fundamentalist or a liberal, a fascist or a Marxist and you have diminished and dismissed them. You no longer need to listen to them, because you already know what they think. You no longer need to look at them, because you know what you are going to see. Name calling is a form of intellectual laziness. It amounts to a refusal to stay in conversation, let alone sustain a relationship. The United States has experienced periodic outbursts of name calling. In my lifetime there have been three such outbursts. When I was a very young child Joe McCarthy brought name calling into ill repute with his reckless claim that “communists” had infiltrated the government. When I was a young adult, supporters and opponents of the Vietnam War hurled epithets at each other. Soldiers returning home were “baby killers”. Protesters were called “dirty hippies.” And now, over the last 20 years we have experienced a political balkanization that is producing another spate of name calling—and worse.
In her recent book The Lacuna Barbara Kingsolver explores the changes in the United States that led to the rise of McCarthyism and the virulent fear of Communism. Her protagonist Harrison Shepherd was the son of a Mexican mother and American father. Physically abandoned by his father and emotionally abandoned by his mother he struggles to make his way in two alien cultures. Living in Mexico as a young man he is befriended by muralist Diego Rivera and his painter wife Frida Kahlo. As a result of these friendships he is introduced to Leon Trotsky, the former Communist leader now on the run from Stalin. He helps Diego by mixing plaster. He cooks for the household and acts as a secretary for Trotsky. Although he is sympathetic with their political aims, he is more interested in telling stories. He returns to the states, lands in Ashville, North Carolina and begins his career as a novelist.
At the height of his success he is caught up in the “red scare”. His past associations are seen as damning evidences of disloyalty—a charge he denies. Kingsolver uses the grim paranoia of the post-war years to point to a fundamental change in America. One would have thought that following victory in the Second World War Americans would be brimming with confidence. She suggests that on the contrary in the post war era American politicians began using fear to control the conversations and accrue power. Russian communists were ready made opponents. They became the monsters lurking under the beds and crouching in the closets. Guilt by association was the order of the day. In the hands of a skilled politician an opponent’s reasonable appeal for justice and compassion could be morphed into Communist sympathies. Political demagogues like McCarthy found fear of Communism a very useful tool for rallying the troops. During these years, truth, fairness, and common sense were in scarce supply.
This is not to say there were no things to fear in the post war era. This is not to say there were no dangerous people and deadly situations. The nuclear threat was very real. But we had faced dangerous people and deadly situations before without sinking into morbid fear and vicious name calling. But this was an America growing more diverse. This was a time when people at the margins were beginning to move to the center. Our isolation was ending. We were now an international power with growing responsibilities. Rather than grow into this new diversity we became a country of adolescents. Can anyone watch CNN or Fox today and have any doubt that we are still behaving like adolescents? There is a hole in our soul carved out by fear—a fear of loss of power, control, wealth, prestige, and security. Ironically, this fear itself and the national adolescence it produces may bring about the very corruption and collapse we fear. If our current public conversation is any indication, we need to grow up—fast.