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Book Review 211:The Age of Anxiety

August 30, 2011 - Harry Eagar
THE AGE OF ANXIETY: McCarthyism to Terrorism, by Haynes Johnson. 609 pages. Harcourt. $26

Regular readers of Restating the Obvious know my position that today's rightwing politics is a continuation – not, as Haynes Johnson would have it, a revival – of McCarthyism. And McCarthyism is nothing but American fascism.

But since those two words are mostly used as general abuse, it will be well to make them specific.

Fascism takes many national forms,but as Ernst Nolte wrote in “Three Faces of Fascism,” all share one guiding principle: antimarxism.

This is important, because there is a well-financed campaign by American rightists to rewrite history and make all fascisms left, rather than right, movements and to claim they are socialist.

Nolte identifies the original fascism as the Action Francaise, which was royalist and Catholic but lacked the leader principle and never created a private army. McCarthyism was more like French fascism than Italian, German, Chinese, Spanish or Hungarian fascisms: It was not royalist, but it was strongly, though not exclusively Catholic. It never attempted to acquire a private army, and McCarthy's personal life was so disorganized that he could never have aspired to become a Duce, although Johnson thinks he seriously thought he could become president in '56. Johnson also strongly underplays the role of the American Catholic church in creating McCarthy.

Johnson would have it that McCarthy sort of stumbled into a winning formula and, using his vast supply of unscrupulous energy, made it grow like a snowball rolling down hill. In fact, there's evidence that Jesuits scouted, recruited and nurtured McCarthy.

Johnson does not claim to add much to the history. David Oshinsky has written an excellent critical biography, “A Conspiracy So Immense.” and David Caute has explained how American fascism was on a roll before McCarthy's Wheeling speech and was abetted by national security Democrats.

It remains a matter of opinion whether the Democrats were as natural fascists as the Republicans were in the late '40s or were just stupidly trying to “dish the Whigs” on the issue of subversion. Johnson is rather dismissive of Caute, labeling him a revisionist writing in the context of Vietnam War criticism, but I remember the great fear very well. I was a young boy and did not understand the fear, but I could see and feel it.

While I have some differences of opinion with Johnson, his retelling of the McCarthy years – which takes up 450 pages – is revealing, exciting and, within the bounds of the evidence, reliable. It would be well for politically active Americans to know this story, because although McCarthy self-destructed, McCarthyism never went away.

Johnson says, “Whatever McCarthy's personal qualities, McCarthyism in one form or another outlived the man. Its impact on our policies, and on the way Americans view their leaders and their government, has been profound.”

Johnson wrote in 2005, when he wondered whether the Democrats were becoming a permanent minority party. He did not foresee that Reaganomics policies would wreck the financial system, ushering in a hapa-haole president, but he did identify the moral absolutism and Christian bigotry that was part of the original McCarthyism.

“Of Joe McCarthy, it can be said that fear made him possible,” Johnson writes, which is true enough but not the whole story. The McCarthyite attack to destroy Bill Clinton – ignored by Johnson – can hardly be laid to a national fear; those were the years when we were the sole superpower.

Terror from the Islamic world offered new scope to the fascist tendencies of the American right, and Johnson spends a hundred pages lamenting this, but I am unpersuaded that the simpler explanation is not also the better: The Bush administration was the most ignorant and incompetent we ever had.

Incurious George was so clueless that shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, he broke bread with Muslim clerics to make the point, obviously incorrect, that Islam is not the enemy of the west (and of the east and the south). This is not his grandfather's McCarthyism (and, in fact, Prescott Bush was mildly antiMcCarthy). No one can imagine Joe McCarthy breaking bread with, say, Tito to make the point that some communists are less communists than other communists.

And even if the more openly fascist Bushites, like Dick Cheney, worked hard to create a great fear, they failed. Johnson seems to have missed the point, writing that “dissent, however mild, is not allowed.”

That was largely true in the early '50s, not even a little bit true in the '00s. Cindy Sheehan acquired a cult status and even camped out on the president's doorstep, not something easy to imagine about Joe McCarthy.

A good deal of the last hundred pages of “The Age of Anxiety” consists of kneejerk liberal readings of public opinion that match poorly with events.

These can be minor, such as accepting that the liberal Ivy League was a natural target of middle American rightists. The reality was that perhaps the most widely vilified thinker on the American scene was the Harvard professor Samuel Huntington, who was detested almost as much by the Bush antiterrorists as by leftwing apologists for Islam.

And they can be major. Like all good liberals, Johnson believes in the Geneva Conventions and is horrified that Bush wove his way around them. It has not occurred to him that if America abandoned the Geneva Conventions, which have never protected U.S. prisoners in Asia, then many of the policies that Biush adopted would have been unnecessary.

Liberals who objected to a war on terrorism, preferring to make it a police matter, neglected to notice that under the conventions, captives cannot be tried in any criminal court. This was briefly known, but soon forgotten, when in the Falklands War the British captured an Argentinean officer notorious for throwing girls out of helicopters. They had to let him go.

It was the requirements of the conventions that forced the government to adopt legalisms like “enemy combatants” and offshore prisons. More honesty might have allowed for better policy.

Johnson is right about the undemocratic actions of the Bush years, but wrong about how they came about.


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