Sunday, January 10, 2021

The Brown(shirt) Scare

 News Item: Angry mob harasses Lindsey Graham in the airport calling him a traitor, and warning:  “It’s gonna be like this forever, wherever you go for the rest of your life.” 

Imagine this:  On August 4, 1948, Whittaker Chambers is heading for his gate at the airport (did airports have gates back then?). The day before, this former member of the Communist Party had testified before Congress, giving up names of individuals he said were fellow members of the party back in the 1930s.  A group of CPUSA members accost him and follow him through the airport accusing him of being a traitor and threatening to hound him endlessly.

The testimony in Congress actually happened, but not the scene at the airport. Members of the Communist Party knew they could not have gotten away with such a thing. 

During the Red Scare of the 40s and 50s, the Truman Administration, the Eisenhower Administration and Congress determined that the Communist Party was planning to overthrow the US government.   We know what happened next.  Investigations, purges, firings, shunnings, jailings, executions for treason.

Historians still debate how much of a threat American Communists posed to national security.  After the fall of the Soviet Union, documents were released that showed some Americans did cooperate with the Soviet Union and passed along government secrets that, among other things, helped the Russians build their own Atomic Bomb.  

But at the time, before those documents were revealed, the evidence seemed rather shaky.  Even in light of the Venona papers it still seems that there was never a credible, imminent threat of a violent overthrow of the US government--the Rosenbergs' passing of nuclear secrets notwithstanding.

Imagine, though, what would have happened if a group of communists who had been talking openly about plans to storm the Capitol and shut it down and overturn the results of a presidential election and install their preferred candidate.  Imagine that Hoover's FBI didn't happen to notice this, or if he did, didn't happen to take the threat seriously and did nothing to stop it. That's not plausible, but say such a threat had been carried out by the CPUSA.  Would the perpetrators have been able to walk away and go home--perhaps taking a moment at the airport to harass Congressman Richard Nixon or Joe McCarthy for persecuting communists?

On Twitter the Sunday morning after the actual storming of the Capitol by Trump voters trying to overthrow the election people were making an altogether different connection to 20th century communism.  They were comparing the banning of Trump and his followers from Twitter and other platforms, and the attempts by tech giants to shut down the new conservative platform Parler to the Soviet Union's suppression of dissent. 

I agree that in recent times, some liberals have discredited themselves and trampled on free speech principles in labeling legitimate conservative ideas as beyond the pale, often falsely conflating speech (or silence!) with violence. But the first amendment is not a suicide pact. 

Some of those who were persecuted during the Red Scare were engaged in espionage that the government was justified in punishing, even though the government went too far in suppressing leftist speech.  Those actions ruined the lives of too many innocent people, destroyed the labor movement, and eviscerated New Deal liberalism.  Conservatives used legitimate concerns about communist espionage to attack the entire American left, which has never fully recovered.

I'm in full support of the Supreme Court's decisions, in the aftermath of that sad betrayal of democratic values, which deepened America's commitment to free speech. But the court never said there was an absolute right to freedom of speech. The Brandenburg decision set the limit where it belongs, banning only speech “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action” that is "likely to incite or produce such action.”  There seems to have been lots of that on the social media platforms before the storming of the Capitol on Wednesday. The fact that such lawless action actually did occur seem to be valid evidence to consider in weighing whether or not the speech was inciting.  And such threats are ongoing according to what I read in the newspapers this morning. 

I hope this time, as we prosecute those who may be guilty of inciting or producing imminent lawless action, we don't also ban legitimate dissenting views. That would be more likely if Americans knew their history, which, it mostly seems, they don't.