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Fear Brings McCarthy, Orwell Back Into Spotlight
Published on Thursday, March 16, 2006 by the Madison Capital Times (Wisconsin)
Fear Brings McCarthy, Orwell Back Into Spotlight
by Ed Rampell
 

During Sunshine Week - dedicated to public access to government - Russ Feingold proposed to condemn President Bush for illegal wiretapping. But Feingold is not the only junior senator from Wisconsin associated with censure currently in the public eye.

The DVD of George Clooney's "Good Night, and Good Luck" - about CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow's expose of witch-hunting Sen. Joe McCarthy, censured by the Senate in December 1954 - was released Tuesday.

"Tailgunner Joe" also reappears in recent books, including ex-Washington Post columnist Haynes Johnson's "The Age of Anxiety," published last October by Harcourt. It opens with McCarthy's infamous 1950 Wheeling, W.Va., speech: "I have here in my hand a list of 205 members of the Communist Party still working and shaping the policy of the State Department." Johnson notes how that number kept changing and writes of "the boldness with which he twisted facts, or invented them, to make grave and unsubstantiated accusations at a moment of intense national fear."

This month Harcourt is publishing "Shooting Star, The Brief Arc of Joe McCarthy," by ex-New York Times reporter Tom Wicker, who calls McCarthy "the most destructive demagogue in American history, uniquely villainous, his sins against democracy not to be forgiven or forgotten." (Both authors repeatedly mention The Capital Times in their books.)

Others are exhuming McCarthy's legacy. In January 2004, David Horowitz's conservative online publication FrontPage asked reactionary commentator Ann Coulter whom she admired in the 20th century. "Joe McCarthy," Coulter responded.

In two 2003 Crown Forum books - Coulter's "Treason" and James Hirsen's "Tales From the Left Coast" - right-wingers attempt to rehabilitate and restore McCarthy. As redbaiting remains lucrative, the same conservative imprint plans publishing another McCarthy apologia by M. Stanton Evans in December. Grant Heslov, who co-wrote "Good Night" with Clooney, said "they were another inspiration for us to make this film" and compared McCarthy apologists to Holocaust deniers.

Emile de Antonio's 1964 documentary "Point of Order!" was re-released last November on DVD. In it, during 1954's Army-McCarthy hearings, counsel Joseph Welch famously rebukes McCarthy: "Until this moment, Senator, I think I never gauged your cruelty or recklessness. ... Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?"

George Orwell is also back, via the Actors' Gang's "1984" dramatization directed by Tim Robbins in Los Angeles. In Orwell's totalitarian masterpiece, Big Brother's Thought Police watch everybody through telescreens.

Why have McCarthy and Orwell returned now? Clues are provided by the subtitles to Johnson's "The Age of Anxiety" - "McCarthyism to Terrorism" and Coulter's "Treason" - "Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism."

According to Heslov, "Good Night" "addresses a concern lots of people have had over the past six years, the fear that if you speak your mind, if you question the war you'll be called 'unpatriotic.' There was lots of self-censoring going on. ... In an oblique way, our film addresses those issues. A certain segment of society certainly responded to that. After 9/11, there was a chill."

Today's big chill saw another CBS anchorman, Dan Rather, country-western singers and administration critic Joe Wilson "Dixie Chicked" for being "disloyal." The patriotism of antiwar talents, such as Clooney and Robbins, was questioned. Of those using McCarthyite tactics, Heslov said, "the poster boy is obviously Bill O'Reilly." In an era when the Washington Post and New York Times apologized for misleading pre-Iraq war reporting, "Good Night" and "Capote" - both best picture Oscar nominees - stress journalistic ethics.

I asked Robbins if he'd revived "1984" to comment on today. "See it for yourself and decide," he replied.

Robbins' play occurs in Orwell's torture chamber. This is the Gitmo/Abu Ghraib/Bagram Air Base/extraordinary rendition edition of "1984," where "enemy combatants" are held without charges, trials, Geneva Conventions. Its telescreens suggest the warrantless wiretapping Feingold opposes.

When truth is suppressed, it doesn't disappear - it re-emerges, often in symbolic ways. Orwell declared, "In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." Modern parallels trigger contemporary culture's obsession with 60-year-old historical relics. When Murrow challenged McCarthy, he quoted Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar." During the anti-secrecy Sunshine Week, another quote from Shakespeare's drama seems appropriate: "Beware the Ides of March."

Ed Rampell of West Covina, Calif., was named after Edward R. Murrow and wrote "Progressive Hollywood, A People's Film History of the United States" (The Disinformation Co., 2005).

© 2006 The Capital Times

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